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Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain

Updated on June 6, 2022
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Mary and her husband work on international projects and have travelled to many places in Spain.

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela | Source

A Pilgrimage Destination of the Way of St. James

As early as the 9th century, pilgrims from all over Europe trekked to this city to pray at the Apostle's tomb, St. James. How the remains of St. James came to be here is the stuff of legends that are difficult to verify, but for the believers, the truth is self-evident, and the pilgrimage from all over Europe was continuous.

Some of the paths were appalling. But some have monasteries and rest points to help pilgrims on the way. Between the 10th and 11th centuries, about half a million pilgrims set off from their remote villages each year. Some went for a blessing, as a vow, or secretly, for the adventure. By the end of the 11th century, this pilgrimage had become one of the most significant destinations in the Catholic world, spoken in the same breath as Rome, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

In the post-Reformation period, the pilgrimage waned as Protestant Europe had little regard for shrines and relics, and the many Caminos taken became increasingly dangerous in lawless Europe.

A year after the Armada's defeat, Queen Elizabeth sent an army of 14,000 to Galicia to destroy Santiago as further punishment to the Spanish, but the siege failed. Others tried as eliminating the relics would be a great triumph for Protestantism. Finally, the locals hid the relics, said they were lost, and vengeance raids stopped. By 1878, interest in capturing poor old St. James' bones had waned, so they were disinterred from their hiding place behind the altar.

Nobody could identify which bones specifically belonged to St. James until a revered relic, a piece of St. James skull worshipped in Pistoia, Tuscany, was found, and it fitted precisely one of the heads. This discovery moved Pope Leo XIII to issue a bull, "Omnipotens Deus," establishing that the bodies were that of St. James and his two disciples, Theodosius and Athanasius.

The Way to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela | Source

A Former Necropolis and a Roman Burial Ground

Before it became a pilgrimage destination, Santiago de Compostela was a burial ground. Compostela came from the Latin word, Compostum, meaning burial ground. Excavation underneath the Cathedral in Santiago reinforced this belief by finding a Roman cemetery and a pre-Roman Necropolis, a cemetery during ancient times.

The Story of St. James, the Apostle

The story of St. James picks up along the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus found him with his brother, John, and their father, Zebedee, getting on with their fishing nets. Jesus called the two brothers to follow him and become fishers of men throwing their nets much wider.

Records are a tad thin on the Apostle preaching in Spain. Still, another legend placed him in Caesar Augustus (today Zaragoza). Mary, the Mother of Jesus, appeared to him beside the Ebro River in a pillar to tie him for a whipping. James, the legend continued, built a Church on the site (now the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar). After this, he went back to Jerusalem, where he died. His disciples, ostensibly, brought his body back to Spain and here begins another legend on how they found the buried body.

In 813, Pelayo, the hermit, had a revelation from the angels on the location of the tomb of St. James. In some accounts, one of the shepherds got the revelation. A cluster of stars led him to the site. He made this known to the Bishop, and in that location, they found a tomb with three bodies which the Bishop immediately declared as that of St. James and two of his disciples who brought his remains back.

Around this time, mid-9th century, Spain slowly reconquered places from the Moors, and St. James' legend became the rallying image. Those in battle claimes that he appeared several times in the thick of the fighting, slaughtering the Moors. St. James became Santiago Matamoros, the Slayer of the Moors. Along the pilgrim routes, some claimed that he appeared as a soldier of Christ. Astride a white horse with a sword in his hand, he kept killing the Moors.

It was a powerful image, then, and very useful to the Church, and the world can always use solid pictures and visions of great people!

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela | Source

The Camino or The Way

Although Santiago de Compostela was only third in importance next to Jerusalem and Rome, it became prominent among pilgrimages, especially as a pilgrimage for many northern Europeans who wanted to atone for their sins and pay forward some forgiveness.

Travelling to Rome and staying even for a few days was beyond most northern villagers' means, so Santiago looked like a good option. Income from these pilgrims buying indulgences plus the gifts from kings and the nobility and the rich swelled Santiago de Compostela's coffers, enabling the succession of Bishops to build some of the beautiful gothic buildings we see today.

At that time, when superstition was strong, relics played a significant role in encouraging these pilgrims. Although it took them at least two months to finish the pilgrimage, this did not discourage many. They saw this as their way to heaven or the means to get forgiveness for their sins. For the young, this was an acceptable reason to get out of their village in the mud of Flanders.

In 1456, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, according to the book of Tim Heaton, The Long Road to Heaven: A Lent Course Based on the Film "The Way," would have earned you remission of a third of your sins; if you died on the route, total remission; and, for hearing Mass in the Cathedral, 200 days off purgatory. Upon completing the pilgrimage, pilgrims receive a certificate called, Compostelana. Pilgrims today still receive the certificate, but it may not have the same force as it did in the past.

During the Middle Ages, villages along the way welcomed the pilgrims as this earned them indulgence. Eventually, monasteries, hospitals, hostels and eateries sprouted to provide protection and services to the many who took the pilgrimage.

A Pilgrim on his Way to Santiago de Compostela

Pilgrim of Santiago de Compostela
Pilgrim of Santiago de Compostela | Source

The Camino Routes

Over time, routes trudged became popular as success built on success, and more people were drawn to this place not just by a devotion to St. James but for reasons such as trading, learning, health, or sports. Some of the Chaucerian revels must have been an annual summer spectacle avoided by the devout.

Today, information is available for each of the major routes for Europe, including maps, hostel information, and details on the towns and villages along the paths. Companies are there to plan your courses for you and make all the arrangements. The routes are well marked, so it is easy to do this independently. And, within Spain, you can hike on these trails through absolutely stunning countryside.

1. Camino Frances

The French Way is the most popular. It starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the Pyrenees' French side and finishes in Santiago, passing by Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon's significant cities. About 780 km., it usually takes people a month to walk and about two weeks to cycle. It is a beauty.

2. Via de Plata

The longest formal route to Santiago is 1000 km. to shuffle for about 6 to 8 weeks. You will go through Sevilla, Badajoz, Caceres, Salamanca and Zamora, Orense, Pontevendra and La Coruna. Heavy boots are needed, but what an adventure.

3. Camino del Norte

This route is the oldest taken by pilgrims when most of Spain was still under the Moors, so it followed the coast to avoid the bandits. It starts from the small town of Irun, following the coast until Galicia, where it joins the Camino Frances in Arzua. The distance is about 825 km.

4. Camino Ingles

Starting in the 12th century, this was a popular route for pilgrims from England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Nordic countries. It is the shortest Way starting from Ferrol or A Coruna after you have arrived by boat. If you want your Compostelana, you need 100 km. Of walking. Ferrol will give you 118 km. While A Coruna, only 74 km. You can easily walk this route in 3-5 days. Do not bring any footballs! The Spanish will thrash you and subtract miles.

5. Camino Portugues

With roots in the middle ages, this route starts at Lisbon, Porto or Tui and will take you 612kms, 240kms or 119kms. Historic towns, cities, and monuments displaying Portugal and Spain's wealth in the Age of Conquest line the routes. It is also naturally beautiful.

6. Camino Primitivo

Having its origin from King Alfonso II of Asturias, who walked this route to visit the tomb of St. James, it starts in Oviedo. It crosses through Asturias, including Las Regueras, Grado, Salas, Tineo, Pola de Allende and Grandas de Salime, before joining the Camino Frances in Melide.

There are other routes, not just these six. Depending on your flights, you can join any of these along the Way. Many are well sign-posted.

Santiago de Compostela Map

Santiago de Compostela Pilgrimage Route:
Praza do Obradoiro, s/n, 15704 Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Spain

get directions

Pilgrim Numbers in Santiago de Compostela


Pilgrim Numbers in the last 5 years. Other statistics are available in the Pilgrim Office in Santiago

Santiago de Compostela: Points of Interest

We drove to Santiago de Compostela from Porto and enjoyed the tiny villages. It was easy to find parking right in the city, an easy walk to the old section. Here are some of the exciting highlights of this place that we enjoyed during our visit.

Casco Historico of Santiago

Casco Historico Santiago de Compostela
Casco Historico Santiago de Compostela

1. Casco Historico of Santiago

Santiago de Compostela has one of the most beautiful old town centres with cobbled stones, winding alleyways, medieval squares with houses above the stores and restaurants, some of which must have served pilgrims.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, walk around and soak up its history. Try some tapas served outdoors and enjoy watching the pilgrims when you get tired. A fully outfitted Dane or Swede with swinging hiking regalia is a sight and deserves full applause from the street drinkers.

Try the pulpo a feira as the octopus is mainly associated with this region of Galicia. Octopus is boiled in a copper cauldron, sliced and seasoned with paprika and served with boiled potatoes. Easy on the potatoes. Pair this with wine from Galicia called Albarino, white wine with minimal acidity and being in Santiago, heaven it is.

The Altar in Santiago de Compostela
The Altar in Santiago de Compostela | Source

2. The Cathedral

Here in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the Pilgrims end their journey and celebrate the Pilgrims Mass. Celebrated at noon, the pilgrims who have completed the trip that day will hear their names read out. Watch out for the largest incense censer globally, weighing 53 kilograms, the Botafumeiro. Contrary to the legend, pilgrims did not burn their socks in this monster of a burner. Sit at the back if you are allergic to incense.

There is a second Pilgrim Mass at around 7:30 p.m.

Construction of this Cathedral started in 1025 following the plan of one of the most splendid Romanesque Churches, the monastic Church of St. Sermin in Toulouse, France. However, today's structure already had all kinds of additions and patch-on, including Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical.

The Cathedral Museum has four floors of Church history and some items to see as:

  • The 16th-century Gothic cloister
  • The old Cathedral Master Mateo's carved stone choir pieced back together in 1999
  • 18th century Chapter House
  • Library
  • An impressive collection of religious art
  • Tapestries and textiles

You can go up the roof for a small fee and have a good view of Santiago.

Praza de Obradoiro
Praza de Obradoiro | Source

3. Praza de Obradoiro

Translated as "Square of the Workshop," this refers to the stonemasons' workshop set up here during the construction of the Cathedral. Today, it is the main square of the old city of Santiago and the seat of power.

You go through the Portico de Gloria to reach the Square. Four important buildings surrounding it claimed to be the centers of power: the Cathedral (Church); the city hall of Santiago in Pazo de Raxoi (Government); the former College for the poor, Colegio de San Xerome (University) and the luxurious Parador of Hostal dos Reis Catolicos (Bourgeoisie).

Hostal dos Reis Catolicos
Hostal dos Reis Catolicos | Source

4. Hostal de los Reis Catolicos

At the end of the 15th century, after completing their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela started to improve the infrastructure and services on the Camino. Right next to the Cathedral, they ordered the hospice and hospital building as a place for pilgrims to recover, three days in the summer and five days in winter. The hospital had a multicultural staff of doctors, nurses and priests working 24 hours to provide free pilgrims services.

As other services became readily available for pilgrims, the government decided to convert this into a Parador today. It is one of the most luxurious places in Santiago, with two courtyards going back to the 16th century and a hospital morgue converted to a restaurant serving the best seafood dishes Santiago de Compostela could offer.

Plaza de las Platerias
Plaza de las Platerias | Source

5. Plaza de las Platerias

Used to be the centre for the workshops of silversmiths, this Plaza has at its center the Fuente de Los Caballos (Fountain of the Horses). It has the Cathedral's single Romanesque facade, the Casa de Cabildo and the Casa del Dean, an 18th-century palace.

Courtyard of the Old University
Courtyard of the Old University | Source

6. Colegio Fonseca

Built-in the 16th century, this courtyard has the statue of the founder of the University, Archbishop Alfonso de Fonseca. Part of the old university, it is currently used as the University's Library.

A Visit to Santiago de Compostela

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Romanesque Facade of the Cathedral

Romanesque Facade of the Cathedral in Santiago
Romanesque Facade of the Cathedral in Santiago | Source

Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

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The Pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela

This movement of people back and forth across Europe was not just for pilgrimages but gave opportunities, especially for the poor, to travel. It became an argument for travel that the "owners" or holders of the poor could only control by angering the Church. With the end of the crusades, people need new reasons to travel and see the world.

This need did not mean millions of people were moving. Still, it suggests that the devout village leaders and youth taking a chance that many communities' relative isolation is over-rated mainly in history. There was a tremendous exchange of ideas, cultures and products, so looking at these events as austere pilgrimages of the devout is to underestimate their impact over time on the linkages within Europe, sadly.

This pilgrimage is talked about now for its religious undertones. Still, people telling stories, simple people, young people with a sense of adventure wanting to get out and, artisans sharing ideas and techniques, labourers walking on the route with kings and nobles. The spread of Romanesque art was because of people from northern France making a pilgrimage to Santiago.

This pilgrimage may have had a much more significant impact on life in Europe than we give it credit.

The "Camino," or more completely the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, is not just a story of legends and history. It is alive and well today. People plan summer visits around it. Hikers looking for a new adventure in Europe seek it out. If it is history, then it is living history, and those with a spirit can become Camino Adventurers still.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Mary Norton


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