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A pilgrim's progress: The Camino de Saint Jacques

Students, retirees, and our readers have walked the well-worn route from France across northern Spain. But where did the trail come from and what has it got to do with scallops? Connexion explains

AROUND 200,000 people each year do the Camino de Santiago walk which crosses from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.

The route has had its own highs and lows, in 1985 just 1,275 people walked the trail but those that have done so talk of the ways that the space and journey inspired them.

The Chemin de Compostelle or de Saint-Jacques fascinates many people, religious or not, though its origins are Catholic – though some speculate about possible earlier Pagan roots.

The traditional story starts in 814CE when the body of the apostle Saint James was supposedly discovered in north-west Spain in an area which had been burial grounds in late Roman times.

An account from 1077 says a local hermit called Pelayo was told by angels that the apostle’s tomb would be found in a spot indicated by lights from heaven. A bishop ordered the locals to fast for three days, whereupon they were guided to the tomb by lights.

Some say ‘Compostela’, the name which was given to the place, comes from campus stellae,meaning field of the stars; Santiago is Spanish for Saint James.

As for Saint James, the Bible says he was a fisherman who joined Jesus after meeting him while mending nets by the Sea of Galilee. He is said to have been the first disciple to be martyred – decapitated by sword on orders of King Herod in 44 AD.

An early Christian tradition claims he preached in Spain, founding western European Christianity and that his followers (or angels and a miraculous self-propelled boat...) took his body back there after he died in Jerusalem.

The King of the region, Alfonso II of Asturias, a Christian kingdom in the north when the rest was under control of the Muslim Moors, is said to have started the first pilgrimage when he set off from his capital Oviedo to pay homage to the relics.

St James became known in the Middle Ages as ‘Matamoros’ (Moor killer) because he is supposed to have appeared to help one of the later kings to fight off the Moors.

It was not until the 11th century that pilgrims from France became regular visitors, but in the following centuries four major French routes were established as it became the most popular pilgrimage for western European Catholics.

A cathedral was built over the site of the tomb in the 12th century, where the relics are still housed and which is the end point of the pilgrimage.

A 12th century French document, the Codex Calixtinus helped popularise the pilgrimage, making it most likely the first tourist guidebook. It includes matters like sights to see and scams and bad food to avoid.

The French routes (in order from north to south) start from:

MUCH of the main French Way is fairly gentle, though with some long ascents and is largely well signed. If you plan to camp you need to carry your tent and sleeping bag, but there are many low-cost albergues (hostels).

You will need hiking boots and a good rucksack, though for those wanting comfort, companies offer to help organise the trip, including transporting your luggage along the way. 

Traditionally people would set off from their own doorstep at their homes around Europe. 

In practice many now begin at Saint Jean Pied-de-Port on the French/Spanish border, with the nearest airport being Biarritz. There are shuttle buses to neighbouring Bayonne from where you can take a train.

You need a credencial de peregrino (‘pilgrim passport’) to obtain a compostela. 

The Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago advises obtaining an official one from a confraternity or approved association (

Stamps can be obtained from stops like churches and town halls on the way.

You need at least two a day during the last 100km. In Santiago, you must show the credencial to the Pilgrims’ Office.

  • Paris (about 1,454km), via Tours, Poitiers and Bordeaux
  • Vézelay, Burgundy (1,406km), via Limoges and Périgueux
  • Le Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne (1,273km), via Figeac and Cahors
  • Arles (1,284km), via Toulouse

The first three meet at Saint-JeanPied-de-Port in the Pyrenees and the Arles route at the Col du Somport, before they join the main French Way through northern Spain.

This popular route goes through such cities as Pamplona, Burgos and León.

The alternative Northern Way starts at Hendaye, further north, on the French coastal border with Spain.

From the Pyrenees the walk is about 800km – at least a month of walking at a steady 24km (15 miles) a day.

Unesco listed the Spanish sections as World Heritage Sites in 1993; the French ones were added in 1998.

Hundreds of thousands are said to have done it each year in the Middle Ages but this declined to 1,275 in 1985. Books and papal visits have boosted its popularity since. Now more than 200,000 compostelas (certificates of completion) are issued a year.

‘Holy years’, when the feast of St James falls on a Sunday (the next is 2021) are especially popular and Catholics may obtain a plenary indulgence if they complete certain ceremonies – believed to give forgiveness of sins allowing direct entry to heaven without time in Purgatory. A ‘Holy door’ is opened to enter the cathedral in these years.

The scallop shell – native to the Galician coast – is the symbol of the pilgrimage and medieval pilgrims would wear one – hence in French they are called Coquilles Saint-Jacques (St James shells).

Some say the lines on them symbolise the ways, converging on Compostela. Others say they look like the setting sun and note that the paths head in the direction of Cape Finisterre in Spain, literally ‘Earth’s end’ - which was seen as the most westerly part of Europe, to which some pilgrims continue after visiting Santiago.

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