Leadership consultant Victor Prince took a month-long sabbatical to hike across northern Spain as a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago – the Path of Santiago. He describes many ways the Camino changed his perspectives on life and leadership – and he outlines how you can experience a similarly transformative process that will inspire how you lead. Drawing on personal experiences and interviews with nearly 100 other pilgrims, Prince clearly and deftly blends his travelogue with management advice in the form of “seven simple leadership lessons.” He also provides a “How to Do This at Work” section for each lesson. Werecommends this captivating read The Camino Way to armchair travelers and to those seeking to enhance their leadership skills through personal growth.
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- El Camino de Santiago, the Path of Santiago, is a 500-mile pilgrimage route to the tomb of St. James in northwest Spain. A French bishop made the first pilgrimage in 950 AD.
- In 2013 alone, nearly 216,000
- peregrinos – or pilgrims – made the trek to the shrine.
- During his month-long El Camino hike, author Victor Prince averaged 15 miles a day. The experience was a life and “career game changer” for him.
- The hike’s alone time, challenges shared with strangers and daily inspirations can be transformational.
- Each hiker’s “Pilgrim passport” offers hostel access and date-stamps marking your hike.
- Reminders on the back of the passport suggest actionable leadership lessons:
- They include: “Welcome each day,” welcome others, seize the moment, “share” and “feel the spirit” of past, present and future hikers on the same path.
- “Appreciate those you walk with today,” and “imagine those who will follow.”
- To apply the Camino’s leadership lessons at work, approach three things in a new way: “Think about yourself differently, think about others differently and act differently.”
- The Camino’s lessons are always available on your terms. You don’t even have to hike.
The Path of Santiago
El Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage route to the tomb of one of Jesus’s 12 disciples, St. James, known as Santiago in Spanish. In the year 950 AD, the first pilgrim, a bishop from France, walked 800 miles to the shrine. By the mid-1100s, the Camino spurred the first “travel guide,” a collection of documentation about St. James’s miracles that described the destination, explained how to get there and offered logistical details of the journey.
“Death is a terrible deadline…It is much better to set a ‘life list’ of things we want to complete while we can.”
Early pilgrims sought forgiveness for their sins or prayed for relief from the plague. They included tourists, spiritual seekers, and those running away from servitude or legal problems.
The Camino still draws people from all walks of life. When author Victor Prince walked it in 2013, he was one of 216,000 peregrinos, or pilgrims, hiking that year. The most-traveled route to the shrine’s town, Santiago de Compostela (usually called Santiago) in northwest Spain’s Galicia region, starts in France and goes west across the Pyrenees. The route from Portugal heads north.
“Time is the most fixed and scarce resource that leaders have. A leader needs to be as smart in investing…time as…any other resource.”
Prince set two goals when he was a child: to become president of the United States and to travel the world. He met his public service objectives by working as a cabinet member for a large US city’s mayor and as the chief operating officer of a federal agency.
Focusing on his second goal, he set out to travel. In 2013, Prince tried to identify a sabbatical trip that would offer both solitude and socialization. He decided to hike, and the Camino trail met his needs His journey inspired him and gave him insights about how to be a better leader. Averaging 15 miles a day, his walk became “a career game changer.”
Six transformative elements of the Camino trek are available and applicable to everyone, even without hiking. They are:
- “Alone time for self-reflection” – In blocks of a few hours, disconnect from the demands and distractions of work and home.
- “Easy interactions with strangers” – Seek interactions with people from different backgrounds. Group trips provide options you can’t access alone.
- “Shared challenges for camaraderie” – Pursue adventures that tap into interests you share with other people. Events or excursions with alumni organizations, history and genealogy groups, or athletic teams can provide meaningful experiences.
- “Charted path of the journey” – If your adventure tour is well organized, you are free from worrying about logistics and can enjoy the experience fully. Guidebooks and websites can be highly useful.
- “A meaningful achievement for self-confidence” – Select an adventure with a defined beginning and an impressive end. Completion helps you believe anything is possible.
- “Transcendent experience for inspiration” – Choose an adventure that’s likely to provide inspiration beyond the events in your daily life.
“Camino Leadership Lessons”
Prince carried a “pilgrim’s passport,” a credential that granted him entry to the low-cost albergues (hostels) along the route and access to stamps he could collect to mark his stops. The seven reminders on the back of the passport resonated with Prince as being important for leaders to understand. Each reminder leads to these actionable Camino Leadership Lessons:
1. “Welcome Each Day, Its Pleasures and Its Challenges”
The goal of walking hundreds of miles is intimidating. Breaking the journey into shorter stretches makes each day’s objective more attainable. Commit to starting each day with a “reasonable goal,” such as the number of hours you’ll walk. You could specify the time you’ll stop working for the day or the single task that will make your day feel successful.
“If you have a project plan, identify points where you should insert more time to experience the happenings around your project.”
Celebrating “small pleasures” motivates pilgrims. Prince started hiking daily before breakfast. Each day’s cup of coffee became a celebration of accomplishment. At work, meet your morning goals, and have breakfast as a reward. Lunch can become your midday deadline. When you meet a goal, celebrate and focus on things outside of your job.
“Give yourself one clear goal that you can check off that day to make you feel like you are making progress on your larger journey.”
After a 19-mile hiking day, Prince arrived at a scheduled stop only to find an error in his itinerary: His hotel was another six miles away. Persevering, Prince kept hiking. He recognized the importance of keeping challenges in perspective to minimize stress. On a bad day at work, remember how excited you were to get your job and how grateful you are to have it.
2. “Make Others Feel Welcome”
At some point during his career, Prince stopped making time for small talk during meetings at his company. The Camino reminded him to “greet people in a meaningful way.” Rosie, a pilgrim from Australia, shared a story that exemplified the spirit of the greeting “Buen camino!” or “Good walk!” As rain came down in sheets, a woman living along the path invited Rosie inside to wait out the storm. To “be the kind stranger” in your workplace, be accessible and keep your door open – either literally or figuratively. Keep a pathway open to the public to help strangers in need.
“Understand that everyone has a different pace of walking, which can also translate into a different pace of learning or working at our daily job.” (Jonathan, a pilgrim from Ireland)
“Welcome help” from others. Prince saw pilgrims looking for the yellow blaze that marked the trail. When they didn’t see the arrow and turned the wrong way, three local men excitedly pointed them in the right direction. Prince realized that he’s often comfortable giving advice but rarely asks for it. He decided he should be more open to receiving it. Strong leaders don’t fear others’ help. They appeal to staffers who can help them, and they teach their teams to be receptive to aid. When you receive advice, act on it and express your thanks.
3. “Live in the Moment”
When Prince began the Camino, he loaded his phone with audiobooks for listening while walking. On the first day, he decided to wait to listen until he was bored. He never used his earphones. This removed “weapons of mass distraction” from his hike. Enforce a “no distractions policy” in your office to keep electronics out of meetings. Hold yourself to the rule. The yellow arrows marking the Camino help hikers. They don’t have to keep their noses in guidebooks. The yellow marks teach pilgrims to “look up from the plan and experience the journey.” Build slack into your work schedule to make the most of unpredictably meaningful experiences, crucial corporate dates or project checkpoints. Time is a limited resource, so “control your calendar.” Be selective about attending meetings, which ones you assign to someone else and which you can make more efficient. Use free time to think or to build relationships.
The Bodegas Irache winery along the path provides a wine fountain where peregrinos can fill their bottles for free. The shared fountain creates goodwill with hikers and – as a highly photographed spot – provides excellent brand exposure. “Find profitable giveaways” by identifying items like tours, excess products or inexpensive recognition that costs you little but are of high value to your customers. Lower barriers to entry. Make activities more enjoyable. Create team-building experiences by focusing your members on a charitable project, such as collectively volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. “Share yourself.” Be open about how you function and what shapes your work. Admitting your quirks lets your peers to open up to you.
5. “Feel the Spirit of Those Who Have Come Before You”
Contemporary pilgrims walk past tributes and memorials to those who hiked the Camino over the past 1,000 or more years. Prince saw a marker memorializing José G. Valiño, who’d died at that spot along the path. As he walked, Prince wondered about Valiño, how old he had been, why he had started his pilgrimage and what had led to his downfall; Prince later dedicated this book to Valiño. Apply this reflective approach to those who came before you at work. “Honor your predecessors,” and highlight their achievements.
“I viewed lengthy ‘small talk’ at the beginning of meetings as phony and wasteful. The Camino taught me that talk is never small if it helps people feel welcome.”
To “learn from your predecessors,” ask if their history might be relevant to you as you start a new assignment. To save energy and time, talk with people who’ve done comparable jobs. Debrief those who worked on a project before you. “Get inspiration” from them. Work with them to ensure a successful transition. Ask veterans of your team for insight into their successes, failures and lessons. Create a sense of pride in your team as they draw on the legacy of their work.
6. “Appreciate Those Who Walk with You Today”
Prince caught himself being snarky about how other hikers packed, assuming it reflected their lack of preparedness and ability. While he rested, they caught up with him, offering to share their snacks. He learned from that not to judge people. Try to envision their circumstances; someone’s struggles may not be obvious. Falling into a pace that matches someone else’s can be comfortable or not. Michael, a pilgrim from Ireland, said that if you prefer to walk alone, you can stop to tie your shoe; if the other person doesn’t take the hint, tie the other shoe. You may find yourself on the receiving end of this tactic. At the office, be selective about your associates. Don’t spend time with negative people, those who monopolize your energy or those with bad attitudes who make others uncomfortable.
“The Camino is an example of the saying ‘the journey is its own reward,’ and the [pilgrim] passport is like a record of the journey.”
Prince received an email asking him to do a training session. The date didn’t work, so he reached out to a colleague who could complete the assignment. This experience emphasized the importance of nurturing “acquaintances into relationships.” Building relationships pays dividends. Find opportunities to meet and help others.
7. “Imagine Those Who Will Follow You”
Like Camino pilgrims, effective leaders leave the path in good shape for those who will follow. Envision your workplace or your team in a decade or two; how will it have changed, and is it a welcoming environment? How do you manage costs for a solid financial future? What are the company’s infrastructure needs? Today’s decisions become precedents.
“Blessed are you, pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others.” (The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim, as printed on Camino passports)
On the trail, Prince’s biggest encouragement came from graffiti along the way. On his return home, he recognized the power of showing the way in the workplace. Record the lessons you’ve learned, write reports or postmortems, publish and advertise your experiences, or mentor someone eager for the relationship. Each pilgrim’s Camino experience is unique, and people hike the Camino for unique reasons. Leadership is a comparable analogy. Don’t see those who succeed as rivals; encourage a positive transition.
The Camino’s Lessons for the World of Work
Undertake these changes to implement the Camino’s lessons:
- “Think about yourself differently” – Inventory the aspects of your job you enjoy the most and those you don’t enjoy. Define your ideal job. Participate in networking opportunities within your targeted field. Find inspiration in the accomplishments of other people. Use vacation time to conquer something meaningful. Introduce yourself as a well-rounded person: “I’m a dad, husband, kids’ basketball coach and a bank executive,” not just as by your job title. What can you reveal to others that makes you seem unique and interesting?
- “Think about others differently” – Define the values and goals you share with other people. Celebrate the differences among people of varied cultures on your team. Even when you work by yourself, remember that you have a team of friends and family, former colleagues, and contacts in your profession. Appreciate that team. Tell these people about your goals, so they can help you.
- “Act differently” – Make a “life list” of things you hope to accomplish. Prioritize your goals and, to the degree possible, work through them now, even if you must divide them into manageable pieces, rather than waiting for retirement. Identify barriers to your goals, plan to conquer them and create contingency plans for things outside your control. Buy your ticket, and set your plans in motion. When you set the scope of a project, be ruthless in determining needs versus wants. Recognize the advantage of getting a smaller project delivered to market quickly. Don’t get bogged down by bloated projects. “The best way to improve your leadership is to improve yourself as a person.”
About the author
Victor Prince is a leadership consultant and speaker. He previously served as COO of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and strategy consultant with Bain Company. He holds an MBA in Finance from Wharton.
Leadership consultant Victor Prince is the managing director of DiscoveredLOGIC. He has spent more than two decades in government and in finance, marketing and strategy.
Table of Contents
PART I: Meeting the Camino
CHAPTER 1: The History of the Camino de Santiago 5
CHAPTER 2: The Spirit of the Camino 15
PART II: Learning from the Camino
CHAPTER 3: Welcome Each Day, Its Pleasures and Its Challenges 23
CHAPTER 4: Make Others Feel Welcome 37
CHAPTER 5: Live in the Moment 51
CHAPTER 6: Share 65
CHAPTER 7: Feel the Spirit of Those Who Have Come Before You 79
CHAPTER 8: Appreciate Those Who Walk with You Today 93
CHAPTER 9: Imagine Those Who Will Follow You 107
PART III: Applying Lessons from the Camino
CHAPTER 10: The Post-Camino Impact 123
CHAPTER 11: Think About Yourself Differently 127
CHAPTER 12: Think About Others Differently 139
CHAPTER 13: Act Differently 149
PART IV: Sharing the Camino
CHAPTER 14: Find Your Own Camino 163
APPENDIX A: What to Know If You Want to Walk the Camino 171
APPENDIX B: The Camino Today 177
In this leadership journey unlike any other, Victor Prince shares the lessons he learned while on his pilgrimage and guides readers on their own Camino de Santiago.
Business coach and former COO Victor Prince began his 500-mile trek on the Camino de Santiago as one person–driven, work-focused, and highly competitive–and he finished it a completely different one–more balanced, caring, and present in the moment. As he made his way on foot through rugged countryside and medieval towns, the life-altering journey allowed him to reflect, test his will, and join a community of strangers on a shared mission.
As Prince did while on his journey, you will discover the seven essential leadership lessons inspired by the values emblazoned on the back of every pilgrim’s passport, including:
- Treat each day as its own adventure
- Make others feel welcome
- Learn from those who’ve walked before
- Consider your impact on those who follow
Each year hundreds of thousands trek across this 500-mile leadership journey like no other. Within these pages, learn the life-changing principles they are discovering!
A leadership journey unlike any other.
Stretching across 500 miles of northern Spain, the Camino de Santiago has been a pilgrimage route for a millennium. Each year, hundreds of thousands of peregrinos make their way through rugged countryside and medieval towns in order to reflect, test their will, and join a community of strangers on a shared mission. In short, it’s the ideal training ground for authentic leadership.
Challenged to walk the Camino, Victor Prince began his trek as one person: driven, work-focused and highly competitive, and he finished it a very different one: more balanced, more caring, and more present in the moment. In this transformative book he guides readers on their own Camino, translating his experience into seven essential leadership lessons inspired by the values emblazoned on the back of every pilgrim’s passport:
Treat each day as its own adventure • Make others feel welcome • Learn from those who’ve walked before • Consider your impact on those who follow • And more
Leadership is a journey. The Camino Way prepares you to tackle it with a pilgrim’s heart, a wayfarer’s grit, and a leader’s vision.
From the Author
I do hiking and biking trails as a hobby, and I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2013. That ancient trail across Spain, which pilgrims have walked for other 1000 years, had an impact on me like no other trail. When I returned, I wrote blogs about the leadership lessons from that experience. Those blogs went viral and touched thousands of people around the world. Many readers encouraged me to write a book. In the summer of 2016, I got a book deal from AMACOM, thanks in large part to the response from readers of those blogs. To augment my own stories and lessons, I asked other people who have walked the Camino for help. More than 100 people from 16 countries around the world were kind enough to share their Camino stories for this book. I hope these lessons and stories will inspire you to apply the Camino spirit to your professional and personal life, even if you never walk the trail yourself.
From the Inside Flap
The path to authentic leadership can start in unexpected places. For seasoned executive and traveler Victor Prince, that journey began on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient, 500-mile trail stretching across northern Spain.
Leaving the high-pressured world behind, and outfitted with a backpack, sturdy shoes, and a pilgrim passport for collecting stamps at stops along the route, Prince walked through rugged countryside and medieval villages on a month-long quest. Traveling by foot offered vast expanses of time to reflect, test his will, and meet fellow peregrinos as they moved toward a common goal. By the end of the trek, he emerged more humble, introspective, and caring—a different person and a different leader.
The Camino Way shares this story of adventure, personal growth, and awakening to what leadership is all about. Framed as a set of timeless lessons linked to the values inscribed on the back of his pilgrim passport, the book applies them to the modern workplace, including how to:
- Welcome the pleasures and challenges of each day
- Make people feel welcome
- Look up from the plan and live in the moment
- Share with others
- Learn from your predecessors
- Appreciate those who walk with you today
- Consider those who will follow you
The Camino is the ideal training ground for leaders. As you follow the author along this millennial-old route, the stories from the road will change how you practice leadership—with a pilgrim’s heart, a wayfarer’s grit, and a navigator’s gift for reaching the destination.
Victor Prince is a leadership consultant, speaker, and managing director of the consulting firm DiscoveredLOGIC. He has 20+ years of experience in corporate and government leadership, including positions as COO of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, strategy consultant with Bain & Company, and marketing executive with Capital One. He holds an MBA in finance from the Wharton School.
“…brilliantly draws continuous connections between the Camino, which started as a religious pilgrimage hundreds of years ago, and contemporary business leadership.” —Foreword Reviews
“What began as a competitive trek became an amazing adventure and career game-changer.” — Retail Observer
“This compelling book tells a wonderful story of self-reflection, self-awareness, and the importance of putting issues at work, life events into perspective.” —PMWorld Journal
“… part-travel, part-leadership lessons book…readers will be inspired by Prince’s expedition and perhaps will even ponder their own Camino discovery.” –Portland Book Review
“…help[s] to find a deeper, slower, more authentic version of ourselves.” –The Globe and Mail
“…read The Camino Way and garner useful lessons on setting goals, living in the moment, working with others, and much more. It has a spiritual tinge that’s unusual in leadership books, but requires no profession of faith — and no walking.”—Accounting Today
“The Camino has spawned a multitude of books and blogs. Victor Prince has taken a novel approach. He has gathered reflections from a cross section of pilgrims and distilled this wisdom to provide lessons in leadership.”—John Brierley, author of A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago and other bestselling travel books
“In The Camino Way, Victor shares lessons from an extraordinary experience that can help other leaders in their everyday work. I strongly recommend it.”—Robert J. Herbold, Chief Operating Officer (retired), Microsoft Corporation
“A thousand-year-old hiking trail across Spain is a uniquely interesting setting for a book on leadership. It’s a great read with valuable lessons for anyone looking to become a better leader, professionally and personally.”—Ethan Bernstein, Assistant Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior, Harvard Business School
“I’ll probably never walk the Camino, but I feel like I did after reading this book. What a fresh take on leadership! I highly recommend it.”—David K. Lenhardt, former President and CEO, PetSmart, Inc.
“Prince draws you in with the opportunity to walk the Camino vicariously with him—all the experiences and none of the blisters. This entertaining book is a combination of a travel guide and an invaluable set of lessons for success in life at home and at work.” —Dan Tangherlini, former Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration
“As leaders we need to ensure we never forget about the people we rely on, our teams, our employees, our family, friends . . . our village. The Camino Way reminds us we are all on different journeys and every relationship matters.” —Lisa M. Buckingham, Chief Human Resources Officer of Lincoln Financial Group
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I’ve learned a lot about leadership in my career. By earning a Master in Business Administration (MBA) at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, I learned about the theory and history of leadership at work. As a consultant, I’ve been able to work with leaders in a wide variety of industries and countries. As an executive, I’ve led people across a wide set of functions, including human capital, finance, facilities, purchasing, project management, information technology, and customer contact centers. And, like most everyone, I’ve had a lot of bosses to learn from as well.
The Camino provided a new, unexpected laboratory for me to learn about leadership. Every day presented new challenges that I had to manage through. I met dozens of hikers from around the world and got to learn about their careers.
The Camino also provided time for inner reflection. The many social moments with other hikers were separated by long stretches of alone time. I found myself recalling interactions and decisions I had made over my last several years of work, and my mind focused on what I wished I could redo. I started to imagine how I would have done things differently if I’d had the benefit of the Camino lessons I was now learning.
After I got home, I started writing about those insights and shared them on my blog about strategy and leadership. Each blog entry described how different experiences on the Camino taught me new leadership lessons or reinforced old ones in new ways. Those blogs went viral. They hit a wellspring with thousands of people from around the world who have done, or aspire to do, adventures like the Camino. They also resonated with people looking for new ways to learn about traditional management disciplines. Many readers encouraged me to write a book. Their support convinced me that there would be an audience. The confidence boost I got by completing my Camino convinced me that I could take on a new adventure–writing this book.
CHAPTER 1: The History of the Camino de Santiago
IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE NINTH CENTURY, A SPANISH BISHOP NAMED Teodomiro decided to investigate reports of strange lights and sounds coming from a hill in the northwest of Spain. After climbing the hill, the bishop discovered a site with three tombs, and he declared one of them to be the remains of St. James (Santiago in Spanish), one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. According to the Camino legend, Jesus tasked his disciples with going out to different parts of the world and spreading their new faith. James went to Spain; he later returned to Judea and was killed by the local authorities. His associates put his body, by itself, in a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. The boat drifted to the coast of the northwest corner of Spain, where it washed up onshore, covered in scallop shells. Locals found the boat and buried the remains on a nearby hill. That burial site was what the bishop Teodomiro declared he had discovered about 800 years later. To celebrate, the king ordered a small church to be built on the site over the tomb. Word about the discovery spread, and people started to visit the shrine. In the year 950, an intrepid bishop named Gotescalc from LePuy, France traveled 800 miles to see the shrine “to beg mercy and help from God and Santiago,” becoming the first pilgrim to be recorded as visiting the site.
To understand how the Camino de Santiago developed after that first pilgrim, it helps to understand how other pilgrimages cut a path through European history before the Camino. Even in pre-Roman-Empire times, the custom existed of visiting hallowed places to get spiritual help. Individuals from Europe probably started pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the Christian-history sites (the “Holy Land”) as early as the second or third century. By the fourth century, pilgrimage to the Holy Land was probably an established concept, with the Bible as a guidebook.
Once the concept of Christian pilgrimage became established, a new destination for pilgrims arose to compete by the eighth century — Rome. As the capital of the growing Catholic Church, Rome offered its own religious sights-to-see as a draw, in addition to Roman Empire ruins. The spread of the Catholic Church to northern Europe around that time likely created a natural flow of people to and from the church’s capital city. In addition to Rome’s draw, it was also an easier destination than the Holy Land for European pilgrims. It was both closer and under Christian control. The network of old roads originally built to connect the Roman Empire territories back to Rome probably helped, too.
The rise of the pilgrimage to Rome helped popularize the concept of pilgrimage. Even if few people would ever do a pilgrimage themselves, more would know what pilgrimage was. References to “pilgrims” started appearing in historical documents. Rome and Tours, France, were mentioned as pilgrimage destinations and people were reported believing pilgrimage was a way to forgive their sins. Pilgrims were recognized for their distinctive appearance with their clothing and equipment. The pilgrim “brand” had been born.
In addition to pilgrims, Rome got some very unwelcome visitors in the year 846 in the form of a large Arab raiding party that sacked the city. This was the latest in a series of attacks from Arabs in the south that made the people of Rome feel uneasy. Rome must certainly have become a less attractive pilgrimage destination as a result.
The discovery of Santiago’s remains was declared sometime around, but before, the year 842. (The king who ordered the building of the first church on the spot died in 842.) The timing was fortuitous. Just as the concept of pilgrimage had become established, one of its biggest destinations — Rome — was becoming less attractive. In addition, that northern area of Spain had pushed back the Muslim invaders in the century before. Getting a stream of Christian visitors was also probably helpful in keeping the Muslims at bay.
The century between the building of the first shrine to St. James’s remains and the first recorded pilgrim to the site (that of Gotescalc in the year 950) was an eventful time. It was the heart of the “Viking Age” in Europe, gunpowder was used in battle for the first time in China, and the Mayan Empire was collapsing in the “undiscovered” Americas. In the northwest corner of Spain, religious and royal officials were working hard to promote their area as a new pilgrimage destination. The small church at the shrine was replaced by a bigger one in 899. King Ramiro I ordered people to pay a tribute to the church in Santiago. Ramiro’s grandson, King Alfonso III, sent a letter in 906 to the clergy in Tours (a pilgrimage site itself) in response to their questions about this new shrine, demonstrating that word about the shrine was spreading.
The next two centuries (c. 950–c. 1150) were eventful, with the Norman conquest of England, the first European crusade to retake Jerusalem, the founding of the first universities (Bologna and Oxford), and Leif Erikson’s landing in modern-day Canada. In the northwest corner of Spain, more pilgrims were coming to see the shrine to Santiago, and the locals were building infrastructure to support them. As the local Christian kings in Spain pushed out the Moors, they left behind roads and castles built to support those military efforts. A new basilica (the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela) was started in 1075 and new settlements emerged among the pilgrim roads, such as Puente de la Reina, founded in 1090.
In addition to physical infrastructure, local church officials, particularly Bishop Don Diego Gelmirez (1100 — 1139), were laying religious groundwork for a pilgrim superhighway. Gelmirez successfully lobbied Rome to get the right to grant indulgences and remissions of sins, in those years in which the feast of St. James (July 25) fell on a Sunday. Because indulgences were typically only granted in Rome, this made Santiago even more attractive as a pilgrimage destination.
The final piece of Camino infrastructure that emerged in this time was an innovation — the travel guide. Around the year 1140, a compilation of documents about the miracles of St. James and the pilgrimage to his shrine emerged out of Santiago. It came to be known as the Codex Calixtinus, named after Pope Calixtus II (1121 — 1124), a pope Bishop Gelmirez had successfully lobbied. Beyond the religious content, one part of the Codex centered on describing Santiago as a destination, the routes to get there, and logistical information on the way. It even made the earliest known reference to the souvenir trade in the Christian West.
A lot happened in the four centuries between the emergence of the Codex Calixtus and the start of the Protestant Reformation (1517). Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Johannes Gutenberg, and William “Braveheart” Wallace all lived in this time. In the northwest corner of Spain, the combination of indulgences and the Codex Calixtus were turning Santiago de Compostela into a top pilgrimage destination. Pilgrims started appearing from England before the close of the twelfth century. In the fifteenth century, interest in Santiago had spread further, with records of pilgrimage to Santiago starting to appear from individual travelers from Italy, France, England, Germany, Sweden, and Poland. Amazingly, this period of growth included two tragic stages in European history — the Black Death plague (1340s) and the Hundred Years War (1337–1453).
The recorded reasons for pilgrimage are scarce, but the stories that did survive center on the need to get sins forgiven — voluntarily or involuntarily. After the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, for example, English king Henry II promised to make a pilgrimage as penance for his role, and he asked the pope to choose between Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago as his destination.
Some pilgrimages were not to ask forgiveness, but to ask for relief. Between 1456 and 1483, for example, four separate cities in Spain, Italy, and France sent representatives to Santiago to beg for help in lifting plagues from their cities. Some pilgrimages may have had less spiritual reasons. Some trips were probably as much for tourism as religion, like a German party of 1387 who admitted as much in their safe-passage letter. And, as always, some pilgrimages may have had anything but spiritual reasons, such as running away from the law or from servitude.
How many pilgrims were there during this peak age of the Camino de Santiago? There are no reliable statistics on pilgrims reaching Santiago, but a few points of data might give a sense of scale. A narrative from an Italian pilgrim in the 1600s mentioned that the Royal Hospice in Roncesvalles fed “up to thirty-thousand pilgrims a year,” a number that sounds more like hyperbole than statistics, but may help set an upper-bound sense of the scale of pilgrims at the time. A register of the Hospital de la Reina for the year 1594 logged 16,767 pilgrims, an average of about 45 per day, and on some days they had more than 200.
Whatever the number of pilgrims during this golden age, it must have been only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands per year that are recorded now. For example, the estimated 3,600 pilgrims that came from England during the entire 14th century is less than the number that come from the United Kingdom in one year now (5,417 in 2015). Any annual number of pilgrims in the thousands during the twelfth through fifteenth centuries should still be considered impressive, given the challenges of travel and the much smaller total population of Europe.
Pilgrimage on the Camino started to decline in the 16th century. Other methods than pilgrimage to get indulgences had emerged a century earlier. The Protestant Reformation further knocked down the reputation of indulgences.
Part of the decline of pilgrimage on the Camino probably arose from its popularity as well. Records from the beginning of the period suggest that some poor people began using the system of pilgrim hospices not for pilgrimage, but more as the equivalent of modern homeless shelters. While the number of pilgrims was decreasing, the costs of supporting the hospices built for the larger crowds of pilgrims of previous centuries remained. Hospices were selling off land to meet their operating costs in the 18th century, and many closed, or were destroyed, in the Napoleonic Wars.
The Camino was still alive enough in 1779 for future US president John Adams to remark in his diary, during a trip across Spain to France along part of the route: “Upon the Supposition that this is the place of the Sepulture of Saint James, there are great numbers of Pilgrims, who visit it, every Year, from France, Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe, many of them on foot.”
Pilgrimage to Santiago never died out completely, but only about seventy pilgrims were thought to have traveled the route in 1979. Then an old trick seems to have started a rebirth — a new Camino travel guide. Elias Valina Sampedro, a priest in a town along the Camino, published the final version of El Camino de Santiago, Guia del Pilgrim in 1985, and it became a model for future guides. Just as with the emergence of the Codex Calixtinus 800 years before, once a guidebook hit the market, people started coming.
Once pilgrims started coming, pilgrims started writing narratives, as they had hundreds of years before. Between 1985 and 1995, more than a dozen pilgrimage narratives were published in English. The Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho published his own book about the Camino in 1987, a year before his blockbuster book, The Alchemist, was published. In 2000, Shirley MacLaine, a famous American film actress, published her own Camino narrative, which became a New York Times best seller. A German pilgrim’s narrative in 2006 became a best seller in Germany. The 2010 film about the Camino called The Way, starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, seems to have been a key factor in increasing awareness of the Camino in the USA: since that film came out, requests for an American Camino credential have quadrupled from about 1,600 in 2010 to about 6,400 in 20 1 5. Pilgrims from other countries point to other recent books or films as their inspiration to walk the Camino. In short, the Camino de Santiago is officially back as it approaches its 1300th birthday.
Eleven centuries after that first recorded pilgrimage, in the year 2013, I was one of 215,880 people from all over the world who were recorded as pilgrims to the same shrine. The small church had grown to be a great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, a Spanish city of about 100,000 people that had grown around the shrine. My fellow pilgrims and I had walked roughly the same path the first pilgrims took, now known collectively in Spanish as El Camino de Santiago — the Path of Santiago.
CHAPTER 2: The Spirit of The Camino
THE CAMINO BEGINS WITH ONE DOCUMENT AND ENDS WITH ANOTHER. Before starting their journey, pilgrims get a Pilgrim’s Credential, informally known as a pilgrim, or peregrino, passport. I received my pilgrim passport from the nonprofit group that supports peregrinos from the US — American Pilgrims on the Camino. That credential serves two practical purposes. It identifies travelers to the low-cost hostels along the way that are only open to pilgrims. That helps the hostels keep out non-pilgrims looking for cheap accommodations. The passport is also where a pilgrim collects stamps at each stop along the way to prove his/her journey. Each hostel has a unique stamp with its name, location, and sometimes a logo. By adding a date to their stamp, the hostels can enforce policies to move pilgrims on after a day or two to make room for new pilgrims.
Upon arriving at the end of the trail in Santiago, pilgrims take their stamp-filled Credential to get the other bookend on a Camino — the Compostela certificate. Written in Latin, the Compostela is the certificate to show that a pilgrim has walked at least the last hundred kilometers of the trail. An official in the Oficina del Peregrino (Office of Pilgrims) from the Santiago de Compostela cathedral reviews each pilgrim’s passport and asks for the starting point and the reason for the journey. The official then writes the pilgrim’s name and date completed in Latin and hands it to the pilgrim with a final, official “Buen Camino.”
I will always remember my trip to that office. It was part of a bittersweet day. I was elated that I had reached my goal but sad that my journey was over. I could sense similar emotions from other pilgrims’ faces in line. Some of those faces were familiar; many were unfamiliar. All pilgrims from every Camino route into Santiago de Compostela converge at that office on the final day. When I finally got my Compostela certificate, my first thought was that I didn’t know my first name had a Latin form, Victorem. My second thought was how to protect my priceless new document until it was on my wall at home.
If my house were on fire and I could only rescue one document, I would choose my crumpled and messy Credential over my Compostela certificate. The Compostela certificate reminds me that I succeeded in the challenge of walking across Spain. But my pilgrim passport reminds me of every step I took along the way to earn that certificate. The Camino is an example of the saying “the journey is its own reward,” and the passport is like a record of the journey.
The process of getting a stamp as you check in for the night at the end of every day’s walk is a ritual core to every peregrino’s experience. Just as the sound of a gavel marks the close of many ceremonies, the thump of a stamp marks the close to each day on the Camino. For a results-driven executive like me, it was a form of immediate gratification on this adventure travel. Another day done — thump!
I remember getting my first stamp. I was excited, so I took a “selfie” picture. I bet most modern pilgrims do that too. I remember being overeager the rest of that first day hiking, getting a stamp at every rest or food break. As I admired my collection of stamps that night over dinner, I realized that I was going to run out of room for stamps if I kept up that pace. From then on, I held myself to just one at check-in each afternoon.