Fifth Week from Hospital de la Condesa to Santiago (482 miles plus 4 miles round-trip to Finisterrae lighthouse)
We fell in love with the Northern Spanish Galician countryside….just like Ireland, as confirmed by a number of Irish pilgrims whom we met. Glorious green rolling hills interspersed with charming, often ancient, stone hamlets.
It is remarkable to remember that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have traversed these same paths before us. By and large we were very lucky with the weather, as you can see by this perfectly sunny day.
Hiking 12 to 15 miles a day, however, we came to appreciate also the cooler, and occasionally drizzly, mornings which were much less tiring, by the end of our hikes, than intense afternoon heat. Despite our morning application of sunscreen, our skin became dried and baked by the long hours of intense, direct sunlight on exposed areas. Like our fellow pilgrims, foot pain continued to be an ongoing challenge, especially for Judyth. It was common to see others hobbling or limping with bandaged knees and plastered toes! But any physical pain and discomfort was eclipsed by the delightful of passing through old stone villages with gorgeous spring flowers, a variety of shrines, churches, crosses, the occasional tombstone, sometimes of previous pilgrims who died en route, and, often, a welcoming café to provide rest, sustenance, and conviviality.
We feel fortunate and grateful that we were able to persevere on this journey, and we actually felt stronger each day. We did meet some folks who just couldn’t continue the journey. We did, however, find that we were often physically exhausted by early evening, as were many of our companions. Rising at 5:30AM and setting off at 6AM simply became our routine, and we found ourselves needing a good eight hours of sleep a night for our bodies to restore and repair themselves. There were times when the journey seemed endless, like a groundhog-day experience with different scenery, but the 36 days of walking did eventually come to an end. Having only 100 kilometers (60 miles) was quite a milestone. At this point many other pilgrims joined for the final portion, enough to gain them their certificate of completion, or compostela. For many, this was neither their first nor last Camino, having previously hiked either this path or another of the more challenging alternatives! We, at ages 65 and 68, were far from the oldest. In fact, we met quite a few pilgrims in their early to mid-70s, some in their late 70s, and heard of a few others in their 80s and one woman 90+. This experience is truly a testament to the power of a pilgrimage to inspire individuals to go beyond their limits, be they physical pain, injuries, or disabilities as well as those dealing with mental and emotional traumas, grief, or chronic, even, terminal illness.
The last day of our walk to Santiago was especially meaningful and poignant. We arose at 4:30 and hit the trail, in the dark and drizzle with only a faint flashlight, hoping that we could find the way markers with yellow areas until the light of dawn illuminated our path. Our goal was to reach Santiago in time for the pilgrim mass at the famous Cathedral of Santiago. We arrived, four hours later, quite hungry because, for some unknown reason, no place was open for breakfast on the way, and we had to make do with a loaf of bread from a delivery truck that we encountered three hours into our journey!
After a hearty breakfast, we made our way to the Cathedral with plenty of time to spare. We first paid our respects to the tomb of St. James (one of the apostles of Jesus, for whom Santiago de Compostela is named, who had been sent to Northern Spain to the Celts before returning to Jerusalem where he was executed). Having arrived early enough to get a front row seat in the area reserved for pilgrims having completed the journey, we seated ourselves and waited. The Cathedral of Santiago is enormous, ornately decorated, and simply awesome. We meditated quietly for an hour and a half before the mass began, having no idea exactly what to expect.
To our great surprise, the Pilgrim’s mass proved to be the highlight of the entire journey. The altar was magnificent, adorned with voluptuous angels, St. James on horseback, Virgin Mary, and many others known and unknown to us. It turned out to be an extremely special mass for a number of reasons. Nine or ten priests from different countries of the world, in full regalia, assisted the main Spanish priest. A good-humored nun with a fabulous soprano voice very skillfully and heart-fully led the singing, at which point our tears began to flow. The ecumenical spirit of the occasion, amidst the company of the hundreds of fellow pilgrims, many of whom, like us, had endured hardship and challenge for over a month to complete the journey, the enormity of the Cathedral captivated us. Judyth was raised Jewish and Bob hasn’t practiced Catholicism since he was 15, yet we were both deeply affected by the experience. A devout, sincere Spaniard of 76 years old spoke eloquently of having just completed his 11th Camino, which we also found extremely inspiring. There is a very special tradition at the Pilgrim’s Mass that occurs from time to time. It is the lighting the swinging of an enormous butafumeiro (incense burner), used in times past to fumigate the crowd. It takes six strong attendants to swing the huge silver receptacle across the entire chapel. The woman sitting next to us showed us a video on her iPhone of the burning having been swung the day before, so we didn’t expect it would happen again so soon. Suddenly, to our surprise and delight, the incense burner was lit and swung far over the crowd. It was a magical and memorable way, beyond words, to complete our pilgrimage. Later that afternoon we stopped by the Pilgrim’s office and collected our compostela, the impressive calligraphic certificate given to each pilgrim who completes the journey.
There was just one more part of the journey left: the 40-or-so mile walk to Finisterrae (Latin for “the end of the earth.”) We, like many others, ended our walk in Santiago and bussed the rest of the way. But we did walk the four miles, round trip, to the Finisterrae lighthouse on the point,where it is traditional to burn clothing worn on the journey. We chose instead to symbolically release any impediments to our spiritual journey and to rededicate ourselves to our purpose, individually and as a couple. That completed our pilgrimage to Santiago, and we spent the rest of the day relaxing, recuperating, and enjoying a delicious Italian dinner at the port of Finisterrae.
It will take some time to assimilate and integrate all of the different aspects of this pilgrimage. We feel immense gratitude for the opportunity to participate and for the strength, courage, and for the perseverance to complete this journey. We sincerely thank all of you who have encouraged and supported us in so many ways to pursue this dream. Perhaps some of you will feel inspired to do your own Camino. May we carry forward into our lives the simplicity, beauty, and dedication to purpose, and may we share in a multitude of ways what we have gained from this unforgettable experience.