Camino Frances 2017: 1. History and modern times

We live in a time where globalisation, automatisation, acceleration dictate the markets, where people are under enormous pressure to perform, where human relationships are often rather superficial and fleeting, where there are happiness pills to make people more efficient and at the same time make them feel happy, regardless of whether body, spirit and soul can actually keep up with it. And even the plethora of choices and options our modern lives offer can put people under pressure to make the ‘right’ decisions. The result of this is that more and more people feel completely burnt out and many people struggle to find orientation and purpose in life.

Apart from an ever increasing demand for psychotherapy and counselling in Western countries (in Germany, for example, the average waiting time for psychological therapy is currently around 3 months) the health industry and over the last few years also the spiritual industry (yes, there is a market for almost everything, I guess) has seen a rapid increase.

The solution: The Camino de Santiago

If it was only so simple ;)…But why are more and more people interested in a pilgrim route that has existed for over a thousand years? And why on earth don’t people prefer to get pampered in a 5 star yoga retreat on a beautiful island somewhere in the Caribbean (actually, I guess there is also a massive market for this kind of experience – and I understand why :)) instead of going on this strenuous journey? And isn’t it strange that while Christianity is declining all over Europe (a quarter of all Christians – 25.5 per cent to be exact – lived in Europe in 2010. By 2050, this is set to drop to 15.6 per cent and Africa is set to be the continent with the most Christians / source:Pew) one of the most important Christian pilgrimages in medieval times experiences a huge comeback?

Let us look at some numbers first:

In 1985 1,245 pilgrims arrived in Santiago. In 1993, the year the route was declared UNESCO World Heritage, the number rose to over 100,000. By Holy Year 2010 those numbers reached 270,000 and over 278,000 got their Compostela in 2016 alone. These numbers, issued by the Pilgrim’s office in Santiago, however only include the people who finished their pilgrimage in Santiago and collected their Compostela (certificate of accomplishment) and I met many people on the way who just walked a certain stretch of the Camino – hence, the overall count could be much higher.

But maybe, you may think, only a certain age group walks the Camino. After all, when you do go to church or watch mass on TV or live stream (it is all possible – it seems in some aspects the church keeps up with modern times) there are mainly older people attending. Let’s check  this assumption against some numbers.

In 2016

  • 27.16% Camino pilgrims were under 30 years old
  • 55.12% were aged between 30 and 60 years old
  • 17.72% were over 60 years old

Now, that I really got interested in Camino statistics, you have to put up with one more. One more question I asked myself is: Where the hell are all those pilgrims from? And here is the answer:

While the majority of pilgrims is Spanish (that makes sense), Italian and German pilgrims make up the second and third largest group respectively. The high number of German pilgrims can partly be explained by what is known as the ‘Kerkeling Effect’. Hape Kerkeling, a German comedian, released his book ‘I’m off then. My journey along the Camino De Santiago’ in 2006 which sold more than four million copies. The following year the number of pilgrims rose by 17%. Similar effects could be witnessed when the film ‘The Way’ (2011) was being released and the rather large number of Korean pilgrims could be explained by a popular television series about the Camino, which was broadcasted there in 2008. Apart from the nationalities mentioned I also met Japanese, Brazilian, South African, Australian, Scandinavian pilgrims – and even a Syrian refugee…So the Camino de Santiago is a very international experience – and even attracts large numbers of people whose cultural background is very different.

These days, in addition to people undertaking a religious pilgrimage or a spiritual journey, there are many travellers and hikers who walk the route for non–religious reasons: travel, sport, the amazing wine :), or it is one thing on the bucket list…


But let’s find out more about the HISTORY of the Camino de Santiago.

The Way of St. James or St. James’ Way, often known by its Spanish name, el Camino de Santiago (German: Jakobsweg), is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of the apostle, Saint James the Great, are buried.

There is not a single route; the Way can take one of any number of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. However a few of the routes are considered main ones. The most popular one is the Camino Frances (The French Way) which is chosen by approx 63% of all pilgrims – and yes, I did go with the flow this time- Camino Frances was also my choice.

A few words about the French Way. It crosses the North of Spain: from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the Basque Country across the Pyrenees along the Napoleon Pass to Roncesvalles, then to Pamplona, the Rioja region and its vineyards, on to Castilla y León, the vast Meseta, the breath taking Mountains of León, El Bierzo and finally the green hills of Galicia before reaching Santiago. The French Way was also a very popular trail in the old days , one that kings, nobles and clergy invested in to keep pilgrims safe, building bridges, hospitals and other infrastructure. Towns and cities sprouted and developed along the Camino Francés.




However, the Camino de Santiago can not only be found in Spain. Recently, I came across a Camino sign in Hamburg (northern Germany). Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one’s home and ended at the pilgrimage site. Yes, people, there were times when there were no buses, trains, airplanes and people had to do it the hard way. So better don’t be too proud of yourself ;).

Check out the network of routes all over Europe.


But lets go back in time….  macro-1452986_960_720

The earliest records of visits paid to the shrine dedicated to St James at Santiago de Compostela date from the 8th century, in the times of the Kingdom of Asturias. This was the most renowned medieval pilgrimage, and the custom of those who carried back with them from Galicia scallop shells as proof of their journey gradually extended to other forms of pilgrimage.

The 12th and 13th centuries marked the hey day of pilgrimage to Santiago with as many as 250,000 pilgrims! travelling every year, moved by their faith but also by many other reasons: some wanted to pay a penance; but many others were also moved by money, undertaking the treacherous trip on behalf of wealthier citizens; or even to serve a sentence. Another good reason for medieval pilgrims was the promise of salvation: Pope Calixtus II had declared Holy Years all years when 25th July (Feast of St James) fell on a Sunday. There is still a tradition in Flanders of pardoning and releasing one prisoner every year under the condition that, accompanied by a guard, the prisoner walks to Santiago wearing a heavy backpack — but don’t worry, I did some research and it seems you will not meet any mass murderers on the Camino – but it is rather a programme to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents.

shell-2479831_960_720The daily needs of pilgrims on their way to, and from, Compostela were met by a series of hospitals and hospices. These had royal protection and were a lucrative source of revenue. There was also the now– familiar paraphernalia of tourism, such as the selling of badges and souvenirs. Since the Christian symbol for James the Greater was the scallop shell, many pilgrims would wear this as a sign to anyone on the road that they were a pilgrim. This gave them privileges to sleep in churches and ask for free meals, but also warded off thieves who did not dare to attack devoted pilgrims – but if the thieves were not to be impressed, the hospital in the next town came in handy.

Pilgrims would walk the Way of St. James, often for months, in order to arrive at the great church in the main square of Compostela to pay homage to St. James. So many pilgrims have laid their hands on the pillar just inside the doorway of the church that a groove has been worn in the stone. Many arrived with very little due to illness or robbery or both. Some even did not make it at all.

So who is Saint James the Greater and why is he the patron of Pilgrims in Spain?

800px-Guido_Reni_-_Saint_James_the_Greater_-_Google_Art_ProjectSaint James the Greater was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. Also called James the Elder, he was the first apostle to become a martyr and the only one whose martyrdom was recorded in the New Testament. He is universally regarded as the patron of pilgrims because after establishing the Christian religion in the Iberian Peninsual or nowaday Galicia, he returned to Judaea on a pilgrimage and was there beheaded. I kept this bit rather short – obviously, it is all more complex – there are different legends and controversies and so forth – but I leave that to you to do your own research. 

From the 14th century onward and due to various circumstances such as religious wars, the Black Plague and the Reformation, interest in pilgrimage decreased in general across Europe, including the Way of St James. While pilgrims continued to travel to Santiago, numbers were much lower than those of the pilgrimage Medieval hey day.

From 1990s the Camino de Santiago has seen a fantastic resurgence due to tourism promotion efforts but also the work of Camino enthusiasts such as Father Elias Valiña, parish priest of O Cebreiro who worked tirelessly in the 1980s to both mark the route and to bring about a new golden age for the Camino, as a route of cultural exchange and communication and understanding between European citizens. The route was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987; it was also named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1993.

After this general overview I will take you with me on my own Camino, which as most real life stories includes happy moments, moments of doubt, of love and laughter and moments (extended moments) of pain… I will talk about some decisions I made – and some decisions that were being made by life for me (thank you, life ;)) .

The Camino, as one fellow pilgrim mentioned, is like a small world. You get the chance to experience everything with more intensity – the outer world – as well as the inner world.

To be continued…



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