On 16th May 2019, five weeks after leaving Saint Jean Pied de Port, my friends and I finally arrived in Santiago de Compostela. Today, we went straight to the flat we had booked for the night. Tomorrow, we’ll head down to the cathedral and the pilgrim centre.
Two years later I still think of walking the Camino as one of the two great achievements of my life (the other being earning my degree from university) and I remain as happy and honoured to have been able to do so as I was when we reached Santiago.
I would still like to walk the Camino Francés again, though I don’t know if I ever will – maybe health and financial status will not allow it – but if I don’t, I am immeasurably glad and grateful that I got the chance to do it even just the once.
As I write these words, the coronavirus continues to plague the world. Here in Britain, we are recovering: the government has made many mistakes since COVID-19 started to spread, but has done brilliantly with the vaccination programme. The Indian variant is causing concern but all being well, the country will be fully ‘open’ again this summer. After a slow start (to put it mildly), the European Union is getting on with its vaccination programme as well. As it does so, pilgrims will start to walk the way of St. James again. I applaud their bravery, for they will not only be undertaking what will be at times an arduous journey but doing so at a time when there will invariably be lingering concerns about the virus.
If you are one of those trail blazing pilgrims, or if you are reading this further into the future, here is this one-timer’s advice for making a good pilgrimage:
Don’t walk without water!
Travel as lightly as you can
The Camino isn’t a race. Go at your own pace
There is lots of advice that one could give but I think the above are the most essential. I would dare to say that the above is the most critical, as well. Some advice (like ‘leave your phone at home’) can be happily ignored. The above, I believe, shouldn’t be.
As for me, I bought a little bottle of wine to toast our success in 2019. Here’s to what we achieved and the Camino – long may she be a guide to souls.
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.
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.