What is The Camino de Santiago and who is St. James?

Before I talk about my reasons for walking my Camino I would like to try and explain a little what the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is and who is the Saint that is associated with it. Some of you will already know much of what follows, but hopefully there will be some information you may not know. A lot of what follows is cited as so much has already been written without my having to rehash it

The following is an extract from Christopher Sanders’ “Camino 101 – An Introduction to the Camino de Santiago” (19/09/11). The full text can be found here

What is the Camino de Santiago?

When attempting to define the Camino de Santiago (or the “Way of St. James” in English), one must consider both spiritual and physical dimensions. Spiritually, the Camino is a pilgrimage in the definitional sense – a journey to a sacred place or shrine. In this case, the sacred place is a shrine at the cathedral in the city of Santiago, Spain in which the earthly remains of St. James the Apostle – one of the twelve disciples of Christ – are believed to be buried. The pilgrimage was born shortly after the discovery of the human remains near present day Santiago in the early 9th century. As word of the discovery spread, the volume of faithful pilgrims traveling to Santiago increased exponentially. Indeed, by the 12th century, the time at which the Camino’s popularity reach its zenith, perhaps as many as 100,000 pilgrims made the journey annually to Santiago and in doing so helped to elevate the Camino to what many consider to be the third most important pilgrimage in the Christian world after Jerusalem and Rome.

In addition to the spiritual dimension, one must also consider the physical dimension of the Camino. Physically, the Camino de Santiago is the infrastructure and iconography that was in part born of and later facilitated the more spiritual aspects of the pilgrimage. Infrastructure in this context includes not only the network of old Roman roads, paths, and routes which originate throughout Europe and converge in Santiago, but also the churches, pilgrim’s hospitals, monasteries, statuary and directional markings along the way not to mention the countless hamlets, villages, towns and full blown cities which developed along the routes on which the volume of pilgrim traffic was highest. It is this physical infrastructure in part – the archeological, cultural, and architectural remnants of centuries past – that increasingly attracts non-religious pilgrims to the Camino today.” ©Christopher Sanders

So we have, from Christopher Sanders, a basic jist of what the Camino de Santiago is. What it means for the individuals who undertake this journey is as individual as the person taking it. Camino means Way and each persons Camino is personal to them. As I have stated, my own reasons will be blogged later. For now I will continue with the Camino’s history.

The Camino Before Christianity.

There have existed many routes to Santiago de Compostela during ancient Rome. During those times, these routes were used for trade and were nick named the Milky Way by those who travelled along the path. The path followed the Milky Way Galaxy as you could easily see it at night, heading west towards the Atlantic Ocean. To this day, many pilgrims do not simply stop walking once they have reached Santiago de Compostela. In fact, they continue towards Finisterre, which gets its name from the Roman belief that this spot was actually the end of land or the most west portion of mainland Europe.

The Christian Camino.

The Camino de Santiago is primarily a Catholic Tradition. Although people of many other Faiths and those of none now make pilgrimage to Santiago, it’s pilgrimage roots are Catholic based. To get an understanding of why the Camino exists at all in Catholic Tradition we must take a look at Saint James. The following is text is another extract from Christopher Sanders’ excellent summary of the Camino’s history.

St. James and the Tradition of the Camino.

St. James the Apostle is central to any discussion of the Camino de Santiago. After all, Santiago is the Spanish word for St. James and it is the Apostle’s earthly remains that are believed by many to be buried in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. However, when discussing St. James, it is necessary to distinguish between the St. James of the Holy Bible and the St. James of Camino tradition. This distinction is necessary because the biblical representation of the apostle is widely accepted as historically accurate while many details surrounding the tradition of the Camino de Santiago are less widely accepted by both secular and religious scholars alike. Although not intended to imply the former is fact and the latter fiction, the distinction does provide a helpful framework within which to learn about the Camino de Santiago and its history.

 The Biblical James the Greater.


The Bible describes James the Greater as the son of Zebedee and Simone and the brother of John. James and John originally were followers of John the Baptist and were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee until being called by Jesus to become “fishers of men.” By all accounts, James and his brother John were fervent followers of Christ, earning the nickname “sons of thunder” after they called for a rein of terror upon a village that would not welcome a visit. Later, James and John requested to “drink from the same cup” as Christ, perhaps indicating their willingness to become martyrs. 
James and his brother were also quite clearly part of Christ’s inner-most circle of disciples as evidenced by their presence at many significant events in Christ’s life including the Transfiguration and the Agony of Gethsemane where Christ awaited His fate. James was also present at one of Christ’s post resurrection appearances.
The final Biblical reference to James the Greater is the description of his martyrdom in Jerusalem at the hands of King Herod Agrippa in or around AD 42-44. Although Camino tradition says James traveled to present day Spain prior to his death to preach the Gospel, the Bible does not explicitly substantiate this. Moreover, the Bible suggests that if any of the Apostles preached in Spain, Paul might have. For its part, the Catholic Church acknowledges the many “difficulties” raised by the tradition of James’s apostolate in Spain but appropriately points out that the apostle’s body could very well have been transported to Santiago regardless of whether or not James ever preached there. Hispania was already known in James’ time and if it was the apostle’s intent to proselytize there, his aids may have been motivated to bury his body there following martyrdom.

St. James of the Camino Tradition.


Though Biblical evidence linking St. James with Spain may be tenuous, a literary tradition based on religious and other texts established this link long before the human remains were discovered near Santiago in the early 9th century. As early as the 1st or 2nd century, the Apocryphal Gospel of the Twelve Holy Apostles (part of a series of early religious manuscripts not officially included in the Bible) may have implied that James preached or was called to preach in Spain. In the 6th century, the Brevarium Apostolorum – a collection of saints’ lives – explicitly stated James preached in Hispania and further hinted that he was buried there. The Brevarium was widely circulated throughout the 6th and 7th centuries and was perhaps inspiration for subsequent poems and commentaries connecting James with Spain. Indeed, by the 8th century, a more widely circulated inventory of Saints called the Commentary on the Apocalypse puts James firmly in Spain. 
It is within this context then, according to tradition, that a monk named Peylao followed a bright star to a marble sarcophagus near the North West Spanish coast sometime around the year 814. Shortly thereafter the local bishop Teodomir proclaimed the bones to be those of James the Greater and in doing so set in motion events that would lead to the development of the pilgrimage.” © Christopher Sanders

So as we can see the Camino de Santiago is based on Catholic Tradition which is not to be confused with historical fact. Hopefully you now have the basics of what the Camino de Santiago is and why St. James is central to it.  One theme that that I encounter often as a Catholic in respect to the Camino de Santiago is the debate on whether the actual remains of St. James are indeed buried in Santaigo de Compostela. This debate, although valid, is not really a part of Catholic faith or tradition. The focus for Catholics is to make pilgrimage, to undertake a spiritual journey for their own intentions and often the intentions of their parish and community and to give praise and glory to God. It isn’t the fact whether the relics of St. James are actually in Santiago de Compostela, rather it is the belief that, through centuries of pilgrimage, prayer, praise and faith, Santiago is a place where earth and Heaven are more closely linked, a place where the Faithful can be closer to God in communion with the millions of other pilgrims who have made their own Camino of faith. It really is a matter of Faith which cannot be compared to anything else.

I will be discussing the differences of Medieval Pilgrims and Modern Pilgrims as well as their similarities in my next blog as a background to my own reasons for wanting to make my own Camino.






A new section of my blog – My Camino de Santiago

I have added a new link to a blog I am writing about my Camino de Santiago  www.pilgrimchris.com

An Introduction.

A brief history of the Camino, taken from http://www.galiciaguide.com/Camino-history.html follows:
“Following the death of Christ in circa 32 AD the remaining disciples left the holy land and began spreading the gospel as they had been commanded to do by Jesus. James the Greater, as he was known then, left for the Iberian Peninsula where he is reported to have stayed for approximately 2 years. In 44AD he returned to Jerusalem, where he was promptly beheaded by King Herod.
Legend tells us that his followers took his body to the port of Jaffa (modern day Tel-Aviv) where they found a boat made of stone, guarded by an angel, waiting for them. This boat transported the martyred disciple’s body back to the Iberian Peninsula landing at a port then named Iria flavia, now a district of Padrón in Galicia, North West Spain.
If you visit Padrón go into the main church, Santiago de Padrón, near the Alameda. In this church you will find the“Pedron”, a large stone which is reported to have been used to moor the stone boat carrying the body of St James, and from which the town gets its name.

 The Pedron


The body was transported to a hillside approximately 23kms north of Iria Flavia and was buried, remaining undiscovered for nearly 800 years. In the 9th century AD a hermit named Pelayo is reported to have had vision of a large bright star surrounded by a circle of smaller stars pointing to a spot somewhere in the Libradón mountains. The hermit reported his vision to the Bishop of Iria Flavia, Theodomir, who decided to investigate Pelayo’s vision and a tomb, containing the body of the Saint and 2 of his followers Athanasius and Theodore, was subsequently discovered.
St James was proclaimed patron saint of Spain by the King Alfonso II, who built a church and monastery over the tomb in honour of the saint. Because of Pelayo’s vision the place was named Campus Steliae or field of stars, which later became Compostela.

St. James


News of the discovery of the tomb quickly spread and the pilgrimage or “Camino” to Santiago begins.”

There are numerous traditional ‘routes’ a modern pilgrim can take to Santiago de Compostela, most of which are routes taken by the early pilgrims. However a true pilgrimage would start from the pilgrims home wherever that may be and would sometimes take many years to complete. After all there were no planes, trains and automobiles only the pilgrims feet and a boat if needed to cross the oceans. Some, the weathy, would use a horse or donkey, but for the vast majority the journey would be by foot.
Today however most pilgrims fly, drive, train or ship to a start point on one of the traditional routes where they then begin their Camino by foot. Some cycle the routes or even ride a donkey, but most walk.
The route I will be taking and thus concentrating on is the most famous of all routes –

The Camino Francés

Starting traditionally in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (St. John at the Foot of the Pass) which lies on the river Nive approximately 8km from the Spanish border on the French side of the Pyrenees the pilgrim will have some 778km to walk before reaching Santiago de Compostela. The routes from Paris, Vézelay and Le Puy en Velay meet at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and it is the pilgrims’ last stop before the arduous mountain crossing. If starting the pilgrimage in Spain then Roncesvalles (Roncevaux in French, the “Valley of Thorns”), lies 27km from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and negates the need to cross the Pyrenees. The Camino Francés passes through Pamplona, Puente la Reina, Estella, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga, Ponferrada and Sarria before it reaches the “City of the Apostle” in the western reaches of Galicia. The route takes, on average, 4 – 6 weeks to walk.



There are many sources of information about this pilgrimage on the internet and one of my favourites is the excellent Camino de Santiago. This is not only an information portal, but more; it is a forum where prospective pilgrims can talk to those who have already journeyed their own Camino. It is rich with ideas, tips, places to stay, weather reports and I have found it invaluable in preparing for my own Camino.

My next blog post will talk about why the Camino de Santiago exists at all and its significance to the millions of pilgrims, who have undertaken what, for some of them, was the last journey they ever made! I will then get a little more ‘personal’ and share with you why I am undertaking this journey. As some of you who may read this will know, I am a hiker and although this is a big ‘hike’ it is not the same as other hikes and I will share with you why that is too 🙂

Thank you for taking a peek and I hope you will join me here over the coming months as I write about my preparations for this journey, my reasons for undertaking it as well as my kit lists and plans, before finally joining me as I blog ‘live’ from my “Camino de Santiago” early next year.