The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage to the sacred tomb of Saint James located in the northwest corner of Spain. Over a thousand years separate those first faithful footsteps and the steady stream of 21st century pilgrims who currently wander its streets. The key to survival is adapting to change. Over the last millennium, the Camino and those who journey it have been transformed in many ways, yet they continue a tradition.
In 1993, UNESCO declared the Camino de Santiago a World Heritage site. It starts from the border of France, works it way west to the city of Santiago de Compostela, covering some 750 kilometers. Originally, walkers had to navigate their way using the sun, moon, stars, even the Milky Way. Getting lost was part of the adventure. Today, the trail is so clearly marked that losing your way is not really an option. With shining traffic signs, brass and tile scallop shells, and the distinct yellow arrows, you'll always be pointed towards Santiago.
The oldest documentation of the Compostelana, the official certificate of having completed the pilgrimage, was delivered to André le Breton in the Capilla del Rey de Francia, dates back to 1321. Almost 700 years later, you can still request the Compostelana certificate, complete with your name in Latin. To be eligible, you must have either walked or ridden a horse for the last 100 kilometers, or bicycled the final 200 kilometers. The demand for this document has grown so much that there is now a special Pilgrim's Office that will attend to your petition.
In the 12th century, a French Monk named Aymeric Picaud wrote a comprehensive book detailing the route from the French border to Santiago de Compostela. He recommended safe havens to sleep and eat, warned of potential dangers, such as thieves and bandits, and he described the various monuments, relics and holy sites along the way. This was the first guidebook ever written. The Codex Calixtinus broke up the Camino into 13 convenient stages, covering the entire 750 kilometers in less than two weeks. You can still see pilgrims thumbing through their guidebooks looking for all sorts of practical information regarding accommodations, restaurants and explanations of the countless sites. The books are also filled with more modern conveniences, such as Internet cafes, pharmacies and swimming pools. However, the biggest difference today is that most books recommend the crossing of Spain in a less exhausting 30 days, to reach Santiago.
To accommodate the faithful and weary in the Middle Ages, albergues or shelters were created along the route, sponsored by the Church, nobles and royalty. Travelers could rest their tired bones on a bed of straw, perhaps warm themselves by a fire, and have a sip of wine. In the 21st century, there continues to be a network of public albergues run by the government and private associations related to the Camino. These places are in high demand in the summer and are fitted with rows and rows of bunk beds, showers (some even with hot water), perhaps a small kitchen after a long day of walking. Yes, you'll still find a sip of wine!
Upon arriving at the great Cathedral of Santiago, medieval pilgrims would break down with tears of joy, having finally reached their destination. Overwhelmed from surviving their journey, they would embrace the statue of Santiago and give thanks. Today, emotions continue to run high. Pilgrims, previously strangers, hug and cry as they make their way into the Plaza Obradoiro and share that first look of the Cathedral's ornate Baroque façade. Together they wait nervously in line to give the Apostle a hug and perform the required pilgrim, just as millions of pilgrims have done before.
Despite a thousand years, the Camino de Santiago remains and its pilgrims continue to flow into Santiago. The Camino is an unforgettable experience that creates a special bond and camaraderie among all those who have walked it. In a world where things change so quickly, the Camino de Santiago is refreshing.
Alex Chang has led many groups and pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago. Check out Fresco Tours.