Our last day into Santiago de Compostela was so many things. In many ways it was a revisiting of so much we enjoyed about the journey. We started walking about 6:30 a.m. and our first two hours were in the dark. While there was some walking along the highway, most of that part of the walk was through forest (mostly eucalyptus). We had our headlamps, but the light of the full moon helped show the way as in the beginning days. The weather again cooperated and was crisp and cool.
As this was the last stage of walking, we expected many people and great jubilation, but early in the day it felt like we were alone. Later on the crowds grew, and especially young high school students lent their excitement to the air. Groups walked arm in arm for at least part of the time. As the light came, we saw a few people we recognized and it brought us a sense of comfort. Many were people we only knew by their appearance, the color of their backpack, or the pace of their journey. But they were companions none the less. We eventually crossed paths with one of our “Camino family,” a friend we had met along the way and gotten to know better. This woman from Brazil began to talk about arriving in Santiago with great excitement and even tears. It was the first touch of deep emotion for me that day as I began to well up.
We made sure we got our sellos (stamps) in our credentiál as each pilgrim has to get two each day for the last 100 kilometers to qualify for the compostela. After early morning we found ourselves walking though fields, near a few villages, around the airport, up to Mount Gozo (the “hill of joy” where we got our first real view of Santiago and the cathedral), and finally through the suburbs and outskirts of this large, modern city. Eventually, we made it into the old town and began to see the ancient architecture, the tee shirt shops, the souvenir stores, and the many, many bars and restaurants.
Finally, like many peregrinos before us, we heard the Galician bagpipes calling us in from entry gate, saw more and more pilgrims converge, and began to hear more voices and celebration. We entered Plaza del Obradoiro, saw the spires of the Santiago Cathedral up close, and made our way to the center of the space. I tried not to have any expectations about what I would feel or do or say—and as with many things in my life—I just tried to be quietly open to the moment. Lena gave a high five, reminded me that “we did it,” and tears welled up again.
In a funny way, this arrival couldn’t help but be anti climactic. As Lena shared with me, the meaning of the trip is not so much in the arriving but in the traveling. So there was joy in getting to Santiago, but there is also a sadness in knowing that it is over—the walking, the new friends, the discoveries, the rhythm, the albergues, the villages, the Camino de Santiago. We hung around the plaza for a while, watching people arrive, their emotions, their responses. Many people just chose to lay down in the square, looking up at the great height of the cathedral. I’m not sure if they were in wonder, relief, joy, sadness, or just in the moment.
We had thought we would go to the noon pilgrim mass in the cathedral, we even arrived in plenty of time, but logistics and a need to linger kept us from doing so. So we made our way to the Pilgrim Office to get our compostela and our certificate of distance travelled. Tired pilgrims lined up and entered the office as the monitor reminded us what window to go to. It wasn’t much more romantic than Whole Foods, but we were glad for the efficiency as this office processes hundreds of pilgrims a day. We got our documents and as we were coming out, we saw a Spanish couple we had been seeing for weeks along the Camino. While we never had much conversation with them because of the language differences, they both approached us, gave us big kisses on the cheek, and congratulated us. What a warm greeting!
Later that day, we decided to go to the Pilgrim Mass (in Spanish). We were there very early, thinking it could be crowded, which it did get. We were sitting for about two hours before things began. It was a dramatic shift from previous days, and sitting still in one place was both an opportunity to reflect and anxiety producing.
What I found most interesting as we sat waiting was that we had a view of the statue of Saint James behind the altar. The statue sits above his burial place. Pilgrims are allowed to walk up behind James and literally “hug” his statue. I found it quite interesting to watch as people of various shapes and sizes came behind him and give him their own personal style hug. Some gave him a brief touch, other reached both arms around the statue to give him a long warm grip. Still others seemed to give him a kiss on the check or whisper something in his ear. It actually seems rather appropriate that pilgrims offer themselves to James in this way, after all, he is the reason for the initiation of the Camino in the first place. We did our hugging of James the next day, when we had some free time and renewed energy.
The rest of the mass was less simple than some of the other Pilgrim services we have been to. It was in Spanish, so I didn’t understand much, but there were about eight priests from around the world who participated and mention was made of the number of pilgrims who arrived that day and from what country. As a final bonus, we witnessed the swinging of the botafumeiro, a tradition that doesn’t happen every day. This 5 foot tall container is filled with incense, hoisted on a pulley, and swung over the congregation by eight specially trained men. The incense in the thurible is said to represent the prayers of the people wafting up to God, but more practically has been explained as a way of dealing with a sanctuary full of smelly pilgrims in times past. Either way, the high velocity movement of this object is a thing to behold.
The next day was a particularly strange one, marked as much by what we didn’t do as by what we did. We didn’t walk 15 miles (although we did mange to put in 8 miles just walking the city). We didn’t get up early. We didn’t have to find a café for breakfast. We didn’t find our selves exhausted from walking through the day.
What we did do created a strange energy for us both. Since we didn’t bring lots of clothes with us because of the weight, we told ourselves we would buy a few articles of clothing and maybe some new shoes. So we found a local mall and went to H & M with its reasonable prices on basic clothing. Needless to say, it is a bit of a shock to go to a shopping mall after 35 days walking through cities, villages, and the country side. It is a bit disorienting to think about buying some new clothes when the ones you have been wearing seem like faithful old friends. Both Lena and I would say that in some ways, those few hours were some of the most exhausting we had in weeks. I wonder what I am supposed to learn from that?
Last afternoon and evening, however, was a wonderful highlight and appropriate end to our time on the Camino. Though it was cold and rainy, we were able to greet a few more of our Camino friends who arrived that day or before. We ran into more people than we imagined seeing, some whom we met very early in our time in Spain. That evening, we shared one final meal with three of the friends we made. For us, it was symbolic of the journey, that perhaps the most important thing about the Camino is not whether or how you finish, but the people you meet along the way. Not a bad metaphor for life.
One last thing. There is a saying, “The Camino begins in Santiago.” What I think this means is that the learnings that have shown themselves on the roads of Spain will break out in our lives in the days and years ahead. (Like it or not.) I have a friend who walked the Camino two years ago and he tells me that the Camino, its people, its places, its memories, and its lessons are still forming his life. So, as always, just when I think I am finished, something new is being born. Thank you Saint James. And thanks to all the peregrinos past, present, and future!