May 24-27, 2013. Muxia, Finisterre, and return to Santiago.
I had been warned. I don’t remember when, I don’t remember by whom, but I had been warned. “There will come a moment when you realize you are no longer a pilgrim on the Camino.” That moment came on the morning of May 24th. Had we the time and inclination to continue our journey to Muxia and Finisterre on foot, we would have remained Peregrinos. Had we retained an intention to walk further Camino miles, we would have remained Peregrinos. We had neither the time nor the inclination for either. On the morning of May 24th we boarded a bus bound for Muxia. We were no longer “pilgrims”.
That is not entirely correct. Within each of us there had been change. We would return to the United States retaining the experience of Pilgrimage, and with that experience came a different view of ourselves and the world around us. Once begun, that pilgrimage is lifelong.
May 24th, Muxia.
Muxia (pop. 5,200) is located 70km west of Santiago on the Atlantic Coast. For less than 10€ each we enjoyed a pleasant one-hour bus ride through the scenic countryside. For Peregrinos it would have taken 3-4 days. However, we were now tourists.
Part of the “Costa da Morte” (Coast of Death), this area was infamous for the many shipwrecks occasioned on its rocky shores.
Muxia is a quiet seaside village that in modern times still clings to its fishing roots.
From town we ascended the 230 foot high Monte do Corpino that provided a panoramic view of the village and coast.
Legend holds that it was here, near the site of the 17th Century Santuario (“Church”) da Virxe da Barca, originally the place of a pre-Christian Celtic shrine, that St. James grew despondent over his failed attempts to convert the local inhabitants to Christianity. It is said that the Virgin Mary appeared to him and offered encouragement for him to continue.
The church was closed, however an open window in the door provided me with the opportunity for these pictures. On December 25, 2013 the church interior was destroyed by fire started from a lightning strike.
This internet image reveals the extent of damage. The church was restored in 2015.
The 35 foot tall, 400 ton sculpture known as A Ferida (“The Wound”) was erected in memory of the disastrous 2002 Prestige Tanker oil spill which devastated the coasts of Spain and Portugal. The near derelict vessel sank offshore during a storm, releasing over 17 million gallons of heavy crude, an amount greater than was discharged in the Exxon Valdez catastrophe. A Ferida represents the environmental injury suffered from that tragedy.
Here also is one of the rare “Pedras de abalar” (oscillating stones) once used to determine the guilt or innocence of the criminally accused. Over time, the bases of these huge rocks have been naturally eroded, leaving a balance point beneath them. The crash of a wave, or even a strong wind may cause them to rock from one side to the other.
We stayed in the 8 room A de Lolo Hotel, which was clean, pleasant, and featured an excellent restaurant.
Good fortune provided us with late afternoon entertainment in the form of a colorful display of traditional music and dance.
While Finisterre is historically considered the “End of the Earth”, it is Cabo Tourinan in the Municipality of Muxia that extends farther west into the Atlantic. As the sun set we considered that only water separated us from home in North America.
Tomorrow we “tourists” would proceed to Finisterre.
We slept well, and later than usual for the Camino. Showered, dressed, and no arranging packs for the next destination. Were we still pilgrims? That question had yet to enter my thoughts. Breakfast at Hospederia San Martin was a cafeteria affair shared with those lodged on the lower and less “Spartan” floors.
The options were plentiful and well prepared.
Much like our second days in Burgos and Leon, this would be a day to take in the environs of the old city. However, highest on our list was to visit the Cathedral and attend the noon “Pilgrim Mass”.
We arrived early enough to score seats at the front of the left transept, near the main altar. To our surprise and delight, our Camino friend Brent had already scored a prime seat in one of the front pews. We joined Brent.
Brent and I had first met walking across the Pyrenees Mountains to Roncesvalles. He checked in on Christine when she was ailing in Burgos. We again crossed paths in Leon where he and his walking companion, Mike, had honored me by buying and wearing berets, adopting my practice of donning them at the end of the day’s hike.
It was appropriate and unexpected that the three of us would share the pageantry of the noon Mass.
For many of us, the big question was, “Will they light and swing the Botafumeiro?”
Christine and I have attended Mass three times at the Santiago Cathedral. It has been our good fortune to see the grand censer swing on each occasion. It is typically reserved for special occasions, however a practice has developed where for a fee a congregant may arrange in advance for this sight at a particular Mass. I believe that the fee in 2013 was the equivalent of about $300.00.
A nun took the podium and gave instructions to the assembly on proper conduct, specifically when pictures were allowed and forbidden. Essentially, once Mass began cameras were only permitted during the proceedings involving the Botafumeiro.
As stated in the preceding post: This massive silver “thurible” (censer) is thought to be the largest of its kind in the world. The current censer was crafted in 1851 by a goldsmith from brass alloy and plated with silver, it stands over 5 feet tall and weighs 124 pounds when filled with just under 2 pounds of charcoal and incense. (Measurements are from a unique 1983 study of the Botafumeiro that was authorized by the Cathedral.) A mass of incense is then poured atop the lit charcoal. It is suspended by a rope and pulley mechanism located high above.
The current structure dates to 1604. The Botafumeiro is next hoisted upward by 8 robed attendants who set the massive smoking censer into a swinging motion. The arc soon travels high overhead, from near the top of one transept to the other, achieving a speed of over 50 miles per hour. Over the centuries there have been a few accidents where the Botafumeiro separated from the rope in the course of its arc. In 1499 the rope broke, and the censer rocketed out, crashing into one of the side doors of the Cathedral. Reportedly, no one was injured.
The ceremony was a highlight for us, as was the reading of the numbers of pilgrims, listed by country, that had registered at the Pilgrim Office the preceding day. Although individual names were not given, we “heard” recognition of our accomplishment as the tally of those from the United States was recited. At the end of this post I will include a link to a YouTube video of the swinging of the Botafumeiro.
After Mass we occupied ourselves with wandering through the Cathedral and marveling at its beauty, art and history.
We passed before the Porta Santa (Holy Door), which is opened only during Jubilee years, years in which the feast day of St. James falls on a Sunday.
An effigy of Maestro Mateo is located at the foot of the central post of the Portico da Gloria.
Unlike the Apostle high above him, he faces into the church holding a sign on which was once visible the word “Architectus”.
Tradition held that if one gently “knocked heads” with the Architect, some of his genius would rub off. As with the other side of the column, this too was cordoned off to prevent further damage to Mateo’s granite skull.
We climbed the stairs into the chamber above and behind the main altar to embrace “The Saint”.
Beneath the main altar we visited the crypt which is reputed to be the repository of the earthly remains of St. James. The stonework of the tomb is comprised of part of the foundation of the original 9th Century church. Santiago’s silver reliquary, seen here, was created in the 19th Century.
Our explorations extended to the area and streets outside the Cathedral.
We continued to encounter familiar faces, including a couple, Claudia (Italy) and Sven (Eastern Europe), seated off the south façade of the Cathedral.
Store windows were filled with all things Camino, but apparently eight years ago I found only the octopi in a seafood shop worthy of a picture.
Tapas, wine, and beer made for an excellent lunch, with more sights to follow.
By pre-arrangement we joined Brent, Kris, and two of Brent’s Camino friends for an early dinner.
Others present included Sabine and Gerri (Netherlands),
Yosmar Martinez (America), who is an administrator for the American Pilgrims on the Camino (APOC) online forum,
and Una Barrett (Ireland).
Una and I engaged in a discussion during which I likened my time on the Camino to being in “Never Land” (from J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan”), where an adult may return to the spirit of youth and childlike wonder. “Tir na nÓg” she replied, “It’s Irish for “Land of Eternal Youth”, she continued. I would later recall those words for a reflection written a week later as our jet crossed the Atlantic bound for home.
We could not let go of Santiago, though that evening we confirmed our May 28th flight reservations on Ryanair, Santiago to Barcelona. Wandering the streets after dark we happened upon two more dear German Camino friends who we thought we would never see again.
Ramona and Kalina appeared in our photos at Orisson Refuge on day one of our Camino. We would later see them in Villamayor de Monjardin, and Torres del Rio. Mid-Camino, Kalina fell ill with pneumonia and spent a few days in hospital. We were relieved to see how well she looked. The four of us decided a late evening pizza and wine celebration were in order.
With a final “Buen Camino” we embraced and went our separate ways. Near midnight Christine and I crossed the square in front of the Santiago Cathedral. It loomed above us, echoing lives drawn to it over the centuries, lives changed one step at a time.
Peace Everyone, and Buen Camino. Pete
PS. Our return flight to Barcelona was scheduled to depart in 5 days. We had time to visit Muxia and Finisterre on the Atlantic Coast, but not on foot. To be continued…
We prepare ourselves for the big events of life that we can anticipate; a wedding, births, a new job, retirement, just to name a few. Arrangements are usually thorough with both practical and emotional preparation.
For a pilgrim walking the Camino, there is no event more monumental or anticipated than walking into the grand square and first beholding the majesty of the Santiago Cathedral. How many who have known that experience for the first time have given forethought to the emotional impact. I had not.
At 7 a.m. we were out the door of Pension Maribel and fast on the path to Santiago.
After a few kilometers we encountered an unusual Peregrino. He was tall and sun-darkened in a way that spoke of many days spent in the elements. He also wore clothing that channeled pilgrims of medieval times. He is seen here walking next to Christine.
His staff was decorated with a variety of trinkets, some ornamental and others of a more practical nature, such as a drinking cup. There were prayer flags and even a gourd. We had seen him before and had overheard other pilgrims remark, wondering if he were homeless or perhaps mentally ill.
I walked to his side and quietly asked if he spoke English. In a gruff German laden accent he said “yes”. He also expressed a willingness to slow his pace for a brief visit. He was from Austria and had begun his Camino in Jerusalem. It was a distance of over 5,500km! I calculated that at 25km per day with no rest days he had been no less than 220 days afoot. After an exchange of pleasantries, I asked what he intended to do once he completed his Camino, “I will get on a jet, return to Austria, write more software, and walk another Camino.” The gentleman then resumed his pace, quickly leaving us behind.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so it is with our species and gaps to our knowledge. We tend to fill those “voids of understanding” with speculation, conjecture, and “stories”. In the case of this gentleman the speculations were perhaps harmless, but it is not always so. Over the course of history some of the “stories” have resulted in great suffering, and even death on a global scale.
We did not see him again. However, in 2018 as we walked the Portuguese route of the Camino I saw his framed and autographed picture hanging on the wall of a small restaurant where we took lunch. I regret that I did not learn more about this most unusual, and possibly famous Peregrino.
A few more kilometers near San Paio we came upon a monument that declared “Santiago” and was embellished with symbols of the Camino.
The trail took us by Santiago’s international airport, Lavacolla, located near the site that medieval pilgrims had traditionally stopped to wash and purify themselves before entering the city.
We merely stopped to refresh ourselves before continuing on.
Soon we began to encounter vendors selling various trinkets and Camino related souvenirs.
The path, now paved with asphalt, was well-marked and becoming increasingly crowded with pilgrims.
20km separated Arca and the Cathedral. We had not yet reached the half-way point. There were signs of industry and development now interspersed with pleasant country lanes and eucalyptus woods.
A well-marked path lay ahead for us, but there were still the occasional “lost soles”.
At Monte del Gozo (“Mount of Joy”, elev. 1210 ft) we came upon a huge monument commemorating the 1989 visit of Pope John Paul II to the World Youth Day festivities.
The Pontif said Mass on this spot. The sculpture was erected in 1992 but, ravaged by time and the elements, it was removed early in 2021. Only the four large bronze plaques remain (image from the Camino Forum).
Two of the plaques refer to the Pope’s visit, one is dedicated to the 13th Century visit by Saint Francis of Assisi, and the final plate is an abstract hand with four fingers representing routes on the Camino, joining at the palm and then concluding at Santiago, seen at the end of the thumb. There are no plans to restore the former concrete structure.
It was atop this hill that we first drew sight of Santiago in the distance. For pilgrims this spot was appropriately named “Mount of Joy”.
At this plateau was a huge complex of barracks capable of housing over 500 Peregrinos to alleviate pressure from facilities in the city during holy years and other times of heavy pilgrim traffic. In counterpoint was the tiny Capilla de San Marcos (Chapel of Saint Mark) which was erected in 1965 at the site of an earlier chapel dating to the year 1105. There were also more vendors.
Down the hillside and a long flight of stairs we walked.
Soon we were into the city proper, greeted by the huge 2004 sculpture, Porta Itineris Sancti Iacobi (“Gateway of the Camino”).
This towering structure located in a pleasant park, features 20 bronze plaques honoring famous persons who over the centuries have been associated with the Camino.
On we continued through the heart of the modern city.
45 minutes later we had our first view of the Cathedral towers over the tops of lesser buildings.
In less than 10 minutes we entered the Praza da Inmaculada (Square of the Immaculate). On our right was the Hospederia San Martin Pinario Seminario Mayor where we had reserved a simple room with bath in the attic area set aside for pilgrims.
Portions of the lower floors are a more upscale hotel shared with the Monastery of Saint Martin. The Monastery dates to the 9th Century and its current building to the late 15th Century.
Straight ahead and down through the tunnel-like Arco del Obispo (Arch of the Bishop) we were treated to music by a lone bagpiper. We deposited a few coins.
Emerging from the archway we entered the expansive Praza do Obradoiro (The Golden Square). This grand plaza was breathtaking. To our right was the magnificent 5-star Parador Hotel, once a 15th Century pilgrim hostel.
There were pilgrims everywhere, among them many familiar faces from our days on the Camino. We walked to the front of the Santago Cathedral and as if struck by lightning our emotions exploded.
We cried, we embraced, and we cried some more.
Eventually we regained a semblance of composure. Opening our eyes to the evolving scene around us I became aware of a gentleman standing a polite distance from us. Behind him was a professional looking video crew. He was watching me with a look of concern. We made eye contact and he approached. In excellent but accented English he explained that his crew was filming pilgrims arriving in Santiago for a local news story. He apologized for the intrusion, “…but you are such a lovely couple, and we were wondering if you would mind if we took some video of you? If you will allow me, I would be pleased to take some pictures of you with your camera.”
We did not mind at all.
On July 24, 2013 a Renfe Express train heading into Santiago careened out of control a few kilometers from of the city. The train, capable of speeds in excess of 250kmh had failed to slow for an 80kmh curve. It left the tracks, emergency brakes engaged, at twice that speed. Of the 222 people aboard, including 4 crew, 143 were injured and 79 died. The engineer was tried for negligent homicide and served a 4-year sentence. (picture from BBC News)
Images of the disaster and background information about Santiago received national and international coverage. We soon learned that video of us embracing before the Cathedral was included in the coverage.
We ascended the stairs of the Cathedral and entered. The exterior Baroque facade dates to the 18th Century, covering Maestro Mateo’s (1100-1150) famed 12th Century Portico de la Gloria (Door of Glory), and capping the original Romanesque towers. This image of the Portico is from a 19th Century painting.
At the center of the Portico’s three ancient arches, which were undergoing restoration in 2013, is a column with the image of Saint James at the top.
Over the centuries, millions of pilgrims have placed their hands at the base of the column in veneration of the Saint. A close examination reveals the resulting hand impression left in the granite sculpture. The pillar is now cordoned off in order to preserve the stone from further deterioration.
I was still wearing my pack as we entered and walked down the main aisle. In the distance was the golden main altar, and above it hung the fabled Botafumeiro.
This massive silver “thurible” (censer) is believed the largest of its kind in the world. Crafted by a goldsmith from brass alloy and plated with silver, it stands over 5 feet tall and weighs 124 pounds when filled with just under 2 pounds of charcoal and incense. (Measurements are from a unique 1983 study of the Botafumeiro that was authorized by the Cathedral.) A mass of incense is then poured atop the lit charcoal. The Botafumeiro is next hoisted upward by at least 8 robed attendants who set the massive smoking censer into a swinging motion. The arc soon travels high overhead, from near the top of one transept to the other, achieving a speed of over 50 miles per hour. This image is from May 23rd.
Above the altar is the visage of Santiago in glory. A passage below gives access to his crypt and reliquary. Another set of steps lead up to a small chamber behind the statue of Santiago. Here the devout may embrace “the Saint” and peer out over his shoulder into the main aisle of the Cathedral. We would visit those features another day.
Some outside of the Catholic Church criticize as idolatry the “worship” of statues by the faithful and members of other religions with rich artistic traditions. It was explained to me that the images and relics are not the subject of worship, but rather symbols of focus to aid the believer in achieving greater attention to prayerful and meditative thought.
We left the Cathedral bound for the Pilgrim Office in order to present our credencials as proof that we had earned the right to each receive our Compostela. It was another occasion that brought tears.
That accomplished, we checked in at the Hospederia San Martin Pinario and took a few moments to relax and unpack in our simple but spotless room atop the monastery.
At 4 p.m. we returned to the Cathedral’s main square, drawn to continue the experience of our arrival. At center was the Cathedral.
To the left the Parador, known as the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos and originally built in 1499 as a pilgrim hospital. It is considered to be the oldest hotel in the world. (Wikipedia image)
To the right is the College of St. Jerome, founded in 1501. (Wikipedia image)
Behind us were municipal offices and the Neo-Classical designed Town Hall. We would return there after dark for some traditional outdoor entertainment. This picture is from our 2018 Camino.
There were more familiar faces from our days on the Camino. A wave of the hand here, a nod there, and then… Kris Ashton!
We joined together in a long group hug followed by pictures of Kris, Christine, and Marshmallow in front of the Cathedral.
The three of us proceeded to the Pilgrim Office where Kris obtained her Compostela, and then we retired to a small tapas bar for wine and an opportunity to “process” all that we had each experienced over the past 24 hours.
The reflections went much deeper than that. We spoke of dear people who we had met, knowing we would never see them again. I specifically mentioned Roberto Del Pino Guzman, originally from Spain but a citizen of the UK for most of his life. Over 4 weeks ago Roberto and I, along with his Brit friend John, spent part of a day walking together to Villamayor de Monjardin.
We shared our personal stories, and I felt a connection with Roberto. But for geography I believe that we would have been close friends. I had barely paused my recounting of this to the women when into the bar walked Roberto! We mirrored each other’s looks of shock and wonder.
Roberto told us that he had sought a safe place to keep his bag for the afternoon. The bartender agreed to secure the pack which allowed Roberto to do some final sightseeing before meeting a friend and traveling on to Portugal. Returning to the bar he was minutes from that departure. I am again reminded of the words of Eddie, our 2018 hotelier in Puerto Rico, (who had also walked the Camino!) “Peter, in life there are no coincidences.”
Saying farewell to Roberto we continued reminiscing. Kris then invited us to join her and other Camino friends, including Mary and Les Virtue, to her room at the Parador.
Kris’s husband Dennis had reserved nights for her in that amazing hotel. Palatial only begins to describe the accommodations.
A single night’s lodging there easily cost more than all of the nights Kris spent in albergues, casa rurales, and small inns over the course of her entire Camino.
As night fell we returned to the Praza do Obradoiro where the west facing Cathedral was bathed in the golden glow of a setting Sun, a Saint holding the rising Moon in the palm of his hand.
Peace Everyone, and Buen Camino. Pete
PS. At 10 p.m. we were drawn to the sound of guitars and male voices raised in song. Beneath the arches of the municipal building was an assembly of men in rich attire. This was a “Tuna”, and the members individually known as “Tuno”.
Originating in 13th Century Spain and Portugal, these were groups of university students who gathered to serenade for the coins that provided them with the funds to buy food and continue their educations. Today the men are more a fraternal group, joining for the fun of continuing a centuries old tradition. They play traditional instruments and wear garb similar to that worn by university students in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The patches on their capes are collected from towns and countries that they have each visited.
I enjoyed a very unique experience with a Tuna in 2018 which was memorialized in a video. If you choose to watch pay special attention to what unfolds at 1 minute 45 seconds into the video. Here is the link: “Pete and the Santiago Tuna”, or just “click” the picture.
Awake, I knew in my bones that this day was different. How was that possible? On the Camino the last 39 days we had experienced every kind of weather. The trail had presented us with every condition and trial. We had endured illness and injury. Each day had offered new friendships with like-minded people from the world over. At 19km the distance was not significantly different compared to any other day. So, how could this day possibly be different.
It weighed upon my spirit much like my pack bore down on my shoulders. This day, tonight, would be the last one slept on the Camino. Tomorrow we would walk into Santiago.
The three of us said goodbye to our hosts at Pension Casa Frade and left Arzua, the last major population center before Santiago, quickly finding ourselves embraced by the early morning peace of the countryside.
Kris and Christine kept close, a mirror of their friendship while I with wandering eye looked for photo opportunities.
I also played music from my iPod through earphones. For some Peregrinos it is deemed heresy on the Camino to conceal Nature’s music with that orchestrated by man. For me, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and especially “Hallelujah”, among others provided an emotional soundtrack to the magnificent cinema that played out before me, one step at a time.
Country land, forest path, verdant canopied woods, It was a day that hinted at the reward to come tomorrow, a metaphor for the Paradise that many believe awaits us at the end of a life’s journey well lived.
As if to reinforce my thoughts I smiled as I came upon another allegorical example of the “now”, and the “hereafter”. The J. F. Abel Construction Company proudly presented “before and after” examples of structures that it had “resurrected” from one life into another. How lovely it would be to retire to Spain and settle into one of those enchanting homes with ancient roots.
The path provided other reminders of past travels and the venerated long forgotten.
There were also those who sought Santiago, only to have their journey rerouted to a more final destination.
At age 69, Guillermo Watt, a pilgrim on the Camino, died of a heart attack on this spot on August 25, 1993. Guillermo, variously identified as an Englishman or of Swiss origin, was only a day, 25km, from his destination. His monument reads, “He embraced God at the age of 69, a day from Santiago on August 25, 1993, now alive in Christ.”
Since Sarria the number of pilgrims walking the Camino had grown exponentially. We now frequently encountered organized groups who walked together, largely keeping to themselves.
Between 2013 and 2020 Kris Ashton shepherded 7 different groups on the Camino. Each of these were made up of members of a Colorado hiking club. Kris has also had the experience of walking a number of “solo” Caminos. In discussing the difference between these experiences she explained that in spite of her efforts to encourage the groups to spread out and embrace the multi-cultural friendships that the Camino offers, group members tended to remain consolidated. It would be easy to conclude that the members miss something important in not “mixing” outside the group. However, it occurs to me that a shared experience among friends who will remain in close contact for years to come also has special value.
Nearing our destination for the day we again had to hazard a crossing of the increasingly busy N-547.
Arca (parish) O Pino (municipality) Pedrouzo (administrative district), “Arca” for short, presented an unusual church that was worth a visit.
Igrexa de Santa Eulalia (Church of St. Eulalia) was “new” by Camino standards. The original 17th Century edifice was destroyed by fire in the 19th Century. Rebuilt, the church, also known as “La Iglesia de la Concha” (Church of the Shell), has a simple exterior, but features an unusual apse formed in the shape of a scallop shell, a symbol of the Camino.
There was also a noteworthy statue of a saint in the garb of a medieval pilgrim.
Often mistaken for St. James (Santiago), this was San Roque (born 1295 or 1348, died 1327 or 1376). San Roque is the patron saint of dogs, invalids, falsely accused people, and plague victims, among other things. His fame and journey to sainthood began at birth when his “barren” mother, praying to the Virgin Mary, was graced with the child. Roque was born with the birthmark of a cross on his chest. He was reputed to be a holy and devout child into adulthood. Coming of age, he abandoned his worldly possessions and pursued a life of austere simplicity, ministering to the poor and those afflicted with the Plague. During the ravages of the “Black Death” he himself fell ill and retreated into the woods to die. He survived thanks to the help of a dog that brought him bread, water, and healed Roque’s wounds by licking them. Thus, statues of him are distinct for the presence of a dog with a loaf in its mouth, the lifted skirt with the Saint gesturing to a wound on his leg, and the garb of a pilgrim.
As a patron saint of plague victims, veneration of San Roque has found renewed popularity in the era of COVID-19.
We bid goodbye to Kris before reaching our accommodations for the night. Kris wished to experience the meditative solace of a night alone and the solitary walk into Santiago the next day. We understood how our experience as a couple might become a distraction for her. With hugs held long we parted, no assurance that our paths would again cross.
Christine and I lodged at the very comfortable Pension Maribel. However, the delight of the evening was served at the nearby Café-Bar O Pedrouzo. Not a place for vegetarians, this restaurant was a tour de force for any meat lover. We were served one of the finest beef dinners that we have ever experienced.