The question of “What is the Camino de Santiago” has many different layers of answers. The question is further complicated by the reality that the answers are different for each and every pilgrim that chooses to walk its well worn pathways.
The phrase “Camino de Santiago” translates into English as “Road to Santiago”. On a physical level, the Camino de Santiago is a collection of pilgrimage routes that criss cross Europe like a lattice, ending in northwestern spain in the city of Santiago de Compostela. The pathways all converge at the shrine of the Apostle St James the Great.
The History of the Camino de Santiago
History holds that the Apostle St James was buried here after his body was carried to northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela from Jerusalem. The name “Santiago” derives from the name “St James” supporting this assertion.
It is tradition that those undertaking a pilgrimage start from their own front door. The Camino de Santiago routes saw the most traffic from pilgrims during the middle ages. From this height, the numbers of pilgrims fluctuated with the various social and political waves in the 16th century, but went in the general direction of decline until the routes were only traveled each year by a handful of pilgrims.
This trend continued until the 1980’s when a new batch of travelers took an interest in the old routes and revived the old traditions. The Camino de Santiago routes were designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987 which further spurred this renewed interest in this long lost spiritual tradition.
Traditions of the Camino de Santiago
Pilgrims sometimes participate in particular rituals along the way that are based on the time honored traditions of the pilgrims that have come before them. Some of these traditions include carrying a scallop shell on your person as a symbol of St James, leaving a stone or other item behind to signify leaving your sins or burning/leaving your shoes or socks at the end of the pilgrimage route.
The symbol of the scallop shell has many layers of meaning within the Camino de Santiago. There are variations of the story of how the shell became associated with St James. One version tells that on its journey from Jerusalem to Spain, the body of St James was lost in the ocean. Tradition holds that the body washed up on shore unharmed but covered in scallop shells.
The lines on the scallop shell come together at a single point and represent individual paths that the pilgrims take coming together at the end of the pilgrimage in Santiago de Compostela. A scallop shell is generally carried by pilgrims and it is the symbol on the way makers along the trail.
Pilgrims arriving at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela at the end of their long journey can participate in other rituals traditional to the end of the Camino including having their pilgrim passport stamped to signify the end of their journey and hugging a statue of St James before participating in a special pilgrim’s mass. At the end of a long journey, these are often an emotional and incredibly moving experiences for pilgrims.
Pilgrims undertake the Camino de Santiago for many reasons. Some are interested in participating in the time honored religious rituals associated with it. For others it is a personal retreat offering time to reflect and connect with their dreams, goals and deeper selves. Other pilgrims are interested in the walk for its abundance of ever changing landscapes and charming villages. It is likely that many pilgrims participate for a combination of these or other reasons.
The Logistics of the Camino de Santiago
The traditional routes of the Camino de Santiago vary in length and are generally marked with signs to guide pilgrims. There are pilgrim refuges offering discounted accommodations, restaurants and cafe’s offering separate menus with traditional pilgrim foods, and other assistance to pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago. These can be accessed with the “Pilgrim’s Passport” which signifies you as an official pilgrim. You can choose your level of luxury and comfort along the way, ranging from rough camping to staying in hotels and arranging luggage transfers along the way.
The Camino de Santiago is more than just a hiking trail. Part of the life changing experience of being a pilgrim is connecting along the journey with other pilgrims along the trail to share experiences with. The sense of camaraderie along the Camino de Santiago is often described as profound but hard to put into words. It is an experience that is etched onto the hearts of pilgrims for the rest of their lives. This post was written by Rebecca of http://earlyretirement.ie/ who work with the over fifties to help them gain early retirement.