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An Introduction to the Camino
de Santiago

The Camino Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

The Way of St. James, commonly known as The Camino or El Camino de Santiago (in Spanish ) is the name of any of the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. Each year over 250,000 people walk to the Cathedral in Santiago which is the burial place of Saint James the Apostle. Walking pilgrims take many routes following in the footsteps of pilgrims of the Middle Ages. The most famous route is the Camino Francés a journey of 778 kilometres from the border of France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela.

The French Way (Camino Francés)


Historically, most of the pilgrims came from France, from Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy, and Arles and Saint Gilles. The Spanish consider the Pyrenees a starting point. Common starting points are Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Somport on the French side of the Pyrenees and Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. (The distance from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela through León is about 800 km.).
The most popular starting point for modern day pilgrims is Sarria, 112km from Santiago on the Camino Francés, the requisite distance to be awarded a Compostela. Almost 50% of the pilgrims arriving in Santiago start in Sarria making it, by far, the busiest section of all the Caminos. The second most popular route is the Camino Portugués, the Portuguese Way, which starts either at the Cathedral in Lisbon (for a total of about 613 km) or at the cathedral in Porto in the north of Portugal (for a total of about 241 km), crossing into Galicia at Valença/Tui. Another increasingly popular route is the Northern Route nearer the Spanish coast along the Bay of Biscay, which was first used by pilgrims in order to avoid travelling through the territories occupied by the Muslims in the Middle Ages.
Some pilgrims start from even further away, though their routes will often pass through one of those four French towns.
Some Europeans begin their pilgrimage on foot from the very doorstep of their homes, just as their medieval counterparts did.

Main Camino Routes

  • Camino Francés: 790km from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port(France).

  • Caminho Português: 241km from Oporto or from Lisbon 613km.

  • Camino del Norte: 830km from Irun(Basque Country) along the coast

  • Via de la Plata: 1000km from Sevilla(, Andalucía).

  • Camino Primitivo: 320km from Oviedo(Asturias) via Lugo.

  • Camino Inglés: 110km from Ferrol(Galicia) & 75km from La Coruna

(plus a certified 25km in your country of origin, eg. Ireland) to gain a Compostela.

  • Camino Mozarabe: 390km from Granada or Malaga to Merida.

  • Camino Sanabrés: 360km from Granja de Moreruela via Ourense.

  • Camino Madrid: 320km from Madrid to Sahagun (on the Camino Frances).

  • Camino de Levante (Camino del Cid): 900km from Valencia to Zamora.

  • Chemin de Le Puy: 740km from Le Puy in France to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Camino route map

Two not finishing in Santiago:

  • Camino Finisterre & Muxia: 90km or 110km Santiago to Finisterre/Muxia

  • Camino Ignaciano: 640km from Loyola(Basque) to Manresa(Catalonia).

  • And there are many more marked routes starting in Europe, Germany, France, Switzerland etc.

Camino Society Ireland

The Camino Society Ireland provide information and not advice, as such, this document is intended only as a conversation. The Society is a voluntary organisation, founded in 1992 by returned pilgrims to ‘give something back’ to the Camino and to future pilgrims. It fosters an understanding and appreciation of the Camino’s related history, art, architecture and music. It issues the only Official Irish Pilgrim Passport and offers an opportunity to all those interested in the Camino to meet and share practical information and experiences. Support the Society and become a member via our website.


If you are contemplating walking the Camino: Talk to an experienced Pilgrim, one that you trust or is recommended to you by a friend. It’s much better to learn by others’ mistakes! And besides that there is a massive amount of information (and advice) to be found on the www. But beware: listen carefully, if you think you are getting bad advice, you probably are.

Most of it is common sense. How far you walk, how much you carry, where you sleep, is down to each individual’s personal preferences. Looking after your body and in particular your feet, is critical to everyone who wants to have a successful Camino. Invest in proper footwear, socks and shoes (boots), go to a specialist outdoor adventure store

Get in touch

Some History and Legends

The Saint

James was a fisherman, son of Zebedee and brother of John. Legend has it that after preaching the Gospel in Spain, James (Sant Iago) returned to Jerusalem and martyrdom. The site of his tomb in Northern Spain was lost for some 800 years when a hermit discovered the burial place. The relics were authenticated by the Church and it became a place of pilgrimage which grew into the city of Santiago de Compostela. In medieval times the pilgrimage grew in popularity. People set off from their homes and walked from all over Europe to Santiago. Religious Orders provided shelters along the way in which pilgrims could sleep and cared for those who were sick or dying.

The Priest and the Paintbrush


Over the last 40 years the Santiago pilgrimage has seen a great revival. In the Holy Year 2010 almost 300,000 pilgrims walked to Santiago. Perhaps the biggest contribution to this revival came from Father Elias Valiña Sampedro. He was a scholar who, following the historical records, marked out the many routes taken by the medieval pilgrims by painting yellow arrows approximately every 1000 paces.

The modern pilgrim can follow the yellow arrows all the way from SaintJean-Pied-de-Port in France all the way to Santiago on the Camino Francés. The work of Fr Elias and Los Amigos de Santiago also helped build up a huge network of modern refuges for pilgrims just like their medieval counterparts and all along each route are refuges for rest and sleep for a donation or a small charge of a few euros.

The Pillar, the Hug and the Tomb

Each day pilgrims arrive at the Cathedral Square but their journey is not at an end, they still have things to do. Entering the Cathedral each pilgrim frst touches the pillar depicting the Tree of Jesse, where now you can actually put your fngers into grooves marked by centuries of hands. NB: This is closed off for restoration at this time but you can easily see the handprint.Then they walk to the back of the high altar to rise behind the statue of St James to give him the traditional “abrazo” – a warm hug of thanks.Then pilgrims descend to the tomb of the Saint to pray quietly, thanking God for all that has been encountered on the journey here. 

Credencial del Peregrino and the Compostela

The Credencial or Pilgrim’s Passport will give you access to the organised system of pilgrim accommodation in France and Spain. You can obtain this document from the Camino Society Ireland or from the frst albergue you stay in. It is also available from some churches, Cathedrals or tourism ofces in Spain. When you register at the albergue, you will receive a stamp (sello) in your passport and this is often a souvenir of your pilgrimage with delightful stamps from all the different places you’ve stayed in. Stamps can also be obtained in churches, cafes, bars, hotels, tourist ofces and so forth. You will need to present the stamped credencial at the Pilgrim’s Ofce in Santiago in order to earn the Compostela, a certifcate of completion given to all pilgrims who walk the last 100km or cycle the last 200km to Santiago. Once you have gained your Compostela you might want to get your name included in the Irish Book of Pilgrims...check for details on how to do this.

NB: Buying the unique Irish Pilgrim’s Passport helps fund the Camino Society Ireland, who, in turn, provide information (like this document) and support for all Irish Pilgrims. For more information on how to join the Camino Society Ireland and how to obtain a pilgrim passport (credencial), visit the website here:

Pilgrims’  Mass

Each morning around 11am people start to make their way to the Cathedral. It flls quickly and by noon, at busy times of the year, it is standing room only. At the stroke of noon the cantor intones the entrance antiphon such as “Laudate Dominum omnes gentes” and to the sound of the reat organ 1000 voices repeat, “All people praise the Lord”. The procession enters. Many of the priests are still wearing their walking boots under their vestments. A long list of the countries from which pilgrims have arrived in the last 24 hours is read.The Mass which follows is deeply moving, with different accents and languages contributing. For the pilgrims there is a profound sense of gratitude, relief and celebration that the journey has ended.
NB: For security concerns, pilgrims are no longer permitted to enter the Cathedral with rucksacks. There is a left luggage and bicycle return service in the new Pilgrims Ofce at 33 Rúa Carretas, Santiago de Compostela.

The Botafumeiro - Holy Smoke!

The Botafumeiro (literally “smoke spreader” in Galician) is one of the most famous and popular symbols of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This is a huge censer that swings across the transept of the Cathedral through a pulley system pulled by eight men called tiraboleiros. It weighs 53 kgs and measures fve feet in height. It is suspended from a height of 20 metres and can reach a speed of 70 miles per hour.
Some say the Botafumeiro was used as a deodorant in medieval times when the Cathedral was full of pilgrims who hadn’t washed for the duration of their journey. Others say that the billows of incense it produces symbolise the prayers of the pilgrims.
The Botafumeiro is used every Friday at the 7.30 mass. There are also bookings for most of the Sunday Masses at 10 and 12 noon. Dozens of bookings have been made for other days of the week throughout the year - you will be unlucky not to see it. Every day a notice is posted on the noticeboard at the Pilgrims’ Office advising at which mass the Botafumeiro will be used.


Guide Books

•     Findhorn Press: John Brierley guides for the Camino Francés & Portugués, Sarria to Finisterre(New 2016).  
•     Cicerone: Camino Francés and the Northern Caminos (including Del Norte and Primitivo).
•     Miam Miam Dodo for Camino in France.
•     Vézelay English The Dutch Assoc.


•     Watch some Camino video clips on youtube.  
•     Watch the film “The Way” with Martin Sheen.

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