The Enchanting Spanish Coast
I know Santiago de Compostela well and my heart longed to visit the Spanish coast and see the ocean. So, I rented a small Enterprise van, which made me look like a delivery man for the day, and drove to visit three of my favorite places on la Costa da Morte (the Coast of Death) – where hundreds of shipwrecks have occurred over the centuries.
The worst of these occurred in 1890 when the battleship HMS Serpent sent off from Plymouth, England and ran aground against the rocks at Punta Boi. The shipwreck took the lives of 175 sailors. Only three survived. A cemetery can be found along the desolate coast. I stopped to pay my respects there two years ago while hiking the Camino de Dos Faros (the Camino of Two Lighthouses, which actually features 11 lighthouses. It starts in Malpica and ends in Finisterre).
The tragic loss led the Spanish to build a lighthouse at Cabo de Vilán high upon the rugged coastline. It was Spain’s first electric lighthouse and is easily my favorite lighthouse in the world. While sitting perched high upon the rocks looking out of the coastline which extends for miles, you feel on top of the world. While it is a secular site, I find it to be incredibly spiritual. I could have sat there all day and reflected on life.
Inside, I took a tour in Spanish of the lighthouse and learned more about the various shipwrecks that occurred across the centuries. The guide was somewhat hard to follow. The guides are all wearing masks, so if you count on reading lips as well as listening to understand a foreign language, you’re out of luck. I sometimes struggle to hear people speak English through a mask.
I left and drove to Camariñas for lunch – a pleasant coastal town and an important fishing center made famous for the beautiful bobbin lace work of its women. When I was last here, I bought a handmade shawl for my wife and carried it in my backpack back to the United States. Watching the women work their bobbins while conversing is like stepping back into history.
After lunch I headed to Muxía – one of my favorite places in Spain. It was surprisingly tranquil. Usually, the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crash ferociously against the enormous rocks and pilgrims and visitors sit a safe distance away and take it all in. This town of 4,700 is 3 kilometers from a famous Benedictine monastery that is now used as a church – the Church of San Xulián de Moraime. I stopped to visit it on the way.
I also stopped to visit a famous ancient church from the 12th century, which has a stone carving of a boat transporting the relics of Santiago from the Holy Land to Spain carved above the door of the church. It’s the only known carving like it.
Muxía is named for the monks who established the nearby monastery. A small percentage of the pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago make their final to this point as the final destination in their pilgrim. I call it “Camino extra credit” and have made this walk in previous years. There is a famous odd-shaped rock in front of the Santuario da Virxe da Barca (Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Boat), which sadly burned several years ago and has been rebuilt. Legend has it that this rock was actually a sail on the boat that brought the body of Santiago (St. James the Great) back to Spain after King Herod beheaded him in 44 A.D., making him the first of the disciples to be martyred. Ten other disciples would soon be martyred as well.
Legend also has it that if you walk nine times under this enormous stone you will never suffer from kidney disease. My father nearly died from nephritis or kidney disease when my mother was pregnant with me. So, long ago I walked nine times under the stone just as an extra precaution!
I then headed to my final destination of Finisterre. About 1 in 20 pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago continue make Finisterre the final stage of their journey. Finisterre means “end of the world” in Latin, and for centuries Europeans believed that the world ended here. After this spot there was the ocean and nothing more. For centuries, the Spanish motto was “non plus ultra” (nothing further beyond). After Columbus discovered Santo Domingo and America, Spain changed its motto to “plus ultra” (there is more). We actually now know that a section of the coast in Portugal reaches out further west than Finisterre.
Pilgrims nestle among the rocks to watch the sunset and mark the end of their Camino. It’s a powerful experience. Some gather in groups. Others sit silently in solitude, writing in their journal or reflecting quietly on their pilgrimage. Occasionally, an individual or a group will light a fire upon the cliffside rocks and burn articles from their journey – a shirt, socks or even a pair of hiking boots as a symbol that their pilgrimage is now over.
This time, I found Finisterre mobbed with people. Most of them appeared to have driven out just to watch the sunset. There was a very touristy mood, less settled than when I first came to Finisterre seven years ago. I have taken in many sunsets here. So, I went to the lighthouse inn and ordered dinner and a glass of albariño wine and sat out on the terrace taking it all in. I telephoned my brothers in the States to share the moment and check in with them.
Somehow Cabo de Vilán seemed like the most powerful spiritual moment of this day. The novelty of watching the sunset at Finisterre and the cloudy skies than melted into sunshine over Muxía did not touch me as much as I had anticipated. Life is like that. What we most anticipate is not always what most touches our soul. Perhaps it was God’s way of telling me that it’s time to move on to new Caminos, time to make new journeys. Ojalá as the Spanish say. We shall see.
With love and prayers from Spain,