Fast Facts

  • Location: Saint James
  • Significance: Pilgrimage Route
  • How to Reach: Santiago De Compostela Airport, but you have to walk for at least 100 km to successfully complete the pilgrimage. As a result, many travelers choose the small town of Sarria as a convenient point to start walking to the shrine.
  • Nearest Airport: Santiago De Compostela Airport

It is not for nothing that the scallop shell is an emblem of the Way of Saint James. The ribs that converge at a common point aptly indicates the fact that no matter which route you take, you are sure to arrive at your destination, here the shrine of the apostle James. Right from the medieval times, Santiago in Spain has been a popular pilgrimage destination. It is one of the three Christian pilgrimage routes, where you acquire a plenary indulgence.

History of the Way of Saint James

The Route to Saint James has a history of over a thousand years. After being extremely popular in the Middle Ages, when people traveled here from all over Europe, its popularity ebbed. Right through the onset of the Renaissance to the early 1980s, not more than a few thousand traveled the route. After that, there has been a sudden proliferation in the popularity of the route. Now, about 100,000 pilgrims arrive here every year.

Although the route is primarily and ostensibly related to Christianity, there are clear indications of its having a pre-Christian pagan origin. According to some scholars, the site was associated with the cult of Venus or Aphrodite, who apparently was born out of a seashell. For many, it was a Celtic journey with the presence of the Sun as the chief deity, the scallop ribs resembling the sun’s rays. For pre-Israelite people, the journey was analogous to the journey of death, traveling westward, to where the sunset to a region that for many was the end of the world. Even in the Christian symbolism prevalent at the place, a reiteration of the myth of death and resurrection is clear in the life of James.

Saint James, according to legend, was drowned in the Atlantic, and was then resurrected from the sea, covered with shell. A different tale narrates the same incident with a difference, which states that the mortal remains of Saint James was washed ashore covered in shell. The scallop shell thus became a symbol of resurrection. At the same time, the vestiges of an older myth of the resurrected pagan god also cannot be absolutely ignored. Because of all these factors, the scallop shell has become the veritable symbol of the Saint James Pilgrimage route.

Way of Saint James Overview

There are many routes that a pilgrim can take to visit Santiago. Formally, the route can start at one’s doorstep and be over once the pilgrim reaches the shrine. However, quite a few routes have developed over the years that have become quite popular. Presently, there are many tourist agencies that conduct pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was traditionally undertaken on foot, or on horses and donkeys, particularly in the Middle Ages. Although horses and donkeys are less common these days, many pilgrims prefer to walk a major portion of the route. Cycling has become a very common mode of pilgrimage in recent years.

The pilgrims are required to procure a credential, also known as the Saint James pass. The pass is stamped by the parish authorities of every station they halt in. Accommodation is usually taken in refugios, dormitory-like accommodation centers erected by local parish authorities of city councils. They stamp the pass after a stay, thus giving the pilgrim a record of the places he halted in and the dates when he did so.

Once the pilgrim has completed the journey, the shrine authorities of Santiago offer a certificate of completion, called the Compostela. This is a proof that the pilgrim has successfully completed the journey. A pilgrim requires walking at least 100 km, or cycle for 200 km, and provides a valid religious reason for visiting the sign to get the Compostela.

Popular Saint James Pilgrimage Routes

The shrine of Saint James in Santiago, Northern Spain, can be approached through a number of routes. There are routes through France, different parts of Spain, and through Switzerland. Some of the popular ways to St. James through Spain and Portugal are:

  • The French Way: This is the most popular route, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of Pyrenees to Roncesvalles, and runs through the major cities of Pamplona, Burgos, Logrono, and Leon.
  • The Aragonese Way: This journey runs from the Somport pass in the Pyrenees and makes its way through the ancient kingdom of Aragon.

Other popular ways include the Northern Way, the Tunnel way, the English way, and the Portuguese Way. The Camino Mozarabe and the Via de La Plata often referred to as the Silver Route or simply the ‘Way’ in English is another extremely popular pilgrimage route. France has over the years, made one of the most popular starting points for the journey. Some of the popular French ways include:

The Tours Route: There are two routes that start from Tours, the Paris-Orleans-Tours route and the Paris-Chartres-Tours route. Sometimes, an integrated route is preferred in the present ties.

The Vezelay route, the Le Puy route and the Aries Way are other popular pilgrimage routs from France.

There are some popular routes from Belgium, Netherlands, and Switzerland as well.

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