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The Road to Santiago
Ninth-century sources have the apostle James preaching in northwest Iberia, not far from Fisterra. Beheaded by Herod in AD 44 (Acts 12:2), Santiago's remains, according to legend, were placed in a stone boat and guided by God to the Galician river Iria Flavia, near Padrón. As the boat arrived, a horse on the shore bolted into deep water only to emerge covered in scallop shells, along with its rider, which led to the scallop becoming the symbol of St. James. Much later, in 813, religious leaders unearthed a sarcophagus said to contain the remains of the apostle. "Santiago" comes from Sant Iago (St. James); "Compostela" probably comes from the Latin campus stellae (field of stars).
At the height of its fame in the 12th century, up to 2 million people made the trek to Santiago each year, nearly as many as went to Rome and Jerusalem. After the 12th century, pilgrim numbers began to decline gradually, due to the dangers of robbery along the route, a growing scepticism about the genuineness of St. James's remains, and the popular rise of science in place of religion. It was only in 1993, when the Galician government launched the Xacobeo initiative to increase the number of visitors to the region, that the pilgrimage's popularity experienced a massive resurgence. The number of yearly pilsbrims is about 50,000, but in holy years—years when July 25, the feast of St. James, falls on a Sunday (the most recent was in 2010)—it doubles. The determined bunch is composed of spiritual seekers and nature lovers—scenery along the route is wild and stunning, ranging from untouched beech forests in the Pyrenees to wildflower-covered plains in central Spain and verdant forests and empty peaks in Galicia.
Although most medieval pilgrims were poor and infirm, today's average hiker is an educated, middle-class, thirtysomething Western European. The main path is the camino francés (the French route), which enters Spain from France at Roncesvalles and hits Santiago 750 km (465 mi) later, a month's walk.
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