Now is when, Galicia is where.
[Apostles in the Pórtico da Gloria of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. Photo by Pedronchi.]
You can't understand medieval Europe without understanding the Way of St. James, el Camino de Santiago — a medieval institution that you can still be part of. This pilgrimage route through northern Spain became the "main street" of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, when up to a quarter million people traveled the Camino each year to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the northwest region of Spain.
"Santiago" means "Saint James." Legend says that the Apostle St. James the Great preached in Iberia. After he returned to Jerusalem, he was beheaded, then his body was taken to Spain in a stone boat and buried in a necropolis eventually called Compostela. Sometime between 820 and 830 AD, his body was rediscovered by a hermit following a star. Soon St. James began appearing as a knight to aid Christian forces in their reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors.
A church was built over his remains, eventually a basilica, and finally a massive cathedral. Pilgrimages began in the 10th century. In the 11th century, they were promoted by Iberian kings and religious leaders including Archbishop Gelmírez of Santiago de Compostela, various Popes, and the French Benedictine Abbey of Cluny.
Churches, monasteries, hospitals, hostels, refuges, souvenir sales, and other services for pilgrims were created in Spain. Many still exist. New towns were founded, and cities were expanded. The military Orders of Saint John, Saint James, and the Knights Templar protected pilgrims.
Most important of all, people from across Europe met on the Camino and exchanged ideas about developments in Romanesque and Gothic architecture, Carolingian script, Gregorian Reform church rites, art, and sculpture. The presence of more than 300 troubadours has been documented, and they brought tales of chivalry from France to Iberia, where they took hold.
Centuries later, the pilgrimage was slowed and nearly eliminated by political events including the Protestant Reformation, the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, and subsequent wars. The Camino was revived in the final decades of the 20th century.
Since the 15th century, a Holy Year for the pilgrimage occurs when the Feast of St. James, July 25, falls on a Sunday. Pilgrims can receive special Indulgences. In Spain, the Jacobean year is known by its Galician name: Xacabeo. This year, 2010, is a Xacabeo. Santiago de Compostela is prepared for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and millions of visitors. The next Xacabeo will be in 2021.
The pilgrimage is open to people of all faiths or lack thereof. You must travel at least 100 km by foot or horseback or 200 km by bicycle to Santiago de Compostela to be certified as a pilgrim. It takes about a month to hike from the French border.
The route is marked by yellow arrows or a scallop shell whose groves come together to point the way. But there is no official Camino. You can leave your home and just start walking. Any route you take is a pilgrim's path.
Still, it pays to take a traditional route. First, you'll enjoy an infrastructure of services and accommodations, many at modest prices. Second, you can visit medieval churches and cross medieval bridges erected just for you, the pilgrim.
Many excellent websites offer information about the Way of St. James. Here are a few:
You will be told by every site you visit that Galicia is beautiful and green, its food is delicious, its culture is delightful, the history of the Camino is fascinating, and the Cathedral of Santiago is moving. They will say that rain is an art form in Galicia and that the stones speak. I've been there. It's all true.