A moment like this
How do you even write down or find the words to describe the experience of finding yourself in the plaza in front of the Cathedral de Santiago after walking for 16 days? I can try, but let me preface this whole blog with the fact that these words are nothing in comparison to the experience.
We got up at 5:30 AM to make sure that we got in to Santiago before the pilgrims mass at noon. It was so strange to wake up in the dark and prepare for our last walk. We started out and had flashlights and headlamps and we entered back onto the trail in this forest where the trees create this perfect canopy to walk under.
The sun started to come up and we were all trekking on towards the city we thought we would never reach. Along the way we were hearing about Mt. Joy, the last obstacle to get over. Everyone was grumbling and worrying if we had enough energy to get over it, and then the funniest thing happened. We were standing on top of Mt. Joy next to this huge monument and looking down on Santiago. We almost let the fear of the climb keep us from the top, and in the end, the challenge was nothing in comparison to what we are capable of doing. The view was breathtaking and heart breaking because we were still an hour out.
So the sprint begins. You are on the outskirts of the city and are following little copper shells that are cemented in the pavement throughout the city. Then you see the first spires of the church over the buildings and you’re heart skips a beat. Then you start to hear street musicians playing bagpipes and Galician guitars, and you’re smiling from ear to ear because you know you’re almost there. Out of nowhere there is a descending staircase with a giant archway, and the music is overpowering, and hoards of pilgrims are rushing, and you reach the bottom, and turn to your right, and stop. You are standing in a giant plaza with the cathedral dominating the entire view, thousands of pilgrims hugging and crying, people running and snapping pics, and then others just taking in the culmination of their journey.
And there I was. Standing in the middle of this square staring up into this architectural and religious masterpiece. Spoiler Alert: I was crying. It was overwhelming and exciting all at once. You couldn’t believe you had made it, and then you were watching the other pilgrims and understanding exactly what is happening to them.
Then you walk into the church. You smell, you have everything you own on your back, you’re standing amongst thousands of others, and you feel tiny in comparison to the size and the ornate-mess of the cathedral, but you don’t feel out of place. You have never felt more right in your location. And while you don’t understand the whole mass, you do. The music, the prayers, the unity. Then the giant incense starts to swing across the whole church, and the pilgrims are cheering and the tears come again.
And then it’s over. And it’s shocking. Assimilating back into society these past two days has been strange. Not carrying your belongings and having more than one pair of pants has been nothing short of a miracle. And what do you do? What does this mean from here on out?
I ran into Kari (our Oregon friend) while we have been enjoying Santiago, and she made a great point. Is this trail a realization or a life lesson….what’s the difference? And she laid her wisdoms on me….
We realize a lot of things about our life on the trail, but we make this journey a life lesson when we apply our realizations to our life.
So that’s the next journey. Apply everything to my life. That sounds so lofty, and I guess it is, but if I’m lucky, I have nothing but years ahead of me to try. And if I had to start anywhere it would be with these:
1. Take each day as it comes. No need to race toward tomorrow, or let the hard days overpower you. Together they blend into the journey.
2. You can do it. Whatever it is. You can.
3.Take the time you have now and enjoy it. Before you know it, it has passed
4. Remember that everyone is on a path. We walk it differently and at different speeds and we may even take alternate routes, but it’s all the same. Show compassion.
And honestly I could go on for hours, but that’s not the point. So I’m honored to have had you all here with me, and I can’t wait to share the stories in person. The adventure will continue in Santiago if you care to follow, but for now, my Camino is complete.
Xoxo from Santiago
Finally done! The walk we easy, but restless. I was ready to be there and be done with this walk. When we all finally arrived, everyone was ecstatic! No one could believe that they had just walked the 320 km from Leon to Santiago, across mountains and valleys and through rough weather.
The Cathedral of Santiago was breathtaking. So much craftsmanship and skill had been put into each and every aspect of the external features. It is hard to believe what builders could do solely by hand so many years ago. The detail of all the statues astounded the onlooker. The inside of it was no less impressive than the outside. Intricate architecture was used to hold one’s eye as he looked upon it. The artwork was meant to awe and inspire lay people at the power of God and show the glory of heaven. Ever single thing seemed to have been done for a specific purpose and the workers had accomplished their goal with flying colors.
After the Pilgrim’s Mass, everyone in the group went out to lunch together. After lunch we walked back to the plaza outside the cathedral and said our goodbyes as our families came to pick us up one by one. Luckily, we will all have classes together still, and still be able to reach each other if need be, but it will be weird not being with the same group of kids I have been around 24/7 since leaving the United States.
Hokies hiking the Camino
I awoke from my light sleep before dawn. It must had been around 5:25 am. I was anxious and ready to hike the last 19 km to Santiago de Compostela. The terrain was damp from the morning dew, and mist filled the air. Flocks of pilgrims hurried along with us in a silent and eerie frenzy.
My feet had many large blisters, and my knee had been injured days before. The inside of my knee joint bled out from a fall, and still had not healed. Even through the exhaustion and pain, I had a remarkable second wind. I did not stop to rest, nor did I lose my pace for at least 15 km.
Finally, the trek caught up to me and I finally stopped to buy a Kit Kat candy bar just to use the bathroom (I only bring this up because you can only use the “toilet” in Spain if you buy something). Somehow we had already made it to the Monte de Goza aka mount joy. I was ecstatic! Santiago was in sight. My joy would soon end when I realized I still had over 45 minutes of hiking.
We kept up our pace; the end was too sweet and close for my normal stride. We finally made it to old town, the original area of the walled city where the cathedral is located. I finally caught glimpse of my target, and a slight tear came to my eyes. I found myself weaving in and out of plazas and alleys. We heard bagpipes in the distance. They were playing in an ancient hall. We surpassed the hall, and there it was, the cathedral. Everyone hugged, a few cried, and then we all collapsed on the ground. For the first time I sat and realized, I just walked over 200 miles. I felt amazing. One day it’ll be time to do it all over again…
An end to a great adventure
Day 15 is over. I truly cannot believe it. This journey has taught me so much about myself, and those around me. One of the biggest learning experiences has been about the group of Camino Hokies. This group is so incredibly diverse. We come from all different backgrounds and walks of life. So many different personalities being mashed together, that most likely would never have been in the same group otherwise. Not only have we been walking together for the past 16 days, but we have ate every meal together, slept together, and spent almost every hour of every day together. I have learned so much about each person, and they have learned a lot about me. We have told each other hilarious stories and our deepest secrets. We have all grown personally and helped each other overcome obstacles in our lives, whatever they may be. I have tried to walk with someone new everyday, and just talk to them. Understand who they are, and why they are here. It is so fascinating to hear someone’s life story, and what has brought them to the Camino. That is what is so amazing about the Camino. You can come in with little to no expectations, and come out having gained so much. I truly think we have all learned so much from this trip. We have struggled together, and we have celebrated together. Tomorrow, we reach Santiago; the final point of our journey. It is very sad to think that I wont be able to have the heart to hearts or tell crazy stories with these people as we walk. However, I will never forget what I have learned and what we have shared. Not to mention the life long bonds I have formed as well. I am ready to reach Santiago and to celebrate the amazing thing we did, but it will be so sad to say goodbye to an amazing journey that has taught me so much. Tears will undoubtedly fall, but mostly they will be tears of joy.
Bringing it in
The last couple of days were some of the most difficult and amazing days because we knew just how very close we were to Santiago, we had finally crossed the 100 km mark!
On the 13th day, which was supposed to be about 27 kilometers from Portomarin to Palas de Rei, I started off on a great note when I realized I had forgotten my walking stick in the albergue and had to run back up the hill to get it. I then started walking pretty quickly alone to catch up with the rest of the group for second breakfast. As the day continued, I started walking. With Rachel and Anna, and we came across this amazing circular design of crushed flower petals and salt.
We had no clue what it meant, but to me it seemed like a sort of doorway into the rest of the Camino, and it also smelled great. We were expecting it to be a super long day, but ended up arriving in Palas de Rei pretty early, as it was only 24 kilometers. The next day, however, was a completely different story.
We started off from Palas del Rei and walked about 15 km before arriving in Melide, the first big town so far that we have just walked through. Here, we stopped at a little place called Ezekiel’s for some pulpo, which is boiled octopus. It sounds weird, but is actually so delicious! (And a little weird) As we were leaving Melide, we came across this gem:
And this one: only 50 kilometers left!
So before we left on this day, Annie had told us that it was going to be about 25 kilometers walking, but that it would be flatter than the day before. This would mean that we would be arriving in Arzúa at the 40 km marker. We reached the marker, passed it, and still there was no sign of our town. We soon reached a town, but it wasn’t Arzúa! We all got really confused, but continued onward.
After hiking another 2.5 kilometers up an extremely steep hill, we finally saw the sign for Arzúa. At this point, it was starting to drizzle, and we were all so ready to be done for the day. Little did we know, our albergue, la Vía Láctica (or Milky Way), was on the complete opposite side of town. Our journey ended up being a little over 28 kilometers, the longest day of our trip, and about an hour longer than we were expecting. This was definitely the most mentally challenging day, as we continually were expecting the town to be right around the corner, when we really had a much longer way to go.
After this, we only had about 37 kilometers to divide between the two remaining days. They were pretty easy because it was the final stretch, and we were so ready to finally make it to Santiago de Compostela, our ultimate destination.
El menu peregrino
One thing that is very memorable to me about the Camino is the copious amount of delicious food. There is something about walking all day that makes any meal taste good, and therefore good food tastes as if it were sent from the heavens. We would usually start off the day with a small breakfast of fruit, pastries, and yogurt before beginning the day’s walk. When we started to get hungry and lethargic a few hours in, we would stop for a café con leche, which is similar to a latte in America, and a bocadillo, which is basically a huge sandwich made on half of a baguette (and this is still before noon).
When all of us finally arrive at our destination, we would go to get lunch at a local restaurant. This is not your average lunch, however; it is a menú peregrino, which is pretty much a three course meal. For the first course, there was usually an option of a salad, pasta bolognese, soup, or some sort of fried food, such as calamari. The second course generally consisted on a protein (eggs, pork, chicken, eggs, lamb, eggs… did I mention eggs?) and French fries. Bread was also a common staple; we were served copious amounts of bread with every meal. After that, we would have dessert, which could be flab, ice cream, fruit, cake, or arroz con leche. Needless to say, we were fed well.
Like any peregrino, I had my favorite foods, which I will briefly explain:
Croquetas are little fried balls that look a little bit like hush puppies, except the inside is a mixture of meat, potato, and cheese. When croquetas were an option, we ordered them.
Jamón is Spanish ham, and it is usually smoked or cured. It is an ingredient in most Spanish foods, and is way better than ham in the United States. It is also a bocadillo staple.
Arroz con leche is a rice pudding, but better than any rice pudding you have ever had.
Tarta de Santiago is a dense cake covered in powdered sugar, and is completely delicious.
We also tried our fair share of strange foods, which you would be hard pressed to find in the United States.
Pulpo is octopus, which is usually boiled and served with red pepper. I was nervous to try it but found out that I actually love it, and it got better and better as we neared the ocean.
Oreja is pig’s ear, which I was conned into eating by my fellow peregrino Mark. I was not as big of a fan of that one.
My favorite part about traveling is generally the food that I get the opportunity to try, and Spain has been no different. We have had so much and so many types of food; I am excited to try more.
Favorite village on the Camino
Without a doubt, my favorite village of the Camino was O’Cebreiro. Nestled in the Cantabrian mountains at an altitude of 1300m, O’Cebreiro was the first town on the Camino that was part of Galicia. What’s fascinating about Galicia is that it has a heavy Celtic influence, which makes it incredibly different than any other Spanish region. There is such a strong Celtic presence because in 600 BC, the Celts invaded the region. Not only that, but because of it’s location on the French Camino, it has also been influenced by the millions of northern Europeans who have traveled through the town.
The town was constructed in the 9th century, which gave the town a very antique setting. The buildings were all made of stone and had never been reconstructed so the stones that we saw and felt were the same stones that were used in the construction. It is an absolutely incredible feeling to sit in the exact room that was used 12 centuries ago. However, with this sense of awe and admiration came the eerie feeling that the town had to be haunted. Talking about scary stories and horror movies at dinner didn’t help either. By the time I went to bed, I was completely convinced that I was going to be murdered by the ghosts that haunted the town.
The hike to O’Cebreiro was surprisingly not bad at all. Rachel and Mike both kept on talking about how difficult and steep the hike was. The hike was definitely steep and probably the steepest thing I had ever climbed, but the scenery that came along with it was beyond anything I have ever seen in my entire life. If a Heaven does exist, I believe the view from O’Cebreiro is what it looks life. I was surrounded by mountains and tasted the freshest air that could possibly exist on the planet. The entire hike was only 16km and took about four hours surprisingly enough.
Once the entire group arrived in O’Cebreiro, we gad a delicious Galician meal: Galician soup (it had kale and potatoes), tortilla de patata, and tarte de Santiago. After lunch, Dom and I visited the little church which supposedly holds the Holy Grail. I say “supposedly” because obviously no one knows for sure exactly what happened to the Holy Grail and there are many other places in the world that claim they have this historical artifact. Nonetheless, it was a very powerful to be in the presence of something that has such an impact on history and religion. After the church, Dom and I climbed a hill that overlooked O’Cebreiro. The view was absolutely breathtaking. I could spin in circles and I would be able to see mountains for miles and miles. It reminded me of Julie Andrews in the beginning of the movie, The Sound of Music. That is honestly the best way I can describe the view.
Although O’Cebreiro may be a little eerie at night, the culture, history, and scenery of this small village cannot be surpassed. Everything in this town is incredibly unique and would not be found anywhere else. I can’t wait to do the Camino again just to visit O’Cebreiro once more.
A silent ascent
Today’s walk consisted of 15 kilometers between two very small villages, specifically Ambasmestas to the small village of O Cebreiro. O Cebreiro, one of the first villages you come across as you cross into Galicia, has been able to maintain much if its medieval charm over the years and you can walk through the entirety of the town in about 2 minutes.
I decided to walk most of the day alone, which I had not done yet on the trip. It was very different walking the trail without talking to anyone else, and as a result I was able to take in all of my surroundings in silence while completing the physical challenges of the trek. This particular day of hiking involved a steeper incline up a mountain and a very rocky terrain to go along with it. When I say that the strain of the ascent was worth it, it is a gross understatement. The final 5 kilometers of today’s journey provided some of the best views of the trip thus far, and possibly some of the best I’ve ever seen.
Towards the end of the day’s walk, we ended up talking to two girls from Germany, one of whom was in a very similar situation as me. She spoke great English and explained that she had just finished her studies and would be starting to work when she returned back to Deutschland. Sounds familiar. Right before we finished walking for the day, I stopped and was taking in an incredible view and snapping some pictures. As the girls passed me, the one with the great English said, “You shouldn’t take so many pictures – you just have to feel it!” I stopped and thought about the comment for a moment before realizing that she was absolutely right. I had been so quick to pull out my iPhone and take pictures of noteworthy sights along the trail that I may not have felt the moment of scene or object properly. Instead of looking at the things through the window of my iPhone camera, I should be living in them and truly feeling the experience.