The last 30 years have seen an extraordinary revival of interest in the pilgrimage to Santiago. The route known as the Camino francés was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987, and inscribed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1993 http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/669. Many thousands of people each year now make their way, on foot or by bicycle – sometimes also on horseback – along the ancient ways. There are as many reasons for this revival as there are pilgrims. It is noticeable, however, that many people make the pilgrimage at a turning point in their lives, and that many are helped to come to terms with personal crisis by a period of separation from all that is familiar, and the shared hardship of the road. One of our members reflects on the spiritual dimension of the pilgrimage, and a French pilgrim, Philippe Do Ngoc, includes on his site the testimonies (témoinages) of a number of pilgrims who have been affected by the experience (as well as a page of prayers for pilgrims).
Some start from their own homes, or from other places nearby which have special significance for them; many head for one of the traditional asssembly points in France: Paris, Vézelay, le Puy-en-Velay, or Arles, and then follow one of the old routes to the Pyrenees and the beginning of the Camino francés in Spain. Those with less time either start from a point on the route nearer to Santiago, such as St Jean Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles (this is the most popular starting point for Spanish pilgrims); or make the pilgrimage in stages, as holidays allow, picking up each year where they stopped the year before.
The growing popularity of the pilgrimage has meant that the routes where the infrastructure of waymarks, published guides, and pilgrim accommodation was first to develop – the Camino francés in Spain and the le Puy route in France – have become pretty crowded. Other routes, especially the Via de la Plata in Spain and the Vézelay route in France (though this does feed into the Camino francés) have developed very rapidly in recent years, and provide entirely feasible, very attractive, and much quieter alternatives to the more traditional routes.
The cathedral authorities in Santiago require that pilgrims must 1) carry the credencial or pilgrim passport (which entitles you to a place in the Spanish refugios) and produce it, stamped and dated at each stage of the journey; 2) have walked or ridden on horseback the last 100 km to Santiago, or cycled the last 200 km, and 3) declare a spiritual or religious motivation, to qualify for the Compostela, the traditional Latin certificate of pilgrimage. There is a certificado, also in Latin, for those making the journey for other reasons, or not meeting the Cathedral’s criteria.
There are no other “rules” about how you should make your pilgrimage: but you will find among pilgrims to Santiago and those who support them a clearly defined ethos – a stong sense that certain attitudes and ways of comporting oneself are appropriate to the pilgrimage. This is summed up in the need to be true to oneself and to respect the motivation of others. Laurie Dennett’s first essay, referred to above, covers this more fully.
The Confraternity and similar pilgrim associations throughout the world exist to help the modern pilgrim, by providing advice and information, and issuing the credencial – see here for how to obtain a credencial or pilgrim passport.
“However sceptical one may be about the basis of the pilgrimage and the legends surrounding it, one cannot help being affected by it. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the life and the closeness to nature that makes one conscious of deeper realities and I hope, as a result, I have learned to be a better person, or at least I will try to be.” – an English pilgrim, 1998