Greetings from Santiago!
After exactly one month, I’m ecstatic to report that I’ve arrived at Santiago de Compostela! This journey has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. It was filled with physical pain, doubt, grief, and loss. I battled foot pain, shoulder pain, blisters, a cold, and chaffing. I fought the rain, the heat of the sun, and the chill of the night. Worst of all, I missed my grandma’s funeral. There were definitely moments when I just wanted to throw my walking poles and scream, but in the end I conquered all these small wars. When I look back, I’ll remember my success, the joy, new friends, laughter, good food, the history, and my accomplishment. I feel like if I can walk the Camino, I can do anything.
The last 100 kilometers was probably the least enjoyable for several reasons. First, the crowds have grown significantly. I used to spend hours alone trekking through forests and climbing mountains, but after Sarria I found loads of fresh faces with day packs. In particular, I see a lot more (loud) children around. Between St. Jean and Sarria, I counted just five children under the age of 16. Just five. After Sarria, however, I’ve passed hundreds of middle and high school students. Apparently the last 100 kilometers are popular week-long trips for Spanish youth groups, scouts, and schools. The kids and the crowds made it difficult for those of us who walked from St. Jean to stay humble. The newbies were loud, full of energy, and crowd the road. They didn’t walk for the journey, they walked for the vacation. Behind their backs, we Pyrenees-crossers made fun of these “plastic pilgrims” for their clean shoes, day packs, and incessant need to take photos.
The new faces contributed to the next problem with the final 100 kilometers: tourist towns. I never felt like the Camino was that “touristy” until the end. For the most part, I felt like I saw an authentic Spain throughout the journey. I wrote about this last week actually - I feel like I saw Spain in its beauty and in its flaws. I experienced the real Spanish way of life by going to the same bars, supermarkets, restaurants, and even beaches as the locals. This last 100k, however, reminds me of Branson, Missouri or Gatlinburg, Tennessee. There are many “pilgrim shops” selling souvenirs, restaurants geared only to pilgrims, and cartoon billboards on the trail that all distract me from the real purpose of this journey.
Lastly, the litter. The trail was so pristine at the beginning. I don’t think I saw a single piece of trash crossing the Pyrenees, but the closer I got to Santiago, the more litter I pass. It’s easy to blame the new faces for this problem, but Galicia’s limited resources might also explain why the litter hasn’t been picked up by a parks department.
But that’s enough dwelling on the negative! Santiago is incredible! I woke up early to walk the final 20 kilometers and arrive at the cathedral for its noon pilgrim’s mass. Waiting for mass to start was like a reunion; people I haven’t seen in days or even weeks started pouring into the jammed cathedral. I may not have understood the mass’s language, but it was an experience I will never forget!
I’ve only been in the city for a few hours, but I’m trying to soak up the history and culture. In addition to the pilgrim’s mass, I went to the pilgrim’s office to pick up my Compostela (certificate of completion) and tried the local octopus.
Finally, I saved the best news for last. Since I biked 180 kilometers and felt generally healthy recently, I reached Santiago more than a week earlier than I anticipated. My plan was to continue walking to the coast, but then a German friend told me to go to Rome instead. So just like that, it clicked: I should absolutely go to Rome. Why didn’t I think of this sooner? After some quick research and a budget check, I booked a plane ticket that night! So Tuesday the pilgrimage will continue to the center of the ancient world. All roads really do lead to Rome!
That’s all the time I have for now. It’s time to celebrate the Buen Camino with a well-deserved dinner and drinks before goodbyes.