nIn the year 812—or so the story goes—a hermit in the northwest of Spain saw a strange light hovering over an empty field. When he and his compatriots later went to investigate, they found an old Roman tomb; and inside, miraculously preserved, was the body of Saint James the Apostle.
There are, of course, several difficulties with this story. First, James was supposed to have been martyred by being decapitated, but his body was found intact. (This is not to mention the 800-year preservation.) Moreover, since he was killed in Jerusalem, it is difficult to explain how his body traveled hundreds of miles to Spain. According to tradition, an angel deposited the body in an empty, rudderless boat, which miraculously sailed all the way to Spain; but this requires that we invoke a legend to explain another legend.
According to another story, St. James was later seen at the Battle of Clavijo, fighting with the Christians against the Moors during the Reconquista, in which the Christians conquered the Iberian Peninsula from its erstwhile Muslim rulers. This exploit earned James the epithet “Matamoros” (Moorslayer). Unfortunately, putting aside the obvious problem of resurrection, the Battle of Clavijo is now almost unanimously believed to be a fictitious battle, invented hundreds of years after it supposedly took place.
All of these are legends that stretch credulity to the breaking point. But legends, even if they are not literally true, can often teach us valuable lessons about history. The main thing that these stories tell us is that the Christians in Medieval Spain needed a figure to rally around, a religious and yet warlike figure to provide them with inspiration.
The reason for this is not difficult to discern. In the 9th century, Moors were in control of most of the Iberian Peninsula, with the Christians pushed into a pocket in the north. Fighting an enemy with a different religion, a bigger population, more resources, and a thriving culture was probably not terribly encouraging for the Christians. Thus, Santiago (Spanish for “Saint James”) was “discovered,” an event that eventually transformed the lonely region of Galicia into one of the most important religious sites in Christendom.
Since the 9th century, people have been visiting Santiago de Compostela, a tradition that has continued, unbroken, ever since. Nowadays there are innumerable routes you can take, all of them converging on the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The original route, traveled by the first pilgrims, is now called the Camino Primitivo; it starts in Oviedo and takes about two weeks. When the path to France was conquered by Christians in the 11th century, pilgrims began visiting from beyond the Pyrenees. This route, from France, is called the Camino Francés, and is now the most famous and popular of all, taking the pilgrim from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees across the whole breadth of Spain to Santiago, a journey that lasts about 30 days.
During the Middle Ages, the Camino was often undertaken as a form of penance, a way to expiate some sin. Today the pilgrimage mostly attracts tourists, though there is no shortage of those whose motivation is religious or spiritual.
My motivation was, I suppose, curiosity. I had never walked a long distance on foot, I had never stayed in a hostel, and I had never been to Galicia. This is not to mention the friends, acquaintances, and strangers who had all recommended the experience. But since neither GF nor I had neither the time nor the stamina, we couldn’t dream of doing the whole 30 day trek from France. So we took a week off and decided to spend five days on camino, five days experiencing the pilgrimage. We bought boots and backpacks, and booked our Blablacar to our starting point: Lugo.
We arrived in the afternoon, and I was feeling nervous. I am by nature a nervous fellow, often for no good reason; but that day I felt nervous for what I thought was a legitimate cause: we didn’t have any reservations for a place to stay. This was because, as GF informed me, we could just go to the local albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) and sleep there. But we discovered on the ride up to Lugo that, this very weekend, the city was hosting its popular Roman Festival. The town would be packed with visitors. This made me fear that, due to the influx of tourists, the albergue would be totally full. By the time we arrived, I had convinced myself that we’d have to sleep on the street.
In the hopes of avoiding this fate, I was desperately trying to get us to the albergue as quickly as possible, since the beds are always provided on a first-come, first-served basis. But to get a bed, first we had to get our pilgrim’s passport. This is a little booklet that allows you to use the pilgrim’s hostels (much cheaper than normal lodgings), and is also proof of your voyage, allowing you to get your certificate of completion when you get to Santiago. It is full of blank pages, and every albergue and church you visit along the way has a special stamp to mark it.
Where you buy the passport depends on what town you’re in. We found out from the local tourist office that we had to go to the cathedral. There, a man sold us each a passport for the very reasonable sum of 2€, and then stamped it with the logo of the Lugo Cathedral. From there we rushed to the albergue and found that they had plenty of spots (as usual my panic was baseless). We got our passports duly stamped at the front desk, paid 6€ apiece—a typical price at the public albergues—and went upstairs to the sleeping area.
It was a Spartan room, with white walls and aluminum bunkbeds. The receptionist had given us both a plastic package at the front desk, which I discovered to be a thin, tissue-like covering for the mattress and pillow, for hygiene and not comfort. I put these on the bed, and then had a look around the place. The sleeping area must have had space for at least 20 people, yet the bathroom only had one shower; and the shower had no door or screen, which for me was very distressing, since I like my privacy.
Besides that, the place was lacking one more crucial thing: blankets. A quick look around told me that most of the other pilgrims were smart enough to have brought sleeping bags. Us two, we didn’t have anything. But what could we do now? Just hope it didn’t get too cold.
We had until 10pm to explore the city. If we weren’t back at the albergue by then, we’d be locked out for the night. (Most albergues have a curfew.) But this was more than enough time to see Lugo.
Both of us were very hungry by now. Luckily, because of the Roman festival, the city center was full of little stands selling food. The vendors at these stands were, as befitting a Roman festival, dressed in togas; and the labels for the food were written in Latin. We ordered empanadas gallegas, which are a kind of flat empanada typical of Galicia, cut into triangular slices like a pizza. I had the “pullum” (chicken).
When we were done eating, we took some time to explore the festival. The entire town was a scene of buzzing activities. In one square, wooden walls were built, creating a little fortress; and in front were catapults, trebuchets, and other siege weapons—all life-sized copies, if somewhat crudely made. Young men and women swaggered around in togas, tunics, capes, and armor, some of them holding fake swords. Others were dressed like barbarians, wearing fur cloaks and wielding spears. A marching band passed through, dressed in impressively realistic centurion costumes.
Little stands were everywhere, selling ribbons and garlands of flowers, scented candles and jars of honey, dried meats and cheeses, wooden mortars and pestles, silk tunics and leather-bound notebooks, plastic helmets and toy bows and arrows, fake swords and brightly painted shields. Some people walked around, dragging dozens of floating, cartoon-themed balloons, while firefighters stood on the periphery in case of emergency. It was a lovely sight.
After enjoying the festival, we went back to the cathedral to get a better look. Since the day was cloudy and overcast, the inside was quite dark. Thus the cathedral had that gloomy, mystical ambience I so enjoy in Spanish churches—the shadowy space only illuminated by the gleam of light reflecting off the gold altar-piece. There is, for me, something especially profound about Spanish Catholicism, and the Lugo Cathedral exemplified it perfectly.
Next we had a real treat: the Roman walls. Lugo is, in fact, the only city in the world still surrounded by fully intact Roman walls. Undoubtedly the walls have been repaired many times over the centuries; indeed, sections were being repaired that very day. Nevertheless, the walls are original, and they encircle the entire old section of Lugo. These walls are made of thin slabs of granite (which are ubiquitous in Galicia), and reach a height of 10 to 15 meters (about 30 to 50 feet). They are free to visit, and have many staircases and ramps to get on or off.
We got on and started walking. I didn’t appreciate how tall and thick the walls were until we got to the top. I wonder why the Romans built them this way, for they seemed unnecessarily big to me. It’s difficult for me to imagine any of the local “barbarian” tribes posing such a serious threat to the Roman military that these robust defenses would be necessary. The walls are too tall to climb, too strong to knock down. Even a modern day truck going at full speed wouldn’t be enough to break through; so what hope did the barbarians have? I suppose that fortifications like these have a psychological as well as a military purpose, demonstrating Roman might. And I also suppose that “better safe than sorry” is a principle that the Romans must have followed, too.
The circumference of the walls is more than two kilometers. We did not want to wear ourselves out before the camino even began, so we walked about half that before getting off. After this, there isn’t much to tell. We went to a supermarket to get some food, spent some time relaxing at the albergue, and went to sleep early.
Or at least, I tried to go to sleep. Laying down without a blanket, in a room full of 20 other people, some of them snoring, others whispering, others staring at the ceiling, made me feel uncomfortably exposed. I could see everyone and they could see me. Lying there, so obviously unprepared, surrounded by obviously prepared pilgrims, I couldn’t help feeling like a fool out of my depth. Maybe this camino was too much for me?
It took me about two hours to finally get to sleep; and I woke up two hours later, shivering all over from the cold. I lay there awake for some time, vainly wrapping myself in my little towel for warmth, too sleepy to think or to feel anything in particular. Then finally my body adapted to the cold and I drifted off once again, but not for long.
Day 1: Lugo to Ponte Ferreira
We woke at six in the morning.
Waking up early had been recommended to us, since, as I said before, the beds in the albergues as given on a first-come, first-served basis; and the idea of walking five hours and then not being able to find a bed sent shivers of terror down my spine. I was determined not to let that happen.
The walk did not start smoothly. We attempted to follow the signs for the camino, but quickly got lost. After some panicked walking about, GF looked up the proper route on her phone and we got ourselves on track. The morning was cool, grey, and misty. It was the time of day that seems suspended halfway between dream and reality, when everyone is asleep, when the town is silent and empty, and when the world is covered in a shroud of fog.
Or it would have seemed like this, had not Lugo been full of bedraggled partygoers. The Spanish are really intense: dozens and dozens of people had stayed out partying until six in the morning. As GF and I walked along in our boots and backpacks, groups of half-drunk and half-asleep young people—their togas in disarray and their tiaras sitting sideways on their heads—slowly made their way to their beds. It was quite a sight.
Soon we were out of the town, following the path. It was really exciting at first; following the signs felt like a scavenger hunt, deciphering clues to find a prize.
The route of the camino is marked simply and obviously. Sometimes a yellow arrow, painted onto the ground or a wall, is all the pilgrim has to go on. But the most iconic and common symbol for the camino a scallop shell, its round side facing the proper direction. Usually this symbol is placed on concrete platforms along the roadway, though sometimes the signs are stuck into city streets or the sides of buildings.
The scallop shell, by the way, is one of the most important symbols of the camino. The shape of the shell itself is a wonderful representation of the voyage, with all the lines of the shell converging on a single point, just as all the pilgrimage routes converge on Santiago. The way that scallop shells get swept up by the waves and deposited on the beach is symbolic of pilgrims getting swept up on the camino and deposited in Santiago. Despite this symbolic resonance, it is not known for sure why the scallop shell was adopted as the symbol of the camino. There are various legends surrounding the origins, but the most likely explanation seems to be that pilgrims just wanted a souvenir to take back, and scallop shells made nice keepsakes.
That first morning, the scallop-shell signs directed us on a grassy path surrounded on both sides by granite walls. Then we were led down a staircase, under a bridge, across a river—and away we went on a road into the depths of Galicia.
I was still feeling anxious. The idea of spending every night in a place with public showers and no blankets didn’t sit well with me. I imagined myself by the end of the experience—dirty, stinky, and beside myself with sleep-deprivation. But I did my best to put away these thoughts and appreciate the walk.
It was extremely charming, being led on and on by the scallop shells. The morning was still young, and the temperature was perfect: cool, misty, with a slight breeze.
It wasn’t long until we had left the suburbs and had entered the countryside of Galicia. Here I soon noticed that the province of Galicia is quite distinct from the rest of Spain. For one, it is green. Madrid is dry and up in the mountains, so the soil is sandy and the trees are sparse and scrawny. But Galicia is fairly flat and very rainy, so is covered in thick, lush vegetation. For me, this was wonderful, since one of the things I miss the most about New York is the trees and forests—the ability to get lost in the woods, with the sky covered by the canopy overhead and the tree trunks closing in around you. Thus Galicia didn’t feel foreign to me, but made me feel right at home.
Also distinct is the architecture of Galicia, which relies on their copious supplies of granite. They use granite for everything: for houses, barns, fences, statues, bridges, walls, and roofs. The way that towns are distributed in Galicia is also striking: instead of being widely spaced, with big stretches of emptiness between them (as is common in the rest of Spain), the towns are lightly spread throughout the province, with a few farms here, a few cottages there, and not many big vacant areas.
The Galicians also have two signature architectural works. First are the big stone crucifixes that they like to put outside their churches. Second are the hórreos, which are raised food storage containers used to keep out rats and other vermin. They are typically built on large platforms, with a barrier on the bottom so that no rodent could climb up. The upper structure is usually made with a granite frame and wooden walls, often with a crucifix on top.
At the time, however, GF and I didn’t know this, so we spent many hours trying to figure out what the things were. Because of the crucifix, at first we thought they were family tombs. But then we noticed that we could see through the cracks in the wooden boards, and there was nothing inside. (Nowadays people just use refrigerators to store their food, so the hórreos stand empty.) I was wondering if it had some sort of religious significance, like a family shrine; and GF thought it might be used to keep animals.
The route alternated between country roads and forest paths. The latter were certainly preferable, not only because of the more scenic surroundings, but because it felt more comfortable to walk on dirt than asphalt. That being said, the trails were occasionally muddy, at times impassably so; and I managed to get my pants absolutely covered in dirt. A word to the wise: don’t wear white trousers on your camino.
I expected to do a lot of thinking and talking on the camino, but for the most part we went along in a thoughtless silence. Most of the time I simply got lost in the scenery, observing the Galician countryside.
We walked through countless tiny villages, maybe just a dozen houses along the road. Dogs were everywhere, barking and sniffing at us as we passed. Now and then we’d pass by a farmer, engaged in some day to day task: sitting on their tractor, rummaging around in their shed, or escorting their cows out to pasture, switch in hand, whipping and yelling to keep the animals moving. Sometimes the scenery would bore me with its monotony, but then a snatch of singular beauty would shock me out of my weariness: a glance of cows sunbathing through the trees, a granite church by the roadside, a trail lined with purple flowers.
Of course, there was some pain involved. We were sleep-deprived and hungry. We ate a light breakfast early in the morning, and didn’t eat lunch until around 3:00 pm. The only thing that kept us going was a package of mixed nuts that GF had wisely brought along. Thankfully, the path was usually flat, so we didn’t feel exhausted by the walking. But it wasn’t long before our feet began to get sore and our bulky backpacks pressed painfully on our shoulders.
In general, the early mornings were the easiest, since we were refreshed from sleep; then, after an hour, we’d begin to get tired; eventually we’d get our second wind, as we got into the rhythm of walking; and then a more complete exhaustion would begin to take hold around noon.
This first day was the toughest. We walked about 25 kilometers, which took seven hours. We arrived at the albergue hungry, exhausted, tired, sore, and covered in dirt and sweat. All I wanted was a shower and a warm place to sleep; and I was doubtful about getting either of these. But we were in luck. This time, we stayed at a private albergue. This meant that the prices were higher—10 euros instead of 6—but it also meant they had warm blankets and individual showers.
We were actually the first to arrive at the albergue, beating everyone else from Lugo. I was so nervous about not getting a bed, I didn’t allow us to take any breaks or to let up the pace. I don’t recommend this: the camino isn’t a race. Take my advice, and don’t obsess about not getting a place to stay, since it can interfere with your ability to relax and enjoy the experience.
We took our boots off our stinky and sore feet, took long showers, changed into our pajamas, and washed our dirty clothes. We had sandwiches for lunch, and then spent time relaxing in bed, reading and napping. At night we had a communal dinner with the other pilgrims, which I recommend. None of them spoke English, giving us a good opportunity to practice our Spanish. We ate seafood paella and complained about Donald Trump—a perfect dinner, if you asked me.
Then we went to bed, tired and satisfied, ready for our next leg of the journey.
Day 2: Ponte Ferreira to Melide
The next day we woke up at 6, had a communal breakfast, and hit the road.
Again, the landscape was shrouded in mist. A wonderful silence permeated the countryside. The sun was hidden behind the clouds, a cool breeze gently blew, and our voices and footsteps seemed muffled in that heavy air. The dim light and the grey fog turned everything the same liquid color and blurred the boundaries between earth and sky. Gradually the fog receded and clear sunlight poured in from above, making every leaf and flower glow with their proper shade, reestablishing the normal shapes of things.
In addition to being very bright, the sun also has the unfortunate quality of being remarkably hot. I certainly felt this was we walked on into the daylight hours, the sun beating down upon my neck. My back and shoulders were absolutely soaked in sweat, since my backpack prevented any ventilation. The water in our bottles got unpleasantly warm, and soon there wasn’t much water left.
We walked through a pocket of farmland, passing field after field, until we found ourselves in a hilly stretch of open land. On the hilltops were dozens, if not hundreds, of wind turbines spinning away. The path kept leading us closer to them, allowing me to get a better look. I enjoyed this, since I find wind turbines to be extremely pretty. They look modern, even space-age with their sleek white form; and yet they blend so bucolically with the landscape. To me, the view represents the future harmony of humans with their environment, using both technology and taste to achieve a sustainable relationship.
Our path began to take us up one of these hills, disclosing a progressively more expansive view of the countryside around us. Soon both of us were gaping and sputtering—“Wow, wow, wow, it’s so nice!”—and stopping every twenty feet to take more photos and to take it all in.
A little bit after one o’ clock, we reached our destination: Melide. This is a town with a population of about 9,000, which is actually quite large for the area. We found an albergue—with blankets!—and made ourselves at home. Already present was a Canadian woman, holding an ice pack to her leg. She was extremely talkative, and soon we learned that her son had bought her a ticket to Europe as a Christmas present, so they could walk the camino together. But about a week’s walk from the final point she hurt her knee. Also present were a couple women from Puerto Rico, one a makeup artist and one a painter. We made small talk for a while until, compelled by hunger, GF and I went out to get some food.
Melide is most well known for its pulpo (octopus), so we went to the town’s most well-regarded pulpería: A Garnacha. It’s a big place with long, wooden benches and a busy wait staff. GF and I ordered some potatoes, pimientos, and octopus. It was all delicious. Most distinctive was the strong, spicy paprika they had put on everything.
An elderly Galician couple sat next to us. I was trying to decide what to drink, so when I noticed the waiter bring them a small pitcher of wine, I asked:
“Sorry, what kind of wine is that?”
“This? This is Ribeiro. It’s good, I recommend it,” the man said.
I ordered some when the waiter came by again, and quickly got a chance to taste it myself.
“Wow, it’s very good,” I said.
“Isn’t it? It’s the local specialty.”
“It tastes very young, very fruity.”
“Yes, they don’t age the wine in barrels,” the man said, “but bottle it immediately. That’s how we like it.”
“Well, cheers!” I said, and we all clinked our glasses and returned to our meals.
After we finished eating, the man leaned over and asked:
“Would you like a coffee? We invite you.” (This means he’ll pay.)
“Really? Sure we would.”
“So are you both pilgrims?”
“Yes, we walked five hours today.”
“Where did you start?”
“In Lugo, not too far away.”
“Ah, well, that’s still good. And where are you from?”
“New York, but we live in Madrid.”
“Really? What do you do there?”
“That’s lovely. I’m a Spanish teacher, myself.”
“I work for an NGO here, teaching immigrants how to speak.”
The man told us more about the local cuisine and gave us recommendations for places to see in Santiago. After coffee, he had me try a couple of the local liquors. By the time I left, I had downed two shots in addition to the wine, making me a bit tipsy. It wasn’t long before we had finished talking and parted ways; but this short conversation is one of my favorite memories from the camino. It felt wonderful to have two local people welcome us like that.
The rest of the evening we spent resting and chatting with the Canadians and the Puerto Ricans. Soon we were off to sleep, ready for our next day.
Day 3: Melide to Arzúa
We awoke to another cool, misty morning.
By now, the walking had already begun to take a toll on us. I felt achy and apathetic. GF felt energetic enough, but her feet were beginning to blister. One of the Canadians told her that Vaseline would help, and even gave her some to put on; but even so treated, her feet felt sore and sensitive.
The trails were much more crowded now. Our route was linking up with the more popular Camino Francés, so we were seldom alone. This did ruin some of the romance of the walk, since it didn’t feel as adventurous with so many other people around. The compensating pleasure was to see all the types of people that the Camino attracts.
There were Spaniards, Americans, Brits, Germans, Chinese, Portuguese, and Italians—not to mention the Puerto Ricans and Canadians. I saw a husband and wife with two young kids, pushing them along in a sports stroller. I briefly met a man from Manchester, who was walking the camino at the impressive age of 83. There were couples, groups of friends, and loners. At a café, I spent some time talking to an American father and daughter who had walked all the way from France. And several times we passed a young, hippy couple who were walking along with a donkey, pitching a tent by the side of the road. There were many bicyclists, too, who would often zoom by in their brightly-colored, form-fitting outfits, yelling “Buen Camino!” as they passed. No matter what country you come from, what language you speak, that’s what you say to another pilgrim when you pass on the road: Buen Camino!
Seeing such a variety of people made me think of a section in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. During his pilgrimage to Mecca, as part of the hajj, Malcolm X saw people of all different races interacting as brothers and sisters; and this experience inspired him to change his pessimistic views about the coexistence of races.
This, I think, is one of the lessons of any pilgrimage. When you’re on the road, with only some clothes on your back and only your feet to push you forward, all the differences that normally loom so large—race, age, nationality, gender, and even religion—become insignificant. Everyone is equal on a pilgrimage. Everyone eats the same food, sleeps in the same beds, and walks the same road. Everyone has the same needs and the same struggles. And not only are you equals, but you are allies; your destination binds you together with common purpose. If only we could treat life more like a pilgrimage—help each other up when we fall, cheer each other on instead of envying success, and feeling our common humanity rather than our petty differences.
We arrived in Arzúa in just about four hours—quite an easy walk. Arzúa is a small town of about 6,000, mostly situated along a central highway.
We got ourselves set up in a nice albergue, and went out to lunch at the town’s best restaurant, Casa Teodora. Though it had very good reviews online, neither of us were expecting much from a restaurant in such a small town. But we were pleasantly surprised. The food was generously portioned, and absolutely scrumptious. I particularly remember the caldo gallego, or Galician soup, a simple but delicious dish of potatoes and cabbage. We left thoroughly full (and in my case inebriated, because they included a bottle of wine), and soon passed out in our albergue. By dinner time, we were still so stuffed that we could hardly eat. If you find yourself in Arzúa, make sure to eat at Casa Teodora.
Day 4: Arzúa to Pedrouzo
As I write this, my memories of our days of walking are a blur of green countryside, foresty trails, idyllic farmland, and the constant weight of my backpack pressing down upon me. Misty mornings and bright afternoons, sore feet and achy hips, the smell of dew and cow manure, the taste of mixed nuts and chocolate biscuits, the sound of chirping birds and the occasional Buen camino! and always the endless road ahead—all this forms the fabric of my recollections.
Only a few impressions stick out from this day. I remember that some people had taken it upon themselves to print out quotes of famous philosophers on orange and yellow sheets of paper, and to tape them onto the sides of garbage cans along the way. We ran into these in many different areas, which really amused me. The prank crescendoed in a so-called “Wall of Wisdom,” which was a granite wall that had been covered in hundreds of these quotes. Unfortunately I didn’t bother to take a photo, and I can’t remember any quote in particular; but I respected the dedication of the authors and their aim of spreading wisdom to pilgrims. My only other distinct memory is of a wall next to a bar that had hundreds of empty beer bottles sitting on it. Some people had a good time.
Our original plan was to stop in a small town called A Rúa, but we arrived there so early and felt so energetic that we went on to the next town, O Pedrouzo. This turned out to be a good choice, because the town was bigger and had a better selection of places to eat. Yet even though we walked farther than originally planned, we arrived before noon, when the albergue wasn’t even open. We passed the time sitting in a café, wasting time on our phones.
By chance, I found myself reading an article about travel and classism.
“Yo, I just read this article someone posted on Facebook,” I said to GF, after finishing.
“Oh yeah?” GF said, without looking up from her phone.
“Yeah, it’s about travel and privilege.”
GF gave a polite grunt.
“I’ve actually been thinking about this,” I went on. “We have this whole culture of touting travel as soul-expanding and so forth, but the author argues that this is just a form of classism.”
GF looked up, slightly more interested.
“For example, you take all these photos of cool places, you eat in all these expensive restaurants, and you interact mainly with people working in the travel industry—you know, people who speak English and you are paid to accommodate your needs. Then you go back and talk about how enriching travel is. Isn’t that just a way of flouting your privilege?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” GF said. “But, for example, I feel like we don’t do that. We interact with a lot of locals and don’t spend that much money.”
“That’s true. Although even to be here, we had to save up for a while, and probably we couldn’t have done that unless we had parents who let us live with them.”
“Yeah, I guess,” GF said. “But it still doesn’t seem right to put down traveling because it costs money.”
“I agree. I think that’s the problem with this article. To do something that requires money isn’t necessarily classist. And even if it is a sign of privilege, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for you.”
I thought for a moment. GF went back to her phone.
“Though, to be fair,” I finally said, “probably most of this talk about travel is just self-aggrandizing. When people do things that genuinely make them a better person, usually they don’t immediately brag about it.”
“Eh, I don’t know about that,” GF said. “Doesn’t everybody want to look good in front of others?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I said. “But I still think that people often confuse the urge to look good with actually improving themselves.”
“Probably,” GF said. I could tell she was losing interest in the conversation.
Thankfully, it was soon time to go to the albergue. We were the first to arrive. The receptionist hadn’t even started working yet; the cleaning lady had just unlocked the door and started tidying up the place. She let us leave our stuff there, even though she wasn’t authorized to accept our money. So after staking out two beds in the enormous room, we walked into town, bought some snacks at the supermarket, and sat on a park bench.
There isn’t much else to tell about this day, except for something I overheard at dinner. GF and I went to a pizza shop and sat down. The only other people there were a middle-aged Australian couple who had finished eating and were polishing off their beers. I tried not to eavesdrop, but my ears perked up when I heard the woman mention that she had just finished reading a book about the camino. I strained to catch the title of the book, since I wanted to read a book about the camino myself. Unfortunately, I missed it. By the time I started paying attention, she was saying:
“Yeah, and you know, one of the things he says that struck me as so true, was this. The biggest lesson that the camino teaches is to pack light.”
The guy chuckled.
“That’s it?” he said. “Not very profound, I don’t think.”
“No, no, but it is,” she said. “When people start the camino, they think they need to bring all this fancy stuff. But it just slows them down and makes them tired. So they learn exactly what they need, and what they can do away with.”
“But also, that’s an important lesson for life, isn’t it? You really don’t need that much. And most people load themselves down with all sorts of things that just slow them down in the long run. You can just chuck it in the trash. You really need very little to be happy.”
“Alright,” the guy said. “I’ll cheers to that.” And the two of them finished their beers.
Day 5: O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela
I woke up excited. This was it: the final leg of the journey, the last day on the road, the culmination of all those miles. Barring any unforeseen disasters, by that afternoon I would be standing underneath the iconic spires of the Santiago Cathedral.
There was no mist that morning, just blue sky and sun. We quickly located the camino and began walking. Soon we were out of the town, on a forest trail. The trees curved up all around us, their branches sweeping in protective arches. For me, there is a curious mix of the static and the dynamic about trees; they seem like petrified bodies, twisting and turning as if in motion, and yet curiously still.
Soon we were running into other pilgrims; we passed some, and others passed us. A few faces were familiar, but most were strangers. We smiled regardless. But about an hour into the walk, we ran into some friends: the two women from Puerto Rico. They were walking along with a man from Andalusia. GF and I decided to join them. The Andalusian was a nice fellow—though unfortunately I had a lot of trouble understanding him. No matter how good my Spanish gets, that accent defeats me every time.
This difficulty was alleviated when, a few minutes later, the man decided to stop off at a café for something to eat. This left just us and the Puerto Ricans. I think both GF and I were craving some additional company, so we decided to stick with our friends. Walking along, we talked about everything and nothing—the roving, scatterbrained, inconsequential small talk of strangers on a long journey. They taught us some Puerto Rican expressions and told us something about their lives. We chatted about the local food, made banal observations about our surroundings, and told each other stories of other places we visited.
The hours passed swiftly as we walked. Soon we were within an hour of our destination. The Andalusian man caught up with us while we tarried at a café, and thus we began our final approach with five people. We stopped for a final rest near the Monte de Gozo, or the Hill of Joy, an elevation overlooking Santiago de Compostela. On top is a funny, modern sculpture with two metal loops and a crucifix on top. There was also small church nearby, where GF and I stamped our pilgrim’s passports. One of the Puerto Ricans offered me a fig, which I gladly accepted. It was sugary, gooey, syrupy, and scrumptious. I made a mental note to eat more figs.
Soon we were off again. We climbed down the hill, crossed a bridge over a highway, and soon began the seemingly endless walk through the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela towards the center. Slowly but steadily, we neared the heart of the city. The buildings grew bigger, the streets more crowded. Eventually I realized that the city was beginning to look medieval, with the characteristic narrow, winding streets. We passed an imposing stone church, and then a granite fountain with the bust of a man in a frilly collar. Then we found ourselves walking past a large, impressive building with the frieze of the royal insignia sculpted on the front.
“What’s that?” GF said.
“Maybe it’s a university,” I said.
“Or a convent?” said one of the Puerto Ricans.
“It’s a monastery,” said a man nearby. He was wearing long dreadlocks but no shirt.
“Oh, thanks,” I said.
“Didn’t want you guys not to know,” he said, and then shrugged.
We passed through a small tunnel. Inside was a man playing the bag pipe, a traditional instrument in Galicia. I wanted to enjoy it, but the hollering ricocheted off the walls until it became truly abrasive to listen to. But soon we were out in the open air again, this time in the Plaza del Obradoiro.
We had arrived. In the middle of the large, square plaza, lots of pilgrims were laying down on the ground, their backpacks still on their backs. Other pilgrims were taking turns posing for pictures in front of the cathedral, their walking sticks held high in the air. Merchants were selling scallop shells, others were going around advertising hostels; but most people were just smiling and enjoying the moment. The pilgrimage was over. This was it.
To our left was the famous Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, a pilgrim hostel established by Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand five hundred years ago. (Nowadays it’s way too expensive for folks like me.) Behind us was the Town Hall of Santiago, with a sculpture of Santiago himself on horseback gracing the top. And in front was the Santiago Cathedral, with its crisscrossing front staircase and two Romanesque towers. Unfortunately, the moment was not quite as picturesque as it could have been, since more than half of the cathedral’s façade was covered with scaffolding for repair work. But, damn it, we made it!
Coming to the end of any journey is always bittersweet. For five days and more, the Santiago Cathedral seemed impossibly distant. There were even times before our trip that I thought I’d never see the cathedral for myself. After all, when was I ever going to find the time and energy to hike on some old pilgrimage trail in the north of Spain? And now, here I was, seeing the thing with my very eyes. I felt fantastic, but also a bit sad. Now I had nothing to be excited about.
Indeed, it was a really bittersweet moment for me. I knew that this was the last big trip in Spain I would take with GF, since she had to go back for graduate school. At least I could say that we had a fitting end to our adventurous year, ending our travels in the most symbolic destination in the country: Santiago de Compostela. We had spent only five days walking; but we had spent eight months traveling. We had seen and done so many things since we arrived. We had tried so many foods, visited so many churches, walked so many miles. We had met so many people, had so many conversations (many in Spanish!), traveled in so many cars, buses, trains, and planes. And were we any different? Or was this all just an exercise in conspicuous consumption? Were we flaunting our privilege, or did we grow?
These questions flashed through my mind, and then I let them go. We said goodbye to our Puerto Rican friends and went to our Airbnb. Soon we had put our backpacks down and were lounging on the bed. My back, my hips, my knees, my feet—everything was sore. I was sad to finish, but also pretty happy I didn’t have to carry that backpack anymore.
There was only one more thing we had to do for our trip to be complete. After we rested for a while, we headed back towards the city center. We were going to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office to get our Compostelas—the official document showing that you completed your camino. The office is on Rúa Carretas, 33, about a five minute’s walk from the cathedral.
To get in, we had to show a security guard our pilgrim’s passports. He took some time to look them over. I’m not sure what he was checking, but I believe he was making sure that we walked at least 100 kilometers. Lugo is almost exactly 100 kilometers from Santiago, which is why we chose it. I also think he was making sure we had stamps from albergues along the way. You see, the stamps aren’t just for fun; they are to make sure you don’t just take a bus. Granted, it still wouldn’t be too difficult to fake it, but honestly who would want to do that?
Soon the security guard let us inside. We turned a corner and found ourselves in a queue. I was afraid that we’d have to wait for a long time, since our Spanish professor said that it can take hours. But there were only about ten people ahead of us, and the line moved fast. As in a government office, a monitor over the door displayed the number of an available desk.
Soon it was my turn. I walked up, said hello, and the woman handed me a short form to fill out with basic information. One of the questions was whether I had completed the camino for reasons of sport, tourism, spirituality, or religion. The truth is, probably tourism would have been the most honest answer. But a friend of ours advised us that the certificate they give to tourists is far uglier than the one they give to spiritual or religious pilgrims; so, with some misgivings, I put down spirituality. In an instant she handed me my certificate.
It was marvelous. The whole thing was written in Latin—they had even translated my name. A medieval image of Santiago sat atop the upper right corner; and across the left side was a charming, floral motif. I loved it. Soon the certificate was safely stowed away in a little tube they sold me for two euros, and we were out on the street again. We had officially, certifiably, formally walked the camino. We even had receipts to prove it.
(Click here for my post about Santiago de Compostela.)