Camino de Santiago – Spain’s most modern ancient pilgrimage

October 23, 2023

When I was in my 20s, I wanted to do the Camino de Santiago.

Not only did I want to do the Camino, but I’d also heard that the old-school way of doing it was to leave from your house, and walk from wherever you were all the way to Santiago de Compostela.

I lived in Madrid at the time, near Glorieta de Embajadores, so this sounded like fun. I tested the feasibility of the plan with a paper map and a bottle of water in my backpack, one hot unemployed summer day.

This, of course, was back when I was an English teacher, so I was unemployed from July to September every year. And due to the dismal salaries involved in TEFL teaching, I was always looking for things to do that were as cheap as “taking a long walk” or – if possible – even cheaper.

Anyway, paper map in hand, I walked from Embajadores up to the Iglesia de Santiago, through the center, up La Castellana to some giant intersection of freeways, through El Pardo and then along the train tracks to Tres Cantos. This was a rather hot and sweaty endeavour of 25 kilometers, which took me most of the day, but I made it, and had proof of concept.

The cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in 1998, by Matthias Bethke, CC SA 4.0

Over the following weeks, armed with the same map, I did a couple more sections, taking the bus or train to start: Tres Cantos to Colmenar Viejo and Colmenar Viejo to Manzanares el Real.

Then one day late that same summer I decided it was time to go from Manzanares to Cercedilla. This was off the map, as far as I recall, but by this time I had a Camino de Santiago guidebook that specifically covered the way from Madrid. So setting out on the bus, I walked out of Manzanares el Real around 3 PM thinking I was in for an easy-to-medium-level hike in the hills.

Mistakes were made.

How to get lost on the Camino de Santiago

For one, I started later in the day. I think I was working on my novel at that point (long story) so I left home around lunch time, figuring I’d still have all afternoon to walk.

Also, I assumed…

  1. That the trail would be well-marked, and further…
  2. That I understood enough Spanish to follow the instructions in the guidebook. And finally…
  3. That Europe was covered end to end in cafés, bus stops and train stations, so if I got lost, I’d just find the nearest bit of infrastructure and be home in an hour.

Oh, to relive that state of youthful self-confidence for a day! Without killing myself, hopefully.

As it turned out, I was wrong about all of the above, and what followed was a long afternoon and evening being lost and alone in La Pedriza – a particularly rocky natural park with almost no human habitation. I eventually made it back to civilization, too late for the last bus, and spent the night in the local park, trying to sleep in my t-shirt in the cold.

So it turned out that Europe did have some actual nature. Oh well. Live and learn.

Fun facts about the Camino de Santiago

I was living with some semi-hippies at the time and I told one of them about my “plan” to walk the Camino from Madrid.

“Don’t do it”, he said. “You won’t see a single tree all the way across Castilla.”

He’d done the Camino himself – the French route – a few summers before, and he described it as a sort of large, ambulatory college party, complete with its own hook-up scene.

That sounded pretty good to me. But after my experience getting lost in La Pedriza my heart wasn’t really into it. I never made it up to Santiago – at least not on foot.

Still, it’s been in the back of my mind for a couple of decades now, and I’m sure I’ll get to it at some point.

I’ve talked about other walking trails in Spain here before. Today, we’re talking about the Camino – the mother of all Spanish walks. A pilgrimage route once called “Europe’s Main Street”, now considered by many to be little more than a walking holiday through some scenic parts of northern Spain.

The Camino leads the faithful (or adventure-seeking) across Galicia to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the alleged remains of Saint James the Great are considered to have divine powers. More about that later.

First things first: lots of Caminos lead to Santiago.

There are many different Caminos to Santiago

These days people fly in from around the world to walk to Santiago and visit the cathedral.

The most popular routes are from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (in the French Basque Country near the Spanish border) or from Oporto, in Portugal. These are called “el camino francés” and “el camino portugués”, respectively.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the historical way was just to start from where you lived and walk.

According to tradition, the first pilgrim on the Camino was King Alfonso II of Asturias – also known as Alfonso the Chaste, not to be confused with Alfonso II of Aragón, who was also also known as Alfonso the Chaste. In any case, Alfonso went (chastely, it is assumed) from Oviedo to Santiago to visit the tomb of Saint James after its discovery around the year 825. That route is el Camino Primitivo, and it’s still there, following the ancient Roman roads.

Today, you can choose between El Camino Francés, el Portugués, Vía de la Plata (starting in Sevilla), and el Camino de la Costa (following the North coast through Bilbao and Santander, etc). You could even start in Catalonia, with the Ruta Catalana starting at the Montserrat Monastery.

There are more routes – technically, there’s probably a route from every town in Spain, all tending to converge on the final stretch through Galicia. I’ve seen the yellow arrows and seashells all over Spain – I recently found, to my surprise, that I was walking on the Camino outside Llívia, the Spanish exclave across the French border in Cerdanya.

camino de santiago landscape llivia
Outside Llívia, in Cerdanya.

Of course, the Camino’s climax is in Santiago de Compostela, in the far northwest of Spain, but many people continue on for a few more days to Fisterra, which the Romans considered to be the end of the known world.

(In reality, Cabo da Roca outside Lisbon is a bit further west, but who’s counting?)

Other routes cross Europe from Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Romania – basically anywhere there are Christians has a pilgrimage route to Santiago.

Books and movies have made the Camino more popular

If you need Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez to tell you what’s cool, by all means check out the movie The Way, which came out in 2010.

Directed by Estevez, and starring Sheen as an older guy on a journey of self-discovery after the death of his son, it’s made el Camino much more popular – at least among Americans. I’m in a couple of Facebook groups in which people get all excited when the movie pops up on Amazon Prime Video or what have you.

There are also a lot of books about the Camino – I may read a couple for a future article. In Spanish, Matilde Asensi has a historical novel set in the 14th century called Peregrinatio, for example.

And Paulo “I bet you didn’t know I’d written a second book” Coelho wrote one as well. In English, it’s called The Pilgrimage, and according to the blurb on Amazon it’s “a quest for the ultimate in self-knowledge, wisdom and spiritual mastery”.

map of camino de santiago routes in europe
Map of Camino routes across Europe, by Manfred Zentgraf (CC SA 3.0)

Maybe Paolo Coelho is a much deeper person than most, or maybe the late 80s (when he did the walk) were a different time, because nobody I know who’s done the Camino recently came back saying anything about spiritual mastery.

Meanwhile, over in South Korea, an author named Kim Nam Hee wrote A Woman Walking Alone, which has led to a dramatic increase in Koreans on the Camino.

There are “camino purists” with strong opinions about the whole thing

In any case, people walk for different reasons. For some, it’s surely part of a spiritual journey. For others, it’s just a fun adventure and a couple of weeks off work.

But be careful: there are all sorts of online “camino purists” who just might tell you that you’re doing it wrong.

They’re in the Facebook groups as well, and their complaints are usually about people who choose just to walk the last 100 or so kilometers from Sarria (the minimum walk you can do to get the official certificate in Santiago) or people who have their packs shipped ahead each day so they don’t have to carry them between towns.

If you want an easier Camino, though, there are all kinds of services along the way that will help you – especially if you’re doing one of the well-known routes.

And just because I used a paper map 20 years ago doesn’t mean you have to: there are now several mobile apps that will guide you along the route of your choice, with information about “albergues” along the way and more. (Or you could use a generic hiking app like WikiLoc and figure out the rest of the logistics on your own or with a guidebook.)

Some people even choose to cycle the Camino. The purists seem especially bothered by cyclists, but the paths are there for anyone to use, whether it’s on foot, on a donkey, or on a shiny, new, top-of-the-line mountain bike.

You might be engaging in “religious appropriation” if you walk the Camino

I’m probably not the best person to talk to about religious appropriation.

I haven’t bought this book, because I’d prefer not to spend perfectly good money to be scolded by someone with a Ph.D. – but you’re welcome to check out Liz Bucar’s “Stealing My Religion”, which talks about the Camino and yoga, among other things.

Not Santiago. This is El Puerto de Santa Maria.

I personally think that being offended about “cultural appropriation” is one of the dumbest ideas in history, because cultures have been borrowing ideas from each other since the beginning of time, and because the very definition is mind-numbingly stupid. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

Also, I got married in a Hindu temple, and I’ve been cherry picking ideas and practices from various religions since I was a teenager. Sue me.

So if religious appropriation is just cultural appropriation with a slight twist, I’m all for it.

On the other hand, if you’re they type of person who finds yourself clutching at your pearls every time someone lights a stick of incense without “permission” from some ancient religious hierarchy, then you should probably read Bucar’s book and then tell me about it.

And if you feel like you need an official invitation to do the Camino, check out the Xunta de Galicia’s website about it, which, although poorly translated, offers you 10 different routes to choose from.

Take that, religious appropriation!

In any case, there’s no denying that the modern spirit of the Camino is a bit different than it once was. And that’s probably inevitable: a lot has changed in the last 1200 years.

Ready for some history?

Prepare to do penance for your sins

Back in the day, actually, walking to Santiago was something you would do to repent for your sins.

I like to imagine some fourteenth century Dutch peasant going to confession one cold rainy morning and admitting – gasp! – that he’d been coveting his neighbor’s ox – and, possibly, his ass.

“Welp,” says the priest, “that’s a pretty serious sin. Get thee to Santiago de Compostela to repent!”

And so ye olde Dutch peasant grabs a walking stick, fills a gourd with water, and sets off in his cloak and clogs for Galicia, praying the rosary and begging for divine forgiveness all the way.

Is that really how it happened? Probably not – although some historical pilgrims apparently did the Camino because of a court order, or to escape from their debts.

Sounds like there’s some historical research I could do here. In any case, I’ve written several articles at this point where I present the hypothesis that people in the past were just different than people are today: try my guide to romantic love if you want more about that.

Repent! Ye sinners…

Not many people I know these days take the concept of sin literally, and I suspect that not much of our current pop-cultural and consumerist social system would survive ten minutes if we were all suddenly trying to obey the Ten Commandments and avoid pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth.

In fact, those seven “deadly” sins sound like they could be foundational values for most people in modern consumer society.

saint james aka santiago el mayor
Saint James the Great.

Anyway, according to tradition, the remains of Saint James the Great have long been considered to possess powers of divine intervention, and visiting them will grant you forgiveness for some of your sins – clearing your path to Heaven so you spend as little time in Purgatory as possible.

Even better: years in which 25 July, the Feast of Saint James, falls on a Sunday, Santiago de Compostela celebrates a jubilee year, and all your lifetime sins are forgiven if that’s when you make the pilgrimage to the cathedral and visit James’ bones.

They call it an “Año Santo Xacobeo”, and the next one is in 2027.

Santiago el Mayor, patron saint of Spain

Most discussion of the Camino de Santiago talks about Santiago the city more than Santiago the Saint, apostle, and cousin of Jesus.

Saint James the Great, known in Spanish as Santiago el Mayor, was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, and the first one to be martyred – put to the sword by Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem, in AD 44.

The official biblical narrative doesn’t say what James was up to from the time of Jesus’ crucifixion until his own martyrdom in Jerusalem, so Christian tradition has filled in the blanks with some stories about his coming to evangelize in Roman Hispania.

How he got back to Jerusalem for the martyrdom, and how his remains then made it to this random spot in Galicia are also explained by a series of miracles.

Eventually, James became the patron saint of Spain – even re-appearing during the Reconquista to fight on the side of the Christian army. This avatar, known as Santiago Matamoros – Santiago the Moor-slayer – was big in Medieval Spain, with “¡Santiago y cierra, España!” being used as a battle cry throughout the Middle Ages.

I don’t talk about the Muslim Conquest much around here – it never really comes up, given the more modern focus of most of my articles – but it’s worth mentioning that for the Camino’s first several hundred years, the south of Spain was under Muslim rule and only a small strip of territory in the north was still run by Christians.

The chivalrous Order of Saint James – originally founded to protect pilgrims on the Camino, eventually expanded into fighting the Muslims elsewhere on the Iberian Peninsula. It’s a long story. The reconquest was finished, in any case, by 1492 – just in time for Spain to become a global empire.

But that’s all for another day.

More history of the Camino de Santiago

By the 16th Century, Wikipedia reports that the Camino was in crisis, because the repentant faithful had been largely replaced by beggars, vagabonds and drunks, who – having been kicked out of their own towns – decided to wander along the Camino to enjoy all the free hospitality.

After that, the Protestant Reformation (which rejected the worship of saints and their relics) and several wars between European powers made the Camino virtually obsolete for a while.

By the 20th century, modern transport made walking pilgrimages a thing of the past, and a pilgrims’ association in Paris had to create the (now-famous) Pilgrim’s Credential in order to keep the few legitimate pilgrims from being prosecuted under Spain’s vagrancy laws.

English-speaking Wikipedia suggests that the modern resurgence of the Camino was sparked by an Irishman named Walter Starkie, whose 1957 book The Road to Santiago popularized the pilgrimage for new generations. Spanish-speaking Wikipedia, on the other hand, doesn’t make much of Starkie’s book, instead mentioning his work with the British Council and his apology for fascism.

In the 1980s, a Galician priest called Elías Valiña organized the effort to re-trace the Camino Francés, much of which had been lost through decades of disuse. It was his idea to mark the route with the characteristic yellow arrows that you can now find all over Spain.

Today, the Camino is more popular than ever, with the authorities in Santiago de Compostela recording hundreds of thousands of pilgrim arrivals every year.

El Camino de Santiago as tourist attraction

The average European’s level of devotion to the relics of the saints isn’t what it used to be – though you can still see outpourings of faith at certain times and in certain locations.

But here in Spain, national authorities and the government of Galicia are happy to promote the Camino as just another tourist attraction. As with much of Spain’s religious heritage, you don’t need to be a practicing Catholic to get something out of it.

Santiago Matamoros.

And even with the budget constraints of many pilgrims, it must bring a lot of money into the region of Galicia, which is historically among the poorer areas of Spain.

Concerns of mass tourism aside, there are probably plenty of towns in the region that wouldn’t receive many visitors at all if not for the steady stream of people walking through on the Camino.

So whether you’re interested in hiking, or history, or architecture, or religion, or Spanish cuisine, or “spiritual mastery”, you’re certain to find something to enjoy on the Camino or one of the many other long-distance walking paths in Spain.

Till next time… I’ll see you out on the trail.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. If you want some more walking articles, here’s Gran Canaria and here’s the longest street in Barcelona. Also, Spain’s network of GR footpaths is worth mentioning. I have a tiny article about it, but it’s a big topic. Enjoy!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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