“Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar” - wise words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado that were intended to describe life’s journey or path: There is no right path per se, because each of us has to make our own way, full of successes and failures, happy moments and sad times.
There are lots of symbols said to represent our journey through life - and not all are religious: Indeed it is just as common to find “spiritual” symbols representing our so-called “path”.
The Tree-of-Life is just one example and it crosses many cultures from Buddhism into Norwegian and Celtic cultures, and into modern society where it is represented in tattoos or worn on jewellery . . signifying our roots, heritage and family ties, and the strength, wisdom and protection that this is supposed to offer. It is also associated with wisdom, especially in the scriptures of the Christian Bible - where there are many references to the ‘way’ , the ‘path’ and so on.
In Spain, if you were to ask the average man (or woman) on the street what, to them, best symbolised a way or a path, in their own country, they would probably reply “El Camino de Santiago”. But this is the ancient pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela - is surely a solely Christian or Catholic thing, no?
Spain is a Catholic country, yes, and religious feelings run deep. The multitude of fiestas in Spain (both local and national) are mostly “folklorico” - that is, they are based on the past culture and folklore of the country which is Celtic, Roman, Muslim and especially Catholic.
This is why El Camino - The Way of St James, has blossomed and prospered in the 20th / 21st Century when so much of the rest of the world has been turning away from things that are connected with Catholicism: El Camino has its roots in the CULTURE of Spain - and the Spanish love their culture.
And it just so happens that this particular part of their culture is rooted in Christianity - as signified by the symbols you see along “The Way” . . the Cross of St James (la Cruz de Santiago) and the Scallop Shell (la Concha . . de Vieira), as well as the now prolific yellow Arrow and the Waymarker (‘Vieira’) symbols (because of the markings laid down along the route).
It should be pointed out that the St. James Cross, when placed in red, on a white background, has strongly Christian associations - linked to the 12th Century Crusades with the red colour symbolising the blood of Christ, and the white colour representing purity.
The cross was depicted on the Crusaders’ swords which they would thrust into the ground and then kneel before them to pray before battle. It is also the most popular Christian cross of all time - a symbol of God's protection. And in fact, during some 600 years when Spain was increasingly under Muslim control as the Moors moved north through the country, it became a sort of rallying symbol for Christian Spain.
The shell, on the other hand, is far more passive . . in memoriam (so it is said) to the manner in which St James’ body was found in Galicia, covered in scallop shells - the local mollusc of this particular part of the north Spanish coast. It came to be ‘officially’ recognised (even by Rome) as identifying pilgrims on this special journey. And because of this association, for many people around the world (especially Christians) the Scallop Shell is representative of their own personal journey though life (or, even, their internal spiritual journey).
But the “infectious” nature of this symbolism has spread away from its Christian roots and into all parts of society so that nowadays, the many non-Christian people walking (or biking) El Camino carry the shell to represent their journey and, for many, to give them inner strength.
The other two ‘symbols’ of El Camino, the yellow Arrow and the yellow Waymarker are much more modern. In the 1970’s, a certain priest, Elías Valiña, of O’Cebreiro, to the east of Santiago de Compostela, decided that parts of the Camino were falling into ruin (it was not so popular in those days as now). So he embarked on his almost lifelong ambition to restore and mark “The Way” as best he could.
For the purpose of marking the best route to aid pilgrims, he decided to mark trees, buildings, stones, whatever he could lay his hands on, with a painted yellow arrow indicating “this way”.
Then, twenty or so years later, the local Government thought that the whole yellow-arrow-thing needed cleaning up and (along with the support of funds from the EU and UNESCO) decided to replace these arrows with smart “Vieira” symbols (a sort of diagrammatic shell in yellow). Some people objected - claiming it was discourteous to Elías Valiña but nowadays you will see it everywhere along the route.
Around 250,000 people travel the Camino each year from all over the world. Many choose to do so for personal, rather than any spiritual or religious reasons - taking time out from their busy modern lives and perhaps finding inspiration along the way, whilst reflecting on their life in a supportive environment.
Everyone experiences the journey in a different way. And most of them will carry one of these symbols of El Camino.
Many say that there is something about walking El Camino which is symbolic of EVERY journey (even their own journey through life) and that it can lift them out of themselves and allow them temporarily to leave behind the cares of the hectic modern world and put them in touch with the older, quieter ways of yesteryear.
Those who have trekked it tend to agree - and many like to remember the experience (and that cathartic feeling, no doubt) with a little symbol of their achievement - a shell, a cross, a yellow arrow, a Vieira - depending on their religious beliefs - or otherwise. Likewise they view the symbols of El Camino as encouraging, strengthening and protecting.
The Camino de Santiago is not just one route, rather a network of tried and tested routes which have grown up over the centuries. The Camino de Santiago routes include the Camino Ingles, Camino Finisterre, the Camino Frances, Portugues and the Camino del Norte.
One of the most used routes is the Camino Frances - the French route
Camino de Santiago Maps
One of the most used routes is the Camino Frances - the French route
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Where to stay in Santiago de Compostela
After you walk the Camino de Santiago you may want to unwind and spend a few days in the historic and romantic city of Santiago de Compostela, so here are a few of our recommended places to stay.
Try the impressive 5* Hotel Reis Catolicos which is part of the renowned Parador group of hotels in Spain. Located in the heart of the city with easy access to all the main attractions and sites. Another highly popular 5* establishment is the Hotel Araguaney, again located in the city centre this hotel never disappoints.
For budget accommodation try the Hostel Artilleiro highly rated and very good value for money. Located within a typical property the hostel Artilleiro is clean, fresh and includes a delicious breakfast, ideal before going out to explore the city.