While hitch-hiking our way to Galicia in Spain, we saw a multitude of people proudly striding by the side of the road, with walking stick in hand and scallop shells attached to their rucksacks. As we got closer to Santiago de Compostela, the hordes of inexhaustible pilgrims increased in number and the ones we met on the road and in hostels told us a bit more about the Way of St. James or as it’s called in Spanish – El Camino de Santiago.
What is Camino de Santiago?
St. James’ Way is, next to Rome and Jerusalem, one of the most important pilgrimage routes for the Christian religion. According to the story, the remains of St. James were shipped from Jerusalem to Santiago de Compostela and buried at the site of the present day cathedral. The history of the Way of St. James is long. It was one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in medieval Europe although in the 16th century the number of pilgrims decreased. Only in the 1980’s, thanks to the earnest and conscientious strivings of the Spanish government, the Camino de Santiago became popular again and brought more tourists to the region. In 1987 the route was also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nowadays, in secular Europe, the walk has acquired a non-religious meaning and many people choose to do it for reasons related with travelling, sport or personal growth. Many pilgrims also admitted that their motive is to meet others and make long-lasting friendships with people from both other countries and different parts of Spain.
The atmosphere of the walk is truly unique and the closer you get to Santiago, the more of this positive vibe you can feel in your bones and the more you wish you had started the Camino yourself. Once you arrive in the city you will see all the pilgrims who have completed the walk crying with happiness, hugging each other and spending the day on the cathedral square playing instruments and singing. They will take a couple of days rest before their feet heal and they go back to their everyday routines.
You can start the Santiago walk from many places in Europe and it’s up to you how you want to complete it, as many people either walk or cycle.
Along the way you can find many cheap or even free accommodation options, but they are very often reserved only for pilgrims, so if you want to use them you should acquire a pilgrim’s passport (Credencial). It’s a small book which you can buy from a Spanish tourist agency or a church on the route and every time you stay in a pilgrim’s hostel (albergue, refugio) they will stamp it for you. Once you’ve completed the walk, you might be given a compostela, which is a certificate given to pilgrims at the end of their hardship, but only if you have done a minimum of 100km by walking or 200km by bicycle.
Many people try to complete the walk before St. James’ day (25th July) a highly symbolic day in which the city celebrates by having a huge party.
Santiago de Compostela – the city
The name of the city derives from Latin: Sanctu Iacobu meaning “Saint James” and Composita Tella – “burial ground”.
The city was originally founded by the Suebi in the early 5th century and for many decades was passed from tribe to tribe. In the 6th century it was ruled by the Visigoths only to be raided by the Arabs three hundred years later and eventually reconquered by the king of Asturias. The city was also captured by the French during the Napoleonic wars. During the Spanish civil war it fell under Francoist control and after the Transition it was declared the capital of Galicia region.
Nowadays it is a relatively busy university town with less than 100 000 inhabitants and the most important tourist destination in the region. Its old town and the cathedral have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
According to the legend, Saint James, who brought Catholicism to the Iberian Peninsula, was beheaded in Jerusalem and his remains were brought to Santiago. King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia ordered a chapel be build in Santiago which was later replaced by a Romanesque church (9th century). A century later the church was burnt to ashes by the Moorish army that came from Cordoba.
The construction of the present cathedral began in 1075 under the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile (1040–1109). The cathedral was expanded in the 16-18th centuries and its present looks incorporates three major architectural styles: Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque.
Apart from the cathedral and the main square (Praza do Obradoiro), there are other palaces and stone buildings but they aren’t must-see tourist attractions, in our opinion. Rather than chasing each site, what we found more pleasurable was just to walk around the narrow streets, soaking in the friendly atmosphere of the town. Santiago is also full of small restaurants and cafés which serve typical tasty Galician food.
Even in high tourist season you shouldn’t have any problems finding an inexpensive place to stay. There are many pilgrims hostels around and we can recommend the one we stayed in.
For 10€ you get a bed in a big dorm divided by plywood partition walls into smaller “rooms” of 4-8 beds. If you’re lucky enough, you will get a bed in the corner, otherwise you will be exposed to everyone passing through. This hostel doesn’t offer much privacy and its tacky hippy décor isn’t much appealing but it’s one of the cheapest options in town and it has a kitchen in which you can also cook your food.
Warning! Hostal Seminario Menor is one of the biggest hostels in Santiago but we definitely don’t recommend it. We arrived in Santiago in the evening and tried to call them in advance to inquire about availability of beds but nobody picked up the phone so eventually we set off for the long and exhausting uphill walk to the hostel. When we arrived, we learnt that it was booked out and the man in the reception was very rude to us and refused to offer any help even though it was almost 12pm and we had nowhere to go.
Follow Rùa de San Lázaro (N 634) east until you get to a roundabout. After this roundabout the motorway starts, heading east to Lugo, north east to A Coruña and south to Ourense.
Using a sign might be useful but we managed to get a lift without it.
This article was also published by Camino de Santiago on 12th October 2012.
written by: Ania