Illustrated Map of the St. James Way in Europe by Miguel Ángel Camprubí
The St. James Way (Camino de Santiago) is actually not just one path, but an extensive network of tracks and routes that begin in many different places and end in Santiago de Compostela, on the westernmost edge of continental Europe.
Twelve centuries of history
Around the year 820 CE, the tomb of Saint James the Apostle was discovered in Galicia. This was one of the most important events of the Middle Ages across the whole of Europe. Today, 12 centuries later, scores of pilgrims travel along the Camino for many different reasons.
An extensive network
Although the Camino begins at each pilgrim's own door, over the centuries, a number of main routes have been pinpointed. There are currently 281 Caminos listed, encompassing more than 51,500 miles of routes through 29 different countries. There are 49 routes in Spain, covering almost 9,940 miles, and in Portugal there are nine routes, spanning over 1,800 miles.
A World Heritage Site
UNESCO has recognized the cultural importance of the Camino's various branches as historical pilgrimage routes. In 1993, these routes were declared a World Heritage Site. This recognition was later extended to include the routes through France and northern Spain, in 1998 and 2015.
Pilgrims from all over the world
In 2019, 350,000 pilgrims arrived in Santiago de Compostela, from 190 different countries. At the top of the list were pilgrims from Spain, Italy, Germany, the US, and Portugal, but people also came from as far and wide as Yemen, Bhutan, Tuvalu (an island in the South Pacific), and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).
The longest route
In addition to the land routes, there are 30 recorded maritime routes to Santiago. Among these is the longest route: the Antarctic Way (Camino Antártico). It begins at the Spanish research base, Gabriel de Castilla, which is on Deception Island in Antarctica, 8,745 miles (14,075 km) from Santiago de Compostela.
The furthest point in Europe
The Camino's furthest point in Europe is in the city of Iași in Romania, where a milestone was placed in 2019 to mark 2,796 miles (4,500 km).
The most popular starting point
In 2019, half of all pilgrims chose the French Way and one in every four started in Sarria. Why so? The town is located just over 60 miles from Santiago, which is the minimum required to travel to earn the Compostela, the certificate that certifies that you have completed the pilgrimage.
Symbols of the Camino
Today, the yellow arrows are one of the main symbols of the Camino, along with the scallop shells that people once carried as a reminder of their pilgrimage. In 1984, a priest named Elías Valiña personally marked out the entire French Way (Camino Francés) with yellow arrows.
Hospitality: a core value
The modern hostels along the Camino today started out as old refuges called hospitales, and the people responsible for running them and welcoming in pilgrims are known as hospitaleros. They embody the ancestral hospitality of the villages all along the Camino and are an integral part of its intangible cultural heritage.
Associations of friends of the Camino
In 1950, the first Association of Friends of the Camino de Santiago was founded in Paris. A decade later came the first in Spain (Estella, 1962). Currently, each of the more than 100 European Friends of the Camino associations set out to assist pilgrims, welcoming them and providing them with all kinds of help during their pilgrimage.
"Ultreia!" is what pilgrims from the Middle Ages would say to each other. The expression means "Onwards!" and was passed down through generations in the Codex Calixtinus (a guide for pilgrims). It is a cheer of encouragement and celebration still used on the pilgrimage today, although now it is more common to be wished a pleasant journey with "Buen camino!"
The Camino Francés
The French Way (Camino Francés), which enters Spain via the Pyrenees, is the pilgrimage route par excellence, and also the most accessible for wheelchair users. Each stage of the journey was already described in 1135, in Book V of the Codex Calixtinus.
By bicycle, on horseback, or on foot
Although most pilgrims walk the Camino, an increasing number are opting to cycle or go on horseback. The Camino is designed to be traveled all three ways, although the latter requires more advanced preparation.
Koreans On the Camino
In 15 years, the number of South Korean pilgrims has increased 450-fold, making South Korea the country with the eighth highest number of pilgrims in 2019. Why the sudden popularity? Best-selling books by Kim Nam Hee and reality TV shows, like the one starring the lead singer of K-pop group g.o.d., are some of the reasons behind the Camino fever in South Korea.
End of the Camino
All the Camino's different routes end in Santiago de Compostela. The city's main square (Praza do Obradoiro), in front of the cathedral, is the final destination for many pilgrims. Others continue on to Finisterre, to see the sun set in the place that was thought to be the end of the world.