Tuesday 21 July 2015

Santiago Calling - Part 5

The End of the Road (For Now ….) – Rua O Pino to Santiago

Day 12 - Rua O Pino to Santiago: 25.12k / Ascent 554m / Decent 579m

And so to our final day on the Camino.

After yesterday's long trek, we were expecting to feel tired or to experience the odd niggle this morning. But not so – we were raring to go as we hit the road for the last time, with just a modest 15 miles or so to tackle. Later today, we would walk into Santiago at the end of our pilgrimage - 800k from Saint Jean Pied de Port where we started our plan a little over 2 years ago.

Eucalyptus woods near San Anton

We were greeted by another cool and overcast morning, but it was obvious that the cloud would burn off before too long, just as it had done on most other mornings. In all honesty, the first few kilometers passed in something of a blur, my mind experiencing in a decidedly inward focus. Quite why this should have been, I don’t know: maybe it was simply a time for quiet reflection.

Somewhere on the trail

We stopped at a bar for coffee and got entwined with a group of cyclists and a large group from Hawaii, but an expedient restart placed us between the two groups rather than with them, and after that we managed to have a fairly quiet run at it.

More eucalyptus woods, gravel tracks, little lanes and minor villages came and went. We stopped at a church at one point for a stamp, saw a gorgeously situated cottage ripe for renovation, passed the airport, stopped at another bar, and took the long climb up through Vilamaior towards Monte de Gozo, mile by mile homing in on our goal.  

On the road near Monte de Gozo

Monte de Gozo is the point where, traditionally, pilgrims get their first glimpse of the Cathedral in Santiago and weep for joy knowing they have nearly made it. We had hoped for a good view and perhaps a reaction of some kind (if not floods of tears). But to be honest it was a rather utilitarian spot with an uninspiring modern statue and a very touristy feel - the whole area having been redeveloped for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1989. The famous statue of two pilgrims pointing towards Santiago didn’t seem to be in evidence (apparently, and somewhat surprisingly, it is not on the route) and all in all the whole experience was a trifle underwhelming.

Modern statue, Monte de Gozo

On the upside, though, there was an ice cream seller, so we had one of those to revive our spirits for the last few kilometers into the city. At the bottom of a long, steep hill, we reached the suburbs.

Heading down the last hill to the outskirts of Santiago

Compared with the routes into some of the towns, this was a pretty reasonable experience, and we followed busy streets in a beeline for the city centre. Eventually, we neared the end: new buildings gave way to old, streets narrowed and became flagged, and then there we were in the main square, right in front of the Cathedral - we'd made it!

In various languages, carved into the paving slabs the quote:
"Europe was built on the pilgrim way to Compostela"

Funnily enough, our first thoughts were of a practical nature. Of all the reactions to our arrival we might have considered as the miles rolled by, I don’t think that “practical” would have been top of the list. Emotional, elated, tired, tearful – maybe: but probably not “pragmatic”. However, we had been warned that the queue to get Compostelas was always long, and it could take a couple of hours or more to get our certificates.

So we found the pilgrim's office and joined the queue. The air was somewhat festive, which helped pass the time, although I found myself with mixed feelings: half of me enjoying the experience and the other half grumbling impatiently to myself at the wait. In the end, though, what difference does another hour make after all this time?

Front entrance to the Cathedral, with Portico looking
slightly less "glorious" than usual

Then it was our turn at the head of the queue, and we were called separately to a numbered booth in a system not unlike the Post Office. A few questions and a filled-in form later, and we had Compostelas in our hands and big grins on our faces.

After all the excitement, it was time to check into our hotel, a nice little place about a five minute walk from the main square. We had the usual rest and wash and brush up then popped out for dinner. A selection of tapas at a bar round the corner might seem a mundane way to celebrate our arrival, but it was simple and delicious and for that reason absolutely fine by us.

Days 13 to 15 – Santiago Sightseeing

For the first time in many a while, we did some sightseeing!

Yesterday, whilst queuing for our Compostelas, we were invited to visit Camino Companions, a group dedicated to offering post-Camino advice and guidance - a sort of detox, if you like - to help pilgrims come to terms with finishing the walk and adjusting to the real world once more.

Perhaps that sounds like some namby-pamby self-help book, but our chat with Marion over a proper cup of tea was really lovely. We were introduced to a new poem, too:

When I Am Among The Trees by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

On a practical note, we gleaned that Pilgrim's Mass was held at midday, but that we needed to be there at least an hour before the start if we wanted to get a seat. So we bagged ourselves a seat, and watched as people filed in and the anticipation rose. Early in proceedings, the countries of all those who had arrived in Santiago in the last 24 hours were read out, then the service began.


After the address, communion was taken by those who wanted it. Then the excitement leapt as the eight velvet-robed Tiraboleiros moved in, carrying hot embers and incense - the Botafumiero was going to swing!


To be honest, it’s an amazing sight. A 5ft high, 12½ stone smoking thurible whizzing through the air just above our heads couldn't help but be an impressive spectacle, and it really put the icing on the cake as far as the service was concerned.

Firing up the thurible

Apparently, it reaches speeds of over 40mph. and is attached by ropes to a 400-year-old pulley system in the roof. The censer swings back and forth as the Tiraboleiros pull on the ropes to create momentum, and everyone hopes the pulley mechanism, ropes and knots have been properly checked!

Botafumiero in flight

Censer's working overtime

Afterwards, we took a look around the rest of the Cathedral and embraced the statue of St James. Unfortunately, we couldn't see the Tree of Jesse as the main entrance - the Portico of Glory - was closed for repairs, and not even available as a tour (in fact, the main facade and one of the spires are covered in scaffolding and sheeting as repairs are ongoing).

Tomb of St James

Over the next couple of days, we pottered through the streets, explored surrounding areas, nosed in the shops, lunched in cafés on the Camino route, drank coffee, ate pizza and indulged ourselves on tapas.

Gate in the city walls where Via del Plata pilgrims enter

Several times we bumped into people we had met on the trail (Bruce & Gus, the New York ladies, Anthony & Orla, the Aussie couple from Melbourne) and it was great to congratulate each other and catch up. I didn’t know whether to be surprised by these encounters: on the one hand, all pilgrims were heading for Santiago; on the other, the chance of coming across familiar faces amongst the many thousands of people wandering the city streets seems statistically small.

New York ladies queuing for their Compostelas

Anyway, it was great to just soak up the atmosphere, and even if the restoration work had clothed the cathedral in an ugly cloak of scaffolding and plastic sheeting, it was enough simply to paddle round the streets absorbing the flavor of the city (an analogy maintained by the discovery of the most amazing spice and wholefood shop).

Relaxing in the Parque Alameda

Late on the second afternoon, heavy rain set in. Considering the reputation of Galicia as the rainy corner of Spain, I guess we had been pretty lucky – only one afternoon of rain and a couple of mizzly spells whilst out on the trail, plus this, in two weeks.

Cathedral: view from the Parque Alameda

We left for the airport with mixed feelings: partly sad to have finished the walk, partly happy to have achieved our goal. People often claim the Camino to be a life changing experience, and it’s true – not necessarily as the result of some Damascene revelation or seismic inner shift, but in the fact that those 32 days of walking have provided new experiences and memories we would not otherwise have shared, and offered a chance to really think about everything and re-focus on the important things in life.

Whatever the upshot, completing a long distance route like this in three sections proved to be a great success, and something we intend to do more of in future. The idea of splitting an LDP may seem sacrilegious, but while we are still working it is the only way we can complete longer routes, and any loss of momentum caused by the breaks was more than made up for by the extended sense of anticipation.

All in all, walking the Camino had been a fascinating experience, and completing this talismanic route has provided a memorable way to mark our 50th birthdays.    

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