One of many such statues along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Santiago de Compostela

Santiago is a grand old Spanish city filled with ancient history. I was excited to walk there from St. Jean de Pied de Port, over 500 miles, during my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage—aka the Way of St. James—in fall 2014. Along the way, I had seen many statues of St. James, such as the one in my photo above; scallop shells are a sign of the Camino trail and St. James. Now that I was finally here in Santiago, my journey was completed, but I still had a few important things to do. I needed to go to the Oficina del Peregrino to receive my el Camino Compostela.

It was September 24th, my husband’s birthday, and I had started my day before dawn; leaving a country town, I had walked more than 20 kilometers and arrived in the big city of Santiago at 10:35 am. I had found a room for my bags, been to the special Pilgrim Mass at the cathedral, and had a double order of tapas. Now Paddy, an Irish pilgrim, and I walked the narrow cobblestone streets to the el Camino office. There we waited for two hours in a long line, with other anxious pilgrims, until it was our turn to enter the building.

One at a time, people were allowed to enter the office, and finally it was my turn. One of the busy but pleasant staff attended me, first checking my el Camino passport, and then asking information to decide if I was deserving of the compostela. Satisfied, the official signed and dated it, then carefully wrote my name with calligraphy script. He also documented the reason I had walked the el Camino, as I told him I walked in memory of my son Michael. I thanked the official, walked to the table across the counter, bought a document tube, and exited quickly, knowing many more people were waiting outside. It was a happy moment as I stood there with the precious document—further proof of another accomplishment—and finished my goal of completing the el Camino.

During the two hours of waiting, our hotel landlord Maria came by, so Paddy held my place in line, while I went to her building and paid for the room where our bags were stored. She was helpful in telling me where the nearest travel office was located.

After our official business, Paddy and I dropped off our documents in the room, and off I headed to the travel office to change my flight home and find a way to get to Portugal: by car, plane, or train. I told Paddy I would meet him in the room in an hour, but it took ages to get anything done. The agent was pleasant, but nothing was accomplished. She told me to come back in a few hours and she would have things ready.

Since the best way to get to Portugal was by train, I headed for the train booking office, which is next to the Oficina del Peregrino. In Spain, most businesses close from 2 to 5 pm. It had just opened, and a young Japanese girl was the first customer. It was a small place, with room only for one customer at a time, and the short line of 7 or 8 people waited outside on the narrow cobblestone street.

It took forever for this one customer! Finally, the ticket agent set her aside, to deal with her later, and he began processing others, one entering the office at a time. Ahead of me were three men, and who said they were traveling together, and insisted on going in together. Each time someone came in, the Japanese girl interrupted, and the agent would kindly tell her just a minute.

I was happy to get two tickets that would get me across the border to O Port, Portugal, even with no guarantee of getting a train the rest of the way to Lisbon. It was a different train system in Portugal, so the agent had no answers. I asked if the train station was within walking distance, and he said yes. I wanted to leave quickly, as the agent was distressed, the Japanese girl was ready for a tantrum, and I wanted no part of that scene.

I hurried to the room I had paid for, where Paddy was taking a nap. Next on our agenda was to go to the Franciscian Monestary. Paddy was more excited about going here than receiving the official el Camino certificate. We hurried to this large old complex and were greeted by three women sitting at tables, with a short waiting line of pilgrims. Earlier in the morning, while we were walking, Paddy had explained the significance of this certificate.

Eight hundred years ago, St. Francis of Assisi had walked the same trail in honor of St. James. This was an anniversary year. People would have to wait another 100 years before this anniversary comes around again. No wonder Paddy wanted to get here! When it was my turn, the woman seated across the table carefully signed, dated, and then wrote my name. She took time to ask how long it took me to walk the trail. Impressed, she stopped the other staff, and they all congratulated me.

Now that our official business was over, we could slow down and begin to enjoy the sights of this historic, world heritage city. As we were walking back through one of the main plazas, we were stopped by someone shouting Paddy’s name. It was the young hiker from Texas, who had walked with us early this morning. We were glad he had made it here safely. He introduced us to his sister, and he said he still felt ill, but planned to rest up before heading home.

There was a lot to be thankful for on this climactic day. I called home and wished my husband a happy birthday. He congratulated me on another successful adventure. As I was nearing the end of this long journey, I was thinking about home.

(posted July 14, 2015)