Walking the Camino de Santiago of Compostela – The Way of St James

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Praza do Obradoiro, Santiago de Compostela, Španija


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Santiago de Compostela – The Way of St James 

In Santiago itself the great Romanesque Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, goal of the pilgrimage, is now encased in 18th century splendour, but the elaborately carved Romanesque ‘Portico de la Gloria’ of 1188 remains to welcome the pilgrim or visitor now as in medieval times.

Pilgrim Numbers of Walking the Camino 

Rough statistics for pilgrims are:

  • Men 53% Women 47%
  • Walkers 90%
  • 30 – 60 age group make up 55% of pilgrims, 28% are under 30
  • 65% of pilgrims walk the Camino Francés

Coming to Santiago de Compostela and having the best stay:

The updated 2015 Practical Preparation and Background guide

Everybody’s heard about the Camino de Santiago, watched the film The Way, know people who’ve walked the Camino and described it as “amazing”! You want to walk it but you have so many questions! What do I need to know? How do I prepare? What should I bring with me? What’s it like on the Camino? How far will I have to walk each day? How much will it cost? Just how difficult is it?

Here is the answer – Camino de Santiago – Practical Preparation and Background


Guides and tours in Santiago de Compostela:

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Planning Your Pilgrimage

There are only two rules you need to remember when planning your pilgrimage:

To qualify for a Santiago de Compostela (for those declaring a religious or spiritual motivation) or certificado (for those declaring a non-religious motivation) you must have walked at the very minimum the last 100 km to Santiago (200 km for cyclists).


You must carry a pilgrim record or credencial and get it stamped on a daily basis in order to gain access to the pilgrim hostels, and as evidence of your journey for the Cathedral Pilgrim Office.

Beyond these two essentials, you are free to organise your pilgrimage as you wish. There is no set route or starting point, all routes are equally valid and authentic.

Walking the Camino de Santiago of Compostela - The Way of St James

Some people choose to begin at their own front door, while others, more constrained by family and work commitments, may choose to walk a shorter route , or a longer one broken up into stages that are walked over a period of years. It is not unknown for people to take up to 10 years to complete a pilgrimage from Le Puy to Santiago, walking for 2 weeks per year.

It is entirely up to you to decide when you wish to begin your pilgrimage, whether you wish to walk or cycle and how much time you will have. Based on these decisions you can then pick a route and a starting point, taking into account transport availability to and from your home and likely weather conditions.

Many first-time pilgrims walk the Camino Francés because it is the best-known and most traditional route and has the most developed infrastructure.

However, this route is becoming increasingly crowded and we suggest that you give consideration to quieter routes like the:

  • Camino del Norte,
  • Vía de la Plata,
  • Vézelay or Arles.

All of these are reasonably well-waymarked and have an increasing amount of accommodation available.

Walking the Camino de Santiago of Compostela - The Way of St James

Compostela Certificate of the The Way of St James

On arrival at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims take their credential or Pilgrim Record, duly stamped along the way, to the nearby Pilgrim Office and complete a short form which asks some brief personal details and your motivations for undertaking the pilgrimage.

You may also be asked a few questions by the office staff, especially if there are any gaps in the stamps in your credential. Please remember that walkers and pilgrims on horseback must have completed at least the last 100km and cyclists the last 200 km, in one stretch, to qualify. Subject to Pilgrim Office approval that you fulfil the necessary requirements, you will receive a final stamp in your credential and will receive either:

A Compostela certificate (still written in Latin, and confirming the completion of the pilgrimage) if you state ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ as part of your reason for making the pilgrimage or a different document, known as a certificado, if you do not state ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ as part of your motivation, to attest to your having completed it.

A certificado can sometimes be granted to those who do not meet the strict requirements of the Santiago de Compostela, for example, children around the age of 7 or younger who have accompanied their parents on pilgrimage. Santiago de Compostela and certificado are free, but you may make a donation if you wish.

Walking the Camino de Santiago of Compostela - The Way of St James

Santiago de Compostela cathedral

The relics of St James are housed in a silver casket below the high altar, above which his statue presides over the cathedral.

On the feast of St James, 25th July, and other high days and holy days, a giant censer, the Botafumeiro, is swung on ropes by red-coated attendants in a great arc from floor to vaults, emitting clouds of incense over delighted crowds.

Among the old buildings of the city statues of St James abound, whether as a mounted warrior or as a pilgrim with wide-brimmed hat, staff and bottle.

The scallop shell was and still is the emblem of the pilgrimage, carried back by the proud pilgrim as proof of the successful completion of the long and arduous journey to the shrine of St James.

On arrival, pilgrims present their Pilgrim Passports, duly stamped at each of their halts along the way, at the Cathedral’s Pilgrim Office, and apply for the Santiago de Compostela, the traditional certificate in Latin confirming their completion of the pilgrimage.

It also entitles them (provided they are among the first 10 in the queue) to three free meals a day for three days in the staff quarters of the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, now a parador, but formerly the pilgrim hospital established by Ferdinand and Isabela as a thank offering for the final recovery of Spain from the Moors in 1453: the pilgrims’ right to hospitality has survived the change in the status of the hospital.

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Pilgrim Numbers

Rough statistics for pilgrims are:

  • Men 53% Women 47%
  • Walkers 90%
  • 30 – 60 age group make up 55% of pilgrims, 28% are under 30
  • 65% of pilgrims walk the Camino Francés

The number of pilgrims receiving the Compostela each year:

  • 1986 2,491
  • 1987 2,905
  • 1988 3,501
  • 1989 (Pope’s visit) 5,760
  • 1990 4,918
  • 1991 7,274
  • 1992 9,764
  • 1993 (Holy Year) 99,439
  • 1994 15,863
  • 1995 19,821
  • 1996 23,218
  • 1997 25,179
  • 1998 30,126
  • 1999(Holy Year) 154,613
  • 2000 (Jubilee Year) 55,004
  • 2001 61,418
  • 2002 68,952
  • 2003 74,614
  • 2004 (Holy Year) 179,944
  • 2005 93,924
  • 2006 100,377
  • 2007 114,026
  • 2008 125,141
  • 2009 145,877
  • 2010 (Holy Year) 272,135
  • 2011 183,366
  • 2012 192,499
  • 2013 215,880
  • 2014 237,886
  • 2015 262,459


  • 7:30 am. Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrement.
  • 8:00 am. Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrement.
  • 9:00 am. Main altar.
  • 10:00 am. Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrement. After the mass the Most Holy Sacrament is exhibited until 7:15 pm.
  • 11:00 am. Chapel of La Corticela.
  • 12:00 noon. Main altar: PILGRIM’S Mass.
  • 7:30 pm. Main altar: PILGRIM’S Mass.


  • 7:30 am. Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrement.
  • 8:00 am. Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrement.
  • 9:00 am. Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrement. After the
  • mass the Most Holy Sacrament is exhibited until 7:15 pm.
  • 9:40 am. Singing of Lauds in Latin at the Main Altar.
  • 10:00 am. Main altar.
  • 11:00 am. Chapel of La Corticela.
  • 12:00 noon. Main altar: PILGRIM’S Mass.
  • 6:00 pm. Main altar, in Galician.
  • 7:30 pm. Main altar: PILGRIM’S Mass.

Sundays and holidays

  • 7:30 am. Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrement.
  • 8:00 am. Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrement.
  • 9:00 am. Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrement. After the
  • mass the Most Holy Sacrament is exhibited until 7:15 pm.
  • 9:40 am. Singing of Lauds in Latin at the Main Altar.
  • 10:00 am. Main altar.
  • 11:00 am. Chapel of La Corticela.
  • 12:00 noon. Main altar: PILGRIM’S Mass.
  • 1:15 pm. Main altar.
  • 6:00 pm. Main altar.
  • 7:30 pm. Main altar: PILGRIM’S Mass.

Holy Year

The Compostela Holy Year of Jubilee is a period when the Church grants singular spiritual graces to the faithful, imitating what the Bible says regarding the jubilee year to the Israelites: But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. (LV: 25).

Jesus says He has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:16).

The Church of Compostela, through its Holy Year, also grants a special year of favour.
It is Holy Year in Compostela when the 25th of July, Commemoration of the Martyrdom of Saint James, falls on a Sunday. It takes place every 11, 6, 5, 6 years. It originated in 1122, with Pope Callixtus II, and was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III through the Bull “Regis aeterni” from 1179, granting it perpetuity.

Throughout the centuries the See of Peter has on many occasions praised the pilgrimage to Santiago and the Holy Year.

“We call upon ourselves dear sons and daughters to follow that path of evangelic faith, of Christian authenticity and illuminated hope which, for centuries has guided so many souls to the Temple of Compostela”. (Paul VI: A. St 1971).

“I share the joy… for the period of favour and pardon that the Lord grants, once again, to the beloved community of Spain and all of Christianity… that the Jubilee is for everyone an occasion for true reconciliation”. (John Paul II: A St 1982).

“I express my special closeness to the pilgrims who have come and who will continue to come to Santiago. I ask them to treasure the evocative experiences of faith, charity and brotherhood that they meet with their journey, to experience the Way especially inwardly, letting themselves be challenged by the call that the Lord makes to each one of them. Thus they will be able to say joyfully and firmly at the Portico of Glory: ‘I believe’”. (Benedict XVI: A St 2010).

To earn the jubilee it is necessary to:
-Visit the Tomb of the Apostle in the Cathedral and say a prayer.
-Receive the sacrament of Confession (either in the cathedral or in any other place, fifteen days before or after).
-Receive the Communion. This Indulgence is applicable to the deceased

Plenary indulgence, which can be gained once a day (applicable to the deceased), under the following conditions:
– Visit the Cathedral saying a prayer, e.g. the Our Father and Creed, praying for the intentions of the Roman Pontiff.
– Receive the sacrament of confession (15 days before or after) and the holy communion.

Faculties for confessors:
All priests with licence to confess may hear confessions in the Cathedral, in the City’s parishes and at the Monte do Gozo.
Absolution from “censures” except those reserved for the Holy See (v. CIC c 1367, 1370, 1378, 1382 and 1383) but with the faculties granted by cc 976 and 1357.

Commute and dispense vows under the conditions established by the Church.

Cathedral  Santiago de Compostela

Bernard the Elder, Admirable Master, and Roberto, began the construction of the Romanesque Cathedral in 1075, during the reign of Alfonso VI, when Diego Peláez was bishop. After that initial stage, a number of historical changes suspended or, at least, slowed down the works until they were newly launched during in times of Archbishop Gelmírez, in 1100. The works were commissioned to Master Esteban (also known as “Maestro de Platerías”); little by little the construction of the Cathedral progressed throughout the 12th century. In 1168 Master Mateo was commissioned to complete it, including the western closure and the building of the Choir in the main nave. In 1211 the Basilica was consecrated before Alfonso IX.

Although the fundamental medieval structure has been preserved, over the centuries the Cathedral has changed its physiognomy as a result of the building of the Cloister and its annex areas, during the Renaissance, and especially during the Baroque period, when works such as the main chapel, the organs, the closing of the chevet or the Obradoiro facade were carried out, among other important developments. During the Neoclassic period the new Azabachería facade was executed and over the past one hundred years different actions have continued to be carried out.

The History of the Pilgrimage

Jerusalem fell to the armies of Islam in 636 A.D., and less than a century later, in 711, Spain was also invaded and conquered. The Moors rapidly reached northern Spain, and sent raiding parties into France. In northwest Spain, however, a small Christian kingdom, including Asturias and present-day Galicia, emerged in the 8th century, and it was in the reign of Alfonso II (r 792-842) that the Apostle’s tomb was discovered near Finisterre.

Relics of the saints were believed to possess great power, and those of the Apostles were especially venerated: Peter and Paul were known to be buried in Rome, and John at Ephesus, although the Virgin was early believed to have been carried bodily into heaven. In ca 800, James was the most senior member of the intercessionary hierarchy whose relics remained undiscovered. He was already believed to have been the evangelist of Spain. Though a few pilgrims to Santiago are recorded in the 10th century, and many more in the 11th, it was in the early 12th century – and particularly under the energetic promotion of Archbishop Diego Gelmírez (1100-1140) – that Santiago came to rank with Rome and Jerusalem as one of the great destinations of medieval pilgrimage. The first cathedral was built over the site of the tomb, and Benedictine houses were established, for instance by monks from Cluny in Burgundy and from Aurillac in Cantal, along the developing pilgrimage route.

The History of the Compostela

The idea of the Jubilee or Holy Year, the plenary indulgence, and the compostela, are historically linked. The Jubilee goes back to the Old Testament (“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year … it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession … ” – Leviticus 25,10). Taken into Christian theology, it is defined by Isidore of Seville (Etymologies V, 37, iii) as “a year of remission of sins”. Indulgences, or remission of all or part of the time to be spent in purgatory, were at first general and partial, but by the C11th the Church was offering particularly generous indulgences to those participating in the reconquest of Spain, or making especially long and arduous journeys to the shrines of the saints. Plenary indulgences were first offered in 1095 to pilgrims to the Holy Land who died on the journey.

It is widely claimed that in 1122 Pope Calixtus II gave Compostela the privilege of granting a plenary indulgence to those who visited the shrine of the Apostle in each year when the saint’s day fell on a Sunday, and while there made their confession, attended Mass, gave a donation for the upkeep of the shrine, and undertook to perform good works. The papal bull of 1179 making the privilege perpetual is now thought to be a C15th forgery. The earliest documented account of indulgences granted to jacobean pilgrims by the Papacy dates from the mid-C13th, and the earliest jubilee year identified by Constance Storrs is 1395. In any case, the gaining of the plenary indulgence became a dominant motivation for the pilgrimage (in the C15th few pilgrims sailed from England except in Holy Years).

Confession and communion remained essential to the granting of the certificate of having completed the pilgrimage, first called la autentica. Originally hand-written and sealed, with slips of paper attesting confession and communion pasted on, it became in the C17th (printing reached Galicia very late) a printed document which included the confirmation of confession and communion. These two elements appear to have been dropped from the compostela in the mid-C18th, and the text as we now have it is little changed since then.

The plenary indulgence – never, as far as we know, a printed document – is still granted to those who visit the Cathedral and the tomb of the Apostle at any time during a Holy Year, make their confession, attend Mass, pray for the intentions of the Holy Father, and undertake some charitable work (this can include a charitable donation). It is not also necessary to fulfil the conditions for the granting of the Compostela. Additionally is available on St James’s three feast days (23 May – the Apparition; 25 July – his martyrdom; and 30 December – the translation of the relics).

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