These routes ultimately converge at Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia in northwest Spain. The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the resting place of St. James, and in the middle ages, pilgrims undertook the route to pay homage to St. James.
The pilgrimage traditionally ends at the Cathedral, where a groove has been worn in the stone pillar just inside the entrance from centuries of pilgrims laying their hands upon it.
The route was dangerous in the middle ages, with the threat of bandits, exposure and wild animals. Many pilgrims never completed their journey.
The Modern Camino
Reasons for undertaking the pilgrimage are many. Many modern pilgrims are simply drawn to the history of the pilgrimage, whilst for others it is still an expression of religious faith, spirituality, love, or the fulfilment of a vow. It is also undertaken as penance, or a means of seeking forgiveness.
Pilgrims must walk, cycle, or ride a horse or donkey. They travel at their own pace, and ‘veterans’ advise newcomers to take it easy. The modern route is signposted with a stylised scallop – the scallop is the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage. Scallops have long been associated with St. James, and they abound on Galicia’s Atlantic coast. Pilgrims used to carry scallop shells with them to use as bowls and water dippers.
Most people who complete the pilgrimage experience a sense of wellbeing and self-awakening. It is sometimes undertaken as a backpackers holiday, a chance to escape the chaos of modern urban life.
Accommodation Pilgrim hostels dot the routes throughout Europe, although to gain access to them the pilgrim must display his credencial. The credencial is obtained from Spanish tourist agencies and entitles the bearer to a night’s accommodation, sometimes free. It is also proof that the pilgrim has followed one of the traditional routes and is therefore entitled to the Compostela, the certificate awarded to a pilgrim upon successful completion of the pilgrimage.
Furthermore, to obtain the Compostela, one has to have walked at least 100km (or cycled 200km) along one of the routes. Passports must be in order, with all relevant stamps and visas up to date. The pilgrim can attend one of the Pilgrim Masses, held at noon every day in the Cathedral, to gain a sense of utter completion of the Camino. Most of those who attend the mass are deeply moved by the atmosphere within the cathedral.