History of the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

The Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. It is difficult to define exactly where the Camino starts, as pilgrims used to start their journey from their own home.

Mike and I have chosen to do the Northern Way (Camino del Norte), which begins in the Basque Country in San Sebastián, a beautiful seaside city that is world renowned for its culinary excellence. (We have a walking and tapas tour scheduled on our first day there.) The Northern Way traverses along the gorgeous Northern coast from San Sebastián to Gijón and Ribadeo, although we will veer off before Gijon to follow the Camino Primitivo, making stops in Oviedo, Lugo, and Arzua before making our way to Santiago de Compostela.

History of the Pilgrimage

The story of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is intertwined with the history of Christianity. After Jesus’ resurrection, St. James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. According to tradition, he also traveled to Spain to spread the Good News, then returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred. Following his death, his followers are said to have taken his body to the coast, where a ship was miraculously waiting for them. The body of St. James was interred in a tomb in northwestern Spain, after which its location fell into oblivion for centuries.

Around the year 815, a Spanish hermit named Pelayo had a vision in which he saw a bright light shining over a spot in a forest. The matter was investigated and a Roman-era tomb containing St. James’ body was found. The bishop of a nearby town had a church built on the site of the tomb. Around this shrine the city of Santiago de Compostela grew.

The Way of St. James was difficult, but for many pilgrims it offered a much easier trip than the journey to Jerusalem or Rome. Monuments, churches, monasteries, towns, and cities grew up along the network of roads leading to Santiago, and the city itself benefited greatly from the spiritual, economic and cultural growth stimulated by the millions of pilgrims. The Way of St. James became the first great thoroughfare of Christian Europe, a meeting place for people from a wide variety of backgrounds and nations.

As the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela grew in popularity, so did the legends and lore associated with it. The scallop shell became the symbol of the pilgrimage, in part because the shells were common along the Atlantic beaches just west of Santiago. Travelers would wear a scallop shell to proclaim their status as pilgrims, and the motif was incorporated into many of the buildings, wells, churches, and monuments along the route.

Thank you for joining us on our journey! We will arrive in Madrid a week from today, and we will begin our Camino on September 6.

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