The Pilgrim's Way to Santiago is a social, cultural and religious phenomenon that emerged in the Middle Ages. Throughout the centuries, Knights Templar, monarchs, nobles, sorcerers, princesses, wizards, paupers, knights and devotees from all over Christianity travelled thousands of miles to kneel before the tomb of the Apostle Santiago (St. James), aka “the son of thunder”.
The mediaeval Navarrese monarchs sponsored the building of hospitals, monasteries, churches and chapels in which master tradesmen and foreign artists left their mark. More than a hundred cities, towns and villages and over a thousand monuments along the way are testimony to the cultural and artistic enrichment that took place as the route developed.
Although the popularity of routes such as the Vía de la Plata (Silver Route) or the Camino del Norte (Northern Route) has risen in recent years, the 'French Route' of the Pilgrim's Way, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, is the one with the greatest historical tradition, the best-known internationally and also the most travelled It owes its name to the fact that the four main routes from France join together in it: from Le Puy, Limoges, Tours, and Toulouse. The first three enter the Iberian Peninsula through Orreaga/Roncesvalles and the fourth via Somport (Aragon).
The French Route runs for around 720/790 kilómetros (depending on the version) in the Iberian Peninsula, with between 25 and 31 stages on foot. It crosses the provinces of Aragon, Navarre, La Rioja, Burgos, Palencia, León, Lugo and La Coruña.
In 814, a strangle shower of shooting starts over Mount Libredón (now Compostela) attracted the attention of the hermit Paio. As he approacced, he saw (hidden) tomb of Santiago (St James). This event turned Compostela a focal point for the Christian faith.
Several victories against the Muslims made Charlemagne a symbol of the political union of Europe against the enemies of Christianity. Perhaps for this reason, a legend assigns him the role of initiator of pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. Despite the fact that he had already died when the tomb of St. James was discovered, the epic figure of Charlemagne is evoked in several legendary gestures along the route.
The monarchs of Navarre made a decisive contribution to the definitive consolidation of the Pilgrim's Way as we know it today. For reasons of territorial policy and military strategy, King Sancho Garcés III 'el Mayor' (known by this name because his kingdom was the most extensive of his era) redesigned which used to follow the Roman route through the Burunda valley, and others in Vizcaya and the north of Burgos, towards the plains of La Rioja. He and his successors supported the route by introducing the first measures to protect pilgrims, generating stable populations with services for travellers and he ordered the construction of hospitals and monasteries along the part of the route that crosses the ancient Kingdom of Pamplona (it was first called Kingdom of Navarra with King Sancho VI el Sabio in the 12th century). He and his successors also made a decisive contribution to the flourishing of Romanesque art and the arrival of the influence of the Monastery of Cluny to both parts of the Pilgrim's Way.
In 1135 the Codex Calilxtinus, or 'Book of Santiago', was published, written by Aymeric Picaud. It describes the route of the Pilgrim's Way in great detail and includes liturgical texts on St. James, miracles and the moving of his body, the story of Charlemagne and Roland and a pilgrim's guide.
From the 16th century onwards, the routes become unsafe for travellers. Highwaymen, religious wars, the Plague sweeping across Europe and the emergence of Protestantism led to the decline of the Pilgrim's Way. For several years in which hardly any pilgrims walked the route.
The resurgence of the Way happened in the 20th century, from the 1970s onwards. This was due to the interest shown in its by the regional governments of the territories along the route, the Pope's visit to Santiago, the appearance of associations of Friends of the Pilgrim's Way (the first in Paris in 1962) and guilds and its declaration as the First European Cultural Itinerary in 1987 and World Heritage in 1993.
In the 21st century the Pigrim's Way has been certified as an European Cultural Itinerary and was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Promoting Understanding. These awards have helped to increase the number of tourists every year; more than 150,000 people now cross the peninsula on foot, by bicycle or on horseback. This figure is even higher in Años Jacobeos (Jubilee Years), when the Day of St James (25th July) falls on a Sunday.
Some people undertake the journey with a a deep sense of religion and penitence, others as a life experience, others for cultural reasons, others see it as a kind of sporting activity... Despite the differences between the 'pilgrims', they always have something in common: the need to leave daily life behind and give themselves time and space to reflect on things.