Finisterra to Santiago 91kms (57m)
As I crept out of the albergue in Finisterra, where people were sleeping on bunkbeds ‘cheek by jowl’, there was a massive crowd waiting at the bus stop. Finisterra had truly been the end of their journeys, and they weren’t tempted by the 90 kms trek back to town. As I set off, the friendly 30mph wind of yesterday blowing me southwards, was now directly in my face……and there was a lot of uphill to boot! Half way to Santiago I stopped at the same bar as on the way out, because the lady owner had fed me jamón and chorizo without charging me. She was delighted to see a return customer, chatted incessantly and added a little cake to my coffee (again without charging). Such are the little kindnesses of people. She was full of interesting tales about passing pilgrims.
Along the way, I chanced by other pilgrims, some already friends of the Camino, but others new faces.
Ole, from Denmark, was struggling up the hill out of Finisterra, and when he saw me, he started extolling the merits of the flatness of Denmark, and tried to persuade me that it would be a good cycling destination for me. When he revealed that Denmark had only one mountain, and that was only 200 metres high, I quietly told him I was never likely to go to Denmark for a cyling holiday. He smiled wryly and took my point.
Antonio, a walker, and I had coincided in Lourenzá (he’s from Cádiz) and I said if we were to meet again on this trip, then something was seriously wrong…..! We did meet again…………and he coyly admitted he had caught a bus. I said to him “Qué más da?” (so what?). Everybody should do the bits of the Camino that suit them. He wasn’t chasing a
“Compostela” just for the sake of proving he’d completed the journey.
Irek, from Poland, had a serious language problem. His only other language was Russian, and he knew so little English that we resorted to sign language and common international words to get by. I gathered he had done the whole of the Camino francés and was about to return by bike to Lourdes. He certainly understood my farewell greeting of “buen camino”. But he must have spent several weeks communicating his way across Spain with minimal language.
José and Lucía had cycled the Camino portugués from Lisbon, and we had met in a restaurant in Finisterra as I was tackling a plate of chipirrones en su tinta (cuttlefish in its own ink). José turned out to be a fan of Barcelona, and he was trying to convince me that Man U had no chance in the Champions Final. He realized quickly that he didn’t have to try too hard. Like many Spanish men,
he was utterly puzzled as to why I had no interest in football nor in supporting a team. The next day, we met by chance in Cathedral Square (Plaza do Obradoiro), and marked the occasion with this photo, and an invitation to visit them at their home in Tenerife.
Marc (from Tarragona) turned out to be one of those larger than life characters
who was bubbling all the time, and you never needed to find a topic to keep the conversation going. We met at the pilgrim’s free meal at the 5* Hostal Los Reyes Católicos, where we went for breakfast this morning. This is a fringe benefit of being a “Compostela-holding” pilgrim. For three meals each day, this luxury hotel opens its doors to ten pilgrims (and no more) and you make your
way through the refinement of the hotel to a staircase that takes you down to the basement. Entering the kitchen, a waiter will serve you, and you take your food to a small dining room to dine with your fellow pilgrims. This morning we enjoyed a huge tray of pastries and churros, with as much coffee and colacao as you wanted. This time, there were only five of us: a Brazilian, German, Argentinian, Spaniard and me, and the common language had to be Spanish. The poor German was reduced to sign-language! Even his English amounted to only five words. This tradition of giving free meals to pilgrims dates back to medieval times when the Hostal had formerly been a hospital for arriving pilgrims, and food and clothing had been dispensed, as well as being a place for recovery from the trials and tribulations of the journey.
As I draw the line under this final post, having a few non-cycling days in Santiago is a huge attraction. It is such a monumental city that you need a quiet time of contemplation to absorb it. But before I sign off, for those who live in or near Kimbolton in the UK, where Catherine of Aragón died, I heard a very interesting story from one of the Cathedral guides this morning. When Catherine came on pilgrimage to Santiago, before heading north to marry Prince Arthur, the huge censer (botafumeiro) fell from its moorings as it was being swung during the pilgrim mass. Remember, this is a huge 95 kilo weight! Enough to kill a few people. Apparently it has fallen only twice in its 1000 year history. The people at the time thought this was an evil omen for their Princess. Mmn…..now that’s an interesting thought.
A few statistics Some in the world of cycling keep detailed records of statistics, including altitude, average speed, heart rate etc….. My only interest on these long journeys is distance and number of days. My daily mileages through France were high, occasionally just short of 100 miles a day, but once into Spain, a
combination of terrain, weather and interesting diversions kept my averages to about 65 miles per day. Overall, the journey to Santiago was 1262 miles (2013 kms) over 18 days, averaging about 70 miles (112 kms) per day. Amazingly, my journey from home to Rome (via Canterbury) last year was almost exactly the same distance (1284 miles), and now that I am in the phase of assimilating the current ride, I’m beginning to see all kinds of parallels.
A false summit? For many, the arrival in Santiago is but a false summit. Some will pack their bags and bikes and go home from there, but perhaps the most intriguing leg of the journey is still to come. The journey west will only conclude when there is no more land to traverse. That’s what the pre-Christian Celts did in search of their promised land. They sought the point at which the
setting of the sun was closest, and getting their was their pilgrimage.
Santiago to Muxía 52m
As I headed out of Santiago, the weather had turned very warm and sultry. Climbing the many hills on the route west proved particularly challenging in the heat, but it didn’t prevent taking a diversion to follow a trail to an iron age dolmen that took me along a dirt track for a couple of kms. This part of Galicia is littered with dolmens and castros, to such an extent that trails have been created and mapped out for those who want to take an extended tour.
As I approached Muxía (pronounced “Mushía”) the effect of the wild Atlantic
had an immediate effect on the weather. It turned very cold suddenly, with a sea fret creating a fine mist in the air.
At the albergue, there was a fascinating assortment of people, many of them travelling
solo. The most intriguing was a young Japanese lady who, with only a smattering of English, left her job and came to spend two months walking the Camino from France. Despite her challenges with communication, she was radiantly happy with her experience, and intends to make some radical changes to her lifestyle when she gets back home. One change will be to move out of Tokyo. A diminutive lady from Colombia, Paulina, had walked across Spain on her own, and is now going to walk back to Barcelona, where she lives. Patrick, from the French Alps, is the first pilgrim I have met who journeys these routes on horseback. Having come as far west as he can, he is about to turn eastwards and ride back home, which is on the border with Italy.
Why is Muxía on the Camino? The colourful legend describes how the apostle Santiago, who was unsuccessfully trying to convert the people of these parts, had a vision of the Virgin Mary coming to shore in a stone boat. And the proof of this? If you look on the shore, there are rock formations that look like an upturned boat, a rudder and a sail. These legends are the stuff of life!
Muxía to Finisterra 35m
A gentle saunter soutwards along the coast, with a strong northerly
wind behind, took me to the most stunning coastal views of the whole journey. Theory has it that Cape Tourniñán may be the most westerly point of the peninsula, but the crosswind was so strong I couldn’t stay on the bike to get out to the lighthouse. Heading down to Finisterra, I passed what is reputedly the best surfing beach in the whole of Spain. The conditions were wild but the sun was shining, and a dozen brave souls were
surfing the waves, in waters that were (I’m told) about 16 degrees C. If I had been a surfer, I would have been sorely tempted.
This lady from Austria (Nicole) was on the last leg of her journey, but feeling an intense loneliness. She had set off on her own from St Jean Pied de Port, but teamed up with a truly international group of about 8 people, and had enjoyed their company for more than 7 weeks. Finisterra had been the end of the Camino for most of the group, and they had to say their farewells. The friendships formed along the Camino can be very strong, and she was going through withdrawal symptoms.
Finisterra is a strong emotional draw for people nearing the end of their long journeys. The Cape and the lighthouse are officially recognised as the most westerly point of the peninsula, and people trek out to the end of the isthmus to catch
the setting sun (which will be about 10pm tonight), to leave their boots or items of clothing they have travelled in, even to burn their clothes, and for the hardy, to take a very refreshing swim in the sea (and it was very refreshing!!!). The last little ritual will be to pick up a scallop shell from one of the beaches, but today the scallop shells have such commercial value (1 euro each!), the nearest you’ll find are cockle shells.
As I scrambled down the rocks beneath the lighthouse, many pilgrims were
having their quiet moments sitting on the rocks looking out westwards. It seemed intrusive to talk, and even more intrusive to be talking on a mobile. There was an atmosphere of quiet contemplation that had as its only backdrop the crashing of the waves hundreds of feet beneath. Thankfully, the commercial impact of tourist shops and food stalls was kept well away from this almost sacred area.
The name of this peninsula, Finisterra (the end of the world) is well named for the end of the Camino. The people I have met here have now settled to the full realisation that it is time to go home, and in those immortal world of T.S.Eliot that I have quoted before: “the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for
the first time”. We should all go home and see our familiar home environment with new eyes. That to me, is the whole purpose of pilgrimage, to go back to where we started and know the place for the first time.
The scorching heat of Les Landes and Gascony in France has now been exchanged for the notoriously fickle weather patterns of the north coast of Spain. While people in the UK are crying out for rain, the Basque country is currently awash. When I checked into the pilgrim bunkhouse in Zumaia last night, everyone was talking about how wet they had got, and the drying room was full of steaming clothes.
Hondarribia to Zumaia 42m
Mileages will now be moderated by a combination of weather and terrain (very hilly), and my
eagerness to take in a lot of places on the way. Now that I’m on one of the Caminos in Spain, meeting other pilgrims is a regular happening, and they come from the four corners of the world. Tonight I’ve just met my first Singaporeans, a couple who had heard about the Camino from a friend in Spain. They are loving the experience, something completely outside the realms of anything they’ve experienced in the past.
Today saw some big climbs, the biggest up to nearly 500 metres. The promised views were completely obliterated by the rain and mist. Once I’d recovered from that, I made my way along the coast to a little fishing village, Getaria, that claims a former inhabitant, Juan Sebastian Elcano, was the first man to circumnavigate the world in 1522 (I wonder how many other places in the world can claim the same?). But as I went to visit Getaria’s stunning church, I met Albino (a Lithuanian) in the church porch, all his worldly goods strapped to
a bike, begging for his next meal. We chatted for 15 mins, I put my loose change in his cup, and he offered to look after my bike while I entered the church. He was obviously a known face in the community, and people entering the church for a service rapidly filled his cup with change. He told me the sad story of his friend who had died recently, having literally drunk himself to death (5 litres of wine a day). Albino looked as if he had a grip on life, and my heart warmed to him.
Pilgrim bunkhouses. In Spain these are normally called refugios or albergues. They are usually converted old buildings, offering bunk accommodation (frequently in mixed rooms) with sanitary facilities of variable quality, but always adequate. The charge can vary from free (donation welcomed) to 10 euros, and breakfast may be provided for a few euros more. The great thing about these places (and I am a staunch fan) is that they bring like minded people together who will qualify to stay by producing a pilgrim credential. Sitting around a table sharing a meal with others on the Camino is both entertaining and instructive. But……….if you are not used to bunkhouse sharing, you need to know that these places may have bedbugs, and you will be sleeping midst the snoring, burping and other ‘leaded emissions’ of fellow pilgrims, whether you like it or not!
To be a pilgrim (part 2). When I met Michael (from Germany) this morning, I told him he
was the true image of a modern pilgrim. His reply was interesting: ‘And I’m not even a Christian’. This led to a short but interesting exchange of thoughts. The term ‘pilgrim’ is an ancient pre~Christian term meaning ‘traveller or wanderer’, a person who travelled in quest of something. The major religions have ‘adopted’ many ancient practices, and converted them to fulfil important religious functions. The Camino I am following at the moment was a pre~Christian Celtic route following the Via Lactea to Finisterra. The spiritual attraction of reaching the ‘end of the world’ was to get as near as they could to where the sun set, where they believed there was a land of perfection.
Since childhood, our lives have been surrounded by myths and legends. If you were to take away the power of these, our lives would be much the poorer. The truth about the legend of St James is not really that important. There is no historic evidence that he really is buried in Santiago, but for hundreds of years people have journeyed in the hope that the legend is true. Doing, in fact, what the ancient Celts had done for centuries……….journeyed in hope. That, for me, is the power of the Camino, and the power of pilgrimage in general……..to journey in hope. We owe a lot to our pre~Christian ancestors.
Zumaia to Bilbao 67m
Bolibar. This small village lay on my route, and I suspected it might have some connection with Simon de Bolivar, the
famous liberator of Latin America. And I was right. Although he had not been born there, his family had emigrated to Venezuela (where he was born) and his family carried the name of the village as their family name. His life has been honoured by the villagers by mounting a museum of stunning quality, that kept me from my journey for at least an hour.
Serendipity again! As I entered Guernica (the village blitzed by the Germans during the
Spanish Civil War) I spied a cyclist and correctly assumed he was on the Camino. We greeted each other and within a few seconds had agreed to sit on a terrace and have some lunch together. Enrique was gallego, from Galicia, and basically he was cycling in a homewards direction. On our way to the said terrace, we got distracted by pinchos(tapas) and wines on a pair of tables. At the sight of free food and wine, we went over to check them out, and it was the campaign table of a
local politician (elections are taking place in the Basque country) and we were invited to join them. We were literally plied with food and drink………..(yes, I know it’s against my principles to drink wine during the day!) and we didn’t even have a vote to pay them back! So that took care of our lunch, then it was time for a coffee on the terrace (not food).
Enrique and I shared conversation easily. We must have recognised something in each other immediately, because the sense of rapport was instant. And we both agreed that one of the wonders of the Camino were the chance encounters, and (in this case) the food and wine that entered our lives as if by magic. Not only did we spend time chatting to the local politician, but he was happy to be photographed with us (he probably didn’t realize how much he was being eclipsed by my yellow!). I learned afterwards that his party is the descendent of the formerly banned Herri Batasuna (political arm of ETA). If I had known that before the pinchos and wine………………..? And the wine, by the way, was a good quality Rioja. They were certainly out to buy votes!
Excuse for a fiesta. No other country can compete with Spain in the field of finding motives for downing tools and
having a party. As I passed through Orio, I noticed everyone was wearing a fiesta outfit, and people were standing around in groups laughing and drinking. So I stopped and enquired………………. One of the lads slapped me on the back and said ‘It’s the Day of the Whale’ (El dia de la Ballena). He must have detected the trace of a mocking smile on my face, so he explained. ‘Every five years, we celebrate the killing of the last whale 110 years ago, because that year the village was blessed with a long period of plentiful food as a result of the catch’. When he’d finished his explanation, all his drinking pals raised glasses and shouted ‘A la ballena’!