Completing the Camino de Santiago, regardless of where you start walking, is a thrill. There is something so wonderful about directing all your energies day after day to one small, attainable goal – arriving at a beautiful cathedral and saying some prayers for the people who love you. Pilgrims have been doing this by the thousands for over a thousand years and my two daughters and I have now joined them.
We moved on from Ruitelán with the intention of going just as far as the mountaintop village of O’Cebreiro. We left early enough and were rested enough to make our climb and I did not anticipate too many problems. But psychic meltdowns have a way of popping up when you least expect them and I faced two of them in just a few hours. My oldest daughter kind of fell apart halfway up the trail and the youngest decided to just take in the scenery and try to look Zen-like so as not to blow up at her sister’s irritating "health" issues. I underestimated how interesting it might be traveling with a lovable child who is also a full-blown hypochondriac. But here’s the thing about pilgrimage that separates it as an activity from a simple vacation. On pilgrimage, everything you do needs to be in support of every other pilgrim. On vacation, you do things for yourself. What both of my girls learned that day was that if you focus your energies on yourself, you never get where you are going.
So I hailed a cab. It’s the one thing pilgrims are admonished NOT to do. You have to keep walking. So I officially ended our progress toward Santiago de Compostela right there at O’Cebreiro and, after a nice lunch, we went down the mountain into Samos to visit the oldest monastery in Spain and just take the afternoon off. I’m not sure at that moment that either of my girls knew what was happening next, but it didn’t matter. We sat and sipped Cola Cao hot chocolate drinks at a local pub and just took a minute to collect ourselves. I left them for about 20 minutes to photograph the monastery and they got a moment to reconnect with each other. From Samos, we took a second cab to Sarria where we checked into a three-star hotel and had long hot showers and a lovely dinner together where I told them we were going back to walking in the morning.
Next day, we started walking again. We took off before sun-up and walked out of the city into some of the most wonderful countryside Spain has to offer. We walked past the famous mural of pilgrims that you see on the wall that supports the area around the church and we were into farmland before you knew it. Much of this day’s walk was nearly flat, so the issues of the day before faded quickly and we made our way by mid-afternoon into one of the loveliest medieval towns in this section of the Camino, Portomarin.
We went to Mass for the first time there and it was lovely. The church is Romanesque and very spare, but they had a sweet Nativity scene filled with tiny ceramic craftsmen busily working away, as if the town itself were part of that Christmas event. The next day, we left for Palas de Rei and met up with our first of two days of rain. It was fairly light and we spent the night at a wonderful place called La Cabaña. It was a wood paneled room with a bunkbed and a twin and we had a television and enough heat to dry the few clothes we had rinsed out.
After Palas de Rei, we walked to Melide and then on to Arzua. I was tempted not to go past Melide because it had started raining again, but I thought it would be good to keep making progress. Boy, was I an idiot! We ended up walking for over six hours in the pouring rain. We walked up hill and down and across some of the coolest fields and farmland but by the time we reached Ribadiso, effectively at the bottom of a hill that leads up to Arzua, we were soaked to the skin. It was my oldest daughter who realized just how much extra weight we were carrying by having everything soaked with water. We must have looked like drowned rats by the time we appeared, dripping wet, at the restaurant next to the pension we selected to stay in. The waitress called the owner to let us in and the look on his face told us all. He was so kind though. He offered to wash and dry all our clothes and he ran our jackets in the dryer first. We had a sandwich and a salad for dinner and slept warm and dry, and certainly relieved to be in out of the weather.
One more stop after Arzua – Pedrouzo. This was a case of my getting bold enough to ask strangers for a place to stay. I interrupted two older men, chatting outside a bar, and asked if they could recommend a pension for us to stay the night. One of them went into the bar for just a second and came out to say the owner would be by in five minutes to let us in. What “let us in” meant was that the pension was actually closed and she would open it up just for us. We had a huge room with a sitting area, three twin beds all in a row, and a large screen TV. In the morning we had a wonderful breakfast and took off for the last stage of our walk, the road that would lead us into Santiago de Compostela.
I have walked these last few stages before and the one thing that still impresses me is how much longer it feels when you are nearly there than when you are not even close. The last 16 kilometers felt more like 16 miles and the very last stretch, when you are in the town and closing in on the Cathedral seems like an eternity of walking. But then there is that moment when you catch sight of the towers and you finally can get a sense of your goal. I started to cry but both of my girls shouted at me to pull it together and we kept going. We arrived in full daylight in front on the huge plaza and we took a half dozen photos before going in to pay our respects to the Saint. We walked into near darkness because the portal is undergoing renovation and walked up the side aisle to the two small staircases that lead up to the statue of Saint James and down to the crypt where you find his silver sarcophagus.
The protocol is simple and lovely: you walk up a short staircase and find yourself standing directly behind the altar where there is a gilded bust of Saint James looking out over the congregation. You “embrace” him. Typically, you give the bust a hug to let him know you have arrived. Then you continue across and walk down the other side. Here you find your way to the even smaller stairs leading down into the crypt, flanked by the red cross symbol of the Order of Santiago, or the Order of Saint James, set into the marble that decorates the walls. This is the object of the pilgrimage, to be able to whisper a few prayers in front of the casket holding his remains and the remains of his two disciples, along with a bit of stonework from the original first century church.
Our next stop was to visit the Pilgrim's Office to receive our Compostelas, the certificate in Latin stating that we had completed the pilgrimage. We stayed for a few days in Santiago de Compostela before heading back to Madrid to shop the post-Three Kings Day sales. We were exhausted, exhilarated, and excited all rolled up into one. We saw the Prado Museum, ate ham everywhere, and were able to take in a terrific Flamenco show on our last night. I can say that even though this part of our trip started with psychic meltdowns, we finished together in real style.
I will probably do this pilgrimage again, but it will have to wait until I get all the feeling back in my feet!
Crossposted on Open Salon