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Sarah Wilson, Camino Specialist

On my recent trip walking the Sarria to Santiago section of the Camino I found that much of the Santiago Cathedral was closed for public access, shrouded by scaffolding and sheets of plastic. It is not unusual to find older buildings throughout Spain undergoing renovations but for such a popular site it is unusual to find so much of it with restricted access. The reason for the extensive renovations is to make sure that the cathedral is ready for the influx of visitors during the next Holy Year.

The Camino de Santiago is a unique experience for any pilgrim but for those pilgrims who are taking a spiritual pilgrimage, some years hold more significance. These are known as ‘Holy Years’. The next one will be in 2021, when an unprecedented amount of pilgrims are expected to complete their Camino. 

A Holy Year on the Camino de Santiago occurs when the feast of St James (25 July) falls on a Sunday. It is the only time that the Door of Mercy (also known as the Porta Santa) is available to enter the cathedral through. This door is located on the east side of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral (facing the Quintana Plaza). It is normally prevented from public access with wrought iron gates and is opened with a ceremony on 31 December prior to the first day of the Holy Year. 

Holy Door, Santiago Cathedral

The opening ceremony involves the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela striking a temporary wall (erected the day before the ceremony) three times with a ceremonial silver hammer. When the wall collapses and reveals the door the Archbishop cleanses the area with holy water and olive branches and is the first person to walk through. On 13 November at the end of the pilgrim season, the door is sealed until the next holy year with a similar ceremony which replaces the temporary wall and blesses the stones laid with incense. 

Holy Door, Santiago Cathedral

A holy year on the Camino is significant for many Catholics as it provides an opportunity to have their sins to date forgiven and pardoned by decree of the Pope, which is only available in holy years. It is a religious rite called a plenary indulgence. If you complete a pilgrimage to Santiago in a holy year and participate in certain sacraments (religious observances) you are granted the plenary indulgence. In layperson’s terms, this means your sins to date are forgiven and any punishment relating to them in this life or eternal life is pardoned.   

As well as completing the pilgrimage, to receive the plenary indulgence you must complete some rituals. These include:

  • visit the Cathedral of Santiago where the tomb of the apostle James is and enter through the Holy door
  • recite a decree of faith such as the apostles’ creed
  • pray for the Pope’s intentions and the Pope himself
  • go to confession
  • meditate on mercy and take communion within the 15 days before or after your visit to the Santiago Cathedral which can be done by attending mass (a Catholic church service).

Due to the spiritual stakes for Catholics in a Holy Year you will find that there are many more pilgrims on the Camino trail than in other years, particularly in the last sections from Sarria to Santiago and on the Portuguese route from Baiona to Santiago. Both of these routes take in the last 100km which you are required to walk in order to receive your Compostela certificate.  

If you are planning to complete your Camino experience in 2021, consider the following:

Book ahead with RAW Travel
Beat the race for a bed in an albergue (hostel) and enjoy comfortable accommodation in a private room with your own ensuite bathroom. Our Camino Experts will help you plan your journey and book your accommodation for you well in advance. It is advisable to consider booking now as prices will be higher in the Holy Year and accommodation will be harder to secure. Let us start planning your Camino Holy Year trip for 2021 now – ask us how!

Plan to walk the bulk of your Camino in April or October
These months are outside European and American holiday periods and, generally, offer cooler temperatures.

Time your trip around festivals
Travel in July will be more expensive due to the celebrations of the Feast of St James, which occurs during the last 2 weeks in July in Santiago. Accommodation may also be difficult to find around the Semanta Sana (Easter) Festival period in April. 

Walk a less popular route
Consider breaking down your Camino across multiple trips or choosing one of the less popular routes. At RAW Travel we have lots of great options to choose from, including: 

We offer flexible trips, giving you the experience you want. We can tailor the daily walking distances to suit your ability and timeframe, and book accommodation that best suits your individual needs and budget.