On arrival in Santiago
I collected my Compostela from the Oficina del Peregrino and was amazed how diligently the stamps I had collected on the way were inspected. I assume this was to ensure that I had not cheated by using public transport on the last 100 km. I was also questioned about my motivations for doing the walk. I obviously passed the test and finally received my ‘parchment scroll’ which confirmed that THEODERICUM (my Latin name) ….had devoutly visited this Sacred Church for religious reasons (pietatis causa). A young German pilgrim cited ‘exercising’ as his reason for undertaking the walk and, in spite of his pleas, he did not receive the Compostela. He received a plain letter confirming his physical walk to Santiago and this letter was written in English.
Later I phoned my son Arno, who congratulated me on completing my pilgrimage. I also found a suitable room in a pension close to Praza do Obradoiro. Afterwards I visited a tourist office to enquire about trains and buses from León. As planned, Uta was due to arrive the following day and we had agreed to meet at the cathedral. I had to be informed of when to sit on the steps – waiting for her appearance.
Uta intended to walk / commute to Finisterre and back to Santiago. She could not hike the whole distance but hoped to manage as much as possible on foot. For the rest I gathered information on public transport along the route. It turned out there was no public transport near the Camino trail. There was not even any public transport intersecting the Camino path, and I realised that Uta would have to change her plans.
Just in case Uta arrived earlier than expected, I later joined some Santiago citizens on the stone bench in front of the Parador, the Spanish super fancy hotel now housed in the historic pilgrim’s hospital on Praza do Obradoiro. The sun was setting in the West and we enjoyed the last warmth of the day.
Don from New Zealand passed by and asked me to join the group of pilgrims with whom we had connected during the walk. I declined; citing Uta’s pending arrival. However, my waiting was not rewarded and my excuse to Don was probably not entirely truthful – I again felt more comfortable by myself.
The next morning – Uta’s day of arrival – was a Saturday and I first attended Laudes singing (spiritual singing) in the cathedral. A great number of bishops and priests in their ornate and impressive robes and monks in their brown habits were seated on the centuries-old choir stools and St James, in form of a bust and flanked by two columns, looked down onto the proceedings. The singing was quite an experience and consisted predominantly of singing by the clergy. There were solo singers with clear and beautiful voices reciting ancient scripts, followed by replies from the clergy choir seated in front of the altar. I had goose pimples from the sounds and from the colourful and ornate display of the centuries-old ritual.
Where the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela stands today, a chapel over St James’ coffin was constructed in 820. The chapel was later enlarged and by 899 it had become a well-known pilgrim church. In 997 it was plundered and destroyed by Muslim armies but St James’ tomb and his relics remained untouched. Construction of the cathedral began in 1075. The last stone was laid in 1122 and it was consecrated in 1211after the completion of ‘Pórtico de la Gloria’, the original main entrance on the west side with the famous Tympanum above. To protect the original Romanesque portal from the elements and embellish the façade, the famous Baroque face with its two towers as we see it today was completed by 1740, but the stairs to the portal were already constructed in the 17th century.
After the service I walked through the historic centre before attending the daily pilgrims’ mass at midday. This important service, which is a welcoming mass and blessing ceremony for all pilgrims who have just completed their journey, was always overflowing. I was early, found a good seat in the pew next to Martine and Jean-Pierre from Moûtiers in France and Tony from America – my old companions from far. Before the start of the service a nun taught us the pilgrims’ songs so that all could participate in the proceedings that would follow. At the end of the service we were fortunate enough to witness the ritual of swinging the giant incense burner, the Botafumeiro, which, translated from Galician, means ‘Smoke expeller’.
In the Middle Ages the facilities on the Camino were nothing like what they are today. There were no showers, not even cold ones, on the way and there were no washing machines or tumble dryers, which have become increasingly common. Washing body and clothes was done in rivers and streams and the last stream we had passed could be found about ten kilometres before reaching the cathedral. Here our forebears no doubt spruced themselves up before reaching Santiago. Clothes in those days were made of rough linen or coarse wool and a river wash, if at all attempted, would hardly be sufficient to clean and deodorize the garments. The resulting odour they brought to the church service offended the monks and clergy to such an extent that they found it necessary to find a way to mask the unpleasant stink and somewhat clean the air – hence the Botafumeiro.
In contrast to the lack of cleanliness during early pilgrimages, hygiene is a major part of our daily routine and the Camino is not lacking suitable facilities. With no such luxury available in the past, sickness and diseases were all too common. Often they were misunderstood and caused superstitions, which nowadays are difficult for us to understand. Bill Bryson in his book ‘At Home’, for instance, describes how in overcrowded cities like London in the 19th century it used to be common practice not to wash at all. Diseases like typhoid, scarlet fever, diphtheria, smallpox, whooping cough, cholera and others did their rounds and many assumed that these entered the body through the pores of the skin. By not washing, people reasoned, dirt closed the pores and sealed the body!
Lack of hygiene had extremely serious consequences and on the Camino countless pilgrims died because of diseases – the lucky ones finding a resting place in graveyards dedicated to pilgrims.
To return to the use of the Botafumeiro in Santiago: the stench of pilgrims in medieval times was sufficient reason to inspire the monks to tackle the problem and in the 11th century they devised a method of masking the offending odours. By copying the shape of incense burners used by the Catholic Church in holy practises, they constructed an oversized Botafumeiro, 1.60 m high and weighing 80 kg. This contraption was hung by a rope and pulley system from the domed centre of the cross-shaped church. Nowadays 40 kg of charcoal and incense are set alight in the Botafumeiro and eight energetic monks in red robes pull ropes that cause it to swing from one transept to the other. In the process the incense burner reaches heights of twenty metres and more and the swing from one transept to the other is about sixty metres. And what a sight this is – with smoke billowing out of the many slots, streaming behind the vessel and spreading over the congregation. What in the past was meant to deodorize and fumigate the disease-ridden pilgrims is nowadays relished as a spectacle by modern participants – no doubt some still being sweaty, especially during summer.
Sitting on the steps leading to the cathedral, I added the following to my diary:
‘My peace suddenly came to an end. It is now 18:00 and since midday I am waiting for Uta who today, Saturday, should have arrived either at 12:50 by train or at 15:15 by bus. In fact, as I mentioned before, even yesterday afternoon I was on the square, just in case she had bypassed León and headed straight for Santiago. Up to now there is no Uta in sight. People come and go, but my wife is not among them’.
I had pinned up a notice in the pilgrim’s office just in case we missed one another; it is still there, unanswered. Arno has not heard from his mother either and this is most mysterious. I don’t know at what time she could arrive tomorrow, the information office is closed on Sundays. I do not understand why Arno, who is the go-between, has not had any contact from her. I am worried that something happened in León or Madrid – but why no contact? I now have many hours available to continue with my diary, but under these circumstances it is impossible to put thoughts to paper. For now I can just wait and wait.’ In hindsight it appears to be a ridiculous idea to arrange a meeting at an undefined time on a big square. To top it all, Uta did not bring her cellular phone so that Arno could be in contact via SMS. I was the cause of this, I told her not to bother since my cell phone was no longer functioning. Why did she not phone Arno from a public phone? That is the very disturbing part – something must have happened. I had been so confident to see her by latest 16:00 and I was really looking forward to embrace her and for us to continue this adventure together.
I had just been informed that there was no bus at 12:50 and no train at 15:15: the information I had previously received was incorrect. There is only a train arriving at 19:45, which explained why Uta had not yet shown up. I felt a little better and more relaxed and decided to have a snooze in the meantime.
And then, just after 20.00, Uta climbed out of a taxi! We were very relieved to see one another and there was nothing to stop us marching on to Finisterre. I suggested to Uta that we make our way to the Atlantic Coast together. I did not feel like walking a further eighty kilometres to the end of the world, and with the advice from the tourist office that buses did not travel on the walking route, Uta would not be able to manage her Camino as she had intended. However, together we would find a way of getting there.
Uta and I had a lot to catch up on after three weeks apart and the next day we explored Santiago, saw the Botafumeiro swinging and had a wonderful and relaxing evening. We visited the tourist office once more to obtain further information on transport possibilities and then decided to intermittently walk and travel by bus along the conventional road to World’s End. It would not be a pilgrimage for Uta as was initially intended but tackling this together appeared to be the only sensible alternative. We set off the next morning and after three days of walking/bussing we arrived in Finisterre in good spirits.
Since earliest times the scallop shell has been the symbol of the many Caminos to Santiago as well as the token that identified pilgrims on the road. The Finisterre coastal waters had an abundance of scallops, so it was the practice to gather a shell from the shores at the end of the journey and display it on the return trip as proof that the pilgrimage to Finisterre had been completed. Today, most pilgrims carry a shell on the backpack from the outset and this is now a symbol for those on the way to Santiago. The shells can be bought anywhere along the route. I had started my walk in Frómista and refrained from displaying a shell. Initially I did not feel like a true pilgrim, one that had walked from far, or, as is often the case these days, has walked the total distance of about 800 km on the ‘Camino Francés, and when after a few days I considered myself to be a part of the community, it made no sense for me to buy a shell halfway through.
Why am I talking about this? Uta and I had late lunch in a restaurant above the harbour in Finisterre and she was brave enough to order six mussels which were served with some garnish on a scallop shell. It was not a big meal; it was rather minute for a big price. However, Uta, with her usual gift of seeing opportunities, asked the waiter if she could keep the shell. Her Spanish ‒ and mine ‒ was far too rudimentary for such transactions and the waiter shook his head and wagged his finger – so much for the effort!
We paid and just when we were about to leave, the waiter returned with a big smile and handed Uta an authentic shell with brown age marks – not the clean scrubbed white ones with a printed Knights of Santiago cross emblem as they are generally offered in shops. So, with my wife’s help I am now the proud owner of my own scallop shell, picked from the sea in Finisterre as proof that I had reached the end of the world.
Incidentally, the distinctive grooved lines converging from the rim to the narrow hinged part of the scallop represent the many routes that converge on Santiago. Another interpretation tells that it reflects the rays of the sun setting in the West at the end of the day.
The next day Uta and I made our separate ways on foot from Finisterre town to the Finisterre lighthouse. Uta walked on the coastal road and I took the path over the hill-tops further inland.
It appeared that we had picked a most appropriate day for this last stretch and for me it was the climax of my pilgrimage. After walking through the rough countryside of Galicia, nowadays the home of modern Spanish Galicians and in centuries past of the Celts or Druids, this was the culmination of what one could also call my spiritual path – my Camino of life. Perhaps I had left some of the modern hectic stress behind; perhaps my body, mind, spirit and soul had become less tense and more integrated – experiencing some re-alignment with the true compass of life. Time will tell and I will take note of changes if there is something to record – if there is progress. Uta, on the other hand, had freshly arrived from the modern world and had no time to adjust to this mystical miracle of the Camino.
When I say the day was perfect, it was exactly so. The peninsula was covered in thick fog, so thick that the visibility was down to a few metres and all sounds were muffled, as if we were surrounded by cotton wool. There was an eerie stillness and no one else was about. Loneliness engulfed us and rapidly brought a very different dimension to our individual walks and our being. On my walk over the hills the fog lifted a little but this did not diminish the mysticism of the past, which was still palpable. On ‘Monte Facho’ was where the Celts had built the high altar of their faith. It was here that their spiritual pagan beliefs amalgamated: at the end of the road, watching the setting sun and with hope of a continuation of spiritual and physical life the next day.
The pagans, like the Christians, Muslims, Jews, or anyone else in this world, must have received God’s blueprint, the one I suggest is instilled in all humans – making, to my mind, faith and doctrines in a specific religion less of a criteria. It is the blueprint that leads the way for all humanity and answers our questions and prayers. The issue was ‒ and still is today: ‒ are we prepared to listen intently and courageously enough to implement God’s guidelines and follow his wisdom once it reaches our awareness?
There are many ways in which our senses can be liberated: the Camino is one, and the mystic path to the Capo with its lighthouse is another. Uta walked all the way in thick mist. She could faintly hear but not see the ocean crashing against the rocks far below. A rabbit intersected her path but was hardly visible in the fog and vanished as quickly as it had appeared. She arrived much earlier at the lighthouse than I did and found a secluded spot behind a rock where she settled with her thoughts.
When I arrived she was writing some notes and asked for a little more time alone, so I clambered around a bit and found a fire pit behind the lighthouse. During medieval times, after months of walking and finally reaching Finisterre, pilgrims had worn out their smelly habits and to return to some more presentable form for their long journey home, they burnt their old garb in a ritual, leaving the past behind and starting anew again. Perhaps they likened this to the Phoenix rising out of the ashes. I did not seem to be able to muster such a significant notion, however I did bring a pair of rather old and well-worn pyjama shorts which I had used on the way – and set these alight.
Uta appeared and after looking around for a while longer, we walked back together on the coastal road. We took the bus to Santiago and from there we went straight on to Pontevedra where we had a pleasant stopover before continuing on our way home.
It was some weeks later that I realised that I had interfered with Uta’s plans and desires: her wish had been to make her own way to Finisterre on foot, by bus, taxi or any other means. This was to have been her pilgrimage, alone, unpredictable, and expecting no favours. My arrival in Santiago, earlier than originally planned, had changed all this and my well-meaning but uninvited participation on the final way west robbed her of a unique experience she had looked forward to and had found necessary to encounter. I realised that the solitude and the distance from everyday life I had claimed for myself I had unwittingly taken from her. The only time and space I gave her was the hour-long walk through the thick fog to Cap Finisterre lighthouse and the time she spent behind the rock. I am really sorry that I interfered with her journey.
Uta revealed that, instead of offering pyjama pants or some other item of clothing, she had written some notes. These notes had appeared as if a strong force had taken over and guided her hands. She had then set these alight. It was only much later, quite a while after returning to Cape Town, that I understood that Uta had received a very strong revelation at the time – while sitting behind the rock in the mist, she was made to realise that it is gratitude and love that are ground-breaking and fundamental and that having gratitude and love are vital in our existence, our lives and our being with others. The way this came out – weeks later and in a very modest way – made it very clear that for Uta this had been a defining moment and a rare and profound experience, not just a thought in a fog.
I on the other hand had walked around 470 km, had taken all this time for myself and basked in my achievement, but I clearly had experienced no such profound connection to the deep-seated internal blueprint. Uta, on the other hand, although deprived of her solo pilgrimage, had been blessed with an insight which I trust will strengthen and guide her in the future. This shows that, however significant a pilgrimage may be to us, the distance walked does not matter. Also, a pilgrimage need not be undertaken for religious reasons, there may be no obvious reason for the undertaking, although certainly without my walk I would not have written this diary.
A Pilgrim’s Rhyme
Wisdom becomes clear and is there to assess,
It’s no more blurred, or makes us guess
We will then learn and understand
The parts we missed are now on hand.
Those painful emotions that played havoc before
Will recede in time, thus lead to much more.
The rhythm of life in whatever we do
Can flow in peace – no stress to you.
Maybe this is what gets pilgrims inspired:
Walking endlessly, doggedly, even if tired,
Yet with purpose, without resistance,
Gaining clarity and rewards for persistence.
If we convert the souls’ inner space,
And transform the aura – the outer grace,
Feeling both to be joyful and firm,
Our feelings relaxed – with us in good term,
We then may live with more ease in this life,
Our being more peaceful – bare of strife.
Uta has realized that it is gratitude which is really significant, something I had not previously considered and I now understand and accept that this is a major subject, much deeper than the simple word suggests.
The meaning of a word like ‘gratitude’ can differ from person to person and allowance should be made for this. The same applies to all my explorations and contemplations in this book. I am not claiming to possess any special or specific knowledge or abilities. My thoughts developed while walking and while writing this diary and they are important to me. I would be pleased if they could also have some resonance for the reader.