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The Pilgrim Way of Saint James – El Camino de Santiago

Way of St. James - Camino de Santiago: The discovery of the remains of Saint James, the Apostle Santiago around 820 marked the beginning of the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, creating the Way of St. James, El Camino de Santiago. King Alfonso II, the Chaste, ordered the construction of a small church on the site of the discovery and the news spread among the community of believers and the Christian kingdoms of the western world. This was the start of the pilgrimages and the worship of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

The wave of pilgrims increased day by day. This current led to religious, cultural and economic ties that have woven a network based on the pilgrimage, deeply spiritual in nature, which is renowned for the cultural heritage it has brought to the west. The first pilgrims arrived in the budding metropolis of Santiago. The Way of St. James, also known as the Way of the Stars, was beginning to take shape, becoming firmly rooted in the XI:th and XII:th centuries with the granting of spiritual indulgences. These indulgences reached a high point during the so-called Holy Years of Santiago de Compostela.



The Way of St. James gave rise to an extraordinary amount of animated activity over the centuries. The first major network of assistance arose out of the Way and it provided the setting for the creation of cathedrals, monasteries, towns and cities.

The Way provided the opportunity for encounters, leading to a culture based on exchange, personal relationships and an economic boom that brought about the development of vast areas, which had been unpopulated up until that time.

So, the Way of St. James has become today the primary European cultural itinerary as, according to the explanation of a number of authors from the old continent, Europe was shaped by the pilgrimages made to Santiago de Compostela.


The Holy year of Santiago de Compostela, Año Compostelano or Año Xacobeo, supposedly dates from a grant made by Pope Calixto II, in 1122. This was confirmed by other pontiffs. The papal bull Regis Aeterni, of Alexander III, ratified and perpetuated the privilege of the Jubilee, plenary indulgence, or Holy Years awarded to the Church of Santiago. The first celebration of a Holy Year possibly dates back to 1182 and it was in the XVth century when the grand years of indulgence took place, as occurs at the present time.

The Holy Year is when the 25th of July, the feast of the martyrdom of St. James falls on a Sunday. In this way the Jubilee of Santiago de Compostela occurs every 6, 5, 6 and 11 years. This irregular pattern is due to the leap years, which alter the logical annual order.

A pilgrim may achieve indulgence starting from January 1st until December 31st provided that he or she fulfils certain religious rites. However, there is another way of achieving plenary indulgence, which is to enter the church of Santiago de Villafranca (Leon) by the Puerta del Perdón.



Throughout the history there have been many routes that has been used by pilgrims to reach Santiago de Compostela and the history has marked the major pilgrimage routes that pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela still use today:

The French Way: A number of routes enter Spain by way of the Pyrenees and they come together in the town of Puente la Reina in Navarra. From here the Way passes through the Communities of Navarra, La Rioja and Castilla y León, to enter Galicia by way of Piedrafita.

The Northern Route: Although the French Way is the most acclaimed of the Jacobean routes, pilgrims reached Santiago de Compostela by different routes. One of these is the Northern Route, which starts out in the Basque Country and crosses over Cantabria and Asturias, entering Galicia by way of A Fonsagrada until it joins the French Way near Santiago de Compostela. A variation of this route entered Galicia by way of Ribadeo.

The Silver Route: This is the natural route linking the south and north-western regions of the peninsula. It is arduous but evocative and attractive road. From Cordoba and Seville, by way of Badajoz, Cáceres and Salamanca, pilgrims flocked to Galicia. There is a branch which, seeking to avoid the large ports, enters Portugal by way of Quintanilha and Bragança, but they all converge in Verín (Ourense).

The Portuguese Way: From time immemorial there have been Portuguese routes leading to Santiago. The Northwest Way left Oporto hugging the coast through Viana do Castelo and Caminha, coming into Galicia by way of Tui (Pontevedra). The Way of Limia and the Northern Way also started in Oporto, following different routes, but all coming together in Tui. There were also a number of roads from Braga that crossed into Galicia by way of Cañiza (Pontevedra), Celanova (Ourense), and joined the Silver Route. The roads that converge in Tui cross through the province of Pontevedra and reach Santiago from Padrón.

The Maritime Pilgrim Routes: There have always been pilgrims arriving to Galicia from ports in northern Europe. Two of these routes were used by pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela as early as in the XIV:th century and landing in the ports of Ferrol and A Coruna, or Vilagarcia de Arousa. The English Way reached Santiago from the first two above-mentioned ports, while the Sea Route of Arousa and the Ulla River came by way of Vilagarcia, after which the pilgrims travelled up the Ria de Arousa to this port to arrive later in Padrón.

Today the different routes of the Way of St. James located in Galicia are dotted with over 50 hostels to provide lodging for the pilgrims. The stretches along the way are being improved and signs have been put up to make the trip easier for the people who come on foot, on horseback or by bicycle and whose destination is the Universal Santiago de Compostela.



All visitors to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela discover a ritual that milions of pilgrims have been carrying out for almost a thousand years. The historical ritual begins by facing the Portico of Glory, one of the most remarkable Romanesque sculptures, by the Master Sculptor Mateo, erected in a period of twenty years and finished in 1188. A sculpture of the Apostle James stands on top of a column, which rises up like the trunk of a tree. As a second step, the pilgrim must touch this column and introduce his or her fingers into the cavities shaped by the millions of visitors who have caressed this marble pillar.

After this, the pilgrim must go around the pillar, lean over and gently bump his or her head against a figure, known as Santo dos Croques (which is said to be by the Master-Sculptor Mateo), whose intelligence seems to influence students. The next step involves making one’s way to the main altar and facing the gold image of St. James. In front of this, the pilgrim must carry a memento for all those who have helped him or her on their journey along St. James Way. Then he or she must go behind the altar, up several steps, until they come on a level with the Apostle’s back, and embrace him round one or both shoulders.

Finally, a narrow stairway leads down beneath the main altar to a little golden crypt, containing the Saint’s remains.



In special religious events, visitors may have the opportunity to see the unique ceremony of the botafumeiro, a spectacular incensory made of silver-plated brass, weighing eighty kilos, whose original purpose was to perfume the church. It hangs on a rope from the centre of the transept, and it is nudged from vertical by being pushed. As it swings like a pendulum, eight men (called tiraboleiros) let out rope at the apex of the swing and pull on it at the lowest point. This amplifies the incensory’s oscillation swinging it 21 meters up in the top of the vault, in a 65-metre arc along the transept from the Azabachería to the Praterias doorways.

It passes along at floor level at a speed of 68 km/h, leaving behind it a fine trail of smoke and a fragrance of incense. The magazine Scientific American published a study on “The Physics of the Botafumeiro”. In it, its author, Juan Ramón Sanmartín Losada, stated that the method of handling this huge incensory could have given rise to the first experiments in “determinist chaos”, a law of physics similar to that which applies for a swing or a pendulum. In the case of the botafumeiro, however, this law is even more obvious thanks to the accelerating action of the tiraboleiros, since they do not push, but pump. The system for pumping the incensory was discovered about 400 years before Galileo and Huygens analyzed the pendulum, although it was not applied before the 13th century, when a multiplying mechanism was introduced, based on coaxial drums of different diameters, without which the maximum radial movement of the botafumeiro would be one and a half meters, equal to the length of the rope pulled by the tiraboleiros, and the maximum allowed in a comfortable pumping action.



La Compostela is a document written in Latin, which Santiago Cathedral Chapter grants to those who follow the Apostle’s route pietatis causa. To deserve La Compostela the pilgrim must arrive on foot (having covered about 100 km), on horseback, by bicycle (at least 200 km) or by sea. In all cases, the pilgrim must demonstrate his or her journey with the stamps of the town councils or local parishes along the route, if they have arrived in Santiago by land; or in the maritime hostels to be found at different points along the Galician coast.

There are two conditions for obtaining the maritime Compostela: cover at least forty nautical miles by sailing or motor-boat, from the port of departure to the Pontecesures port in the Ria of Arousa - Ulla, justifying it with the stamped credentials; and secondly, making the journey on foot from Pontecesures to the Santiago Cathedral.

The origin of this document dates back to the 14th century. The one granted to the French pilgrim Yves Le Breton, on the 1st May, 1321, is still kept in the “Pas de Calais Archives”. Also, in “Zoendic bonc de Gantes”, the Flemish pilgrim Guillermo van de Putte was granted the document La Compostela on the 13th September, 1354; and the Arxiu Museum in Barcelona keeps the one given to Bartolomeu Montels de Cordedeu, dated the 24th August, 1535.



In the cases where the conditions for obtaining La Compostela are not fulfilled by the pilgrims, the Cathedral Chapter usually grants a Welcoming Card, as a gesture of warmth and hospitality.



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