(The journey and the blog began on 4/12. If you want to read about it chronologically, please scroll down to the beginning. There is a logic to doing so, but the preference is yours.)
The morning was cool but sunny, which augured well for our last leg to Santiago de Compostela, the destination of the pilgrim trail. I felt a little electricity of anticipation, knowing that if all went as well as it had on the other days, this afternoon we would soon see the high, pointed steeples of the famous cathedral. Still, we needed to approach the day as if it were any other day, meaning one step at a time, one after another. We had 16km to go, and there was one more big ascent to overcome.
We were fortunate in several ways. First of all, we had the opportunity to walk through beautiful forests again and see small churches and streams, and we even passed some farms.
We also had the pleasure of meeting a very affable couple from Ireland, Phil and Eleanor Cussen of Tipperary, who quickly became friends.
Vic and Charlie were in good spirits, eager to enjoy this stage of the journey. Vic had been advised by a friend never to pass a church without going in. The whole time we were on the Camino, we tried to follow his friend’s advice, and usually the church doors were unlocked. Inside, we found peace and quiet, a welcome few minutes of rest, and inner calm. The benefits of each of these pauses in the churches accumulated to make a worthwhile difference in the walking experience for us.
We also had the strange experience of walking past the runway of the airport that serves Santiago de Compostela, an airport made necessary because thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come here each year via the trail and need another way to return home. It was a disorienting intrusion by the modern world, but we understood, and very soon we left it and a brief stretch of noisy highway behind as we entered more woods and hills. We were headed gradually up to the hilltop town of Monte de Gozo, and the ascent reminded us of the countless hills we had climbed on our trek, especially the brutally steep and long ones of the Pyrenees on the very first day of the pilgrimage. Because we were now battle-tested and our bodies had been naturally trained by the hundreds of kilometers that came before, this climb felt comfortable, and we found solace also in knowing it was the last one.
On the descent, alongside the trail on our left we saw a memorial for a pilgrim who had died at that point of the trail. Sadly, it happened just a half day from Santiago, and the pilgrim was only in her fifties and died there only within the last few years. It was a strong reminder of our mortality. It was not by any means the first memorial of this kind we had seen. I mulled this over as we continued, and I developed the conviction that a lovely spot on the Camino is a great place to end one’s life, especially if one is with friends or family, surrounded by beautiful trees, flowers, rocks, and birds—much better than a sterile hospital room of linoleum, metal, glass, plastic, beeping machines, and strangers.
After making it to the town of Monte del Gozo at the top of the final hill, we had a great lunch, which gave us fuel and rest. From there, we began the descent towards Santiago. First we encountered its modern outskirts, and the centuries-old city center that had the famous cathedral as its focal point was not visible yet. Some statues and signs marked our crossing of the city limits, and that in itself was an important moment.
Walking on, we plodded through modern city streets and for the first time, part of the legendary cathedral came into view.
It was difficult to keep our normal pace and not accelerate from eagerness. Eventually, after winding through more streets, still on the Camino trail but now in the old city center, we had our first clear look at the towers of the cathedral.
It was an impressive sight, made all the more moving because of all we had gone through to reach it. Just then we noticed that the street we were on was Rua de San Pedro, another moment of synchronicity because for most of the journey I had been going by the name Pedro rather than Peter.
There could hardly be a better indication that we were indeed in the right place. This discovery was soon followed by the thrill of coming upon the Praza de Cervantes (in Galician dialect; thus, it isn’t Plaza de Cervantes), which included a bust of the great Don Quixote author atop a high pillar in the middle of a fountain.
The next order of business was to find a place to stay. We walked off the main street to a side street looking for a small pension, and within a couple of blocks we found the perfect one, the Pension con Encanto, a charming little place just two blocks behind the cathedral.
After dropping our gear, we walked to the famous plaza where the cathedral sat, the Praza Obradoiro. It was a breathtaking sight in its spaciousness and architecture, and it was hard to believe that there it was in front of us: the cathedral.
Though there is much, much more to say on the subject, I will try to offer some concluding thoughts that I hope may be of value. The cathedral was a great piece of proverbial icing on the cake of our journey, and that evening we celebrated reaching it with a paella dinner, but reaching Santiago de Compostela and its cathedral was by no means the end, or even an end. I tried carefully in speaking and writing during the pilgrimage not to use the words end or final or even goal. There really is no end or finish line. We made it to the cathedral not on May 3rd but with every step we took with present awareness, with mindfulness, all along the way. Moreover, we have the rest of our lives to live from the moment of standing in front of the cathedral and on into the next moment and all the moments after that. Each moment is simultaneously an end and a beginning, and this moment was no different. In some ways, its beauty and profundity lay in just that, in its being, at its core, really no different from every other moment. Yet it tells us that every moment can be glorious like this one if we approach it wisely. In addition, the peace we found and promoted along the way can be with us always, and can grow and grow if we approach our lives and ourselves in ways that help rather than hurt us and those around us. As we walked across the beautiful country of Spain, we met people from all over the world, people of all shapes, sizes, and ages from Spain, England, Ireland, Italy, Singapore, South Korea, Austria, Japan, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Holland, South Africa, Sweden, France, Hungary, Canada, America, Portugal, Romania, and many other places. All these people greeted and treated each other with kindness, friendliness, encouragement, support, sincere interest, patience, tolerance, and compassion. They are living proof that peace and harmony are possible, that we can be peaceful inside and out, that we can get along and enjoy each other, that we can recognize the primacy of our common traits, feelings, thoughts, drives, wishes, hopes, needs, and even fears, and learn the perspective that tells us that the ways in which we differ shrink to nothing in comparison to the ways in which we are similar. Any one of us can embody this, and if modern life and its penchant for distracting us from the truly important make it hard to live this, it’s comforting to know that all we need as one remedy for the problem is right there at the end of our own legs, those two simple feet. We have the tools to find and spread peace and we carry them wherever we go. All we need to do sometimes is to go the way of the foot and listen to the wisdom it whispers to us.