21 April to 24 April, 2019
Santiago de Compostela (km 779.5)
We have been in Santiago de Compostela for three days and on an emotional and physical rollercoaster adjusting to the reality of reaching the end of the pathway.
Unlike many, we had always planned to finish in Santiago, and not walk the extra 100km through to the coastal town of Finistere, a popular completion point.
In medieval times Finistere had been considered the extremity of Europe, and by extension, the end of the world. In more recent times a tradition has taken hold for pilgrims to end their Camino there, immerse themselves in the ocean and burn their clothes on the shore to symbolise completion. (The clothes burning has since been banned for environmental reasons)
Many members of our Camino family had stopped in Santiago briefly, then continued onward, perhaps to stave off the inevitable end of their special journey.
In our case, we had travelled as far as our legs would take us, and once we reached Santiago our bodies told us that it was time to sit down, and stay down.
Many returned travellers have recommended staying in Santiago. There, in a place between The Camino, and the real world, it is possible to reflect upon your journey and achievements, to connect with your Camino family as they progressively arrive, and to rest and recover before starting the journey home. Santiago was also mooted as a place of many sights to see. It sounded like just the plan for us.
After our initial arrival, and greeting of friends, we took a long look at the square we would return to many times in the forthcoming days, and moved to obtain our Compostela certificates of completion. Issued in a building a short distance away, we had been warned that the line could be long, and indeed it was. We didn’t really mind, our legs were tired, and unlike many, we hadn’t even stopped to stow our packs, but it was a very happy place to be, in a corridor of pilgrims who had completed their journeys.
We waited just over an hour, exchanging Camino tales with those around us who had travelled from every different corner of Spain and Europe. We found ourselves next to two Italian cyclists who had completed the same route as ourselves in just 11 days. Often Cursed by walkers on the trail, the cyclists weren’t so bad in real life. They quickly pointed out that they hadn’t ridden electric assisted bicycles, which have become very common, and were clearly considered the work of the devil.
Once again Leo attracted much interest, and, as he sat on the floor and drifted to sleep, there was much sympathy and admiration quietly expressed as the crowd learned where he had begun his Camino. Finally it was our turn, and we filed through to obtain our Compostela certificates, with our names entered in Latin, and our certificates of distance. 779.5km. Now it was time to celebrate.
The Colleens had elected to get their certificates the next day to avoid the crowds, and had waited for us whilst having a long cold beer. Leo quickly obtained directions to the best Chocolate con Churros café in town, and we convened there to introduce our Irish companions to this special treat. This was soon followed by another round of beers and churros, which in some strange way seem to work together on that hot day. Late in the afternoon, we parted ways, agreeing to meet the following day, and we went searching for some accommodation.
We had actually arrived in Santiago a day earlier than originally planned. For the following two nights we had reservations in arguably the best accommodation in town, The Santiago de Compostella Parador, a luxury hotel built in a huge medieval building complex which forms one of the four sides of the Cathedral Square. It was to be a very special treat at the end of our time in Spain. We pondered where to stay our first night as we stood in front of the cathedral, our physical and emotional energy reserves evaporating with the knowledge their work was done. There were rumours that the Parador offered a limited number of rooms at a reduced rate to pilgrims. We investigated, discovered it was true, helped no doubt by the information that sirs already had a booking for a further two nights, and soon enough we were lying on cool fresh linen, with the window wide open.
Sleep and long showers followed before we set out to wander the old town in the late evening. Meals are eaten late in Spain and so there was no problem finding a place to eat, before we wandered back to the main square near midnight. There, under the glow of the yellow lighting we found that many pilgrims had returned, unable to sleep, and drawn back to The Camino’s ground zero to connect with others who had arrived.
Many of our Camino family were there, and many others we knew by sight, but had never got to know, until now. There were many hugs and laughs exchanged as small groups sat down to chat around the square. A row of people were lying down, feet pointed away from the cathedral, looking back up at the spires. A pilgrim explained that a German guidebook claimed an optical illusion occurred when doing this. The watching group were sceptical, but there was consensus that it was good to see Germans doing something zany. Either way it was a good way to simply absorb being there. We found ourselves returning to the Square late each night, when the throng of tourists were gone, and it became a place for pilgrims.
We had timed our journey well to see the finished exterior of the cathedral, but unfortunately, the interior was now being restored, and it was temporarily not available for masses. The pilgrim’s mass in the cathedral is a highlight for travellers, even for those not journeying for religious reasons. The cathedral can accommodate almost 1000 people and at the beginning of the service a list is read out of the number of pilgrims who have arrived in the last 24 hours, where they come from and where they started their pilgrimage. A giant incense Botafumeiro, which is controlled by 8 people and swung high above the heads of the pilgrims, is a famous visual element of the mass that dates back to the 14th century. It was a disappointment that we would not get to see it, but alas, this simply became another reason to come back some day.
The following two days were spent in the old city, buying fresh T-Shirts to improve our appearance, and smell, and wandering the twisting streets. The simple act of spending more time sitting down than walking was a genuine pleasure. At all times the sound of the Gaelic pipes could be heard, and we could see more pilgrims completing the last km of their journey, their faces filled with expressions of weariness and anticipation.
It had been agreed that if we completed The Camino we would get matching tattoos of The Way scallop shell on our ankles as a permanent memory of this special journey. For Leo this was a very important item. A friend had recommended a suitable tattoo artist in Santiago, but on arrival we soon learned that under Spanish law Leo was too young, even with parental permission. The disappointment was very evident and the artist quickly stepped forward with a solution. He created a non-permanent tattoo on Leo’s ankle that would last for several days, and would not accept any payment for doing so. Now Leo had something to proudly show the eagerly waiting group of friends over the next few days.
It turned out that we were not the only ones treating ourselves at journey’s end with a stay at the Parador. The following day The Colleens, Josie and Tom, all checked-in. We also discovered Gregory and Steeges, and their wives Diane and Shannon, who had joined the boys in Sarria, and had walked the last few days together. It was wonderful to continually encounter them and exchange our latest reactions to being in Santiago.
It was evident that word had gotten out about Leo’s arrival and we received many heartfelt emails and texts of congratulations from our Camino family, many now returned home, but still monitoring his progress. The Colleens left a special gift for Leo, a small replica of a Camino wayfinding marker, now to be known as ‘The Ting’ in honour of the ‘Irish speak’ that had filled our walk into the city. Our remaining time was spent resting, and doing laps of the old town, to have meals and simply soak up the atmosphere of being in the holy city as a pilgrim. Our bodies rejoiced, but clearly our minds and emotions would have a lot to process over the next few months. Our physical journey may have been complete, but our full Camino was far from finished.
Finally our departure morning arrived. Stepping out in our freshly (hand) laundered hiking gear into a warm day, we had to walk to the train station for our onward journey to Madrid, but not before one Last vital task. We had connected with many of our Camino family since our arrival, but there was still one we simply had to find. Leandro had been an important part of our journey. From the excitement of our first night in St Jean PDP, through to the grind of our hardest days, Leandro had brought boundless energy and positivity to every situation when we needed it. To leave without finding him was unthinkable. After days of searching we made contact in the last hour, and we met for an emotional final catch-up outside the cathedral. We walked with him to the road leading to Finistere and watched him go, before reluctantly turning away towards the train station. It was time to go home.
Accommodation: Parador Santiago de Compostella, Santiago de Compostella