Camino de Santiago – The Ancient Pilgrimage Route to Santiago de Compostela

Walking the footsteps of ancestors, the ancient pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago

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The Camino de Santiago is a series of ancient Spanish pilgrimage routes that are still used to this day. Also called “The Way of St. James,” the routes all lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The routes began at varying starting points; smaller routes would merge together to create larger routes, and those would eventually merge to create even larger routes. Although everyone had their own starting point, all those on the pilgrimage would have the same goal, to reach Santiago de Compostela. During the middle ages, the Camino de Santiago was considered one of the most important pilgrimages a person could undertake. Today, it  remains a popular challenge for adventurers, tourists, and religious followers around the world.

The Way of St James (the French Way), concluding at the Santiago de Compostela

The Way of St James (the French Way), concluding at the Santiago de Compostela ( Wikimedia Commons )

Santiago de Compostela is believed to be the final resting place of Santiago Apóstol, or St. James the Apostle, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, and traditionally considered the first apostle to be martyred.  According to historical accounts, after his death, St. James was brought to Santiago de Compostela by boat. In 814 AD, Pelayo was following a guiding star when he was said to have discovered the tomb of St. James. Upon finding the bones of St. James, King Alfonso II ordered that a cathedral be erected over St. James’ remains.

St. James the Elder by Rembrandt. He is depicted clothed as a pilgrim; note the scallop shell on his shoulder, a symbol which today is found across the Camino de Santiago, pointing the way for pilgrims.

St. James the Elder by Rembrandt. He is depicted clothed as a pilgrim; note the scallop shell on his shoulder, a symbol which today is found across the Camino de Santiago, pointing the way for pilgrims. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The tomb of St James became a symbol of the resistance of Spanish Christians against Islam. The presence of the Cathedral over St. James’ remains led many to flock to Santiago de Compostela. In the 10 th century, Muslims destroyed the site. It was quickly rebuilt with many Gothic, Romanesque, and Baroque buildings, becoming a very beautiful place of worship. By the 11 th century, the site was very well-known, and thousands from all over Europe were flocking there. To get there, they followed the routes of the Camino de Santiago.

The Santiago de Compostela

The Santiago de Compostela ( Wikimedia Commons )

There are five main routes of the Camino de Santiago, each beginning in a different location: the Northern Way, the French Way, the Silver Way, the Primitive Way, and the Portuguese Way. The Northern Way is a less crowded route, starting in Basque Country and following the northern coast of Spain. Those taking this route follow the mountains of Asturias until they reach Santiago. The French Way is the most popular route to Santiago, stretching approximately 500 miles. It originates on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains, and then crosses through the center of Spain to Santiago. The Silver Way starts in Southern Spain at Seville, eventually merging with the French Way as it approaches Santiago.  The Primitive Way (also known as the Original Way) crosses the Asturias Mountains to Santiago. The Portuguese Way begins in the Portuguese city of Porto, following through to Santiago.

While all of the routes lead to the same location, they provide very different journeys for those on pilgrimage, with varying landscapes and difficulties. While there are five main routes, the Camino de Santiago is really a greater system of travel. People begin the pilgrimage from various starting points, following smaller routes and paths, which merge together, and then eventually merge with the main route.

Road to Santiago de Compostela, church of San Pedro de la Nave, El Campillo, Castile and Leon, Spain.

Road to Santiago de Compostela, church of San Pedro de la Nave, El Campillo, Castile and Leon, Spain. Credit: phbcz / BigStockPhoto

Over the centuries, the Camino de Santiago has provided a popular route of pilgrimage for many, from homeless, sick, and blind travelers to farmers, priests, and nobles. Followers include Pope Calixtus II, King Alfonso II, Emperor Charlemagne, and the Knights Templar. It is said that all of those on pilgrimage were treated exactly the same as they reached a particular destination at night, because at that point no one would know the difference between the nobleman and the beggar. Thousands upon thousands of people participated in this pilgrimage during the middle ages. These pilgrimages were of much cultural and spiritual significance. Settlements along the routes of the Camino de Santiago were equipped to ensure both the physical and spiritual well-being of the travelers making the long trip. While the routes were not physically demanding, those on pilgrimage would walk from 10-30 days to reach their destination, and support along the way in the form of food and shelter made this possible for a great number of people.


rbflooringinstall's picture

my ancestors probably took the Northern Way through Spain

Peace and Love,


Pretty sure that the main Portuguese Way stretched down past Porto to reach Lisbon. Go brosing anywhere on the worldweb and you'll see maps showing a longer route.

Not only that, but there was another route in Portugal coming in from the central east area, over the Serra Estrela mountains as evidenced by these cart-ruts.

Even now, whereas planning permits might be denied for a new residence in this area, obstructions are usually lifted if you intend to provide board and lodging for pilgrims.

Is teh church of San Pedro de la Nave really on the camino de santiago. walked the way in 2002 and never saw that church. I think it is not on the regular way to santiago.

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