What is the Camino?

Background

The Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) is a network of ancient trails across Western Europe to the city of Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the northwest region of Galicia in Spain. Historically, these were pilgrimage routes to the final resting place of the body of St James, the Apostle

In around the 8th century AD, the tomb of St James (Santiago) was discovered near what is now Finisterre.  At this time, most of Spain had been conquered by the Moors.  It was only the area where present-day Galicia and Asturias are situated that there remained a small Christian kingdom. 

The relics of a saint were believed to possess great power, and of the principal disciples of Jesus, James’ were the last to be found.  But when they were, Christians started making pilgrimages to his burial site as early as the 10th century.  The number of Santiago pilgrims increased over the next couple of centuries and by the 12th century, it became one of the great destinations of medieval pilgrimage along with Rome and Jerusalem.  The first cathedral was built over the tomb, and the first monastic houses were established along the route.  For a comprehensive bibliography on the pilgrimage, click here.

In the last few decades, the Camino de Santiago – relatively untravelled since the middle ages – has shot to fame and is becoming a household name. The most famous route, called the Camino Francés, was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987 and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Now, hundreds of thousands of people do it every year; predominantly on foot, but also by bike, on horseback, by sea or by wheelchair.  Pilgrims come from all over the world to walk along the various and increasing number of established and waymarked routes to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.

Where is it?

It's a common misconception that the Camino de Santiago is just one route.  In fact there are many!  All signposted with the official waymarks of the camino, throughout not just Spain, but Portugal, France and even elsewhere in Europe.  

In fact, more camino routes are being established all the time! As more research is being done into routes that historic pilgrims took on their way to Santiago, more paths are being officially recognised and funded by the local Galician authorities. Click here for our Routes section.

Why do it?

To us, the camino isn't just another hiking trail.  For the vast majority of people that walk it, if only for a few days, it represents something much more spiritual and reflective.  Click here to read more about what we call "The Spiritual Dimension".

Every camino pilgrim has their own reason for doing the camino.  Some of the most common reasons we hear include:

The challenge; physically but also to live more minimally for a while

It’s a chance to get away, clear your head and regain some perspective

You can reconnect with yourself and be with your own thoughts

To process any recent grief or trauma

The opportunity to meet and become friends with many different people from all over the world and share their stories

...and numerous others.

How many people do it?

The number of pilgrims who have reached Santiago has multiplied in recent years due to increased exposure in the media and popular culture.  Its growing popularity has led to improved infrastructure, literature and accommodation available, particularly on the Camino Francés – which is now becoming increasingly overcrowded. 

In 2018, more than 327,000 pilgrims received the Compostela, the personalised Latin certificate from Santiago Cathedral to acknowledge their completion of the pilgrimage, two thirds of which had come via the Camino Francés.  For a full breakdown of the statistics of pilgrims that come into Santiago – click here.

What are the rules?

There are no real rules for doing the camino.  Although normal standards of courteous behaviour are expected in the places you stay!

If you want to stay in any pilgrim hostels, you will need the credencial (pilgrim passport) – a small booklet inside which you have your personal details and several pages for sellos (stamps) to collect from hostels, churches and cafes along the way to document your journey.

If you want the Compostela from the cathedral in Santiago, you will need to have walked or ridden on horseback the last 100km of the route you are doing or cycled the last 200km. You will also need to specify a spiritual or religious motivation when you collect.

Note, there is also the Certificado – the certificate for those that specify cultural or sporting motivation. 

The CSJ and similar pilgrim associations throughout the world exist to help the modern pilgrim, by providing advice and information, and issuing the credencial – get yours here.

©CSJ

Confraternity of Saint James,
27 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8NY, United Kingdom.
Tel: (+44) (0)20 7928 9988
Company Limited by Guarantee, Registered no. 4096721 — UK Registered Charity no. 1091140
Founded in 1983 to promote the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela

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