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 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.

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.