“The Way of St. James” (Camino de Santiago) that led to the site in northwestern Spain where the body of St. James was enshrined was one of the three major pilgrimage routes of medieval Europe along with those that led to Rome and to Jerusalem. Immortalized in works ranging from Chaucer’s late 14th-century Canterbury Tales (the Wife of Bath traveled to the shrine of St. James in Santiago) to Emilio Estevez’s 2011 film “The Way,” the Camino has been a route traveled by devout believers and soul-searchers as well as adventurers and fun-seeking tourists for centuries. But the Camino has always been more than a pilgrimage route.
After Muslims occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 except for isolated enclaves in northern Spain, Christians began a centuries-long Reconquista (Reconquest) to recover political control of their land. St. James, who, according to legend, miraculously appeared riding a white horse to help the outnumbered Christian forces win the Battle of Clavijo in the 9th century, soon became a cult figure. From enclaves in the north, as warrior nobles retook parcels of land and organized small kingdoms that expanded southward, the development of the Camino took on political as well as religious importance. The Camino became a means of uniting fragmented territories in a frontier land under constant danger of attack. The churches, chapels, convents, and monasteries built along the way not only served the needs of hungry, dusty, and sick pilgrims, but also assisted in the reclamation of the land and facilitated repopulation of the north by Christians. As pilgrims and artisans from France, Germany, Italy, and points beyond flooded into Spain on the way to Santiago, they brought with them new architectural and artistic styles (Romanesque and Gothic) that traveled along the Camino. These European styles contrasted with the Spanish “Mozarabic” and “Mudéjar” structures along the route, influenced by the Arabic aesthetics of the Iberian Peninsula and featuring horseshoe-shaped arches, bricks arranged in intricate geometric designs, and decorative carved wood ceilings. Commerce flowed in both directions along the route, with Jewish merchants and artisans playing key roles. The languages, literature, music, and customs of travelers from near and far mixed along the way, and the Camino became a place of lively intercultural and economic exchange.
Concerted efforts starting in the 1980s to locate and restore original pilgrimage paths that had fallen into disuse, a visit to Santiago by Pope John Paul II in 1989, and the designation of the Camino de Santiago (specifically, the network of four northern routes leading to Santiago, including the Camino Francés) as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 marked the rebirth of the Camino for pilgrims and secular tourists alike.
This study travel Program offers the opportunity to explore the Camino from multiple perspectives. Our program is not a religious pilgrimage (although some participants may find themselves spiritually moved by the experience). It is a journey of exploration of the culture – religious, artistic, political, economic, and gastronomic – of the Camino from past to present. Although the focus will be on the medieval heritage of the Camino, we’ll travel in time from the moment of the appearance of the earliest human beings in Europe near Atapuerca, Spain (another UNESCO World Heritage site) showcased at Burgos’s Museum of Human Evolution; to the 19th century in Astorga, where engineers invented equipment that contributed to the birth of the modern chocolate industry; and back to current-day Galicia, with its small-batch vineyards and local food processors. Several days will offer walking options for walkers of different abilities, contingent upon local conditions on the ground at the moment. (Participants preferring not to walk will ride the bus to the next destination and explore its unique charms.)
Highlights of the program (subject to change due to unforeseen circumstances):
- Opening dinner reception and initial meeting in Madrid
- Visit The Old Town of Segovia (a UNESCO World Heritage site), along the Camino de Madrid, with its famed Roman Aqueduct, Romanesque churches, and Alcázar Castle (the group lunch will feature roast suckling pig, a regional delicacy)
- In Burgos, where the Camino de Madrid joins the Camino Francés, visit the Cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and have time for the Museum of Human Evolution
- Enjoy walking options to villages such as Hontanas, Castrojériz, Sahagún, and others between Burgos and León in Castilla-León
- In León, visit the Gothic cathedral and the Romanesque Pantheon of the Kings of León
- Explore additional walking options between León and Ponferrada in Castilla-León
- In Astorga, see remnants of the Roman era, visit the Chocolate Museum, and see Catalán architect Antonio Gaudí’s Episcopal Palace
- Travel through villages of the Maragato people, one of Spain’s ancient ethnic minorities
- Enter Galicia through the gateway village of O’Cebreiro, famous for its mountain views of the surrounding countryside and its pre-Roman pallozas, traditional circular stone constructions with thatched roofs that housed people and their animals into the 1960s
- Join pilgrims converging on Santiago de Compostela through walking options between O’Cebreiro to Santiago
- In Santiago, attend a pilgrim mass at the Cathedral and explore the city (the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site) and venture forth to the Atlantic coast and the Rías Baixas estuaries, famous for seafood
- Enjoy additional culinary surprises along the way, ranging from local wines and artisan jams, to octopus at a traditional Galician pulpería
See the draft Itinerary.