We'll meet again
WILLPOWER: There’s a reunion in Dublin on July 26th for those who have walked El Camino. MARY RUSSELL went back for more this year – solo
THE NOCTURNAL SIGHS, snores and flatulence of my sleeping fellow travellers in our 500-bed pilgrim hostel encouraged me to rise at 5am and venture into the dark for an early morning start on my way from Santiago to Finisterre.
A soft rain fell on the taxi as it headed towards the outskirts of Santiago, a surprisingly large town and not just a magnificent cathedral surrounded by tourist shops. Twenty minutes later, beyond petrol stations, supermarkets and blocks of flats, I find the familiar yellow and blue Camino waymark. From here, I walk due west towards Finisterre, ticking off the kilometres on the waymarks as I go.
There’s something about walking alone that makes the route yours; feet carrying you into a soul-space of silence broken only by cocks crowing and dogs barking. Deep in the dripping woods, the dawn chorus dies away. Ahead, the dark mound of Alto do Vento looms. By the time I’ve gained the summit, there’s enough light to reveal the gleam of silvered eucalyptus, snow-in-summer and forget-me-nots of unforgettable electric blue. A roadside fountain gushes with sparkling water which dances down my parched throat. This is walking at its best.
Ten hours later, during which I meet three other peregrinos, I collapse on a mattress on the floor of an old school turned pilgrim refugio where, trying to make out the gender of the couple on the mattress opposite snuggling up to each other, I fall asleep. When I awake, feeling hungry, all movement on the mattress has ceased and a group of energetic pilgrims has arrived carrying a huge wooden cross and singing hymns in German. Had they been in Latin I might have joined in. Instead, I seek Vilaserio’s only bar to have two fried eggs, a plate of chips and a shot of orujo, the Galician liqueur.
Next day, I cover only 20km but meeting a woman who says she’s walked 47km, I have to summon up all the Christian virtues I can think of not to hate her. Who’s counting, for God’s sake? (Me, clearly.) “Do you have any blisters?” she asks. Blisters are important. If they’re bleeding – the walker’s stigmata – you display them like war wounds. If you don’t have any, you explain, without any trace of smugness, that you had the forethought to treat your feet for months in advance with surgical spirit. Fortunately, my new companion starts to tell me her life story and since I’m not doing life stories today, I shed her without guilt. “I have to take a rest,” I lie. Strangely, she walks on looking even more relieved than I feel.
On the third day, I reach Finisterre, where at the “end of the world” Atlantic waves are breaking on a sandy beach. And despite having a minimalist 5kg rucksack – sleeping bag, raincoat, guide book, two changes of T-shirts, one change of shorts, camera, phrase book, first-aid kit, cell phone, compass and multipurpose soap – I’m glad to shed my load.
St James is said to have visited Finisterre. Jesus also made a legendary appearance. The Faro Café, one of the most pleasant in town, is run by a woman who has a fresh bowl of flowers on the bar counter. When she hears I am a pilgrim of sorts, she brings me a delicious slice of patata frittata (potato omelette). Two riojas later, she gives me a tiny leather purse with the name of the bar on it: Café Faro, 4 Calle Ara Solis. When the Romans came here, they found a Phoenician sun temple – the Ara Solis. I may have missed the brilliant Finisterre sunset, but I’ve received an unexpected gift in its place.
Of the some 100,000 people who annually walk westwards to Santiago, fewer than 10 per cent walk to Finisterre. This means there are fewer places to bed down, fewer cafes offering specials for pilgrims and fewer waymarks, which is why when they reassuringly appear, they’re like candles in a window. Each time I found one, I blessed the people who had put them there.
Locating these waymarks can sometimes be a problem and herein lies a secret. The people of Galicia are Celts whose natural habitat is the underworld – think Halloween or Puck Fair. And in common with the stated aims of the sublime British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, waymarks to the end of the world and beyond are there to subvert, annoy and tease. Some are concise, others clear as mud. Many point in two different directions. It all depends on whether you’re coming or going. This way is Finisterre, that way Muxia, the small fishing town that lies another day’s walk beyond the end of the world.
On my last day, on the way from Finisterre to Muxia, via Leris, I walked for hours without seeing a waymark of any kind or another human being. Then, faced with a choice between three unmarked tracks, I crossed my fingers, chose the middle way and pressed on. Faith in yourself and your gods, with a dash of superstition, make good walking companions.
Sunday, July 26th, 11am: a special mass for those who have done the pilgrimage will take place in St James’s Parish Church, Dublin, beside the Guinness Brewery
PITSTOPS FOR PILGRIMS
Seminario Menor: a 500-bed hostel in Santiago. Cost, €3. No need to book.
O Fogar de Teodomiro is a small friendly hostel five minutes’ walk from the cathedral. Cost, €20.
Creperie Cotte: A pleasant restaurant on Praza de Quintana, one minute from cathedral, which does good vegetarian food.
Distances: Santiago to Finisterre, 90km; Finisterre to Muxia, 30km.
Warning: If you plan to stay at the Muxia hostel be sure to get your Camino passport stamped in Lires, the halfway point.
Finisterre: The hostel doesn’t open until 16.30. I got a room over a bar for €15.
Guide book with maps: Camino Finisterre by John Brierley.
Useful Irish websites: www.onefootabroad.ie, www.stjamesirl.ie
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