When the Ambassador of Malta to Spain, Daniel Azzopardi, completed the Camino Portugués by sailing boat and on foot in 2021, he was shocked to discover that there was no official route connecting Malta to Santiago de Compostela.
“We know about the classic routes like the Camino Francés, the Camino Portugués and the Camino Primitivo, but there are actually lots of other routes, with one even starting all the way over in Istanbul,” Azzopardi says. “But Malta didn’t feature on the map of routes in my pilgrim passport, and I wanted to do something about this.”
Inspired by his own camino, Azzopardi spoke to the Honorary Consul of Malta in Vigo, Gabriel Alberto Baltar Giraud, who then organized a meeting with Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the then President of the Regional Government of Galicia and the current the leader of the Spanish Partido Popular. In the hope of bolstering tourism and bilateral relations, Azzopardi spoke to Núñez Feijóo about his plans to create an official Camino Maltés with components both on land and at sea.
The proposition was met with great enthusiasm by Núñez Feijóo. “We hashed out the process through correspondence,” Azzopardi comments. “One of the key points was our historical link of over 500 years with Spain because to get a camino, you need to prove that there has historically been some sort of pilgrim movement between the two places.”
Malta was ruled by the Crown of Aragon between 1282 and 1530, when King Carlos I of Spain, also known as Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, handed the islands over to the Knights of Malta. While Spain maintained official suzerainty at this time, King Carlos saw the islands as the ideal base from which to defend Christendom against the Turks and Islam. This strong historical bond between the two nations, along with evidence of renewed interest in pilgrimages across Europe following the Reconquista and the unification of Spain under the crown of Castille, filled Azzopardi with hope.
This hope turned into reality when he called James Portelli, the President of XirCammini, a voluntary organisation dedicated to heritage faith walks in Malta and the rest of Europe. Coincidentally, when Portelli picked up the phone, he was actually in the middle of completing the Camino Primitivo, leading a group from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela for the second time. He stopped in his tracks.
Portelli had been working on making the Camino Maltés an official route since 2017. Four years later, in August 2022, Azzopardi’s call came as a welcome surprise. “The missing link for us was getting approval from official authorities in Spain,” Portelli remarked. He was overjoyed to hear that Azzopardi was building the bridge with the Galician authorities to make this happen. Azzopardi was equally thrilled when Portelli told him that he had struck gold when searching for the all-important documentation that proved there had been pilgrim movement between Malta and Santiago de Compostela.
In the past, before walking to Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims from every kingdom, princedom, dukedom and bishopric state used to obtain a so-called Credencial, a certificate of safe passage, from their respective government authority.
“We always believed that Malta, being a Catholic state, in addition to its strong connections with the Knights of St. John, would have had pilgrims going from Malta to Santiago de Compostela,” Portelli explains. A Credencial issued by Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt to Don Juan Benegas de Cordoba in the early 17th century for his passage from Rabat, Malta, to sanctuaries in Europe, including ‘San Giacomo in Galitia’ is testament to Malta’s historical connection to Santiago de Compostela.
Having found the missing piece of the puzzle and gained the support of the project’s stakeholders (Heritage Malta, The Ministry for Foreign, European Affairs and Trade, The Malta Tourism Authority and XirCammini), Azzopardi was feeling confident, but the exact route of the Camino Maltés still needed to be decided upon.
Initially, Heritage Malta and Azzopardi were keen to start the route in Birgu, as it was the de facto capital of the knights before Valletta was founded. However, based on Don Juan Benegas de Cordoba’s Credencial, it was decided that the route should start from St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat instead. The route would then traverse Malta’s ancient villages before reaching Fort St. Angelo. The “Universal Peace Walk 1543AD”, which was relaunched by XirCammini in 2023 on the 480th anniversary of the route, was also incorporated into the Maltese portion of the Camino Maltés. The 35-kilometre Maltese section of the Camino Maltés also passes by many Heritage Malta sites, such as the Inquisitor’s Palace, the Maritime Museum and Fort St. Angelo, where pilgrims can have their pilgrim passports stamped before their onward journey.
In early December 2022, the route was officially added to the map owned by the Instituto Nacional Geográfico (NGI). The approximately 3,600-kilometre route from Malta to Santiago de Compostela includes stages in Sicily, Sardinia and Spain.
“It is estimated that should one complete the entire pilgrimage, it would take an average person circa 4 to 5 months to do this route,” explains Mr Russell Muscat, Heritage Malta International Relations Manager. “Nevertheless, people should not be alarmed or disheartened as there are various ways of doing any Camino de Santiago, including the Camino Maltés, such as doing it in instalments over a number of months or years, or doing the Maltese segment and then continuing with the final segment. In fact, ‘camino rules’ state that you will obtain a ‘compostela’ (certificate of completion) as long as you walk the last 100km.”
All official camino routes can be completed on foot, on horseback, by bicycle, by sailing boat or on a wheelchair, or a mixture of these options. The Camino Maltés was carefully planned out to include commercial ferry routes to provide pilgrims with this possibility.
For Heritage Malta, this venture provides an opportunity to marry “intangible heritage”, such as the pilgrimage route itself, and “tangible heritage” such as the historical structures on the Maltese islands. The visibility of this “intangible heritage” will soon be further enhanced, as the Regional Government of Galicia has gifted the Government of Malta a Hito, a classic granite waymark such as the ones that can be found in northern Spain. This waymark, which has yet to be inaugurated, will increase the public’s awareness of the camino and hopefully also encourage many future pilgrims to set off for Santiago!