El Camino, Part 5: the End of the Road. Or Just the Beginning?

Many people arrive in beautiful Santiago de Compostela every day, having slowly walked or ridden for hundreds of miles across Spain.  Some have travelled from much further away, covering thousands of miles on an ancient network of paths that lead here from the farthest reaches of Europe.  Many complete the journey for religious reasons; but most simply because the trail is there and for some reason they want follow in the footsteps of millions of others.

The old town of Santiago (of which this is not the best example) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The centrepiece of the old town is the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela….

…with its impressive facade on the Plaza del Obradoiro.

On the opposite side of the Plaza is the Town Hall, which was the focal point for public protests on the weekend I arrived…

Slowly making their way through the town, still following those yellow arrows, pilgrims congregate in the square.

They hug, smile, and stand and stare up at the Catedral. Many carry the scallop shell, which has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, for various reasons.  The shell is seen frequently along the trails, on posts and signs alongside those yellow arrows, to guide pilgrims along the way.  Carrying the scallop identifies you as a traveller on the Camino, although I’m not sure thats strictly necessary – the rucksacks, trekking poles and water bottles do a pretty good job these days.

They take photos, of the Catedral…

…of each other…

…and of one another.

It feels fraudulent to arrive in this square amongst such celebration and relief, having ridden just from the train station, despite the amazing journey from France to Leon.  To make matters worse, on the 7 hour train journey, which might have taken 5 days riding or perhaps 15 days walking, lush forests and hills that really needed to be ridden passed by the window in a blur. Only limited time stopped me finishing the journey, which feels so frustrating.

Inside the Catedral, a special Pilgrims Mass is held each day at midday, with the names of those who have logged the completion of their journey the previous day read out, along with their nationality and starting point.

The highlight of the Mass is the synchronisation of the “Hymn to Santiago” with the spectacular swinging of the huge thurible – the Botafumeiro – kept in the cathedral. Incense is burned in this metal container, which swings through the church on a pulley mechanism installed in 1604. Despite not being religious, footage of this looks incredible and I am sad that it wasn’t in use on the day I visited.

Outside, other bikers stand and chat briefly…

…before heading off to find a place to stay.

Whilst others stay and contemplate the end of their journey for a little longer…

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Santiago is also a university town, which means there is a great mix of young and not so young, locals, students and travellers.

Arts students work in the streets…

…but I don’t dare ask to take a look.

Oh…and of course there’s yet another random Fraggle Rock bar….which I seem to encounter all across Europe. What IS that all about?

Beatriz, who I met back on the Camino Aragones, tells me I must find some octopus – pulpo – so I head to the market…

Half an octopus is chopped up…

…into bite size chunks.

A dressing is mixed…

And the end result is delicious, especially with a glass of local Albariño wine.

I chat to the owners of the bar in the market, and help them correct the English on their sign. The girl is an architect but because of the economic situation her pay is very poor, other architecture jobs are incredibly hard to find, and so she also helps run this bar, as well as having a third job. Times are tough. But she is chirpy, smiling and happy, as are virtually all the locals I’ve met on this trip. As night falls, the streets of Santiago are filled with tourists and local families alike. This is a common theme across Spain – its so sociable, so family orientated. In the evening, everyone – young and old – is out on the streets eating, drinking and enjoying themselves together, despite the lack of jobs and poor pay. There is still a wonderful sense of community. It feels so different from home. It feels so much more the way that it should be.

As I pass back through the Plaza del Obradoiro later on in the day, I come across this lone cyclist…

…sitting quietly contemplating the end of his journey…

…before ringing someone, perhaps at home, to let them know that he has arrived.

I feel quite emotional at reaching the end of this journey. Its more than just the usual end of holiday blues with the looming nemesis of work in a couple of days; its more to do with the nature of the trip and the people I’ve come across. I feel that I’m just getting started and want to carry on doing this for a while longer. Every day I have met people from all walks of life who have chosen to take time out – perhaps a week, a month or a few months – to follow an ancient footpath through Europe. Some are here for a holiday, some for religious reasons, but most because they want to take, or have found themselves given, a pause from ‘normal’ life.

In Santa Domingo I met Esther, a Spanish girl who had walked a section of the Camino a few years before and who found herself a year or so into a pressured job that had not turned out as she had expected. Unhappy, but unsure what her alternatives were, she thought back to when she had most recently been truly content. Realising that this had been her previous time on the Camino, she quit her job, and travelled to St Jean Pied du Port to start walking, to give herself some time to enjoy living day-to-day, slowly contemplate the options, and be open to possibilities. Perhaps life is too short not to make those kind of decisions.

I also met, at different times, a couple of American students who were walking for the summer before heading to college. They were both taking their time, not forcing themselves to cover big distances each day. They would be up early, walk until lunchtime and, and then stop and enjoy the place that they had arrived at for the afternoon. They both independently said this was probably the only time in their lives that they would be able to take their time like this – the only time when they wouldn’t have a deadline, or a holiday limited to one or two weeks at a time. This really struck a chord with me. How depressing, and how ridiculous: a life of chasing deadlines, until you retire. Never any time to step back, to consider the alternatives, to explore.

On the Camino, and I imagine on other similar overland journeys, there are no nagging jobs to be done, no demands on time from other people, no office politics, no over-crowded commute, no struggle to fit in exercise around a busy working day. There is just a daily purpose to walk, or ride, along a path, and the simple needs that support that purpose: water, food, and shelter. Its refreshingly simple, and I suspect, fundamental to human nature.

I took a picture of myself on the first sodden day in the Pyrenees.  I was ill and tired after busy weeks at work, and I found the first couple of days hard. I take a picture on the final day, arriving in Santiago. I’ve been hot, dirty, sweaty and physically tired after two weeks of biking. My elbow is still bandaged and various parts of me ache. I feel emotional and frustrated that I’ve had to arrive in Santiago by train. But at the same time I feel incredibly positive and inspired. Spending all day outdoors, reducing my daily needs to the bare minimum, physically challenging myself every day, has been wonderful. I feel totally alive.

Whilst my experiences with others will have been much more fleeting that those of the walkers who often spend a number of days travelling with the people they have come across, I am still struck by the friendliness and openness to possibilities that many of the people I have met seem to have. On a simple level it makes it much easier, on a daily basis, to be open and engaged with others. When I arrive back in London I’m struck by how miserable everyone looks on the way to work in the morning, on how difficult it is to even make eye contact, never mind interact, with anyone that you meet. On my first week back in the office I feel physically sick and exhausted sitting at a desk all day in a stuffy, air conditioned office, staring at a screen. It all just feels so wrong. I desperately want to be outside, to be moving, to be exploring.

I guess this all just adds to a desire that has been building over the past few years. Before I leave Santiago, I write the last notes in my diary telling myself to not let the openness, the desire for change, and for fulfilment, to leave. To not lose the understanding that it is natural to want to go and explore, to be physically challenged, to be outdoors, to have time to rest, time to contemplate life. That these things shouldn’t have to be crammed around the edges of a week filled with desk work, the commute, the gym and the pub. That these things are more fundamental to being human than any of that stuff that currently seems to fill my life. I tell myself to follow this through. To break free, if only for a while. Perhaps even just for 6 months or a year; but to make that break. I can always come back to ‘normal’ life. I will never regret trying something different for a little while.

Posted in Across Northern Spain (2013) and tagged , , .

6 Comments

  1. Hey Chris

    I went through the same feelings at the end of Lands End to John O’Groats. I knew it was the end of this journey and the beginning of something completely new.

    I think many of us are searching for an epiphany, a pointer to how we should be living life. In reality it very rarely comes and its commitment to change that is required.

    As you know 7 months ago I left behind much of what I knew and have few regrets. Life is simple, it’s offered time to reflect and some clarity towards how I hope to live my life in the future.

    Dull grey offices may beckon at the end of the year but I will always look back on this period of my life with contentment.

    I hope your travels provide the same experiences.

    • Thanks Mike. I left a comment for Alex saying that I couldn’t imagine how he would ever return to ‘normal’ life after his Far East dirt road adventures, particularly after he talked about how wonderfully simple life on the road was. He replied saying that before he left for his trip, he had thought the same, but that now, a year on the road later, it doesn’t seem like such a big leap to make. Perhaps it is the act of making the break itself that is important, and that allows a change in perspective, without actually having to leave everything you knew behind forever. As Alex says, only time will tell!

      • I’d liken it to the final chapter of The Alchemist. Despite the religious and spiritual over tones there is an important message in there.

        You go on a wild and wonderful journey, which challenges you and forces you to grow. But often what you wanted was right back where you started. However without going through the process you would have never seen it. Clarity I guess.

        Whichever way there is a brilliant journey waiting with your name on it.

        Carpe Diem

          • My plan is to ride to Cartagena, Columbia. Time wise no idea at the moment probably October/November. On 23 Apr 2014 19:19, “(Un)Inspired Ramblings” wrote:

            > (Un)Inspired Ramblings commented: “I like that, especially as I’ve > only just recently read the Alchemist. How long are you planning on riding > north?”

  2. Pingback: Where did the motivation go…? | (Un)Inspired Ramblings

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