Camino de Santiago Revisited

Maria and her grandson on the trail

Story and photos by Maria Wu

I left for Madrid on Aug 27, 2011, carrying a backpack weighing just over 7kg to begin the Camino de Frances on my own. The journey began at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the France border across the Pyrenees. After many days of walking, on Sept 20, I left Hornillos del Camino at 7.15am on my way to Castrojeriz. Just before sunrise, I reached the top of a hill, standing alone beside a post with the Camino sign. Looking around me, I felt I was standing at the centre of the globe, with the circumference trimmed with a glow of incandescent pink. This unique sight excited me and no way could it be captured by a camera. I felt I was specially chosen to be here at this spot at this moment. I picked up a rounded stone, laid it down under the post to dedicate it to Matthew, my 14 years old grandson to wish him all the best for his future undertakings. At the same time, I made a wish to do the Camino with him in the near future.

Here I was, exactly eleven months later, Matthew & I boarded the flight on Aug 19, 2012 to Madrid. We would start our Camino at Sarria, 110 km to Santiago de Compostela, the ultimate destination. Sarria is a municipality in the province of Lugo, northwestern Spain. The journey from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela is broken down into 6 sections, with overnights at Portomarin (24.4 km), Palas de Rei (22.6 km), Melide (13.2 km), Azua (16.1 km), Rua O Pino (18.5 km) and Santiago de Compostela (21 km).

Dinner at the Parador in Santiago

According to tradition, person who walks with a scallop shell and carries a credencial is known as a pilgrim -or peregrino in Spanish. The credencial or Pilgrim Record (a distant successor to the safe-conducts issued to medieval pilgrims), is a document printed and issued by the cathedral authorities in Santiago. It’s made available to bona fide pilgrims at points along the route. It presupposes that the bearer is making the pilgrimage for spiritual reasons.

Today and in practice, the credencial covers anyone making the pilgrimage in a frame of mind that is open and searching. At the end of the walk, provided Matthew had walked in the spirit of a pilgrim a minimum distance of 100 km, collected daily at least two official stamps on his credencial (sometimes called a “pilgrim’s passport”) he would be qualified for the Compostela. This certificate written in Latin confirms the completion of pilgrimage, issued by the Pilgrim Office closest to St James Cathedral where the tomb of St James was laid. I could visualize the smile of joy, satisfaction and accomplishment on Matthew’s face as he kneels down in front of St James in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. I would express my gratitude to be the one to witness and to share that special moment with him.

At this time of the year, even the northern part of Spain is still very hot. This enabled us to carry the minimum. The pack will be made up of a sleeping bag liner, a 500 ml water bottle, a pair of sandals, toiletry and first aid. Vaseline and Compeed are mandatory for blister prevention and cure. Clothing consists of 2 of each item: shirt or T-shirt, shorts, socks, underwear and a poncho for rainy days. Paper is heavy, so I packed 14 sheets of Sudoku instead of a book, a journal, and few sheets of blank paper and no guide book. Our packs weighed about 5kg including some granola bars and a few bagels.

We took an interstate ALSA bus from Madrid to Lugo, then a local bus to Sarria. With an overnight flight to Madrid and a bus ride of over 7

Matthew on the trail

hours, it would be necessary to stay in Sarria for 2 nights. Knowing the fact we would arrive late in the afternoon, a room at Hotel Mar de Plata was reserved well in advance. The hotel was slightly off the route on the Camino, but was quiet and clean. The receptionist spoke English well and helped us to use a phone card for Matthew to call home.

The next day we moved to Albergue Casa Peltre (where I stayed last year) with free internet, laundry facilities and a kitchen – the laundry  was very important as I washed every item that we wore for the walk daily. After settling down in Casa Peltre, we went to a store a minute down the road to purchase our credencials.

Later, we visited the Monsteiro de Santa Madalena where we obtained our first official stamps and in the evening attended a mass at Iglesia Santa Marina where there was a special blessing for the peregrinos. We felt we were ready, spiritually, mentally and physically to take our first step the next morning on our Camino.

The first thing Matthew learned was to organize his backpack so that he knew where to find his essentials easily during the day. The second was to ensure the few things he needed in the morning were readily available so he could be out and ready to walk 10 minutes after waking up.

Our morning routine was simple: we would have breakfast if there was food from the night before. Otherwise we would munch on a bagel or a

St. James Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

granola bar until an hour and a half later when we stopped for our first reapplication of Vaseline on our feet and finding a bar or cafeteria for breakfast. Matthew was responsible to watch for the markers, the yellow arrows that were provided at strategic locations that would lead us to Santiago – just half an hour after we began he was already quite an expert. There were lots of ups and downs in the terrain, mostly in woodland. We played a game of racing uphill by taking small steps and running downhill doing the same. As a result, we passed a lot of walkers on those stretches and it excited Matthew.

Matthew thought it would be easy for me because he considered me a pro – but that is not always so; every walk is different – and it can be just as difficult for a beginner or a seasoned walker. The Camino is a walk of endurance that can test the mental and physical capacity of any walker. Matthew was a good walker and didn’t complain about anything.

During our journey it was wonderful to watch him soak up all the new things. He stopped occasionally to take pictures, particularly at the markers showing every 10 km that we walked. These markers somehow added an incentive, as the decreasing number indicated we were getting closer to Santiago.

Most Albergues require all guests to leave by 8 am. To avoid the heat, some walkers leave in the dark, but not us. If the distance to be covered that day was over 20km, we would have an early start at about 7am. We aimed to finish our daily walk before 1 pm so it would give us time to check-in, take a shower, do the laundry and still have time to do some grocery shopping before the shops closed for siesta at 2pm.

We would eat out or cook at the Albergues depending on the local attractions or kitchen facilities. En route, the local restaurants offer a Peregrinos Dinner, served earlier than the Spanish dinner time. The dinner consists of a first course, a main entrée, dessert, wine or other beverage and bread, for about €10; taxes and gratuity included.

Before we knew it, we were at Arca O Pino, the stop before Santiago, and Matthew was getting really excited – he kept asking whether he had earned his Compostela. We went to bed early to give us a good rest before the long day ahead. I woke at 11 pm, and my heart sank as I realized it was raining heavily. All I could do was pray and go back to sleep.

We left Arca O Pina in darkness at 6.45am. The track went straight into the dark woods. I only had a little flashlight, but Matthew was in good spirits. Despite the challenges, we walked at a good pace with the help of the meager lighted spot provided by the flashlight. Soon we caught up with four other walkers and were able to piggyback on their lights. But they were too slow, so we sped ahead. 

The path was wet and had lots of potholes: it was scary but fun. Just after 7.30 am, it was light enough to see. An hour later, Matthew asked me, “Are we half way yet?” He was getting anxious and excited. We made our first stop of the morning just after 9 am at A Lavacolla, for croissants and cafe con leche. Warmed and fed, we sped along. An hour later, we stood at Monte do Gozo looking at Santiago de Compostela, spotting the tip of St James Cathedral. 

Matthew was very disappointed that his camera and phone died on him and he couldn’t take a picture of the magnificent view. After an hour’s walk from Monte de Gozo, we arrived at San Martin Pinario Hospiteria where we would stay for the next two days.

We were next door to the Parador and across from one side of St James Cathedral. The noon hour mass was so crowded that we could not even get into the door. So we decided to return the next day and give ourselves plenty of time. We did linger at the Plaza do Obradoiro, where we gave one another a good hug, congratulated ourselves for a job well done, and enjoyed watching other peregrinos emotionally celebrating their own triumphant moments. 

Then, finally, we went to the Oficina del Peregrino where we would be issued our well-earned certificates. I was so proud that Matthew filled in all the details in order to get his certificate. You should have seen the grin on his face, which was still shining with pride when he held the certificate in his hand. This light of joy will brighten my dark hours and heighten my happy moments.

We had a leisurely breakfast the next morning and went to St James Cathedral just after 11am for the noon mass. The Camino is not completed until one attends the mass at the St James Cathedral and visits the tomb of St James. It was, as usual a very moving experience. I was not as emotional as I had been the previous year, but it was an extremely joyful occasion nonetheless.

The Gate of Glory at the main entrance with the statue of Christ is still under renovation, but we could still see the column with Jesus Christ, with such a kind and loving face. Under the main altar, inside a silver urn, is the Tomb of St James. This is an ideal place to say a personal prayer and one can even hug the statue of St James. 

The Pilgrim’s Mass, attended by pilgrims who came along the Way (or the Way of Saint James, as the pilgrimage is also called) was a wonderful occasion to form and bond a lasting friendship with Matthew while accepting and receiving the body of Jesus Christ. There was only one disappointment; there was no display of the Botafumeiro which is spectacular to watch.
The Santiago de Compostela Botafumeiro is the largest censer in the world, weighing 80 kg and measuring 1.60 m in height. It is attached to a pulley mechanism and filled with 40 kg of charcoal and incense. Eight red-robed tiraboleiros pull the ropes and bring it into a swinging motion almost to the roof of the transept, reaching speeds of 60 km/h and dispensing thick clouds of incense. Despite all this, it only takes one small man to stop it.
The Santiago de Compostela has two tourist information centres, one for local and the other for the Province of Galicia. On visiting the Galician Tourist Information Centre, I was glad to be told a new bus service is available between Muxia and Finistere. Matthew was more than willing to get up early to have his breakfast before walking to the bus terminal at 9am.
Muxia is located on the most western side of A Coruna (92 km from Santiago). It is the last section of the coastline to Finisterre. According to tradition, the pilgrims must burn the clothes and boats they used to make the Camino as a sign of purification and inward revival. However, we did not have many clothes to spare, so Matthew and I would not be burning ours, but we did leave behind our precious jar of Vaseline which had served us well from Sarria.

The drive from Santiago was slow but scenic. I thought we would be traversing along the coast, but not so. The route the bus took was climbing and winding up and down with sharp corners. One of the pilgrims, having walked for over 40 days, had car sickness.

Muxia is a small fishing village with extraordinary, rough coastal scenery competing in magnificence with the wild inland landscape. Here, we climbed on rocks and walked on slippery paths. It was definitely for one who was not afraid of heights. We savored the smell of the ocean under the brilliantly blue sky. The village seemed very quiet and sleepy.
Having explored all the sights of interest, we were content to wait for the mysterious bus that would take us to Finisterre (or Fisterre) in the Costa da Morte. A huge yellow bus showed up on time, and in less than 45 minutes, we reached our destination.

Cape Finisterre is a rock-bound peninsula on the west coast of Galicia, Spain with many beautiful beaches, hiking trails and a harbor dotted with colorful boats.

As soon as we arrived, I went to call upon my friend Juanjo at Centolo Marsqueria. Juanjo greeted me heartily, arranged our dinner and ensured we would be well taken care of. Then we walked to Hotel Ancora whose owners remembered me from last year and gave us one of the best rooms in house. It was a short walk, about 3 km to the Faro where there is a final marker; “0 km”, and a magnificent view of a rugged coastline. It is at this location clothes or personal artefacts were burnt. Matthew found a rock behind which he carefully hid his jar of Vaseline. By this point, we were ready to be pampered with a sumptuous seafood dinner and tarte Santiago.
Next morning, I left the hotel early to do my hike up Ruta do Monte de Guillerme, arriving on the top, with no one in sight. I breathed in the cool air, delighted with myself being so alive and having the world to myself. I could visualize myself being here again not too far in the future. 

We took an early bus back to Santiago and were rewarded by sitting on top – right at the front – of a double decker bus. Perfect for enjoying the gorgeous coastline most of the way back to Santiago.

For our return visit to Santiago, we wanted to partake at a special dinner provided by the Parador to honor pilgrims. The dinner was limited to 10 pilgrims. It was a great opportunity to meet some fellow walkers. 

We were also thrilled to be informed by the Spanish pilgrims that the Botafumeiro would be displayed in 20 minutes time. It could not be a better parting gift for Matthew two hours before leaving Santiago to witness this spectacular Botafumeiro.

It was a long overnight bus ride to Madrid, where we stayed at Hostal La Fontana off Gran Via. The location was such we could walk to all the sights of interest. It is the equivalent to staying at the Royal York in Toronto as far as location goes.

We had two weekend days in Madrid: Sunday was designated to visit Museums, so on Saturday I found a 3 hour walking tour starting in front of the Tourist Information Center at Plaza Mayor. A group of 12 visitors was lead by Eduardo who grew up in Madrid and spoke fluent English. His walk was highlighted with lots of history and stories, very enlightening. Fatigue forced us to take an early night after a delicious pizza dinner.

Breakfast was included with the stay, but not in house. So the next morning we were sent to a ritzy café two streets up. Matthew was my chaperon. He took me there, ordered breakfast and served me like a perfect gentleman!
After breakfast, our first museum was Reina Sofia, a national arts museum, featuring Spanish artists. Matthew rented an audio and led us around. He was so absorbed with the narration and the paintings that 3 hours later, I found it difficult to convince him to leave for a quick lunch and half hour rest before heading to Museum Prado.

As it turns out, we had only two hours at the Prado which has a huge collection of works from all over the world. Equipped with an audio, we picked a few of the most famous painters and Matthew led the way.

I was happy to note that this was the first time I witnessed Matthew being so absorbed with something. And, by the time we left the museum at 7 pm, we were both exhausted. We returned to the B & B for a well deserved shower and a little rest before Matthew took me out for dinner to thank me and to celebrate a good trip. 

This is a trip I would recommend to anyone who has someone special to share it with. I am sure it would be an unforgettable journey!