The Codex Calixtinus: the first travel guide

Where does the first travel guide come from? Is it a European invention? Does it have the same characteristic as the current guides? We’ll find it out in this article which analyses one of the first examples we can find in the Middle Age.

When someone names the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago in Spanish) we usually think in the gorgeous views, the surrounding nature and of course the pilgrims who walk in order to fulfill a promise they made to the apostle.


I’m sure you have seen, at least once, the typical symbol of the path: a golden shell that usually is in the floor or in the walls of the buildings in Europe as a guide of the path. If you have never realized of this sign go to Grand Place in Brussels or Madrid’s downtown, for example, and look for it because there are some that indicates you the Way. So if you want to go to Spain you just have to follow the shells as Tom Thumb followed the breadcrumbs!

According to the legend a hermit named Pelayo saw a meteor shower in the Libredón forest, where he discovered the tomb of the apostle St. James. That is why the city is called Compostela (literally field of stars). The king, Alfonso II of Asturias, decided to build a church where the relics of the apostle were found to commemorate St. James.
But this UNESCO’s World Heritage has a great historical importance too. It was not just a religious pilgrimage path. The route allowed the link between the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. Thanks to it, to Hispanic lands came numerous schools of thought, literary and artistic elements as well as different patterns of behavior.  It was a two direction way-street; Christian Europe was able to discover, thanks to the Way, the Hispanic cultural legacy.

But what if I tell you that the first travel guide was found there, in St. James’ Way? I’m talking about the Codex Calixtinus, an old book from the XII Century which gives the pilgrims the needed and detailed instructions and different alternatives of the Way of St. James. If we analyze this old treasure carefully we will realize that it has a very similar structure to the actual travel guides.


Fifth Book (Libro V, Liber Pereginationis):
Let’s focus on this book, which is completely dedicated to help locate the pilgrim and indicate the different paths he or she will find there. It describes the roads that existed at that time through France and Spain, indicating the places and buildings of interest; character and way of welcoming the people, etc. This unusual travel guide ends with a complete description of the city and the cathedral. But this book also gives the pilgrims some advices to carry out an entertaining and easy travel; it suggests them where to eat, rest or sleep.

Now you may think these things can’t be just coincidences, so you must be wondering… is the Fifth Book of this codex one of the first examples of what we consider nowadays a travel guide? There are many evidences that show it is. It explains in detail the place, it gives different itineraries to follow and it situates areas not only of religious interest but also from a tourist perspective.

It is organized by books which are divided into chapters, each one with a theme of the Way and the area around it. So there is no doubt it is the best example to explain the origin of the tourist guide and the standardized form of its organization and structure.

In a current travel guide we can find the routes that are most interesting, the roads that will take less time, the ones which are simpler and the monuments we should not miss out on and even the customs of the native people.  All of this information is also in this Fifth Book!

The codex offers places of worship to go, indicates where the rivers are… As a tourist guide also outlines the history of the places visited. As the codex was written to explain the Way of St. James it tells performed miracles by the Saint, his presence is throughout the book, being treated from different perspectives but always from the devotion. However, it is noteworthy that despite being a religious book, it focuses on other aspects besides to relate the story of the apostle.


In the Fifth Book there is a detailed description of the city and the summit of the Way: the cathedral. It explains its style of construction, appearance and construction phases. But the codex is not only letters and letters it also has an aesthetic value regarding at the illustrations of great beauty, artistic value, literary and even epic value too!
Its goal is not just extol the devotion to St. James it’s also to sponsor a city as Santiago de Compostela like the guidebooks which aim is to promote a place to be visited.
So the first guide was not a map or an Arabic document; it was this Fifth Book which was written in the Middle Age by the monk Picaud. Therefore we can say that the Codex Calixtino is a medieval travel guide which explains everything about the Way of St. James that has attracted so many devotees in its history.

In 2011 the codex, which is invaluable and priceless, was stolen from Santiago’s Cathedral. A serious mistake was made: the key that lock the box where the codex was kept was easy to find for a person from inside the cathedral. The police investigated the canons, researchers, musicians and employees for maintenance and cleaning.

Finally the codex was found in 2012. It was stolen by an electrician who used to work in the cathedral; he also was in possession of other documents and objects of the temple.
After this unfortunate event the vigilance measures in the cathedral were reinforced in order to avoid the codex and the other valuable things were stolen again.