El Camino Frances was already completely developed by the 11th century but this was not the first route to Santiago de Compostela because in the 9th century there was already pilgrims following El Camino del Norte or Ruta de la Costa and El Camino Primitivo. The explanation for this is quite easy: at that time, nearly the whole Iberian Peninsula had been conquered by the Muslims and the Caliph in Cordoba (in Andalusia, South of Spain) was ruling over the whole Western Muslim Empire.
Therefore, it was not until the last Christians in the Iberia hidden in the high mountains of Asturias started to fight back the Muslims and to gain more and more southern territories that this route could be developed. But as soon as this happend it quickly substituted the El Camino del Norte and El Camino primitivo as the most popular route because it is easier to travel El Camino Frances due to the fact that most of it is very flat and also that the weather is not so rainy as in the north ways. In addition, the Christian kings and the Pope had a great interest in the developing of this route so as el Camino de Santiago and its pilgrims would help to repoblate and to reintroduce the Christian faith in those former Muslim territories.
El Camino Frances has four main branches coming from Europe: La Via de Tours (the Tours Way), La Via de Vezelay (the Vezelay Way), La Via de Le Puy (Le Puy Way) and La Via de Arles (the Arles Way) being La Via de Le Puy the most important one.
La Via de Tours, Vezelay and Le Puy merge in the French village of St. Jean Pied de Port right before the Pyrenees and then La Via de Arles, through El Camino Aragones, join them in the Navarra village of Puente de la Reina. Nowadays, the most popular starting points are St. Jean Pied de Port or Roncesvalles (the first Spanish village with its imponent pilgrims’ hospital built in 1132 still running).
Lately, El Camino de Santiago (El Camino Frances) has recived the highest international awards. The Council of Europe has declared it First European Cultural Itinerary in 1987. And the UNESCO has declaredEl Camino de Santiago World Heritage in 1993.
To give you an idea of the quick increment of pilgrims during the last years note that in 1987 there were nearly 3000 pilgrims and in 2004 in the St. James’s Holy Year 180,000 pilgrims walked El Camino de Santiago.
SO…WHERE CAN YOU START EL CAMINO DE SANTIAGO?
As it has already been said there are several routes, and El Camino Frances is the main one, that pilgrims have followed traditionally and possess the weight of History and the background that thousands of pilgrims have created before us. Nevertheless, there is not a fixed route, you can always start a new one or join an existing one at any point. El Camino de Santiago may start at the door of your house. You can even do it without walking because el Camino de Santiago is a philosophy, a way of living.