Days 41 through 45, Sarria to the Finish Line, Santiago ~113.6 km/70.5 mi
As I mentioned in my previous post, the final 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) of the Camino Francés is by far the most popular section of the Camino. Not only is this section where all other Camino routes culminate into one (“all roads lead to Santiago,”) but it is the stretch of trail that everyone must walk if they wish to receive the “Compostela,” the accreditation of the pilgrimage to the Tomb of St. James, beautifully personalized and inscribed in Latin.
Sarria is the town closest to the final 100 km. It’s about 13km (7 mi) out from the official “100 km” marker. This final stretch (100 km, or 200km for those riding the Camino on bikes) must be documented by obtaining two stamps per day in an official credential book. These stamps can be obtained from cafes, restaurants, shops or albergues, but there must be two per day at intervals along the Way.
I have read that anywhere from 33% to 50% of all pilgrims begin their Camino in Sarria. This means not only individual travelers, but hoards of tour groups as well. There is a derogatory term for these types of groups who drop pilgrims off by the bus-load at the trail head, or worse yet, dropping them along the way to collect their stamps. They are referred to as “Tourigrinos,” a slang mash-up between tourist and the word peregrino, the Spanish word for pilgrim.
So from all indications, the traffic up ahead was about to double. I was feeling quite a bit of apprehension the morning I departed Sarria. Marcella, the owner of La Posada where I stayed the night before, has walked the Camino seven times. She told me to brace myself and just try to accept it as all part of the Camino experience.
Marcella told me on my way out of town, there was a bridge….a Roman bridge (said rolling her r’s with extra emphasis on the word “Roman” in her deep, Spanish voice.) She told me to stop there, place my hands on the stones, and draw strength and courage to carry on for my remaining five days in spite of the changes and challenges ahead.
When I arrived at the bridge early that morning, I placed both hands on the ancient stones, as Marcella had instructed. I stood for a meditative moment to contemplate the effort it took to construct this bridge in ancient times…how they must have struggled, stone by stone…but then I realized I had an audience waiting for me to hurry up and get out of the way of their photos!
I was in shock as they just kept coming. I pulled out my phone and began speaking a “stream of consciousness” dictation into Notepad… “So many more on the trail. So many pale-skinned legs. So many pairs of brand new shoes. So many American voices talking about sports teams and office politics. Baseball cap wearing adolescent boys. Flag carrying school groups. So many kids! One being pushed up the hill in a stroller! People smelling of fresh perfumed laundry detergent. A guy in a ‘singlet,’ his girlfriend looking like an aerobics instructor. He’s carrying an entire boom box, blaring from atop his shoulder.”
Gone forever were my quiet, contemplative walks, I feared. I had been walking for 40 days. I was weary. They were all brand new. I sat on a stone fence to await a break in the crowds, but I soon realized there was no break coming. It was “go now or not at all.” It’s easy to understand why some walk 690 km and decide to stop short of the last 100.
Thankfully, it did get much better. After that first day, the “human slinky” began to spread out. I could breathe once again, and in fact, even enjoyed some respectable distances of solitude among the tall eucalyptus forests.
The final day into Santiago was my biggest culture shock yet, as I turned a corner to find a group of pilgrims staring across a field. I scanned the horizon to see what they were looking at, only to realize it was the orange wind sock at the end of the runway of the Santiago airport. It wouldn’t be long until I began hearing the roar of jet engines overhead, reminding me that those planes were likely filled with pilgrims like me, many having just completed a life altering experience, now on their way back to their previous lives of families, jobs, roles and responsibilities left behind. It was a sinking feeling.
That last morning felt like being sucked down into a vortex of pilgrims funneling down into the old town of Santiago. The closer I got, the bigger the crowd, as we pilgrims were now joined by locals on their morning commute. I was having a real conflict in my mind between “Speed up! Hurry and get there!” to “Slow down, you don’t want this moment to end!”
Several days prior over dinner, my new friend Roger from Scotland’s Shetland Islands talked of the bagpiper who stands in the arch at the bottom of the stairs just before entering Obradoiro Square, the end point of the Camino in front of Santiago’s famous cathedral. He said with his beautiful Scottish accent, “Before you reach the square, you’ll hear the sound of those pipes a callin’ ya home.” After all, Galicia has Celtic ties. And he was right. The minute I reached the ramp leading down to the staircase, I heard the lone piper calling….and the tears began to flow.
After reaching the center of Obradoiro Square, I finally got myself composed. The tears were replaced with jubilation, as I began seeing people I hadn’t seen in weeks! It was like the mother of all homecomings! But the tears started all over again as soon as I reached the Pilgrim’s Office, where pilgrims go to collect their compostela. I started blubbering again like a baby when the official in the Pilgrims Office said “Welcome to Santiago! You have come a very long way.”
I had purposefully avoided studying others photos or videos of the actual Plaza del Obradoiro, the square in front of the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, that marks the center of old town Santiago. I wanted to see it “live” for the first time. I struggle for words to describe the emotions I felt this morning, after walking toward this destination for 44 days. So bittersweet! I equated it to getting off a 45 day rollercoaster, then stumbling around for direction.
There’s an unofficial process when you arrive into the Plaza del Obradoiro. Pilgrims jockey for position amidst large tour groups to reach “the shell” (shell in the middle of the square embossed in the concrete.) People are either taking your photo, or you are offering to take theirs. There is a lot going on. There are tears, hugs, laughter, jubilation. Packs, poles, and sometimes even bicycles are being hoisted over the heads of pilgrims in a sign of victory. Once the requisite photos have been taken, one is typically ushered off by their fellow pilgrims to the Pilgrim Office, a couple of blocks away to stand in line for the highly anticipated issuing of the compostela. If one has stamps in the credential books to prove they started their walk in SJPP, a “distance certificate” is also offered. It’s like graduation day all over again at 68 years old!
If one has arrived early of a morning, the next step after all the photos and paperwork are done, is to head inside the cathedral for the 12 Noon Pilgrim’s Mass. Again, not being a religious person, “attending mass” is not something typically on my list of “must dos.” But this is different. It feels like a culmination of all the emotions rolled into one. Sitting there on the pew among fellow pilgrims. Though the Mass begins at 12:00pm, if you haven’t claimed a seat by 11:00am, you are not going to get one. And standing is risky, because you may be ushered out of the aisles, depending on whether or not the Botofumerio swings that day.
The botofumario, or giant censer (incense burner) is one of the most iconic symbols of the Camino. This ornate silver-plated urn Weighs 53kg (117 lbs) and measures almost 5 ft tall. It’s suspended from the center dome by a rope and pulley system. If you think of the cathedral layout in the shape of a cross, the botafumerio swings from side to side along the horizontal axis in a wide arc, suspended by ropes from a pulley system in the dome overhead. At its highest arc, it almost reaches the ceiling of the transept. It’s been clocked to reach speeds over 60km/h (40mph) as the sweet, heady smoke of the incense wafts through the air.
There is no guarantee there will be a “performance” of the botafumerio. There was a time when it was a regular feature of the Friday Pilgrim’s Mass. But the performance is costly. It requires not only incense and regular maintenance, but a troop of eight red-robed men called “tiraboleiros” to pull the ropes, an action to increase the oscillation of the censer. These days, the only guarantee is to attend one of the “high holidays,” or have the luck of the draw to arrive on a day when a tour group has paid €450 for a front row pew for their clients. One slight clue, if the front two pews on the side are blocked off, you may be in luck!
I’ve been in churches, cathedrals and mosques all over the world, but none more exhilarating than this experience. The thrill was made even more special by occurring on the same morning as I completed my 45 day Camino.
If you would like to see the botafumerio in action, here is a very brief video I took. While we are asked at the beginning of the service not to film the Mass, we are told it is okay to film the swinging of the botafumaerio, which happens at the end of the service following communion (around the 45 minute mark.) At 1:03 seconds of this brief video, you can hear my friend Janice from Texas exclaim, “Oh, my GAWD!”
I spent five days in Santiago after finishing the Camino, just hanging out with people I met along the trail. We shared a lot of good meals as well as good memories. I came back to Plaza de Obradoiro daily to experience the joy of the homecoming over and over again.
Should you ever plan a trip to Spain, I highly recommend the town of Santiago, regardless of whether you have an interest in the Camino. The old town is beautiful with its gorgeous historic “old world” architecture, the glorious cathedral, museums, lively street entertainment, and fantastic and affordable food and wine. Definitely a place that feels like coming home.
Thanks to all who followed along with me on this journey, both in real time and in reflection. It was an honor to have you along for the walk, and I am grateful for your support.
“Blessed are you, Pilgrim, if you discover that the true Camino begins at its end.” (Poster on the wall of the Pilgrim’s House, Santiago)