Ten Things You Never Knew About the St. James Way

Where does the name Compostela come from? What role does Francis Drake play in Jacobean history? Why do so many Koreans make the pilgrimage to Santiago? Find out these and other interesting facts about the Way.

By Regional Government of Galicia

Fuegos artificiales de las fiestas de Santiago Apóstol (2021)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Do you know why 2021 is a Holy Year?

Because July 25, the festival of the Apostle St. James, falls on a Sunday. Since the beginning of the 15th century, the church has pardoned the sins of anyone making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela during a Holy Year. The last Holy Year was 2010, and 2021 will be extended to 2022 due to the exceptional circumstances surrounding COVID-19. 

Yellow arrow in Tui (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

When do you see arrows and why are they yellow?

In 1984 after hearing constant complaints from pilgrims about how easy it was to get lost, Elías Valiña, a priest from O Cebreiro, took matters into his own hands. He bought some cheap cans of paint leftover from painting signs, loaded up his car and left for Roncesvalles, painting arrows all along the French Way on the way back.

Pilgrim on the Maior Staircase of Sarria (2021)Regional Government of Galicia

Where is the most popular starting point for the Way?

In 2019, half of all pilgrims chose the French Way and one in every four started in Sarria. Why so? The Galician town is located on this route, just over 60 miles from Santiago, which is the minimum required to travel on foot or horseback to earn the Compostela, the certificate that certifies that you have completed the pilgrimage.

Do you know what the longest recorded pilgrimage was?

In 2016, a group of Spanish scientists and military personnel made a pilgrimage by boat from the Spanish base of Gabriel de Castilla located on Deception Island in Antarctica, thereby inaugurating the White Way or the Antarctic Way. Their journey started a whopping 8,700 miles from Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrim on the Way to Fisterra (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

Where did the 350,000 pilgrims in 2019 come from?

That year pilgrims from over 190 different countries made the journey to Santiago de Compostela. At the top of the list were pilgrims from Spain, Italy, Germany, the USA, and Portugal, but people came from as far and wide as Yemen, Bhutan, Tuvalu, and Swaziland.

Yoon Heesang (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

Why do so many Koreans make the pilgrimage?

In 2004, 18 South Koreans traveled to Santiago de Compostela. However, in 2019, this figure rose to 8,224, propelling Korea into eighth place! In 15 years the number of Korean pilgrims has increased 450-fold. Why the sudden popularity? 

Best-selling books by Namhee Kim and reality TV shows, like the one starring the lead singer of K-pop G.O.D. are some of the reasons behind Camino fever in Korea.

Catedral de Santiago de Compostela vista desde A Alameda (1075)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Do you know where the name "Compostela" originates?

This is one of the longest debates in the Jacobean history and theories remain inconclusive. Legend incorrectly has it that it derives from Campus Stellae, meaning field of star in Latin.

Rúa de San Pedro in Santiago de Compostela (2021)Regional Government of Galicia

However, the reality is that it is more likely that it relates to the town's origins as a cemetery. So don't believe anything you hear about the history of the name as theories are yet to be confirmed.

BotafumeiroThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

Do you know the purpose of the "botafumeiro"?

The botafumeiro (censer) in the dome of the Cathedral of Santiago is the largest and most famous incense burner in the world. It is 5 feet high and weighs 120 pounds. Although it is cited as early as the 14th century, the one currently in use dates back to 1851.

Botafumeiro y "tiraboleiros"The Catedral de Santiago Foundation

Travelers and tourists are often told that it was provided to neutralize the smell of the congregation inside the cathedral, but there were simpler and cheaper ways of achieving this, for example by spraying perfume. The spectacular ritual of it flying through the air symbolizes the purification of the people gathered in the cathedral and the importance of the sacred space. Visit our exhibition on the botafumeiro for more information.

Church of Santa María a Real do Cebreiro (9th Century)Regional Government of Galicia

Did you know you can find the Holy Grail on the Way?

The cup used by Jesus during the Last Supper has been a mythical item ever since the Middle Ages. The chalice in the Santa María la Real de O Cebreiro church, at the beginning of the French Way in Galicia is one of the cups claimed to be the chalice used by Christ during the Eucharist.

Church of Santa María Real de O Cebreiro. Holy miracle (2020)Original Source: S.A. de Xestión do Plan Xacobeo

It has been suggested that the popularity of the miracle of O Cabreiro among the German pilgrims may have been the inspiration for Wagner's musical drama, Parsifal. The opera, which first opened in 1882 tells the story of the search for the Holy Grail by Perceval, a knight of King Arthur's court.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth of England knighting English naval hero & explorer Sir Francis Drake (1541-1596). (1901)LIFE Photo Collection

Where were the apostle's remains for 300 years?

According to legend, in May 1589, fearing an attack on Compostela by Francis Drake, whose boats were laying siege to A Coruña, the Town Hall of Compostela and the archbishop Juan de Sanclemente decided to hide the apostle's remains by burying them under the cathedral. The exact location would remain unknown until 1879, the year of the Second Discovery of the apostle's remains.

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