Arriving in Santiago didn’t feel the way I expected.
The Spaniards I had been walking with for the last seven days had tears in their eyes as we walked through the city’s winding streets and emerged in the central plaza. The famous cathedral towered above us, its facade draped in netting and scaffolds. My friends began to hug and take pictures while I searched for a suitable sensation. Joy, perhaps? A religious moment? Satisfaction in what we’d accomplished?
I joined them in the long queue to hug the statue of St James, stepping into the crypt where his martyred remains are supposed to lie. For thousands of pilgrims, reaching this hallowed ground is the entire reason for walking the Camino.
I felt nothing.
Sure, Santiago de Compostela has one stunningly beautiful cathedral. And yes, the city pulled out all the stops to deliver an unforgettable pink-hued sunset sky when we left our celebratory pilgrim’s mass.
But while I sat on a wooden pew, craning my neck to watch the infamous botafumeiro swing the length of the nave above our heads, I kept thinking that my achievement was somehow lacking. I’d walked over three hundred kilometres from Leon to get there, but most of the pilgrims surrounding me had covered double that distance: eight hundred kilometres of blood and sweat, tears and blisters.
I know it was stupid, but I simply didn’t feel like I measured up yet.
To call it quits, or to keep on walking?
An evening of meandering from bar to cafe to bar again meant munching on tapas, drinking copious amounts of wine and celebrating the ‘end of the Camino’, until my friends and I were lying on the concrete in our waterproof jackets, staring up at the cathedral and giggling.
It was my last day of fluent Spanish speaking – but the next morning I packed my bag just like usual and slipped quietly out of the convent dormitory.
I had some more hiking to do.
Day One: Santiago to Negreira
The route from Santiago down to the coast at Finisterre is a completely separate Camino: it’s more calm and quiet, with only a handful of the pilgrim hordes in Santiago choosing to keep on walking. Although I’d heard this already, I didn’t realise how different this next part of my Camino would be until I hugged my Mexican friend Ruben goodbye underneath Santiago’s cathedral and set out to leave the city.
Within minutes I was in parkland which turned immediately to countryside, and the sunlight filtered through the trees in so many beams that meant at least an hour of me stumbling happily through branches to get the photos I wanted. Then a crew of speeding cyclists brought me back to the task at hand, and I trudged onward.
The route took me through corn fields and tiny villages, past guard dogs sleeping on stone walls, and straight upward for two exhausting kilometres which had me leaning on my stick while deep in conversation with a Hungarian man and his travelling donkey.
The indicators on this Camino were different: no longer official stone markers or brass shells surrounded by peering groups of energetic walkers, but faded arrows painted by hand, out of the way and harder to see.
There was more of a search involved to know where to go. A riddle I had to solve with every turn.
I picked up mint leaves from bushes and chewed thoughtfully; I sang to myself and indulged in the delight of having grass beneath my feet instead of concrete.
This stretch found me completely alone – and unlike earlier on my Camino, I thrived on it.
Day Two: Negreira to Olveiroa
Thirty kilometres trudging on asphalt roads in 25’C sunshine without any shade and I began to regret my earlier happiness. Sweat dripped down to my ankles. Mirages on the road ahead. Nothing moving in the solid air.
Yet strangely enough I still felt strong. When a small stream appeared below a road bridge I bathed my feet alongside other tired pilgrims and gasped with the shock of ice cold water. Spontaneous conversations were struck up without even thinking about it: after spending so long delicately choosing my every Spanish word (and holding back many of my emotions in as a result), the ability to express everything I felt in English was immensely satisfying.
It spurred me onward – even while walking past the repeated temptation of artfully placed taxi signs which knew their audience far too well.
In Olveiroa that night, a serenade of snorers rendered me totally unable to sleep. After the restless man in the bunk bed above mine turned over for the umpteenth time – causing the bunk’s metal structure to squeal like a stuck pig – I’d had enough.
I got up and went outside.
At 3.30am, the Spanish countryside was strangely quiet. After weeks of walking through farmland I’d grown used to the sounds of roosters, dogs and birds, even when there are no people around, but in the middle of the night there was nothing. Just a sprinkling of stars, a slight breeze, and a huge silver-white full moon, with a dark red shadow meandering across its edge like a puff of smoke.
I hadn’t known there was a supermoon that night. But as I stood alone in a Spanish village, en route to walking to the end of the world and watching the moon disappear, I couldn’t help thinking it was something rather significant.
Day Three: Olveiroa to Cee
The moon was still high as I crested a hill outside Olveiroa: purple sky and near-silent footsteps on the track.
Another day spent mainly with my own company and I began to recognise the constant ache for rural land to walk through: the rolling hills, the softly lowing cows, the earth underfoot. Stalwart faces of weather-beaten women in aprons who stand impassively at their farmhouse doors, never smiling, a slight nod in response to my breathless, ‘Buenas dias!’.
I felt, too, a growing responsibility towards The Way. Passing huge boulders with tiny piles of balanced stones compelled me to add my own pebbles – like saying, ‘I was here too! There are others like you. You’re on the right track!’
The day or the date doesn’t matter, just as long as you’re helping to lead other pilgrims onwards.
That afternoon I saw the sea, and it felt completely different to my arrival in Santiago. Whereas the cathedral and the city were beautiful and symbolic in a religious way, I couldn’t identify with that place as the ‘end’ to my Camino journey.
But the sea? The primal, the inevitable, the never ending: I had a thrill of anticipation as I crested a stony hill and saw the expanse of blue water laid out in front of me. All that was left was to walk down into it.
Of course, the Camino didn’t make it easy. Five kilometres of steep gravel-covered descent later and I’d reached Cee, a small harbour town which is still 15km away from the lighthouse of Finisterre and the pilgrim-adored moniker of ‘the end of the world’.
The heat and the aching feet were too much for me, and I decided to stop in Cee for the night.
Day Four: Cee to Finisterre
There was a different energy among the pilgrims in my albergue. We all knew the real end was coming: the removal of our Camino bubble and a shove back into the normal world.
Walking along Cee’s harbour I spotted more non-hiking tourists than pilgrims and felt a pang of sadness. We were becoming outnumbered again.
Yet after multiple 30km days – plus the hellish, never-to-be-forgotten day of 42km – my last fifteen to Finisterre felt like a stroll. The hints of seaside Spain grew stronger when I spotted sailors knots hanging from rearview mirrors; piles of green netting beside stone walls. Razor clam shells on a compost heap and a dry boat in a small garden.
Eventually, and without much internal fanfare, I walked along the beach in heavy sweating boots, delighting in the other hiking figures who looked so adorably out of place. I felt like a kid.
Fisterra is an ancient port and fishing village which marks the last habitable place on the Camino – but it’s also a working harbour, a place filled with flurries of activity.
Fisherman shouted to each other as they threw the day’s catch into boxes under bright blue skies (totally un-Galician weather, by the way), and it felt fitting to spend my afternoon blissfully wandering down narrow sun soaked streets, eating a huge plate of scallops and squid, and bumping into pilgrims I knew by face if not by name.
Eventually, taking heed of everybody’s siesta-shuttered windows, I walked the last few kilometres down to the lighthouse where the Camino’s marker reads 0.0km.
The actual end.
And when I sat on the rocks against a roaring swell of water that rushed over the same stones time and time again? Then I felt like I was finished.
Finisterre: the end of the world
The Romans thought the sun was dying when they saw it hit the Atlantic Ocean from this spot, and Finisterre has retained a special significance for visitors ever since. It’s the end of a Camino journey for many, and the heralding of a new chapter in their lives as a result.
Some pilgrims talked, some sat alone and thought or wrote – but every person sitting on the rocks below the Finisterre lighthouse kept their eyes to the horizon, waiting for the bright orange sun to descend below the water.
Day Five: freedom in Finisterre
On arrival into Finisterre there’d been a particular albergue I’d had my heart set on; a hippy, artistic place with a propensity for yoga sessions and communal dinners in the vegetable garden. That sense of immediate inclusion which I missed after parting with my Spanish crew.
As luck would have it the albergue had a few beds spare, and soon I was sitting in the sand talking about clouds with two new hostel friends. Two more girls from my dorm room arrived with a guitar and beers in tow; eventually more people joined our growing circle with the words, “you’re pilgrims, right?” by way of introduction.
The sky grew dark, the stars came out, the still-swollen moon began to rise from behind the sand dunes – and then a German guy walked over. “Why are you sitting over here? There’s a fire, we have music and wine! Come, come!”
A hidden spot where a small tree lay burning in a pile of red-hot embers. A circle of Hungarians, French, Lithuanian and Chilean pilgrims. Beautiful songs sung by soulful voices as the guitar made its way around the group. Bottles of red wine passed from hand to hand, held between bare toes, while a girl slices cheese and hands out tomatoes from her cavernous bag. Smoke in our eyes and our hair, blisters dried out by the sand.
Twenty four unplanned hours with my boots off and a new circle of friends.
Day Six: Finisterre to Muxia
On the evening of the supermoon I’d met a man from the north of England who’d been living in the States for years. He seemed really happy to connect with a fellow Brit again, and we talked about the impending walk to Finisterre, the end of the world and the end of the Camino for pretty much all pilgrims – but also about the extended option to walk to Muxia too. Another ancient fishing port, known for the legend of the Virgin Mary sailing there in a stone boat and a place that resonates strongly with pilgrims.
Then he said something that interested me.
“You know, some people think that walking to Finisterre marks the end of the journey they’ve currently been on. But walking to Muxia signifies the beginning of the next chapter.”
So after my first full rest day in nineteen days of walking, I set out for the final time to walk from one ‘end of the world’ to another.
There were traffic jams of cows in narrow country lanes, families of kittens basking in the sunshine, a couple of friendly German women to chat to throughout the day.
It was a sublimely easy walk with barely any pilgrims – just the Spanish countryside to breathe in, along with the welcome sea air.
Arriving into Muxia felt different yet again. Calm, collected and quiet: nothing but a tiny hamlet of colourful houses perched on the rocks.
In the centre, there’s a pile of boulders where a sixteenth century church used to sit. Thanks to an anonymous figure who’s marked the route with little painted arrows and stones embedded in cement to serve as hand and foot holds, the spot now serves as a look out point across the rooftops and the harbour, down to the foam covered rocks, across to the blue tinged mountains, and out towards the endless sea.
I spent the evening’s sunset up on those rocks overlooking Muxia, scenes from the last three weeks flooding across my mind.
A wake up call: what has the Camino taught me?
It’s undeniable that in twenty days of walking – and what feels like a lifetime of internal reflection – something’s changed in me. But it’s not what I expected.
When I set out, I felt sure there were particular issues I’d end up addressing. My mum’s death; the progress of writing my first book; confronting my issues with identity and self-confidence. Instead, I was totally blindsided by how readily my mind turned to other ideas.
To expressing myself through music, a passion I had for the first fifteen years of my life but somehow lost along the way. To communicating with more people by learning other foreign languages. To being kind, just because every day felt so much more beautiful when I had pleasant interactions with people I’d never see again, or went out of my way to help someone. To a sudden, previously unknown connection with the slow reflective pace of walking, and with the natural world.
The Camino offers you the chance to change your thought processes – and it does so by pushing your limits, and opening your horizons. You’ll walk on acorns, conkers and fallen apples, grass and flower petals, dropped tissues, broken flint and asphalt. You’ll step over squashed frogs, headless birds and rotten sheep, surrounded by smells of lavender, mint and strong cow pats.
My fingers swelled, froze, got wet and grew hot. I cried, dreamed vivid dreams, felt guilt and pain and anger. In moments of loneliness I ached for company, and after days of speaking pure Spanish, desperate to express myself and my emotions in a language that comes easily to me, I yearned to be by myself.
But despite all of it I walked 400 kilometres in twenty days, a feat I never truly thought my feet would manage. I’m forever grateful to the Camino for teaching me – amongst other things – to have faith in my abilities.
The end of my Camino – or is it?
On the twenty first day of my Camino journey, I dipped my toes in the waters of the Atlantic ocean then boarded a bus headed to Santiago. Five days of walking took just three hours in my padded seat, staring out the window at the world whipping past with barely a moment to fully breathe it in.
The experience of walking across a country with total strangers and putting your trust in whatever might happen can yield some incredible, unbelievable things. Arrows made of stones. Orange light. Gifts of grapes, figs and chestnuts. Sideways hail. Shimmering roads. Owls in the dark. There’s magic in this part of Spain: but it’s present everywhere if we just bother to look out for it.
Three weeks, 400 kilometres and two thankfully blister-free feet later, I can officially say I’m one of many thousands of pilgrims who’ve walked the Camino Frances (or part of it, anyway).
The rest is yet to come – and I couldn’t be more eager to keep walking.