Pilgrimages to holy places go back in time long before Christianity; however it was during the middle ages that such journeys began to gain popularity among Christians. Of course at this time there was only one church, the Catholic church.
There were three major pilgrimage destinations: Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Of the three pilgrim routes, this was perhaps the most popular since it was in the heart of Europe.
About the Way of Saint James:
The Way of Saint James actually had several starting points although most came together at Puente la Reina in Northeastern Spain. From here it is about 250 miles across Spain to Santiago de Compostela. It has been the subject of several movies including the 2011 release of “The Way” starring Martin Sheen and his son, Emilio Estevez. Not necessarily a Catholic film, but nevertheless will give you a feeling for the importance of this pilgrimage in today’s time.
Most people do not have the time to make this pilgrimage in its entirety, but if you do then to really be considered a pilgrim you need to get a “Pilgrim’s Passport”. This will not only entitle you to stay at certain pilgrim refuges along the way (each way-point will stamp your passport) and then when you present your stamped “passport” upon arrival in Santiago you will get your Pilgrim’s Certificate, known as Compstellana.
At one time this also entitled you to three nights free lodging at the 5-star Hotel de Los Reyes Catolicos, but that tradition ended quite a few years back. However, it is possible to have free breakfasts and dinners if you are among the first ten or so pilgrims to present their certificate each day.
You will see most pilgrims wearing a scallop shell around their necks, symbol of the route of Saint James. The shell adorns many of the stops along the way and also the facade of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
1. The Pilgrim Route to Compostela, Robertson McCarta
2. The Road to Santiago de Compostela, Michael Jacobs, Penguin Books.
Map courtesy of the picture pages of the Camino at www.santiago-compostela.net