Tradition has it that Saint James the Great was one of the twelve apostles of Christ and that he preached the teachings of his master throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Precisely because of his great evangelization work on then Hispania, he is considered today the patron saint of Spain. He was buried near a Roman settlement called Iria Flavia (current locality of Padrón), falling into oblivion until in the 9th century a hermit named Pelayo saw a star-lit field (a “Campus Stellae”), future Compostela. Surprised at this, he alerted Bishop Teodomiro, who came to study the phenomenon and dug a hole on the site, thus unearthing the forgotten tomb of the Apostle.

This great discovery (or as it was said at the time, this “inventio”), did not go unnoticed to the Asturian monarch. King Alfonso II, known as the Chaste, used this “inventio” to build a chapel, which shortly after was transformed into a temple, with the purpose of venerating the relic and creating a pilgrimage route in the north of the Peninsula, which would also help reinforce Christian presence at a time when the Muslim advance was reaching the Cantabrian coast.

The Jacobean route became increasingly popular during the 10th and 11th centuries, reaching its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries. This Christian pilgrimage destination turned as important as Rome or Jerusalem.

And this is how the current cathedral, a landmark of European Romanesque architecture, was erected, under the auspices of two bishops: Diego Peláez, initiator of the works; and Diego Gelmírez, his successor and main promoter. An urban settlement emerged around the cathedral, as happened in many towns on the Way, soon to grow bigger and bigger with the arrival of people from other places, attracted by the economic drive that the Jacobean route represented.

Some military religious orders then consecrated themselves to protecting the pilgrims from danger and clearing the way from bandits. Such is the case of the Order of Malta, the canons of the Holy Sepulchre or the Knights Templar. Their hospitaller vocation, likewise, led to the establishment of important hospitals welcoming pilgrims, supported by the substantial donations they received from nobles, kings and clergy.


As mentioned before, the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th centuries were the golden age of the pilgrimage to Santiago. However, from that moment on, the situation evolved towards a gradual decline, although the pilgrimages never ceased completely. The main reasons for this decline were: the Western Schism of the Church in 1378, the Black Death and the famines that ravaged Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Protestant Reformation and, consequently, the instability caused by the Wars of Religion of the 16th century and the thirst for adventure generated by commercial travel to the Indies.

If we take a leap ahead in time and go to the year 1884, we will see how pilgrimage routes reached a new peak when Pope Leo XIII promulgated the “Deus Omnipotens” bull, attesting that the relics of Saint James were authentic. And this takes us to the last 30 years, during which the number of pilgrims heading for Compostela has but increased exponentially. Additionally, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI gave it a final boost in 1982, 1989 and 2010 by personally visiting the city of Compostela. Statistics bear witness to this increase: in 1985 1,245 pilgrims arrived in Santiago, while 25 years later, in 2010, their number had grown to 272,703.

However, and regardless of religious motivation, today there are many people who embark on this adventure for other reasons, such as: cultural tourism, living a different experience, meeting people, seeking spirituality, practicing sports (walking, cycling or riding), travelling around the world, discovering other cuisines, finding oneself and disconnecting from everyday stress. And, for foreigners in particular, getting to know this corner of Europe in an unconventional way. All these reasons explain how the number of foreign pilgrims has already surpassed that of national pilgrims, adding an international dimension to it simply unthinkable centuries ago.

Finally, it should be noted that world-class institutions such as the European Parliament and UNESCO have awarded the pilgrimage to Santiago the status of first European Cultural Itinerary and World Heritage Site, respectively.


When we think of the Way of Saint James, our memory often takes us to the most popular route: the French Way. But after some research, one discovers that there are many other routes, and each pilgrim adopts their own pilgrim according to their origin.

This leads us to ask ourselves the following question: Was the French Way always the main route?

Curiously enough, the answer is ‘no’. Until the 11th century, the Way ran across other localities in Navarre, such as Irurtzun, Uharte-Arakil, Salvatierra/Agurain, and then across Vitoria-Gasteiz and Miranda de Ebro (these three latter were part of the Kingdom of Navarre at that time).

With the expansion of the Christian kingdoms to the south, territories were gained from the Muslims, and such conquests led to changes in the Jacobean route and to new Christian settlements and political dominance over these areas. Thus, king Sancho III the Great of Navarre diverted the itinerary through Puente la Reina, Estella, Viana, Logroño, Nájera and Santo Domingo de la Calzada, making up the now centuries-old French Way.

Yet, Sancho III the Great was not the only one to take part in this. Alfonso VI of León and Sancho I Ramírez of Aragón and Pamplona also contributed to its massive boost.

Not only did these Christian kings improve the infrastructure by founding and building monastic centres, hospitals for pilgrims, building bridges and repairing roads, they also offered certain tax concessions (suppression of taxes due for using bridges – “pontazgos”, and certain roads – “portazgos”) and ensured security along the Way. Additionally, these kings granted charters and privileges to new incomers from all over Europe to settle on the Way.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the French monk Aymeric Picaud, who went on a pilgrimage to Compostela around the years 1140-1160 and, commissioned by Pope Callixtus II, wrote the Codex Calixtinus.

The Codex Calixtinus is the first guide to the Way of Saint James. In it, Picaud reflects the experiences he went through as he crossed the different territories of the French Way. Some of them are very interesting descriptions and others are extremely funny, like the episode that he tells of about the locals in Navarre.