Camino Postcard 36: Brea to Santiago de Compostela

16-17.5.19

The last day of our Camino! Joy and sadness intertwined.

After paying the dinner bill (see yesterday’s post), we set off from the pensión. There were no cafés in Brea itself – or at least, none that we saw – so we kept walking until we found a bar a couple of kilometres up the road. Afterwards, and admittedly not for the first time, I briefly considered a career as an action photographer:

We walked along the roadside and came to a hut with incense burning on a small table. A sign there proclaimed a great truth:

Sometimes a simple moment of joy is all we need to remember how lucky we are

Well, we can debate whether we are lucky, blessed or whatever but either way the sentiment is a good one.

On the table was a stamp for our pilgrim passports; we stamped ours before inhaling the incense one last time and heading on our way.

This morning, we met more doggos. Ellena greeted them happily. If Dogbook existed, she would have so many friends by now. The second time we saw a dog its mother watched on from a distance as she went about her work.

It was an overcast day and soon enough, rain started to fall. Off came the backpacks and out came their rain covers.

We stopped for lunch 15 kilometres from Santiago, at a place called Amenal. One thing I regret about the Camino is not making a record of all the non-pilgrim meals that we ate. There were one or two really nice ones. The café-bar we stopped at today comes into that category. The pizza was nice; really nice! If you walk the Camino past Amenal, look out for the café-bar that has the round ‘Kilometro 15’ sign outside it. That’s the place to go to for good food.

We continued – by the roadside, and then into woods. The road followed us, and it gave us an opportunity to remember an earlier event. In my first blog post in this series, I wrote this,

During the afternoon, I saw two pilgrims taking a break by a roadside crash barrier. A good idea! I wanted to do the same there and then but didn’t want to invade their space or stop so close that they could see I was copying them. Even when exhausted, propriety reigns! So, I walked a little further on and took out my bar of chocolate. Dear reader, I don’t think I ever enjoyed food more!

Day 1: St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

The two pilgrims, of course, were Ellena and Carolin. The woodland road we were now walking alongside also had a crash barrier beside it. So, with the Valcarlos Route in mind, we stopped and took photographs of us all resting on the barrier – this time, together.

Carolin and I:

Me and Ellena:

It was a fun moment!

Once the photos were done, we moved on – onwards and upwards through the woods.

There is a scene in the film Inception when Ariadne (Ellen Page) – while in a dream state – makes a Parisian street bend upwards until it is directly above herself and Cobb (Leonardo Decaprio). As we came out of the woods, we saw a road climb so sharply that it too seemed to be intent on curving backwards over us. I was not overjoyed at the prospect of climbing it, but, as Ellena said, when you get closer to roads like this, they never go up as sharply as they appear. Thankfully, this proved to be the case.

We got to the top. Although it hadn’t been as bad as it looked, we – I – still needed a rest and so we dived into a café a bit further on. Here, we were hit by an influx of pilgrims (TPs looking for toilets) for the first time since the Portomarín to Palas de Rei road.

We continued on our way. We passed Santiago airport and tried not to think about the fact that in a week’s time, we would be saying goodbye to each other there. The rain was falling more heavily now. Just past the airport, we dived into a bar as much to escape the rain as for a drink. We were now just 12 kilometres from Santiago.

It was still raining when we left the bar but we pushed on nonetheless. In time, we came out of the woods, left the last village behind and arrived at the Monte del Gozo. Here, we looked out for the statues of the two Arriving Pilgrims.

I had been eager to see the statues ever since I watched Martin Sheen and co walk up to them in The Way. We almost missed them, however, as the road was a little distance away from the statues’ location. Actually, it was so far that we only just spotted them in the near distance.

Something else that didn’t help is the fact that in the film (released in 2010), the statues appear to be on an unkempt hill whereas the Monte del Gozo now is a very well landscaped park.

Our first actual sight of Santiago came while we were still on the road but our first ‘official’ pilgrim view came with the statues. Here’s what we saw.

You can just see the spires of Santiago cathedral in the centre of the photo – our destination! After thirty-six days and so many kilometres, we were almost there.

Almost, but not quite, and not today.

Today, we headed off to the town’s east end where the apartment we had booked was located. There, Ellena and Carolin rested while I went in search of a supermarket for provisions.

17.5.19
The reason we didn’t go to the cathedral yesterday was because it was about four kilometres from our flat. Having walked 25 kilometres yesterday, we were happy to go to the cathedral tomorrow; or rather, today.

After packing our backpacks up, we closed the apartment door and started the final part of the journey. We left early – before nine o’clock to allow plenty of time to get the compostelas before we had to catch the coach to Finisterre, which was scheduled to leave Santiago at midday. As we knew that there might be a queue at the pilgrims’ office for the compostela, we reckoned to get there early – between nine and ten AM – so that we had plenty of time to pick up our compostelas before leaving town.

That was the plan. It didn’t work out like that.

We arrived at the cathedral square. I have to admit, doing so was an underwhelming experience. We were here. We had finished. Well done us? Yes, but now we have to go to the pilgrims’ office. No time to waste – we should have left the apartment earlier; the bus leaves at midday and ten o’clock is already drawing on.

We came, we saw, we left sharpish. So much so that I was only able to take a two or three photographs of the cathedral. I didn’t worry, though; there would be plenty of time to take more when we returned on Monday.

We found the pilgrims’ office and joined the queue in the courtyard outside. It was another cloudy day and soon the weather turned on us. Fortunately, it was only very light rain and within a few minutes we were at the doors to the corridor leading towards the reception where the compostelas were being issued.

We stepped over the threshold into the building and— stopped. Stopped. The minutes passed. No movement. More time passed. Still no movement. I checked my phone. It was somewhere past ten o’clock. We still had time but only if the queue started moving. Steady progress would do. If the queue was going to be like this the rest of the way, though, we would miss the bus.

While we waited, I went onto the Camino Pilgrim Discussion Group on Facebook and asked if it was possible to pick up one’s compostela any time after today. I quickly learnt that it was. When I told Ellena and Carolin this, we agreed to leave the queue and come back on Tuesday – at opening time. I didn’t know if I would receive an answer from the CPDG and was so very grateful when I did – if you are interested in any of the Camino routes and are on Facebook, I thoroughly recommend the Camino Pilgrim Discussion Group to you. The people there are friendly and always ready to offer help and advice to any who ask.

We had intended to walk to the bus station but time was now against us. So, we took a taxi instead. At the bus station, we tried to work out how to buy a ticket for the coach to Finisterre. Very fortuitously, we met Ellena’s American friend Buddy (man not dog) who was was just returning from the coast. He put us on the right track and soon we were on our way.

Just like that, then, we left Santiago. Our Camino was over. Now, we were – what? Recovering former pilgrims? Plain old tourists? Something in-between? If you are thinking about doing the Camino be warned! Once you become a pilgrim, I don’t think you ever stop. I don’t think you can. The spirit of the Camino becomes a part of you; the experience of it is tattooed onto your spirit. This is certainly what I have found since returning home on 23rd May. I am only a former walker. I am still, though, a pilgrim, searching for meaningfulness, for an authentic way to live, for God. I am searching for the Camino in my life at home. I haven’t forgotten the Camino Francés, though. Far from it. How I would love to be back there! I think a part of me still is; walking the Way in the shadow and shade, and always will. I would very much like to walk the French route again. Whether I will or not is in God’s hands. If I do not, I shall try my best to not mind too much – as Newman says, He knows what He is about – but instead, live with gratitude for the Camino that I did undertake, and finished on 17th May 2019.

Camino Postcard 4: Pamplona to Puente la Reina

The Camino Begins Again

14.4.19. Saying goodbye to Pamplona, I left the city via the campus of Navarra university. Along the way I saw a tap, and considered taking water from it but as there wasn’t a sign saying agua potable – water drinkable – I didn’t. This was me being super cautious. But did I need to be? After all, if the water was not potable there would certainly be a sign saying so, wouldn’t there? On the other hand, I later heard from one or two other pilgrims, some nasty stories about the taps and illnesses caught from them. I never reached a firm conclusion but as I never drank from a tap after Zubiri I guess I had already made my mind up.

So, I tramped along the side of the road with a bottle half empty. Ahead of me lay hills crowned with wind turbines. They would be a constant and distant companion for some days to come. Today, my path would take me past them and to the top of the alto del Perdón – the Mount of Forgiveness. For a while, the path rose only slightly but as I approached the hamlet of Cizur Minor, the steeper upward climb began and with a couple of breaks never let up until I had reached the top of the alto. Having shed weight from my backpack in Zubiri and Pamplona, however, I found the going easier than expected.

I was a happy walker today – the alto del Perdón features in The Way and so I couldn’t wait to reach the famous sculptures at the summit and walk in the footsteps of Martin Sheen and co. Onwards I marched… until I flagged and paused to take a break.

I stopped briefly in a couple of places. Firstly, at a little plateau where a kind pilgrim took the photograph of me that (I hope) you can see to the left of this text. The photo gives just a hint of the wonderful view we had of Pamplona and the surrounding countryside.

My next stopping point was at the wonderfully named Zariquiegui. Here, I stepped into a church and got my pilgrim passport stamped and then bought some more water in the local shop. There is an albergue in Zariquiegui and as I gulped down my drink, pilgrims sat outside it, enjoying the sun and eating brunch. I tried to go in to the albergue to get another stamp but it was busy and not very big inside. As I didn’t want to hit anyone with my backpack, I made a tactical retreat.

The path wound on. Two or three weeks later I read of an American pilgrim who died on it. Requiescat in Pace. I don’t know why he died but if it was of a heart attack I think he must have brought his death with him. The path to the top of the alto was good exercise, but not especially strenuous. Perhaps the American pilgrim had a condition that was provoked by that exercise, as ‘easy’ as it was. It is a very sobering thought to think that we might be carrying around within ourselves the seeds of our deaths. Say a prayer for him and all pilgrims who have, or will, die on the Way. They die doing well before the Lord.

I reached the top of the alto. After purchasing an energy drink from a van-café I sat down to drink and enjoy the sculptures. Here is a lovely blog post about them.

By the time I arrived at the top of the alto, there were already pilgrims there. Pilgrims were coming and going all the time. I really wanted someone to take a photograph of me beside the sculptures. Who could I ask?

Two young women arrived and sat down. I recognised them. They were the friends I had met on the first day, resting against the crash barrier. One of them was very attractive. Ask them, I told myself. I didn’t. Too shy. Well, then, try not to look at them; it’s rude and they might notice. Okay.

Presently, someone asked me to take a photo of them so that gave me the opportunity to ask if they could return the favour.

After resting, I walked around taking in the atmosphere. Nearby was a police car. I asked the officers if I could photograph its badge. I’m not sure they understood me but they let me. I was keen to do so because, as you can see above, it incorporates the Roman fasces into the design.

I can’t remember if I mentioned this before but in case not, the fasces – which was a bundle of wood and an axe bound together – was the symbol of the ancient Roman Lictors. They would carry the bound wood when walking with the consuls for whom they acted as bodyguards. My heart belongs to Alexander the Great but my before I ‘discovered’ him, I lived in ancient Rome so its always a joy seeing anything that reminds me of those days.

On leaving the alto del Perdón I descended a path that for its first third was comprised of loose stones. It was very treacherous – I nearly turned my ankle several times – so progress was slow. Along the way, my fleece fell from my backpack. Luckily, someone saw and handed it back.

Eventually, I reached the end of the section. (If the Spanish government ever decided to smooth that path out I would absolutely support it. It is the only Camino trail that I hated walking). Puenta la Reina was still 12 or so kilometres away but now the path was smoother and after the town of Uterga, more or less flat. The high point of this section of the walk was being passed by two horse riders and watching them as their horses trotted on.

I approached Puenta la Reina at some point in the mid-afternoon. I was tired and in need of rest. As a result, when I saw an albergue-hotel – the Jakue – at the edge of town, I ditched my original intention of going to the municipal albergue in the centre. The Jakue would do.

One man was in charge of checking the pilgrims in. Fortunately, there were only two people in front of me. And coincidentally, they were the two women I had seen at the crash barrier and alto. I don’t remember thinking much about them at the time. I was probably too tired. I sat down and waited to check in. Presently, it was my turn. One of the women asked me if I would like a beer. Oh, would I ever! I had walked 25 kilometres so a beer would be just what the doctor ordered (possibly; he might suggest water). I didn’t respond in quite that fashion. Instead, I said words to the effect, Thank you; that would be very kind. She bought me one, and invited me to sit with her and her friend. Thus, I met Ellena and Carolin, who, though we were walking a pre-determined path, changed the course of my Camino. As it happens, Ellena has started writing her own account of her Camino journey; you can read her blog here.

We drank and had a good chat before separating. That evening, the three of us ate together, too. In between times, I hand washed my clothes and spent too many euros trying to dry them. I should have hung them outside but it was now late in the afternoon and I did not like the idea of carrying damp clothes tomorrow. Unfortunately, some albergue dryers were not really up to the task of doing what they were made to do!

And that was my day. Quietly momentous.