The Way of St. James or St. James' Way is the pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried.
Major Christian Pilgrimage Route
The Way of St. James has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, together with Rome and Jerusalem, and a pilgrimage route on which a plenary indulgence could be earned; other major pilgrimage routes include the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Legend holds that St. James's remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where he was buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.
The Way can take one of any number of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one's home and ended at the pilgrimage site. However a few of the routes are considered main ones. During the Middle Ages, the route was highly travelled. However, the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th-century Europe led to its decline. By the 1980s, only a few pilgrims per year arrived in Santiago. Later, the route has attracted a growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe. 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.
The pilgrimage to Santiago has never ceased from the time of the discovery of St. James' remains, though there have been years of fewer pilgrims, particularly during European wars. During the war of American Independence, John Adams was ordered by Congress to go to Paris to obtain funds for the cause. His ship started leaking and he disembarked with his two sons in Finisterre in 1779. From there he proceeded to follow the Way of St. James in the reverse direction of the pilgrims' route, in order to get to Paris overland. He did not stop to visit Santiago and came to regret this during the course of his journey.
The Christian origin of the pilgrimage has been well documented throughout the centuries, but no historical reference has been found for pagan origins. The main pilgrimage route to Santiago follows an earlier Roman trade route, which continues to the Atlantic coast of Galicia, ending at Cape Finisterre. Although it is known today that Cape Finisterre, Spain's westernmost point, is not the westernmost point of mainland Europe (Cabo da Roca in Portugal is further west), the fact that the Romans called it Finisterrae (literally the end of the world or Land's End in Latin) indicates that they viewed it as such.
The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meanings, even if its relevance may actually derive from the desire of pilgrims to take home a souvenir. Two versions of the most common myth about the origin of the symbol concern the death of Saint James, who was killed in Jerusalem for his convictions about his brother, John. James had spent some time preaching on the Iberian Peninsula.
Today tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims and many other travellers set out each year from their front doorstep, or popular starting points across Europe, to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few travel as some of their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey (for example, the British author and humorist Tim Moore). In addition to people undertaking a religious pilgrimage, the majority are travellers and hikers who walk the route for non-religious reasons: travel, sport, or simply the challenge of weeks of walking in a foreign land. Also, many consider the experience a spiritual adventure to remove themselves from the bustle of modern life. It serves as a retreat for many modern "pilgrims".
In Spain, France and Portugal, pilgrim's hostels with beds in dormitories dot the common routes, providing overnight accommodation for pilgrims who hold a credencial (see below). In Spain this type of accommodation is called a refugio or albergue, both of which are similar to youth hostels or hostelries in the French system of gîtes d'étape. Staying at hostels usually cost between five and ten euros per night per bed in a dormitory, although a few hostels known as donativos operate on voluntary donations. Pilgrims are usually limited to one night's accommodation and are expected to leave by eight in the morning to continue their pilgrimage.
The Xunta de Galicia (Galicia's regional government) promotes the Way as a tourist activity, particularly in Holy Compostelan Years (when July 25 falls on a Sunday). Following the Xunta's considerable investment and hugely successful advertising campaign for the Holy Year of 1993, the number of pilgrims completing the route has been steadily rising. Following the Holy Year of 2010, the next Holy Year will not be for another 11 years, in 2021. More than 272,000 pilgrims made the trip during the course of 2010. Below is a table detailing the numbers of pilgrims recorded as arriving at the cathedral at Santiago each year from 1985. The figures are sourced from the cathedral's records.