What is El Camino or The Way?

The Way of St. James or St. James’ Way (Spanish: El Camino de Santiago, Galician: O Camiño de Santiago, French: Chemin de St-Jacques, German: Jakobsweg, Basque: Done Jakue bidea) is the pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried.

The Way of St James has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, together with Rome and Jerusalem, and a pilgrimage route on which a plenary indulgence could be earned.

Legend holds that St. James’s remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where he was buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.

The Way can take one of any number of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one’s home and ended at the pilgrimage site. However a few of the routes are considered main ones. During the Middle Ages, the route was highly traveled. However, the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th-century Europe led to its decline. By the 1980s, only a few pilgrims arrived in Santiago annually. Since then however the route has attracted a growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe. The route was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987; it was also named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

Whenever St James’s day (25 July) falls on a Sunday, the cathedral declares a Holy or Jubilee Year. Depending on leap years, Holy Years occur in 5, 6 and 11 year intervals. The most recent were 1982, 1993, 1999, 2004, and 2010. The next will be 2021, 2027, and 2032.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the destination of the pilgrimage.

The Scallop Symbol

The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meanings, even if its relevance may actually derive from the desire of pilgrims to take home a souvenir.

Two versions of the most common myth about the origin of the symbol concern the death of Saint James, who was killed in Jerusalem for his convictions about his brother, John. James had spent some time preaching on the Iberian Peninsula.

Version 1: After James’ death, his disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, the body washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops.
Version 2: After James’ death his body was mysteriously transported by a ship with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. As James’ ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on the shore. The young bridegroom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse got spooked, and the horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.

The scallop shell also acts as a metaphor. The grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims traveled, eventually arriving at a single destination: the tomb of James in Santiago de Compostela. The shell is also a metaphor for the pilgrim. As the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guided the pilgrims to Santiago.

The scallop shell also served practical purposes for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. The shell was the right size for gathering water to drink or for eating out of as a makeshift bowl.

The pilgrim’s staff is a walking stick used by pilgrims to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Generally, the stick has a hook on it so that something may be hung from it. The walking stick sometimes has a cross piece on it

St. James pilgrim accessories

The Modern-day pilgrimage

Today tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims and many other travellers set out each year from their front doorstep, or popular starting points across Europe, to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few travel as some of their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey. In addition to people undertaking a religious pilgrimage, the majority are travellers and hikers who walk the route for non-religious reasons: travel, sport, or simply the challenge of weeks of walking in a foreign land. Also, many consider the experience a spiritual adventure to remove themselves from the bustle of modern life. It acts as a retreat for many modern “pilgrims”.

The modern symbol of the way

Routes

Pilgrims on the Way of St. James walk for weeks or months to visit the city of Santiago de Compostela. They follow many routes (any path to Santiago is a pilgrim’s path) but the most popular route is Via Regia and its last part - the French Way (Camino Francés). Historically, most of the pilgrims came from France, from Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy and Arles and Saint Gilles, due to the Codex Calixtinus. These are today important starting points. The Spanish consider the Pyrenees a starting point. Common starting points along the French border are Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Somport on the French side of the Pyrenees andRoncesvalles or Jaca on the Spanish side. (The distance from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostella through León is about 800 km.). Another possibility is to do the Northern Route that was first used by the pilgrims in order to avoid travelling through the territories occupied by the Muslims in the Middle Ages. The greatest attraction is its landscape, as a large part of the route runs along the coastline against a backdrop of mountains and overlooking the Cantabrian Sea.

However, many pilgrims begin further afield, in one of the four French towns which are common and traditional starting points: ParisVézelayArles and Le Puy.Cluny, site of the celebrated medieval abbey, was another important rallying point for pilgrims and, in 2002, it was integrated into the official European pilgrimage route linking Vézelay and Le Puy. Some pilgrims start from even further away, though their routes will often pass through one of the four French towns mentioned. Some Europeans begin their pilgrimage from the very doorstep of their homes just as their medieval counterparts did hundreds of years ago.

Another popular route is the 227 km long Portuguese Way, which starts at Se Catedral in the city of Porto in the north of Portugal. One of most tiring parts of the Portuguese Way is in Labruja parish in Ponte de Lima, because it is through the Labruja hills, which are hard to cross. The camino winds its way inland until it reaches the Spanish border. Many pilgrims prefer to start closer to the Spanish border at Valença, Portugal, and Tui, Galicia, for a five-day, 108 km walk

A post marking the way
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