You ride into Santiago de Compostella as one of a fleet of other peregrinos, a foot (or cycle) soldier in the veritable army of people who flock from all parts of the world to participate in the Camino. And all of them are wondering (along with you) where they will spend the night.
One thing I knew for certain: I wasn’t going to be staying in Monte do Gozo, the municipal albergue of Santiago. My guidebook describes it thusly: “[a] giant hospital complex featuring 800 free beds and all kinds of facilities” — a description that I did not find particularly effective as far as seductive brochure-copy goes. For the past two weeks I’d been sleeping in crowded dormitories, waiting in line for unreliable showers, and trying to remember to bring my own toilet paper with me when the need arose. I’d been dutifully hand-washing my delicates mid-afternoon, wringing them out (was this how Popeye got his forearms?) and then hanging them hopefully up to dry in the waning sun. I’d been stuffing foam earplugs firmly into place before turning on my side and pulling an institutional blanket up to my chin, hoping for at least one good night’s sleep.
At Santiago de Compostella I was determined to reward myself: with clean sheets, a reliable hot shower, and a towel that I didn’t then have to dry and cart along with me the next day. I was going to revel in a bit of privacy: a door that I could lock behind me! — O unimaginable luxury! — and maybe even a small ceiling-mounted, Spanish-language-only-but-at-least-I-could-follow-the-Vuelta-d’Espagne-bicycle-race-on-it TV set. The problem was: I knew that a lot of other peregrinos were thinking exactly the same thing. And despite the camaraderie which develops between peregrinos on the march, one small corner of my mind couldn’t help thinking of these fellow-travellers as rivals for the finite number of hotel rooms available in town.
This is my second night in Santiago, and I’m setting out for Finisterre early tomorrow morning, so I can reveal now that all ends well for the hero of this particular tale. But part of a proper pilgrimage is to attain a state of grace; which requires an act of confession; which is why I feel duty-bound to try and convey an accurate sense of what goes through a modern peregrino’s mind in all its brutal, dog-eat-canine glory. Which is why I have entrusted all of the above to you: in hopes of absolution.
When I leave tomorrow morning for Finisterre I will have stayed at two hotels in Santiago, one night in each — which means that I’ve still to spend consecutive nights under the same Spanish roof. My first night was at the quite pedestrian Hostal La Salle, the result of a booking made for me by a very helpful lady at the Tourist Information office on the edge of Santiago. Centrally-located, clean and private: in fact it has almost all of my above-stated requirements. Except for the TV. My second night was at the much nicer Hotel
Residencia Costa Vella. A little more expensive at 44 a night for a single, but they’ve got a lovely breakfast room, great coffee, and a bit of a view. And a TV in every room.
Without trying to cover everything a modern pilgrim does upon reaching Santiago de Compostella, I’ll briefly mention a few of the highlights. You must:
- pose for the obligatory photograph standing proudly with your bicycle in front of the Cathedral (see above)
- go out for a celebratory dinner with some of your fellow cyclists: the ones you’ve been playing leapfrog with for the last several days. In my case these dinner companions were the aforementioned “third declension of the Latin word for ‘happy’” Felix and his girlfriend Monica; and a pair of self-described “gnarly old broads” from Idaho, Carol and Sue
- stock up on souvenirs for nieces and nephews back at home (and at the same time try to find just one item for yourself which will somehow capture the whole Camino experience for you in the distant years when it has all become a fading memory)
- stand patiently in line to apply for and receive your Compostella certificate. At this point you must wrestle with what is perhaps the central dilemma for all non-Catholics on the Camino: have your reasons for undertaking this pilgrimage been spiritual or not? Because you will be asked this very question, and the Compostella certificate that you receive will have different (Latin) wording on it depending on your reply. I wrestled with this one for many a kilometre and over the course of many a cycling day. I wasn’t certain just what the Catholic church would consider to be “spiritual” (would my amateur-but-sincere contemplations of larger issues qualify?); and in fact I wasn’t sure that my reasons were anybody’s business except my own. On the other hand it was their certificate, and they had every right to set rules for the awarding of it… In the end I decided to offer up a kind of wishy-washy reply: my purposes had been “spiritual/cultural”, the hybrid term being a conveniently ambiguous way of describing what was, in fact, a very ambiguous state of mind.
- stand in another, longer line to enter the Cathedral through the Holy Door, which is only open during a Holy Year. Once inside the Cathedral the line continues up a steep, narrow staircase to a small room directly behind the altar, where you can then participate in another of the many traditions which attend this ancient pilgimage, by putting your arms around the enormous statue of the Apostle Saint James that presides over the altar itself. As you continue on you will pass beneath the altar, where you will find the reliquary that reportedly contains the bones of the Apostle; these were, in a very real sense, the seeds that began the pilgrimage itself centuries ago.
- attend a pilgrim mass at the Cathedral. In a Holy Year there are two such masses offered every day — at noon and 6:00 pm — simply to handle the numbers of people crowding into town. The highlight here has to be the spectacular botafumiero ceremony. This occurs towards the end of the mass, and begins when the huge censer that hangs from the absolute peak of the Cathedral’s interior is lowered to the ground. You can feel the entire congregation straighten up just a little more, and regain their focus (and prepare their digital cameras) as the incense is set alight. And then the whole amazing assemblage is sent soaring: first with a couple of sudden lifts that take it abruptly 20 feet into the air — it takes your breath away — with a billow of scented smoke issuing from it on all sides; and then it is set swinging side-to-side, with eight strong men pulling on the rope in unison to set it soaring ever higher, as one would have pumped the swings on schoolyards years and years ago. Until it is now plummeting in enormous arcs through space, from one side of the Cathedral to the other, from the absolute pinnacle of the Cathedral’s roof on one side down towards the floor at enormous speed and up again to an equal height; while organ music booms out over everyone and sets each rib-cage thrumming, and a poignant choral accompaniment brings tears to your eyes even if you are not a Catholic; and the incense fills every cubic inch of that enormous space. It is fabulous, and I went back to see it all again the next day as well.
In addition to these givens I managed to fit in a few more activities of a more personal nature:
- checking just one more time at the main Post Office to see if anyone had sent me mail; and finding a letter waiting for me from the lovely J
- sitting for just one more coffee and another slice of Tarta Santiago in an upholstered chair beside an open window, at what I hereby nominate as Santiago’s best coffee house, the Café Casino (founded in 1873: photograph above)
- sitting in a prime seat at one of the two (free) performances of a medieval mystery play, the Misteri d’Elx (also given sometimes as the Mystery Play of Elche). This was something I attended in complete ignorance of its origins, simply because the Tourist Office was offering free invitations to all who were interested, and because the performance was to occur on one of the two nights I was in town. This piece is apparently “the only medieval play which has been kept alive until today” (to quote from a brochure I picked up later). The text is written entirely in Valencian, and the music “includes melodies derived from the Gregorian repertoire, with Renaissance composers and Baroque and even later additions”. The two performances in Santiago were given in the wonderful Church of the Monastery San Martin Pinario, just a block from my hotel. All the singing was a capella, with organ interludes to stitch the acts together. And all the singer/performers were in costume — angels, apostles, the Virgin Mary, and even (I think, in the final scene) God Himself. For someone attending just on spec, with not one word of Valencian in his arsenal (but still willing to be bowled over by the marvellous), it was an amazing musical experience, one which sent me out in the Santiago night about six inches above the ground.
As I’ve mentioned already above: tomorrow morning I set out once more by bicycle, still heading west. I’ve reached Santiago de Compostella intact, but the end of the earth — Finisterre — still lies ahead of me. I’ll leave one of my two saddlebags at the hotel, and then reclaim it when I return in a couple of days to catch my bus out of town (direction: Paris).
The route I’ll ride (as advised by a hotel staff member who certainly knows this area a lot better than I do) is along the AC-543 to the Galician coast at Noia, and then following the coast to Muros, where I’ll probably spend the night. I’m told that this route is about 20 km longer than an inland alternative, but the ride to Finisterre will take me 2 days regardless, and it’s been ages since I’ve see an actual coastline, and the sea…