What is the Camino de Santiago and why walk it?

The Camino de Santiago is one of the most famous walking journeys in the world. Pilgrims have been making their way to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain’s Galicia province, for over a thousand years to visit the resting place of Santiago (St James).

As one of Jesus’s disciples, St James travelled to Iberia, to the province now known as Galicia, in an attempt to convert local pagans to Christianity. His efforts were successful; however, on returning to Jerusalem he was beheaded by King Herrod and became the first of Jesus’s disciples to be martyred. He was to be returned to Galicia by sea but the ship carrying the body was struck by a storm. It was completely destroyed, but the body of St James is said to have washed ashore undamaged and covered in scallop shells, which have since become a symbol of the pilgrim.

A common misconception is that the Camino de Santiago is a single path. The word ‘camino’ translates as ‘path’, or ‘way’, and there are actually many different paths to Santiago. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims would have left from their front doors and eventually met up with one of the well-travelled routes across Europe, whereas these days there are popular starting points dotted along the different routes.

The French Way,  also known as the Camino Frances, is the traditional and most well-tread path to Santiago. It begins where the Chemin de St Jacques finishes, at the base of the Pyrenees in France. The original path, however, is the Primitive Way, or Camino Primitivo, made famous by King Alfonso II – the first pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela.

Further north, the Camino del Norte, or Northern Way, originated in the Middle Ages after the Camino Frances came under attack from bandits and murderers. It follows the Atlantic coastline for much of the way to Santiago, as does the Portuguese Way, which was used by Queen Isabel of Portugal to make at least one pilgrimage to Santiago.

The longest Camino is the Via de la Plata, introduced by North African Christians who arrived in Seville by sea and walked the 1,000 kilometres to Santiago. The English also arrived in Spain by sea to complete pilgrimages, which is how the Camino Ingles, or English Way began from the strategic position of Ferrol and A Coruna – the main ports to enter Galicia from the north. Finally, there’s the San Salvador Way a route that was created for pilgrims who wished to visit the Cathedral of Oviedo, which is where the Primitivo begins.

The reasons for walking to Santiago are as varied as the pilgrims themselves, and though the journey is steeped in religious tradition, there are just as many non-religious pilgrims making the journey these days. It’s a transformational experience – challenging both the mind and the body – and it’s no wonder that the main piece of advice for first-time walkers is to ‘trust The Way’. There’s truly something magical about it.