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 British Confraternity of St James recently took ownership of a parish house in this littlevillage and, with the help of generous donations from members, they have extended, furnished and equipped this new albergue to a very high standard. It stands stretegically to provide the walking pilgrims with another choice of albergue, on a stretch where there is little in the way of basic accommodation.
The reception at Miraz was warm and friendly, from volunteer hospitaleros who come out at their own expense to do a few weeks service on behalf of the pilgrims. On duty were Bob and Barbara, with Ted and Avril there to help with a lot of practical issues, including the assembly of furniture and repairs. Although we were welcomed in to stay, the albergue doesn’t officially open until June 7th, when the Bishop will come to give the house a formal blessing and inaugurate its future role as a pilgrim hostel.
Reaching the goal
The end of a long, arduous journey brings a mixture of conflicting emotions. Any pilgrim will understand this. There is adeep sense of relief that the journey is over, that you have attained your goal, but there is also a “what next….?” feeling that dogs your heels. I have only spent 18 days getting here, but many
walkers take several weeks, if not months to arrive. Although cycling/walking for several hours every day is exhausting, there is something blissfully simple about the process. You have only three basic needs: travelling, eating and sleeping. Life is shredded down to simple fundamentals for a few weeks, and when the journey is over, there is the almost immediate prospect that all those other things that keep us busy from morning till night will reappear in our lives, and we have to acknowledge our responsibilities (family, work, domestic duties etc….).
For me the journey is not quite over. After a day in Santiago, I plan to head out to Finisterra, believed to be the most westerly point of the peninsula and, in pre-Columbian days, it was the end of the world. In medieval times, those pilgrims who could make it (at least another 6-10 days
return) would go out to Finisterra, pick up a new scallop shell, burn the clothes they had travelled in, and bathe in the fresh waters of the Atlantic. Symbolic acts to herald the start of a new life as they headed back for home.
This was also the route taken by the Celts as they sought the land of the setting sun. So in the last stages of my journey, I will be picking up some of the pre-Christian pilgrim traditions and seeking the land of perfection that may lie beyond the horizon.
Santiago de Compostela
Pilgrimage is a major industry here. Groups travel from all over the world to visit the Cathedral and the shrine of St James. Peppered amongst all these groups you will spy the tired dusty walkers and sweating cyclists who will arrive like planes into Heathrow, except they are limping or struggling to pedal up the last steep hills. To cycle into the Plaza do
Obradoiro and stand in front of the great Cathedral is breathtaking. But to my surprise, the square was largely given over to a major protest by young people, protesting about the lack of job opportunities in the current economic crisis. Just like Parliament Square in London, the Plaza is a sea of tents, posters and food kitchens. I believe that in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, they have the protest so organised that they have set up nurseries for children, clinics and other essential services to keep the protest going in the long term.
The big spectacular event in the Cathedral is the pilgrim mass at mid-day, which is packed daily with thousands of people from around the world. The real pilgrims will be carrying backpacks or wearing lycra and will struggle their way through the crowds to line up to “hug” the statue of St James high up behind the main altar, and wait for the amazing feat of the swinging of the huge censor, the botafumeiro, which wafts incense throughout the Cathedral. This is an inheritance from medieval days when the incense was needed to mask the intense smell of unwashed pilgrims, and to kill off the many parasites they would bring with them. I stood right underneath this huge swinging censor (that weighs 95 kilos and needs six men to operate it) as it whizzed only a few feet above me, and inhaled the full strength of the incense as it billowed out from all sides.
Monumental Santiago is a place to spend a few days in. When you collect your pilgrim “Compostela” from the
Cathedral Office (a certificate of completion written in Latin), you can use it to some benefit in museums and claiming your free meals at the 5* Hostal de los Reyes Católicos on Cathedral Square. Dirty pilgrims, however, don’t eat with the five star diners upstairs, but downstairs in the servants’ quarters, and they can only cater for 10 pilgrims per meal. So you have to plan you stategies.
To mark the end of journey, before having the obligatory photo taken in front of the Cathedral, I rummaged about in the depths of my saddlebag to find the small bottle of Iona Whiskey given to me by John Rawlinson (who had led the blessing at St Andrew’s in Kimbolton), to mark the meeting of two great places of pilgrimage. It was appropriate that it was from Iona, a place where Celtic christianity was diffused throughout our land, because I had been following a Celtic route through France and Spain to get to Santiago. As I raised the bottle and took a wee dram, I not only toasted St James, but also the Celts that had preceded him who had laid the foundation of this great journey through Europe.