While the Way of St. James declined in popularity following the Middle Ages, the past five decades have seen a steady growth in the number of pilgrims. Today more than a hundred thousand travelers make the journey each year, many traveling for religious reasons, others because of the way’s status as one of the great cultural routes of Europe. (The Compostela Holy Year of 2010 saw the largest number of pilgrims recorded in the modern era: nearly 271,000.)
In 1987 UNESCO designated the Way of St. James as the first European cultural itinerary, and the city of Santiago de Compostela itself is a World Heritage Site.
Of the six main routes that lead to the city, the most popular is the French Way, which crosses the Pyrenees Mountains from France into Spain. Other routes include the Northern Way (which travels through the Basque region of Spain) and the Portuguese Way from the south. Many hostels cater to pilgrims traveling by foot, bicycle, or horseback, most charging minimal fees. On the French Way, the distance from the French border to Santiago is approximately 500 miles, a journey that takes about six weeks by foot. About half the route passes over rough terrain, and pilgrims need to be physically fit. The best times to travel are June and September. Many pilgrims also take the route during July and August, but the heat can be oppressive. Travel is not recommended in winter because of frequent rain and occasional snow.
Pilgrims may apply to obtain La Compostela, a Latin document issued by the cathedral of Santiago. It is granted to those who travel the way for religious reasons, and is stamped at various points along the route. Walkers must travel at least the last 100 kilometers (about 62 miles), and bicyclists the last 200 kilometers, in order to receive a certificate confirming that they have made the pilgrimage.
Once pilgrims reach Santiago de Compostela, they can enjoy a medieval city of narrow streets and beautiful open squares that are made for strolling, particularly in the Old Quarter with its tiny shops, ancient book stores, and cozy bars. The frequent rain doesn’t dampen the mood of the pilgrims, tourists, and university students who fill its busy streets. Dozens of churches, monasteries, museums, and other landmarks surround the cathedral, including the Monastery of St. Martin Pinario, Convent of San Paio, and the Pilgrimage Museum dedicated to telling the story of the Way of St. James.