Oct. 13: O Pedrouzo to Santiago- 13 miles, 5 1/2 hours
As we make our way to Santiago, the wonderful scent of the eucalyptus forest and the old, gnarled trees, that resemble the talking trees in the “Wizard of Oz,” distract us from the fact that the inclines and descents today are quite steep.
A city sign announces that we’ve made it to Santiago and we’re getting excited, even though we still have a 45 minute walk on asphalt to the historic city center. One minute we are walking through a dark tunnel serenaded by a bagpiper and the next minute, we exit into the light of day with the Cathedral welcoming us in all its glory. We hug hard and long in the Praza do Obradoiro (the golden square), amongst the other pilgrims who are laughing, crying and/or laying on the ground and looking up at the cathedral. It’s a very emotional moment; we are glad to have arrived, but sorry to see it end.
Santiago is the capital of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And if welcoming pilgrims and tourists isn’t enough excitement for one city, there is also a festival being celebrated. Tents selling grilled meats, artisan bread and foods share space with clothing and jewelry. The streets are filled with jubilant crowds and bagpipe music fills the air. Baby grand pianos have been placed all over town with an invitation to sit down and play.
The Hostal Aires Nunes is just two blocks from the Cathedral on a quiet back street. Our room is decorated in the Spanish version of country French: stone archways, wooden beams on the ceiling, iron chandeliers and a lovely glassed-in sun porch outfitted with two chairs and a table.
What a nice surprise to run into the pilgrim couple from Tacoma, Washington that we met last night when eating pizza. We enjoy another dinner together and plan to meet again tomorrow too.
We arrive at the Cathedral early to get a seat for the noon pilgrim mass. According to legend, St. James, one of Christ’s Twelve Apostles, was buried in a nearby forest by his disciples. In 1075, a sanctuary began to be erected around his relics resulting in today’s monumental Cathedral. The highlight of the mass is the swinging of the Botafumiero, the largest incense burner in the world. Originally, its purpose was to fumigate the sweaty and disease-ridden pilgrims. Six attendants continue the ritual of the swinging which reaches a speed of over 40 miles per hour.
Unfortunately, we are not able to touch the central column of the Door of Glory; too many hands before us have eroded the marble, so it is now covered with plexiglass. We do, however, maneuver through the crowds to the crypt under the altar to view the relics of St. James and offer up a prayer.
Next, we head to the Pilgrim Office to obtain our Compostela (certificate of completion). The line snakes around and we’re told it’s an hour wait, but running into our pilgrim friend from Lake George, New York makes the time fly by.
She tells us of the older man that she had first met on her flight to Spain. His wife had recently died and he felt so lost and alone. She then confided that she had also lost her spouse, so understood his pain. What a surprise it was to see him exit the same hotel elevator that she was entering in Santiago, now over a month later. They dined together that night and he seemed like a different person, recounting how he had learned so much from the pilgrims he had encountered along the way. The emotionally charged conversation also taught her a thing or two and she felt as if she had come full circle along with him.
We hugged and a minute later, she was lost in the crowd. I stood there with tears in my eyes, wanting to hold on to this newfound relationship, then realizing that I had none of her contact information. This is the essence of the Camino; the deep connections that you make with pilgrims from all walks of life and from all over the world that are even more precious because they are in the moment.
The weekend crowds are gone, so we head back into the Cathedral to do a little more exploring. Today, we are able to view the church in all its glory and the Baroque altar glittering with gold stands in full view. All through Spain, whether the smallest of villages or the larger towns, the amount of money that the Catholic church has spent on its churches through the years is astounding. It’s hard for me to fathom that I am one of the many pilgrims that have arrived here since the Middle Ages, taking time to reflect at the end of the journey just as they did all those years ago.
After a walk through the public market and a lunch of grilled pulpo (octopus), we spend the afternoon exploring the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets. Then, it’s time to meet the pilgrim couple from Tacoma and toast both husbands, who will soon be celebrating a special birthday, just one day apart.
No one seems to want to go home after the Camino. Our friends are off to Porto, Portugal and we are headed to the “end of the earth.”