Tag Archives: Ferreiros

Arriving in Santiago

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.

New friends from our last night on the trail

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.

AC and Elena in Santiago

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.

A cool picture AC took of the cathedral in Santiago

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.

My Compostella, entitling me to six years off my stay in purgatory, according to the Church

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.

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The Pilgrim Experience

The monastery at Samos

As I mentioned early on in this blog, the idea of taking a month to walk a distance you could cover in a day by car can feel a little contrived, especially as the backbone of the Camino feels like it’s breaking at times under the weight of its own popularity. Stretches of the path have become commercialized as local populations see a few euros to be made and start catering to us pedestrian-tourists in the form of meals, trinkets and housing. And who can blame them? One of the more lucrative ideas seems to be to build a cross between a hotel and a hostel, offer a limited number of beds in the shared housing section for the going rate of 5-10 euros a night, and then when that’s full, have a bunch of spartan rooms (“habitaciones”) at 30-60 euros a night that weary pilgrims are more inclined to pay for than to walk another 5 km to the next hostel.

A Galcian pony comes to say hello to Mareade, Joe and me

Still, the quintessential pilgrim experience crops up more often than not in spite of these complications. A few days ago, after descending from the spectacularly placed hilltop town of Cebreiro – the highest point on the French Camino – we stayed in a town called Samos in one of the oldest, if not the oldest, monastery in Spain. Once home to hundreds of Benedictine monks, fewer than 20 brothers now call the massive complex home.

Anne-Claire and I had both gotten a little run down and weren’t feeling well that night. We’ve noted that if ever there was a good way to spread disease, the Camino is it. Take a bunch of tired, underfed pilgrims who are constantly meeting and remeeting people from all over the world in the Jacob’s ladder that is the social system and watch as viruses make the trip faster than we do (funny that “Santiago” or “Saint James” translates to “Jacob” in several languages).

One hundred kilometers to go with Joe and Anne-Claire!

We left Samos engrossed in conversation on the topics of foreign affairs, religion and the Irish language with Joe from Dublin and Mareade from Cork. Though probably one of our slowest days speed-wise, the miles fell quickly behind, as our companions are both fascinating people. Joe’s a brilliant polymath working on a doctorate in chemistry. And Mareade has a keen eye for observation unusual for someone of just 20 years old.

Early in the evening, we arrived at yet another typical Galcian town where the livestock and the meters of elevation far outnumber the residents. We checked the first small albergue in Ferreiros and found it was completely full, but they directed us to the restaurant just down the hill. Out back, a tiny room crammed with beds stood surrounded by piles of lumber and building equipment. It looked like it had just been put up that afternoon (Anne-Claire even got some wet concrete on her shoe). A boisterious Swede named Kenneth informed us that the one shower for the 25 of us who would eventually sleep there that night had no hot water at all.

This wasn’t strictly true. There was hot water if you put the handle in the middle instead of to either side, though so much of it shot sideways from the head that by the time it reached you, any warmth had been lost to the air. Kenneth said later that if he had been the plumber who had installed the shower, he’d have fired himself. But after almost 30 km, I was just grateful to rinse of the sweat and dust from the trail.

 

We enjoyed a nice communal dinner, and then all headed back to our room around nine o’clock for bed. A loud generator was still toiling right outside the door, and a frustrated Italian, who had arrived after the shower had stopped giving hot water from any point on the dial, asked if anyone knew when the generator would turn off. Kenneth, by this point several bottles of beer and wine into his nightly routine (so we hear), piped up immediately and offered to take care of it.

A moment later over the din of the generator, we heard some yelling, which I can only guess was in Swedish. Kenneth forced the sticky door open and smiling, said, “I had a talk with it, and it will go off in about five minutes.”

Everyone laughed, but a couple of minutes later, the machine peetered out. As whispered conversations cropped up around the room in the pleasant silence, a shy Scottish guy of about 20 who’d said little to that point in the night commented to his girlfriend how nice it was that in a single room like this one with no bunks, it opened the door to freer conversation. Indeed, we were all on the same plane and in for what we figured would be one of our most interesting nights’ sleep on the Camino. Magically, as the sunlight dimmed the ambient light (the only light available, come to think of it) in the room, everyone settled into bed around the same time, and I drifted off for a very restful night.

The new hostel in Ferreiros

Pilgrims come to the Camino seeking truth, enlightenment, religious revelation and answers to every possible question. More power to them, I suppose, if they’re successful. But it’s nights like the one we spent in Ferreiros that have crystallized its value for me – realizing that under layers of class and background and every other label we proudly affix to ourselves, we all share the same longing for a few basic things in life, a good night’s sleep not least among them.