Dating back to the eleventh century, the Camino de Santiago, a walking route that goes through France, Spain and Portugal, has been the pilgrimage of choice for Europeans, and no war or natural disaster has stopped people from traversing The Way. Then COVID came and paralysed everything just in time for the Holy Jacobean Year of 2021, just as the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral emerged with a fresh face after nearly a decade of restoration.
As spring approaches, some restrictions have begun to lift in Spain and its neighbours. Despite not being quite as up to speed as we’d want vaccination-wise, walking the road most travelled is a great way to spend your summer holidays, as it affords communion with nature and lets you burn those pesky pandemic pounds. So, lace up your walking boots and get on the road again.
A way paved with wonder
It is believed that Santiago (aka Saint James), one of the 12 Apostles of Christ and the first to sacrifice his life for him, was executed in Palestine, and in 42 AD, his disciples transported his remains by sea to the Spanish region of Galicia. In the year 844, an eremite named Pelayo discovered his tomb and, by order of King Alfonso II, a small church was built on top of it. Less than 200 years later, the first European pilgrims arrived. These passers-by turned the small medieval towns along the almost 500 mile way into bustling cities, bringing commerce and the arts with them. It soon became the most important Catholic pilgrimage route of The Middle Ages.
But there was more to come. Between the years of 1075 and 1211, the Cathedral of Santiago was erected and consecrated. Because of how long it took to build, it boasts an array of architectural styles, from Romanesque to Neoclassicist to Baroque. But this isn’t the only interesting monument The Way has to offer: no matter the route you choose, you’ll find many Romanesque and Gothic churches, cathedrals and monasteries, along with striking natural landscapes. After a bit of a slump in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Camino came back with a vengeance in 1985 when UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site. Then, the 1993 Xacobeo, aka Jacobean Holy Year, put it on the modern map.
The 2021 Xacobeo
In Galician, a language with Spanish and Portuguese influences spoken along Spain’s northern Atlantic coast, Xacobeo stands for “Jacobean,” or relating to the apostle Santiago. The first Jacobean year was in 1122 when Pope Calixtus II established these celebrations to pay tribute to Saint James whenever July 25th (the Galician National Day or Saint James Day) fell on a Sunday, something that only happens 14 times per century. Back in 1993, the Galician government launched its first worldwide campaign to dynamise the Camino and attract non-European visitors. Paths improved and more shelters were added to make it more accessible for pilgrims from all over the world. The Jacobean Year starts on December 31st when the Archbishop of Santiago knocks on the Puerta Santa (Sacred Door) with a silver hammer. This gate remains open for the whole year and then closes again until the next Xacobeo.
Given the pandemic, Pope Francis has agreed to expand the Xacobeo until December 2022, so if you don’t feel comfortable travelling this year, you can still walk The Way the next! Plus, whether you go in person or you stream from home, you’ll find plenty of activities and cultural events under the Xacobeo umbrella. Pro sailors will compete along the stunning Baiona coast during Galician Sailing Week, while the International Festival of Classical Music will light up churches and squares along the so-called French Way, mostly in the Aragón region. There are also activities for children, virtual and in-person escape rooms to get to know the towns, and exhibitions such as “Las Huellas del Camino” or “100 Años de Ilustración Jacobea” (with art from the different Xacobeo campaigns from the past century).
The elephant in the room
COVID is still very much a worry, which is why the Galician government has taken all necessary measures to protect whoever decides to walk the Camino in 2021. This affects shelters especially, as they will only be allowed to open at half their usual capacity. At the shelter, everything will be disposable—even your bed linen—masks will be mandatory both inside and outside, and everything will be cleaned and disinfected daily. You won’t be able to access the kitchens for security reasons, so make sure to plan accordingly.
The Galician government has also introduced insurance for pilgrims that will cover their medical expenses if they catch COVID along The Way, and has established a system of digital credentials so pilgrims won’t have to line up on arrival to Santiago.