For the third consecutive year, it is expected to break its record of pilgrims: more than 350,000, 50% of which are visitors from around the world, attracted by the cultural and global projection of an ancient tradition
Despite being an ancient tradition, the Way of St James (‘Camino de Santiago’) is experiencing a boom. For the third consecutive year, it is expected to break its record of pilgrims: in 2017 it exceeded 300,000 for the first time; in 2018, 327,000 and, for the year that has just ended, it is expected to exceed for the first time the figure of 350,000 people who arrive in Santiago de Compostela after following one of the many different routes of the Way. More specifically, as of 30 November -the last complete month of the year recorded- the last record had already been broken, with 344,352 “compostelas” issued with the document that certifies having travelled at least 100 kilometres on foot or 200 kilometres on horseback or by bicycle.
The growing presence of international pilgrims is key to these record figures. The majority of the pilgrims come from Italy, Germany, USA, Portugal and France, with more than 168,000 foreign pilgrims registered in 2017, but they also come from more than 180 countries, including some as far away as Russia or South Korea.
More than half of the pilgrims arrive in Santiago via the French route, which enters Spain through the Pyrenees via Jaca (Huesca) and Roncesvalles (Navarre) and continues on to the Galician capital, although most of those who embark on the Way do so from intermediate points along the way, less than a kilometre from Santiago. The Portuguese route, on the other hand, has grown in recent years. Whatever the route, those who reach Santiago also take advantage of the opportunity to visit other areas of Galicia, such as the Rías Baixas and the Fisterra coast.
Cultural exchange and creating a “common European consciousness”
The current success of the Way of St James has little to do with the crisis experienced during the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. A good part of the routes to Santiago were forgotten and were paved for vehicles. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that the original route of the pilgrimage and the towns it passed through began to raise interest, so that in 1965 the first guide was published to make the journey by car from the Pyrenees. From 1980 onwards, it was adapted to be done on foot and the infrastructure of the hostels was gradually adapted to provide accommodation for the pilgrims.
It was in the 1990s that the Way of St James experienced a real revival, together with the recovery of a large number of historical routes from different national and international points, thanks to volunteer associations. Today, the Way has some 290 catalogued routes that cover a total of 80,000 kilometres in 28 countries.
An international link that, since its emergence in the Middle Ages, has served as a cultural exchange between the different European populations, and has helped to generate an “extraordinary spiritual, social, cultural and economic vitality” that “has become, in its 1,200 years of history, a symbol of unity between different cultures and the backbone of the first common consciousness of Europe. These words were used to award the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord in 2004.
Santiago in the international cultural arena
The inscription of the Way of St James (more specifically, the French route and the routes in northern Spain), in 1993, on the UNESCO World Heritage list, served to revive interest in this tradition, which has not stopped growing since then. Nor has it ceased to be reflected in film productions, publishing houses and attract the interest of celebrities worldwide.
Among the most well-known are films such as, ‘The Way‘, released in 2010, the premiere was attended by Martin Sheen -whose origin is Galician- and his son Emilio Estévez, actor and director of the film. Since the release of the film, which is about a Californian ophthalmologist who completes the Way of St James as a last tribute to his deceased son, the number of Americans who have embarked on the pilgrimage has increased.
A decade ago, in 1999, the mini-series ‘Camino de Santiago‘ brought together international stars such as Anthony Quinn, Charlton Heston, Anne Archer, Massimo Guini, Maria Schrader and Joaquim de Almeida, as well as Spanish actors such as Imanol Arias, Juan Echanove, José Sancho and Pepón Nieto in the Spanish production directed by Robert Young and inspired by a story by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
In Germany, the route has gained popularity thanks to the book ‘Ich bin dann mal weg‘ (‘Well, I’m off’) by comedian Hape Kerkeling, in which he recounts his experiences as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago. The visit of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to Santiago in 2014, during which she walked a section of the Way, has also added to its popularity.
In addition to the international projection of the Way, the influence of internationally famous pilgrims such as Shirley MacLaine, whose experience inspired her to write ‘The Way: a Spiritual Journey’; Paulo Coelho, who wrote his first novel, ‘The Pilgrim of Compostela’ after his pilgrimage; the South Korean writer Kim Nam Hee, largely responsible for the boom of the Way in her country; and Stephen Hawking, who took advantage of the prize from the University of Santiago to travel around the city and to complete sections of the Way.