Feature

Reaching journey’s end
In the final part of a five-part series Greg Daly arrives in Santiago de Compostella

Day 28 - Villafranca to Herrerias

We leave Villafranca in ones and twos, Chris staying behind a while to work on his fundraising drive to build a home for former slave children in Ghana. I miss the turn for the more scenic route onwards, but console myself with the thought that my route along the main road is surely the more historically authentic one.

Steve catches up as I’m having a quick lunch, and we walk to Herrerias at the foot of O’Cebreiro, where the girls have reserved places for us in the small albergue; none of us wants to tackle the last big climb of the Camino in the heat of the afternoon sun.

 

Day 29 - Herrerias to Fillabol

Steve, Chris, and I set out before five in the hope of seeing the sun rise from the top of O’Cebreiro; climbing in the dark proves trickier than we expect, though, and our progress is slow so we watch the sunrise from the upper slopes, before breakfasting at the top. The village of O’Cebreiro is almost as packed as it is beautiful, and after we spend some time in the church - perhaps the oldest along the Camino - we head off into lush, green Galicia, passing a way marker that tells us there are only 150km to Santiago.

The girls catch up with us over lunch and it’s not long before we settle into an albergue in the tiny hamlet of Fillabol, there to while away a stormy evening doing laundry and playing charades.

 

Day 30 - Fillabol to Sarria

We escape further storms until we reach the outskirts of Sarria, where we dodge into a convenient bar with Canada-based Irish couple Tom and Frances to shelter from the rain. The town, we later discover, is preparing for the next day’s Corpus Christi procession, and at Mass that evening the readings seem apt for us, with ‘journey’ being translated as ‘camino’ and ‘manna’ as ‘Boccadillo de Dios’, which to my untrained ears sounds like ‘sandwiches of God’.

 

Day 31 - Sarria to Portomarin

The Camino changes radically after Sarria, as hundreds - even thousands - of new pilgrims join us, needing to cover but the final 100km to earn their Compostela certificate.

It’s hard not to be snooty about the newcomers with their tiny packs and shiny boots - ours have all been reduced to a battered and uniformly broken beige - but their fresh eyes remind us of the wonders about which we’ve started to become jaded, and it’s nice to see whole families walking together.

It’s a hot afternoon again, and it takes a toll on me, such that I barely struggle over the bridge and up the steep steps into Portomarin. Despite warnings that albergues fill early with all the extra pilgrims, we have no problem getting beds in a private hostel, the six of us having a ten-bunk dorm to ourselves. It’s just as well, really, as a couple of us miss curfew and to the annoyance of some neighbourhood dogs have to climb in through the dorm window.

 

Day 32 - Portomarin to San Xulian

I start the day sluggish and ill, and the first eight kilometres take me nearly two hours. After a sandwich and a coffee I pick up a bit and carry on, chatting for an hour or so with a girl from Kilkenny who’s walking with her family. I spot Tom at an albergue and stroll over only to learn that he’s waiting for a taxi to take him to hospital as he’d broken a tooth on a particularly robust piece of local bread; it’s hard not to laugh, given his propensity for quips about bread-related injuries.

The day wears on, and as I pass through Palas de Rei there’s a storm brewing; the storm breaks while I stop in the classic Camino village of San Xulian to check accommodation plans, and so I sit out the thunder and lightning, the downpour, and the hailstones the size of marbles.

Once the rain eases a little I carry on for another 20 minutes to our albergue, only to find I’ve gotten there so late that my bed has been given away. Full credit to the others, though: Sorren explains that they’d arranged for me to have emergency accommodation, which yet again proves better than a regular dorm.

 

Day 33 - San Xulian to Arzua

I wake early, after sleeping better than I’ve done in weeks, and spend the day walking with Canadian Steve, who proves a perfect walking companion: we alternate between silence, serious conversation, silly songs, prayers, and pit stops for food, drink, and indeed Mass as we time perfectly our decision to pop into the church at Melide.

We reach Arzua in late afternoon, and check into the same albergue as the others; after the ritualistic sequence of shower, laundry, and nap that marks the typical pilgrim day, we head out for dinner and a drink. It’s hard to believe it’s almost over.

 

Day 34 - Arzua to Monte del Gozo

We set out as a group again, first marshalling the troops for our typical ‘morning selfie’ on Sorren’s phone, but as usual spread out over the day. This isn’t a problem, since we have a plan: meet up in O Pedrouzo and look for somewhere to camp, as we’ve not slept out since Hornillos, almost three weeks earlier.

The problem with this plan becomes all too obvious when Steve and I reach O Pedrouzo at one in the afternoon. Over bowls of soup with Janet and Taylor, a mother-and-daughter team from Rhode Island, we realise that if we are to camp out we’ll be twiddling our thumbs for the next seven or eight hours.

We decide to push on, and when we meet the others in a nearby bar, are glad to hear they’ve reached the same conclusion. Onward, then, through eucalyptus woods and past Santiago airport to Labacolla where the others catch up and decide to stop for the night. Steve and I are set on going ahead, though, and eventually we reach Monte del Gozo, the hill overlooking Santiago.

At 35km, it’s the longest day of my Camino, and fittingly ends with us standing by the statues of exultant pilgrims, looking at the distant baroque spires of Santiago cathedral.

 

Day 35 - Monte del Gozo to Santiago de Compostela

Once we’re up and ready, Steve and I meet up with Chad and Mason, two brothers from Colorado we’ve been overlapping with for the last fortnight. We’re slow walking into town; yesterday has tired us, but as much as that, it’s almost as if we want to make this moment last. We linger over breakfast, and stop again at a bakery before facing facts and picking up the pace.

Having left O Pedrouzo at first light, Taylor and Janet catch up with us just as we’ve almost finished saying our rosary together, and we pause to chat as we enter the old town. Gazing up at the looming churches we resume our prayers and wrap up the last decade as we head past the major seminary and through the arch, ending with the Salve as we step into the main square and stare up at the cathedral. We’ve made it.

I meet Jeanne and Diana just after collecting my Compostela, pilgrimage certificate, and we hug as though it’d been a lifetime since we’d last met, not a mere week. We meet Hannah, Sorren, Suzanne, and Chris as they reach the main square, and more hugs follow; this proves a mere prelude to days of handshakes, handclasps, fist bumps, high fives, hugs, and tears, as the city overflows with joy and congratulations. Everyone’s a winner in Santiago.

Chris and Miriam from North Carolina keep me a seat for the pilgrim Mass at noon, and I spot the others filing in after a bit, with plenty of other familiar faces dotted through the crowd. It’s obviously a special day, with the bishop presiding and all the clergy dressed in red, but I can’t figure out why. “What’s the occasion?” I ask Steve. “It’s my birthday,” he smiles. Mass ends with the swinging of the botofumeiro, Santiago’s famous giant thurible, and then we file out to continue our celebrations.

David and Christa, travelling companions of the first week, arrive the following day, and the next day, after I’ve spent the morning lighting candles and saying promised prayers in the cathedral, Leah, who walked with me from the very first day, finally arrives. The four of us go out together that night, but I don’t get much sleep as I’m up early the next day to strap on my boots and start walking again. Fisterra - the medieval end of the earth - awaits.

I stop for coffee after a couple of hours, and leaning back in my seat remark to Australian Paul, sitting next to me, that it’s good to be walking again.

He nods quietly, and then grins: “it’s what we do.” Greg Daly travelled with Camino Ways www.caminoways.com. Tel: 353 (0)1-525-28-86.