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For a great many reasons, the Route of Santiago de Compostela is a special case within the context of Spanish heritage. It is an historic road which is partially comprised of ancient routes used in previous periods (mostly pre-Roman and Roman) and which has remained in use for over 1200 years, naturally with periods of splendour and decadence. Today it is once again a cultural and religious landmark exercising influence over a large proportion of the north of Spain, linking it to the rest of the European continent.
Down through the centuries, the Route of Santiago de Compostela has had a marked effect on the urban and rural landscapes of the places it passes through both from a physical point of view (easily seen in the rich and peculiar monumental heritage dotting its path) and also having regard to the so-called spoken or intangible heritage where the Jacobean phenomenon has left innumerable prints in the form of legends, traditions and local celebrations. All of this makes this historic pilgrimage route a unique and noteworthy case within the cultural history of the Western World as the common denominator of political and economic ideas, religious beliefs and artistic styles. During the Middle Ages, the Route of Santiago de Compostela was one of the strongest links uniting different peoples all over Europe at a time when religious pilgrimages were very important. This stands in stark contrast with the general belief that inhabitants of medieval towns and villages were permanently isolated with little or no contact with the outside world. These contacts did have their importance and pilgrimages (together with commerce and war) were one of the phenomena which most contributed to the mutual knowledge of the peoples of Western Europe, through the sharing of different lifestyles and advances in a wide array of social and cultural issues.
We find, then, that one of the major merits of the Jacobean route down through the ages was having served as a place of meeting and dialogue between Europeans, leading some to even refer to this route as a veritable European "thoroughfare".
The importance of the Route of Santiago de Compostela was recognised with the inscription in 1993 of the French part of the route on UNESCO's World Heritage List and the 1999 designation of the four main Jacobean pilgrimage routes in France. In both cases, however, the parts of the Route of Santiago de Compostela running through the north of the Iberian Peninsula were left out despite their undeniable historic importance. Indeed, Cantabria and Asturias were the first places where the news of the alleged presence in Spain of St. James the Apostle was disseminated (thanks, among other things, to the works of the Beatus of Liébana at the end of the 8th century) and this was to become the route linking Oviedo with Santiago de Compostela, the first used at the time of the miraculous discovery of the tomb of the Apostle, site which was destined to become the city of Compostela. All of this activity tied in with the first signs of resistance in this part of the north of Spain to the Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula. Additional to these initial pilgrimage routes were the major roads developed as from the 10th and 11th centuries connecting France and Spain by way of the French route. As of the 12th century, the coastal routes once again gained importance linking the Cantabrian coast with Santiago de Compostela and serving as the point of arrival of many pilgrims reaching the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula by boat (we could even speak of pilgrimage-based coastal trading).
Enlargement of the previous World Heritage declarations to include the routes through the north of the Peninsula would therefore serve to enrich and round-out the Jacobean reality which currently figures on the World Heritage List thus allowing for the inscription of the places and routes which were first used by pilgrims who, in the 9th century, learned of the remains of the Apostle in Compostela.
The Routes of Santiago de Compostela in the north of the peninsula enjoy the legal protection of the different regional governments.