Distance walked: 6.5 miles
Due to the lack of albergues at an intermediate distance from Santiago, I had splurged a bit and stayed at a hotel in Lavacolla. The place was not much to write home about, although they did have a good wifi connection in the common area of which I took advantage to watch the season finale of Game of Thrones. Priorities! I was getting strange looks from other patrons as I sat there in an armchair near the bar with my headphones on, whimpering and gasping and occasionally squirming and squealing during the fight scenes (did you watch this episode? Crazy!) Finally the bartender came over and looked over my shoulder at my iPad to see what the heck was my problem. “Ahh, Juego de Tronos,” he nodded sympathetically.
I had trouble sleeping. I had all of my stuff for the next morning laid out on the table, just like I would the night before a triathlon or a big trip. Even though it was going to be a very short day of walking and I had been doing this exact same thing every morning for four weeks, the sense of anticipation was so much greater now. I intended to get up relatively early, since I wanted to get into town before the hordes of pilgrims that were traveling from farther distances.
A good omen: it was sunny in the morning! My first sight of Santiago arrived when I had walked several kilometers: all I could see was a lake of fog covering the valley in the distance. I stopped for a mini-breakfast at Monte de Gozo, the sight of a large monument. (Apparently, I missed the sign for the actual pilgrim monument that overlooks the city. I would have had to walk about 500m off the course of the Camino to get there, but in my excitement I must have overlooked this. I kept thinking to myself, “Wasn’t there supposed to be something else here?” Oh well. Nothing that I can do about it now!) The anticipation was now palpable.
As the Camino descended down the hill and into the city, my legs went on autopilot. I sped through the outskirts of the city, passing by a British family that I had met in San Xulian. “Wow, you are flying!” commented the grandfather of the family. It didn’t matter to me: I wasn’t missing anything by walking quickly through the more modern parts of town.
Entering the old town of Santiago seemed surreal to me. I know that that word is overused, but the expanse of time between leaving Monte de Gozo and entering the cathedral felt almost trancelike. I followed the golden shells embedded in the concrete under the arch and arrived at the Plaza de Obradoiro, my final destination. I realized that it was the feast of Corpus Christi. A tremendous feeling of accomplishment rushed through me as I turned to face the cathedral, which was covered… in scaffolding? Nooo! Nevertheless, I had made it (and made sure to take the obligatory backpack-over-my-head photo to commemorate it).
No sooner had I snapped some photos and taken several minutes just to absorb everything did a deluge of pilgrims flood the square. I was happy that I had planned to arrive early and have a little more solitude there. For the last time, I folded up my trekking poles, stuck them in the pocket of my daypack, and entered the cathedral. Maybe it was because I had just spent the last month and a half preparing to come here, but my visit to the cathedral was a very emotional one. I will be realistic here: I was basically bawling all day. I cried when I reached the city; I cried when I entered the church. I cried when I went to confession (I’m sure the priest just loved me). I cried when Mass started. I cried when Mass ended. It was mildly embarrassing but extremely cathartic. I felt fantastic at the end of the day and slept like a rock ;).
I had timed my arrival to be able to explore the cathedral, stop for another coffee-and-croissant breakfast with John and Vanessa, and still have enough time to find somewhere to sit for the Pilgrim Mass at noon. I had heard rumors that today they would be swinging the botafumeiro, which is a huge incense burner (or thurible: vocab word of the day!) which hangs from the ceiling of the cathedral. It takes up to eight men to swing it but is not present at every celebration. I was thrilled to see it hanging over the altar when I found a place to sit. Mind you, I was not sitting in a pew – these were already full over an hour before the Mass started- but there was a stone ledge at the base of a massive column which gave a sufficient view of everything. This place gets crowded! Several times before the beginning of the Mass a lector had to come up and ask everyone to be quiet. Also, they requested that everyone please not take photos or videos during Mass.
So of course, right after Communion, when the choir began to sing and the tiraboleiros stood up and took their places to begin swinging the botafumeiro, I looked around me and saw everyone on my side of the church poised forward, cameras and iPhones in hand, like the paparazzi anticipating the British royal family’s exit from the maternity ward. (I could get into a nice rant about how disrespectful I think this is, but I won’t). So, lifting my gaze to avoid the flashbulbs, I watched as the botafumeiro swung higher and higher, sailing through the air until it appeared like it would fly off on its own. It was a truly special ending to a long journey.
After Mass, wandering through the streets of Santiago felt like a reunion. Many pilgrims stay in town for several days after finishing the Camino, so I ran into a LOT of people that I knew who had finished earlier. I looked into getting my compostela at the pilgrim office, but the line appeared really long, so I decided to check into my hotel instead.
At the Hotel LaSalle, I found my extra bag, which I had sent ahead from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, waiting for me. It was like Christmas morning as I opened it. Non-hiking clothes! Bras that are not sports bras! Flip-flops! Makeup!!!My time on the Camino showed me what is a necessity and what is a luxury, so man, did this feel luxurious. I showered, napped, put on my luxurious cotton dress, my luxurious flip-flops and MASCARA -woo-woo! – and then went out to meet Jasmin, Colin, Garrett, and Lynn for dinner. We realized that we had all met within our first 48 hours of the Camino. Garrett and Lynn were the American couple from my first night in St. Jean who had commented about the weight of my pack. Jasmin was one of the Germans whose invitation for a drink I declined from my bunk bed in Roncesvalles, and the next morning I had met Colin in a grocery store. The fact that we had finished within 48 hours of each other was very meaningful to all of us (but we were still sad that Chris and Lukas couldn’t be there too!)
While passing by the pilgrim office after dinner, I saw that there was no line. I hopped in and had my compostela in hand within five minutes. Not bad!
It was a wonderful day (even though the karaoke place that we tried to find later that night was closed 😉 ). I am so grateful for my time on the Camino, which I can easily say was one of the best experiences of my life, injury and all. Thank you for all of your prayers, kind words, and well wishes during the last month and a half. I am already thinking about when I can return to walk again….