The rejuvenation of European pilgrimage routes

October 31, 2021
Cultural routes and pilgrimage trails are not a new phenomenon, but with the current pandemic situation they are gaining renewed momentum. People are increasingly seeking the opportunity to spend time outdoors to reconnect with nature and with themselves. In this context, pilgrimage paths and cultural itineraries satisfy various motivations, both for religious people and for those in search of physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

The Council of Europe launched the European Cultural Routes programme in 1987 with the Declaration of Santiago de Compostela. On that occasion, the first route to be certified was the Way of St. James, a symbol of European cultural identity since the Middle Ages. As Goethe once said, “Europe was made on the road to Santiago de Compostela”.

The cultural routes put into practice the values of the Council of Europe: human rights, cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and mutual exchanges across borders. There are currently more than 40 certified routes and they cover a wide range of themes, from architecture and landscape, religious influences, gastronomy and intangible heritage to major figures in European art, music and literature.

Pilgrimage routes

Pilgrimage routes have the particularity of being inspired by a religious vocation, which usually involves visiting a sacred site or serving a penance. Most religions provide for some form of pilgrimage. Among the most important sites are Rome and the Vatican for Catholics, Mecca for Islam and Jerusalem where Judaism, Christianity and Islam converge.

Pilgrimage is arguably the forerunner of the modern phenomenon of tourism. However, over time, the motivations for undertaking the journey have changed and today we can speak of secular or spiritual pilgrimage as well as a religious pilgrimage. According to Professor Noga Collins-Kreiner of the University of Haifa (Israel), the phenomenon of pilgrimage is in a phase of “rejuvenation” as it is losing some of its original characteristics (such as the purely religious motivation) and acquiring new ones, such as the personal dimension of spirituality.

Pilgrims, walkers or tourists

Generally, the terms pilgrim or walker are used interchangeably, although the difference lies in the motivation for undertaking the journey. While pilgrims have a religious motivation and do so in fulfilment of a tradition envisaged by an institution such as the Church, other people do so for personal motivations, involving for example the opportunity to find themselves and connect with nature and the environment. These motivations can be considered spiritual, as they refer to the search for personal transformation and meaning to one’s existence beyond everyday life.

Many people also undertake a slow journey, on foot or by bicycle, seeking to get to know new territories, learn about local history and culture, meet new people and regain a psychophysical balance, especially after the confinement caused by the pandemic. This is how the differences between pilgrim and walker are blurring and the meaning of spirituality is becoming more neutral, to include the appreciation of natural and cultural heritage as part of a spiritual journey, where the religious dimension is one of the possible motivations of the contemporary pilgrim.

pilgrimage routes

Trails as an opportunity for local development

These itineraries are in turn a powerful tool for local development, as they boost economic opportunities in the rural areas they pass through and are an incentive for the appreciation of natural and cultural heritage by the local population.

The paths favour the creation of networks of actors between different sectors at local, regional and transnational levels, as they cross different territories, contributing to the intercultural dialogue and interregional cooperation promoted by the Council of Europe and the European Union. However, this opportunity is at the same time an important challenge faced by the routes, since the different levels of management must be coordinated so that the experience of the pilgrim or walker is homogeneous beyond the particularities of each territory.

The Way of St. James: an emblematic example

The Way of St. James is one of the most emblematic pilgrimage routes and a model to be followed by other cultural routes due to its high level of coordination between political, religious and private actors around the route. It has its origins in the 9th century when the tomb of the Apostle St. James was discovered in Galicia and became one of the most important pilgrimage routes of the Middle Ages.

In recent years it has seen a steady increase in the number of pilgrims and before the pandemic reached 300,000 pilgrims a year. In particular, the Jubilees or Holy Years of 1993 and 1999 marked a milestone, as their organisation involved joint work between the national government, the region of Galicia, other Spanish autonomous regions and the Catholic Church, contributing to the positioning of Santiago de Compostela as a cultural mecca in Europe. In fact, in 2000 the city was recognised as one of the European Capitals of Culture.

Among the actions that were developed in those years were the enhancement of the infrastructure of the route, of the historic buildings and the establishment by the Xunta de Galicia of the network of pilgrims’ hostels along the various routes that lead to Compostela. This major investment by the regional government helped to generate a multiplier effect of jobs and economic activities, as well as renewing the pride of the inhabitants of the villages crossed by the routes.

pilgrimage routes

Via Francigena: following in the footsteps of St. James

One pilgrimage route that seeks to follow in the footsteps of St. James is Via Francigena, which traverses 1800 km from Canterbury (England) to Rome, following the route taken by Archbishop Sigeric in 990 AD to meet Pope John XV and receive the investiture of the pallium.

The Via Francigena route received recognition as a Cultural Itinerary from the Council of Europe in 1994 and since then the number of pilgrims and walkers undertaking the journey has increased every year, reaching 40,000 people in 2015. This year the European association that manages the route celebrated its 20th anniversary with the “Road to Rome” initiative, walking with several followers the entire route that now reaches Santa Maria di Leuca in the Puglia region, from where it is possible to reach Jerusalem, the ultimate goal of the pilgrimage, by sea.

In Italy, Via Francigena is considered an example to follow, as it has managed to establish a multi-level governance model with the European association that coordinates the more than 180 members in the 4 countries that the route crosses. In particular, the Tuscany region, through which the route passes, identified in the trails the opportunity to promote the lesser-known hinterland areas of the region. The regional government has invested heavily in infrastructure, valorisation and promotion, and has recently enacted a specific law on the subject, which contributes to aligning the actions of the various actors.

The future of cultural routes and itineraries

The external and internal journey experienced by pilgrims, walkers or travellers who undertake a route is a transformative experience that contributes to re-establishing the physical, mental and spiritual balance so necessary in these pandemic times. New networks being created around new or existing paths include religious (the network of St Michael’s sites in Europe), historical (such as the Gothic Line or the Wool and Silk Road) and awareness-raising (such as the Way of the Transformed Lands) paths.

The current boom in cultural routes and pilgrimage trails represents an opportunity for revitalisation of the rural territories they cross, encouraging local, regional and transnational actors to work in a coordinated manner, collaborating in their management and promotion. European projects such as the recent rurAllure aim to contribute to this process, expanding the benefits of the paths to other nearby rural areas.



Noga Collins-Kreiner (2016) The lifecycle of concepts: the case of ‘Pilgrimage Tourism’, Tourism Geographies, 18:3, 322-334

Michael A. Di Giovine & Jaeyeon Choe (2019) Geographies of religion and spirituality: pilgrimage beyond the ‘officially’ sacred, Tourism Geographies, 21:3, 361-383

Gusmán    I.,Lopez    L.,    González,    R.    C.    L.,Santos    X.M. (2017),    The    Challenges    of    the    First    European    Cultural    Itinerary:    the    Way    of    St. James. Almatourism Special    Issue    N.    6

Donn James Tilson PhD and KHS and APR and Fellow PRSA (2005) Religious-Spiritual Tourism and Promotional Campaigning: A Church-State Partnership for St. James and Spain, Journal of Hospitality & Leisure Marketing, 12:1-2, 9-40



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