The history of the famous pilgrimage to Santiago is intriguing. Several years after Jesus’ crucifixion, St. James — Santiago in Spanish — supposedly traveled to Spain’s Galician region to spread the Gospel. He didn’t have much luck; after converting a mere three people, he returned to Jerusalem, only to be beheaded. His loyal disciples recovered his body and set sail to give Santiago a proper Christian burial in the last place he ministered: Galicia.
For several hundred years, no one gave a thought to Santiago’s remains. But they say a man named Pelayo discovered the saint’s bones in the year 813 by following the bright lights of the Milky Way. A chapel to house St. James’ body was constructed in what is now Santiago de Compostela, although it was destroyed by the Moors shortly afterward. Undaunted, the ruling monarchs constructed an immense, imposing Romanesque structure in its place: the current Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Pilgrims across Europe began flocking to Santiago to worship; visitor numbers skyrocketed around the 12th and 13th centuries, after Pope Alexander III declared Santiago a holy city on par with Rome and Jerusalem. Over time, several major pilgrimage routes were established, the most popular being the French Route (Camino Francés), which stretches 800 kilometers across northern Spain from Roncesvalles on the French border to Santiago.
As the centuries passed, the pilgrimage’s popularity waned. By the mid-1980s, a mere 2,500 were making the trek annually. But, in 1987, the various trails were collectively declared the first European Cultural Route, then named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and interest in the ancient pilgrimage revived. Today, more than 100,000 people make some portion of the pilgrimage annually. When St. James’ July 25 birthday falls on a Sunday, like this year, it is a holy year or jubilee year for the shrine.
If you want to receive a Compostela (an official document certifying you finished the Camino), you must walk or ride a horse the last 100 kilometers of one of the routes or bike the final 200 kilometers. To prove you’ve done so, you must first obtain a pilgrim’s credential, akin to a passport, then have it stamped once or twice a day during your hike. (Restaurants, hotels and shops along the way all have stamps.) Once you reach Santiago de Compostela and show your stamped passport to the officials in the Pilgrim’s Office, you’ll receive your Compostela certificate, written in Latin. If you make your pilgrimage during this Holy Year, you’re also eligible for a Jubilee indulgence.
Tackling the Trek
When I learned about the ancient pilgrimage and was headed to Galicia anyway, I decided to tackle a 109-kilometer stretch along the Via de la Plata (Silver Route), originally used by Christians living in Muslim areas in southern Spain. My starting point: the city of Ourense.
The idea of being part of such ancient history was thrilling to me. Plus, I relished the thought of having four days for reflection, introspection and prayer — important practices I’d too often pushed aside because of family or work obligations. I collected prayer intentions from my friends and family, packed my running gear and was off.
The journey was incredible. I passed through small towns, tiny hamlets and farm fields; through people’s alleys and in between their barns; ran up and down steep mountain trails, through thick pine forests and over rivers. I never knew what lay around the corner: an elderly gentleman taking his cows out to pasture, a picturesque chapel, a man holding an immense shotgun (he was hunting rabbits).
Although I was running roughly 20 miles each day, which was difficult, given the terrain, the time passed quickly. I’d carefully copied the prayer intentions people sent me in the order they arrived, then assigned each person’s intention(s) to a trail segment: The first response I’d received went to the first trail segment I ran, the second response to the second trail segment, and so on. Amazingly, my route contained one trail segment per response, with one left over for my own personal intentions. And the number of intentions per response corresponded exactly to the segments, too. If I only had one mile from town A to B, the corresponding friend or family member had submitted one simple prayer request. Stretches of four or five miles always coincided with requests for several different intentions.
Even more interesting was how often the prayers coincided with my thoughts. I paused before a peaceful church cemetery, then saw my next intention was for a friend’s dying mother. I was admiring a cluster of colorful homes, then read a prayer request for the expeditious sale of a relative’s condo. When my quads began to cramp painfully on the third day, it was time to pray for a relative suffering from chronic pain.
Miracles on Foot
I’d heard you’re never alone on the road to Santiago, and all your needs are met. It was true. I was running low on water the first day and stopped in a small hamlet to purchase some. The town was deserted, as it was siesta time, and the lone shop was closed. Suddenly, I spied a man, who happened to have the keys to the shop in his pocket; he unlocked the door and gave me water. Another night, I had a five-mile walk to my country inn after my run ended in Oseira, but I’d misplaced my map. After walking an hour, I was lost. I hadn’t seen a soul since I’d left Oseira, but a car suddenly appeared, and the driver took me straight to the inn, which was several miles in the opposite direction.
I timed my arrival into Santiago to coincide with the popular Pilgrim’s Mass, offered daily at noon. Obradoiro Plaza, where the cathedral sits, was packed with pilgrims, tourists and locals, and so was the church itself. Folks smartly dressed in their Sunday best were seated next to sweaty pilgrims like me, and giant backpacks were scattered everywhere. Many people were standing, including me. Shortly after Mass began, kudos were given to the pilgrims. For Catholics like myself, it was very touching.
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Planning Your Visit
If you’d like to walk the last 100 kilometers along one of the Camino routes, first apply for a credential by contacting American Pilgrims on the Camino at AmericanPilgrims.com. It’s easiest to fly into Madrid, then pick up a connecting flight to Santiago. From there, buses and trains regularly travel to popular starting points like Ourense (Via de la Plata) and Sarria (Camino Francés), both of which are roughly 110 kilometers from Santiago. If you’d prefer to hike an entire route, fly into the city closest to your starting point. For assistance in planning your hike or bike, contact Tour Galicia at TurGalicia.es or the U.S. Tourist Office of Spain at (1) (312) 642-1992.
After your pilgrimage, plan to stay at least one night in Santiago to explore its religious sites. See SantiagoTurismo.com or TourGalicia.com.
The historic Parador Hostal de los Reyes Católicos is a good choice for lodging, as it lies adjacent to the cathedral and was built in 1499 as a hospital for pilgrims. To book a room, see Parador.es.