Saturday, March 15, 2014: I woke up this morning feeling like I was in a surreal dream. Seven years ago I discovered the Camino de Santiago and made a vow to myself that I’d hike it. Now I’m opening my eyes in Spain with only one more full day of hiking to go. Tomorrow, I’ll find myself walking into Santiago de Compostela, fulfilling my seven-year ambition. I still couldn’t believe that it was almost over.
We decided to eat breakfast before leaving the hostel, pulling together all the snacks that we had each collected over the past few days. Christine and I had stocked up on pate and bread the day before, plus I still had some of those blasted dates (which I picked up in Sarria, by the way). If I remember correctly, we even had cheese. We ate like kings that morning, lightening our load by a few pounds. The one thing we didn’t have was coffee, so off we went in search of a few cups of café con leche.
By the end of the day we would hike approximately twenty-two kilometers. I remember this day being a bit brutal for hiking conditions, though. It was hot as hell, and there were more hills than usual. I quickly learned the value of my hiking poles — not only do they keep you upright, they also propel you forwards. There’s no way I would have been able to tackle that terrain if it weren’t for those sticks.
We’d stop every now and then, finding a café with shade to enjoy a beer, or to sit under a tree to eat an orange and have some water. Richard would crack us up with his lame sense of humour, or Christine would make fun of my hiking pole because it kept on retracting itself, resulting in my cussing every half hour as I had to adjust its height (she named it after my then-now-ex-boyfriend, claiming that the pole was a metaphor and was trying to teach me a lesson).
We’d talk about movies, especially The NeverEnding Story (for half a day we couldn’t remember the name of the dog-dragon character). It was almost effortless, how easy we got along. Even our individual walking paces were in synch, ensuring no one was ever left behind.
Every now and then we’d cross paths with the group of people we met in Melide. At one bar/café in particular we found out that they intended on hiking all the way to Santiago that day. We knew that it was an attainable goal, however we decided to save our arrival in Santiago for the next morning — a waking up and walking with the sunrise sort of deal.
About twelve kilometers outside Santiago de Compostela lies its international airport. You have to actually walk around the airport to get to the albergue at Monte de Gozo. However, you never see the airport itself, save for this huge, four-storey, red and white striped structure. After days of walking through woods, hiking over hills, and sleeping in bunk beds, it’s a bit of a shock to see the planes landing and taking off so closely overhead. Being on the Camino doesn’t take you off the grid, per se, but up until that day I hadn’t seen a plane so close since I landed in Madrid ten days prior.
Once we passed the airport we stopped for refreshments in San Paio at a place called Casa Porta de Santiago. Because I was anxious about us being so close to the end and it all being over soon, I had two beers. Also, when a good pint of beer costs a third of what you would normally pay at home, you enjoy it while you can.
While I was waiting at the bar for my second beer, the owner started up a conversation with me as she overheard Richard, Christine and I discussing the route, our guidebook and Finisterre. She started telling me about how the author of our guidebook, John Brierley, had been at her bar before, and I honestly felt like I was meeting a rock star. That guidebook is a cherished piece of gold to many pilgrims, myself included. I was more than a little star struck by the fact that he had been there and had probably enjoyed a pint of Estrella there as well.
We only had about an hour and a half to go before we reached our destination for the day, but it felt like it took much longer to complete that last leg of the hike. We hadn’t realized it yet, but once we put the airport behind us we were within the municipality of Santiago de Compostela — something which we learned once we saw this way marker:
I had seriously been lacking in my Hamish duties, so I couldn’t miss the opportunity to document such a momentous occasion with the little dude.
All along the entire route of the Camino there are cement pillars, about one metre tall, inscribed with the number of kilometers to go until Santiago and the local town name. This stone, however, I coveted. I had seen many pictures of it throughout my research on the pilgrimage, but I didn’t have a clue exactly where to find it. Now I know it stands adjacent to the major highway that runs into Santiago. It’s not the most sacred spot, but there’s still sanctity to the moment when it finally greets you during your final hours on the Camino.
I will admit this right now: I gave that stone a huge bear hug because I was that happy/relieved/overcome with emotion to see it.
We paid our respect to the marker, then we were on our way to our accommodation for the night — the municipal albergue at Monte de Gozo.
Adjacent to the small, hilltop town of San Marcos lies Monte de Gozo (Hill of Joy), aptly named seeing how on a clear day a pilgrim can see the spires of the Santiago Cathedral from its highest point. In 1989 Pope John Paul II visited to deliver the final mass for World Youth Day, and now a large sculpture stands on top of the hill, commemorating the event. In 1993 a huge compound was built to provide accommodation for the high volume of pilgrims expected for that year’s Holy Year (when St. James’ feast day, July 25, falls on a Sunday). Walking into the property, you feel like you’re entering a military barracks.
The albergue at Monte de Gozo sleeps five hundred pilgrims. It’s massive. The largest pilgrim hostel that I slept in prior to this could house maybe fifty to sixty people. I literally stopped in my tracks upon seeing this place.
The compound (I honestly can’t think of another word to describe it — it’s actually quite ugly and made entirely of cement) consists of about twenty or more bungalow-style buildings that house the dorm rooms. Dividing the compound in two is a piazza type area, which has free Wi-Fi (!), a laundry mat, a store (which was closed when we were there), some other little shops, a playground, a large restaurant for groups, and a discotheque. Honestly — a disco. It was the most bizarre place I’d seen during my entire trip.
The three of us checked-in, and as we were walking to our room Richard discovered that some of his friends from the beginning of his Camino were staying there that night as well. We were introduced to Juliane and Michelle, who are both students from Germany. They had a lot of catching up to do seeing how Richard lost them weeks prior, so it was arranged for him to stay in their dorm room while Christine and I got our own (which is probably a good thing — it didn’t take long for Chris and I to take over the four spare beds in our room by airing out our things). We planned to meet up for dinner in San Marcos, but first we had to bathe.
I entered that bathroom with bated breath. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had a feeling that these facilities would either be incredibly lousy or incredibly glorious. I was relieved to discover that they in fact fell under the latter description because…wait for it…the fucking shower stalls had doors!!
Not some trashy, plastic shower curtains or nasty, swing doors like on a toilet stall, but these quaint little half-doors that covered the important parts as you stood behind them. Christine and I giggled as we stood there, facing each other, womanly bits covered like we were Eves, having a full conversation while we showered. I’d suggest all the other albergues on the Camino take note from Monte de Gozo and install these in their own facilities. One does not have to be one of five hundred pilgrims in order to appreciate a little privacy when one is bathing.
We decided to also make use of the laundry mat, so the three of us compiled our dirty clothes into one load and threw it into the wash before we headed out to dinner.
For days Christine and I had been saying how much we were craving pizza. Lo’ and behold, San Marcos had a restaurant that served it. We made a beeline for the restaurant and immediately got a table, quickly noticing that we were the only non-locals in the joint. While every other patron watched their footy, we satisfied our craving with Hawaiian.
We sorted out our laundry then bid Richard and the German girls a good night, making plans to leave as a group before sunrise the next morning. As I lay in my bunk, I added to the graffiti that was scrawled across the platform of the bed above (every bunk bed in every albergue along the way was like this), claiming my little part of Monte de Gozo for “Mac from Toronto, Canada”. This was it. This was our final night as pilgrims. I was sad that it was all coming to an end, but I became overcome with a huge sense of pride in myself. As I fell asleep, I could see the full moon through the window above me and I knew that I had done good.