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The Camino de Santiago, Spain

Compostela de Santiago, Spain

We follow the 500-mile-long pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago ("Way of St. James") from France across northern Spain. We visit towns along the route — taken by 100,000 pilgrims a year — culminating at Santiago de Compostela, where St. James’ relics are kept.

Complete Video Script

The Camino de Santiago — literally the "Way of St. James" — is Europe's ultimate pilgrimage route. Since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have walked hundreds of miles across North Spain to pay homage to the remains of St. James in the city named for him, Santiago de Compostela. And in our generation the route's been rediscovered, and more and more pilgrims are traveling this ancient pathway.

During medieval times, Spain became an important pilgrimage destination. Pilgrims from all over Europe journeyed to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain. We'll join the main route, starting in the Pyrenees at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, stopping in Pamplona, Burgos, León, and on through the region of Galicia to Santiago.

While dedicating a month of your life to walk the Camino may be admirable, it doesn't work for everyone. But any traveler can use this route as a sightseeing spine and as an opportunity to appreciate some of the joys and lessons that come with being a pilgrim.

Just five miles before the Spanish border stands the French Basque town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Traditionally, Santiago-bound pilgrims would gather here to cross the Pyrenees and continue their march through Spain. Visitors to this popular town are a mix of tourists and pilgrims.

At the Camino office, pilgrims check in before their long journey to Santiago. They pick up a kind of pilgrim's passport. They'll get it stamped at each stop to prove they walked the whole way and earn their compostela certificate.

Walking the entire 500-mile long route takes about five weeks — that's about 15 miles a day, with an occasional day of rest.

The route is well-marked with yellow arrows and scallop shells. The scallop shell is the symbol of both St. James and the Camino. Common on the Galician coast, the shells were worn by medieval pilgrims as a badge of honor to prove they made it. The traditional gear has barely changed: a gourd — for drinking water — just the right walking stick, and a scallop shell dangling from each backpack.

Pamplona, the historic capital of the province of Navarre, with its imposing ramparts, is the first major city pilgrims encounter. Traditionally they enter the city through this gate.

After the commotion of Pamplona, getting back on the pilgrimage trail brings a welcoming peace. From here the hills give way to Spain's vast high plain. A day's walk west of Pamplona, the town of Puente de la Reina (or "the queen's bridge") retains a pilgrim's vibe. Its graceful bridge dates from the 11th century, and pilgrims have been crossing it ever since.

Narrow main streets are typical of Camino towns. They were born as a collection of pilgrim services flanking the path — places to eat, sleep, heal, and pray.

This 12th-century church, with a stork's nest guarding its steeple, is thought to be founded by the Knights Templar, who came to protect pilgrims along the route. Its stark Romanesque interior features a distinctive Y-shaped crucifix — likely carried all the way across Europe to this spot by pilgrims from Germany. I can imagine how, six or seven hundred years ago, the weary faithful would sit right here, gaze up at their savior, and be inspired to carry on.

A five-day walk — or a two-hour drive for us — brings us to our next stop: Burgos. It's a pedestrian-friendly city straddling its river. Stately plane trees line the riverside promenade, giving shade through the hot days. Its main square seems designed to bring the community together. Today's Burgos feels workaday, but with a hint of gentility and former power.

Like so many towns here in the north of Spain, it became important during the Reconquista — that centuries-long struggle to push the Muslim Moors back into northern Africa from where they came. Its position on the Camino de Santiago and as a trading center helped it to flourish. For five centuries Burgos was the capital of the kingdom of Castile.

It's dominated by an awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral — designed by French architects in the 13th century, with its lacy spires added by German architects in the 14th.

The ornate exterior is matched by its lavish and brightly lit interior. In Spain, the final flowering of the Gothic age was the elaborate Plateresque style.

As was typical of Gothic churches, it's ringed by richly decorated chapels built over the centuries by, and for, wealthy parishioners.

This chapel is dedicated to Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary's mother. Its 15th-century altar features the Tree of Jesse. A sleepy and apparently very fertile Jesse slumbers at the bottom sprouting a lineage that connects him to the holy child and virgin.

This sumptuous chapel marks the tomb of a regional governor and his wife under a brilliant star-shaped vault. It's striking for its gracefulness and femininity.

Inspirational as this cathedral is, the pilgrims have a long trek ahead of them. The slow pace and need for frequent rest breaks provide plenty of opportunity for reflection, religious and otherwise. For some, leaving behind a stone symbolizes unloading a personal burden.

The first person to make this journey was Saint James himself. After the death and resurrection of Christ, the apostles traveled far and wide to spread the Christian message. Supposedly, St. James went on a missionary trip from the Holy Land all the way to this remote corner of northwest Spain.

According to legend, in the year 813 St. James' remains were discovered in the town that would soon bear his name. People began walking there to pay homage to his relics. After a 12th-century pope decreed that the pilgrimage could earn forgiveness of your sins, the popularity of the Camino de Santiago soared.

The Camino also served a political purpose. It's no coincidence that the discovery of St. James' remains happened when Muslim Moors controlled most of Spain. The whole phenomenon of the Camino helped fuel the European passion to retake Spain and push the Moors back into Africa.

But by about 1500, with the dawn of the Renaissance and the Reformation, interest in the Camino died almost completely. Then, in the 1960s, a handful of priests re-established the tradition. The route has since enjoyed a huge resurgence, with 100,000 pilgrims trekking to Santiago each year.

Eight days further down the trail is León, a sizable city with an enjoyable small-town atmosphere. Founded as a Roman camp in the first century, León gradually grew prosperous and was the capital of its own kingdom for centuries. Today's León is the youthful leading city of one of Spain's biggest provinces.

Its 13th-century Gothic cathedral, towering dramatically over the town center, must have stoked the spirit of medieval Christians.

Through the Middle Ages, the steady flow of pilgrims from all across Europe inevitably resulted in a rich exchange of knowledge, art, and architecture. That's one reason why today, all along the Camino, you'll find magnificent churches and exquisite art.

Further along the Camino, the terrain changes. Pilgrims pass through rolling hills blanketed with vineyards. The path leads to the small town of Villafranca del Bierzo, where they reach the 12th-century Church of St. James with its famous Gate of Forgiveness.

The pilgrimage was an arduous trek and not everyone succeeded. Five hundred years ago, thanks to a compassionate pope, it was decided that anyone who made it this far and got sick and couldn't complete the journey over the rugged last stretch to Santiago could stop here and call it a successful pilgrimage anyway.

Next to the church is a classic Camino albergue. This 80-bed hostel is run by volunteers and provides 10,000 pilgrims a year with nearly free beds.

At regular intervals all along the route, humble hostels like this give trail-weary pilgrims a place to tend their needs — from nursing sore feet, to doing laundry. Volunteers cook and serve communal meals. A wonderful camaraderie percolates, as a multi-national community — young and old and of all beliefs — is created.

The challenging journey encourages introspection and each pilgrim has their own motivation.

Rick: So, why have you taken this journey?
Pilgrim 1: For me, I suppose it's a bit kind of corny or cheesy but um, to find things like a bit of balance again in life, you know I spend a lot of time in my job working in an office, its sales, it's stressful, it's money-money-money, so it's nice to get out on the open road, live out of a rucksack, just forget about cars and computers and motorways. You know I was getting a bit tired and worn down by all that so for me hopefully, I'll take back kind of a feeling of regeneration, renaissance.
Pilgrim 2: To learn just to live with the silence of the nature around you. And you really feel ascent into a world that most of the time doesn't exist in big towns like Berlin or New York or other towns because there is always something around you that distracts you. But when you are in villages like this here, yeah, and you only see the church and there's nobody on the street, it's really calming.
Pilgrim 3: I think that you feel closer to God doing this Camino. You feel closer to your own soul because you have time to think about yourself, about your problems, about the things that you left at home and you feel closer to God, closer to your own soul.

The final leg of the journey leads through lush and green Galicia.

And the gateway to Galicia is the rustic hamlet of O Cebreiro, perched high on a ridge. The town welcomes pilgrims with ancient and characteristic stone huts.

The church, founded in the ninth century, is one of the oldest on the Camino route. Pilgrims are sure to stop in for another stamp on their Camino credential.

Green and densely forested Galicia shatters visitors' preconceptions of Spain. Pilgrims pass ghostly castles, simple farmhouses with slate roofs, and sleepy medieval villages. Here, it's easy to see the Celtic heritage Galicians share with their cousins just across the sea in Ireland.

After over a month on the trail, spirits are high as well-worn pilgrims reach their final stop: the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Santiago has long had a powerful and mysterious draw on travelers. This neat and sturdy city is built of granite. Its arcaded streets are a reminder that winters here are cold and wet. Strolling across its squares and under its grand churches, you can imagine a time when the city was a religious and cultural powerhouse.

Santiago's heyday was the 12th century, when the notion of Europe was still in its infancy. It served as a place where people from all corners came together, shared ideas, and then dispersed. In some ways, the very idea of Europe as a civilization jelled during this age. And Santiago played an important role.

People here have their own distinct language: Galego — it's a mix of Spanish and Portuguese. Galicia's ancient Celtic roots are particularly evident in its music. With wailing pipes and thundering drums, the Celtic heritage announces itself loud and clear.

But nothing can distract the pilgrims as they take the final steps of their long journey. Around the last corner, they reach the destination of a thousand years of pilgrims: the cathedral that holds the tomb of St. James.

As millions of weary and exhilarated pilgrims have done before them, they stand before the cathedral and are filled with jubilation.

But the religious climax for many lies within the cathedral. Imagine you're a medieval pilgrim: You've just walked 500 miles — your journey is done. Worshipping before the altar, you give thanks to St. James for a safe passage, and you reflect on the lessons of your journey.

And, if you're here on a festival day, the Mass culminates with an enormous swinging incense burner. Gazing at the spectacle of this 120-pound burner flying through the air, you're awe-struck by the wonder of God.

Finally, you climb the stony staircase behind the altar to the statue of St. James — studded with precious gems. Embracing him from behind, you take a moment to celebrate your spiritual — or personal — triumph.