The day from Ferreiros turned into our longest of the Camino. We dodged Galician rainshowers for much of the day, but got caught in a short downpour in the mid afternoon. We spent some more time walking with Joe from Ireland all the way to Palas de Rei, which was about 35 km for us on the day.
With the skies beginning to part and the promise of quieter villages a short walk farther, Anne-Claire and I pushed on, only to run into my greatest worry about the structure of the Camino. In village after village, hospitaleros had shuttered their doors for a Saturday night of rest, and what should have been an extra 3 km turned into our first 50 km day as we were forced to walk all the way to the city of Melide to find accommodation.
We dragged ourselves into town around 9:15, and I had to keep myself from falling asleep in my soup during dinner. Every part of my body ached when we finally went to bed, though I was surprised at how little soreness I had the next morning. Apparently, there are cumulative health benefits to be had from walking 12 to 30 miles a day for almost a month straight.
The next night’s bed wasn’t nearly so tricky to find, and was perhaps our most comfortable on the Camino, a welcome treat after our penultimate day of hiking. We had a lovely dinner with an Irish doctor and his daughter, and two women, one South African and the other Dutch, who had met their first night in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port and had walked together ever since. The South African woman had caught the eye of a Hungarian pilgrim with an injured leg, so she’d walk with her Dutch friend during the day, and then her suitor would typically come and find her late in the evening, just as he did during dinner on our last night.
That evening, at the private albergue in Santa Irene (the public hostel was closed for repairs, joining the long list of unavailable accomodation in the final run-up to Santiago), the beds were so comfortable that we slept in until past 7 and set out on the trail for the very last time at 8:30. Though only 20 km or so, it felt like a long day as the anticipation of reaching our destination, indeed the namesake for the trail we walked, pressed us forward.
The city of Santiago is visible for the last hour of the walk, the spires of the massive cathedral beckoning from the hilltop perch surrounded by modernity all around. As we walked the final few hundred meters through the old town to the cathedral square, we were greeted by street musicians – first a sitar player, then a bagpiper who, even late into the evening, seemed to be tirelessly heralding the arrival of pilgrims.
We walked out onto the square, anchored by St. James’s church and flanked by a five-star parador and a monastery, to see the mishmash of tourists and pilgrims shooting photos, weeping, smiling, lying on the cobblestones, and sitting in reflection as they stared at the 800-year-old cathedral.
It seems a lot of pilgrims don’t really know what to do when they arrive. “I walked all that way for this?” a Finnish friend of ours joked. But after weeks of walking, what would be a fitting end? The cathedral is spectacular, make no mistake – an imposing behemoth of lichen-covered granite that’s not as well-polished or restored as the cathedrals in Burgos or Leon. Indeed, it seems to be almost melting in the wet Galician climate. That gives it the feel of a church that’s alive and in use, rather than that of a preserved museum.
It might seem cliche to say you realize the Camino, as with so much in life, is about the journey, not the destination. And yet, that destination that draws so many people to one place does have its importance, however arbitrary the place itself might be. Whether it’s to mobilize Catholic Europe in the direction of Spain to oust the Moors as in the Dark Ages, or simply to provide a common path that allowed us to meet people from other cultures, the Camino is significant because it ended in Santiago.
And yet, it seems many pilgrims aren’t ready for it to be over when they arrive. You see many sitting in the square late into the night. I imagine, like me, they’re pondering the totality of what they’ve just done, what it’s meant, and what to do now that it’s over. I suppose that’s why so many continue the three days further to the “end of the earth” at Fisterre. And now, it’s in vogue to extend the hike even longer and do another day on top of that to Muxxia, and even complete the loop back to Santiago for a second triumphant entrance into the city.
To me the importance of what we’ve done over the past 28 days hit me the next morning when our friends from the trail began pouring in. Anne-Claire tells me we got just a glimpse of this excitement, as we had to catch a bus to Portugal that morning and weren’t able to hang around Santiago the rest of the day. “It’s your city for the next few days after you arrive,” she said. Indeed, as we walked back to the square from breakfast the morning after our arrival, we saw several of our friends from various points along the way still shouldering backpacks and beaming from the completion of their journey.
It was Anne-Claire’s favorite part of the Camino when she and her dad did it a few years ago, and after a taste I can see why. Arriving in Santiago isn’t about seeing the Cathedral or visiting St. James’s bones or hugging his bust on the altar of the church. It’s about sharing a moment or two where you’re happy to see a familiar face, a chance to relive a happy memory because that face reminds you of a meal or a drink or a stretch of trail that the two of you shared in the midst of your disparate journeys.