Camino De Santiago: Spain’s Ancient Pilgrimage Route Draws Tens Of Thousands Of Hikers Every Year

Viewers of Oprah Winfrey’s seven-part series on world faiths and practices, entitled Belief, will hear the story Friday night of one man’s journey on the Camino de Santiago, the ancient Spanish pilgrimage route that remains a vital source of Spanish tourism. It’s a draw for hikers and journeying folks of all kinds, spiritual or not.

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, also known as The Way of St. James, has its roots in the 8th century when warring Europeans latched on to the tale told by a shepherd of having seen bright lights in the sky above the city. According to Outside magazine’s brief history, the trail reached immense popularity during the Middle Ages, when people of all classes would make their way to Santiago to attend mass, receive a certificate, and as a result, spend less time in purgatory. Santiago de Compostela, legend has it, is where the remains of St. James are buried.

Camino de Santiago city St. Jean Pied de Port

In times past, pilgrims would set out on foot to Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwest corner of Spain, from their homes. Since pilgrims came from throughout Europe, several routes to Compostela became established over time. By far the most popular and well-traversed route is the Camino Frances, which begins on the French side of the France-Spain border and ends approximately 500 miles later in Santiago. In 1993 the Camino Frances and the northern Spanish routes to Santiago were added to the World Heritage List by UNESCO.

Camino de Santiago hikers

Travelers along the Camino de Santiago traditionally stay in pilgrim’s hostels, low-budget and low-amenity accommodation. They carry a pilgrim’s passport, also known as a credential, which pilgrims show to officials in Santiago de Compostela to receive a certificate of completion.

Although it takes several weeks to walk the entire Camino Frances from its starting point at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, many hikers opt to do the pilgrimage in stages. It’s also not necessary to stay in the pilgrim’s hostels. Spain expert Annie Bennett advised a Telegraph reader on the varieties of tour options available to travelers with a limited amount of time and who want to ensure they get a bed at the end of a long day of walking. Private companies set up trips that last a few days or a week, with reserved accommodations in guest houses and bed and breakfasts.

Outside notes that it is necessary only to walk the last 100 km (approximately 62 miles) to Santiago in order to get an official document of the pilgrimage. Catholics or those who had “spiritual” reasons to walk receive a compostela, while others receive a plain certificate of completion. “Self-powered” pilgrims receive documentation, according to the Pilgrims’ Office. That includes people who have arrived in Santiago on foot, on bike, or horseback, but not those who have driven across the country.

Traditionally, pilgrims attend a special mass at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela on the day of arrival or the day following.

The Office keeps detailed statistics of who arrives in Santiago de Compostela and why. It reported that in 2010, 95 percent of pilgrims said their journey had been “spiritual” in nature. Typically, numbers spike during so-called “Holy Years.” In the “Holy Year” of 2010, 272,412 pilgrims arrived in Santiago, compared to 237,886 in 2014.

The numbers have increased steadily over the past twenty years. 179,944 pilgrims arrived during the “Holy Year” of 2004, significantly less than the total of pilgrims who arrived in 2010.

[Main image by Gena Melendrez / Shutterstock]