The Walk to the End of the World

The Walk to the End of the World

It was 2018, and my Easter break was fast approaching. Leaving the country during Holy Week is always expensive; and, besides, I had already booked two pricey trips—to Prague and to Paris—so I didn’t want to spend more than the bare minimum. Luckily, Spain has one travel option that requires almost no planning and little expenditure: the Camino de Santiago.

Two years had already gone by since my first and last camino, five days from Lugo to Santiago de Compostela. This time I wanted to start up where I had left off, in Santiago itself, in order to walk to the coast. The Romans may have made this pilgrimage before Christ or Christianity; they named the long granite cape that extends into the Atlantic “Finis Terrae,” or the End of the World, because they believed that this was the westernmost extension of the land. Unfortunately they were wrong in two respects: first, they underestimated the world by several continents; and second, Finisterre (as it is now known) is not even the westernmost point of the Iberian peninsula.

The cape has nevertheless continued to attract travelers. After pilgrims began to flock to Santiago during the Middle Ages, many of them decided, after reaching their goal, to keep going to the coast. This may be why the scallop shell became the symbol of the camino: many people wanted a souvenir from the end of the earth. This was my goal, too: to start in Santiago and keep going until the land ran out. I would walk 88 km (or 55 miles) in four days, giving me enough time to be back in Madrid for my birthday.

The best part of this plan was that almost no preparation was necessary. I did not need to book accomodations or even to buy gear, since I already had it. But I did need to obtain a pilgrim’s passport, or I wouldn’t be allowed to use the camino hostels (called “albergues”). This was easy enough. In the Plaza de Santiago in Madrid, at the Parish Church of Santiago and San Juan Bautista, they hand out passports for free (though a donation is recommended). If you go this route, be aware that the hours of availability are a little strange: 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, and then 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. The other option is to go to the Association of the Friends of the Camino, but they are only open Tuesday through Thursday.

My passport in hand, my flight to Santiago booked, I was ready for my walk to the end of the world.


Arrival

The plane descended through the thick fog until the ground suddenly appeared out the window, moments before landing. With a jolt we had reached the earth. I was sleep-deprived and panicky. Even in the best of times flying makes me nervous; but lack of sleep throws my chemical balance off, and I am consequently much more prone to worry. I thus spent the flight alternating between fear and delirium. Though I had woken up at 4:45 that morning to catch the horridly early (but cheap) flight, I could not sleep a wink on the plane. I was wretched.

It was a wretched day in Galicia, too, and I was happy to be there. A short bus ride brought me to the center of the city, where I had breakfast with some friends who were also doing the camino (but a different route). After some aimless wandering, I made my way to the albergue. I had reserved a room in the Seminario Menor. This is a massive building on a hill across from the cathedral, not to be confused with the Seminario Mayor, which is right next to the cathedral. If the building had indeed been a seminary, it had been a major one: the albergue was large enough to house hundreds of pilgrims, and also had room for a primary school.

Though I had vague ideas of seeing more of Santiago, the bed proved irresistible. I collapsed into a feverish nap. By the time I awoke, hours later, I found that the city was suffering under the wrath of a terrible rainstorm. The water came down in sheets, turning the streets into streams and the sidewalks into puddles of mud. I was glad to be indoors. But if I ran into weather like this on my camino, I would be in for a bad time. The only rain equipment I had brought was a poncho. My shoes were not waterproof, nor was my backpack. The thought of simply going back to Madrid flitted through my head. A tempting idea.

But I had something to accomplish on this camino. My renewal deadline was coming up: I had to decide whether I was going to stay in Spain another year, or finally go back to New York to recommence by suspended adulthood. There were weighty factors on both sides. On the New York side I had my family and friends, and the prospect of a career as a public school teacher—quite a good profession in Westchester. Meanwhile, I was in a long-term relationship with a Spaniard, and had gotten accepted into a masters program for the coming year. I felt torn. The prospect of being away from home yet another year frightened me, especially since I had lately been prone to fits of homesickness. On the other hand, the thought of leaving Spain struck me as tragic: the end of an adventure, the end of a relationship, the beginning of a more conventional life. This seemed like the perfect problem to mull over on a pilgrimage.

When the rain died down, I went out to have dinner and buy some final supplies. That night I went to sleep early. I would need the rest.


Day 1: Santiago to Negreira

I set out as the sun was just beginning to rise. Though I am no enthusiast of the morning, it is advisable to begin walking the camino early: you avoid the hottest part of the day, and reduce the chance that the albergues will fill up. The route out of the city took my past the cathedral for one final look, and soon I was again in the Galician countryside.

The day was overcast and a little cold. As usual, I found the mossy green of the landscape to be enchanting. I love Madrid, but its sandy soil can leave me longing for the verdant foliage of wetter climates. Coming to Galicia satisfies this yearning. After an hour of walking I looked over my shoulder to see the two spires of the cathedral in the far distance. I was on my way. I passed suburban homes and granite farms. Horses nibbled idly in a grassy field. The sky alternated between shades of grey occasionally broken by blue. Rain fell periodically, mostly in a drizzle. Two hours into the walk a magnificent rainbow appeared up ahead. It looked like it came to an end right in front of me: a good omen.

Before both of my caminos, I had imagined that I would do a lot of thinking as I walked. But this was far from true. Instead, I found myself in a kind of dreamy stupor, merely observing the slowly shifting landscape and the villages that I passed through—a rhythmic repetition of trees, clouds, hills, farms, fences, and fields. Scarcely an articulate thought broke my awareness. At times I feared that I was not properly savoring the moment, and so I attempted a walking meditation, focusing all my attention on my breath. This did little to change my state of mind, however, and soon I began listening to an audiobook (a history of 18th century Europe).

The first trail marker

The camino has a tendency to lull one into a blissful calm. No thinking is required; every turn is marked with a big yellow arrow, and all one has to do is put one foot in front of the other. It did not take a philosophical mind to compare this with my present life conundrum. While I followed this path which so many had walked before, I was trying to make a decision which many had made before: to stay abroad or to go home. Yet a wrong turn on the camino can be easily detected and corrected; but an unwise choice cannot be so easily mended, as time marches steadily forward.

The decisions we make in life are often compared to turns in a road. Yet life, unlike the camino, has no obvious right or wrong turns. Indeed, the whole concept of right and wrong breaks down when it comes to major decisions. Two turns in a road can be easily compared, since one leads to the desired destination and the other does not (or at the very least one is faster). But in life, the question is often not how to get to the final destination, but which destination to choose. Different answers cannot easily be compared.

What is better, to be a doctor or a painter? This depends on your own values, of course. But what are your values? Though we often think of ourselves as defined by what we deem important, it can be difficult to know what is truly important to us. We cannot simply introspect and encounter our values, since our priorities are revealed in actions over the long term. One may, for example, think that one has a passion for playing the piano; but after a year of practicing and giving recitals, this passion may fade into boredom. In any case, even if we could easily find out what is deeply important to us now, this would not necessarily solve the problem, since values change over time.

Most perplexingly, our values change in response to the decisions we make. So when we make a major decision, we are in the paradoxical position of choosing ourselves. Rather than choose something based on our values, we are choosing our values themselves. But then what can we base our decisions on? In other words, we are trying to choose something in the present which will satisfy us in the future—without knowing exactly what we are choosing will be like, or how the choice will change our own preferences. This seems like an intractable problem. If only life had big yellow arrows directing us in the right direction.

As you can tell, I do not like making major life decisions. No approach seems intellectually satisfactory. No criteria or value suffices. As a result, no matter how much I weigh the pros and cons, I always end up feeling as though I were following a kind of gut instinct. An existentialist would say that this proves that I am free; but personally I do not feel free when I am forced to choose something based on non-rational factors, merely following impulse and whim.

I am writing this now, but I did not think any of this as I trekked the first twenty kilometers of the journey. I merely walked and occasionally worried. The day passed uneventfully. I crossed the Ponte Maceira in Ames, a beautiful medieval stone bridge. The weather was mostly overcast, threatening rain and occasionally delivering. About four hours into the walk it started to rain seriously. I tried to put up with it, but eventually I gave up, rummaged through my backpack for my poncho, and then put it on. The thing wouldn’t fit over my coat, so I had to take off my coat and tie it to my backpack while I wore the blue plastic covering. And, of course, fifteen minutes after going through the trouble, the rain stopped and the skies cleared. This was the last time I used the poncho.

I arrived at Negreira at around one in the afternoon, cold to the bone. After dropping off my bag I went into a restaurant with a menu del día. This is one of the great parts of the camino. Most stopping points have restaurants offering cheap set meals—normally under ten euros—to pilgrims, most of them consisting of plentiful, hardy food. This was no different. I ordered wine, and they gave me a whole bottle, of which I drank more than I should have. It cost me 7.50€. Then I limped and stumbled back to the hostel for a nap.

The host met me at the front desk. He was an older man, with a paunch and a mustache, who was remarkably talkative. I’ll call him Maligno. Normally I do not like to chit chat while I travel, but I was feeling a little lonely just then, so I was glad for the conversation. His mouth rattled on like a freight train, his gravelly voice following the dramatic, sing-song accent common to the region. I got him on the subject of Galicia, on which he was loquacious. He started googling some of the sights to show me: attractive coastal towns, old Celtic ruins, and even a Roman gold mine.

Somehow the subject got changed to people who speak ugly languages. This quickly led him to tell the old joke about how Spanish is for talking to God, Italian for talking to women, and German for talking to horses. He then went on:

“Once I saw this girl, beautiful, just beautiful, I mean everything was perfect. And then she opened her mouth, and it was like—eck! Just the foulest, ugliest language you ever heard. What a shame, I thought. What a shame.”

With this, I excused myself and went to my bunk bed, where I promptly passed out. When I awoke, I decided to do something productive, and I made a pro and con chart of staying in Spain. It didn’t solve anything, of course, but it did occupy some time. After that I wrote a very bad poem, had a light dinner, and went to sleep.


Day 2: Negreira to Olveiroa

This was to be my hardest day—the longest that I had ever walked in my life: 33.6 km, or 21 miles. I had to get going early.

I began before sunrise. The mist was still heavy upon the land. The moon shone out from behind the clouds, and a light breeze blew through the trees. It was almost completely quiet. I felt a keen anxiety grip me as I began walking into the countryside. It was so dark that I was afraid I would get lost. But soon I found the familiar yellow arrows, pointing the way.

The sun gradually rose and I found myself, once again, in the mossy green countryside of Galicia. The walk that day was especially beautiful, mostly avoiding major roads. As the sun rose I could once again see the farmhouses and the fallow fields. A cow peeked its nose from out a barn window, while two dogs snuggled in the road. Once again I saw a rainbow, and once again it seemed to land right in front of me. I felt that I was on the right track.

It was a much sunnier day than the last, and the heat did not make the long walk any easier. I stopped several times—beside a wooden fence, by a stone church, near a running brook—to rest and eat a little. I had bought pretzels in Santiago, an uncommon snack in Spain, and savored a few handfuls on the way. At one point I stopped at a roadside cafe for a chocolate pastry and a coffee. The exhaustion crept up on me slowly; my feet began to hurt, my legs to tire. But the human body is made to walk. It is one of the hidden benefits of bipedalism: aside from freeing up our hands to carry things, walking on two legs allowed us to be more energy efficient. At least that is the theory.

When it was well past lunch time, the path led into an open field and up a large hill. A plaque informed me that this moderate eminence was the highest point in the county. And in ancient times this had been the site of a fortified settlement (though I could find no traces of it). But the view was valuable enough. The beautiful Galician countryside rolled out in front of me, almost painfully pretty in the sun, with its fields of farmland dotted with patches of pine trees. The grass shone intoxicatingly green in the sunshine, filling me with energy that carried me the remaining distance.

By the time I arrived it was four in the afternoon. Olveiroa is hardly big enough to even be called a village; it mainly exists as a stopping point on the camino. The biggest building in the place is the albergue, where everyone seemed to be concentrated. When I arrived it was absolutely packed, which made me nervous about finding a spot. But it turns out that the vast majority of the people eating in the restaurant where on a kind of bus tour, where they hike different segments of the camino each day and then get bused to back to a hotel. It struck me as a strange concept. In any case, I ordered a gigantic plate of food and ate it with ravenous delight.

The rest of the day was spent in my bunk. My feet were blistered and my knees ached. I limped outside around sundown to see the sky, but quickly gave up and hobbled back to my mattress to read. Very few people were staying at the albergue. Among them was a young German couple, probably around my age. They spent the whole time hugging and whispering to each other. I found it very annoying. Whispering, to me, is far more unpleasant to listen to than speaking, since a whisper conserves only the harsh consonant sounds—the hissing and popping.

Maybe I was feeling cranky, since the more I observed the cuddling couple the more irritated I became. At one point I felt inspired by my distaste of the amorous Germans to write a poem in my journal, which I include here:

Why do humans form pairs,
Like socks or testicles?
We arrange ourselves with mates
Kiss, embrace, quarrel, separate.
The world deems successful
The couples that last until death.
A strange prejudice!
Separation is separation,
In the grave or in the courts;
And an amicable divorce may be
A better way to say goodbye
Than a heart attack.
Monogamy has the worst track record
Of any human institution,
Except for all the other ones.
We relieve ourselves with:
Fantasies, flings, fights,
Affairs, breakups, divorce...
Or just the iron patience
Of the ignored wife or the henpecked husband
Waiting, waiting, waiting,
For the end.

And with this bit of free-verse bile, I went to bed.


Day 3: Olveiroa to Cee

The next morning I fell out of bed, and quickly found myself ascending the steep hills nearby. Again, I got going before before dawn. The landscape was shrouded in morning mist. As I walked up the path I began to feel extremely isolated. Panicky thoughts began to pass through my brain. If a pilgrim-hating murderer was hiding behind one of these rocks, they could kill me and get away with it. My eyes began darting left and right, my body tense.

But the beauty of the surroundings, revealed by dawn, eventually calmed my nerves. It was marvelous. The fog opened up below me to reveal a river flowing through the valley. The rising sun cracked through the grey sky, splitting the horizon with yellow light; and in so doing revealed the silhouettes of wind turbines, so common here, immobile on the hilltops. At the time I was reading Don Quixote, and I imagined the old knight making a charge for one of these modern monsters. These power-generating machines are one of our century’s great inventions; their sleek forms make no attempt to counterfeit nature, and yet they blend in so harmoniously with the landscape.

Eventually I reached a fork in the road, where the camino diverges. You see, there are two options for the pilgrimage to Finisterre: the first goes direct, while the second takes a detour to Muxía, another beautiful coastal town somewhat to the north. The second path is considerably more taxing, since there are three days in a row of 30+ km. I chose the first, since I did not have an extra day to spend; but, of course, every road not taken leaves a little residue of regret. Further on, while crossing another field, I caught my first glance of the sea. It was a dreary grey day, and so all the greens and blues looked muted under the brooding sky. But I could smell the ocean, that salty, fresh savor in the air.

I reached Cee by one in the afternoon, a modest coastal town of about 8,000 inhabitants. I found a mostly-empty albergue, dropped off my bags, and then set out to have some lunch. The sight of the ocean put me in the mood for seafood, so I decided to find some of the justly famous pulpo gallego, or Galician octopus. This is one of the finest dishes in Spain. The octopus is extremely tender, without a trace of rubberiness; and the combination of sea salt, olive oil, and the spicy local paprika make it addictively savory.

After a short walk around town I retired to the albergue. The host was another talkative Galician fellow. He was a youngish man, in his mid thirties I guess, and had the air of a tired hippie. He told me that he had gotten addicted to the camino at a young age, when his mother took him for a week on the trail. Eventually he opened up his own albergue, and met his future wife a few years later—a Russian woman who was passing through. She came in the door a few moments later, with their two little lap dogs in tow. It seemed like a happy family. I had a beer while flipping through some of the extensive National Geographic guide books that were shelved in the salon.

A typical Galician church and graveyard

The only other pilgrims in the albergue were two Frenchmen. I guessed they were father and son, since the younger one looked like he was in his teens. Neither of them spoke much English, though it was not for lack of trying on the teenager’s part. He struggled through a ten minute conversation with me, using plentiful hand gestures to make up for the gaps in his vocabulary. From this mime show I gathered that he had been on the camino for quite three months, having started in Seville. I admit that I find it difficult to imagine spending such a long time on the road, simply walking. Surely one would see many beautiful things. But I am afraid my brain would atrophy from the lack of variety. It had only been three days and I was already looking forward to returning to Madrid.


Day 4: Cee to Finisterre

My final day. I woke up a bit later, knowing that it was going to be a short walk. The path took me through stone alley up into the surrounding hills. The sky was overcast yet again, though the bits of clover covering the ground still glowed with a powerful green. My route followed the coastline towards the peninsula, which jutted out into the sea like a moored ship. As I looked down from the pine-shaded hilltop to the granite shore below, I wished, yet again, that I could properly savor the moment, that I could nestle inside the feeling of being alone in nature and just stay there, hold onto it, and take some piece of the feeling with me. But again the sights came and went, and I was left none the better.

Eventually I walked down the hills onto a long beach. A man was playing with his dog on the sand, some hundred meters away. I snapped a photo. Minutes later, as I sat on a bench re-tying my shoes, he approached me, and asked me if I could email the photo to him. Sadly, I have forgotten to do it—until writing this post. We shall see if he replies.

From there I made my way to the town of Fisterra (the Galician name for Finisterre). Like so many places in Galicia, it is dominated by the camino. Half the people walking through the town sported the typical gear of the modern pilgrim: waterproof coat, nylon backpack, collapsible walking stick. Advertisements for albergues were everywhere. Many of the faces I recognized from the past three days; a few recognized me, and we exchanged a wave. I was tempted to stop, but I wanted to see the end of the road first.

The path to the end of the peninsula brought me once again above the Galician shore. Halfway to the end I passed a statue of a windblow pilgrim, dressed in the traditional medieval costume; and I could not help comparing the modern pilgrims (myself included), with their bright neon clothes, unfavorably to this more simply apparelled traveler. After what seemed like an interminably long time, the end came into view.

I admit that I was a little deflated, if only because there were so many people about. I wanted to feel alone on the edge of the world; but instead I felt like I was at a moderately popular tourist attraction—which, of course, I was. There was a stone cross on a boulder, where many were gathered. More gratifying, for me, was to see the final trail marker: 0.00 km. Seeing the constant and yet slow diminution of the remaining distance is one of the more satisfying and yet maddening aspects of the camino; so I felt a great surge of relief at finally seeing a zero. I was officially finished.

Further on, I came to the lighthouse. Next to it was one of those signs that shows the direction and distance to several major cities. One of the signs, pointing directly across the sea, was for New York: 5,235 km away. My home was right beyond the horizon. Or was it still my home? Did I belong on this side of the Atlantic, or that one? I still had not made a decision for next year. The camino had not resolved my dilemma.

I passed the lighthouse and went down to the rocky tip of the peninsula, where it descends into the sea. The base of a red metal tower had been covered in stickers and paraphernalia—pilgrims wishing to leave their mark. Nearby was a metal statue of a single boot, a trademark camino marker. It seemed to be the perfect memorial for the trail—an anonymous testament to the blisters and bliss of untold walkers. I sat next to it and stared into the ocean, turning over my problem in my head. And I decided, then, that unless something unexpected happened, I would go back to New York to pick up my interrupted life.

And in that moment I felt sad to have to leave such a beautiful place that had given me so much; and I felt relieved at having chosen a path. But mostly, I just felt exhausted and hungry. Little did I know that, just two weeks later, my brother would decide to move to Spain, which would change my calculations completely. And so I now find myself, a year later, writing this long tale of failed self-discovery and unsuccessful soul-searching from Madrid.

I picked myself up and dragged myself back into town, where I found a nice albergue and paid extra to have my own room. The rest of the day was spent in walking idly around the port, eating delicious chipirones (squid sauteed with garlic), and writing in my diary. “Will I ever see this shore again?” I asked myself. “It’s very possible I won’t.” (I would.) My brain was eerily silent. The usual little voices which pop in and out of our heads, telling us things to fret about, were almost entirely gone. I felt empty and free.

Fisterra

The next day I walked to the bus station with a Russian man who was staying in my albergue, and who told me that he had begun his camino by taking ayahuasca in Portugal. The bus left me in Santiago de Compostela, and then a train brought me to Madrid. In five days I had been to the edge of the world and back, and was none the wiser for it.

Images of Santiago de Compostela

Images of Santiago de Compostela

This academic year I have taken two trips to Santiago de Compostela, one in December and one during Holy Week in April. The first time did not go well. I arrived with an upset stomach, which quickly escalated to full-blown food poisoning. Unfortunately my Airbnb was in Ourense so I was stuck there until our return train in the evening. It was a mediocre day.

But my recent trip was much more enjoyable. We took the night bus up from Madrid, which leaves at 12:30 at night and arrives at 9:00 the next morning. This is no comfortable way to travel. But it did give us an opportunity to see an Easter procession.

To an American, a Spanish Easter procession initially presents a frightening aspect, since the hoods strongly resemble those worn by the Ku Klux Klan (the Klan took it from the Spanish and not vice versa). But once this initial shock passes, the viewer is presented with an impressive religious spectacle. The hooded figures carry floats with religious figures on their shoulders, marching in unison, pounding walking sticks in a jarring metallic march. A band walks behind them, at times playing mournful and discordant tunes on their trumpets.

The elaborate doorway of the Monastery of San Martín Pinario can be seen in the background
The walking sticks have notches, so that they can be used to support the float when they stop walking
The procession entering the Praza de Quintana for a Good Friday ceremony
The float makes its way down the stairs

No trip to Santiago is complete without a trip to the cathedral. Though I had been to Santiago several times before, December was the first time that I had seen the cathedral without scaffolding. The authorities are engaged in a years-long restoration effort, so that much of the cathedral’s famous façade had been covered up in previous years.

As good as new.
St. James the pilgrim: A detail from another façade

The Pórtico de la Gloria was still undergoing reparations when I visited last December. So it was a relief when, this April, I was finally able to see the iconic doorway. In the past you could just walk into the cathedral and examine the statues for free. But now go through a special entrance, pay a modest fee, and go with a guided tour. And no photographs are allowed.

The money and the trouble are, however, entirely worth it if you enjoy medieval art. For the Pórtico de la Gloria is one of the finest pieces of medieval sculpture that I have ever seen.

An image in the public domain. Recent restoration work has recovered much of the original pigment.

Unfortunately, neither of my two recent trips to Santiago allowed me to see the famous Botafumeiro. This is the immense incensor that the priests swing from the ceilings of the cathedral. I went to a mass in December, on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, thinking that such a special religious holiday would merit the use of the incensor. But no luck. I sat through the entire mass clutching my stomach, dizzy from the pain, only to walk out disappointed.

I thought that I would have another opportunity during Holy Week. But, again, I had bad luck. Though restoration work is finished outside, now the inside of the cathedral is covered in tarps and scaffolds. There will be no mass held inside the building until 2021, or so I was informed.

We did, however, visit the Cathedral Museum. This is surprisingly large, and contains two of the Botafumeiro incensors, as well as many works of religious art. I was also surprised to find a few tapestries based on Goya’s designs. But the best part of the visit may be the view of the Praza do Obradoiro, the grand square where the Camino de Santiago ends. As on any other day of the year, the square was full of supine pilgrims, resting after a long journey.

One of my favorite places to visit in the city is the Museo do Pobo Galego, or the Museum of the Galician People. It is a fascinating ethnographic exhibit on the traditional lifeways of the region, housed in an old monastery.

The Museum Entrance
Some traditional carnival costumes
The famous double-helix staircase of the museum

Behind the museum is the Parque de Bonaval, one of my favorite parks in the city. Since this used to be the grounds of a church and a monastery, it is unsurprisingly that grave plots remain, though I am unsure if they still contain bodies.

At the top of the park’s hill the visitor can also find an excellent view of the surroundings of the city.

Notice the arch of the futuristic cultural center in the distance

Another excellent park is the Parque Alameda in the center of the city. It captures the bucolic charm of the Galician forests.

Best of all, this park offers an iconic view of the city and its cathedral. I took two shots with my new camera, one in winter and one in spring.

The view on a December morning
The view on an April afternoon

Santiago in Retrospect

Santiago in Retrospect

Well over a year ago, after completing my short camino, I spent some time exploring the city of Santiago de Compostela. Procrastination prevented me from doing a timely blog post. So with the benefit of hindsight but penalty of forgetting, I will complete this long overdue write-up.


Monastery Church Entrance

Santiago de Compostela is a remote and storied city. Situated in the province of Galicia, in the north-west of the Iberian Peninsula, far from Spain’s capital and remote from the rest of Europe, it has never been the crucible of a religion nor the seat of an empire. Probably we would never have mentioned it had it not been for one shepherd who, one day, over a thousand years ago, reported seeing a light over a field. Those who followed this light found a tomb; and inside, the body of St. James the Greater.

As I discussed in my post about the Camino de Santiago, this story is an apocryphal legend. What is certain is that the Christians in the north of Spain were in trouble. During the last one hundred years, Muslims had poured into the Iberian Peninsula, conquering everything with effortless ease. These Muslims relied on irrigation for their agriculture—the combination of the crops and the technologies they brought with them forever transformed Iberian farming—so they had trouble colonizing mountainous regions. So it was these northern, rainy, and mountainous areas to which many of the Christians retreated, huddling in modern-day Galicia and Asturias.

Outmanned, disorganized, technologically and culturally outmatched, these Christians had little hope of defeating the Muslims southward. But the “discovery” of St. James’s body helped to change this situation. Suddenly, an obscure, rural, and remote area of a Christian outpost became one of the most important holy sites in Christendom, comparable with Rome or Jerusalem. Eventually, the Christians of northern Spain expanded their territory, extending their dominion along the northern coast all the way to the Pyrenees. Once linked up with France, pilgrims began to pour into the country, seeking penance and repentance through the journey.

The cultural effects of this pilgrimage could hardly be overstated. By this time, Europe had emerged from the confusion which followed Rome’s collapse, and daring new architectural styles were being developed: the Romanesque, Gothic, and later Renaissance and Baroque. The Camino de Santiago became the artery through which these styles flowed into Spain; and as a result, some of the most splendid cathedrals in the country can be found along the route: the gothic cathedrals in León and Burgos, for example, and the magnificent Romanesque cathedral of Santiago itself. And it is this cathedral that any visitor to the city must turn to first.


Mirador

The Cathedral of Santiago is the end-point of the entire camino, the iconic goal of the arduous pilgrimage. And the building is worth the walk.

According to legend, the cathedral was built over the tomb of St. James. This church quickly became a potent symbol of Christianity, prompting the Moors in 997 to invade, burn down the early church, and take the bells and the gates with them back to their capital in Córdoba, where this bounty was placed—appropriately enough—in the Great Mosque. When King Ferdinand III of Castile conquered Córdoba over two hundreds years later, he had the same bells and gates transported to the Cathedral of Toledo, where they remain to this day.

The front entrance of the cathedral stands proudly above the Plaza de Obradoiro (gallego for “workshop”), a monumental square that, on any given day, is full of exhausted pilgrims and energetic street vendors. This square, and the two baroque spires of the cathedral’s façade, owe their current form to Fernando de Casas Novoa, who undertook the work in the early 18th century. Though a relatively obscure architect, Novoa achieved a stupendous result. The façade sweeps upward like an orchestral crescendo, its symmetrical ornamentation perfectly balanced between a strong upward vertical push and swelling curves, embellished at every point by intricate friezes.

This would be enough to make any cathedral notable; but the Santiago Cathedral has three more impressive façades: on the northern, southern, and eastern ends. And each of these façades overlooks plazas of almost equal grandeur. Counterbalancing the two spires at the western entrance is the clock tower, another elegant Baroque skyscraper. The pilgrim can thus walk 360 degrees around the building without ceasing to find something to attract his eye.

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The Cathedral from the north

And yet the most beautiful portal of the cathedral is not visible from the outside at all. It is the Pórtico de la Gloria—which, because of the subsequently built baroque exterior, now stands on the inside of the western entrance. Designed by Master Mateo in the late 12th century, this portal is now considered to be one of the masterpieces of Romanesque sculpture. Tragically—for me—this site was closed when I arrived in Santiago, so I did not have the privilege of beholding it. But I did get a chance to see some sculptures from this portico in the Prado, where they were transported during repair-work in Santiago—and even this small sample was extraordinary.

Like so many secular pilgrims, I decided to go to a “pilgrim’s mass” in the cathedral, to take part in the religious tradition. These are held throughout the day, in multiple languages, and are abbreviated compared with the usual mass. I was hoping to see the famous botafumeiro, but it made no appearance. This is a giant censer—or incense burner—that is swung from the ceiling during masses on religious holidays. If you haven’t seen a video, I recommend it; the censer swings wildly, spilling forth perfumed smoke into the cavernous church. A team of eight men is needed to get it going; and it costs the cathedral nearly $500 every time this ceremony is performed. Swinging a giant metal object full of burning coals would seem to come with certain risks; and indeed the censer has flown off its rope many times—though I believe no one has ever been seriously hurt.

Santiago Main altar

After the mass was finished, I got in line to ascend to the main altar. This is a magnificent mass of gold and smiling angels, whose lithe bodies lift the shimmering metal towards heaven. In the center of this arrangement, seated under Jesus, is a statue St. James himself; and it is considered good luck to lay one’s hand on his back. (I am not sure if this statue is a reliquary or just an icon.) This deed having been performed, I leapt down to explore the rest of the cathedral. Signs are posted on every wall, with a schedule for mass in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese…. to be held in one of the cathedral’s many attractive chapels. The cathedral’s ceiling has the characteristic rounded barrel vault of Romanesque structures; and surface after surface is adorned with the signature scallop shell of the camino.

Once you exit the cathedral, and finish your long circuit around the outside, you will end up once again in the Plaza de Obradoiro. Here there is yet another notable landmark: the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos. As you face the cathedral’s western entrance, this venerable building stands to your left. It was originally a hostel, commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, for weary pilgrims finishing their journey. A lovely platersque façade adorns the main doors of this building; but beyond this I could not venture, for nowadays the hostel is a Parador de Turísimo: an old building refurbished into a fancy hotel for wealthy guests. The old hostel does honor its roots by offering a free meal to pilgrims—the first ten who walk in the doors, that is. I didn’t try my luck.

Monasterio de San Martín Pinario
Monasterio de San Martín Pinario

Facing the northern façade of the cathedral is yet another landmark: the Monasterio de San Martín Pinario. This is the second largest monastery in the country, after El Escorial. The side facing the cathedral is fronted with a lovely garden, but the visitor cannot enter here; rather you must go around the corner, at the church entrance, where a sweeping staircase takes you underneath an imposing sculptural display of saints. Inside, you will find a golden altar in a high-walled church. Unlike in so many churches—since this one is no longer in use—you are allowed to walk wherever you please, onto or behind the main altar, or up into the choir, which gives you a priest’s-eye view of the church.

Monastery Church

Like the Monasterio de Santo Tomás in Ávila, this monastery also previously served as a center of scientific research: inside there was a collection of bird specimens, a surprisingly accurate anatomical model, and a collection of old chemical containers on display. This monastery was confiscated by the central government at around the same time as the Monasterio de Piedra in Zaragoza, in 1835, during the Carlist War. Thankfully, unlike the Monasterio de Piedra it was not burned, and was finally given over to be used as a seminary, a use which it retains to this day.

Anatomical Specimen

The “casco viejo” (historical center) of Santiago is itself a monument. As in Toledo, Córdoba, or Cáceres, the narrow, twisting, tightly packed medieval streets have been preserved. Small squares centered around statuesque fountains, churches with their stone crucifixes sticking from the street—this was the old city, which, like everything else in Galicia, was made almost exclusively from the deep grey granite so abundant in the region. The constant presence of this somber silvery stone, juxtaposed with the cool green of the countryside, is one of the most characteristic features of this part of Spain.

One of the finest parks in the city is the Parque de Alameda, which provides some excellent relief from the occasionally claustrophobic center. This park is most notable for its lookout point, which provides the best view of the Santiago Cathedral in the city (see the headline image above). Unfortunately for me, this view was partially obscured by the scaffolding erected around one of the towers, as part of the cathedral’s extensive maintenance work. Santiago’s other notable park is the Parque de Santo Domingo de Bonival, a Romantic garden filled with stone fragments and ruins, in the grounds of a former convent. The park still preserves a cemetery—in which, quite unlike American cemeteries, the bodies are interred in shelves built into long walls.

Santiago Cemetery

The convent to which this cemetery belonged was possessed by the Spanish government during the same wave of confiscations that took the Monasterio de San Martín Pinario. The beautiful church still stands, and is now used for events—I briefly peeked inside, but they were performing renovations. The convent itself has also been repurposed. Nowadays it is home to the Museo de Pobo Galego. “Pobo Galego” is gallego (the language of Galicia) for el Pueblo Gallego, or the Galician People, and is without doubt one of the best museums in the city.

Compared to both the Basques and the Catalans, the Galicians have been relatively free from separatist and nationalist movements. Yet as a region, Galicia is arguably as distinct from the rest of Spain as those better-known examples. Gallego is one of Spain’s four official languages—along with Spanish, Basque, and Catalan—and is widely spoken in the region. Written down, gallego looks extremely similar to Portuguese, but I do not believe the two languages are mutually intelligible. For what it’s worth, the traveler George Henry Borrow—who was a genius in languages and could speak over twenty—reported being dumbfounded by the language, despite being fluent in Portuguese and Spanish.

Galicia Museum Ship

Appropriately enough, gallego is abundant in the Museum of the Galician People. This museum is dedicated to preserving some of the distinct cultural traditions of the region—many of which are sinking into obscurity, due to technological innovation and the spread of mainstream Spanish culture. The museum is full of models and replicas: of buildings, costumes, fishing nets, musical instruments, farming implements, and even traditional fishing vessels, all accompanied with extensive information. To someone with an anthropological background, like me, it was enchanting. The highlight of the museum was, however, not an exhibit at all, but the picturesque double-helix staircase that was part of the erstwhile monastery.

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My last stop was the Museo de las Peregrinaciones, or the Pilgrimage Museum. This turned out to be far more interesting than I expected. Not only was there a good historical overview of the Camino de Santiago—complete with examples of guidebooks from many centuries and countries, including a huge hand-drawn guidebook in Japanese—but there was also information about pilgrimage as a human phenomenon.

Japanese Guide Book

Europe, of course, is not the only place that has turned the simple act of moving into a religious rite. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam; and today the journey to Mecca is undertaken by millions every year. Aside from the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage routes of Kumano Kodo, in Japan, is the only UNESCO-recognized walking path—and journeys on foot have as long and venerable a history in Japan as anywhere.

And this is not to mention the examples from literature. The Odyssey is the West’s foundational and proverbial example of a transformative journey; and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales takes place on a pilgrimage. In Japan, Matsuo Basho’s famous collection of Haiku’s, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was written during his wanderings on foot. But naming individual works cannot do justice to the idea of pilgrimage, since nearly every iconic story involves a journey of some kind.

Why is it that humans, from around the world and across history, have discovered a spiritual significance in travel? The new sites and sounds, foreign cities and strange customs, hold an obvious appeal. The privations induced by travel reduce life to its most basic elements, perhaps reminding pilgrims of what is important and what is frivolous. The act of the journey easily lends itself as a metaphor for the transformation of the traveler, whose outlook is shifted as much as his body. The withdrawal from one’s usual surroundings gives the pilgrim time to think and reflect during the long hours on the road. And the act of throwing one’s fortune to the winds—away from the safety of one’s home, navigating unfamiliar obstacles—has obvious religious implications.

Pilgrimage represents travel at its best—the seeking of wisdom, simplicity, and community, the sense of adventure, the willingness to adapt, the striving for understanding—and Santiago de Compostela is, as I discovered, an ideal place for pilgrims of all nations.

Five Days on Camino: From Lugo to Santiago

Five Days on Camino: From Lugo to Santiago

In 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.


Arrival: Lugo

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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A typical Galician crucifix

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.

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An hórreo made of brick

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

“Oh, thanks.”

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?”

“English teachers.”

“That’s lovely. I’m a Spanish teacher, myself.”

“Yeah?”

“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

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A sign with information on albergues, written in Gallego, the language of Galicia

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

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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.

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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.”

“Word.”

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.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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.

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(Click here for my post about Santiago de Compostela.)