Portuguese Coastal Camino
Stage 19: Teo to Santiago
“There is a great moment, when you see,Freya Stark in The Art of Pilgrimage, 1998
however distant, the goal of your wandering.
The thing which has been living in
your imagination suddenly becomes a part
of the tangible world.”
Waking at dawn to the sound of pilgrims’ footsteps passing by my open window, I’d prayed to the Fair Weather Goddess to hold off on the forecasted rain until our arrival in Santiago. I would, but knew walking in more rain, given my fatigue and cough would take more out of me. Despite heavy clouds during this three hour final stage, she had heard and thankfully granted my request.
It was a curious stage, through parkland and woods, meanderng into the thick urban commercial centre of the Santiago suburb, Milladoiro, where we stopped for coffee at the crowded cultural centre, then back into more eucalyptus groves. Climbing and descending, we finally reached the proverbial fork in the road with two Camino markers, each pointing the way to Santiago. Conferring in broken English with another walker, consulting the GPS and guidebook, we opted for the one pointing right. Described as the new “official” route via another suburb, A Conxo, it would be less congested and longer, but avoided a steep climb. We continued to walk in relative solitude. Crossing motorways, moving now into a consistent urban vibe, with markers few and far between, and only the occasional peregrino, identifiable with backpack and scallop shell, I was surprised by the lack of Camino energy and convergence of pilgrims I’d read about as the hard-earned destination drew nearer.
“Things are always different from what they might be.”Henry James in The Art of Pilgrimage, 1998
From my journal: “Three hours of walking, not many pilgrims on the Way. At the crossroads we headed right to A Conxo and saw no one. Arrived at Prazo do Obradoiro in time to hear the cathedral’s 12:00 pm bells and struck by how few people were gathered here in front of the cathedral. As we stood side by side, I wasn’t overtaken with feeling…instead I felt subdued, relieved to have arrived safely, and tired. Observing myself, I was surprised at my response…perhaps because I had realized a 20 year dream and now is the time to lay it down. I walk my Camino every day and now I have the stamp and certificate, so be it. But when I called home after settling in at the Parador, I cried deeply…”
It would take several weeks to unpack those tears.
At the outset of planning this walk, and for long before, I had been clear within myself about the importance of holding both the deep value of the journey, walking every day, and the significance of the destination, arriving at the plaza in front of that magnificent structure, as had thousands of pilgrims for the thousand years before me. A few years ago, when I had last given serious thought to walking, I suddenly cancelled, heeding one of those hardly articulated hunches. A few months later, it would be confirmed when I discovered that the cathedral would be closed and hidden by extensive scaffolding to undergo a multi-year restoration. I knew that if and when I ever walked, I would need, as Bettina Selby describes in The Art of Pilgrimage (1998), “what the newly arrived pilgrims see, exalted as they are at the end of the trek, and by all the magnificence and beauty they have already seen in the approach to their goal, the pool of warm golden light drawing them on.”
So yes, as I observed myself standing in front of the cathedral, taking in the final stage of arriving at my long held dream, I was surprised with my response. Where was the feeling of exaltation? Where the feeling of jubilation and accomplishment I had seen in the hundreds of photos posted by women on the Facebook site I’d followed for years? Was I subdued because I’d already been here, albeit virtually in several livestream tours a couple of years ago? Or was it a visitation by “the dragons of disappointment”? Citing from The Art of Pilgrimage (1998) archeology scholar Michael Guillen’s experience at the palace of Knossos on Crete: “I felt very little at the site itself because of all the crowds and the meddling that had been done with the restoration; the only real power I felt was in the surrounding land. I felt that the site had been transmogrified, and that the only spirits left were in the objects in the museum. I suppose this is the danger of mass pilgrimage, the loss of spirit at the site, especially when the gods flee to higher and higher places.”
In a recent chance reading of a blog by a fellow who, walking the Portuguese route had taken the right turn at the fork, passing by the historic building at A Conxo, providing the name for my photo above, he, too, wrote about being struck by his own “let down” anti-climatic response to arriving. Not at all what he had anticipated. Hmmm, I wasn’t alone, and imagine there are countless others who have felt similarly.
When I designed this walk with Paola at Portugal Green Walks, I determined it would be prudent to stay 72 hours in Santiago in compliance with the then known Covid-19 travel requirements, something that would become moot when we actually departed Canada. The same friend who had recommended PGW said in hindsight, she wished she’d stayed at the Parador in Santiago, the beautiful hotel bordering the plaza, beside the cathedral. “In for a penny, in for a pound, ” my companion agreed and so we partook of its sumptuous surroundings and the best breakfasts.
Rain finally came later that afternoon, and poured the next day, making for a perfect time to explore the historic centre, the Cathedral museum, and as luck would have it, attend the daily pilgrims’ mass. As it was Tuesday, and no one had paid the required 400 Euros, we didn’t have the experience of witnessing the famous swinging of the incense filled botofumeiro, so a view of it from the cathedral and its solid silver counterpart in the museum would have to suffice.
Despite my initial “flat” response – let’s mark it down to being sick and tired and relieved – I was enthralled with the cathedral, catching it from different perspectives at different times of day during my time in Santiago. As if to confirm and assure myself that yes, I had arrived.
That despite it having been a dream to walk the Camino, it was now very much part of my lived and waking reality, of who I now am, in the cells and fibre of my being.
That upon returning home, and devoting these past two months to its reliving, reflecting, re-imagining, and writing, I bring back the boon of some insight and self awareness, and much gratitude.
“The story that we bring back from our journeys is the boon.Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, 1998
It is the gift of grace that was passed to us in the heart of our journey. Perhaps it was in the form of an insight into our spiritual life, a glimpse of the wisdom traditions of a radically different culture, a shiver of compassion, an increment of knowledge. All these must now be passed on. The boon…is a presence in the soul of the world that can be sensed and honored and carried home in your heart.”
Dear readers, thank you for walking with me these several weeks. I’ve appreciated hearing from those of you who commented here and on social media, helping me to remember that while we are often walking alone together, ultimately we are all, as Ram Dass famously said, walking each other home.
Much love and kindest regards, dear friends. And to read about my walk in sequence, I’ve created a new page with all the posts titled and stages named. Buen Camino!