The Camino is a network of ancient pilgrimage paths through the Spanish, Portuguese and continental European countryside, that end at the magnificent cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, supposedly the burial site of the apostle St James the Greater who was martyred around 44AD. The route has been walked for centuries by thousands of pilgrims and is referred to as el Camino, which literally means ‘the way’.
The first pilgrims were recorded around 950 AD, and over the centuries, accommodation, churches, hospitals and roads and whole towns, were built to cater for the growing number of pilgrims or peregrinos as they are known. Santiago ultimately became a symbol for the crusader ideology and a rallying image to help drive out the Moors from Spain. The pilgrimage routes reached their peak numbers in the 12th century and continued in a more sedate fashion right up to the late 17th century. From then on it was mostly devout Spaniards who undertook the pilgrimage, but the 1900’s saw a revival in the Camino. In 1937 Santiago was officially declared patron saint of Spain and in 1987 the Camino was declared a World Heritage Site.
In 1986, 2491 pilgrims received the official certificate of completion – the Compostela – and by 2007 this number had grown to 114,026 (including 262 South Africans). The most popular route, which starts at St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees and ends at Santiago de Compostela is known as the Camino Francés. There are about 20 other routes in Spain and 5 in France all leading to Santiago.
The historical aspects of the Camino have become the subject of entire tour guide books on the area. Some favourites are:
The ancient Roman constructions, many of which have been partially restored. There are a number of good examples of ancient city walls in Astorga and the ruins of many old Roman roads and bridges are found along the way.
Other interesting bridges include the 20 arched Paso Honroso Bridge in Hospital de Orbigo, one of the oldest in Spain and the site of a famous jousting conquest in 1434. The 11th century bridge over the Rio Arga in Puenta la Reina is also very picturesque. Stops in the larger centres will give you the opportunity to explore spectacular cathedrals, museums and other noteworthy buildings such as Santa Maria la Real monastery in Nájera, the Cathedrals of Santo Domingo del Calzada, Burgos, León, Astorga (15th century) and Portomarin and Astorga’sPalacio Episcopal, sometimes known as the Gaudi Palace after its architect.
Santiago’s spectacular cathedral with its pilgrim rituals and special mass, picturesque streets and buildings, fresh produce market and street musicians are spectacular and it’s well worth staying a couple of days.
Each little town had its own notable features to examine at the end of a day’s walking.
(Yes, somehow you do find the energy to walk again after a shower and a cold beer!)
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Staying in the smaller, traditional refuges that offer almost medieval hospitality, communal meals and pilgrim blessings.
Leave a stone brought from home at the base of the Cruz de Ferro – a medieval iron cross – with a small mountain of stones left by travellers and pilgrims since the middle ages.
Tomas the Templar who has his very basic, atmospheric refuge at Manjarin and performs his ‘Templarios’ ceremony at around 11am each day.
The church albergue of St Nicolas where the monks wash pilgrim’s feet as part of the blessing ceremony.
The magical charm of Ave Fenix run by Jesus Jato and his family in Villafranca del Bierzo.
O’Cebreiro with its typical Galician thatched huts (pallozas) of Celtic origin, 12th century church of Santa Maria and a bust of D Elias Valino Sampedro – the priest who reanimated the way in the 1970’s and painted the first yellow arrows that all pilgrims follow to Santiago.
Being part of a fiesta – each little village celebrates an annual feast day to honour their patron saint – any excuse for a good party!