Statue of a Pilgrim in Speyer, Germany
People have been making the pilgrimage to Santiago for over 1000 years. It was especially popular during the Middle Ages when pilgrims would walk through the front door of their homes from all over Europe and make their way on foot to Santiago, Spain. At that time, pilgrims often had to deal with bandits and wolves as well as figure out where to eat and sleep. Alberques (hostels) sprung up along the routes to support these long distance walkers.
The reason why people made such an arduous journey was often to do penance for sins. Today, the reasons are as much for adventure as spiritual. Many shrines can be found along the way, including the Iron Cross where pilgrims leave a stone from home as a symbol of leaving their burdens at the foot of the cross of Christ. Pilgrims travelled to Santiago because the bones of Saint James the Apostle are allegedly buried there. The scallop shell has become the symbol of the pilgrimage and every pilgrim wears one on her backpack. Directional signs often use the scallop shell to show the way. And scallop shells can be found in churches all over Europe.
In the Middle Ages the Knights Templar protected the pilgrims along the route. There is still a preserved Templar Castle along the Camino in Ponferrada.
When Saint James Day (July 25) falls on a Sunday it is a Holy Year and many more pilgrims make the effort to reach Santiago. 2010 was such a year and over 250,000 pilgrims reached Santiago. The next Holy year is 2021.
Pilgrims obtain a passport (credencial) at the beginning of their pilgrimage. This is stamped wherever they stay as proof of the journey. In Santiago pilgrims receive the compostela (certificate of completion). However, just walking the last 100 km will suffice to receive this certificate. Supposedly, the certificate will give you forgiveness for your sins.