August 28, 2008 Finisterre

The two hour bus ride to Finisterre was a delightfully different way to travel across Spain. We sat in the front row of a double-decker bus with an enormous windshield before us that allowed us to see everything within 180 degrees. We arrived at Finisterre, walked the tiny downtown, and then caught a taxi to the hoteljust a few yards shy of the lighthouse itself. We made a reservation for dinner at the hotel’s tiny restaurant and settled in for a delicious meal as the fog rolled in across the water. That night our sleep was interrupted by the sound of the fog horn blowing just a few yards away, and in the middle of the night we awakened to a thunderstorm that moved from one side of the cape to the other with constant forks of lightning flashing all around us. It was a very dramatic welcome to the end of the Earth and a fitting end to an amazing journey.

Postscript: I was very blessed with excellent health throughout my 800 km (500 mile) camino in May, June and August. I was more than satisfied with the journey itself. In fact, it had captured my imagination in ways I would never have guessed. And the fact that I returned, over and over again in the subsequent years, demonstrated the allure that this ancient journey has even for a modern pilgrim like me.

I had begun the pilgrimage expecting it to be a walk of solitude and introspection. I’d quickly learned that I had a deep hunger for community. The highlight of this and subsequent journeys was actually the pilgrim relationships I made and the new friends I discovered. In the coming years I would return to college to improve my Spanish, I would plan more caminos along other routes to Santiago, I would sponsor my son, Luke, on a camino of his own, and I would advise hundreds of other pilgrims on a UK Internet Forum.

At its heart, the Camino de Santiago is slow travel. Instead of driving through a region to see its sights, the pilgrimage walk allows one slowly to absorb a region, step by step. Today I cannot drink a glass of La Riojan wine without tasting the camino again. The fragrant nectar, made from grapes of this northern region of Spain, evokes all the feelings and many of the smells of the walk. Somehow the physical exertion provides an opening for Spirit, almost like a treasure hunt in which the next turn or the next cafe table or the next church holds surprising and delightful rewards. Even albergue life, with its uncomfortable bunks and symphony of snores has an attraction. They, like other parts of this amazing walk, hold the joy of camaraderie, of shared ordeal, of celebration and quiet conversation, of the search for the Divine in the separation from the routine and immersion in the extraordinary.

August 27, 2008 Santiago Rest Day

The previous night Gail and I had eaten at a small restaurant near the hotel then headed back to the hotel for an early night in our comfy room. The next morning we enjoyed a Hotel Altair breakfast (croissants, ample fruit, great coffee, exotic jams and jellies) and then went to get Gail’s completion certificate, the compostela. After a little exploring and time taken to greet other pilgrims we’d recognized from our walk, we headed to the cathedral for the noon pilgrim mass. The place was jammed, even though we’d arrived early. At the end of the mass, seeing that the famous botafumeiro (a large censor, lit with fragrant incense and swung on a long rope from transept to transept) was not to be used in the service we went back to the hotel. We heard from people afterward that the botafumeiro had indeed been used, but just at the end of the service. The funnest part was left until the end.

Through the day we enjoyed shopping along the narrow streets of the old city and meeting pilgrim friends over cervesas or red wine. We took the short walk to the bus station and arranged a ride to Finisterre the next day and I arranged a hotel at the tip of Capo Haro, just at the end of the famous cape that earns the nearby town it’s Latin name, “End of the World.”

As Gail took a well-deserved nap that afternoon I returned to the cathedral for some quiet time on my own. I walked down into the crypt to view the small sarcophagus where tradition says Saint James’ (Santiago’s) bones are kept. I prayer to God a prayer of thanksgiving, then headed back up to the nave to think and prayer and remember. I decided to pray for every single pilgrim I’d met during the walk and to give God thanks for the memories of our meetings. So I prayed for them all, and as I prayed tears of relief and joy and loss streamed from my eyes. The camino had reminded me of my love of discovery — discovery of foreign lands and discovery of the joys of friendship. In this church I came to realize that God is indeed present on a pilgrimage — present each step of the way, present in the laughter and embrace of pilgrim friends, and present in the traditions of an ancient Christian community that calls us to live beyond ourselves, stepping from our comfortable lives into God’s joyful embrace.

August 26, 2008 O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela

As I loaded up my gear in O Pedrouzo I realized this would be my last day of walking the Camino de Santiago. The feeling was bittersweet — I was happy to know that I would accomplish the goal I’d set for myself months ago, but I was sad that the end of something I had enjoyed immensely was at hand.

The weather was perfect. In fact it had been sunny without rain every day we’d been in Spain this August. We set out after a hotel breakfast anxious to put the miles behind us and get to the cathedral in Santiago and say hello to the Apostle James, after which the whole pilgrimage is named.

A few miles from O Pedrouzo are the outer fences of the Santiago airport, where the camino runs from the middle of one side, around the end, and then to the middle of the other side. This means about an hour of walking past the airport, sometimes with jets landing or taking off right overhead. At the end of the runway, near the road, is a stone marker that is the first welcome to Santiago. This is still some miles from the cathedral as we would discover.

We continued on to the tiny village of Lavacolla, just below the airport, where medieval pilgrims had washed themselves in a creek as preparation for their entry to Santiago. We bought a soda at the sole bar and looked beyond us to a tall hill, perhaps our last before the city itself.

The last hill seemed like a mountain range. We walked past a never-ending TV station property, through a subdivision of homes, and finally to the monument at Monte de Gozo — the Hill of Joy. From here is the first sight of the twin towers of the Santiago cathedral and, dominating the hill, is a modern sculpture that honors the visit of Pope John Paul II ten years earlier.

We found our way to the enormous albergue below, then lost the camino from there, guessing that it must go to the bottom of the hill where the main road crosses a bridge into town. Sure enough, we picked up the trail again just before the bridge and noted with joy the sign indicating our arrival into the city limits of Santiago.

At this point it seemed like we had already walked 30 km, not the 12 km we’d actually covered. This modern section of Santiago seemed just like any other sprawlingly suburban city approach. We walked past car dealerships, offices and strip malls, then came to the end of the street we were on, forcing us to make a left or right turn in order to continue. The path wasn’t clear, so we stopped once again for a cold drink and discussed our options, watching as we did to see where other pilgrims were heading. I could barely sit still out of excitement to complete the walk, and finally we began the last climb, up the hill and along the blocks of 6-7 story apartment buildings to what clearly was a gate into the old city. We walked through the gate, up the last hill past many tourist shops, down through a tunnel, turned left and came to the vast Plaza Obradoiro that sits below the cathedral’s grand west facade.

We were here. For me, after 800 km and three months I’d made it to Santiago. For Gail it was 188 km of pain and struggle, perhaps over more difficult obstacles.

It was afternoon now, and we had missed the noon pilgrim mass so there was no point in rushing to get to the cathedral. Instead we headed to our hotel, The Altaïr, and immediately fell in love with its combination of old world warmth and modern sophistication. Gail settled in for a well-deserved rest and I headed out for my pilgrim certificate and to explore this town that I’d been aiming for all these months.

August 25, 2008 Arzua to O Pedrouzo

At breakfast Gail and I walked downstairs to the hotel dining room and again met an older German couple with no English. This gave Gail a chance to practice her high school/college German. Her accent is great and it was a good intellectual challenge for Gail to be pulled back into her German vocabulary and grammar and a great opportunity for me to remember how smart my wife is.

We left Arzua with the plan to cut our remaining distance to Santiago into two days’ journey. Through the day we played leapfrog (not literally) with Carol (Pinky) and Jake, and as the day’s walk through woods and near farms came to a close we discovered we were together in a hotel just off the camino and adjacent to the car road to Santiago. We settled into the hotel and ordered drinks to share with Jake and Carol in the hotel’s back garden, then had a relaxing dinner together in the hotel restaurant.

Tomorrow we would take our final steps to Santiago de Compostela, the fulfillment of much dreaming over many months.

August 24, 2008 Melide to Arzua

Today’s walk would take us only 14 km to the town of Arzua, which would give plenty of time to relax and rest. Our guidebook mentioned an ancient church at Donas de Vilar and a medieval castle at Pambre that was off the camino near Palas de Rei, so we decided for reward ourselves with a taxi ride and church/castle tour if we could get to Arzua at a decent hour.

The thought of only a 3 hour walk gave Gail great hope, so we made it to Arzua by lunchtime and found a room at a hotel right on the camino in the heart of town. We left our things, found a taxi, and enjoyed a long ride to Castillo Pambre, a very scenic and deserted castle between woods and farms off the camino. Unfortunately there was no way to go inside the castle, so we walked down into a horse pasture to get the full effect of the building’s architecture and shared the space with a huge white stallion. We then headed to Vilar de Donas, and after finding the keeper of the key, studied every aspect of this nearly 1000 year old church.

Today was a nice day of gentle walking and car touring. This quiet and interesting day gave us both the sense that we were now starting to have fun, even as the end of our walk drew near.

August 23, 2008 Eirexe to Melide

Even to make it to Santiago on a relaxed schedule would require us to walk 22 km today, so I hoped that Gail’s foot pain would be better today and we could make it to Melide.

We set out with no sign of Christian, but we saw Carol and Jake on and off through the day. Jake, at 20ish years old, was a camino jackrabbit. He was in great shape and able to walk back and forth between us and his mom as though each step was effortless. Carol had a slower pace and we often saw the two catching another cup of coffee (or an ice cream bar) along the path.

We walked downhill through the town of Palas de Rei, stopping only to look for an ATM and lunch. We nabbed a few additional stamps for our credentials at churches along the way, including one at which the priest ran out of his building, waved and shouted at us to come in and see his amazing church, then asked for a 5€ donation for the privilege. The stop was worth it mostly to admire the chutzpah of this entrepreneurial servant of God.

As the day wore on Gail began to reach the limits of her endurance. We finally arrived at Melide, where we’d arranged a rendezvous with Jake and Carol, but we couldn’t locate the hotel they’d mentioned and Gail was desperate to get off her feet. I left her in the main plaza and ran off to find any hotel, securing a great room in the Pousada Chiquitin. Something about this hotel’s combination of location, simplicity and chic modern made me really like it. I ran back to get Gail and settled her into the room while I went across the street to the albergue to do our laundry.

While Gail rested I enjoyed stepping back into albergue life, if only for an hour or so. Even though I was staying at a nearby hotel I was welcomed into the albergue by the kind hospitalera and allowed to use the coin-op washer and dryer. The washer ate my coins and then stopped partway through its cycle, which led the hospitalera and me to get put our arms around it and shake it back to its senses. Sure enough it began to work again and my laundry proceeded to get cleaned.

While I waited for the cycle to complete I went to the albergue kitchen and enjoyed some of the usual enjoyable pilgrim company. As always, pilgrims from all over the world were in attendance and I had a long conversation with a young female Australian veterinarian who was walking the camino from St. Jean Pied de Port. When the laundry was done I walked over to Gail with our clean clothes. She was asleep, so I headed out for a haircut and after she woke up we had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant before calling it a day.

August 22, 2008 Portomarín to Eirexe

Pressing on through her pain, Gail was now becoming a hero. While she walked and while she rested she thought through her own medical diagnosis of what was happening (she’s boarded as an internist as well as an anesthesiologist). Each step felt as though there was a rock between the bottom of her foot and her boot. The pain became excruciating and it was only later that she decided it was probably an less common form of plantar fasciitis in which the forward section of the plantar fascia is inflamed. Once again I offered a taxi for Gail. Once again she was insulted and refused. Bless her heart — she was going to brave out the entire walk!

On the other hand, I was in great shape and thoroughly enjoying each moment of this walk. It was an enormous gift, after all, the completion of a plan I’d had for years, one that had suffered a setback in June with my mother’s illness, but one that was day by day coming closer to fulfillment. We were just a few days outside Santiago now and I longed to visit this city on which I’d long set my sights.

The one thing the that was also clear, though, was that my secondary goal of walking to Finisterre would probably not happen. I’d arranged our flights for what I thought would be an adequate time to include a 3-day walk to Finisterre after Santiago, but I hadn’t taken into account what our actual pace would be. And recognizing the pain with which Gail was walking I felt a walk today to Ligonde/Eirexe would be about our limit. This would stretch our Santiago arrival date out far enough that we would miss the three days necessary to walk all the way to the coast. I was sad, but I also began to recognize that I might walk the camino again sometime in the future, in which case I would add Finisterre on at the end.

We left Portomarin sometime well after Christian, Carol and Jake. With a modest goal of 17 km I reasoned that we could sleep in and give Gail some time to rest. So we set off through the small farms and quiet towns in this stretch. Arriving in the late afternoon at Eirexe, a tiny settlement with only a cafe/bar and a restaurant with a small hotel above, I arranged a room in the hotel. We enjoyed a very quiet night in this fairly remote area, surrounded by the green of the nearby pastures and no road larger than the camino as it ambled along between the two buildings.

August 21, 2008 Sarria to Portomarín

By this time the effects of the walking were taking a toll on Gail and I was puzzled about why she wasn’t feeling stronger the farther we walked. Gail was complaining of extreme pain in her foot and she was walking very slowly with a barely noticeable limp. I offered to call a taxi and meet her at the next day’s goal, Portomarin, but Gail was insistent she would walk it — and a little insulted that I’d consider calling her a cab. We both recognized, too, that, if Gail didn’t walk the last 100 km from this point on, she would not qualify for the compostela, the completion certificate at the arrival to Santiago.

So we set off from Sarria, stopping regularly at sites along the way to take photos. Over the next km we saw a Dutch man whom we’d met climbing to O Cebreiro, and we spent a lot of time with Christian, an Austrian man who wanted to practice his English and who was delightful company. We also met an Austrian woman who spoke only German and her daughter who spoke English well. Also we met two young Swedish men who wanted to celebrate the birthday of one, so they’d bought two boxes of wine and were carrying them to share with pilgrims along the way.

I usually walked with Christian, pausing each time Gail was out of sight behind us and then allowing her to catch up. At one point just before Portomarin Christian and I were deep in conversation and missed a yellow arrow. Gail called to us from behind and let us know we’d missed the turn.

We walked down into the valley where the town of Portomarin had originally been — it had been moved in the 20th century when a dam had been built, creating a reservoir over the town’s ancient site. We crossed the new highway bridge high above the lake and climbed up into the new town on the hillside above, noting the Romanesque church that had been moved stone-by-stone from below to the new town. Gail sat on a bench in the square while I hunted with Christian for a hotel room. When we got to the room Gail collapsed on the bed. I told her to stay put and I would bring her dinner. I found a restaurant, explained in Spanish that I wanted a dinner to go, brought it to her, then returned to the restaurant for a meal with Christian, Jake and Carol who’d by now met each other. When I returned to our room Gail had fallen asleep with the dinner half finished beside her. I lay down next to her, hoping her camino would become more joyful in the days ahead, but thankful that we could be here together to experience these days of walking the Camino de Santiago.

August 20, 2008 Triacastela to Sarria

If I’d been smart I would’ve chosen the shortest route possible to the next town, Sarria. Instead I remembered Stefan of South Africa’s words about how I must go to the monastery at Samos because it’s one of the great experiences of the camino. This adds about 6 km to the day’s total distance and Gail’s was exhausted and discouraged after three tough days of walking. This day would not be a hard uphill or downhill, but it would be long.

As we left Triacastela for Samos I noticed someone had written in French on the back of a road sign, “Don’t forget to smile!” I pointed the graffiti out to Gail and translated it for her. She was not amused. This was no vacation for her — just a long walk in a foreign country trying to keep her husband happy. I was sad that Gail hadn’t started to enjoy herself yet, but I knew, I just knew, that as her body caught her up to the physical challenge she would find the great spiritual rewards of the walk.

The walk from Triacastela begins along the roadway, with timbered parks and a creek off to the left side. Soon it veers into the forest for the long, shady walk to Samos. After a few hours we saw the large monastery in the valley below. I was thrilled to see this important building, rebuilt from its original medieval structure after a fire. It was clear that the monastery was the primary institution of the little village of Samos and I had images of the idyllic life of a monk, copying manuscripts in the morning and working in the fields in the afternoon.

Gail and I came down the long, narrow, curving road into town, stopping at a produce store to pick up delicious fruit. We came into town, had lunch at a roadside cafe (where unfortunately a detour had caused large trucks to constantly roar past us), then headed a few blocks toward the monastery itself. We discovered the monastery door was unlocked and its gift shop was open, but unfortunately the monastery itself was closed until its guided tour hours, much later in the evening. Intrigued, but disappointed we left Samos for the day’s goal of Sarria.

The quickest way to Sarria is by the road, so we walked out of Samos along the highway, rejoining the main camino some miles out of town. The long walk left us both tired and grumpy and as we walked into town we looked immediately for a hotel that could put us up for the night. A hotel of 12-15 stories in height appeared before us and we arranged a room for the evening, the two of us dropping in exhaustion on the hard single beds.

After showers I convinced Gail to walk out of the hotel with me to find a place to eat and to look for other pilgrims to enjoy. She gingerly walked on her pain-filled feet over the nearby pedestrian bridge across the river and as we hunted for a table among the many sidewalk cafes there we saw the familiar faces of Carol and Jake, the Americans we’d met back at Villafranca. This cheered us both up and we enjoyed a fun evening of camino stories and conversation over Menu del Peregrino and ample red wine. I was glad to see our friends — both to enjoy their company and to show Gail the joys of pilgrim companionship. Our meeting was definitely a bright spot in a day that had been a long slog for my beloved wife.

August 19, 2008 O Cebreiro to Triacastela

Since we’d made the climb to O Cebreiro I was pretty certain the most difficult part of our camino together was now behind us. I was wrong for two reasons.

First, the walk after O Cebreiro continues down, then up again to Alto de Poio. The last km or so is just as steep as anything we’d experienced the day before. We were rewarded by a bar/cafe at the top where we grabbed a cafe con leche and a croissant, then we headed to the pilgrim statue at the summit and enjoyed the beautiful views under bright blue skies.

Second, the walk down to Triacastela is a hardcore descent. The endless pounding of foothold to foothold was merciless and now Gail faced a new challenge using a completely different set of muscles. Our 21 km goal to Triacastela was a light day for a pilgrim accustomed to walking, and I assured Gail this walk would get a lot easier after the first week. This cheered her up and, after several hours we arrived at the outskirts of Triacastela. Gail waited at a bar/cafe as I searched out a hotel.

It took me some time to find a place for us and while I was gone Gail delighted both in the rest and in the sights of the pilgrim river flowing before her. She recounted odd stories about a pair of girls pulling a trailer with an umbrella and a small dog on it. She told me later about a man walking backwards in a kilt. And she described a pleasant conversation she’d had with an Austria named Christian.

I brought her back to the hotel I’d found, which came equipped with a washer and dryer in the basement. Gail rested as I did our laundry and then we found a quiet restaurant for dinner after which we put ourselves to bed, Gail hoping the walk would become more fun and I hoping Gail would have patience with me, the one who’d dragged her halfway across the world for a painful and difficult hike.