Saturday, November 14, 2009

Finisterre - The End of The World

I met with Kate in the morning, after having said goodbye to Inge, who was flying back to Germany later that day. Together we walked to the bus station, and on the way there I saw a lady coming towards us - she looked familiar? - It was my sweet landlady Maria from last week, who did my laundry for me, when I stayed at her house! She was all smiles, and we gave each other a big hug. She was happy to see I arrived safely in Santiago, and I told her I was on my way to Finisterre, and thanked her once again for her hospitality, before we waved goodbye and Kate and I continued to the bus station. There we met Vihar, who was taking the same bus as us, and Nina, who was waiting for the airport bus to go back home to Denmark.
The bus ride to Finisterre took about 3 hours along lovely country roads, and after about 1 hour we saw the first glimpses of the sea. Once we arrived, Vihar, Kate and I went in to a restaurant right by the bus stop called La Fronterra, which turned out to be run by a lovely German lady. We had coffee, and then Kate went to find the "alternative" albergue. Vihar and I had a bit more comfort and privacy in mind, so we checked at the Hotel Finisterre just up the street, and ended up getting single rooms w/bath for 30 Euros a night. We both made reservation for 2 nights.
I enjoyed settling in knowing it was for 2 days! After I had rested a bit, I went to find and Internet cafe, and later in the afternoon I walked out to the lighthouse at the tip of Finisterre peninsula, a walk of about 3.5 km, to see the sunset at the End of The World. Along the road Kate joined me - armed with a bottle of wine!
It was a lovely evening, and several other pilgrims were out here and we all sat and enjoyed the beautiful scenery right at the edge of the world. Just before the sun set a very tired young pilgrim came up - she had walked 37 km that day to make it before sunset, and she was exhausted, elated, emotional, body and feet hurting. Tears of joy streamed down her face as she laid down looking into the sunset and smiling at the same time. We could all relate - she had reached her goal, she was finally at the end of the Camino! Kate shared her wine with her also. We all drank straight out of the bottle, no worries about swine flu! We enjoyed this special moment together, as the sun slowly sank into the Atlantic Ocean at the End Of The World. I felt totally content, and realized this was the perfect end to my Camino, I was ready to return to my family and friends, and let the lessons of the Camino continue to work in my life!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Arrival in Santiago!

It was still raining and misty, so Inge and I took our time getting going - it had been a bit of a restless night as people came in at all hours of the night at the albergue. When we left and walked down to get a cup of coffee, we met Anne Marie and Paulette - poor Paulette was sick, and could barely stand upright. She thought it might have been the food last night, or maybe a stomach flue. There was no way she could walk to Santiago today, so Anne Marie was going to get her back to bed, and then hope she would be better by tomorrow. I sure hope so, to be so close, and still there is no guarantee! We never now what the next moment will bring!
The walk in to Santiago was not particularly pretty, even less so in the rain - the usual ugly suburbs and outskirts of an old city; but with the big, beautiful Cathedral placed in the middle of the lovely "old town" of Santiago de Compostela.
Right as we were walking up one of the narrow streets towards the Cathedral somebody called out my name, and I turned around - there was Jane, whom I had met during the very first week of my Camino! We had shared the dubious pleasure of sleeping on the floor in Zubiri. What a wonderful, unexpected surprise! We hugged and were both so happy to have reconnected! The magic of the Camino is just mind boggling! - Jane was on her way to the bus to go back home, after having walked to Finisterre and Muxia, which she said was a stunningly beautiful walk. That's why she was still in town! To think that she would walk out of the store, right when we were walking up to the Cathedral was just so amazing! We exchanged emails, and she pointed us to were she had stayed - a nice, private albergue where we could get private rooms for 20 Euros, and be within 5 minutes of the Cathedral, and right in the center of the beautiful old town.
We made a mental note of the direction, then I hugged Jane goodbye and Inge and I walked the last few blocks up to the Cathedral. It was enormous and beautiful, even in the rain! We walked into the Cathedral and looked around to get our bearings - it was so huge, and full of people, pilgrims and tourists milling around. - We found the line for Saint James, and went slowly up the stairs behind the big, golden statue. When I reached him, I put my arms around him, looked out into the cathedral from there - I was behind the altar and the big statue, looking down over the interior of the Cathedral. I said my heartfelt "Thank you for watching over me on the Camino, allowing me to complete my long journey in good health. " I had walked 750 km to get to this place! No illness, no major health problems, lots of fantastic experiences, and wonderful new Camino friends! I was so grateful at that moment tears came to my eyes.
Afterwards Inge and I walked through the Cathedral and there we saw Nina, she had arrived yesterday! Big hugs were exchanged, and then out to find the albergue and get settled, so we could be back for the 12 Noon Pilgrim's Mass!
We found the Albergue, got a double room, put our backpacks down, and went straight back to the Cathedral, where it was packed by now; but we managed to find a couple of places, where we could squeeze in. I sat on a bench with a bunch of Korean pilgrims, some of whom I had seen along the Camino.
A nun came up to the pulpit about 5 minutes before the Mass started, and she gave us all a few singing lessons, so we could participate in the Mass. She was so sweet and encouraging as we tried to sing along, and her voice was absolutely amazing!
Then several priests appeared in their beautiful robes, and the Mass began with the announcement of how many pilgrims had arrived in Santiago the previous day, listed by country and starting point. I went to the Pilgrim's Mass again the following day and I heard that 2 Americans had arrived from St. Jean - of which I was one! It was pretty cool, I must admit!
It is still hard to believe I have walked 750 km, it didn't seem that hard, really. Of course, at the end of the day, my sore feet told a different story - they thought it was hard, the rest of my body not so much! I think the only part of you that does not get into shape, are your feet and your joints - the rest of the body gets stronger as you walk.
The Mass continued, and I was surprised at how much I did understand, even though everything was in Spanish. Basically the theme was, of course, the Camino, and how much it mirrors life. "Life is like the Camino, the Camino is like life. Your Camino is not over when you have finished the walk, your journey continues, as does the lessons of the Camino. It will probably take a long time for you to fully understand why you walked the Camino, and learn all the lessons of the Camino." Then there was communion, and finally they lit the giant censer know as the botafumeiro, which is a very special experience to witness. It only happens on special occasions (and if Japanese tourists have paid to have it lit!) It took 8 strong monks to swing it back and forth, while the organ played and the nun sang so beautifully! I was so grateful to be experiencing this fantastic, ancient ritual.
Really the reason behind the botafumeiro is not very spiritual at all, more practical. In ancient times when the pilgrims arrived at the Cathedral, sometimes they slept on the balconies, and all of them had been walking for months, not with facilities as we have today, so they quite literally stunk to high heaven, and the incense of the botafumeiro was to alleviate the stench! There you have it!
Afterwards Inge and I went over to find Nina, we hugged and congratulated each other again, and arranged to meet for dinner that night. - Then we went out to find the office where we could get our Compostela, certifying we had indeed completed the Camino on foot! That is what the Pilgrim's Passport is there to prove, and that is why you need at least one stamp from an albergue, church or similar place each day. The Passport is also what entitles you to stay at the albergues, because they are specifically for pilgrims on foot, or on bicycle, even though not all of them take in bicyclists. The albergues are very cheap, from free/donation to about 10 Euros for a bed, many of the municipal albergues only charge 3 euros for a night. You can only stay one night at an albergue, because, of course, you are on a pilgrimage, and supposed to be walking on towards your goal, Santiago.
After asking a few times, we found the office, and soon Inge and I were armed with each our Compostela. Then we went in opposite directions, and I found a place for lunch behind the Cathedral, then I walked to the albergue. First I had a hard time getting oriented in the narrow streets, but then I walked into the Cathedral and found the exit from where I knew the way, and soon I was walking in the right direction.
I rested after my shower, and soon it was time for Inge an me to go out to meet Nina and Esther, who had arrived that afternoon after a long walk through the rain. I was so happy to see her - last I saw Esther was in Sarria, where she stayed behind to rest her leg, which was giving her a lot of trouble at the time. The rest had helped, and she made it to the finish, and here she was all smiles!
We had a lovely evening speaking Danish, German and English, talking about all our wonderful Camino memories, and about all the friends we had made along the way!
As I walked home I ran in to Australian/Scottish Kate - she was in the same albergue as I, but she was not ready to go home yet, it was party-time for her!
It was a busy night - Saturday - and it was hard to sleep with the open windows to the street - the Spanish are definitely a people of the night, and the streets didn't quiet down until morning, when it was time for the street sweepers to clean the streets of Santiago!
Nevertheless, I enjoyed not having to get up and pack my backpack, it was nice to sleep in a bit!
When I got out to go to the Cathedral, I went for a coffee, and learned that the time had changed overnight, so I was an hour early - no need to rush! It was a perfect, sunny morning!
I met Nina outside the Cathedral. We could not get in yet, because they had morning Mass, so we walked around a bit, and Nina told me that both Vihar and the 2 Canadians Anne Marie and Paulette had made it to Santiago also. Soon after Vihar turned up, and I was elated to see her again. She had also arrived Saturday, but somehow we had not seen each other. Then Paulette and Anne Marie appeared, so good to see them both. Today Paulette had her color back, smiling and rosy cheeks! A far cry from her pale appearance yesterday at Monte del Gozo, where she could barely keep upright! At least they got to walk in to Santiago in the beautiful sunshine, since the rain had passed overnight, and it was a lovely day!
When I walked in to the Cathedral for the Pilgrims' Mass I was thrilled to meet Ilona again, and we sat together and got to see the botumafurio in action again. Fantastic!
After the mass and our happy reunion, Nina, Ellen, Inge, Vihar and I went to lunch together, and there we met an interesting lady from the Czech Republic, who had walked all the way from Prague to Santiago - 5 months, and over 2500 km in protest against the poor living conditions for the older generation, whose pensions have be decimated, and barely allows them to survive. She was 63 herself, and had left Prague with only 120 Euros; but along the way people had been supporting her, and now she had a website, and money was coming in, so she has been able to make it all the way to Santiago, and have enough money now, for transportation back to Prague. She told us that especially on her way through Germany people had been extremely generous towards her, and now she was curious what the reception will be once she returns home. She told us she would possibly be arrested, for what I do not know. Anyway, she was a brave lady, and several of us gave her a 5 or 10 Euro note, and big hugs and thumbs up!
That evening I met with Inge, Anne Marie and Paulette for dinner, and we had a great evening, before we had to say goodbye!
Since I had not been able to make any progress on my change of airline tickets,which was for the following week, I had decided to take the bus to Finisterre now that the weather was nice. Before meeting the others for dinner, I had walked to the bus station, to be sure I could find it in the morning. I had run in to Kate and she wanted to go too, so we arranged to meet downstairs the next morning. I knew Ilona and Vihar were going to Finisterre also, so no doubt we would run in to each other again, I thought, before I fell asleep.

Arca to Monte del Gozo

I slept until about 8 AM, and took my time getting out of bed, since it was still dark, and I could hear the rain outside. I was not too eager getting my wet boots and rain gear on again, but by 9:30 AM I was on my way, wondering if I should push through and go the last 19 km+ in to Santiago, or stick with my original plan of stopping short of Santiago, and do the last little stretch so I could arrive in Santiago in time to attend the 12 Noon Pilgrim's Mass upon arrival.
I walked along the pathways lined with eucalyptus trees in the quiet rain, meeting only a few people, and none I knew. Finally a bar appeared, and I went in to get my first café con leche and a bocadillo with eggs and bacon along with a glass of fresh-pressed orange juice. I was hungry, because I had had nothing to eat yet. Then I walked on, my right foot with the blister was giving me a bit of trouble, not bad; but I could feel it every time I took a step, the wet boots no doubt being part of the problem. I had to stop several times to adjust the laces, as my foot cramped up, then I could walk on again for a little while.
As I passed by the Santiago airport walking around and behind the runways, several planes flew right over my head, as they were landing or taking off. It was a strange feeling that soon I would be on a plane flying out of this very airport!
As I walked on, trying to decide if I could make it to Santiago today, or should stop in Monte del Gozo, which would be coming up in just a few kilometers, Inge suddenly appeared behind me, and we walked together to Monte Gozo, where she had planned to stop for the day. She wanted to walk the last 5 km in to Santiago the next morning, so she could go straight to the Cathedral and hug Saint James and attend the 12 Noon Pilgrim's Mass. I decided the idea sounded good, and walked with her the last bit to the albergue. Inge had walked the Camino last year as well, a bit earlier in the year, and she wanted to experience going straight to the mass from the Camino this time. Besides, we could hope the weather would change, so we would not be walking in to Santiago in the rain.
The Albergue at Monte Gozo was huge - like a whole little city in itself with room for about 800 pilgrims! However, we were greeted very warmly by a very charming hospitaliero, who gave us an empty room with 8 bunk-beds, room for the backpacks, and the heater on full blast! Even though it was way too hot for us, especially since we just came from outside and were warm (and wet) from walking, it was nice to know we could hang our wet clothes up, and they would actually be able to dry out.
It was good to be out of the rain, get showered and into some dry clothes, and off my weary feet! I had seen the 2 Canadians, Anne Marie and Paulette as I had hoped. They had made plans of spending the night here, and walk in to Santiago Saturday morning to make it to the 12 Noon Pilgrims Mass when I last talked with them a couple of days ago. I was happy to be among friends and familiar faces - it felt right to have stopped here today! Everything just seemed to work out the way it was supposed to!
I organized my stuff, put the rain jacket back on, and brought my laundry with me in a plastic bag, to go look for the laundromat. It was right across from the restaurant and café, so I put my clothes in the washer, and went across the plaza to the café. Here I met Inge, and I got myself a glass of red wine and a croissant, which was the only "food" available, until they opened the kitchen for dinner at 8 PM. There was internet available, and it was fast! So I checked emails, while waiting for my laundry to finish. All done, armed with dry, clean clothes, I went up to the dorm and took a well-deserved nap, until it was time to go over for dinner. Inge and I walked over together, and were joined by Anne Marie and Paulette, and after a little while Inge went over to the next table where she joined a German guy who was sitting alone. She found it hard to follow the conversation in English, and thought she would keep her countryman company. When the Canadians left, I joined the German table, and talked with him a bit after Inge left - he was an older guy, who had biked the Camino several times , and he was on bike this time also.

From Ribadiso do Baixo to Rúa/Arca

Another rainy morning, so I just rolled out of bed, unshowered and same clothes as yesterday - it was too wet and cold for a shower! I brushed my teeth and donned the rain-gear to go next door for coffee and croissant as well as orange juice, to stay healthy for the last few days, in spite of the weather! Then out I went, and walked along in the rain, being mightily cheered up by the close encounters with my personal little cheerleader - the little red-breasted European Robin, which had ben keeping me company and singing so lovely for most of the Camino. I forgot about fake pilgrims and just thought about my Camino, and how blessed I was to be walking and having all these great experiences! I stopped a couple of times along the way for refreshments, and walked on through rain and shine, watching how the markers went from 39.5 km to 19 km, before I found a little private house with a sign saying "rooms".
Before it I had checked out the albergue in St. Irene, but there was no restaurant near, and I certainly didn't want to have to walk far to get dinner. Then I tried at the next hotel, but they were fully booked. I was very happy to have found this little place and have my own room, and the very kind and sweet landlady Maria did my laundry for me - without charging extra!
Even though we couldn't talk much, because she spoke only Spanish, her kindness spoke for itself. My room was very nice and clean, but pretty chilly, so I went under the covers for a while, before getting up, dealing with a blister I got today. I had walked pretty far the last few days, and my boots were wet because of all the rain, so they didn't have a chance to dry out overnight.
I got up, and went back to the hotel to have dinner at their restaurant, but they didn't start dinner service until 8 PM, so I had to resign myself to a glass of wine, while I wrote in my journal, and listened to the conversation between two guides at the bar. It was an Irish and a Japanese guide, and I had actually run into the Japanese group on the Camino today, and took a group photo for them. We were all waiting for dinner. Finally it was time, and I had a nice dinner, and afterwards I chatted a bit with the Irish tour guide, who has walked the camino himself, and have been guiding tours of the Camino for a couple of years, so he had some good insights. In the dark, rainy night I walked back to my room, and soon I was asleep knowing I was nearing the end, and having mixed feelings about it.

From Casanova to Ribadiso do Baixo

It was raining as I set out, but not too bad, and as the day went on it sprinkled on and off, until a steady rain set in during the afternoon.
It was a long day, and when I saw the albergue by the river, I went in, and decided this was it for me for the day. It was the converted pilgrim's hospital from medieval times, and there was a restaurant right next door, so I was happy to call it a day!
I got a bottom bunk, and right after a bunch of Spanish "pilgrims" came in. - I turned down a request to switch beds - which was not well received by the older Spanish guy, who wanted me to take a top bunk in the middle of the room. I didn't really care, I was tired and cold, so I just crept in to my sleeping bag and ignored him. A few moments earlier I had met Anne Marie and Paulette again, they were in the back room with a bunch of fake French pilgrims!
Later I had a nice dinner with Anne Marie and Paulette, and there was internet at the restaurant also, so I had a chance to just check emails, before I went back to the albergue and turned in, earplugs in place.
As I had expected the Spanish group came in late and loud, but at least the guy who had wanted me to switch beds did apologize for the noise! We had entered the last 100 km of the Camino, and all of a sudden all these "new" pilgrims appeared, and many of them, as the French and the Spanish group, would have back-up car transportation, just carry day packs, and even drive part of the way, and then present themselves at the albergues as true pilgrims entitled to stay there. It's really annoying when they take up the spaces, while "real" pilgrims who come in tired after honestly having walked the whole way, find no bed, and have to move on.

From Eirexe to Casanova

It had been raining during the night, so we all donned our rainwear. I went across the street for coffee and a croissant, then I set out in the slight drizzle. - It was not cold, and the rain soon stopped, and I walked along, content. - Inge passed me on the way before Palais de Rei, and I ran into the two Canadians in Palais de Rei, where I stopped for coffee, a cheese bocadillo and fresh pressed orange juice. Then I walked on, and found an Internet cafe, so I decided to take advantage, and spent 1 hour on the fastest connection yet!
I was glad to have had the chance to catch up, as the next few days did not promised much access!
I stopped in Casanova where there was a good albergue, and there were the Canadians Anne Marie and Paulette again! Later Kate came in, but it was already full, so she had to walk another 1. 5 km to get to the next albergue.
I did my laundry in the washer and dryer, with the wet weather I was happy to find it available.
I slept almost until it was time to go down to get the the shuttle car for dinner. It was at the albergue where Kate stayed, and it was a real home-cooked, Galician country meal - it was excellent! We started with 2 kinds of soup, then salted pork and beef shank, which the soup had been cooked on, served with boiled potatoes and cabbage. After that country fries with delicious homemade meatballs in a tasty sauce. For dessert delicious homemade cream custard with cinnamon crisp. We all left more than full, it was still raining, but the shuttle took us back to the albergue. With my earplugs in, I slept like a baby until almost 8 AM!

Mercadoiro via Portomarin to Eirexe

I slept in a bit, then got myself packed up and left along with Kate, as one of the last ones out. It was a quiet morning with a light cloud cover, and after a cup of café con leche and toast I started along the path, hoping to make it to Eirexe as previously planned, even though I had stopped short of Portomarin by about 5 km.
- I enjoyed the quiet day, and many thoughts ran through my mind - probably partly digesting the thought-provoking conversations with Vihar the previous day.
Kate, the 2 German ladies ans I met several times along the way, when we stopped to rest, and as usual the birds kept me company as I walked along the lovely pathways through numerous forlorn - and smelly - hamlets.
Portomarin was not that attractive, it was a new town, mostly, and I was happy I had stopped at the lovely albergue in Mercadoiro!
My feet were getting tired, so I was really happy to see the small albergue coming up as I walked in to Eirexe, and saw Nina waving to me! - There was still plenty of room at the albergue, so I got settled, showered, etc. - It looked like imminent rain, so I was so happy they had a dryer at the albergue, and threw in my sleeping bag and clean clothes as well, just to do a little de-bugging, to be on the safe side! I had a couple of new, very itchy bites on my hands!!
- At the dorm I saw the 2 Canadians ladies and met Inge from Germany again, we had met a few days earlier, briefly. There was a Danish mother and daughter who walked in just after me. The daughter, who was just 18 years old, wanted to walk on to the next town, but her mom wanted to stay here for the night, so she joined the rest of us later for dinner, and we had a really nice evening with good food, and lots of wine! In other words - the usual!

Barbadelo to Mercadoiro

The next morning we woke up to thick fog, so we took our time getting ready, and ended up having a fun morning with a thrown together breakfast of what we had left of bread, cheese and marmalade. Coffee made with the little boiler stick the Polish guy had brought along, and spent time modifying the night before, so it would fit into the wall socket - he was so pleased with himself when it worked!
After breakfast we said goodbye to each other, the guys walked out together, then Nina walked on, and I was content to start out my walk alone in the quiet morning.
As I walked along the sun slowly burned away the fog, and when I got to the outskirts of a village, trying to get a good look at a bird, Vihar appeared, and we ended up walking together, stopping for coffee and something to eat at a lovely cafe. The time passed quickly as we chatted about our lives and experiences on the Camino.
Of course we had to stop at the 100 km marker stone, and take photos - I couldn't believe we had reached it - only 100 km to Santiago - that's less than 1 week to go!
We continued on until we came to a tiny village, where a kind local man had lit a fire in an old stone fireplace with a sign inviting pilgrims to sit down and rest. We sat down and enjoyed the fire and rest, he came over and sat down with us, asking us where we were from in German. It turned out he was retired, and had moved back to where he grew up after he retired from his job in Madrid. He told us they still baked bread in this little shed made of slate and rocks!
Just a few hundred meters further on was a lovely albergue with delightful music playing and a bar and restaurant with chairs and tables under the umbrellas looking out over a green valley and mountains. Vihar knew of this place from when she walked the camino last year. We sat down, had coffee, and both of us decided that this was too perfect to leave to spend the night in a big crowded albergue in Portomarin!
It was so lovely, and I enjoyed a relaxed afternoon talking with a Dutch couple who had lived in Costa Rica for about 10 years. I think they might be working on a book about the standard of the albergues along the Camino. He was in the hotel business, and they had walked the Camino last year as well, and were taking plenty of very organized notes about the features of the various albergues, etc. It sure would be very helpful for pilgrims!
We had lots of wine as the afternoon slowly slipped away, and as the sun settled behind the hills we got our laundry from the line, nice and dry from the afternoon sunshine.
For dinner Vihar and I sat at a table with a couple of German ladies, young Kate from Brisbane, Australia, but who lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, and we had an enjoyable evening, with lots of talk and laughter!