If you have ever made the pilgrimage to Santiago, or are currently doing it, you shall know by now how well marked the route is, and you will be quite familiar with the infallible and ubiquitous symbol of the yellow arrow, the standard indicator in every Jacobean route, and the most safe sign that we are in the right path and heading to Santiago.
The symbol of the yellow arrow is relatively recent, and contemporary with the Jacobean pilgrimage revival at mid eighties. Its presence is not incidental or spontaneous, but the result of a huge effort by the man who made the transformation of an almost forgotten old tradition into the mass phenomenon that we know today possible: the Father Elías Valiña (1929-1989), who since 1957, when he was made the parish priest of Santa María do Cebreiro, became the greatest champion of the recovery of the ancient route that passed in front of his church.
It was in 1984, as part of his tireless work for the restoration and promotion of the pilgrimage to Santiago, that the need of an adequate signaling of the route arose.
Elías Valiña was receiving many complaints from the scarce pilgrims who then walked the route that they were constantly missing the path. The Father acquired a batch of spare yellow paint of the type used in Spain to make surface markings on stretches of roads as a roadwork sign, and he went to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the French starting point of the French Way, in his Citroën 2CV, and from there right down to Santiago, signaling with a hand painted yellow arrow every one of the hundreds of points where the route could be missed by the pilgrims. That is the Jacobean route restored and signaled by Elías Valiña himself, and it is considered the most reliable restoration of the original medieval route. During these long efforts Elías Valiña became a great scholar in everything related to the Jacobean pilgrimage, with an ample knowledge about history, art and cultural heritage, and countless published works and papers.
In his will, he left his family in charge of maintaining the proper signaling of the pilgrim’s way, a work that they are still carrying; but of course this is a work too demanding for so few people, and this heritage has been actually passed on to the many voluntary associations of the Camino and to the public administrations.
If today the Camino to Santiago is not just a beautiful memory of a splendorous medieval past, we owe it mostly to the selfless work of the Father Elías Valiña. The yellow arrow is a symbol not only of a collective selfless effort for guiding the pilgrim on a safe path, but it’s also a symbol of the great effort of transforming what was little more than a romantic memory of ancient medieval times in a mass phenomenon more alive than ever.