Camino 15a – 3 October 2014
By Parson Thru
Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela
N’s alarm sounded in the darkness. I should have been feeling a little hung-over after the previous night’s impromptu party, but either I was still drunk or the effects were lost among a general weariness. N switched the light on and the gaudy bright orange bedding hit us.
The discomfort of the room and anticipation of the final walk into Santiago had us quickly up on our feet, pulling-on shirts and trousers and brushing teeth and hair. We checked around for items we didn’t want to leave behind, such as camera, phones and chargers, then jettisoned anything that was now surplus in two carrier-bags by the bin. We left the key in the door and took a quick selfie out in the yard.
I checked my watch outside the entrance to the albergue: five-to-six. It wasn’t long before Ursula and Jurgen appeared in the glass lobby, stooping slightly under their rucksacks. It was still dark and quite chilly. The stars were shining brightly against a sky the colour of jet. We never had chance to say “Good morning” before Ursula and Jurgen began pouring out their pain:
“Oh! The noise!”
“It was awful! We never slept.”
“It was the worst yet!” (Which was going some, as they’d been using albergues all the way from St Jean.)
Jurgen told us how, after lying awake for hours, he got out of his bunk in desperation and stood over the loudest offender and asked him to shut up.
The man barely stirred and then rolled over and started afresh, louder than ever. There was no respite – even as one snorer stopped another one started up somewhere else. It was like following moles around a lawn.
They were beside themselves. Ursula rolled her eyes to the sky and let out a guttural lioness roar. It seems everything is relative. Our damp, tangerine-themed room had served us pretty well in the end for the sake of an extra ten euros.
We located the lane out of Pedrouzo that would take us back into the woods. Our walking sticks ticked along in the darkness. Once off the lane and among the high eucalyptus trees, we began to lose our orientation. We followed a Camino sign to begin with, but tracks seemed to head in different directions all around us. We looked for arrows painted on the bark of trees and after some success began seeing phantoms.
There were several other groups – beams of torches swinging in the darkness. We wandered from one track to another and back again until a consensus formed and the beams began to take on a single objective.
I zoned out a little and followed passively along at the back. I love clear night skies and was captivated by the beauty of the stars, visible through gaps in the trees. No one else seemed interested. Jurgen and Ursula were in no mood to loiter, having the goal of Santiago in their sights. For them, everything was timed around arrival at the cathedral for Mass. N was half chatting with them and half hanging back for me, calling me to follow. I wanted to stay and let the universe open up before me until the sky became too light. N called me again and I took a last look and trotted along after her.
I peered into the darkness between the trees looking for wildlife in the woods, but our voices carried a warning far in advance of our arrival. Ursula and Jurgen were walking much slower than their usual pace but, even so, it was quick for me and I was sweating under my waterproof and breathing heavily.
After maybe an hour, we stopped at a café for breakfast. It was close to the road tunnel at Amenal. The café was huge by the standards we’d become used to and was busy with dozens of peregrinos. There was a queue sliding trays along in a cafeteria style. It all felt a little alien. Pilgrims sat at tables surrounded by their packs and walking sticks. The place was alive with conversations in every conceivable language.
While Jurgen was being served, Ursula told us that they’d tried walking separately for a couple of days. Both had come to walk the Camino hoping to meet someone but had fallen into the comfort of walking together. We’d wrongly assumed, days ago, that they were a couple. They had connections in Germany, but there was nothing more to it than that. Both were in the middle of major life changes.
She said they’d joined up again towards the end of the walk from Arzua and decided to stay together for the final day. Then they’d had the idea of walking into Santiago with us. A great wave of emotion worked up to my throat. Maybe it was just tiredness, but I was so touched I could barely speak.
Jurgen came walking back from the till with a familiar face. It was Kirsten, our German schoolteacher friend.
“May I sit here?” she asked in her very deliberate English. We shuffled around and rearranged the pile of packs and sticks.
By the time we left the café, the five of us were a group – one small group among many, meeting, merging and always fluid. Our spirits were up, jokes were being swapped – we were feeling good. We climbed steadily towards Monte del Gozo, anticipating the first look down from there onto Santiago de Compostela. A cool mist had arrived with the daylight.
Out of the mist came the unmistakable sound of aero-engines and it wasn’t long before I could smell kerosene. I love that smell. We began following a high perimeter fence that seemed to go on forever. Suddenly, out to our left, I saw a jet sitting with its engines running ready to accelerate into the fog. We were so close we could feel the wash from its engines and breathe those kerosene fumes.
“Safe journey.” I wished them, in a whisper.
A few kilometres on, the sun began to shine on our own final approach through a scattering of villages such as Lavacolla, where pilgrims traditionally washed themselves before entering Santiago. Modern pilgrims were spread along cafes and rest-stops, watching the endless flow pass.
At the side of the road we came upon a small knot of people. They were taking it in turns to photograph each other. At their centre was a carved stone marking the Santiago city limits. An anonymous pilgrim had helpfully added a yellow arrow pointing straight ahead.
At Monte del Gozo we took a breather and had a last view across ridges and mist-filled valleys. The effect was as magical as when we first saw it back in the mountains of Leon.
A prominent steel sculpture stands in a clearing on Gozo. Peregrinos wandered around it, taking photos, talking and pulling snacks from their packs. There was a sense of building anticipation. Walking towards us in a red T-shirt was the unmistakable figure of Ziggy. His silver beard and hair caught the sun and his eyes were glinting with joy.
“Guten Tag! Hallo!”
We grasped each other’s hands and shook warmly.
For a while, we chatted and mingled in the sun, trying to work out the views around us. We tried to spot the city and its cathedral, but all we could see were what appeared to be suburbs. It could have been any one of several Galician towns. Perhaps the “view” was hidden behind woods. Maybe we were just looking in the wrong place.
Ziggy told us that he would be catching a bus that day to take him back to northern Germany. We spent some time enjoying the simple pleasure of each other’s company, before joining the others to carry on the descent into the city. We said goodbye to Ziggy, unsure of whether we’d see him again.
We turned left and continued along the road. I decided to hang back a little and photograph the others as we walked along – hoping to capture our arrival. As a result, I now have a long series of images of the four of them chatting excitedly, line-abreast, while I'm out of shot, lost in my thoughts.
There was something dream-like and magical going on. My legs ached, my feet were sore as hell, but I wouldn’t have been anywhere else but on that road in the Galician sun. It took effort to remember that it was a Friday. Friday 3 October.