Camino 15b – 3 October 2014
By Parson Thru
Pedrouzo to Santiago – Part 2
Gradually, we came into the suburbs of Santiago. Swinging left at the foot of Monte del Gozo brought us alongside the modern highway. Despite all the concrete, tarmac and traffic-noise, it’s a path well-trodden by peregrinos.
We’d watched woodland and farms give way to road-signs and indifferent buildings – ancient river-crossings yield to broad road junctions. We’d left behind something that was very human in scale.
We stood by a large traffic island trying to work out the route. I couldn’t help but be struck by the detachment of these tiny people from their surroundings. Locals, adjusted and comfortable, barely acknowledged them.
Cutting diagonally off the main road towards the old city, we walked past albergues almost hidden among markets and shops. I did a double-take of someone sitting on a concrete bench at a junction. It was John, the grey-haired, heavy-set American we’d last seen on a mountain road in Leon more than a week before.
Back then, he’d looked exhausted, with sweat pouring from his forehead. We’d offered to stay with him but he insisted we leave him to make his own way. That must have been two hundred kilometres back – before the Templar castle at Ponferrada. Now, here he was sitting on a bench in Santiago. It was like meeting a long-lost brother. I sat down and clapped my hand on his bear-like shoulder. What a relief it was to see him.
N took a photo of the two of us. We spent a bit of time catching up and I introduced him to the others. He’d had trouble with his knees, which were heavily strapped. I asked if he wanted to walk in with us, but he preferred to do it in his own time. The others were keen to move on, so we shook hands and left him again – this time almost within sight of his goal.
Within a few hundred metres, we had our first glimpse of the cathedral towers poking over the tiled roofs of the old city. The streets were narrower and crowded with local commerce. Peregrinos were becoming lost among the throng, but always identifiable by their packs, scallop shells and broad-brimmed hats. It didn’t really matter how far they’d come – from St Jean or from Sarria – each pilgrim forged on towards their goal: the Cathedral of St James.
It was almost a surprise when we spilled into the cathedral close. I didn’t even register that we were there as I looked around the limestone walls for a reference point – something that I might recognise. It turned out we were around the back of the building. Jurgen, Ursula and Kirsten were already photographing each other. They waved us in for a group photo.
We began walking around the great bulk of the building, through a throng of tourists and pilgrims. Every few yards there were stone steps to walk up or down. Going down them was agony and I had to lean heavily on my stick. The pain started to break through from my blistered feet and cramped leg muscles.
It may have been that the Ibuprofen and rehydration salts were wearing off, or simply that the will that had carried me to this point was quitting. I was also paying the price for keeping up with Ursula and Jurgen. If we’d been carrying on any further, I’d have needed to rest and heal.
We worked our way through to where a queue was forming outside an opening. It was the Compostela office. We fell in line and N pulled out our Pilgrim’s Passports, stamped at least twice a day for the eleven days we’d walked. Now it was time to present them for one last stamp and gain our Compostela certificate.
We were told we’d have to wait for around an hour and a half. Apparently the queue gets much longer as the day goes on. We settled in. After five minutes or so, a man came along and spoke to us in a warm Irish accent. He told us his name was John. He asked us if we were in a group. The five of us looked at each other – still slightly bewildered from our arrival. He took the decision for us and swept us out of the queue to a separate door.
He said we should give him our Pilgrim’s Passports. Suspicion struck me instantly. Eleven days of walking and a lot of pain were in those stamps – forty or more days in some of the others’. We asked what was going on. I felt we might be about to be scammed. He had no ID and was just a face among the crowd. He explained that he worked for the Confraternity of St James as a volunteer.
In the end, we couldn’t see what the scam might be – maybe some money would end up changing hands, but we offset that against the length of the queue.
A few minutes later, he re-emerged with the passports and Compostelas. He showed us the certificates, written in Latin. Apparently, there’s no Latin version of Kevin. We thanked him for his help.
As we were passing the queue, we saw Boris the Bulgarian dentist and his family. We pointed down to John and suggested he take his group to talk to him. Like us, Boris seemed doubtful, but when I looked back they were handing over their passports.
Thinking about it now, I can’t believe that I reduced the whole thing down to a bunch of stamps in a book. For the record, John gets a mention as a valued volunteer in the Confraternity newsletter. Thanks again, John.
We were at a bit of a loss after receiving the Compostela. We wandered around to the front of the cathedral, where the vast plaza opened in front of us, and sat down on the floor.
Right behind us were David and Astrid. They looked as fresh and unconcerned as ever. I made a mental note that by the time I reach my sixties I need to have offloaded all the things that are killing me. They’d set off even earlier than us and had walked at a good pace to reach Santiago early. They told us they’d heard from the Irish lads, Stephen, Michael and Mick, who were also planning to arrive in Santiago today so we’d all finish together.
While we were speaking, Arseno and his brother Miguel came walking over. We hadn’t seen much of them since the pulperia in Melide where Miguel had re-dressed his blisters. They were looking happy and in pretty good shape. We shook and chatted for a while in the sun.
I’d lost track of time completely. As we were lying flat-out in the plaza, N suggested we try to find our hotel, which was about a fifteen minute walk from the centre. We all agreed to meet at the cathedral for the evening Pilgrim’s Mass.
Moving through the crowd, we bumped into Andres and Javier, the retired footballers from Burgos. It was great to see them and there was much grinning, back-slapping and hand-shaking. We’d become good friends over the last few days, despite the lack of a common language, and we’d managed to encourage each other along when times were hard. They’d just collected their Compostelas and were heading to catch a train back to Burgos. It was such a wrench to say goodbye to them. I could see, through their smiles, that they felt it too. We shook one last time and went our separate ways.
We navigated our way past gift-shops and cafes, crossing wider boulevards until we found the hotel. As we hobbled into the foyer, I wondered whether we still had a reservation following the phone conversation the day before. The receptionist remembered the call and greeted us like friends. The room was ours – had been for the last twenty-four hours. We checked in and limped across to the lift. Fortunately, there was no one to share it. We were probably pretty ripe.
Once in the room, we grinned and threw our arms around each other. N tried to jump up and down, but my legs wouldn’t respond. I dropped my rucksack on the floor, propped my walking stick in the corner and sat on the bed.
We pulled our socks off and compared feet. They looked pretty similar. Pink and swollen, skin hanging off in semi-transparent flaps where the blisters had burst and been rubbed ragged. The exposed flesh was red and sore, but didn’t look infected.
We took it in turns to shower and change into fresh clothes. As I lay down on the clean sheets, I felt a great wave of anti-climax. I stared at the ceiling for a while and the next thing I knew, N was waking me.