The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is a network of pilgrimage routes that leads to the town of Santiago de Compostela, in north-west Spain. According to Christian texts, Saint James, one of the 12 apostles, helped spread the religion throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Upon his death, his relics were buried in a specially built chapel that would later become the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Map of Camino de Santiago routes
By the end of the first millennium, the Camino had entered the popular zeitgeist. The Camino grew in popularity in the Middle Ages as a possibly less expensive route to receiving absolution from sin than the pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Rome. The network developed from many starting points in Europe, including what is now know as the Portuguese Coastal Camino. Romans and Muslims had developed maritime, land, and river routes even earlier. Cartographers of the 12th century already show an established route linking the Portuguese city of Coimbra and Santiago, by land and by sea.
But it took a queen to popularize the Portuguese route. Isabel of Portugal – the Rainha Santa – made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the 14th century. Much as when politicians of today visit smaller centres, her passage created practical improvements on the route and its infrastructure. In her will, the queen left a substantial sum towards the maintenance and development of pilgrim hospitals in the Kingdom of Portugal.

The route was further consolidated by the Order of the Knights of Santiago, who occupied an important role in Portugal in defending the Extremadura border. The Knights also offered hospitality to pilgrims. By the 15th century, many inns, hostels, and hospitals of pilgrims were present on the roads between Lisbon and Compostela.
However, by the 17th century, political and cultural swings combined to reduce the Camino’s lustre. Spain was engaged in major wars with France and England. Martin Luther’s Reformation had the effect of putting ostentatious displays of religion out of favour. The Age of Enlightenment further cooled the impact of religiosity. And thus, the pilgrimage faded into obscurity until the 20th century when travel and printing opened the world to so many more people.

A priest in the Galician village of O Cebreiro began to rehabilitate the route in the 1980s. Like any good marketer, he understood the value of a brand. He developed the highly recognizable symbol of the yellow scallop shell against a blue background that began to be used to mark the route to modern travellers. And now the Camino is again a pilgrimage, often not motivated by the fervent religious beliefs of earlier travellers, but still a place of magic and wonder.

Why the shell?
The use of the scallop shell as an emblem of pilgrimage dates from at least the 12th century. Earlier pagan rituals invested shells with multiple meanings, a symbol of love or a talisman against spells and diseases. The cathedral of Autun in France has the first artistic representation of the shell as a symbol of resurrection, appearing on the satchel of two pilgrims sculpted on the western portal of the church. The shell became perhaps the best ‘product’ of medieval European marketing. Why the shell? The wily bishop of the day perhaps felt an object was needed as the Galician equivalent of the palm crusaders brought back from Jerusalem.
Also, the shell was inexpensive as it could be collected free along the coast. With the passage of time, reproductions in metal and jet appeared, filling the huge demand for religious objects. This was the symbol that the Galician priest re-developed in the 1980s and that now is so tightly associated with the Camino.
Experience the Portuguese Coastal Camino for yourself!
October 1 - 14, 2022 
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