Our fifth and final week started out with the goal of reaching the town of Melide. Ian was rather tired. I don’t blame him: the night before had to have been the worst bout of choral snoring we’ve heard since we embarked on this journey.
We came to Leboreiro, which has a church built sometime during or before the 15th century. There are some wall paintings in the church that I wanted to see, but, like a number of things I’ve wanted to see after hearing or reading about them, the church was closed. It was disappointing. After Leboreiro, I told Ian to go ahead to the albergue so he could take a nap. Then I went on by myself. It wasn’t too bad for me, because it was mostly even ground. I crossed a small medieval bridge over (I think) the Río Seco – which wasn’t very seco – into the village of Disicabo, where I stopped at a roadside café for a lunch of empanada gallega and orange soda.
There was another downhill stretch through a beautiful forested area just before Furelos, and that had me creeping along, but then I came to another, bigger, medieval bridge leading into Furelos. I saw a poster on the wall in an albergue a couple of days ago called “The Bridges of the Camino” with photos of many of the bridges we have crossed. Most of them are hundreds if not a thousand or more years old. I don’t know why they fascinate me so, but they do. I sort of wish I had that poster.
Shortly after crossing the bridge, I met Ian coming back. He hadn’t taken a nap. He walked with me through Furelos and up a short hill to Melide. Our albergue there was full of Italian bikers traveling together. I was the only woman in the place! It meant hearing lots of snoring, and averting my eyes as old men walked around in their underwear. But it also meant I got the whole women’s bathroom to myself.The following day we stopped in the town of Santa María to see the 12th-century Iglesia de Santa María. The apse is decorated with frescoes from the 15th century, and this time I got to see them. It sort of made up for missing the ones in Leboreiro. Sort of. Not as spiritual, but way funnier, was the display of trinkets and souvenirs at a shop right in front of the church. But hasn’t it always been that way? The open areas around churches seem like a natural place to set up shop with a potential for many customers.
The other highlight of the day for me was the bridge over the Río Iso in the village of Ribadiso. My guidebook says there has been some sort of bridge over the river at this spot since the 6th century, but this bridge didn’t look more than eight or nine hundred years old.
This bridge and its surroundings were quite popular. People, including myself, were sitting on its walls; a couple of people were napping on the flat stones at its entryway; people stopped to pose on it for pictures and to take pictures from it of the little river running beneath it. There were two guys on bikes who stopped for a good 15 minutes at the bridge, and one of them rode over it at least three times while the other videoed him doing it. A couple of women took off their shoes and socks and waded in the water near the bridge. For a little while, it was almost like a holiday.
We stopped for the day in Arzúa, where we stayed at the Albergue Don Quijote. With such a name, how could we not stay there
A good part of the trail the next day was through forested area, either some kind of pine or, later on, eucalyptus. (The eucalyptus were imported for the paper industry because it is such a fast-growing tree.) Since the sky was overcast and it had rained a little the night before, the trail through the woods was somewhat dark at times and damp. I really liked it. I was even alone part of the time. Not for long, though, because the Camino continues to be busy with groups on foot and groups on bikes, but every once in a while I was able to enjoy a bit of solitude.
We passed through several small villages as we approached our goal of the town of Arca. During our first week or so of the Camino, we went through countryside and passed through only a village or two between our starting or stopping points, but in this last stage there seems to be a village or hamlet every half mile or so. Perhaps it’s just a matter of the route the Camino takes and not of actual population. At any rate, many of the hamlets we’ve passed through seem half-abandoned. There are many boarded up buildings, some with crumbling walls or caved-in roofs. It’s a little sad.
Ian and I reached our albergue in the town of Arca, aka O Pedrouzo, aka O Pino. After getting ourselves settled, we went to a restaurant for dinner and had salad and pizza and real ice cream for dessert. It was delicious! I think it was sort of a celebratory feast since tomorrow would be our last day on the Camino.
On our final day, the Camino passed through a small town called Lavacolla. About six miles from Santiago, it’s situated near a river where pilgrims used to stop and wash off the grime of their travels before approaching the cathedral in Santiago.
In the village of San Marcos, I visited a tiny chapel that had what looked to me like an interesting pietá carved out of stone. Not far from the chapel was a big monument dedicated to Pope John Paul II and Saint Francis.
Of more interest to me, but alas I didn’t see it myself, was a sculpture on Monte de Gozo, just outside of San Marcos. Monte de Gozo means “Mount of Joy” and is so called because pilgrims were so glad to see the end of their journey in sight. Ian took a slight detour there (I declined to do so because I didn’t want to walk any farther than I had to) and, from a certain point on the mount, he caught sight of the spires of the cathedral in the distance and saw the sculpture I wish I had had the strength to visit: two larger than life pilgrim statues pointing the way to the cathedral. He said later that, while he was standing there, he took a moment to reflect on the journey to this point and a feeling of peace washed over him. It was almost over and he’d be at ease with the whole experience.
From Monte de Gozo it is about a mile and half downhill to San Lázaro, a suburb on the outskirts of Santiago. To give an idea of the state of my feet, it took me two hours to do that bit. As I was going down the hill, I was passed by three nuns in black habits and white walking shoes. They all wished me buen camino. The last one said, “Is everything all right?” I gave my spiel about tendinitis and walking slowly and arriving eventually at my destination. Indicating the crucifix on the little rosary she had in her hand, she then said, “He accompanies you.” Don’t I know it, sister.
It was a long walk from the city boundary to the old town and through that to the cathedral. It was crowded with pilgrims and tourists, and taxis kept driving through even though in this particular section the streets were marked as pedestrian areas. There were people selling hats and jewelry and t-shirts and pins and magnets and walking sticks (why, when you’ve already arrived?), and there were a couple of beggars and a woman playing a bagpipe. It occurred to me that it was sort of medieval that way: noisy and crowded and colorful.
Ian and I finally came out into the Praza do Obradoiro, the plaza in front of the cathedral. There were crowds milling around here or sitting on the ground, and piles of abandoned bicycles while their riders – recognizable by their biking togs and helmets – hugged each other and took photos. We took our own photos, of course.
We decided to check in at the pilgrim office and get our compostelas (as they call the official certificates of completion) before visiting the cathedral. But first we had to find the office. We tried to find it according to our guidebook but weren’t having much luck when we met an older woman who was touting for a local albergue. She asked us if we had a room for that night. We said we did, but could she please point us in the direction of the pilgrim office? She generously offered to take us there. As we walked back across the plaza (a huge, huge place), she explained that the city had changed the location of the office the year before but that they hadn’t put up any signs indicating where the new one was. We also chatted about the Camino experience, and how many pilgrims there seemed to be this year. She was a very kind and gracious woman. When we got to the corner, she pointed toward the office and wished us a good end to our journey. I offered to shake her hand but she said no, we were such nice people we deserved a kiss. So she gave both Ian and me the two-cheek embrace. We thanked her again, and off she went to see if someone else needed a place to stay.
When we got to the pilgrim office, we found a very, very long line of pilgrims waiting. We were told the wait would be about two and a half hours. No, thank you. It was suggested we come back first thing in the morning when the line would not have had much time to form. Since it was 3:30 pm and since we had to check into our hotel by 5:00 pm, we decided to take that advice.
Because we didn’t go into the cathedral or get our compostelas, the whole termination of our pilgrimage seemed rather anti-climactic. Perhaps the next day would make it seem more real.
So we got up early the next morning and made it to the pilgrim office a little after 8:00 am. There was a line, but a much shorter one. We only had to wait about half an hour. We filled out a form with our name, our occupation (why?), hometown, place we started from, and whether we’d come on foot, bicycle, or horseback. We also had to state the purpose of our pilgrimage, whether it was religious, spiritual, historical, or cultural. I noticed a lot of the names before mine had checked “religious”. Then the clerks filled out our compostelas with the date and our names written in Latin – or as close to a Latin equivalent as they could get. Then we were done!
We had breakfast, went to church at a very friendly LDS branch (where another Camino pilgrim was also in attendance), and then returned to the cathedral. There was restoration construction going on on the façade facing the Praza do Obradoiro, so we couldn’t enter by the Puerta de la Gloria where the Tree of Jesse is. Instead, we entered by the Puerta de las Platerías, or Silversmiths’ Door, so called because lots of jewelers and silversmiths carried out their trade in the area. In fact, there are still quite a few shops today selling fine jewelry.
The Altar Mayor with the statue of St James is one big, ornate, golden affair, too much to take in at a single grand viewing. You have to sit and examine it, and every now and then some feature – some scroll or leafy floral array or some angel – stands out demanding your attention. You marvel at it and then your eyes move on.
The cathedral, or the original part of it, is Romanesque, having been built between 1075 and 1128. But it’s hard for those ignorant of architecture (like me) to tell it’s Romanesque with all the additions and modifications and 18th-century façades that have been pasted onto it. There was one chapel inside that had some wall paintings that looked pretty cool, but I don’t know what century they were from.
Ian and I stood in a long line to go up behind the altar to see the back of the statue of St James. The tradition is to hug the statue from behind and whisper thanks or some little prayer. I didn’t hug the statue, but I patted it on the shoulder. I don’t feel any particular connection to Santiago – no prayers to offer or boons to ask – and my thanks go to my Father in Heaven himself, but I wanted to go up behind the statue because that’s part of the age-old process, and I wanted to do something that thousands and thousands of people have done for hundreds and hundreds of years before me. Sort of like pilgrim solidarity.
Next, again following tradition, we went down into the crypt where we saw a reliquary holding the supposed remains of St James. I have a strong suspicion they’re not really his.
Later that evening, as we walked back to our hotel, it was drizzling and the streets were wet. Some people had umbrellas and some did not and they went about with a fine netting of droplets in their hair. The spires of the cathedral that showed above the rooftops were partly shrouded in mist. It was a lovely, cool evening, still light in the sky. Everything came together to create a quietly enjoyable conclusion to our journey.