I wake, it’s still dark, I slept superbly well, sleep was deep and I am excited. I paddle down to the darkened foyer, surprise a dozing night watchman, check the time, 05.40, perfect. Breakfast, at 6 o’clock is a too modest affair, the baker hasn’t yet arrived ... However the coffee is good and I am eager to walk. Pilgrims of long ago would wash themselves “lava” before setting off for the final walk of 10 kms to Santiago. The storm was my cleansing, my ribbons washed in preparation.
I return to the room, use the very last of my fusskraft menta on my knees, swaddled both little toes in fleece, clean my teeth, NOK and 1000mile sock my feet – anoint and swaddle – put on my boots with their clean and gay ribbons, swing my mochila into place and step out into very fresh air. I breathe in a prayer. The skies are leaden, the storm has left a tired drizzle in its wake, I cross the quiet highway, walk down the narrow lane, turn left at its end and I’m on my way. Dawn is beginning to break.
I come to the eucalyptus forests. A Spanish Benedictine, Father Salvado, brought them here from Western Australia where he had founded New Norcia, the first Benedictine Abbey in Australia, in 1846. His transplants took root, multiplying with more alacrity than his converts to Christianity. There are hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus in Galicia, I doubt it’s a good thing, ecologically speaking, but the accompanying fragrance of eucalyptus oil is wonderful, invigorating, stimulating. In the open fields lie Galician blond cows, pretty faced, somnolent as the light drizzle coats them.
Some of the Way is true to the last 40 days, cool, shady, lots to observe, hills and dales. On and on I walk pass sleeping villages to: Monte do Gozo! This marks the end really. I walk a long ways left, cross fields, to the albergue for a sello and even further off the Way to climb the mount itself to photograph the splendid statues of two pilgrims pointing in joy as they see for the first time the spires of the great Cathedral of Santiago. It is a thrilling and lonely moment, no one else has taken the detour to see them.
It is drizzling and dark, the mist is thick, but just as I puff my way up the hill the sun momentarily lightens the mist for a moment to light their backs. No worthy photos, but I attempt a couple. The statues are huge, easy for them to see the spires of Santiago – at five foot tall I barely reach the hem of their shoulder capes; wouldn’t have seen much even on a clear day. Elation is part of the amalgam of feelings I am filled with right now.
The walk into Santiago seems long. I buy a croissant from a surly baker, a woman, who obviously doesn’t want to be open at this early hour – for it is early, and wet, and I may be the only customer for a while. The suburbs go on and on, busy intersections confuse me, pilgrims walk past me fast and purpose-bent. At a place of five directions I ask the way of a pilgrim coming towards me, he is a strangely babbling German and refuses to simply point to the right choice of five ways but launches into each and every way that each and every way could get me to my destination. Frustrated, I say, stop! I am very tired, please just point me the quickest way and at that moment another walker comes alongside and says quietly, follow me.
He proves a strange angel, a loner, an American who has been here many days, comes here many times, calls me ma’am and is so excessively polite I almost doubt his sincerity. It makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps I am tired. He walks me all the way to the Cathedral and I see on my right the Seminario Maior.
A bell of remembrance, Maeve in Glastonbury told me to stay here. I excuse myself from my companion and go inside to register and book a room. It takes a while, their special pilgrim rooms are fully booked, I take a room at the hotel price for one night, ask directions for the Pilgrim Centre so I can get my well-earned compostela.
Outside the strange angel is sitting on the wall in the drizzle, I am chastened at his patience, we walk to the pilgrim centre, my delay has lengthened the queue of arrivals. My strange angel tells me to sit on the wall inside the compound, he will stand in the long queue for me. He has, however, as we walk down through the arcade and the steps, made strange allusions that reveal an odd way of thinking, my antennae prickles through my tiredness. I am grateful and cautious. Yet all went well, after an hour he reached the door and we swapped places.
This was the summum bonum of my pilgrimage, this one minute moment while a charming young man writes my name in Latin on a fancy certificate, a new design, with Saint James in full colour, and truly my feelings do not accord with the gravitas of the moment. It is too hurried, and when all said and done, the compostela only a piece of paper. I walked the Camino, I have three credencials to remind me forever, I earned them, they have been with me all the way, my first one little short of a miracle – a tale I will tell at the end. I do not share the obvious thrill that some pilgrims are sharing, shouting as they wave the rolled certificates in their tubes patterned with scallop shells. Once again I am out of kilter ...
The strange angel will walk me to the monastery of St Francis, but it has just closed for the morning and will re-open at five in the evening. I will return for my St Francis compostela then, this one will carry meaning for me. I am so tired, I need a coffee, and actually, I need something to eat. My strange angel insists on my following him, he is fast-paced, quite far ahead but keeps looking round to see if I am following.
Suddenly my brain goes on walkabout and my feet slew sideways into a café. He is too far ahead and doesn’t hear my call; I must surely buy him a coffee for his kindness. I sink into a chair, alas there is nothing to eat but sweet things and I need a serious protein hit before I collapse, but I settle for a coffee to settle my brain. As I sit there the strange angel walks past on his return, I wave, he is too fast, doesn’t notice me in the café, looks intent. I sink back down, relieved, actually. So thank you, Marvin of New Mexico, you were an angel of the moment.
I make my way back to the Seminario, focused on showering, changing, eating. As I pass the restaurant in the cloisters, with its grand name Comedor Monumental who walks out but: Jüergen! Jüergen of the roses and the rosemary! Jüergen my best bunk buddy of so many weeks ago! We stand speechless, then hug hugely, delight tangible. He has been here for a week or more, helping arriving pilgrims find their way.
Photographs! Emails! “When I first saw your pilgrim skirt and the bows on your boots I knew I wanted to know you”, he tells me, laughing. We haven’t seen each other for ages, not, in fact, since Agés, many weeks ago.
It is still only the morning on the first day of my arrival in Santiago. What more surprises can be in store ... the pleasure of seeing Jüergen releases a euphoria that queuing for my compostela had failed to do, I can acknowledge the wonder of the whole walk, feel a rising sense of anticipation at just being here, in Santiago de Compostela.
I have been on my pilgrimage for forty days and forty nights, a biblical reckoning, and Jüergen tells me it is the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist, the Botafumeiro will be swung at midday, a Pilgrim Mass offered to bless us all – and I must hurry to find a space amongst the thousands.
To be continued ...