I first heard about the Camino de Santiago in the early ’90’s, in a magazine article written for some travel magazine I found in a doctor’s office. The idea that someone would walk over 500 miles, over the mountains and across northern Spain intrigued me. I knew then that at some point in my life, I too would walk the Camino.
For years, I looked in vain for information about the Camino, until finally, about 5 years ago, I found a website devoted solely to people from around the world who have walked, or who want to walk, or are just interested in, the Camino. The Forum, as its known to users, even has its own badge for pilgrims to sew on their packs so they can be recognized by other Forum users.
A Brief History of the Camino
The Camino de Santiago is actually a wide number of ancient trails leading to Santiago, where the shrine of Saint James is located. According to legend, St. James arrived in Spain after the Crucifixion to spread the Gospel, but was not well-received. He went back to Jerusalem, where he was martyred and beheaded by Herod. Two of his followers placed his body in a boat made of stone & set it adrift on the Mediterranean Sea. Miraculously, the boat came ashore in Northern Spain, where the two followers brought the body of St. James inland to a small town and buried it. The followers & St. James were soon forgotten about, until a monk had a vision that the body of St. James would be found in a “field of stars,” or “Compostela.” The monk went to Compostela, began digging, and found the remains of three people, one of them in a stone sarcophagus. The Cathedral and Shrine to St. James was built over the place where the bodies were found, and pilgrims began arriving in Compostela to worship there.
Although the pilgrimage to Santiago was one of the top three pilgrimages during the Middle Ages (behind only a pilgrimage to Rome or to the Holy Land), by the 20th Century, the various trails making up “the Way” had almost disappeared. Dom Elias Valina Sampredro, a priest in O’Ceibreiro, wanted to preserve the Camino. He traveled through many villages in northern Spain, asking the residents there where the pilgrims would walk. Needing something to mark the Way with, he received a donation of left-over yellow paint from the highway department. Dom Elias began marking the Way with yellow arrows (“flechas amarillas”), and to this day, pilgrims are told to “follow the arrows” all the way to Santiago. The arrows can be found on the road itself, on trees, rocks, bridges, even private houses, and have become a symbol of the Camino itself. A statue to Dom Elias was erected in O’Ceibreiro & he is still heralded as the one who saved the Camino.
The priest’s efforts have met with much success, and each year, more people walk the Camino, especially during Holy Years such as 2010, when the Feast Day of St. James falls on a Sunday. Several documentaries have been filmed about the Camino, & in 2009, Martin Sheen & his son, Emilio Estevez filmed “The Way.”