Camino Postcard 38: Santiago de Compostela

Since writing yesterday’s post, it has been brought to my attention that I forgot to write about the most important thing of all – the fact that in Finisterre Ellena made a lovely soup for the three of us. It took her several hours and a lot of ingredients but she did it, and we were all very grateful!

After we arrived in Santiago, Ellena and Carolin decided to rest as soon as we found our apartment. I went into town to buy some food and take a few photographs.

The Pilgrims’ Office
First thing on Tuesday morning, we walked over to the Pilgrims’ Office. We still had to queue but not for two hours, which was a relief. While we waited, though, I wondered if the Pilgrims’ Office would give us a compostela; or would they say Nah, mate – you took a taxi on the last 100K? I am happy to report that they didn’t even ask if we had taken a taxi and that we did each receive our compostelas. Ellena and Carolin also bought the extra certificate that told them how many kilometres they had walked from Saint Jean.

After leaving the Pilgrims’ Office, we stopped at a nearby café where we got talking to a friendly Australian (or was he American? I can’t remember now). Upon a moment, our friend Colleen walked by! I was so happy to see her – she saved my Camino on Day 1 so to see her at the end was a great joy, and very apposite. Colleen told us that a Franciscan church down the road also issued compostelas to pilgrims so after finishing our drinks, we toddled along there, knocked on the day of the sacristy and met a friar who did the necessary for us.

The Cathedral
From the Franciscan church we went to the pilgrim church itself: Santiago cathedral. Unfortunately, it is currently undergoing refurbishment so we were unable to attend Mass there and see the famous Botafumeiro (giant thurible) in action. As you can see from the photograph below, the latter was all wrapped up during our visit to protect it during the refurb.

The scaffolding was so extensive that it was hard to see the inside of the cathedral as much more than a very old and elegant building site. The place was not without meaning, though. For example, I saw my two favourite popes.

In case you don’t know who they are, that’s Benedict XVI waving his hand and John Paul II with the staff. JPII is now a canonised saint; I fully expect Benedict to be declared so after his death and shall be very disappointed if both aren’t declared Doctors of the Church one day; though that probably won’t happen in my lifetime.

Most importantly, we also saw the bones of St. James himself.

Are they really his bones? Sure, why not; no, very unlikely; who cares? To even be concerned as to whether they are or aren’t misses the point – Santiago Cathedral is not a sacred space because his bones are there but because of what he did and why. Ultimately, though we walk with and because of St. James, the purpose of our pilgrimage is Jesus Christ, and it is He who hallows the cathedral with His Presence.

One thing we didn’t do at the cathedral is enter it through the Portico of Glory – its gates were closed (on account of the scaffolding inside) – so we were unable to fall to our knees and put our hands on the statue of the Saint (though I admit I probably would not have done the former had the Portico been open). We also didn’t climb the steps at the back of the main altar to embrace the statue of St. James – the queue to do this was very long and on this occasion we were happy to just wander around and see whatever we could.

Malcolm the Brave
Now, not long after I met Ellena and Carolin the subject of getting a tattoo in Santiago came up (see Postcard 7 here and 8 here). I didn’t think it would happen, but the subject kept coming up and about two weeks before the end I realised that Ellena, who had suggested it, was serious.

So, after our trip to the cathedral, as she and Carolin rested, I went to the tattoo parlour and made an appointment… I just hoped that the cigar chewing, beer drinking Hells Angels bikers that probably owned the place wouldn’t beat me up and dump me in the gutter first.

Of course, it was nothing like that. The place was cleaner than clean, the people polite, and I even met Joey from Australia who had joined us once or twice (most recently at the Cruz de Ferro) along the Way. He was looking tense: he had already made his appointment and now the time for the needle had come.

Despite the fact that we only had a one day window to get our tattoos done, we managed to make the booking, decide what kind of tattoos to go for and get inked.

Here’s mine (forgive the Oh So Pale English skin):

Pau Cafre is the tattooist and he did an ace job. If you are ever in Santiago and are in the mood for a tattoo, check him out at Old Skull Tattoos.

Being tattooed was such an experience! I could have gone through with it by myself but when Ellena said she would come and sit in the room with me, I wasn’t going to turn that down. She held my hand and I rambled on about Alexander the Great while the needle did its work.

Speaking of the needle, there was just one, but it moved up and down so fast that it felt like there were goodness knows how many of them. It felt very dramatic.

I know that tattoos are not to everyone’s taste but I am so pleased I decided to get mine. It’s a wonderful reminder of the Camino – one that will never get broken, lost or stolen. If I ever walk another, I will definitely get another tattoo at the end. I’m already thinking about the keys of St. Peter.

Food Stations
After leaving Old Skull Tattoos, we ate a lovely pizza round the corner. While in Santiago, we also visited a local KFC one or twice. I think I mentioned before that I never go to KFC at home so it remained a nice treat. I especially liked the free soft drink refill – it had my favourite Camino fizzy drink, Kas, so I was one happy customer. On one of the days we were there, a group of teens came in. One of the girls in the party was carrying a cat, her pet. She sat down and took good care of it while the others went to order the meal. It’s good to see young people with their heads screwed on right.

To Home
Rest, Compostelas, churches, noms and tattoos. That was our holiday in Santiago. Finally, though, Thursday came and it was time to head to the airport. Upon our arrival, we stopped one last time together in a café. When the time came for Ellena and Carolin to head off to their flight we exchanged goodbyes and I watched them leave:

Sigh. Two hours later, it was time for me to do so. Farewell, Santiago; farewell, Camino; farewell, Spain. For now?

So there it is; the end of my Camino. I did it! I bloody well did it! It started last November when I watched The Way, continued when I joined the Confraternity of St. James, took a big leap forward when I quit the job I wasn’t enjoying, and finally really got going after I left St. Jean, and became an immeasurably richer experience after I met Ellena and Carolin. And now? It’s over but it never will be. Here’s to the next stage.

Thank you for reading!


Camino Postcard 17: Población de Campos to Carrión de los Condes

Day Five on the Meseta

We left La Finca behind and began walking. It was another hot day, and Población was another sleepy Spanish town. Spaniards simply do not do mornings.

Further up the road, we stopped at a café-albergue that promised ‘Paradise Without WiFi’. I’d love to be able to speak approvingly of this, of how good it was to be freed from the chains of communication but I’m neither a hipster or a hippie and love my WiFi so can’t.

This café-albergue was certainly a paradise for hippies and hipsters – it has very ramshackle, had a farm attached (I saw some cute asses there; now let’s talk about the donkeys frnarrrrrr) and the rooms were tents. They weren’t called tents but had a particular hippy name that I can’t remember.

Anyway, it was also a very friendly environment. Inside the café itself, pilgrims were encouraged to leave messages on the side of the counter or on the wall. Many had done so. So did I. I could have written an appropriately inspirational message but instead chose to write something facetious about Alexander the Great that nobody but me would understand and which thankfully I forgot to photograph.

While at the café, we met George from Seattle. He was in good spirits despite the fact that his husband had given up on the Camino and returned home – walking was not for him.

Tony had left La Finca ahead of us so at this point, and indeed until we arrived in Carrión, it was just Ellena, Carolin and myself together.

We left Paradise Without WiFi and continued up the road. The Meseta continued to roll by. Our path took us along the roadside and we saw a sign saying ‘Santiago 464 [km]’ which meant that we had now walked about half distance from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago. As I think I mentioned before, despite being called the French Route, the start of this particular Way is regarded by the Spanish as being at Roncesvalles, which meant that we would not receive our halfway compostelas until we arrived in the town of Sahagun in three days time.

Upon a moment we arrived in Carrión de los Condes, and there we checked in at an albergue in a former (?) covent. The dorms at the Espiritu Santo were named after the continents and contained single beds – no bunks again, which sore legs greatly appreciated. I slept under a beautiful wood icon of Our Lady (below), which more than made up for the cheesier Catholic artworks in the vicinity.

To its credit, the Espiritu Santo had a chapel, although it was no more than an altar and cushions. However, the Blessed Sacrament was reserved there, which immediately made it the most important place in the building.

After ditching our backpacks and showering down, we went out for a beer. I lost over a stone walking the Camino yet still drank beer every day. No wonder I enjoyed myself so much.

To celebrate the fact that we had, or were about to, walk half distance we took a stroll into town to buy a congratulatory present for ourselves. Ellena and Carolin chose matching bracelets. I bought the necklace that you can see below in imitation of the one that Martin Sheen’s character wears at the end of The Way.

While in Carrión we met Tony again. On his recommendation, we ate tea/dinner at a fish restaurant. On the way there, he had to make a pitstop at the local pharmacy to get help for his poor blistered foot. Tony is a powerful walker but it’s amazing that he could walk at all on that foot. The blister was huge and, of course, open.

Afterwards, we strolled happily back to the Espiritu Santo. In the large courtyard there we met a certain someone smoking a joint. Well, I suppose a religious house is a place for ecstasies.

Camino Postcard 1: St. John Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

Mistakes Were Made

At 6:45am on 11th April, I set off from the municipal albergue at the top of the Rue de la Citadelle and under the shadow of the late medieval Porte Saint Jacques.

My original intention had been to follow in Martin Sheen’s footsteps (in The Way) and take the Napoleon Route over the Pyrenees but the SJPdP Pilgrims’ Office had told me that it was closed due to bad weather; with a little regret, therefore, I turned right out of town instead of going straight on, and headed towards the Valcarlos route, which would take me through the valleys at the foot of the mountains.

The Camino Francés is marked with yellow arrows, usually on posts or painted onto walls. This chalked arrow was the first I saw after leaving St. Jean Pied de Port.

What about those mistakes? The first was that my backpack was too heavy. I had known this in London but not removed anything as I didn’t know what to get rid of. Instead, I left everything in situ thinking that I could remove anything that I didn’t want or need in St. Jean. In St. Jean, however, I still couldn’t decide so it all remained.

The second was that I drank my water too quickly. I had two bottles. Both were empty after about two and a half hours of walking. No problem, I told myself, there are water taps along the way; I will simply refill the bottles when I get to them.

A good idea, but there was a problem: there were no water taps. Or, did I miss them? Either way, I was in a bit of a fix. A partial solution came when I found a bar where I was able to take a drink. I should have asked the barman to fill my bottles up but was too shy. A miracle occurred: unprompted by me, he kindly offered to fill my water bottles up. I gladly handed them over.

There are two Valcarlos routes. The first follows the road; the second, a beautiful woodland path that takes you through the valleys for the majority of the way to Roncesvalles. I followed the latter.

The country path is not for anyone with weak legs or, for that matter, strong legs and a too-heavy backpack as it continually climbs and falls. At first, this doesn’t matter so much but as the day grinds on and you get more and more tired, the never-ending undulations make a psychological battle of the route – your will to succeed versus the Valcarlos’ desire to grind you down and make you give up and either turn back or stop for the day or – the ultimate shame for a pilgrim – call a taxi from the next hamlet that you come across.

On that point, let me say here that if any part of the Camino grinds you down so much that you feel you cannot continue or causes injury to you there is absolutely no shame in calling a taxi or taking a bus. I don’t care if you are in the Pyrenees or past Sarria or anywhere in-between: the Camino is either a life-affirming experience or nothing. If you need to call a taxi or take a bus, do it. That’s your Camino and anyone who says otherwise can get knotted. As you will read, I travelled by both bus and taxi during my journey and I don’t regret one ride.

Also, people who say it isn’t your Camino as if you are just a cog in the machine of Camino tradition can also get knotted but that’s another matter and I should get back to the narrative.

When I left St. Jean, clouds hung overhead but it was at least dry. Soon, however, rain began to fall. For the rest of the day, it would continue to do so on and off. As I drank more and more of my water, the irony of having less to drink despite the wet conditions was not lost on me. I began to look at the rivers below me with great longing. By the afternoon, I would very much have liked to throw myself into them in order to quench my thirst.

A little waterfall – is it safe to drink?

I made a third mistake: it was to not turn back when necessary. For example, when the woodland path bypassed the village of Valcarlos. When the path crossed a road further on, I should have turned back and gone to the village to either buy more water or look for a tap. Instead, I told myself to keep moving forward; only one thing mattered: getting to Roncesvalles. This was wrong. Yes, I did eventually get to Roncesvalles but in a much worse state than I might have been had I let go of my walking ideology and been pragmatic.

As the day wore on, I took an increasing number of breaks. I must have looked a real mess because nearly everyone who passed me asked if I was alright.

Two people and three things saved my life: the man who let me have a swig of his water bottle after I had finally finished mine, and the American lady who gave me – gave me! – one of her water bottles. Given what a precious commodity water is on the Camino, this was an act of incredible kindness.

The three things: ibuprofen, Kendal’s mint cake, and chocolate. The ibuprofen suppressed the pain in my sore right leg and the mint cake gave me a valuable sugar rush and the strength to keep going.

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!

By two or three o’clock in the afternoon, the clouds were getting lower and lower. I was on an upward path and before long, above the cloud level. The clouds started to close in and I began to worry that I would get lost in them. Just in the nick or time, however, I left the woodland path and arrived at Ibañeta. From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump (if I had had the energy, which I very much didn’t!) to the monastery albergue at Roncesvalles.

I arrived there sometime after three pm, nearly ten hours after leaving St. Jean. I was exhausted. A very kind hospitalera not only sat me down but pulled my boots off for me and gave me in quick succession two cups of tea. Heavenly.

A last drama awaited me: every time I took a break en route, I threw my backpack to the ground. It usually landed on my sleeping bag. At Roncesvalles, I discovered that the bag I kept the sleeping bag in was not water proof. Fortunately, four hours of airing was enough to pretty much dry it out. Thank goodness – sleeping in a damp sleeping bag would have been more than I could bear that night.

Navarrean (?) king Sancho VII the Strong (1157-1234) is buried at Roncesvalles

After tea, I attended Mass at the church attached to the monastery and joined a tour of it. It was a beautiful and peaceful end to a long and difficult day. The good news, though, was that I had survived and that in terms of sheer physical effort it would prove to be the most difficult of the whole Camino. Not that the rest of the walk would be easy but nowhere would be as hard again.