Tag Archives: Camino de Santiago

Friends from the Camino de Santiago trail. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Santiago, Spain to Portugal

After I finished walking the el Camino in fall 2014, there were ties to keep the experience fresh in my mind. Paddy was an Irish hiker I met the last day on the trail; he and I spent the day walking around the historic, world heritage site of Santiago de Compostela. The architecture of the old Spanish buildings is grand and elegant. There has been a great effort to maintain and restore historical sites here and all along the el Camino trail. I really never tire of history.

After a long and exciting day of finishing the el Camino, visiting the historic sites, and receiving my official documents, I finished my day with dinner in an outdoor café in a plaza near my place for the night. My room overlooked a central plaza behind the great cathedral, and from the window that opens onto a balcony, I was entertained all night with the music, laughter, and the sounds of the city.

I had an early departure on the train, but during the night I hardly slept. At 4 am I looked at my watch, and again at 4:30, and by 5:00 I couldn’t lay in bed any longer, so I got up, showered, dressed, and packed the remaining few things. I was ready to depart when Paddy knocked on my door: he had planned to walk me to the train station. He was concerned for my safety, walking alone on the city streets at that hour in the dark. The only people out at that hour were the young people leaving the bars at 5:15 in the morning.

We entered the large, central lobby of the train station, which was practically empty— perhaps 8 or 10 people—and directly across the large empty floor was a couple sitting on a bench. As soon as I entered they both jumped up, started waving, and walked towards us. They were Marta and Alberto, the Brazilian couple who spent so much time together on the el Camino. They didn’t know I had finished, and we were so happy for each other that we had safely completed the el Camino. You can see them in my photo at the top of this blog post.

I gave Paddy a hug, said my goodbyes, and thanked him for all the kindness and support he had given me: on that last day on the trail, in Santiago, and finally this morning, when he got up early to walk me to the train station. He is a true example of the great people who make up the el Camino family.

Marta and Alberto were taking the same two trains to Porto. We sat together on the bench, recapping our experiences in some of the albergues, on the hot dry Meseta, and over the mountain ranges. I noticed Alberto had a different walking stick, which was broken and held together with duct tape. The first time I met them, he had a beautifully carved stick, that was a special gift, and I had complimented him on it. He opened his pack: his stick was broken, but he still treasured it. Two broken walking sticks is a reminder that the el Camino is not for the fainthearted, that is for sure.

When the train arrived, we each went to our assigned car, and later, after boarding a second train, we had time to sit at the station and have a quick espresso together. As I was sitting there, I thought that the trains are a great way to travel in Europe. I always felt safe and clean. I looked out the window as we headed south, along the shoreline of Spain, into Portugal.

The train made a few stops, and after a few hours we arrived in Porto, a large city. At the station, Alberto and Marta were waiting to say good bye for the final time. After a quick hug, I headed to one of the ticket stations to buy a ticket to Lisbon, in hopes that I could get to Lisbon today.

There is no guarantee that they are not sold out. I waited in a long line and purchased a ticket. It was a big station and I had to hurry to catch the train. I was happy to find the right train car and my assigned seat. Now I could relax, and I had reservations for the night at a luxurious hotel on Praca Marques de Pombal, the most prominent place in Lisbon, Portugal. For me, this was a drastic change from the albergues I had slept in for a month. This was my ultimate treat before heading home.

(posted July 21, 2015)

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)

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)