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 33: Portomarín to Palas de Rei

13.5.19
I ended the last blog post on a happy note, but the 32nd day of our Camino did have a sting in the tail – I had another blister on my thumb. Fortunately, this one healed in just a few days rather than taking two weeks.

On our second misty morning in succession, we made our way down the great stone staircase and out of Portomarín. For a couple of minutes, we walked along the city-side of the Rio Miño before crossing it once more.

This took us back in woodlands. There were quite a few pilgrims in front and behind. And also, a tractor, taking some felled pine trees away. Our path took us up, up, and – no, not away – just up again until we were actually above cloud level!

What a sight. The valley must have its own microclimate.

As we made our way to the heavens, we saw Lillian ahead of us. We called out to her but while we turned the heads of the pilgrims in front of us, she never heard our cries. A forced march followed until we were close enough to again shout LILLIIIAAAAAN! This time, she heard, and we were reunited.

Today was a really tough day. The heat told on us and Ellena’s knee was in a very bad way. The presence of so many pilgrims around us and the possibility that they were TPs was also aggravating. It didn’t help that there were so many of them that, at one point, we had to walk on the side of the road because there was no room on the pavement.

We eventually stopped at Palas de Rei but should have done so much earlier. Indeed, as with yesterday, that was our intention. But again, as with yesterday, we couldn’t find an albergue. We struggled on under the burning sun. Towards the end of our march, I ran out of water. Memories of the Valcarlos route came back to me and I didn’t enjoy them.

Palas de Rei is 25 kilometres from Portomarin. We managed to walk 23 of them. Seeing the clouds beneath us had been the high point – literally and figuratively; the Spanish man who had replied to Ellena’s greeting of Buen Camino with Buen Camino and then And I hope you die in Spanish under his breath had been the low point. Imagine being a pilgrim and saying that to someone. Either he was a complete jerk or, for charity’s sake, let’s just say he was having a very bad day for whatever reason.

Another thing I should say is that the ill willed pilgrim was a low point because by the time we stopped at a roadside restaurant and bar I was thirsty and Ellena very poorly. Even though we were so close to Palas de Rei, she could go no further on foot.

After we had had a drink, I asked the barman if he could call a taxi for us. Thank the Lord for the kindness of Spanish people. However, when he called, none were available. He advised me to ask him again in a little while. So, we sat down, had a bite to eat and hoped for the best.

Eventually, with prayers in my heart, I made my way back into the bar. The barman called… and five minutes later, the taxi arrived. Praise be. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise.

Of course, we got looked at as we put our backpacks into the boot. We ignored them. This was our Camino and it was the right thing to do.

I did wonder, though, what this taxi might mean for our compostelas. Would we not receive one because we had not walked the entire last 100 kilometres?

That was a problem for another day. Today, the taxi took us to a cheap hotel at the far end of town. We checked in and took our rooms.

By the way, when I say checked in, I mean that we did so after booking the room on booking.com. We used this app for all the hotels that we stayed at from Sarria onwards. We didn’t want to run the risk of just turning up and finding that they had no rooms. That would have been demoralising. The app was very easy to use and a great help to us.

The hotel we stayed was called the Hostal Ponterroxan. The hotelier was very polite if a little forgetful in bringing the wine at tea time (or perhaps just busy) but very friendly. If I was passing through Palas de Rei again, I would definitely go back to there.

Once in our room, we each took a shower and settled down.

I mentioned two low points earlier. Let me mention another high point to even the scales. For today we met the Canadian pilgrim whom we had last seen on our way out of León (I mentioned him here). His wife had recovered from her injury and they were now walking together.

Camino Postcard 32: Sarria to Portomarín

12.5.19
We dragged ourselves out of the lovely hotel we stayed in last night and… stopped. Lillian was still with us but she had gone in search of a cash machine.

Before long, however, she returned, and we set off. One thing I regret about the Camino is not taking more time to explore some of the places that we stopped in. That was fine with the hamlets and villages where there was not a great deal to see but places like Sarria had a lot to offer and I rarely took the chance to explore. This was partly due to tiredness at the end of the walk, but also tardiness. Money was also a reason – in order to preserve it, I never went anywhere that had an entrance fee; that included cathedrals.

The sky was cloudy overhead today as we left Sarria behind and walked into the countryside. There were pilgrims in front of and behind us but we were not yet deluged by them. This would happen a little further on and tomorrow. After that, they pretty much disappeared as quickly as they came. I still don’t know what happened to them.

We entered a woodland and paused to take photos at a train track (non-electrified!). Train tracks are a very potent symbol – of the future and past – but I have to admit, they resonate with me because one of my most favourite films, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café begins with the camera travelling along one.

A train track also plays a very important part in the Fried Green Tomatoes story but I’ll say no more here in case you would like to watch the film (I heartily recommend it to you!) (And the book; Fannie Flagg is a great writer).

After taking our photographs, we passed a group of German pilgrims. I learnt a lot about the country from Ellena, not least that it is a strict one in terms of behaviour. I wonder what it means, therefore, that we met so many Germans walking the Camino. Are they rebelling against their country’s strict you-must-work-(hard)-to-be-valid outlook? I think that – whether or not they are walking the Way for religious reasons – they are, and I am pleased for them. To walk the Camino is to recognise the wildness, the messiness, the incredible nature of life and to refuse to stay in a box that someone else created. For this reason, I’m a little sad that we met relatively few British people. I hope it isn’t the case that in Britain we live life’s wildness in things like drinking and sports, so much so that we leave no space for the deeper – true – wildness of the Camino.

Crossing a bridge, we came to the huge bole. It was so big, Carolin was able to fit inside and do a very passable impression of a tree spirit.

The path now went upwards – another good stretch for the legs – before turning at a hairpin. We came out of the woods. The clouds were very low now, and it was very misty. We stopped at an albergue-café-tourist shop to get our pilgrim passports stamped. This was important because in order to qualify for a compostela in Santiago, the pilgrim has to get his passport stamped twice a day from Sarria onwards.

We had already got our first stamp at a café in Sarria so this one took care of the twice a day obligation. Or did it? I think it may actually have been our third one.

But anyway, I have just remembered something. So, in yesterday’s post I made a lewd reference that has probably lost me such readers as this blog enjoys, or enjoyed, so let’s go the full hog and mention Hitler.

In Sarria, a friend from home sent me a video of a man in a bar dancing. He turns to the camera, and lo and behold, he looks exactly like Adolf Hitler. Here is the video.

I love the juxtaposition of Hitler, a bar, and dancing. It’s so perfectly ridiculous. And yes, it’s also offensive, so don’t watch it if it is likely to hurt or anger you.

Further up the road, we met two horses who were either very interested in us or in the possibility that we might have some sugar to give them. Probably the latter. Sadly, though, we had naught to give but our love.

Hm. Buried in that line somewhere is a quotation from G. K. Chesterton.

… I’ve just looked it up – the key is the word ‘naught’ – in his poem The Ballad of the White Horse, he writes ‘I tell you naught for your comfort’.

As the morning progressed, the sun burned the mist away and it turned into a hot, a really hot, day. We soldiered on, and managed to keep going all the way to Portomarín – 25 kilometres from Sarria. It was a mighty effort under the hot sun and we all felt it. Why did we go so far? Well, my memory is hazy on this point, but I’m sure we didn’t mean to; I’m sure the original intention had been to stop at either Mercadoiro or Vilachá but for want of an albergue that turned out not to be possible.

(I know I said yesterday that we didn’t bother with albergues after Sarria but the situation was a fluid one. If we had arrived somewhere and saw an albergue in front of us, we would probably have taken it)

So, we staggered across the long bridge that took us over the Rio Miño and almost collapsed when we saw that to enter the city, we had to climb a large stone staircase. Summoning our last remaining strength, we made our way up it. At the top, we paused to consult Brierley. There was a hotel just round the corner – the Casona da Ponte. As we were all feeling the heat to breaking point, we went there.

The Casona cost a few more euros but was just what the doctor ordered. Clean, fresh and comfortable. The receptionist/barman was very friendly and, I cannot lie, very handsome. I enjoyed being there.

We had dinner/tea at a café round the corner from the hotel, and as we walked there, we heard a familiar voice from the hotel next to ours – it was Lillian (she had walked ahead of us during the day). We met her in the café.

And so, after washing our clothes, the day – with its beautiful view of the Rio Miño – came to a gentle end.