July 26-27, 2010 Santiago de Compostela

Adios, Santiago, mi amigo

July 26 — Slow day here in Galicia. Knowing I would miss Finisterre I hunted down the train station and bought my overnight ticket for 7/28 to Madrid. I then emailed my Spanish teacher back home to ask her about a Madrid museum she mentioned, then I booked a hotel near the train station and museums. My flight to SEA was set for very early Friday morning. I had a goodbye lunch in the afternoon with Artur and also Andre of Montreal following pilgrim mass. There was still a huge line for hugging the Santiago statue, so I decided to wait for that until tomorrow. I found a quiet corner in a square and sat and jotted down the completed itinerary of my camino and reviewed my emails so I wouldn’t forget details.

July 27 — Caught up on my sleep today. Slept until 07:30, then off to breakfast and a 1 hr wait to hug the apostle. Then back to the room to sleep until 11:30. Wake for lunch then visit to museum, then back by 15:30 to sleep until 20:30 an wake up in time for dinner.

The museum was definitely the highlight of thus sleepy day. As well as pilgrimage relics and cutaway models of the cathedral there was an incredible show of time-lapse photos of six camino routes, including my two. The photographer traveled the caminos over six years, taking a photo every 11 steps. Each photo is given about 0.5 secs so the result is like a movie of every foot of the caminos. They’re all 6 projected simultaneously by video projectors on large screens in a black room. The result is a presentation that gives an astounding sense of distance and time. I watched for over an hour

Tonight got ready and jumped on the train to Madrid. Farewell, Santiago, mi amigo. I shall return to see you again.

July 24-25, 2010 Santiago de Compostela Festival

Wow, an incredible day and a half here in Santiago.

On Day Eleven (July 24) I had a nice breakfast with Artur then packed and (since both the Costa Vella and Altair were full) went to the hotel Gail so nicely reserved for me, saving me a ton of time searching for a room in this city that is now jammed to the gills with festival tourists and pilgrims. It was a nice suite in a hotel with a big atrium and only about 3/4 mile from central Santiago.

After checking in I wandered the streets, watching the various street characters, including giants, fire breathing dragons and grotesques. There also marching bands and many street musicians. I took a break in a cafe, plotted my week’s strategy over a late lunch, then headed to Plaza Obradoiro to wait for the Fuego (fireworks).

Lucky I did. I got there at about 19:00 for the 23:30 show, and at about 20:00 they closed the square. There were perhaps 10,000 people in the square and I lucked into a group from Seville sitting next to a Uruguayan mother-daughter pair who live in Vigo. The leader of the Sevillians is an Internist named Javier. The Uruguayan daughter just graduated med school. So we talked about Gail, my doctor-wife.

Then the fireworks started. I have never ever seen anything like these. The entire facade of the cathedral had been prepared with lasers and rockets and strobe lights. At times I worried for the cathedral building itself, which sometimes seemed to be exploding. My seat was spectacular– too close possibly– and we were showered many times by falling ash and debris. Truly an overwhelming experience.

After all 10,000 of us pushed our way through the narrow streets after the show I headed to the hotel for a few hours’ sleep in advance of an early assault on the pilgrims’ office for my compostele. I got to the office at 07:00 on Day Twelve (July 25, Santiago Day) to find 75 people already there. By the 09:00 opening I would estimate there were at least 500 pilgrims in a line stretching more than 3 blocks. Still, the cathedral was well organized, with many stations. I had my Holy Year/Holy Day compostele by 09:30.

I checked my festival schedule just then and realized that the grand procession to the solemn cathedral mass would begin at 10:00. I headed back to the plaza and stood in a group of thousands to enjoy a procession of soldiers, clergy, nobility, governmental leaders, and finally the King and Queen of Spain. People around me shouted “Vive el Rey!”

Knowing the cathedral was already packed (the line was even longer than for the pilgrim office) I pushed through the crowd once again, got breakfast, got my backpack, and headed to my home for the next three nights, the Altair.

People seemed to be enthralled by my iPhone film clips of the fireworks, so I put together a YouTube video and uploaded it right from my phone. Amazing new technology. Not the greatest video, but still….

On the way to the Altair I saw Kristina of Poland and the Italian from Modena who walked with Corrado and Pascal. He said they’ve both now gone home. Our thin stream of Via de la Plata pilgrims is quickly emptying into the ocean.

After that I laid low at the Altair and ventured out for dinner after the crowded streets emptied. Beautiful, clear day, slight breeze, probably 20c degrees. I’m glad I was here for the amazing fiesta, but my dallying among the celebrations has meant I won’t have time for Finisterre. Oh well. Some other year!

July 23, 2010 Ponte Ulla to Santiago de Compostela

July 23, and here I am in Santiago de Compostela — two days ahead of plan. The weather is perfect, the streets are crowded with pilgrims and tourists, and my legs are tired and sore from walking 266 kms.

I overslept this morning and knocked on Artur’s door at 8:00 — an hour after our planned departure from Ponte Ulla. The nice restaurant owner made us toast, then we donned our mochilas and were off for a 22 km final stage to Santiago.

The day was perfectly uneventful. We dutifully followed the yellow arrows as they snaked us up and down farmland and forest hills, then finally through the suburbs of Santiago. The Via de la Plata brings pilgrims into Santiago from the south, and sure enough our first vista of the cathedral was its southern face. As we wound through the city, though, somehow we ended up approaching the cathedral from its northwest side.

Because he immediately wanted his compostela I showed Artur to the pilgrim office then left him there to check into my hotel, arranged at the last minute (since I wasn’t certain the day of my arrival) by our friends at the Altair. Once I realized my room had two twin beds I returned to the pilgrim office (after lunch) and waited for Artur so I could offer him to stay in my room.  Since he had no room arranged he was happy to accept, so we dumped his stuff in my room, headed to the pilgrim mass, then had a nice dinner at one of the restaurants I ate at with Gail in 2008. Afterward we walked the city and enjoyed taking photos of street minstrels and magicians who seem to be in most every plaza.

As always, the mass was emotional for me. I thought about and prayed for the many pilgrims I’d met and celebrated with gratitude and relief that I’d safely completed this long and challenging endeavor.

Some statistics:

  • Days walked: 10
  • Kilometers walked: 266
  • Avg kms per day: 26.6
  • Miles walked: 166.25
  • Avg miles per day: 16.6

At this point I’m still not sure about walking to Finisterre. I expect it will be very crowded, and I’ll know very few pilgrims. If I do I will leave most likely on Monday, but a Sunday start is also possible. I’ll think and plan more over the next days.

Meantime, tomorrow is festival day and the festival organizers have mounted a huge framework for lights, fireworks and lasers on the cathedral facade. If I can I’ll get a seat in the main plaza and witness what, according to the papers, will be an amazing fireworks show tomorrow night. If not, apparently there are also goods seats at a few nearby parks. Off to bed at the Costa Vella hotel where the room I’m sharing with Artur has a delightful westerly view.

July 22, 2010 A Laxe to Ponte Ulla

After my super long day yesterday I was certain today would be a total drag. I woke up with the kids from the van saying “good morning” to me to practice their English. I thanked one of their leaders once again for helping make a place for me at the albergue and he told me, in Spanish, that he could tell I really needed one. I asked him how he could tell and he pointed to his eyes and drew his fingers down his cheeks then pointed at me. I hadn’t realized I’d looked so desperate, or that my tears (ahem, watery eyes) had been obvious. Yes, I’d shed some tears, mostly after my place at the albergue was assured. I’ve learned about myself that after 25-26 miles of walking I tend to get weepy. Oh well.

Soon Artur hunted me down and after some vending machine coffee we set out. We would walk together all 26 kms to our evening destination of Ponte Ulla.

The walk was through farmlands as well as one small city — Silleda. Not much to say about the walk except that we met about 40 Spanish kids who’re walking together, and Artur told me his battle story.

I learned a few day’s ago that if I could find the right question I could get Artur talking for hours as we walked and that I was always entertained by what he had to say. So we  talked about women priests, Americans, CS Lewis, great military campaigns, transubstantiation, etc. We marveled at an enormous bridge being built in cantilever fashion out over the river valley whose original bridge had given the tiny town its name. Before I knew it we were in Ponte Ulla, our goal for the night. We found a hotel with very inexpensive rooms and the owner agreed to do our laundry!

Here with us in a simple pensione were an English/ Turkish father and daughter and Kjell and Oddbjorg of Norway. We had a cervesa together then dinner separately. Then off to bed for the remaining 20 kms to Santiago. I will arrive 2 days ahead of schedule after a great Via de la Plata.

Can’t believe this camino is just about over. I’ll see how I feel Sunday before making a decision about walking to Finisterre. I’m already feeling a good sense of accomplishment and am  not sure I want to fight the inevitable crowds going to Finisterre. But we’ll see.

July 21, 2010 Cea to Oseira to A Laxe

Had one of the toughest days yet. The day started at the delightful little town of Cea. I’d had dinner last night with Ramon and Magdalena, two funny Spaniards. Then an English speaking Spaniard wanted to have a beer. So I got back in to the albergue around 10:30 and settled down in my top bunk.

I slept fine, but as usual too short because of the mass exodus from the albergue at 05:30. I finally dragged myself out of bed at 06:30 and hit the road 1/2 hour later.

Sometime before Oseira I caught up with Kristina, an older Polish woman, and Francisco from Portugal. Although they don’t share a common language somehow they’re stuck together like glue. Francisco has what the Bible would call a “withered arm” which means that besides his arm being small and not useful he can’t carry a backpack. Instead he has a suitcase on wheels – which must be an enormous challenge in these very rough paths. I also soon met Pascal and two Italians. We arrived together at the incredible monastery of Oseira. I attended 10:30 prayer office with the monks and some of this gang. If I were a multimillionaire I would buy these monks a new pipe organ to replace their cheap electronic. Other than the odd sounds of their organ the service was very nice. it was held in the balcony of the beautiful monastery church. The service was a half hour in length and afterward BrotherThomas, who runs the gifts shop, gave me a tiny painting of the face of Jesus.

Kristina, Francisco and I soon took off for the day’s destination, Castro do Dozon, about 10 kms beyond the 9km we’d already walked. I soon left behind the two of them and got in my walking groove, with this stretch pretty deserted since it’s a longer option to go via the monastery from Cea.

After a bit I saw the two Germans ahead — the ones I’d seen at the albergue with their young child in a stroller. They were clearly struggling on the rough path with their baby, Jacob, and his stroller. I helped them through the worst of it but left thinking they’d made a huge mistake to try this with the baby.

Given the extra time for the monastery I arrived fairly late at the day’s goal, only to learn that the albergue at Castro Dozon was full. Next albergue: 19 kms away in A Laxe. So I set out at 15:00 to walk the extra miles for what I believed to be a total of 37kms.

As the distance dragged on I was clearly flirting with my endurance boundary. Every step was painful and the goal seemed only slowly to get closer. I stopped to rest every hour, then every half hour. As I approached the albergue a van full of kids pulled up – the same kids from Lasa with the small backpacks. I couldn’t believe it. They were going to beat me to the last bed at the albergue. Sure enough, I headed to the door and a sign was already posted, “Completo.” I was stunned. I asked the hospitalera if she had any beds at all. She said no, though there were beds another five kms away. I was desolate, and sat down in the lobby of the albergue with a look of profound sadness on my face (i.e. I was almost in tears). But as we were talking the kids and their leaders from the van were listening. They invited me to stay with them in a backroom with mats on the floor. I enthusiastically said yes and they showed me the room, laid out my mat, and put the sheet on one for me. Some of the kids tried out their English a little on me to be friendly. End result, they get Saint of the Day in my book. I had become something of a curiosity for them and perhaps also an opportunity to express their Christian charity.

Since it was already 8:30 and the doors lock at 22:00 I set down my stuff and walked the .5 km to the restaurant. As I was finishing, who should appear but Artur of Estonia who had arrived at the albergue some hours earlier and already had a bunk. We briefly chatted before I headed to the albergue for bed. The hospitalera insists that my mileage today was actually 42 kms, and I believe her. I think this ties for my longest camino day yet, and I now know my limit — about 40 km, thank you.

Tomorrow Artur and I will head out at a reasonable hour to Ponte Ulla, an 18 km walk. I’m two day’s ahead of plan so I need to cool my jets in order not to arrive too early in Santiago.

July 20, 2010 Ourense to Cea

Day Seven began by asking directions at the hotel’s front desk about how to get out of Ourense. The answer was fairly easy — left, then right, then left until the Roman bridge — the follow through was much more difficult. After the tall, masonry bridge and the endless suburbs there was a steep vertical climb up a cobblestone drive for 1000 ft elevation gain. The uphill climb was very tough, mostly because whenever it seemed to be ending it was in reality just taking a break before another steep slope. The first 7.5 kms took over two hours, much slower than normal. Worse, the result was a feeling of exhaustion all day long.

The climb led to a long stretch of vacation chalets, each sitting, it seemed, on 5-10 acre parcels. These are large houses, built of 6’x18″x6″ slabs of rough hewn granite. While the materials should make these houses blend into their context of ancient stone buildings, just the opposite is true. Unlike the ancient homes, these stand out because they are nearly identical, symmetrical, but most of all, they are separated from their neighbors. All of the ancient houses are clustered together– sometimes walls touching while surrounded by miles of farms — for community and protection. Each of the homes has a barking German Shepherd tied in the yard for protection and a satellite dish attached to the house for community. The result was not an unpleasant feeling, just a disconnected one.

After a time the vacation chalets melted into the normal Galician pattern of scattered villages. At one of these villages I took a lunch of cheese omelette in a baguette. The TV was on and I found myself entranced by the Spanish-dubbed version of Minority Report with Tom Cruise. After days of tranquility I was easily lured into the fast pace of this American movie and I had a hard time dragging myself away.

Within a half hour the heavy lunch required a break from walking. So in a grassy spot with shade I laid down for 20 mins with my shoes off to rest. This gave me a chance to watch the trickle of pilgrims who were behind me. In 20 mins only three — a single Spanish woman was walking with the cigar-smoking older Spanish man. The solo Spaniard with the soccer flag still by himself. Each shared a buen camino as they passed.

After an hour I met Ramon from Madrid, a man who carries the party with him wherever he goes. His personality blends the jocular and the pushy. He was clearly frustrated with my Spanish, but clearly still wanted to communicate. At one point he asked me, “do you know what color was Santiago’s white horse?” I knew he was playing with me and I told him it was the same color as George Washington’s white horse. He also told me about some of the people he’d been walking with from A Gudina. A Polish woman who lives in Madrid. A Polish woman who is walking from Lourdes to Fatima to Santiago.

This was all with only 3 kms to go before the albergue in Cea. Once we arrived there after our 22km walk we found our beds in a spacious albergue seemingly created out of stone farm buildings on the outskirts of the village, took our showers, washed our clothes, and at Ramon’s suggestion headed straight to dinner — with Magdalena, the Polish pilgrim.

It was a lively and delicious dinner, with Ramon the life of the fiesta. Rumor told us that the town’s free pool was open. Several pilgrims planned to swim, and I considered joining them.

Otherwise it was a quiet day here on the Via de la Plata, unless you include the fact that there are now at least 5 times the number of pilgrims as before. The reason is that we are within the 100 kilometer minimum to receive a pilgrim compostela, the certificate of completion from the Santiago cathedral. I’m not too concerned to be in a crowd of pilgrims — I’d expected it. But I am secretly pleased that I’m the only American among this increasingly international band of pilgrims.

July 19, 2010 Xunqueira de Ambia to Ourense

In My Dinner with Andre last night we had a tender discussion about angels and saints. He told me about his family and divorce and the 1000s of kilometers he’s walked on caminos. Afterwards it was off to the albergue for a good sleep.

As usual in albergue living people start to stir and head out at the ridiculous hour of 05:00. Dawn didn’t come until 07:00, so clearly their reason is to get a jump on albergue beds in the next town. That makes me so sad that beds become a competition. I prefer to begin my walk sometime soon after dawn and trust to the camino to provide a bed at day’s end.

At 06:30 I gave up trying to sleep and was next to last out of the albergue. Today’s walk to Ourense, largest town in my camino, had three main stages — a) tiny bedroom villages, b) industrial zones, c) dense urban areas leading to the old city.

I walked through the tiny bedroom villages with Kjell and Oddbjorge of Norway. Kjell’s English is quite good and he told me the story of how his 1998 camino changed his life. After the camino he came home, simplified his lifestyle, and retired so he’d have more time to volunteer at church. Then he complained bitterly about the Norwegian government forcing the Norwegian Lutheran church to accept homosexual clergy.

Kjell and Oddbjorg walked slowly, so I walked mostly alone through the industrial zone. Here I nearly flipped my first bird (yes, nearly) when a driver missed me by inches from behind as he passed a truck on a narrow road. I jumped as his car whizzed by just inches away.

As I started into the urban section I caught up with the kissy Spaniards and their friend, who was hobbling now with an injury. I tried to help them find the albergue, but I wasn’t that committed given I had my heart set on a cheap hotel somewhere in the center city.

In the urban areas the yellow arrows always seem to disappear, so I had to ask directions several times to get to the Plaza Mayor. I finally found it then was about to sit down for the day’s first beer when I was stopped by a camera crew. A man in a rainbow tank top asked me if I’d be interviewed. I told him I didn’t speak Spanish that well, so he did the first part of the interview in English. He asked me how I liked Ourense (me lo gusta) and where I was from. I told him and also volunteered that I’d just walked 22kms and was very tired and was looking for a hotel. He asked me how many stars, one, two, or three? I told him 2-3 and, off camera now, he sent me to a hotel about a block off the Plaza Mayor.

I checked in, went across the street for a great enselada mixta, then sat to type my daily note to Gail on my iPhone and strategize about laundry (do it now) and dinner (do it after the blazing sun goes down). Ourense has a reputation as the hottest town in Galicia, and today’s temps — likely 95 to 100F — were confirmation.

I spent some time at the cathedral — a beautiful church. And I debated with myself about a change in my plan to stay at the hotel I’d reserved given my quicker pace. I could pretty easily get to Santiago on the 23rd at my current rate, but my hotel reservation isn’t until the 25th. I decided to ask Gail’s help online to try to find an available Santiago hotel for the 23/24 then head to Finisterre on 25/26. I left the decision open, though, as I knew a lot could change and I had laundry to do.