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My birthday present – the scallop shell tattoo I’ve meant to get since the Camino.

It’s used as a waymarker and a symbol of the many international pilgrims whose paths converge at Santiago. This is my second tattoo and one of the few things significant enough that I’d want it on my body forever.

This picture was taken minutes after it was finished, so it’s in non-inflamed monochrome for the faint of heart.

210/365

Woke up early today, in the middle of the mess of luggage that had been mailed from Alicante to meet up with me in Santiago. Spent the morning packing and drinking wine – we didn’t finish it last night, and how can we waste that Last Delicious Spanish Wine?

Before heading to the airport we had time for a few more lasts. Last walk around Santiago. Last visits to Spanish jewelry stores (looking for an engagement ring a little more permanent than the now-wilted daisy.)

Last small talk in castellano. Last Spanish breakfast. Last tortilla española and café con leche.

It was the Last Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice that did me in and made me cry. (Or maybe it was the morning wine – Last Appropriate Midday Drinking.)

After all that we finally did get on the plane, and left Spain behind to fly north to Dublin. It was cold and rainy, because it’s Ireland. I forgot how wet and cold rain actually was, or that sometimes you really can’t just wear sandals and put on a scarf and be warm enough. But we found the pub recommended by one of our Irish pilgrim friends, and we drank Guinness with the Irish grandpas. (Who are actually harder for me to understand than the Spanish yayos.)

209/365

Today was a day of lasts.

Last full day in Spain. Last menú del día. Last tapas. Last cheap, delicious wine and cheese and olives.

It was also my Last Risk of Death Due to Spanish Safety Regulations. 5 years ago I visited Santiago for a weekend – definitely a different experience, coming in by train from Ávila instead of on foot, younger and less accustomed to Spain and travel in general. While I was there, I rode the ferris wheel on the top of the hill in the center of the city – tall and incredibly fast and a little rickety. It’s still there, still somewhat creaky-looking, and since I was ballsy enough to ride it the first time, I decided I was ballsy enough to ride it a second time. So I did. It wasn’t bad. I don’t know if it has gotten less terrifying, or if I’ve just gotten tougher.

We wanted to have our Last Spanish Picnic with our Last Wine and Last Cheese (Last Drinking Alcohol in Public) but the park was too crowded (Last Spanish Outdoor Party) so we ended up having a picnic in our room at the pensión. After all that aprovecharing and all those goodbyes, I was exhausted and couldn’t even stay awake to finish the wine.

 

208/365

Finisterre back to Santiago.

Early this morning we woke up in cold mist, climbed back up the steep slope, and walked back into town to have coffee with the Galician fishermen before catching a bus back to Santiago. We’ll spend two more nights in the city before catching our flight.

We didn’t sleep much due to our night on the cliff that was more dramatic than comfortable, so once we got back to Santiago we checked into an albergue, wandered a bit, dozed in the park, bought some groceries, and then took a “nap” that lasted around 13 hours – so much for waking up and cooking dinner.

207/365

 

Santiago to Finisterre. (By bus – our walk is done.)

Today we took the bus to the coast, to Finisterre, where many finish their Camino after passing through Santiago. Once we got there I understood why. After the crowds and the vague feeling of disillusionment upon reaching Santiago, I didn’t want my journey to end there. This – the misty coast – felt like the end of a journey.

The Romans believed that this was more than that – Finisterre, or Fisterra, was considered to be the end of the world. We felt it, walking out onto the narrow strip of land reaching out through the mist and into the Atlantic ocean beyond it. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff and looking into nothingness.

We didn’t check into an albergue. Instead we found a ledge halfway down the steep slope at the very tip of the peninsula, with an overhanging boulder to protect us from the wind and keep us from falling off the cliff, and mountain goats clambering around on nearby rocks. My boyscout boyfriend built a fire for us to burn our hats and walking sticks.

Except at that point he wasn’t my boyfriend, because he used a daisy as a ring and asked me to marry him while we watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

(Perhaps because he knows me and knows what to do when I am distressed, and in this case I needed something to be excited about in the future once I cross that ocean again, instead of just feeling melancholy about what I’m leaving behind me. Maybe it was the only way he could get me back home.)

So we got engaged, watched the fire, watched the stars (thousands of them, incredibly bright), ate cheese and fruit (sliced up with a pocketknife), drank wine right from the bottle, listened to the waves crashing on the rocks beneath us, and slept wedged between the rocks that kept our slick sleeping bags from sliding us right off the cliff. A good end and a good beginning.

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Lavacolla to Santiago de Compestela.

We made it! And look how excited Santiago was to see us. Fireworks everywhere!

(Or perhaps it was because tomorrow is the feast day of Santiago, their biggest party of the year?)

This is the destination we’ve had our eyes on for the last 25 days. So what happens when you arrive?

You get to Monte de Gozo, the Hill of Joy where pilgrims catch their first glimpse of the city – or in this case, where you catch a glimpse of  suburbs, a gigantic monument commemorating Pope John Paul II’s visit, and plenty of people eager to sell you crap.

You walk through the modern outskirts of the city, beginning to feel a little sad knowing that you’re done with the mountains and the peaceful green fields.

You pass into the old part of town, where apartment complexes give way to cobblestones and old stone.

You get to the cathedral – a muddle of steeples and street artists and sweaty pilgrims – in time for the daily noon pilgrim mass.

You do not have time to feel much in the cathedral, in the press of other pilgrims standing or sitting or leaning against pillars during the service, and the stream of tourists pushing through with their cameras.

You get a little excited when they pull out the famous Botafumeiro – the huge incense burner that swings terrifyingly high, spitting out sparks and smoke. You feel impressed – by the bells and the organ music and the sweet smoke mixed with pilgrim sweat – but not necessarily spiritual.

You wander out into the bright sunlight and get someone to take an after picture in the crowded plaza.

You stand in line at the Pilgrim’s office and get your Compestela – the Latin document that says something along the lines of: Good job taking that long walk, pilgrim, and here’s a get-out-of-purgatory-free card.

You find a menú del día that includes octopus, but maybe secretly remember Burgos (and the meal that now will hold all meals to an impossibly high standard.)

You realize that since tomorrow is the busiest day of the year for Santiago – the saint’s feast day – you probably should have booked beds somewhere earlier. You end up paying too much for yet another dingy private room – but outside the window are the steeples of the cathedral, cascades of bells, warm light and plate noise of a restaurant patio below.

You take a shower, take a nap, wander the city, feel a bit wistful about the journey receding behind you, now that you’ve reached your destination.

You soothe your existential crisis with tapas, at an incredible place where ordering two glasses of wine sets in motion a seemingly endless stream of little plates filled with delicious things. You watch Spain beating the U.S. at basketball, which seems unimaginable, so you talk trash accordingly.

You find a spot in the crowd with a view of the cathedral, to watch a crazy light show projected onto the ancient facade itself – making it change colors, catch fire, extinguish itself, dissolve into darkness, and rebuild itself several times, before the sky explodes into fireworks around it.

You try your best to go out and party with the rest of the city – and perhaps the rest of the region – but feel old and tired, once again defeated by the Spaniards’ party stamina. The Camino is done, and so are you.

205/365

 

Salceda to Lavacolla.

Our last full day of walking – not even that full, since we decided to stop not too far from Santiago in order to arrive in the city early. We stopped at Lavacolla, where medieval pilgrims stopped to wash themselves before entering the holy city, in an age when baths were few and far between. Knowing how much I long for that hot shower at the end of each sweaty day of walking, I can only imagine the relief of getting rid of the sweat of 800 kilometer (or more.)

204/365

Melide to Salceda.

A rough day, although it was through beautiful countryside. I was exhausted because I couldn’t sleep last night, except for maybe an hour of dozing. Usually the combination of walking, sun, good food, and wine makes it easy to sleep even in rooms full of snoring strangers… but last night for some reason the magic combination didn’t work. This made for a rough afternoon, pushing through the thick humidity.

Everything was full and we ended up having to pay for another expensive private room – but this one was nice enough to warrant the price, which hasn’t always been the case.

203/365

 

Portos to Melide.

We stopped before we were really ready to – again, concerned about bed availability – to stay in Melide, famous for their cooked octopus (Galicia’s specialty.) On the bright side, this gave us time to wander around a bit, take a long nap, and stop at the grocery store to spend 2 euros on cherries and local wine, which we enjoyed overlooking the city at sunset.

Already I can feel Michigan creeping up on me, with its long commutes and cold winters and expensive wine and produce. I am trying really hard to remain in the moment, because these are some pretty great moments.

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Portomarín to Portos.

Instead of going on to a larger town for a stopping point, we stopped at the tiny crossroads of Portos so we could take a detour to see the ancient church of the Order of Santiago in Vilar de Donas. We ended up staying in a somewhat overpriced private albergue run by a family who owned a small bar and restaurant, and rented out rooms in the upstairs of their home – a traditional Galician farmhouse made of stone and wide wooden beams, with creaky wooden floors and the ever present buzz of flies.

The detour was definitely worthwhile – a leisurely 2km walk (feeling impossibly light and carefree, after leaving our packs at the albergue!) to the old church. The inside of the sanctuary is decorated with some incredible frescos. I like churches like this one that look their age, and aren’t cleaned up and roped off into a museum.

Vilar de Donas is not a very popular stop on the Camino, especially at this stage when people are racing for beds and fixated on their final destination of Santiago – only a few days away. It’s unfortunate that so many people miss out, and feels a little neglectful of the knights of the order buried here, whose job it was to defend pilgrims along the way.

You can see a tour of the church here, led by the helpful caretaker of the church.

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