Arriving in Santiago de Compostela (Blog #14)

Spaniards, like Italians, tend to be happy people with big hearts. They greet each other with smiles. They hug. They embrace. They are close to family and friends.

Arriving in Santiago de Compostela

When the Camino Primitivo merges with the Camino Frances on the third to last day, the walking traffic greatly increases and pilgrims switch from a quiet, sometimes solitary walk to a steady stream of hikers. The vast majority of them have started in Saria – located 100 kilometers from Santiago. This is the minimal distance needed to walk in order to receive a Compostela, an official document that you can frame or show friends proving that you have walked the Camino.

Most of those who were doing the much shorter walk this year were Spaniards, though many Americans traditionally do this as well. Some pilgrims, who have been hiking much longer routes, become perturbed when seeing those who arrive at the last stages and get the same credit for walking the Camino. I suppose that it’s sort of like Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers, some who worked for just one hour and got paid as much as those who had worked all day. But it didn’t bother me at all. It was just nice to seeing so many people walking and enjoying themselves.

The big change that I noticed this time were the number of people walking with dogs or young children. One extended family from Alicante took turns shepherding two small children in a running stroller. Different family members and friends took turns running or pushing the stroller. Owners of small dogs had their suitcases or backpacks shipped ahead of them and wore a small dog carrier on their back to carry their pet when it tired. My French friend, Christophe, shook his head. He wondered why people couldn’t leave their dogs at home, but I found it lovely.

Spaniards, like Italians, tend to be happy people with big hearts. They greet each other with smiles. They hug. They embrace. They are close to family and friends. Those walking the last 100 kilometers tend to walk in pods. By the last stages of the Camino, the groups are set. It is possible to start up a conversation with anyone along the way, but the groups have jelled.

The final three stages are easy walking. They are a bit shorter. There are no serious ascents or descents left, but everyone has tired feet and a body looking forward to rest. More and more people are also having their suitcase, bags or backpack shipped ahead of them to their next albergue, inn or hotel. They walk with just a light daypack and can make good, easy progress and avoid the stress of carrying a backpack each day like a Sherpa.

The night before my final day of walking, I stayed up late watching a marvelous Spanish movie about the death of the famous Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. He was killed for being associated with “los rojos” or Communists and for being gay. He was hunted down in his hometown of Granada by the Guardia Civil (police) and soldiers taking part in the national uprising under General Franco, jailed and then taken on a walk outside of Granada and shot.

Yesterday’s newspaper carried a story about the continuing attempt to try to locate his body and give him a proper burial – 85 years after his death. As I walked my final day, I found myself reflecting on the Spanish Civil War and the incredible division that developed between the military, the Church and the large property owners, who made up the Nationalists, and the Socialists, Communists and Anarchists, who composed the Republicans. I thought of the insurrection that occurred in Washington on January 6 and the speeches that inspired it, those who were sucked into the big lie, willing to hurt others and overturn democracy. It was one of the most shameful moments in American history. And I wondered how do you walk back from the brink of a civil war, where hot-headed people infuriate and stir up mobs, who do despicable things. Poor Federico Garcia Lorca. The world lost a great artist, a great voice, and a great human being.

Arriving in Santiago and the Prazo do Obradoiro in front of the majestic cathedral never ceases to disappoint. The sun was shining brilliantly. It was hot – two things that are unusual in Galicia, my favorite part of Spain, but a region which is not famous for its sun and heat. I checked into my hotel, strolled about, got a massage, bought a gift for my wife, and headed to the cathedral.

They are many seating restrictions due to COVID. Many pilgrims finish the Camino but cannot worship in the cathedral. There is no standing room only. Rather, perhaps 40-50% of the seats may be occupied. I was fortunate. I vested with the priests and took part in the service. The botafumeiro was nowhere in sight. This is the huge, magical censer that is hoisted by six men and swung in 100-foot arcs through the cathedral like a fire-belching rocket, was not in use. It’s a spectacular site to see, but it’s swung only when a group of pilgrims underwrite the cost of having it done. With COVID, I’m not sure that it’s being swung at all.

After worship, I toured the cathedral, took photos, saw the relics of St. James the Great underneath the high altar, and then made my way to Café Literarios. – one of my favorite places to have a drink. I read the sports newspaper with the latest soccer stories and then El País and ordered a delicious paella valeciana for dinner. Suso, the café owner, made “queimada” – a fiery Spanish drink made with liquor, cocoa beans and fruit. The person who makes it then says an incantation with pouring the liquid fire up and down and the alcohol burns off and a sweet tasting drink is left over. The incantation was originally said to have been made by witches. It’s extremely hard to find queimada in Spain, and the Café Literarios is one of the few places that offers it, but it must be ordered in advance. Fernando, a Spanish businessman accompanied by two ladies, offered me a cup of queimada.

I then took a quick walk to a small café, which was once a prison run by the Spanish Inquisition. Several years ago, the owner told me that when they renovated the bar, they found human remains buried underneath. They investigated and discovered that their property was a former jail. Only in Spain does this seem to happen! I savored a small glass of crème de orujo. It was the perfect end to a special day.

With love and prayers from Spain,

Marek

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