El Camino de Santiago

Liz Gill makes the pilgrimage along the famous Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwest Spain. The city is home to the shrine of Saint James the Great, now the city’s cathedral. In 1985 the city’s Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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Liz (left) and Maureen setting off

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Old part of Sarria

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Town boundary

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111 ks to Santiago waymarker

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View from first night’s accomodation in Portomarin

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Host and jeep

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Wet weather kit

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Fine example of Galician grain store

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Rain and gorse

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Free refreshments

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Even the drinks machines have the Camino on them

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Pilgrim statue in Palas de Rei

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Bob and Douglas on the Magdalena Bridge on the way to Furelos

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Furelos

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The would-be para-olympian

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Wayside stall with honesty box

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Outskirts of Santiago

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The runway at Lavacolla

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Crosses on the airport perimeter fence

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Monte do Gozo

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Towards Santiago from the summit of Monte de Gozo

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Overtaken by the English group

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The Cathedral

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Cathedral Square

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The cross at Finis Terra
note the boot someone’s thrown over

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The End of the Earth

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With our Compostelas or Pilgrims’ Certificates


Before

We are being driven in a taxi from Santiago airport to Sarria. The ride is smooth, the driver is smiley and the Galician countryside is lush and lovely. But we are feeling distinctly uneasy. We don’t say anything but we don’t need to. Our expressions say what we’re both thinking: this seems a very long way indeed and we have to walk it all back.

Maureen, (known as Mo), an old friend, and I are going to walk the last 100 kilometres or 62 miles of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrims’ path to the great cathedral believed to house the remains of St. James the Apostle. There are several paths and some of them stretch for hundreds of miles into France, Portugal, Germany, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia. You can even start in Norfolk. But the last 100ks on foot or the last 200ks by bike or on horseback are the minimum you have to do to get your official pilgrim’s certificate or compostela.

We’ve both covered 15 miles in a day before and we’ve both had holidays which involved a few days walking. What neither of us has done is 12 or 15 miles a day, every day for a week, and since you can hardly rehearse it without taking another week’s leave this is inevitably going to be something of a leap in the dark.

We think we’re otherwise reasonably prepared. We have good footwear which we’ve tried to break in. We have proper socks made of viscose and bamboo, yes bamboo, which we’re assured will wick away sweat and buffer us against blisters. A few weeks earlier in a fit of paranoia and nagged by a painful left sole which I’d attributed to too much teetering in heels until it occurred with sensible shoes as well, I’ve visited a podiatrist. He diagnoses wear and tear on a bone for which he gives me the Latin name and cuts a special insole to the shape of my foot. I should take this, he says, and buy the boot to accommodate it. It’ll be one size up from what I normally wear because “your feet spread and so get bigger as you get older. And that’ll be 200 quid, thank you very much.”

Mind, I have almost scuppered this venture just days before by skidding on a magazine on my office floor and careering into a door, jarring my knee and banging my toe so hard I fear for a moment that I might have broken it. How ignominious to be out of the running without even setting foot in Spain. Fortunately it’s just badly bruised but I am still aware of both toe and knee being tender.

Our luggage contains layers of clothing ranging from vest tops to waterproof jackets, a first aid kit, a Spanish phrase book, Vaseline to rub in our feet every night and a guidebook. Most crucially though we have vouchers for our accommodation and walking notes from Macs Adventure who have arranged everything, including most crucially the transfer of our luggage from one hotel to the next. We are just going to carry what we need for each day. I’m toting a completely frivolous looking small faux fur rucksack which since I carried it the length of the Thames Path has acquired talismanic significance for me.

A rainbow appears in the sky as the taxi drops us off at the hotel and we hope it’s a good omen. We check in and then go for supper in a nearby tapas bar where portions turn out to be not tapas but full size. We convey to the sweet-faced waitress that we’d like to take the gigantic tortilla away and I stick it in the mini bar overnight for sustenance the next day. I think we’re going to need it.

Day One

Maria at Tee Travel, the local agent, gives us each our Credencial del Peregrino or pilgrim’s passport and our first stamp. We’re going to have to collect a minimum of two a day en route to prove our progress. We tie scallop shells to our bags to show we’re now proper pilgrims and Maria waves us on our way. We go wrong almost immediately. The instructions say we must follow the Rua Maior which in our 21st century way we assume must be the main road so we head off down that towards the shops. What it’s referring to, of course, is the main road of the Middle Ages but a mother with small children soon puts us right and we turn up through the charming old town and climb out of Sarria into brilliant sunshine and buffeting winds. The first waymarker we see says Santiago 111 kilometres. We have our picture taken with brave faces.

Not much further along we fear we might be going wrong again so hover around until we see an obvious pilgrim type. Douglas is a 50 year-old ex-paratrooper now civil servant who’s been walking for five weeks and he’s full of brilliant advice. The Way is well signed, he says, with either shell signs or bright painted yellow arrows but you have to get your eye in: they might be on buildings or telegraph poles or jus a daub of a tree. If you go wrong the locals will usually alert you: he’s had old ladies dragging him by the arm back to the right path. They’ll wish you ‘Buen Camino’ – ‘have a good way’ – which is also what you should say to your fellow walkers.

You can get credencials stamped at bars, restaurants and shops as well as churches – his now has dozens – and most places are laid back about how much you spend or don’t spend. No-one seems to mind, he says, if you eat some of your own food and use the loo as long as you buy a coffee or a beer. We put this into practice when at lunch time we buy a salad and tip the tortilla out onto our plates. It feeds us, Douglas and the cafe dog. He says the two most useful Spanish phrases are una racion one portion and uno mas one more – “and nobody minds if you point at something”.

Perhaps surprisingly for an area attracting so many international visitors, English is rarely spoken but it’s amazing how far you can get with goodwill and sign language. During the afternoon we step aside to let pass an old farmer and his herd of cows but he stops and shakes our hands, gives us each a boiled sweet and makes us understand that he wants us to say a prayer for him when we reach Santiago. We assure him we will and he hugs us. We get more embraces later in the afternoon when we exchange pleasantries with a family and friends group from Barcelona. Everyone seems exuberant and joyful.

It is 23 kilometres from Sarria to Portomarin our first night’s stop. The notes for the day suggest it would take four to five hours but it has taken us seven. We have stopped though for refreshments, to contemplate the loveliness of the countryside with its woodlands and hills dotted with small farms, to watch a stork fly overhead and then swoop down low almost like a greeting and to take dozens of photos – the wonderful wild flowers which fill meadows and hedgerows would be a photo essay in themselves.

Now as we walk across the bridge over the lake-like reservoir into the town we feel we can relax physically and mentally. But we have mis-paced ourselves. It is at least another kilometre to our night’s resting place and mostly uphill and disproportionately tiring. It’s worth it when we get there though: a picturesque collection of converted old stone buildings and logs cabins. We bask in the evening sun with a gin and tonic and then relish our dinner, eaten looking out across the water. When the waitress asks if we’d like uno mas we nod, remembering Douglas, but trying to indicate just a small glass. She brings a whole bottle which we then drink, of course, before crashing into bed.

I wake in the early hours after some very unpleasant dreams and frighten myself with a fancy that perhaps a pilgrim walking to atone a dreadful sin or suffering a great sorrow has somehow left a malign influence on this room. I wake again at dawn and acknowledge that it’s just the result of two bottles of local vino tinto.

Day Two

It’s cold, grey and raining. And I’m stiff and aware of sore knee, toe and sole. We’re cheered though by the sunny demeanour of our host who offers to drive us in his jeep to where we left the Camino yesterday. After more hugs we bow our heads before the wind and rain and set off.
Today the atmosphere seems somehow much more business-like as if everyone has adopted a just-lets-get-to-our-destination approach. The Buen Camino greetings are still exchanged but through gritted teeth. Even the Barcelona group are more subdued. A popular garment is a huge green cape which covers both wearer and rucksack. Mo says it makes them look like Hobbits. Lots of people carry walking poles or more traditionally a wooden staff with a gourd attached. It’s another symbol of the pilgrim: in the old days they were their drinking vessels.

Perhaps appropriately the paths today pass more industrial scale farmland and are often on asphalt or alongside main roads which we have to cross from time to time beside the signs which warn motorists of pilgrims crossing. We pass beautifully kept cemeteries with their big marble family vaults and also lots of examples of the typical grain stores of the region raised high on concrete to keep their contents away from vermin.

Inside the cafes though the atmosphere is jolly enough. Over coffee we smile at one young couple who hoist the most enormous rucksacks onto their backs and then kiss before setting out again. I think a trip like this must make or break a relationship. Earlier we’ve met a lean and tanned French couple who have walked from Seville to Santiago – over 1000 kilometres – and are now walking home to France. It makes me marvel at the pilgrims of old who had to do the same: there was no budget airline to whisky them back.

I’m also growing more impressed by the hour by how huge people’s loads are, particularly as we trudge up a long hill lined incidentally by the most dazzling gorse I’ve ever seen. The advice is not to carry more than 10 kilos but that would be far too heavy for me. At lunch we share a table with two young women, one from Venezuela and one from Argentina who are married to Spanish men. They have done upper body strength training before starting the walk but even so say they are now tempted to shove the packs in a cab.

Carrying everything means, of course, that you can be spontaneous about where you stay and it’s also presumably a pre-requisite if you’re doing the long haul when paying for a taxi for your bags every day for a month or more would be prohibitively expensive. Budgets for the Camino can vary enormously: some pilgrims share large dormitories in hostels or albergues paying only a few euros a night or take advantage of the accommodation offered by churches along the way in return for a donation. Others don’t want too much mortification of the flesh. A German we meet in the bar of our pension tonight has only come in to watch the football; he’s actually staying in a luxury hotel just up the road.

Earlier as we walk down into Palas de Rei we stop at a church where an old man gives us three stamps and writes our names in a book. With that and the day’s 25 kilometresbehind us feel fully entitled to enjoy the ‘pilgrims’ menu’ at a local restaurant. Such menus are a feature of the Camino and offer three courses with wine, water and coffee for nine or ten euros. This one has pasta or lentils to start, salmon and rice to follow and a choice of desserts, all served by one young man who is a whirlwind of efficiency. I sleep like a log with no weird dreams and no sore feet.

Day Three

It’s still grey and chilly but it’s not raining. And this is a short day –we’ve only got 15 kilometres from here to Melide and so a rather welcome respite. We reckon we’re walking at an average pace of around four kilometres an hour as opposed five an hour, fast, and three an hour, leisurely, but we’re still taking longer than the hours estimated in our walking notes which barely allow any stops let alone any dawdling.

At lunch we discover a local speciality, tuna pie, which tastes delicious but it may be that the walking makes most things taste delicious. At the next table we chat to an English group we recognise from our first hotel. This seems to be the pattern: you meet people, you walk, you talk and you part. Your paths might cross again or they might not. Different speeds, detours, rest days or simply a mutual acknowledgement that it’s time to separate seem to prevent people getting lumbered with each other for too long. As if to illustrate the point Douglas suddenly appears with a new pal Bob, a restorer and maintainer of churches in Pennsylvania.

Bob’s already walked across the United States. It took him nine years, two months at a time, and he combined it with a diabetes awareness campaign. He’s a type one sufferer – he lifts his T shirt to show us the pump which dispenses insulin directly into his stomach – but his presentation is about the lifestyle risks for type two diabetes. He’s offered to give it to hospitals and other relevant organisations along the Camino but he hasn’t had a single taker. “Because diabetes isn’t a problem. People aren’t obese here. That’s the message I’ll be taking back to the States.”

They’re setting a spanking pace so we say goodbye beside a monument to the Hospitallers of St John who took over as protectors of the pilgrims after their original defenders, the Knights Templar, fell from power in the 14th century. It’s their distinctive red cross which is stamped on many of the shells. The significance of the shell, we’re told, stems partly from the fact that St James was himself a fisherman but also because the miraculous power of his relics was said to have saved a drowning man and his horse who then emerged from the sea covered in them. And the shells are everywhere: not just on the concrete posts counting down the distance to Santiago but on municipal railings, on garden gates and the walls of private houses, on the pavements of towns.

Just before Melide there’s the picture book village of Furelos with a similarly lovely church where a young girl with a laptop keeps watch besides a distinctive crucifix with Christ holding one arm down from the cross. The laptop is probably responsible for the hauntingly beautiful music that’s playing. We light a candle and say a prayer. Sadly many of the churches en route have been locked. Spain’s economy is now so dire that people are stealing from them.

The weather has brightened so we have a beer and a conversation with Patricia, a South African lawyer in her 30s who’s walking alone. Her father has done the whole French Way of the Camino – “when he got back my mother said his body was home but his mind stayed in Spain for a long time” – and would have done it again but his daughter wanted to experience it for herself. Already she says it has made her rethink her life: there will be less obsessing about work when she returns and more time to think and just be.

By Melide it has turned so cold that we have to have the heating in our rooms turned on. The pension is run by three sisters who cluck over us like solicitous mother hens. This is the town famous for pulpe or octopus so we make for the nearest pulperia to find Patricia sitting in front of a big plateful and looking vaguely unnerved. We help her out but find it isn’t much to our liking either. The taste is rather good with lots of peppery seasoning but the texture is so rubbery that one wearies after a few mouthfuls. We get langoustines instead and wash them down with wine drunk from earthenware bowls.

Day Four

Blue skies and sunshine and a day of rolling countryside with lots of ascents and descents but nothing we find too taxing. In fact we seem to have got into a good walking rhythm. We’re stiff when we start in the mornings or after we stop but it soon wears off and, touch wood, our feet seem to be holding up. The discomfort in my knee and toe is fading as is the problem with the left sole. We take our picture at the 50 kilometre half way mark, heads now held high.

In one beautiful wooded glade we meet a would-be para-Olympian who is raising money for his javelin training by selling T shirts. Mo buys one and we get a stamp, this time accompanied by a wax seal. He shows us a video of his days as a champion weightlifter before the accident which led to the amputation of his leg. It is a strangely wonderful encounter or as Brian says in his California drawl “Every day brings a new gift.”

Brian, a retired air traffic controller has been walking since Roncesvalles; his son-in-law, a doctor in the US navy, has joined him at Sarria. He’s also called Brian and his wife he tells us is called Briony. He’s suffering from bursitis on his knee and binds it up when we stop for a coffee. Other pilgrims offer their advice. “On the Camino everyone’s a doctor,” says a Swedish woman. She’s walking with two friends but she walks much faster than they do so the system is that she forges ahead and then waits for them. The arrangement seems amicable but I’m glad Mo and I walk at the same pace. We meet another group who are taking twice as long as we are to cover the same distance. Suddenly we feel we’re not the most feeble.

At Ribadiso where we have lunch it’s lovely and warm and people are paddling in the river. This should be another short day of 15 kilometres to Arzua but because we feel fine and the evening is so lovely we decide to walk on and thus erode some of tomorrow’s long haul. We intend to clock up maybe five or six kilometres but we end up doing twice that. We have grown over confident at findings bars and cafes open and assume there’ll be one at each village where we can phone for a cab. There is water, coffee and fruit and an honesty box outside someone’s home but the cafes at the next two villages are closed. We manage to get an elderly couple to assure us that the next place will indeed be still abierto. We set off in the wrong direction but they holler after us, gesturing and pointing to the right path.

The evening is wonderfully sunny and warm and the light is dappled through eucalyptus trees and the air is full of birdsong. Birds have been a big part of the trip: from that first stork’s salute we feel we’ve been accompanied by robins, sparrows, blackbirds, chaffinches, wrens, magpies and blackcaps and various hawks flying too high for us to identify. We’re glad we’ve chosen to walk at this time of year: everything seems to be bursting with new life.

At Salceda, 11 kilometres past Arzua, we finally stagger into an albergue and ask the woman if she can phone us a cab. Instead she drives us back herself. She shakes her head when we offer her money but we insist. She’s a Russian married to a Spaniard and the albergue, smart and stylish with a swimming pool and a restaurant and offering single rooms as well as dormitories, is a family business. We stamp our credencial before we get in the car. It’s our 21st stamp: we’ve been pouncing on them with child-like glee.

Day Five

The taxi from the Arzua hotel to Salceda takes us past the spot where we left off last night so we walk back to it: we feel duty bound not to cut any corners. Fortunately it’s only about half a kilometre. We fall in with a new English group: a man and his wife and a friend who have walked from just over the French border and three friends who have joined them at Sarria.

I walk alongside one and we talk about feet – a regular Camino topic – and the importance of doing things while one can. He says he’s recently retired and fears every coming year will mean “something breaking down or falling off.” There are in fact a lot of middle-aged people on the path and quite a few who look really old but who are plodding steadily on.

There are also a lot of young people: couples, groups, singles. Apparently an increasing number of the unemployed are tackling the Camino. With jobs so hard to find in Spain anything that gives you an edge can be worth the effort. And completing the Way will certainly show a prospective employer that you have resilience, determination and stamina.

The age group with probably the fewest numbers would be the mid-30s to early 50s ie those most likely to have young families or demanding jobs. Even doing it in short stages is not really a family outing though of course there are always exceptions. We hear of a New Zealand mother and her nine year-old son and eleven year-old daughter and a legendary ten year-old Korean who can cover 30 kilometres a day. There are, in fact, a lot of South Koreans around: the country not only has a sizeable Catholic community but a famous Camino blogger.

We’re to spend the night in Lavacolla, so called because that’s where pilgrims used to bathe before entering Santiago. Nowadays it’s the site of Santiago’s international airport and the Camino runs right by the end of the runway, a juxtaposition made even more startling by the hundreds of crosses made of twigs and grasses woven into the wire mesh boundary fence.

Since we began we’ve passed several memorials to individual pilgrims and crosses where walkers have left mementos – “some people walk to remember and some to forget”, a passer-by tells us. The biggest of these apparently is the Cruz de Ferro the highest point on the Camino Frances. Mediaeval pilgrims used to carry up a stone as a symbol of their sin; the bigger the sin, the heavier the stone. Many nowadays try to leave behind a token of something from which they’re trying to break free such as a troubled relationship or learn to accept such as a bereavement. More prosaically would-be non-smokers leave behind packets of cigarettes.

As we arrive at our hotel the church bell is tolling for a funeral which the whole village seems to be attending. Earlier in the day we’ve past a school with children in the playground. Both are reminders that although this is an extraordinary journey for us pilgrims it all takes place alongside everyday life.

It’s been 19 kilometres from Salceda to here but as the evening is again so lovely we decide to do as we did yesterday and walk part of tomorrow’s route. We go as far as Monte do Gozo , the Mountain of Joy so called because it was from here that the weary pilgrims got their first glimpse of their destination. We climb sweating up the steep path from Lavacolla passing, perhaps incongruously, the Galicia TV studios, to the summit with the huge monument constructed to commemorate a visit Pope John Paul’s II.

We’d fondly imagined a great inspiring vista but it’s so hazy we can’t make anything out. We have met Antonio though, a charming lawyer from Madrid who insists on paying for our lemonade and phoning for our taxi. One interesting aspect of our conversation is that his English, halting at first, becomes increasingly fluent just in the hour we spend with him. His has been a last minute decision and he’s alternated dormitories with hotel rooms. It’s very difficult to sleep among large numbers of people he says. There’s always someone snoring or getting up or using their phone.

We get our last credencial stamp in the beautiful little chapel there. God willing, we’ll be converting it into a compostela tomorrow.

Day Six

The six kilometres we did to Monte Gozo last night mean there’s now only about four to our destination. As we get out of our taxi we see our English chums and there’s a certain amount of banter. The anticipation is palpable; everyone is excited to be on the home straight. From here it’s downhill through the suburbs, past the commemorative monument depicting some of the heroes of the Camino – there’s a place where you can put your own hand – and in through the Porto do Camino as it’s called in Galician.

A spring festival is under way and stalls and shops are being dressed with broom and other blossom which all adds to the magic. The streets get older and narrower and we start to pass those markers of any major tourist destination: coachloads of day trippers, souvenir shops, a busker playing bagpipes and human statues including one incongruously dressed as a white body painted Gandhi.

But then we turn the corner and there it is – the colossal, astonishing cathedral. It does not disappoint nor does the atmosphere in the Plaza Do Obradoiro, the big square in front of it. Pilgrims are arriving and lying on its flagstones, hugging and kissing each other, doing star jumps, punching the air, applauding. They’re holding their staffs in one hand and their mobiles in the other. People are being greeted and congratulated by friends and family. Kids are helping dad’s dismount their bikes. Everyone is taking everyone’s picture and texting to all parts of the world.

We’ve done it. Mo and I hug each other. We feel quite overcome with emotion and teary and we’ve only done the last part. Goodness knows how you’d feel if you’d walked for two months and a 1000 kilometres.

We go to the pilgrims’ office where, helped by English volunteers from the UK branch of the Confraternity of St. James, we show our credencial with its stamps, confirm we’ve walked all the way from Sarria and fill in a form with our details. I even tell the truth about my age. The woman hands over my compostela or certificate of pilgrimage. It’s all in Latin including the Latinised version of my name Isabellum. I am thrilled beyond all telling. It feels like another graduation.

We go into the cathedral itself. Unfortunately we cannot touch the Tree of Jesse, the central column of the Portico de Gloira, one of the wonders of world art, or lay our heads against the figure of its creator Maestro Mateo in an attempt to absorb some of his genius. Centuries of such rituals have worn holes in the marble and it now behind a barrier undergoing major restoration. But we can pay our respects at St. James’s shrine and embrace his statue in an age old gesture called hugging the apostle. We say a prayer for the old farmer and eat his boiled sweet. Texts are coming back to congratulate us. The one from Mo’s husband Tom reads “You have valiant been.”

We decide to hire a car and drive the 100 kilometres to Finis Terra, ‘the End of the World’ and the place which some pilgrims regarded as the grand finale of their journey. We drive along the Atlantic coast and marvel at its beauty though the dramatic cliffs and dangerous seas have earned it the nickname Costa del Muerta, Coast of the Dead.

At the end of the road is the symbolic 0.00 kilometre waymarker. We get two more stamps, one in a shop where Mo buys us each a shell friendship bracelet, and one in the lighthouse. We walk to the edge of the cliffs. This is where pilgrims used to burn their clothes which by then must have been in a dreadful state and other no longer needed possessions. The custom endures; there are the remains of several fires.

There’s also a stone cross where people have left items like boots, T shirts, flags and caps as symbols of completion. There’s even a jar of Vick from someone who must have had a bad cold along the way. We leave what’s left of the tub of Vaseline which has kept our feet in good order. A small bright green lizard pops from under a rock to have a look

An aerial is covered with names, some stuck on plasters. We write ours on one and stick it to the frame joining Johnny from Denmark, Chris from Glasgow and dozens of others from Poland, Holland, Australia.We give a lift down the hill to Canadians Tom and Elspeth. “I told my girl I’d walk to the ends of the Earth for her and now I have,” he jokes.

Back in Santiago we walk round the city and savour the evening atmosphere. In the arches of the municipal buildings across from the cathedral a wonderful band dressed in mediaeval costume is playing lively music and people are clapping and dancing around. Elsewhere lots of pilgrims are doing some serious celebrating; some look as if they have even found romance on the Camino. The streets are packed and the place is charged with positive energy.

Day Seven

We go to the Pilgrims Mass which is held daily at noon and seems to take a rather more laidback approach to people taking photos though there’s to be no flash and we’re asked to keep silent. We’re there half an hour early but lots of seats have already been bagged with coats, hats and rucksacks, the ecclesiastical equivalent perhaps of towels on sunbeds. The cathedral seats a thousand and hundreds more are standing. While we wait for the service to start a nun with an exquisite voice rehearses everyone in the Jubilate and responses to the Psalms.

At midday a young woman steps up to the lectern and greets us in several languages including English, French, Portuguese and German. She then begins to read out the list of pilgrims. Individuals names are not mentioned, just nationalities and their starting points. We swell with pride to hear the words Sarria and Reino Unido but tip our metaphorical hats to those who started in Rome, Paris, Lisbon.

The service is conducted in Spanish though a visiting American priest reads the Gospel in English as well and we follow as best we can, glad of the universality of Mass. We share the Sign of Peace with those around us from all corners of the world and it seems particularly fitting.

The most astonishing moment, however, comes right at the end. Just when you think it’s all over eight sturdy men in red robes step forward and start heaving on ropes and pulleys to raise up the famous Bonfumeiro, one of the largest incense burners in the world, used originally to perfume all those malodorous pilgrims.

It’s over five feet high and said to weight more than 12 stones. As it gathers momentum gasps run round the congregation. Higher and higher it goes, swinging from one end of the transept to the other billowing clouds of sweet smelling smoke. At its peak it seems to be nearly touching the roof: it must be 60 or 70 feet above us. As a piece of theatre it is unsurpassed. People are going mad with ipads and mobiles and cameras. When it finally comes to rest they burst into cheers and applause. The huge doors open and sunlight streams in. We emerge blinking from the cathedral, dazzled in all senses of the word.

In the square a triathlon is going on: a children’s one first followed by the men’s so it’s packed with bikes and proud parents, platforms for the prize giving and giant inflatable Coke bottles to represent the sponsor. It’s a weird but wonderful juxtaposition.

We feel it’s time for some serious souvenir shopping. There are lovely things like high quality linen and leather and some fine jet jewellery but we settle for more modest keepsakes for ourselves and our families: a pair of shell earrings each – of course – plus fridge magnets, rosaries, a tiny nativity inside a shell, postcards, snow globes, chorizos and cheese, each one carefully wrapped with care and attention. We resist though having our picture taken with an actor dressed as St. James or the opportunity to dress up as the Apostle ourselves in a photographic studio.

We take a beer on the terrace of the splendid Parador, possibly the oldest hotel in the world. Built in 1499 at the instigation of Ferdinand and Isabella to offer shelter and lodging for the pilgrims, it still offers free meals to the first to arrive every day. As we bask in the sun we can hear strains of opera floating towards us from two tenors singing under the arches beside the cathedral. As we walk past to catch the airport bus they start singing Nessum Dorma. The acoustics and the atmosphere make it even more spine tingling than usual. As Brian would have said “Another day, another Camino gift.”

After

The guidebook calculates an extra half a kilometre for every 100 metres of ascent so using that and adding in the extra odd kilometre to get to our accommodation I reckon we have walked around122 kilometres or. It’s been demanding but not gruelling and although we often felt tired I don’t think either of us ever felt there was a moment when we couldn’t go on. We haven’t had any blisters or any aches that weren’t eased by a hot bath at the end of the day or by simply getting going again.

To say we feel a great sense of achievement is putting it mildly and the temptation to swank is considerable. We have to restrain ourselves from forcing our families to sit through hundreds of pictures and just oblige them to see a few swift highlights.

But it has been more than just a big walk. It has also been emotionally and spiritually fulfilling, strengthening both friendship and faith. One of the best things for me was the sense of being part not just of a modern pilgrimage – more than 200,000 walk the Camino every year now – but of a Christian tradition which stretches back a thousand years. We were treading in the footsteps of the millions who went before us in harder times and along rougher paths but with the same shared purpose.

Numbers have risen five-fold in the past decade and although the Spanish still account for about half there were, at the last count, pilgrims from 138 nations. All this adds up to a considerable amount of money flowing into the region but we never felt – nor did anyone we spoke to – exploited or even viewed as merely economic units. On the contrary the sense was that somehow the communities through which we passed thought that pilgrimage was a proper and important endeavour and should be supported by inexpensive accommodation and good value meals of hearty portions, by honesty boxes and warm smiles.

I was lucky enough to have a walking companion who was great company and easy going and whose pace was similar to mine. If, however, you don’t have anyone who wants to share the experience I think it would be fine to join a group of strangers or just to walk alone. The camaraderie of the Camino should see you through.

Fact Box

Macs Adventure offer the Sarria to Santiago trip for £345 per person based on two sharing. This includes six nights accommodation in a mix of hotels and guest houses, all with private, en suite rooms, all the documentation necessary to navigate the route successfully and 24 hour emergency back-up service. Single room supplement would be £115. Daily luggage transfer is £70 per bag, maximum weight 18 kilos. The cost of a transfer by taxi from Santiago airport to Sarria on the first night is £125 for up to four people

www.macsadventure.com tel. (+44) 0141 530 1950

Camino de Santiago, a Practical and Mystical Manual for the Modern Day Pilgrim by John Brierley £17.99 www.caminoguides.com

Several airlines fly to Santiago including Ryanair and Easyjet.

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