Sunday, March 16, 2014: This was it. This was our last day of hiking. Today, I’d finally reach Santiago de Compostela, and tonight I’d be laying my head on a pillow somewhere within the city. Words can’t really define how I was feeling that morning, but once I was awake I was anxious to get a move on to start the short trek to Santiago.
Christine and I had set a rather early alarm so we could start walking before the sunrise. We wanted to see the spires of Santiago’s cathedral in the first rays of the morning sun as we walked towards the city centre. However, by the time we were up and ready to go the sun was already rising, and it was fighting to burn through the morning fog. Our plan was foiled by Mother Nature in the end.
Richard, who’s never in a rush, decided to hang back to have breakfast at the hostel. Christine and I simply couldn’t wait, so we made plans to meet up with him and the German girls just outside the city so we could finish our pilgrimage as a group.
That morning it seemed that Christine and I wanted nothing more than a gigantic cup of café con leche. However, it was around eight in the morning on a Sunday — nothing was open. I started to become irritable (caffeine withdrawal is a bitch, especially given the circumstances), and at one point we sat on a bench just to let the mood past. We eventually came across a café in the ground floor of a hotel that was open, so there we planted ourselves to enjoy copious amounts of coffee and croissants.
Across the street from the café, the sidewalk widens into a sort of balcony over a small park below, offering a great view up the street that we came in on. It was the perfect spot to keep an eye out for the others, so we took off our packs and got cozy.
We didn’t have to wait long. Within ten minutes Richard, Juliane and Michelle came into view, along with a few more people from the hostel. We joined the group, then started our final decent.
I ended up in the lead, mostly because I had a lot on my mind and wanted to be alone. I wasn’t ready for my pilgrimage to end just yet. I was half expecting to experience some sort of revelation while on the Camino; to be given some insight into what it was I should do once I returned home. And yet, I was just as confused about my life in that moment as I was before I left Toronto. Looking back, I now know that I was treating the pilgrimage as an escape. As happy as I was on the trail, I knew that eventually I’d have to go back to reality and face my problems once and for all, which I frankly didn’t want to do. Besides, I was having too much fun. I wonder if this is something that other pilgrims face towards the end of their journey?
Through the winding roads of Santiago we walked, noticing the slow shift from modern architecture to old city centre. We passed centuries-old buildings and chapels, down steep, narrow streets lined with pilgrim’s souvenir shops, until we reached a small square that I recognized from photos. I actually knew where we had to go from here! Excited, I sped ahead, wanting to savour the moment for myself. To my left was the cathedral and in front of me, through a covered passageway, I could see the main cathedral square.
I made my way into the passage, not noticing the bagpipe player standing in the shadows, getting ready to perform. That bastard had impeccable timing, because once I was fully in the passage he started to play, causing my eyes to immediately fill up with tears. I’m quite sentimental when it comes to bagpipe music because of my heritage, but to have one played for you as you come to the end of an epic journey is serendipitous. I still get chills thinking about that moment.
I entered the square with a quivering lower lip, trying to hide my emotions (thank goodness for big sunglasses). I stood there, admiring the façade of the church as it towered before me, taking the time to make a slow pirouette to take in all of my surroundings. I then watched as my friends entered the square one by one.
I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t talk. I’m pretty sure I let go a few “holy fuck” ‘s, but other than that I had a hard time doing anything else other than basking in the moment.
The five of us plopped our asses down in the centre of that square, using our backpacks as pillows. There we stayed for a good ten minutes, just absorbing everything that was happening around us and enjoying the happiness that we felt. We eventually became overthrown by tourists, however. Admitting defeat, we started to make our way to the Pilgrim’s Office to obtain our compostelas.
As we handed in our credentials to prove that we had completed the required amount of kilometers to get our certificates, I couldn’t help but smile with pride as I witnessed my friends being given their documents.
When the clerks are filling in your compostela, they use a software to translate your given and family name into Latin, which they then inscribe on your documents. I’d just like to point out, rather bitterly, that there’s no Latin translation for Ashley Macnie. I guess it’s just too Scottish/British sounding. I felt jibbed.
To celebrate, we then went for a drink (I honestly didn’t care what time it was, I wanted to cheers somebody), and enjoyed some tapas before the 11am pilgrim’s mass.
I originally left home for Spain very determined to see the botafumeiro ceremony in the cathedral at the end of my pilgrimage (for those who aren’t familiar with the botafumeiro, it’s basically a large incense burner. Its use began in the Middle Ages as a way to fumigate the cathedral because of the all the stinky pilgrims.) I assumed that it was something that was performed during every pilgrim’s mass. However, during my time on the Camino I learned that it is in fact now only saved for special occasions, and the odds that we’d witness it were very low.
Talking with some of our fellow pilgrims that morning, we heard rumours that the ceremony was scheduled to take place for the first mass of the day. Turns out we arrived the same day as a large youth group of pilgrims, and they had arranged for the botafumeiro to be used. Seeing this happen was the only thing I wanted for my birthday, so I’d like to take a moment now to thank those Italian kids and their chaperones for fulfilling my wish.
We entered the cathedral with a few moments to spare, so we walked around and admired the architecture. Christine was smart enough to scope out a pew that was aligned with the path of the botafumeiro, so we sat down, staking our claim to the view.
At the beginning of every pilgrim’s mass, a clerk from the Pilgrim’s Office stands on the podium and reads out the name, nationality, and starting point of every pilgrim who had arrived and obtained their compostela that day. This was something that I wanted documented for the books, so I pulled out my DSLR (for the first time in a week), and hit record. I was only able to capture 2:22 minutes of it as I ran out of memory, but if you listen closely around the 2:09 mark, you will hear her mention a pilgrim from Canada and a pilgrim from the United States. My eyes welled up when I heard her read that aloud in the cathedral, because I knew she was referring to Christine and I.
After all the registered pilgrims were announced the business of mass got underway, which included readings from some of the Italian youths. I don’t know if I was imagining it or not, but as the mass drew to a close there was a tangible feeling of excitement in the air. Then, I saw the group of robed men making their way to a pillar in front of me and I knew that the botafumeiro ceremony was about to begin.
(Please don’t mind the format of the video, I had to rely on my phone for this one)
Part of me was scared that the ropes would snap and that metal bomb would come crashing down on us, but most of me was amazed by how high those men could get the botafumeiro to swing. It really did look like it would touch the ceiling on the highest point of its arch. It was an incredible event to witness and I feel blessed and lucky that we were there that day.
Once the dust had settled from the ceremony and everyone started to trickle out of the cathedral, Christine and I noticed some frantic movement coming from the aisle to our left. There, arms waving, stood Johana. Once she got our attention I practically screamed out her name in glee, and off Chris and I went, dashing and jumping over pews and people alike. The ladies weren’t supposed to arrive in Santiago until the next morning! How in God’s name did the catch up to us?!
We had a group hug, then Johana pointed to the back of the cathedral — Mama and Adri, with beaming smiles, were walking towards us. We ran up to them and there, in the middle of that aisle, the five of us group-hugged and cried tears of joy as if we had just been reunited after a war. We had only been apart for two nights, yet it felt like weeks.
It took a few minutes for all of us to calm down, but eventually we found out how this little reunion came to be. Turns out the ladies decided that we should end our pilgrimage as a group, seeing how we began as one back in Sarria. That morning they left O Pedrouzo and hiked over twenty kilometers to get to Santiago in time for mass (actually, they were a little late, which is why they were at the back of the cathedral sitting on the steps). They woke up before dawn and pushed themselves to finish the hike so we could all be reunited in the church. To this day I’m still baffled by their thoughtfulness and determination to do this.
They hadn’t even gotten their compostelas yet! So, the first order of business was to get them registered. Then, we dropped off our packs at the tourism office and grabbed some awesome Italian food for lunch.
I feel like I should mention here that at some point Chris and I lost Richard in the cathedral. We had no idea where he was, so after lunch the group went on the hunt for Richie. We saw Juliane and Michelle, who told us that Richard was around somewhere in the area. Shortly thereafter we ran into some of our other pilgrim friends on a square behind the cathedral, so we decided to join them for a drink and keep an eye out for the elusive Austrian. After a few minutes, up walks Richard. It’s hard to keep track of that guy.
Because she’s awesome, Adriana somehow managed to get us all rooms (including Richard, Juliane and Michelle) at a family run, private albergue within a ten minute walk from the church. No more bunk beds or strangers snoring within a foot of your face — we took over the whole place, filling up every room that they had to rent. Also, their bathrooms were proper bathrooms and even had bidets. I felt like a queen.
We got cleaned up, lounged around for a bit, then went out for a night on the town (no discos for us — we still only had hiking boots and convertible pants to wear). That night was going to be our last together as a group, so we savoured every moment of it.
Later on, as I was lying in bed trying to sleep, my mind raced. I was physically tired but I couldn’t quiet my thoughts because I was stressing out over what my next move should be. As a result of skipping so many stages of the Camino after I got sick, I got to Santiago much earlier than planned and now had six spare days left before I flew home. I had no definite plans, and I was out of my comfort zone.
Do I just stay in Santiago? Do I go to Finisterre? Do I rebook my flights and go to Greece with Christine? Do I visit the south of Spain like I’ve always wanted? Or do I catch a bus and visit Portugal so I can say I’ve been to the homeland of my maternal ancestors? So much thinking!!
I don’t know how, but I eventually fell asleep. I wasn’t looking forward to the next day but at least I was fully rested.