The What and the Why

Lots of people are aware of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but lots aren’t. I’ve had quite a few people ask me what it is and why I want to do this walk.

A good explanation of the what can be found at this site. Here is an excerpt:

Since people came from all over Europe, there exist not just one but several routes to Compostela and no one “official” starting point. In France alone there were four towns that marked the starting points of different routes to Santiago: Arles (Via Tolosana), Le Puy (Via Podense), Vezelay (Via Lemovicense) and Tours (Via Turonselle). A lot of people simply started walking their way down south towards the Pyrenees from wherever they lived. In Spain, these routes combined into two main routes: Camino Aragones for those who crossed the Pyrenees through the Somport Pass, and Camino Frances for those who used the Roncesvalles Pass. Still other routes, coming from the northern Spanish seaports and the Christianized ‘mozarabic’ areas of southern Spain, joined the Camino Frances before arrival to Santiago. Of all the routes, it is the “French route” or Camino Frances that is by far the most important both historically and in modern times.

In the High Middle Ages, all roads led to Santiago de Compostela. The city, located in northwestern Spain, was one of the three main holy cities of Christendom (the other two were Jerusalem and Rome). As a center of pilgrimage, it was perhaps number one. Rome was too intimately tied with the Papacy – a pilgrimage there wasn’t a mere spiritual journey but also a political statement which meant taking sides in the power struggle between the Pope and the Emperor that tormented the medieval cosmos. Jerusalem on the other hand was much of the time inaccessible or dangerous to reach due to being held by the moslems. Santiago benefited from these struggles; it was neutral, safe ground – less dangerous than Jerusalem and less confusing than Rome.

Every European country had its holy places, but in Santiago the medieval idea of pilgrimage reached its undisputable zenith. The very word “pilgrimage” became almost synonymous with going to Santiago. Dante (in Vita Nuova) himself wrote that those who travel across the seas [to the Holy Land] may be called ‘palm-bringers’ and those who visit Rome can be called ‘Romegoers’, but the title of ‘pilgrims’ belongs to those only who are going to or coming from the House of Galicia, the holy grave of the apostle James. Innumerable pilgrims (at the height of the pilgrimage perhaps half a million per year) made their way to the grave of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, bringing prosperity to the towns and monasteries along the pilgrim’s route. A memory of their numbers is still reflected in the fact that in Spanish “El Camino de Santiago” or St. James’ Way also means “Milky Way” – a metaphor suggesting that there were as many pilgrims as there are stars in the sky.

Today the Camino is still being travelled by thousands of people, although most of them for other reasons than those devout medieval Christians, hoping to evidence miracles at the saint’s tomb or receive the absolution promised by the Church. The flow of pilgrims waned once, but never completely dried up, and is now most definitely on the rise again.


The why is a bit more difficult to answer, since it’s not one specific thing. I am about to turn 50, which I figure is a momentous milestone that should be marked in a way that goes beyond birthday cake and the discovery of new wrinkles. I have had a full and busy life raising three children and working full time, and until recently anyway, haven’t had a lot of ‘down’ time. The idea of getting up each morning with no set agenda, no timetable, no scheduled meetings and no deadlines appeals to me. The chance to just walk and be with my thoughts appeals to me. The idea of carrying everything I need in life in one small backpack appeals to me. And going on a long walk appeals to me (I love walking). Added to that is that on this route there is art, history, natural beauty and a good physical and mental challenge all rolled into one.

I have another rather embarrassing reason. Ever since I was a teenager and read parts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales I have wanted to go on a pilgrimage. I loved the camaraderie that sprung up among the characters in the book and I instantly identified with the Wife of Bath…both for her fierce independence and the gap in her teeth! So you see this has been percolating in my brain for quite some time.

I thought I’d add links to a few YouTube videos to give you a better sense of what the Camino Frances (the route I’ll be taking) looks like. There are tonnes of them on YouTube…these are just a sample. Look here, here and here.


3 thoughts on “The What and the Why

  1. You go for it girl!! The camino is waiting for you and when you are ready it will embrace you!
    Enjoy your planning – its all a part of the journey.


  2. I have just enjoyed your history lesson. I think it’s going to be a great journey and probably in ways that you won’t be able to imagine until you’re there in the experience. I wish I could be a bug on your backpack! What a wonderful way to mark your half-century.


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