Although departure points for the Camino de Santiago vary greatly, the indisputable end of the journey is, was, and always will be Galicia.
Where exactly in Galicia, is the choice of every pilgrim. Traditionally, it’s the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, built on what is believed to be the original burial site of St.James the apostle. If you make it there (and have walked a minimum of 100km), you receive the Compostelana, a decorative certificate in Latin, which recognises, commemorates, your achievement. It’s a pretty nice piece of paper – I think I value it more than my uni degrees. As
for the city itself, it’s a jewel of a capital, and deserving of the anticipation and endeavour that it inspires. But these rewards, whilst beautiful, aren’t always enough. Because often on the way to Santiago, a phenomenon occurs; weather-beaten pilgrims (I would say battle-weary, but that might be going a bit far), despite the discomfort of being on the road (and the desperate desire to hang up their boots and have a delicious home cooked meal in the company of their families), realise that they can’t stop, because they have become addicted to the Camino. And so what happens is that even after they’ve arrived in Santiago, they keep going, until they get to the sea and very literally can’t walk any more. I was one of these deluded wanderers, risking a flight back to Australia and the timely collection of some important bureaucracy in order to continue, well beyond my projected dates and end point. Why? Because I couldn’t bear the thought of the friends I had made going on without me. Because I wanted to get to the Atlantic, and breathe the ocean air again, and look out towards Canada on the other side. And because the idea of waking up in the morning, and not walking, was inconceivable. The real world felt so far away, and I was in no hurry to get back to it.
Of course I had to at some point. And it’s not like I couldn’t see it coming, anticipate it, and mentally plan for it. I first felt ‘the end’ approaching about a week out from Santiago, as we crossed the bridge from Asturias into Galicia (which are divided by the Ribadeo estuary). It was exciting to be on the final straight. I couldn’t wait to see such a talked about city with my own eyes, to get there and celebrate with a huge convergence of pilgrims. But at the same time, I felt the need to slow down, to savour and make a conscious effort to remember every last moment. I think my whole group got a bit pre-emptively nostalgic; we started reminiscing about the Camino well before it was even close to finished.
In Ribadeo we celebrated our safe arrival with Estrella Galicia (one of Spain’s best beers), and licor de café, both typical to the region. As the town was heavily overbooked and the sky didn’t look good, that night we had no choice but to fork out for an overpriced pension (which we dutifully shared with about twice the number of pilgrims than beds we paid for). Of course, having paid (what seemed to us) a small fortune (but was probably quite reasonable), the weather stayed unexpectedly balmy, permitting us to enjoy a picnic dinner on the lawn next to an outdoor market, where we were entertained by a fantastic live band and a convivial Saturday night atmosphere. This was all the more relaxing because the next day we’d decided not to walk so far, instead opting for one last excursion to the coast (before we turned inland towards Santiago).
La Playa de Las Catedrales (Cathedral Beach), Lugo, can only be visited at low tide, and low-tide doesn’t last for very long. It’s not a beach you can really go to for swimming or sunbaking or getting too comfortable at. As soon as we arrived, I felt a bit silly for bringing something to read and a packed lunch. But despite not getting much more than my feet wet, it was well worth the side trip to see this magical place. The beach is formed by cliffs and caves and individual rocky pillars, similar to the Twelve Apostles from the Great Ocean Road in Australia. At La Playa de Las Catedrales you can walk in and around and through the rock formations, which have interesting acoustics and bat-cave-like shafts of light. In contrast to the craggy rocks, the beach itself is beautifully smooth and the water is perfectly clear; calming and cleansing to pilgrim feet. In the short time that we were there the coastline underwent a striking transition. It started off rather pretty, but then not only did the tide rapidly rise, but a storm came rolling in, and suddenly we were scrambling back up the steps and running for the bus (they’re 3 hours apart and there’s nowhere nice to pass that time if you get stuck there).
After this brief diversion, we returned to Ribadeo, collected our backpacks, donned our (thankfully dry) boots, and then went to a bar to sit on our drinks for a depressingly inordinate amount of time, waiting for the rain to stop. It didn’t, and eventually we had no choice but to make tracks – no one could afford another night in Ribadeo. That afternoon we walked a grand total of 7km (my record shortest day), to Vilela, population 535 (I would have estimated about 20). Vilela had one grimy bar and the worst hostel I stayed in during the whole Camino. There were about 3 times more pilgrims than beds, all sopping wet (the cyclists doubly so), and with the pouring rain, there was nowhere else in the village to go (not even a bus stop). Nor was there any room to walk between the mattresses and the trip-wires of makeshift dripping clotheslines and piles of stinking backpacks. But it was here in Vilela, over a gourmet dinner of microwave lentils, tinned octopus (I kid you not) and burningly cheap wine (with only three seats, two plates, and no cups, shared between eight or so people), that I celebrated it being exactly three years since I’d left Australia. The situation was so ridiculous it was comical, sitting there debating whether or not I’d made a good decision, or matured or evolved as a person in that time, as I stood/leant there, dressed in socks with thongs and every dry piece of clothing I owned, shivering and swigging from a wine bottle with people whose surnames I didn’t know (we weren’t even facebook friends yet), and whose friendship I measured in kilometres. Yet strangely enough, my final consensus was that, despite the present situation, I was quite happy with the slightly tangential direction my life seemed to be taking. Why move up in the world when you can go west to Santiago?
It was also in Vilela that a grand plan was masterminded – that would allow each of our party to not only make it to Santiago, but onwards to Finisterre (‘the end of the world’), and then back to their various departure points in time to catch their respective transports to their respective next chapters in life. The best part of the grand plan was that we would arrive in Santiago City on a Saturday, party the night away, and then have a rest day (as one should) on the Sunday, in order to go to the pilgrims’ mass at the Cathedral and see the Botafumeiro. The Botafumeiro is a giant silver incense burner that is swung above the congregation from one end of the Cathedral to the other, by some kind of medieval pulley system, operated by monks who are also swinging (and probably having the most fun a monk can lawfully have). The spectacle is only performed on Sundays, feast days, and when large groups of rich and religious people pay for it (the cost is rumoured to be about €400). Anyone who eats tinned octopus clearly cannot afford this privilege, so a Sunday was the only possibility on our calendar.
It’s bizarre that we made such an ambitious plan, which called for about 35 – 40km walking per day, at such a clear low point on the Camino, when our spirits were dampened (drenched rather), and first aid kits and strength reserves were running so low. Yet everyone in our party took a deep breath and said “yep, count me in” (or some variation of that), probably thinking to themselves (I know I was) “oh shit, what on earth have I just agreed to?!”.
Best laid plans are doomed to fail, but ours, by some stroke of luck, did not. The weather came good, right when we most needed/wanted it to. The longest walking days were relatively flat and surprisingly doable. I was actually aided at one point by an infected toe which prevented me from stopping (to stop was to start feeling again), and so despite the lack of coffee, the lack of breaks allowed me to power through double the distances I was walking at the beginning of the Camino. In Sobrado Dos Monxes we stayed in the most incredible ancient monastery, which housed over 100 pilgrims comfortably, in definitely the coolest and oldest building I’ve ever had the good fortune to stay the night in.
As we got closer to Santiago, we encountered an increasing number of turigrinos, ‘tourist-pilgrims’. These could be easily identified by their suspiciously washed appearance (the women with straightened hair, the men clean shaven), lack of back packs (these were delivered by luggage courier services), and by their jolly, oblivious, restaurant-fed faces. Some actually had the cheek to take taxis the last few kilometres of each stage, often beating us to (and subsequently stealing beds in) the hostels. What I found particularly bizarre, not to mention annoying, was that many of these frauds were doing the minimum last 100kms of Camino in order to get the Compostelana. God only knows (pun intended) just what on earth the certificate meant to them.
On a less critical note, the progression of scenery in Galicia was a pleasure to walk – beautiful, varied, and fascinating! As we moved away from the coast we walked through farmland, eucalypt forest, pine forest, prehistoric-looking forest forest (reminiscent of William Robinson paintings), and strangely dry-ish grasslands. The best thing was that there was very little road (except for one stretch, which despite being much dreaded asphalt, was actually cool, shaded, vacant of cars, and one of the loveliest sections I’d walked). Since the beginning of the Camino, our way had been dotted with blackberry bushes and all kinds of fruit trees (conveniently overhanging fences). By the time we got to Galicia the blackberries were at their best, and there was a seemingly limitless supply. Whatever vitamins are in blackberries were definitely not lacking in our diets, we were stuffing ourselves by the sticky purple handful. Unfortunately the same could not be said for figs (which happen to be my favourite fruit). At the beginning of the Camino they were too hard and green to eat, but I was hoping that a few weeks deeper into summer they’d be ready. Alas, they did not ripen. I spent the entire length of the Camino checking every fig tree on the way, and not finding a single edible specimen. This was really quite upsetting for me, and one of the greatest disappointments of my summer.
What certainly did not fail to disappoint, was Santiago de Compostela. After 850km of hype, I was expecting the city to fall short of my expectations. But either I managed to subconsciously lower them sufficiently, or Santiago truly is that wonderful. Or perhaps I was a little high on the whole experience. Arriving in the capital, on a gloriously sunny day, in the company of new friends (who I felt like I’d known a hundred years), and passing through the arched gateway into the main plaza in front of the Cathedral, was one of the most satisfying and happiest moments of my life. We kicked off our shoes and lay back on our backpacks, facing up towards the elaborate (albeit partly scaffolded) facade, and spent quite a while there, each one with his or her own happy thoughts, soaking up the sunlight and the moment, until it was permanently burned into our memories. Then, as we ourselves started to burn, and get hungry, we collected ourselves and headed for the famous Casa Manolo on the Plaza de Cervantes, for a big and much deserved feed.
In Santiago there is pilgrims’ accommodation for 10€ in two different monasteries, both a little removed from the centre of town. We opted to splurge nearly double that, for a secured bed at The Last Stamp, where there were real sheets and towels, and importantly, no curfew. This was a fantastic decision. After showers and siestas, we reconverged in the main square after night fall, where a Galician folk band entertained a rather participative audience of tourists, pilgrims and passersby. Sometime around midnight the band wrapped things up and the crowd dispersed, but the pilgrims stayed on, making their own music until they ran out of provisions, realised they couldn’t sing very well, and decided to see what Santiago’s more official nightlife had to offer.
It not like me to be conscious of being home “in time for church”, but this was one mass I didn’t want to miss. Somehow we all made it on the Sunday, with time to wash and even nab a couple of hours sleep, before squeezing into the enthusiastically attended Cathedral. Whilst I nearly nodded off during the official “welcome to the pilgrims mass” (in about 15 different languages), it was worth being there to be part of such a congregation. The Cathedral is incredible inside, and it felt as though every square inch of it (right up to the huge vaulted ceilings) was filled with good will and excitement, and on my part, pure gratitude and wonder. The botafumeiro was quite a spectacle, though I was a little disappointed by the number of people filming it (literally watching it through their uplifted tablets); as though it was something they were likely to forget!
The rest of Sunday was filled with exploring the city, listening to live music, and a relatively early night before hitting the road once again – destination: Finisterre.
“The End of the World” took another three days to get to, and by the time we arrived, I was well and truly spent. If I’d left straight after Santiago I’d probably have been wanting more, but the “Finisterre extension” was the perfect closure.
The first thing we did when we reached the sea (the Atlantic!) was have a quick dip, before walking up to the lighthouse (an extra 3 km that I hadn’t counted on, story of my Camino). There we stared out across a vast and seemingly limitless ocean, took some photos, and then sadly, rushed-ly said goodbye to half our party (who had to run for a bus home). Those that were remaining then had a few philosophical beers, looking out across eternity. Before it got dark we hitchhiked back into town (there was a constant flow of sightseers between the lighthouse and the port), bought snacks, rugged up, and went to the Finisterre back beach to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve even seen. This smaller beach was permanent home to a community of hippies, who apparently started as pilgrims, but got to Finisterre and didn’t want to go back. I can understand how they felt. There were several bonfires going and, as is the tradition, people symbolically burning their socks, boots, walking sticks etc.
As it got later the wind picked up, and hunger and cold lured us back to town in search of a restaurant. I would have made a terrible hippy anyway. By the time we had dinner it was midnight – not a bad effort, considering or last solid food was breakfast, at 6am, back when we were still on the Camino. A girl in our group was Galician, which came in handy when trying to find somewhere serving decent food at such an ungodly hour (where did we think we were? Seville?!). Had we not a local in our party, I’ve no idea how we would have fared. Galician waitresses tend to be slightly haggard, and of strong, formidable (but very witty) characters. At least that’s the impression I got, trying to make out what I could of their rapid Galician.
The dinner was unbelievable. Perhaps it was enhanced by the combination of extreme hunger and my extreme love of seafood…but this “last supper” was without a doubt the best I had in all the Camino. We finally (finally!) got stuck into some fresh Galician octopus, the biggest, most orange mussels I’ve ever seen, some other delicious yet unidentifiable seafood, and crisp albariño wine.
It was over this meal, with the backdrop of mountains and sea and people speaking Galician (I love how it sounds), that I finally understood the term morriña – a type of nostalgia, longing, and homesickness, specific to Galicia. I may not be from there, but I can certainly appreciate how people who are can miss it so painfully when they leave, and how they have their own special word for this feeling. I’ve never met a Galician who wanted to live (well, end up) anywhere else in the world. There’s something magical about that place, sticking out above Spain and Portugal, on the edge of what once would have been the known world…
Sunrise on the last morning was spectacular. It was also bitterly cold, and for once, I wouldn’t be warmed by walking. As I stared out across the bay, waiting for the others to wake up, watching the peach and grey sky and cruising seabird silhouettes, I was hit by unexpected, yet pleasing realisations… that the prolonged goodbye period had really worn me down, but the Camino itself had been as fulfilling as I could ever have hoped for. I was incredibly grateful, and incredibly tired, and finally, I was ready, and glad, to be going home.