Literary heritage

on the Ways to Santiago

The Way of Saint James (aka Camiño de Santiago, UNESCO Routes of Santiago de Compostela) is the most popular pilgrimage route in Europe, crossing the Iberian Peninsula towards the tomb of the Apostle James the Greater in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, in the Spanish region of Galicia. Since it was rediscovered and boosted as a tourist product in the 1980s, the Way has proved to be a motor of economic development in the areas it crosses, but a major impact in wide areas can still be achieved while promoting a better territory knowledge and experience among pilgrims. The rurAllure pilot aims to disseminate alternative tourist areas and experiences among pilgrims to Santiago, focusing on a particular original type of heritage (literary), luring them to explore the territory they are passing by on the steps of authors and written works. This approach dives into literature as a tool to interpret and disseminate unknown heritage through storytelling, and is connected to topics such as travel literature, pilgrimage literature, oral tradition and personal experiences.

Table of Contents

Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019


The Way comprises a network of paths across 1500 km in Spain, and connecting with others routes across the continent. The Apostle’s tomb was arguably discovered in Galicia in the 9th century under the reign of Alfonso II, King of Asturias, at a moment when most of the Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim domain: the discovery was key for the Christian world and turned Santiago into one of the three main places of Christian pilgrimage, along with Rome and Jerusalem. Kings and monks were the very first pilgrims to Santiago, quickly consolidating it as an international destination between the 11th and the 12th centuries, staying alive through the 14 and 15th. While the Middle Ages were the golden era for these routes, playing a key role in religious and cultural exchange, with troubadour they entered into decline in the Modern Age. In the 1980s, the Council of Europe acknowledged it as the first European Cultural Route inaugurating a new flourishing era as a powerful tool for cultural and spiritual tourism and attracting a growing number of modern-day pilgrims.

Key Stakeholders

In Galicia (last stage, but main promoter), the Way of Saint James is managed by the Regional Government (Culture and Tourism Department) through the private-public agency Xacobeo SA. These two key stakeholders will support the project as associated partners (their letters of support have been uploaded as annexes). 

Geographical coverage

The Way trespasses frontiers, with many trails coming from the East (French Way, North Way), the South of the Peninsula (Silver Way, Portuguese Ways) or even from the British Islands. The rurallure project will focus on the following three:

Source: Wikipedia (high-quality image:
  • The French Way runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles (Spanish side) and then another 780km on to Santiago through the major cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León. At Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port routes from several parts of France (including Paris) converge.

  • The Winter Way is a variant located mostly in Galicia, connecting Ponferrada to Santiago de Compostela.

  • The Portuguese Way connects Porto, in Portugal, with Santiago de Compostela along 3 routes: the Coastal one, through Vila do Conde and Viana do Castelo; the Central route, though Barcelos and Ponte de Lima; and the Braga’s variants. Before Porto, the route comes from Lisbon and Portugal’s southernmost Algarve region.

Relationship with other routes

The Way of Saint James inaugurated the programme for European Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe, and in many parts of Galicia they cross with these other routes. Furthermore,it is twinned with another UNESCO World Heritage Site Route: the Kumano-Kodo (since 1998), as well as with the Shikoku Henro trail (both in Japan). The Way of St James connects in France with other important pilgrimage routes, also originated in the Middle Ages, which are the focus of the other rurallure pilots. The design of the routes has also served as inspiration for other tourist and recreational routes, and it is pretty common to find alternative variations of the marked path (connections with hiking and biking trails).

Key locations and cultural assets

Covering such a wide territory, the Routes of Santiago include a built heritage of historical importance created to meet the needs of pilgrims: cathedrals, churches, hospitals, hostels, bridges and other structures, many of them illustrating the artistic evolution from Romanesque to Baroque. The French Way is the Jacobean itinerary with the greatest tradition, with many landmarks including the cathedrals of Burgos, Leon, and Santiago de Compostela itself; Santo Domingo de Silos Abbey; the Templars’ Castle of Ponferrada, Samos Monastery, Bishop’s Palace of Astorga (a masterpiece of Gaudí) or the thatched roof house of O Cebreiro. It also boasts outstanding natural landscapes (Pyrenees mountains, oak trees in San Juan, La Rioja vineyards) as well as a rich intangible cultural heritage that survives to the present day. This valuable heritage is common to other routes to Santiago, such as the Portuguese Way, which goes through Porto (UNESCO Heritage Site since 1996) and Vila do Conde (a rurallure partner) and the Winter Way, which starts in Las Médulas, an impressive gold-mining area exploited by Romans, and passes through the wine areas of Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra, the latest being Spain’s candidate for the next World Heritage title. 

Current status of development and promotion

The Way of Saint James is the most important tourist product in the Galicia region, and the main source of international tourism. In 2019 the pilgrim’s office in Santiago registered more than 350.000 visitors. 2021 has been declared by Santiago’s Cathedral as the next Holy or Jubilee years, and these figures are expected to grow significantly. The routes are managed throughout Spain by regional governments, and so do the neighbouring countries France and Portugal, where the Way has a strong presence. In Galicia, Xacobeo SA (a rurallure associate partner) manages a public network of more than 70 pilgrims’ hostels, and looks after the signposting (the well-known “yellow arrows” and the scallop shell). 

Municipalities are especially committed to the promotion of the route, as it is important for local economies. For example, in 2010 the Portuguese Government finally credited the Way as an official (and thus protected) pilgrimage route, leveling it with Fatima, as an answer to the long-time demands of municipalities and associations. Because of its economic relevance, the Way boasts a full range of accommodation facilities (besides the official network of hostels) and services. Likewise, the Way appears in numerous focused advertising campaigns, and private tourism agents offer tons of tourist products and packages related to this route. Other relevant stakeholders are Friends of the Way associations, which are independent nonprofit organisations involved with the promotion and conservation of these routes. They spread all around the world (a detailed list can be found here).

Rural surroundings

Both the French and the Winter Way in Galicia go mainly through rural settlements, covering areas with a very low population density and inverse population pyramids characterised by aging processes. Agriculture used to be the most common activity, although it is decreasing in favour of services (catering, tourism and social) while industry does not represent a substantial portion. Subsistence agriculture is common, as well as little cattle, combined with some mining facilities. The lack of job opportunities forces youngsters to move to other territories, a common phenomena strongly linked to the territories aging process. The presence of pilgrimage routes has an important impact in these territories, with little villages whose economic activity is mainly built upon the presence of pilgrims with hostels, catering services, small retailing shops, etc.

In relation to the French and the Winter Way, the actions will focus on the rural area of O Courel, which reproduces this rural scheme. Its main municipalities, Pedrafita and Folgoso do Courel, are sparsely populated, with a density less than 10 inh/km2 (same as its districts) and around 1000 inhabitants each. This figure can be compared to the 445 inh/km2 of Santiago de Compostela and the 91,3 of Galicia Region (close to Spanish share). In terms of aging, people aged 65 or more represent around 40% of these municipalities (and their districts) population, while in Santiago they represent less than the 25%, a high figure in both cases. The Uxio Novoneyra Foundation (FUN) has a privileged location halfway between the French Way (Pedrafita do Cebreiro) and the Winter Way (Quiroga), around 30 km away from each point. This is a great opportunity to reach pilgrims in their last stage of the Way or even those who choose to make only this part of the route (a popular choice). Furthermore, FUN is connected to the Way through the figure of poet Uxío Novoneyra and his works, to whom the foundation is devoted. This relevant Galician poet lived between the area of O Courel and Santiago de Compostela, in a sort of personal pilgrimage he depicted in poetry volumes such as Do Courel a Compostela (“From O Courel to Compostela”). The Way to Santiago was central is his last poems, collected in the book Ámeto mítico: Arrodeos e Desvíos do Camiño de Santiago, published by Galician Regional Government on the occasion of 1933 Holy Compostelan Year. The volume serves as a “travel guide” to the Way, guiding pilgrims through locations and revealing its poetic dimension, while acknowledging Courel’s position within the route.

In relation to the Portuguese Way, the Municipality of Vila do Conde (a rurallure partner) is located in the northwest of Portugal and bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean and also by the following municipalities: Póvoa de Varzim to the north, Vila Nova de Famalicão and Trofa to the east and Maia and Matosinhos to the south. It is part of the Metropolitan Area of Oporto and the Galicia-Northern Portugal Euro-region. It also incorporates the Greater Oporto Region (NUTIII), the Northern Region (NUTS II) and the Continent (NUTS I).

Nearby heritage missed by (most) pilgrims

O Courel is Galicia’s great green reserve, an unspoiled area of huge natural beauty and candidate to UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. All Galician endogenous species (except sea ones) are represented in this mountain crossroads, with the best of Atlantic and Mediterranean characteristics. There are chestnut trees around the villages and a stronghold of olives in Quiroga. Within this area tourists may find:

UNESCO Global Geopark of Courel Mountains, which includes the area of Quiroga. 578 km2 with an unique geological heritage, especially the geosite and European Natural Monument Campodola-Leixazós Geological Fold. Caves and tunnels spread around the park have a dedicated interpretation center in Meiraos.

Singular rural settlement of Parada do Courel, including the Uxío Novoneyra House-Museum, the Poet’s Forest, a group of centennial chestnut trees tagged as “singular species” and Poet María Mariño’s Old School.

Devesa da Rogueir ©Courel Mountains UNESCO Global Geopark

Devesa da Rogueira, one of the few Iberian examples of dehesa, a singular type of Atlantic forest. It is the ecological jewel of the mountain ranga because of its high level of biodiversity.

Ethnographic sites: Wood Museum (Folgoso do Courel), Peninsula War Iron Foundry (1807–1814), thatched houses and ethnographic site of O Cebreiro; singular rural settlements of Visuña, Romeor and Ferramulín.

Archaeological sites: Roman mining complex of A Toca, castros (hillforts) of Vilar and A Torre.

Pre-Romanesque Church of Royal St Mary is Cebreiro, possibly the oldest church of the French Way.

O Incio mineral springs and Templars’ heritage.

The aforementioned resources configure the natural and cultural landscape integrating O Courel identity as a singular rural territory with a vast heritage to preserve. The natural landscape includes distinctive tectonic and geomorphic phenoma, Paleozoic formations, caves, canyons and valleys; high flora and fauna diversity, ancient species (centennial trees, remnants of prehistoric fauna and flora), etc. The cultural landscape ranges from the mining industries of the Romans to nowadays ethnographic values (oral traditions, ancient land-tenement systems, stone walling techniques, …). Thus, the area of o Courel provides a complex yet cohesive picture of a remote rural area still linked to its past and with a deep memory of the land. Remarkably, O Courel has become a Literary Territory, due to the work of poet Uxio Novoneyra, who thoroughly depicted the mountains and its inhabitants. His works provide a great interpretive opportunity for this territory, charging it with an epic dimension that connects it with readers-visitors through time and space, making O Courel a sort of universal representation of rural life. FUN works actively to disseminate Novoneyra’s works as a way of understanding this territory and making it accessible and relevant, as well as raising awareness about its main distinctive values.

Regarding Vila do Conde over the past decades, the city council held a series of important works of restoration of architectural landmark buildings of the city, which resulted in the creation of new cultural facilities, including the Memory Center, the Municipal Theater, the Municipal Center of Youth, Antero de Quental House, the Solar Gallery, the Center of Environment, Monitoring and Interpretation, the Living Science Center, the Center for Environment Education, the newly built Municipal Library, the restoration of the José Régio Writer´s House-Museum and Documentation Centre, and the installation of the Writer Julio/Saul Dias Gallery and Study Center. With this new group of buildings, directed to cultural activities, the municipality increases, both in capacity and in quality, the offer of cultural spaces, thereby, creating propitious conditions to the emergence of unprecedented cultural and touristic dynamics in the region. Vila do Conde presents a high potential for quality tourism with this undeniable scenic qualities, exceptional and diverse built heritage and welcoming sociological environment. The municipality is served by a network of three hotels, two with a four star rate and a Spa service, seven lodging establishments and two tourism establishments in rural areas. Presently this tourist development offers 222 rooms with 478 beds.

More than half of the capacity of accommodation is provided by hotels (70%) followed by lodging establishments (19%) and tourism establishments in rural areas (11%). Vila do Conde received in 2013, 24.660 guests/lodgers, a number that compared to 2009, represents a 29% increase.

Current needs and opportunities in cultural and touristic promotion

The Way to Santiago is a consolidated tourist product extremely popular all over the world. Many pilgrims from around the world repeat this experience several times throughout their lifetime (even on a yearly basis) and there is a demand for “enriched” and expanded pilgrimage experiences with added value. Also, it is for many foreign visitors their first approach to Galicia, an area where they tend to return in order to explore it further. Thus, developing tourism products in O Courel and linking them to the Way answers these needs, while providing alternative routes and activities to prevent massification in highly pilgrim crowded locations (such as Pedrafita do Cebreiro) and developing opportunities in sustainable development for these territories. 

Strengths & opportunities

  • Abundant and relevant heritage of natural, cultural and ethnographic value.

  • Recent declaration of O Courel Mountains as UNESCO Geopark.

  • Certified hiking trails around the area.

  • Trends in green tourism and slow tourism.

  • Location close to important route’s stages.

  • Destination’s level of “authenticity”.

  • A huge increase of pilgrims is expected by 2021, Holy Compostellan Year, providing a privileged framework to investigate how the pilgrim flows may permeate rural areas to disclose their heritage.

Weaknesses & threats

  • Isolation and poor accessibility: the lack of effective public transportation and poor road provision.
  • Population aging processes.

  • Poor infrastructure: bad Internet coverage, lack of public services, no access to markets, etc.

  • Little tourist hospitality offer: lack of beds availability prevents tourists from visiting the area, while tourist low traffic makes investments risky and difficult (p.e. establishment of new lodging facilities).

  • Seasonality: visitors tend to concentrate in the summer season.