. Known by various English names—the Way of St. James, St. James’s Way, St. James’s Path, St. James’s Trail, Route of Santiago de Compostela, and Road to Santiago—the Camino is the most important Christian pilgrimage in the world today. During the Middle Ages, it was as important as the pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem.
The history reads like a tragedy of Shakespeare’s. After he was beheaded by Herod, the body of St. James the Apostle was taken by boat by his disciples to the farthest end of the Roman Empire. Legend has it that the ship was piloted by an angel. They had planned to bury St. James in southwest Spain at finis terrae, the end of the world. (Some modern day pilgrims will continue on from Santiago to Finisterre on the Atlantic Ocean, which has been considered a sacred place since the time of the Druids.) But Queen Lupa, conspiring with the Roman Legate, planned to destroy St. James’s holy remains and then kill his loyal followers. So instead, the disciples fled across the river Tambre with the headless body and found a burial site in Libredon, which in time became the city of Santiago de Compostela.
There are about a dozen major routes to Santiago de Compostela, but the route over the Pyrenees walking due west from France is the most traveled.
The Camino Francés is followed in popularly by the route heading north from Lisbon, the Camino Portuguése. I was going to walk the Camino Francés, but decided not to attempt the very first leg which goes from sea level at St Jean, up the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in Spain to an elevation of a thousand meters. In The Way, this first very difficult leg of the Camino is where the son goes off the path and dies in a freak snowstorm from exposure. My first day of walking would be March 3rd, still winter weather, so I began on the second leg.
During the Middle Ages, the Camino was highly traveled, and we now have the iconic image of the medieval pilgrim with his walking staff and scallop shell and broad-brimmed hat. Trudging along in search of a “plenary indulgence”, these first pilgrims believed their souls would not spend time in purgatory after completing the Camino and receiving a compostela. By the twelfth century, with the publication of the official Camino guide, the Codex Calixtinus, the pilgrimage had become both popular and more organized. The Templars provided knights to protect pilgrims and built hospitals and refuges for the faithful. But during the years of the Black Death in Europe and leading up to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, activity on the Camino subsided. Both World Wars interrupted pilgrimages on the Way, and by the 1980s pilgrims could be counted at just a few thousand a year. (In 1986 the Pilgrim Office in Santiago de Compostela gave out a mere 2,491 compostelas or documents of completion of the Camino to pilgrims arriving in Santiago from many different starting points.)
By the year 2,000 there was a surge of interest, and the number of pilgrims reached 55,004. In 2009 the numbers had tripled to 145,877. The following year, 2010, was a holy year when numbers surge, and 272,458 pilgrims were officially recorded. The Martin Sheen movie was released in 2011, and by 2015 the number on a non-holy year increased to 262,458.
I was surprised to learn that of the 262,458 pilgrims who received an official compostela (all written in Latin) when they arrived in Santiago de Compostela, about a quarter or 68,000 reported to have started in Galicia in the town of Sarria. They walked just 115 km—just long enough to qualify for a document of completion which is 100 km minimum.
Just 30,000 pilgrims walked the entire Camino Francés in 2015 starting in St Jean. Like me, 8,000 that year started on the second leg in Roncesvalles. In terms of logistics, Pamplona is an ideal place to start. The 5,000 pilgrims who took this as their starting point would have missed just the first three legs of the Camino Francés, while walking 90% of the total way. Pilgrims with just two weeks to walk can start in Leon and, after seeing the cathedral there, have 300 km to travel. This was the starting point for 10,000 pilgrims in 2015, walking just a little more that a third of the Camino Francés.
In the last five years since the release of The Way, pilgrims from the United States have almost tripled in number to where they now represent about 5% of the nationalities reported receiving compostelas. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority (46%) of peregrinos are from Spain. Italians represent 8% and Germans make up 7% of the nationalities, while 5% are from Portugal and 4% are from France. There are then nine countries which each have roughly 2% of the countries from which pilgrims come to walk: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, South Korea, Brazil, Australia, Poland, the Netherlands, and Denmark.
Perhaps the statistic that most surprised me was that 29% of the pilgrims were over 60 years old. However, reflecting back on my trip, I encountered a steady stream of men and women who were right around my age. (I was 63 in 2016 when I made my pilgrimage.) It seemed there were many pilgrims who had just retired and had the leisure time to travel, and this was at the top of their bucket list. While I did see people in their 70s, I doubt less than one in 20 pilgrims I saw on my Camino were in this older age group.