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The Way To Santiago Compostela - Part 4

The Way To Santiago Compostela - My Pilgrimage (Part 4)

See also…
The Way To Santiago Compostela - Part 1
The Way To Santiago Compostela - Part 2
The Way To Santiago Compostela - Part 3

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Caption: The Cathedral of Santiago Compostela- our destination.

In the month of May this year my wife Wendy and I went on a pilgrimage across Northern Spain, walking 810kms from the village of St Jean Pied de Port (France) to the city of Santiago Compostela (Spain) - the legendary final resting place of St James. The following is a series of emails sent to our families during the course of our 32 day walk. It is accompanied by images taken on the Camino - which translates as "the way". - Alastair Thompson (Scoop co-editor)



This will be the second to last Camino message owing to the fact that barring some unforseen disaster we will be finishing it around midday tomorrow. We will probably send a few texts out announcing our victory over distance around 10pm NZT. Otherwise there will be a final email hopefully with some pictures attached sometime over the weekend.

Day 29

Our last dispatch was from the town of Saria which is around 110 kms from Santiago de Compostela the end point in the Camino.

We stayed in a great new albergue in Saria and feasted on salmon and cream cheese which we have discovered is a relatively easy meal to make out of ingredients from the supermarket in the absence of a kitchen.

In the morning we set off very late by pilgrim standards at around 8am. Though it is not at a particularly high altitude the town was in cloud even at 8am and we spent the morning wandering up into the cloud along corriedors - ancient paths - between little hamlets and collections of farm houses. Many of the paths were very muddy and lots of them showed evidence of recent passage of cows.

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Caption: One of several sculptural installations regarding pilgrimage beside the path in Galicia.

In Galicia the cows live under the houses of the farmers much of the time and from the look of things effluent containment is not something that is practically achieved very often.

Around midday we crossed the 100km mark and were officially started on the piece of the Camino which is in Church law the most important and the bit that you have to walk to qualify as a bona-fide pilgrim.

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Caption: Ever present rain made the path challenging at times

The rain and drizzle meanwhile remained ever present only subsiding a bit as we approached Portomarin the next big town on the journey and the end point for many of our fellow pilgrims that day.

Before we reached there we stopped for a nice late lunch in an attractive cafe beside the path. The proprietor was something of a canny businessman but complained that when he opened his restaurant he had no idea how much it was going to rain in Galicia. Apparently it hasn´t stopped raining for months and for someone from Valencia this is something of a culture shock.

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Caption: The owner of this restaurant had relocated from Valencia and could not believe how much it rains in Galicia

Nevertheless he informed us that the day before we were there he counted 800 pilgrims going past his gate, which makes for a considerable business opportunity. In summer he said there would be closer to 2000 coming through daily and there was no way that the accommodation facilities even expanding as fast as they were would be able to deal with it.

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Caption: The bridge to Portomarin

From there we walked down into the valley and across a bridge to Portomarin.

Situated beside a flooded valley the town features a church which was moved stone by stone from where it was originally built in the 12th century or thereabouts.

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Caption: This 12th Century Church was moved stone by stone from where it was originally built - which is now beneath the lake.

We visited the Church, got some supplies and then headed back out onto the Camino to try and get a little closer to Santiago. Our plan was to do 30kms a day for three days and then 20kms on the final day. The only obstacle now was the rain.

After Portomarin the path became considerably more straightforward to walk but the weather deteriorated some.

About 8kms later we reached Gonzar, a small hamlet with lots of falling down stone buildings and one which had been nicely renovated and turned into a delightful refuge run by a farming couple from the look of things.

The farmer seemed less than completely enamored with his new lifestyle, though his wife clearly was enjoying cooking for lots of pilgrims and keeping a large house greatly. (Warning: Neither spoke a word of English and we spoke no Spanish to speak of so all this is partly speculation.)

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Caption: Some more Camino fauna

The upshot of all this was that we spent the night in a double bed which was something of a pleasant change. Unfortunately it was fairly cold owing to the owners desire to keep windows open and the bath took a very long time to fill on a fairly low trickle but in general it was relaxing and pleasant.


Day 30

The following day dawned with lots of water falling from the sky and continued that way for most of the day. Our target for the day was Melide some 30kms away and by the time we got to Palais de Rei we were pretty soaked.

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Caption: Rain clouds over the Camino in Galicia

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Caption: Pilgrims queue for accommodation

Over lunch of Caldo Gallegos which we now think is a pork bone broth soup - some ibuprofen - aka pilgrims friend - was applied to making the remaining 10 odd kms more bearable.

Sometime after 4pm it finally stopped raining and so we arrived in Melide not completely soaked. Melide is from the look of things a fairly poor working town and did not look that dissimilar from many towns in England.

Caption: Temptation by the wayside - at this point in the journey catching a Taxi is technically breaking the rules.

Certainly it does not seem to be a town where the Camino has been well received and there is only on albergue - a publicly run one - monster of a place with 140 beds on the outskirts of town. Fortunately there was space enough for us even though we arrived fairly late.

As we checked in the clearly tired and overworked hospitalero registered us as coming from Alemane (Germany) and both as 40 years old even though clearly she could see we weren´t either.

Rather pleasantly we found several old friends from earlier on the Camino there including a French couple who have invited us to come visit them and Ngarita a fellow NZer who we met on the top of the mountains about 10 days ago.

Day 31

It had been hoped that the rain might finally stop today and the day dawned promisingly with a fairly large chunk of blue sky above us. Again we left late for pilgrims and today we had a plan to make an ambitious 34km trek to Arca which would leave us with a fairly short 20km stroll into Compostela on our final day.

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Caption: Ben from Transylvannia taking pictures of rocks painted by pilgrims

After about 5kms the rain started and then continued all day.

In the end this day was among the hardest we have had. Whereas the previous day a degree of rain cloud dodging had been possible, today the rain clouds were low and dark and ever present for all but a couple of hours.

At times the rain was light. At times it was falling in sheets. Sooner or later we were bound to be caught in the open during one of the heavy showers and sure enough at around 12pm with 20kms to go we did. From then on we were fairly severely drenched. Though we dried out a bit in some of the lighter rain, another heavy shower caught us again at around 4pm with 10kms to go.

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Caption: Two wet pilgrims

The walk would have been beautiful but for the rain and at times it was but we are now pretty tired and so it was all a bit tragic in the end.

To add a bit of insult to injury we got lost at the end of the day and ended up walking an extra 2kms through a forest and back again to find our final night's accommodation which fortunately we had had the foresight to reserve in advance.

Anyway all that is over now and an end to this adventure and the celebration that will entail awaits us shortly in Compostela.

lots of love

Alastair and Wendy


Hi everybody,

Bit later than expected but here is the final installment in the Camino saga which is almost over. We arrived in Santiago yesterday about midday and then rushed around doing bits and pieces and meeting fellow pilgrims as they arrived. One final thing remains to be done, hugging the statue of St James in the Cathedral. We tried this afternoon but there was a huge queue of tourists lined up to do it so we will try again tomorrow morning. Anyway back to the saga....

Day 32 - The final chapter

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Caption: Leaving Arca - the morning of our final day

Breaking from our usual custom we left Arca de Pino aka Pedrouzo at around 7.30am after munching down a sandwich in our hostel. It was not raining which was a pleasant change and as we headed out of town the trees were shrouded in mist which was very beautiful.

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Caption: Mist shrouds the hills as we approach Santiago

The path was thick with pilgrims on the final leg of their various journeys and we continued to walk through old oak forests increasingly mixed with Eucalyptus trees towards Santiago.

We have a theory that the Eucalypts were brought here in a futile attempt to try and prevent it raining so much. As it turns out they seem to love the rain as well as the heat, and with apparently very little wind here grow very straight and very tall very fast.

We ran into several friends on the final walk in and made a few more. A young chap from Hungary who has had a very complicated life told us his story in remarkably good English with an accent that I think he has picked up off watching Borat a few times too many. We invited him to come and stay which would be nice.

As we neared Santiago the remaining oaks disappeared altogether and it was much like walking through Australia only the eucalypts are closer together and straighter.

Around 5kms from the end the path reaches a hill from which it is theoretically possible to see the spires of Santiago Cathedral. On top of the hill is a beautiful statue which seems to have been built as a tribute to John Paul II who visited Santiago sometime last century - I suspect the 70s from the style of the statue.

Anyway we couldn´t see the Cathedral as by then the rain clouds had returned and it was soon pelting down as we made our way down the hill towards the city.

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Caption: Rain resumed as we entered the city

The final 4kms of the walk is through a city famous for being peaceful beyond the norm.

Reputedly the police force in the 100,000 plus city have only twice drawn their sidearms in the past 2 decades on both occasions to scare away angry cows!

The rain mercifully slowed for most of the walk and stopped towards the end with even a few signs of blue skies emerging.

The final few hundred yards to the Cathedral go through the old city of Santiago which has been beautifully kept intact and has now become a wonderful meet and greet precinct for pilgrims getting reacquainted with the pleasures in life that come from no longer having to walk 30kms every day.

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Caption: Our first view of the Cathedral complex

Spain is particularly resplendent in these pleasures it seems, pleasures like one euro beers and six euro bottles of lovely wine, not to mention spectacularly cheap pilgrim meals.

Feeling a little stunned we eventually reached the square outside the huge entrance to the Cathedral and were met by our Irish friend Finn and shortly after by her husband Peter. All around us other pilgrims that we knew were arriving and it was a very happy moment.

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Caption: Success! Arrival in the square in front of the Cathedral of Santiago Compostela.

Having narrowly missed mass at 12pm we decided to come back and finish off the formalities the following day and go and get our certificates of completion, deliver our baggage to the hotel and have some lunch.

A period of luxuriating in our hotel bath followed before we returned to the city and Wendy went shopping while I met several friends, had a few beers, and picked up the 5kgs of excess baggage which we had posted on to Santiago about three weeks earlier.

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Caption: The Cathedral spires as viewed from our hotel room

We then had a lovely meal with four Irish friends, Peter and Finn, and Podrig and Cronin - a father and son pair of pilgrims who we had met during a memorable night of drinking vino tinto on top of the mountains at Foncebadon. Also in the restaurant was one of the kind Italians who took care of me at Ermito San Nicholas when I had my hiccup incident which was a nice surprise.

It turned out that all these Irish persons as well as the crazy Northern Irish pilgrims mentioned in earlier dispatches were all on the same plane leaving today (Saturday) at 4pm.


Day 33 - Postscript

This morning we arose somewhat disoriented by the fact that there is no longer any walking to be done and went to mass at the Cathedral. There were around 1000 people present I would guess and at least six priests as well as a nun with a beautiful voice who trained up the congregation in a few songs before proceedings began.

The mass was beautiful as is the Cathedral and all around us were pilgrims who we had met on the way. Obviously there were also lots of non pilgrims too, many of whom had come to see the famous swinging of a giant incense burner - the Botofumero. This took place at the end of the mass.

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The Botofumero (smoke thrower) in front of a gilded St James

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Caption: Looking up over the Cathedral transcept

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The Botofumero in motion

Originally this incense trick is thought to have originated in order to provide an antidote to the smell coming off the hundreds of no doubt very wet and sweaty pilgrims usually present. Now however it seems to have become something of a high art in acrobatic rope tricks.

The burner is lit and then set in motion with a push. A team of people in purple cloaks then takes a hold of the other end of the rope which is wound around a pulley inside the dome at the intersection of the nave and the transepts. Using some clever timing they proceed to make this huge incense burner swing in what looks like a 120 degree arc passing remarkably low over the heads of the startled congregation.

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Caption: After mass we farewelled our Irish Camino companions Peter and Finn

After mass we farewelled Peter and Finn off to the airport and took care of booking ourselves a train trip back to where we started following a very similar route. The train is going to take about 14 hours vs our 30 days of walking and so I expect it will be a bit like watching an ultra fast rewind button out the window of the carriage. Preferenta ,which I think means first class, was not much more expensive so we will be traveling in style. We are due to reach Biarritz at around 11pm on Tuesday night and pick up our hire car the following day at Biarritz airport.

Finally I would like to make a few observations on things I have learned on the pilgrimage.

1. Patience is something we can all do with more of - and particularly myself.
2. Waiting and thinking is a good way to work things out. As is leaving well enough alone.
3. My body is capable of considerably more than I expected provided I do not eat too fast.
4. When traveling it is always useful to have less baggage.
6. There is a great deal of kindness and friendship out there if you have your heart open to receive it.
7. Ibuprofen is quite a useful treatment for hiccups as well as muscle pain.
8. Bottom bunks are better.
9. Getting wet when walking is not quite as bad as you think it is but is still pretty unpleasant.
10. Spain is not a hot dry country it is wet and cold.

There are a few other things I have also learned which I am cogitating on and no doubt a few more besides that I have not even thought of yet.

More Camino Friends in Santiago

Left: Bretons Jean-Piere & Marionette --- Right: Irishmen John and Cronan

Paolo from Brazil

Pepe from Bangor (Ireland)

Left: Diego from Finistere ---- Right: Ngarita and Jani

All in all I would recommend it as a life changing experience. I think my life has changed anyway - we will see in time I guess what that means precisely.

Lots of love to everybody


P.S. I have greatly appreciated the feedback to these ramblings and am pleased that clearly some of you have enjoyed the saga.


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