Santiago de Compostela

The day began like any other. We gingerly made our way out of our sleep sacks, exposing our bodies bit by bit to the frigid albergue air much like a toe to cold water. After layering on clothes that felt as if they had just been plucked from the freezer, we warmed up with a hot breakfast, loaded up our belongings, secured our rain gear (for it was sure to be another rainy Galician day), and headed out the door. While the day’s destination seemed to resemble all the others we had visited, with it’s impractically long and syllable-packed name whose very utterance seemed to suggest antiquity (we had already passed the likes of Castilblanco de los Arroyos, Villafranca de los Barros, Embalse de Alcántara, Calzada de Valdunciel, and Fuenterroble de la Salvatierra), it was different. Unlike the aforementioned, amnesia-inducing towns that had left us pulling out our guide books every 30 minutes to check their names over and over, this one was impossible to forget as it had been on our minds for almost fifty days: Santiago de Compostela. Despite knowing that our Camino would end that day, it didn’t feel real until, in the very ordinary moment of gazing around our surroundings to try and find a yellow arrow to make sure we were on the right path, we had the very unordinary experience of seeing the cathedral steeples rising like a triumphant finish line in the distance. 

Like a dog who spends every waking hour trying to devise a way to escape over the fence, only to finally do it and then realize that she has no idea what to do with her newfound freedom, so did we arrive at Plaza del Obradoiro in front of the cathedral, the destination of every pilgrim on El Camino. We had walked for the better part of two months to arrive at that point, but once we were there, we weren’t quite sure what to do or how to feel. At least we had company. All around us pilgrims entered the plaza to the fanfare of their own internal rejoicing, their unbreaking smiles evidence of a journey completed. Amidst the echo of lively bagpipe music throughout the plaza, bottles of wine were opened, strangers hugged and high-fived each other, and loads both literal and figurative were unburdened as their bearers gazed in wonder at the front of the cathedral that had been a focus of joy for centuries. As we looked around at these scenes, we knew exactly what was to be done, which was, quite simply, to enjoy our hard-earned accomplishment. So, we sat down on the cool surface of the cobbled plaza, under the uncharacteristically blue Galician skies, and took everything in for we knew that the second we strapped on our backpacks and left the plaza, we would be crossing the far too thin and sudden line from pilgrim to tourist, and that was something we just weren’t, nor ever really would be, ready for.

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After beginning our journey with 1,000 kilometers to go, it was a surreal moment once we began seeing signs for the city in the single digits.
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Catching our first glimpse of the cathedral, we weren’t sure whether we wanted to quicken our pace or slow it down.
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We made it!
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A pilgrim sitting in front of the cathedral taking it in.
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Once at Plaza del Obradoiro, it’s common to come across people you’ve met along the way that you thought you’d never see again. The man wearing the red backpack on the left is someone we had walked with and parted ways with nearly a month prior to arriving in Santiago. We both entered the plaza at about the same time.

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After finishing El Camino, you can go to an office to get a Compostela, a document saying that you’ve walked and completed the pilgrimage. While it was exciting to receive it, we knew that it meant we were no longer pilgrims.
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Nighttime in Santiago

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A statue of St. James atop the cathedral
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Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, a hotel built for pilgrims by Isabel and Ferdinand after they walked El Camino. Sadly, it’s now a luxury hotel that most pilgrims can’t even come close to affording.

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While the cathedral was under construction during our time in Santiago, we were still able to see its magnificent altar.
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Lit candles inside the cathedral

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Winding staircases at the Museo de Pobo Galego

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A view of the cathedral through the rain

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In Santiago, it’s not uncommon to be served wine in saucers. On our last night in the city, we sipped on many-a-saucer while reminiscing about our walk, a great end to a great journey.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

El Camino

Thud
goes the satchel
as it sinks down
into the dirt,
narrowly avoiding
the mud from that morning’s
Galician rain.
The pilgrim follows,
crossing his feet,
one leather shoe
over the other,
a hole worn through
the heel, exposing
his skin to the elements.
He looks up
at the stone and wood shrine
in front of him.
He made it.
Murmuring a prayer
of thanks
and sorting through thoughts,
he idles,
knowing when he picks himself up,
a journey has ended.

So it goes
for a millennia,
sole after soul
arriving to a place
physically transformed through centuries,
yet as a symbol remains
as solid and unbreaking
as a scallop shell.

Smack
sounds the Osprey
as it makes contact
with pavement,
just missing
the puddle from the rainstorm
hours earlier.
I follow,
sitting cross-legged,
one North Face shoe
over the other,
the rubber soles wearing down.
Soon I’ll need
to buy another pair.
I look up
at the mammoth structure of stone
towering above the plaza.
I’m here.
I begin to whisper a prayer
of thanks,
but my breath falters,
not able to find words.
I linger,
when I leave, I will no longer be a pilgrim,
a chapter will end.