The Saint: Santiago
In the Catholic tradition, Saint James is the patron saint of Spain. He is a very significant figure in that he was one of the original 12 apostles of Jesus of Nazareth and he is the only apostle whose martyrdom is noted in the New Testament of the Bible.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle James (who was a cousin of Jesus) was sent to the Iberian Peninsula to proselytize and spread the Good News. Estimates put the number of James’ converts at fewer than 12.
When James returned to Jerusalem from now-Spain, he was beheaded by the current King Herod. Legend has it that his body then was miraculously transported to the west coast of Spain in a stone barge and buried in a hillside.
Fast forward to the 800s, when a monk discovered the remains, the local Bishop authenticated the find, and now we have a destination for one of the most important pilgrimages in Christendom.
The Destination: Santiago de Compostela
The remains of Saint James are now entombed in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and the city has become a destination in its own right. A vibrant university town, Santiago offers a wide array of historical, architectural, cultural, and culinary delights. In 2018, more than 327,000 people arrived into Santiago as pilgrims on the Way.
In the early days of the pilgrimage, people journeyed to Santiago by walking out the front door of their homes and joining one of the established routes that wend their way through the European continent.
Now people come from all over the world to walk the Camino de Santiago, and most fly and take a train or bus to one of the main towns or cities along the 800 kilometer stretch that begins on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains and ends in Santiago de Compostela.
The Church: The Role of the Catholic Church
Records show that in the Middle Ages hundreds of thousands of people arrived in Santiago each year, and when they did, they received a ‘plenary indulgence’ from the Church that granted them full remission from the temporal punishment of purgatory.
This doctrine is still intact within the Catholic Church, and modern day pilgrims can receive the same pardon by completing specific requirements in conjunction with a visit to the Cathedral in Santiago.
In addition to the indulgence, modern pilgrims who reach Santiago after walking at least 100km (or cycling at least 200 km) receive the Compostela. To receive the Compostela, a pilgrim must identify the reason for the pilgrimage as either religious or spiritual. Pilgrims who walk for different motives receive a certificate rather than the Compostela.
The route: The Camino Francés
The most popular route to Santiago is called the Camino Francés. This route begins in France, on the East side of the Pyrenees Mountains, in Saint Jean Pied de Port, and continues all the way across Spain to Santiago de Compostela.
The Camino Francés passes through many cities, towns, and hamlets, including Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga, Ponferrada, and Sarria.
While the majority of pilgrims begin their pilgrimages in Saint Jean Pied de Port in France, and Sarria in Spain, you can begin your pilgrimage to Santiago in any of these cities, or in any of the towns and villages along the Way. Check out the map, below, for an introduction to the Camino Francés route.