Day 42 – 28th October 2015, Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela.
Drum roll please…today is the day I will walk into Santiago de Compostela! Yes really! When I woke up this morning I sensed a ball of nervous anticipation swirling around my solar plexus. Questions began to take form in my fuzzy morning Camino brain. What would the walk be like? How will I feel when I catch my first glimpse of the rooftops of Santiago, etched onto the distant horizon? Already I looked forward to reaching the city and yet, oddly, secretly dreaded it at the same time? Why is that? Well I didn’t want my pilgrimage, this exceptionally profound and special journey at a pivotal moment in my life, to ever end. Thankfully I had decided beforehand that my final destination would be Muxia on the coast, so I knew that I would have another four days of walking or thereabouts to do after a rest break in Santiago.
I realised today makes the 42nd day of my journey, since I arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port all those weeks ago on September 17th 2015. Number 42, now that in itself was a good omen to me, being the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything according to the supercomputer ‘Deep Thought’. Many of you may know that ‘Deep Thought’ was a creation of Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hmmm perhaps Mr Adams should have also written a guide to the Camino? After all the meaning of numbers (particularly relating to distance and height) along the Camino, tends to be somewhat ‘elastic’, especially in the Brierley Camino Guide. As I didn’t start walking the Camino until two days after my arrival, in real time terms, this is day 40 of my pilgrimage. Number 40 is often considered significant, in biblical accounts, signalling a period of trial, testing or probation. Remember how Moses wandered around in the desert for 40 years (poor bloke, if only he had a GPS), and spent 40 nights on Mount Sinai, receiving God’s laws? (…perhaps he was the first person to use a tablet?) Many years later, during a period of 40 days in the desert, Jesus faced gruelling tests and temptations from the devil but rebuked him and sent him packing!
However, I don’t think of my pilgrimage as a period of trial really, as it has been far too enjoyable (well, apart from the moments where I shared dorms with the snorers from hell and the sociopathic head torch wearers). Having said that though, I have felt tested at times, especially on a purely physical level. I cannot deny there were days when I wanted to give up and go home, owing to sheer exhaustion, for example, at the end of my first week and when I reached Leon, just over the half way point. I’m so grateful I was able to continue in the end, and now, here I was, ready to depart from the relative comfort of Pension Pedrouzo to walk the last 19.8km (12.3 miles) to Santiago de Compostela.
I searched out breakfast at a nearby bar and restaurant. Isn’t it funny, but I couldn’t recall where it was exactly? I must have been in a daze (yes, I know I’m blonde, so you could be forgiven for thinking that ‘dazed and confused’ is my normal way of being, but having been an international aid worker for the last 20 years, I assure you I am smarter and more streetwise than I look. My many experiences and little familiar rituals I have developed along the Camino, were bleeding into one. As a typical Brit I feel totally obliged to talk about the weather. It was a greyish, damp and sort of mizzling day. I joined a long, straggly but colourful line of pilgrims in their waterproofs and I waited for the line to thin out as I ambled, slowly through the eucalyptus forest. I followed the trail through San Anton and then down into the Amenal valley.
For some weird reason my limbs felt heavier and my gait more laboured as the minutes flew by? Was it psychological, I asked myself, knowing I was nearing the end or just weariness? I noticed my fellow pilgrims, strung out along the Camino trail, were also taking their time, as if to savour every single step. Nope, no pilgrim rush hour here. The Camino trail, wound and wound, this way and that around and about the Lavacolla aeropuerto, a rather bleak place. I seemed to take forever to walk around the perimeter boundary. I was struck and greatly moved by the many different crosses tied to the fence and felt emotion rise up in my throat.
On the way round I fell into step with a Spanish chap called Raul, who had walked the Camino de Santiago before. He appeared to be quite a character, like an old soul from another time and place. It seemed very fitting for me to walk with a Spaniard along this stretch of my journey, because I knew I would gain a different perspective. He opened up about how deeply significant his Camino journeys were on each occasion and how much they had taught him about living, especially learning to live in the moment. He had experienced a tough life so far and was now living in Scandinavia but felt the strong urge to return to his home country to walk the Camino trail once again. I was touched, that he could talk very freely with me about his emotions along his journey and how much he wanted to bring his four, grown up children with him so that they could walk the Camino de Santiago together one day.
I reflected on the beauty of the freedom to talk and express oneself, which comes quite quickly on the Camino, because, well for me anyway, I felt part of a family. There was a sense of kinship and connection with strangers, who were not strangers after all. The Camino binds us all together in one purpose and we become part of each other’s walk, experiences and stories en route. Raul and I stopped to enjoy a second breakfast at a cafe in Lavacolla. This was the traditional place where pilgrims used to stop, in order to cleanse and purify themselves before entering Santiago de Compostela. I must admit I wouldn’t fancy stripping off in this weather or in public! I wanted to pop into the local church for a quiet moment and a prayer but alas its doors were firmly closed.
After my cafe con leche, I bade Raul a “Buen Camino” and set off on my own again to complete the last few kilometres into Santiago on my own. However, ‘on my own’ was rather a subjective term, because on leaving Lavacolla, I once again, joined the throng of pilgrims, steadily making their ascent through Villamaior, the camping ground at San Marcos until we reached Monte del Gozo, standing at 380m. The slate, grey clouds, drawing in around me, seemed brooding and sombre. They reflected my mood. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed on reaching the summit of Monte del Gozo to see the ugly monument on the top. What were they thinking? I didn’t like the look of it at all. It reminded me of Eastern Bloc-style monuments. I helped a few pilgrims to take their group photos in front of it but didn’t want one of myself there. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t summon up a feeling of relief or elation. I grabbed a hot coffee and a kit-kat from the little kiosk and I stopped to sit down for a short while.
Golly, I was tired. My mood lifted somewhat when I started walking again and began the steep descent towards the Santiago skyline. Wow, what a magnificent sight before me, I could now see a myriad of rooftops and spires in the distance. The city appeared to be miles and miles away, when in fact there were only about 5 more kilometres for me to walk until I reached the centre. I willed my aching body and throbbing feet onwards in the dank, drizzling rain but I didn’t care about the weather, it was only water right? Ultreia! Indeed, was there no time more important than this to heed “Ultreia”? I had felt every single step of the 19 kms from Pedrouzo to Santiago and became choked up with emotion during the long trek in from the outskirts.
Pounding the pavement, made my feet throb even more and my heart thump louder as I clicked along the trail. I became more mindful of the busy traffic around me. Eventually I crossed the road near the ugly red sign and modern sculpture depicting a gateway and headed for the old town. I followed the symbols and kept my head down, could it be much further now? I began to feel a bit chilly and bone tired and a little bit low at this point. I noticed a change in the trail and began to walk on the ancient cobbles. I entered one of the narrow cobbled streets to follow the signs towards the cathedral square. Still dazed, like before, I struggled to focus on the way ahead. Before me stood a figure, who I didn’t recognise at first, and then the penny dropped, it was one of the Four Pissed Pilgrims, Martin. How lovely to see someone I knew! Martin welcomed me and congratulated me on my pilgrimage. He kindly walked me over to the Cathedral square. Being blonde, I probably would have got lost all by myself as the streets seemed very similar! We passed by a piper, standing under the archway to the square, playing the Galician bagpipes or ‘gaita’ with such gusto, I could have sworn I was in Scotland! I had made it to the cathedral, and who else should we meet there but Mike, fresh from a vinyl record fair. They both took photos of me in front of the cathedral for me to keep as mementos of my arrival.
It was extremely kind of them. A few minutes later, I bumped into another pilgrim friend of mine, Nici, from Germany, who just came out of the pilgrim mass. Sadly I had arrived too late for today’s mass, but I could come back tomorrow. Time for hugs all round. That familiar feeling of ‘family’ moved me once again. Martin and Mike, then walked me over to the Pilgrim Office so that I could queue up for my Compostela. While they waited patiently for me and minded my backpack, some cheeky bugger (pardon my French), walked off with my remaining trekking pole! I couldn’t believe it. The queue snaked out of the Pilgrim Office, through the courtyard and onto the street, but moved quickly. I recognised the group of French pilgrims I had seen at Che4 cafe so I stepped forward to congratulate them and they greeted me like a long lost friends and congratulated me too!
I stood behind a tall man with grey hair and a grey beard in the queue, who turned to me and asked me, in an American accent, “Where did you start your Camino?” and “When did you begin your walk?” “Here we go”, I thought to myself, and braced myself for the interrogation…and one-upmanship that would surely follow. I smiled sweetly and politely and told him when and where I began my Camino. He then turned to me and sneered, “Oh you must have been much slower than me because I started later than you and walked mine in 23 days.” I suppressed the need to bite back an acerbic retort. I was too tired and much too relieved to have made it this far. Instead, I chuckled inwardly, realising that this man probably had not learned anything about his ego in all of his 23 days, which was his loss and, not only that, but he could hardly walk, he was in so much pain. Am I being judgemental? Tut, tut…
The graffiti slogan from the outside wall of the Elvis bar in Reliegos, flashed before my eyes in an instant “No pain, no glory”. Perhaps there was an ounce of truth in this. However, there are other kinds of pain than the merely physical, and I’m sure every pilgrim, passing through the archway into the Cathedral square, and across the threshold of the pilgrim office, had experienced his or her fair share of pain and glory along the Camino. Soon I was called forward to the desk to present my Credencial and fill in a short form about my pilgrimage. I received my Compostela, the official certificate of of completion and a bonus certificate of distance, showing that I had walked 775 km from St. Jean Pied de Port. In reality, I had walked longer than 775 km, probably nearer 800 km, because I had chosen a few of the longer green routes and, of course, in my blonde bimbling way managed to get lost a couple of times and had to retrace my steps. I decided to pop the certificates in one of the souvenir tubes to keep them clean and prevent them from getting squashed or torn.
Just as I came out with my certificates, I bumped into Dale and Shelley and I was delighted to see them. More hugs and photos followed. I was elated to meet up with some of my lovely pilgrim ‘family’ before we all went our separate ways. Dale and Shelley went off in search of Janey, and Martin and Mike kindly oriented me around the centre of the old town. Feeling my stomach alien calling out, they invited me to join them and Kenny for a celebratory lunch in a wonderful restaurant called Porta Faxeira. I stuffed my face unashamedly and of course, we raised a glass or two of Spanish Red.
Later on, I found my accommodation, tucked away in one of the narrow streets, not too far from the Cathedral square. What a find! I checked into the wonderful, warm, welcoming, comfortable and cosy Hotel Real B&B, where I could freshen up, unpack and flop on the bed to relax for a while until evening, when I re-joined the Four Pissed Pilgrims and Ann from Canada for a mega pilgrim meal and lots of jollity.
I was so grateful for all the pilgrims I had the privilege of meeting and walking with at various stages of my Camino and I was glad to at least meet up with a few of them here. Thank you at home too for journeying with me thus far. I wasn’t able to truly find the words to describe how I was feeling on this special and momentous day!
I promise you, there will be more later, so please do stay tuned and watch this space.
Peace, love and light,