Pilgrims gather in the Plaza de Obradoiro after finishing the Camino de Santiago trail. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Final Day to Santiago, Part 2

Fall 2014: My final day of hiking the el Camino was a day to remember, in more ways than one. After my problem with my headlamp in the pre-dawn darkness, things began to improve. It was a nice day, weather-wise, and I made good time hiking. Paddy, the pleasant Irish pilgrim I had met earlier this morning, had caught up with me. After leaving the Monte del Gozo, it was about an hour’s hike for us, through the modern suburbs, to Santiago de Compostela. My excitement grew as I walked to my final destination, going along the sidewalk, over a motorway bridge, along the main highway, and over a roundabout. I passed the site of a 12th century lepers’ hospital on the Calle de los Concheiros, and followed the scallop shell el Camino signs along the Rúe de San Pedro through the Porta do Camino, one of seven gates into the old city.

Paddy and I were at a busy street corner, waiting for a light, when a woman stopped us. She was a pilgrim and had completed the trek two days ago. She said the cathedral was only a kilometer away and proceeded to help us with information.

The most urgent issue was that there were no anterooms to keep our backpacks. Neither of us had a hotel room. We stopped at three or four places along the way, asking for a room. No luck, and we were in a hurry, too. Paddy began using his smart phone, while dodging narrow streets filled with pedestrians. We passed small plazas and the Arco del Obispo, and then came smack into the Plaza de Obradoiro (see my photo at the top of this blog post), and there was the cathedral.

The next ray of hope to find a safe place to store our backpacks was the Oficina del Peregrino, the headquarters for the el Camino. It was on the south side of the cathedral, and we had to go there later to receive our compostela. The streets are narrow and old, with cobblestones, but this place was a modern high-rise. There was a very long line of pilgrims waiting outside, and we heard it would take two hours to get inside. Paddy and I decided that one of us would wait in line and one would look for a nearby hotel room.

While we were standing there in line, making this quick decision, the clock was ticking as the time approached for the noon pilgrim Mass—and we would need a place to sit. A young woman, Maria, came up to me and asked me if I would like a room. She explained where it was and who she was. Her family owned a restaurant on this street, and she was recognized by the staff at the el Camino headquarters. All this time she addressed only me, as if Paddy was invisible, but I said yes, and Paddy and I followed her just a few meters to a door between two storefronts, then up a flight of stairs to a place with accommodations. She showed me a room and gave me her card and the key, and then left, saying “You can pay me later.” Despite her need to hurry on with her day, she had seen our predicament and was willing to help.

Paddy and I dropped our packs in the room, I locked the door, and off we ran towards the cathedral. There were people everywhere in the narrow streets, and the plaza was packed with tourists, a film crew, and police—what a hubbub!

Santiago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the third holiest Christian site in the world. The cathedral is enormous; the doors lead out to three different city blocks. All of the entrances are grand, but we took the main entrance, Pórtico de la Gloria. As I entered the portico, there were massive columns: the middle one had the Tree of Jesse, Santiago, and the Virgin. There were pilgrims walking up to this column and placing their hand on the tree as a way of giving thanks for a safe journey. Paddy and I followed suit. It was well worn on that one single place, from millions of hands placed there over the centuries.

Inside the cathedral, there were people everywhere, walking about and scrambling to find a seat. After being on the trail, it was quite a change to suddenly find myself entering this spectacular edifice. In search of a pew with a view, Paddy and I found a space on a pew facing the main altar, and thankfully, I could sit down at last. It had been a frantic effort to get here, stumbling over rocks and streams in the dark, and hurrying since before dawn. Now I had to wait almost an hour for Mass to begin.

The longer I sat, the more tired, restless, and hungry I became. Nevertheless, this was the last step to complete my journey, and I did not want to miss the service and have to come back the next day. Paddy was equally motivated to finish, since he didn’t have any time to spare. After this, he was planning to fly to Madrid, meet his wife, and go to a beatification ceremony with the Pope. He was very involved with his duties for the Christian faith back in Ireland, his home.

There was scaffolding everywhere, inside and out, which of course was a major distraction from the grandeur of this enormous cathedral. The original church was built by Alfonso II to house Santiago’s tomb. Alfonso III the Greater built a larger church on the same spot in 899. The Muslim army in 997 destroyed it, and it was rebuilt from scratch from 1075-1211.

This Mass is performed daily for the pilgrims from around the world, and especially for those completing the el Camino. The people sitting around me began to congratulate me on finishing the trail. For me, it was a time of celebration. During the Mass, pilgrims’ hometowns are listed, a blessing is given for the pilgrims, and the Homily is focused on the el Camino.

The most interesting part of this Mass is the botafumeiro. It is the largest incense burner in the Christian world. It takes up to 8 people to swing it and keep it under control. As it swings like a massive pendulum, it appears that it will hit you, and it makes you want to duck. We had perfect seats, facing the main altar, to see it swing. It was an impressive thing to see.

After Mass, despite being tired and hungry, Paddy and I wanted to walk around the interior of the cathedral. The main altar has Santiago Matamoros surrounded by massive gold angels. We walked behind the altar and followed a line of people, up a narrow set of stairs, to a figure of Santiago Peregrino. St James walked the el Camino to recruit people to Christianity. Next, I followed a line of people, down another narrow set of stairs, to the crypt of St. James and two of his disciples, Theodore and Athanasius. The tomb of St. James was first discovered in the 9th century in a stone mausoleum on this spot. Over the centuries, Santiago’s bones were hidden several times from thieves and kings.

After walking around the inside of the cathedral, Paddy and I descended the steps to the plaza, and headed for the nearest place to eat. We found a quiet place with tapas. After our first round of tapas and drinks, we asked our waiter for another serving. It was enough to get me by for a little while. But I had more to do before the day was done and the el Camino was completed.

(posted July 7, 2015)