A Bandeira to Santiago de Compostela
Sunday October Eighteen, 2020
And just like that, I woke up to the final day of my journey along the Via de la Plata.
There were 998.5 kilometres behind me and only thirty-five ahead.
But despite the impending climax Day Thirty-four began like all the others had before it. There were ablutions to be completed and Band Aids to be applied. There were stretches to complete and hydration to take care of, not to mention dressing and packing my backpack for the day’s journey. Yet, despite all the same-sameness of my morning tasks, my head was certainly not ticking like it had been on any of the previous thirty-three mornings.
It seems obvious to say that I had mixed feelings firing through my head before the final day’s walk. Mixed feelings as well as a large number of undisclosed feelings – a whole heap of them bubbling away beneath the surface, just deep enough that they never fully revealed themselves to me.
I was certainly able to acknowledge a degree of sadness that my Camino was nearly complete. That went without saying. But the more pervasive emotion was one of disappointment – disappointment that I hadn’t processed as much as I imagined I might have processed along the way. And by that I mean that I imagined daily epiphanies and moments of serenity as I walked, none of which had occurred. There had certainly been a huge number of moments filled with gratitude and euphoria, as well as wonder and awe. But nothing revelatory.
That’s not to say that I let the disappointment get in the way of the other emotion I was keenly aware of that morning – that of elation. This was my last frickin’ day on the Via de la Plata. I’d walked a thousand frickin’ kilometres. I mean, who needed epiphanies when you could tell yourself you’d pulled off such a monumental undertaking. And anyway, I was certain that epiphanies, or small comprehensions if you will, would occur to me in hindsight, once I’d had a chance to digest it all over the following days and weeks.
With just thirty-five kilometres ahead of me I wrapped my blistered feet for the last time and choked up a little as I packed my bag. The tears came more freely as I left a voice message for my parents and sister back in New Zealand – the act of talking out loud making itself the gateway to a tight throat, a strained pitch to my words and finally sobs of sadness, happiness, confusion and closure. Not to mention all of those undisclosed emotions sifting around beneath the surface.
Daan and I met at the breakfast table and opted for a greasy fried breakfast of jamon and eggs to begin our day with That was followed quickly by a couple of espressos to cut through the cloying fattiness of it all. Our bellies were full and our brains were caffeinated, and so we set off on our final day in a very matter-of-fact fashion. No platitudes or ponderous thoughts. No sentimentality or grand gestures. Just packs on backs, jackets zipped up, hats on heads and sticks at the ready.
The sun was only just coming up as we left, with a quiet gloom sitting over the world. I thought back to those early days of walking, at the tail-end of summer when the days were much longer and much, much hotter. Back then I’d be up before the birds even, often with an hour of walking behind me before the sun had made its first appearance in the sky. Back then, with long stretches of nothingness between destinations, it was imperative to start early, in order to miss the worst of the Andalusian sun. Back then I saw more sunrises in the space of a week than I had in the previous decade.
As well as the changing light and temperature, and the shortening length of each day, the other great joy had been the slow change of the seasons over the course of my five weeks. Changes that were heightened by my slow progress from Andalusia towards the strikingly different Galician landscape of the north. Long gone were the unending expanses of lifeless dusty fields stretched out around me beneath blue skies and an unrelenting sun. Now those days had been replaced by dense forests succumbing to their upcoming winter slumber and moody skies that generally threatened rain from one direction or another.
Bandeira had marked 998.5 kilometres travelled by me since Seville. And so a short distance outside of the town marked my one thousandth kilometre, which I paused at and savoured for a few moments before continuing on my journey. I had approached the spot hoping for it to be somewhere remarkable, with a grand vista to appreciate, or a memorable landmark to enjoy. But my one-thousandth kilometre was marked by a narrow tarmac road and a farm shed instead, much like any other tarmac road and farm shed I’d passed along the way. I took it all in nonetheless and had a wee self-congratulatory moment while I was at it.
Five kilometres outside of Bandeira we came across an albergue that we had hoped to stay at the evening prior – Casa Leiras 1866. Our motivation for wanting to stay there was entirely due to bravado in that Casa Leiras would have marked the fifty kilometre mark for us the previous day. Daan and I had been caught up with having the bragging rights that came with such a lengthy day, as males are so often inclined to do. And so we were noticeably disappointed to be told that the albergue was full, and that we couldn’t call it home for the night. Technically the albergue wasn’t full – it was being slept in by a family of four – but because of Covid and the social distancing regulations that came into play because of it the owner couldn’t accept any more guests. And so we had settled on our night in Bandeira instead, which was probably for the best anyway.
As we wandered along a narrow country lane and past the albergue the owner could be seen sweeping the yard, and so we started chatting. First in Spanish, and then in perfect English. His name was Andrea and he was originally from Milan. He welcomed us towards the accommodation quarters and proceeded to tell us his wonderful life story in which his albergue had found him, all the way back in 2007. He had been walking the Via de la Plata with two friends when he had come across the stone ruins of an old farm building – a mill in its former life. He had fallen in love with the vista surrounding the ruins and so he paid attention when sometime later he was on a property website and recognised the very same piece of land up for sale, as if calling to him. And so, of course, he yielded and let the universe dictate his fate, moving from Milan with his family to establish the albergue.
While Andrea chatted Daan and I sat and enjoyed a hot chocolate while being accosted by three incredibly needy ginger kittens. They were full of energy and small cries of attention, and they insisted on making themselves at home on top of our backpacks as well as on top of us. Andrea told a story about two Portuguese peregrinos who had arrived with them a couple of weeks beforehand, having found them lost in the woods. Andrea’s children had fallen in love with the kittens, and so they had been eagerly adopted into the family. The story of lost ginger kittens was a familiar one to us, having been followed by one the day prior through a forest. I checked the photos on my phone to compare our own kitten with the three that Andrea had adopted and sure enough all four were identical to one another. Our fleeting companion had been part of the same litter and kittens, and it broke my heart to think that our own feline friend was still out there in the world, separated from its siblings.
We said a forlorn farewell to the kittens and thanked Andrea for his hospitality before continuing on our way. I raced ahead of Daan, full of nervous energy as I was. The solemn mood that I’d woken with had not shifted throughout the morning, and if anything it had imbedded itself deeper into my consciousness. There was finality on the horizon, which I have to admit I was not prepared for, despite the five and a half week lead time I’d been given by the Camino.
When I had lost my job in London (and my sponsored working visa to boot) all those months before, I had worked through the loss just fine because I had the Via de la Plata to look forward to. The beauty of having such an adventure ahead of me – the thrill of having so much intention in my head – meant that it dulled the pain of all the things I had to say goodbye to. My partner of three years. My friends. My wonderful London lifestyle. My incredible apartment and the collection of houseplants I’d so lovingly nurtured over the previous four years. My job and my colleagues who I adored. Each of my goodbyes had been tempered by the excitement brewing inside of me about completing the Via.
But now, with just a matter of hours ahead of me, my Camino was about to end. And with its conclusion came a great big dose of real-world reality. I would have to return to New Zealand once my tourist visa had run out in Europe. I would have to start my life anew after not having lived there for nearly ten years. I would need to find a job, and an apartment, and buy groceries and pay bills and commute and wah, wah, wah. My Camino life was coming to an end, but rather than celebrating what an accomplishment it had been my brain was busy pining for the life I’d lost while equally dreading the life that I was about to re-join.
So, rather than feeling celebratory I was simply feeling meh.
And the more I focussed on the meh the more frustrated I became that I wasn’t focussed on the YAY.
This continued on for the better part of the morning, stuck inside of my own head as I was, looking at each marker I passed as it counted down the distance remaining. Twenty-five kilometres. Twenty kilometres. Fifteen kilometres. Each stone marker seemed to taunt me rather than encourage me. It wasn’t until I stopped for a break at a small café and Daan caught up with me that I began to clear my head of the more negative thoughts. We sat and drank 0% beers in the sun and ate the complimentary tapas on offer – a generous portion of delicious pork ribs being a highlight. We were hot, and we were fatigued, and we had reached a point in our journey where we just wanted to arrive in Santiago. The destination had become our fixation, and the journey was beginning to look like an inconvenience along the way.
Our bodies were broken and our moods were funky but we walked with pace nonetheless. The sun was out in full force, and at twenty-one degrees the day felt practically tropical in comparison to some of the others during the previous couple of weeks. There were dark clouds threatening on every horizon however, with the incoming weather being one of the key reasons for Daan and I to rush our final approach to Santiago. The following day, Monday, was meant to herald the arrival of an epic weather-bomb with a tonne of rain set to fall from the sky. And that was no way to end a Camino. Not to our minds anyway. And so there was some satisfaction that our Sunday afternoon was full of blue skies, sunshine and singing insects instead, which happened to be a much more palatable set of circumstances for ending our journey.
(The heavens did indeed open up the following day, with violent downpours of rain that I watched thankfully from the comfort of an indoor space, rather than from an open field).
The first sighting of the tip of the cathedral towers was quite the thrill for Daan. We had arrived. The end was quite literally in sight. The thrill came joined with a new sense of loss however. Loss because, well, this was really it. The end was there, directly in front of me. And as much as my aching shin would be grateful for some well-earned rest and respite I wasn’t as eager to let the experience go. But the cathedral lured us in regardless, closer and closer along baking hot pavements and between moving cars and local residents. The seeming normality of a Sunday afternoon in the city was at odds with the utterly unique experience of arriving in Santiago de Compostela and completing my very first Camino. But life went on around us nonetheless.
The final hurdle of our journey was a fairly steep ascent up into the Old Town and towards the cathedral. It seemed fitting that the Via should have one more challenge up its sleeves for us, lest we become complacent in our travels. The Old Town closed in on us abruptly, with a maze of narrow lanes veering off in this direction and that with no apparent rhyme or reason. Daan, who was a Camino veteran, led the way, but even then we got turned around by the many twists and turns of the towns layout. And all the while we had to navigate the presence of other pedestrians on the pavement, a challenge we had not had to contend with since Ourense. And once the pedestrians had been successfully navigated around we were still threatened by the ever-present touts standing in the doorways of restaurants and aggressively beckoning us in behind their doors. They certainly weren’t reading the room very well as Daan and I had only one thing on our minds, and that was the Praza do Obradoiro and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela that we would find within it. There was certainly no desire to eat between now and then.
And before I knew it, there we were.
Thirty-four days of walking had brought me to my destination.
One thousand kilometres and about 1.25 million steps had delivered me to my end goal.
Standing beneath the cathedral brought tears to my eyes with a suddenness that caught me by surprise. They were tears of satisfaction and tears of contentedness, as much as they were tears of relief. But they were tears of loss also, and they were tears acknowledging the brutal finality of such a momentous event. A state of mourning had already entered my head and I felt a hard absence there and then knowing that the Via de la Plata was now behind me and no longer in front of me.
The finality of it all was almost physically palpable within my body. It was as if a great big full-stop had crash-landed inside of me.
We each held on to our respective moments for the briefest period of time before consolidating our thoughts and rushing off to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office to collect our certificates. The hurried dash was motivated by the late hour of the day and we were worried the office would be closed by the time we arrived. In which case we would need to return the following day, which just didn’t feel right to either of us. It was now or never. And so we hurried down towards the office keen to emphasise the finality of it all with our certificates.
There were very few people milling about the office. Daan had shared experiences of waiting in impossibly long queues on previous Caminos in order to receive his Compostela. But as we arrived the last of the day’s recipients appeared to be leaving and we made our way up to the counter promptly, despite all of the new Covid protocols in place limiting numbers inside and spacing people two metres apart as they queued.
I accepted my Compostela with pride, and packed it away safely in my backpack. I hoped it would be the first of many, and that when our post-Covid lives had taken hold there would be many more opportunities to return to Spain to walk the Caminos. Spain, Norway, and even New Zealand itself with its own Te Araroa Camino of 3,000km.
With our Compostela’s collected Daan and I returned to the plaza to take the obligatory arrival photos that are expected of a pilgrim. The cathedral itself was undergoing major renovation work before the 2021 holy year and so it was covered in scaffolding and construction banners, which didn’t make for the most timeless photos. But we snapped away eagerly nonetheless. It was while positioning our phones carefully on the ground to take photos of the two of us that I spied a familiar figure striding across the plaza towards us. It was Jake, a colleague of mine from London who had been made redundant during the Lockdown also. He had finished his very own Camino along the French Way earlier that morning and had returned to the plaza to do some journaling in the square when he spotted us.
I was overjoyed at such a fortuitous meeting, and seeing as all three of us were in the mood to celebrate we took ourselves off to a bar near the plaza to reward ourselves with ice-cold beer. Jake and Daan got along famously – two peas in a pod as they are – and so one beer became two, and then three, with many a yarn shared in between.
As the afternoon began to transition into evening the temperature dropped accordingly and the ice-cold beers quickly seemed out of place. And so Daan and I took ourselves off to check-in at Hospedaría San Martiño Pinario, an incredible complex of cell-like rooms that was to provide our beds for the night. The monastic sensibilities were felt keenly once inside and it was the perfect setting to end such profound pilgrimage. The scale of the establishment was vast, attached as it was to the Mosteiro de San Martiño Pinario. Stone corridors stretched on endlessly and courtyards appeared without warning and I had the very distinct impression that the monastery had had some hand in inspiring Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
I showered under a hot stream of water for such an unnecessarily long period of time that I emerged from the bathroom looking more like a poached trout than a human. But the desired effect was complete and I felt like a new man as I proceeded to redress for the evening. I made sure to bundle up warm, and in the best of my hiking ware. I was back in civilisation after all. Daan and I reconvened and we returned to the streets below us to meet Jake once more and consume more beer. We found ourselves sat outdoors at a rowdy bar that seemed to play host to every Santiago resident under the age of twenty-five. It was enlivening to be sat in such close proximity to young people once more as so much of my journey had taken me through tiny rural villages where it seemed implausible you might cross paths with anybody under the age of fifty.
The liveliness of the crowd added to our already high spirits and we continued drinking until we couldn’t drink anymore. Not out of any form of inebriation, but purely for the fact that we found it impossible to keep our eyes open any longer. We said our goodbyes to Jake and wandered back through the now empty laneways of Santiago through a murky golden light that emanated from the streetlamps. My head was merry from the beer, but merrier still from the great waves of accomplishment that kept washing over me. They were waves that continued to rush over me the following day, and the day after that, and that continued to roll over me intermittently for weeks and months to come.
And that is certainly one of the great beauties of the Via de la Plata – the longevity of its effect. It sits quietly with you, always and forever, and makes itself noticed on the occasions when you need reminding what it is that you’ve accomplished. It gently prods you and shuffles you towards new adventures that sit outside of your comfort-zone. It whispers softly deep in the back of your brain and convinces you that nothing is insurmountable. It gets carried along with you with every future step you take, unseen but no less powerful for its lack of visibility.