Walking the Camino de Santiago: A Brief History

Hikers around the world are rediscovering Spain's Camino de Santiago, Medieval Europe's version of the thru-hike. A veteran of the pilgrimage shares his tips for getting your boots on the path.

Aug 12, 2013
Outside Magazine

   Photo: Mario Carvajal/Flickr

The focal point and namesake of the Camino de Santiago is the city of Santiago de Compostela, located in Spain's far northwest. The city, where legend has it that the martyr St. James is buried, became a rallying point for Europeans fighting the Moors in the eighth century, after a shepherd claimed to have seen a bright light in the skies above.

During the Middle Ages, the Camino was responsible for the largest movement of people in Europe: millions of people, both rich and poor, made their way to Santiago de Compostela, where the pilgrim mass and certificate of pilgrimage ensured they would spend less time in purgatory. The route was nearly lost to history until the past couple of decades, when a growing body of literature around the Camino sparked a resurgence of interest in it from abroad.

When most people talk about "the Camino", they're referring to just one of many routes to Santiago de Compostela. Also known as the Camino Francés (the French Way), this route starts at St. Jean Pied-du-Port in France, crosses the Pyrenees, and continues westwards across Spain about 60 miles south of the coast. It passes through Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, and a host of smaller towns and villages, and is about 500 miles in length, depending on how many detours you take.

While the walk itself is the main attraction today, that wasn't always the case. In the Middle Ages, the whole idea was to arrive in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela, and you started at your own front door; there was no official "starting point". Because it was safer for people to walk together, common routes were established, and many of the paths through other European countries converged in St. Jean.

But what if you lived in England? Or Portugal? Or Madrid? It wouldn't make sense to travel to France to start your pilgrimage there. So many smaller routes were established by pilgrims making their way from their homes, and are named accordingly: The Camino Portugués travels northwards through Portugal, while the Camino Inglés catered to English pilgrims who arrived on the north coast by boat. Today, as the French Route draws more and more tourists, many walkers are starting to rediscover these secondary paths.

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