The history of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

St. James, Santiago Cathedral

The Way of St. James is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. It ranks along with Rome and Jerusalem as one of Christendom’s great pilgrim destinations.


By the 12th century, the Camino had become a rather organized affair and what is widely regarded as the world’s first travel guide, the Codex Calixtinus from around 1140, provided the would-be pilgrim with the rudiments of what he or she would need to know while en route; advice for pilgrims, informing them where they should stop, relics and sanctuaries they should visit, bad food they should be wary of and commercial scams, including in the author’s opinion, other churches who claimed to hold relics of St. James. The book provides a valuable insight into the life of the 12th-century pilgrim.

Santa Maria de Real_IMG_2655
Just before Sunrise, Sept 20, 2012, Santa Maria de Real, Najera Spain

By the 12th and 13th centuries, half a million pilgrims made their way to and across northern Spain and back each year. Local kings and clergy built hospitals, hostels, roads and bridges to accommodate them. The Knights Templar patrolled the Camino, providing protection, places of hospitality, healing and worship, as well as a banking system that became one source of their fabled wealth.

There is evidence of a pre-christian route, the celts used this route across northern Spain, to Finisterre, the end of the world. For them, watching the sun set over the endless waters was a spiritual experience.

Castillo de los Templarios_Ponferrada Spain_IMG_3979
Castillo de los Templarios_Ponferrada Spain

Some of it winds its way over the remains of pavement laid down by the Romans two millennia ago, they built infrastructure, including a road from Bordeaux in modern France to Astorga in northwest Spain, to mine the area’s gold and silver. Some of the original road remains on today’s Camino.

A combination of the Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther around 1520, the Enlightenment and European wars gradually suppressed the Camino. In the 17th century Louis XIV of France forbade his subjects from going to Santiago in order to stop trade with Spain. The Camino fell into disfavour but was never abandoned.

The European Union has designated a network of four pilgrimage routes in northern Spain in 1993. The network of routes represent 1500 kilometres, and includes historical sites, cathedrals, churches, monasteries, hostels, bridges and natural landscapes. Pilgrimages were an essential part of European culture and spiritual life during the Middle Ages. Along the route pilgrims were provided with everything they needed to ensure their physical and spiritual well-being. The route contributed to the economic and social development of the towns along the way, and the movement of large numbers of visitors contributed to the two-way exchange of cultural advances between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe.

Now, after centuries of slumber, the Camino is alive with upward of 250,000 pilgrims—and growing—yearly.



Early Morning on the Old Roman Bridge, Merida

Early morning on the Roman Bridge, Merida Spain
Early morning on the Roman Bridge, Merida Spain 

We have been spending time in Calgary, seeing family and friends, attending to different chores that need to be done before we are off again, this time to Italy.  It seems like a long time ago that Bill and I were visiting the ancient Roman sites in the Spanish city of Merida. While it seems like a long time ago, if was infact only 6 months ago that we visited the city.

The ancient Roman bridge, known as the Puente Romano is the longest surviving bridge from ancient times. It spans 755 meters with 62 spans, over the Guadiana River. Built over 2000 years old, it is a great place to witness the city awake. The street lights reflecting off the wet cobblestones, many pedestrian use this bridge on their way into the city.

Merida is along the ancient pilgrimage route north from Cadiz to Santiago de Compostela, known as the Via la Plata or the Silver Route. The Via la Plata was built by the Romans as a commercial route to transport goods, it became a pilgrimage route used by Mozarabic (Christians) so rich with history Merida was worth the visit, and the time spent there. A city I would happily visit again.

Visit my gallery to see more of images from Merida and the many pilgrimage sites we have photographed.

Almendralejo: Church of Our Lady of Purification

Almendralejo: Church of Our Lady of Purification
Almendralejo: Church of Our Lady of Purification 

After finishing the day’s walk along the Via la Plata, our usual routine is to have a shower, wash our walking cloths and have a short nap. Then once cleaned up and rested we will have a walk around the town checking out the sights and the cafe’s.  Just a couple of days ago were in Almendralejo when we came across the Church of our Lady of Purification.

We were in awe of the stunning fresco’s in the Gothic Church. As there were parishioners seated in prayer and the priest was walking to the alter it was obvious that the Service was just about to begin. While this maybe a historic site to see, study and enjoy, it is also a Holy site for many, and a place of worship for the congregation. We sat quietly near the door for a few minutes, soaking up the beauty around us, I click of a few photos as discreetly as possible just prior to the Service beginning and we quietly left.

This is one of many moments that I wish we spoke more than what I call “restaurant” Spanish! I would have loved to stay until after the Service to talk to the Priest, to learn more about this history of the church and ask for permission to photograph the lovely frescos at a time that was not so busy.

Almendralejo: Church of Our Lady of Purification
Almendralejo: Church of Our Lady of Purification

Walking with the Romans; Part 1

When we think of Roman Architecture, we think of Italy and Rome, where significant structures still exist that forge the link between the past and present, the Colosseum, Pantheon, The Column of Marcus Aurelius, and The Appian Way, just to name a few. However the Roman Empire covered an immense geographical area, such that many significant lesser know, but equally impressive structures can be found in other countries. Spain is one such place. Ruled by Rome for a number of centuries, Spain was a source on great wealth for the Empire and produced some of it’s immortalized leaders and emperors (Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius). It is here that we find the Via the Plata (silver route), an ancient pilgrim journey,which is part of the El Camino de Santiago, that two thousand years ago served as the main thoroughfare for the transport of mineral wealth (silver) from the far north of Spain to Seville, from where it was shipped to Rome.

Appropriately, Seville will serve as the starting point for our walk, as we retrace the steps north that many Roman once took and now modern pilgrims take, on the road to Santiago de Compostela. In a small lively square in Seville, know as the Alameda de Hercules, you will find two ancient columns.

Columns of Hercules and Julius Caesar in Seville Spain
Columns of Hercules and Julius Caesar in Seville Spain

Atop the columns sit carved statues of  Julius Cesar and Hercules, who, according to legend, are the two founding fathers of Seville. Dating from the 2nd century, these to columns are the oldest monuments in Seville. In many respects, the Alameda, has the air of a Roman Circus, a neighbourhood with many bars and terraces where you can enjoy coffee, evening tapas and beer, or late night drinks. The area has a certain bohemian air,  where every Sunday morning, an open market is held that ironically sells antiques and second-hand goods on the promenade.

Moving north and not far from Seville can be found the small village of Santiponce. Here lie the ruins go the ancient Roman city of Italica. Founded in 206 BC by the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, and was the birthplace of the Emperor Trajan. It grew to become the third largest city in the Roman Empire, with a population that exceeded 8,000.

Beginning in 1781 Italica became a major archaeological site and is under continuous excavation. Here are photo’s of a few artifacts hat have been discover thus far. A section of one of many Roman roads that have been uncovered that await the same rejuvenation.

Roman Road at Italica
Roman Road at Italica

Here thousands of  years ago Roman legions were stationed in this area to protect Roman interests and the western frontiers of the Roman Empire.

As well a number of home have been uncovered, many with rooms which have beautiful mosaic floors still intact, some of which have undergone remedial work. However, given they are 2000 years old, they are still intricately beautiful in their art and workmanship.  Most famous are the floor from the Diose y Astros which literally translated means “Gods and Starts”

Dioses y Gods; Mosiac floor at Italica, Santiponce Spain
Dioses y Gods; Mosaic floor at Italica, Santiponce Spain

The Amphitheatre, which is still in need of significant restoration, is estimated to have held 25,000 spectators.

Amphitheatre Italica, Santiponce Spain
Amphitheatre Italica, Santiponce Spain
Amphitheatre passage way;  Italica, Santiponce Spain
Amphitheatre passage way; Italica, Santiponce Spain

It is not hard to imagine gladiators, standing and waiting in the passage way waiting for their call to enter the ring.

We are looking forward to visiting more Roman Ruins as we head north, toward Meride and Salamanca.

Guest Post by W.E.Foreman 

Day 36, Sarria to Portomarin 22.5 k

we have reached the 100 k marker, Camino de Santiago de , Spain

We are back on the road again, Matt has joined us for the final stage, and we passed the marker that told us we have less than 100 kilometres to walk to get to Santiago de Compostela. Breakfast at the hotel was served at 8 am, so we were a little late getting started for the day, Bill’s ankle/shin is a little sore so he is not marching ahead as he might have been, and as you might know I stop for lots of pictures, so we took a long time to get to Portomarin (the spanish spelling for Portomarin is Puertomarin). It was around 4 pm when we arrived.

The morning was misty or more foggy, no rain, so that was a good thing, we didn’t need our ponchos. The mist hung in the air and clung to the plants and spider webs. Days like this I miss my macro lens and my tripod!

wet spider web

Delicate drew drops hanging on the web.

Just outside of Sarria we crossed the Ponte de Aspera, a small “romantic style” bridge built sometime in the 12 century.

A Ponte da Aspera_Sarria Spain

about 1:30 the clouds broke, the fog lifted and we had sunshine to walk into Portomarin.  It was another great day, on the camino, Santiago de Compostela is almost in sight! I have noticed that some of the town names are spelled differently when I go to look up accommodation or weather conditions, Portomarin = Puertomarin is just one example. This can make internet searches very complicated and or interesting! I am slowly getting this worked out, and it is something I am going to keep in mind when travelling in the future.