And then finally it was the last 3 days walking before Santiago. The elation gifted an extra spring to my step and I managed 30 kilometres on one of the days without any difficulty. After a terrible days rain on the way to Melide, the weather improved and I had the novelty of walking in my shorts and t-shirt again. It had been too cold and wet for such scanty items of clothing for what seemed a very, very long time.
Like many others, I spent my final night at the Albergue at Monte de Gozo. Really it should be called a mega albergue/warehouse, given that it can house 500 pilgrims at a time. Yes you heard right, 500 pilgrims in one go. That is just one indication of how popular the pilgrimage can be at peak season. This is apparently in August when the Spanish are on their holidays. Given the boiling temperatures I had experienced in May, I couldn’t think of a worse time to do it.
I wasn’t expecting a pleasant experience when I got to Monte de Gozo. In my head I had imagined a huge Ikea type warehouse swarming with smelly pilgrims. And as for the dorms, I didn’t dare imagine. But actually it was quite pleasant with 50 identikit blocks, each with a warren of dorms housing only 8 people. But the logistics are unimportant really, what matters is the location.. The joy is that Monte de Gozo is a hill overlooking Santiago; the city a mere 4 kilometres away. Thus on their final night, the weary pilgrim can rest with the end point in actual sight. Furthermore the final swoop to the cathedral can be on fresh legs (well, so to speak. My legs hadn’t been fresh for a long long time) and at a time when the city is just waking up to the new day; less crowded and business like and maybe, less jaded. How good does that sound?
I spent my last night in the company of Maria, a woman in her seventies from Argentina. I had often said hello to her as we passed each other in the previous weeks. All 5 foot of her was a bundle of life and energy and I often marvelled at her spirit. She was a tiny wee thing, obviously with bad hips and feet, who somehow was able to just keep going. Like many other of the Pilgrims in their seventies, she really was something else. I take my hat off to all of them, even Cornelius! We had a lovely meal, 4 courses and a bottle of wine for 7 euros. That would hardly buy you a cup of tea and a scone in Ireland. I returned to the dorm reasonably sozzled and at an early hour and slept soundly through the night, not wakening till 7.30. It really was a rather perfect start to the final day of my Camino Frances.
And thus I descended to Santiago. But where was the steeple of the cathedral to tantalise and guide me in my journey? Sadly, nowhere. Thus I found myself progressing deeper into the city, obviously still following the yellow arrows but having no idea if I was anywhere near my end point. I felt like a child on a long car journey “are we there yet, are we there yet?”. Unbeknown to me, I was probably only a hundred metres away from the Cathedral when I had a bit of a toddler temper tantrum. Wearing a very stroppy face, I asked a local where the hell the cathedral was. Hand signals indicated it was straight ahead and to the left. I thought I might start crying out of pure frustration. And then I was there, in a big square towered over by a dark gloomy cathedral. I thought “Is that it?” I was seriously under impressed.
Rather than even enter the Cathedral to pay my respects to St James (the whole point of the pilgrimage in bygone days was to visit his tomb in the cathedral), it was time for breakfast and room finding. My priorities always seem to be a full tummy and a dry bed, the spiritual can wait. I then sat twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the famous 12 noon Pilgrim Mass, where pilgrims from all 12 Caminos join together to celebrate the ending of their journey. I had been excited about being a witness to the ceremony for a very long time. However now that the moment had almost arrived I think I was more excited about what would happen after the mass was over, namely I would get the keys to my room in what looked like a semi posh hotel just off the square. And then to bed. My own bed, in my own room, oh joy of joys.
To be fair, it was quite emotional waiting for the mass to begin. I saw many of my pals of the last few weeks. I saw people from the very start of my journey who had obviously walked 900 km in the time it took me to walk 700 (ggrrhh). Dear God, even the South Korean trio were there. Some people came up to greet me and I had no recollection of ever meeting them, but I suppose I was flattered. Yes, I guess it was a pretty momentous occasion. But there was too much chattering and gabbling for my liking. Despite not knowing me from Adam, the woman next to me seemed intent on having a full blown conversation about all sorts of intimacies. I wanted to tell her to shut the hell up, but instead told her I would like to be silent. Oh I can be a pious one at times. My fury then descended onto a rather smug young couple who had already begun to kiss each other on various parts of their heads and faces, smiling inanely and then kissing each other some more. When it came to communion, many of the pilgrims used the lull as an opportunity to move off and find new people to chat to, dear God, it was like a drinks party. I tell you, steam was coming out of my ears. I never had myself down as a rampant traditionalist, however in that moment I wanted to grab the microphone off the priest and give the congregation a bloody good ticking off. A proper fire and brim stone sermon. Even now I feel that the behaviour of most people was utterly disrespectful of being in a sacred place.
But the final act of the circus had yet to begin. The show stopping finale of the pilgrim mass is the swinging of a giant incense burner across the nave of the cathedral, The ritual requires half a dozen attendants to hoist the burner up high and then to keep the swinging going. ‘Botafumeiro’ was originally used to fumigate the sweaty (and possibly disease ridden) pilgrims, although I think its usage has become increasingly infrequent over the years. I had heard about it, but hadn’t really expected it to happen when I was there. But it did! And it certainly was a sight to behold. As I might add, was the rush to pilgrims to the front armed with cameras, i phones and video recorders. To me, it was the final flamboyant act of the circus. And so, rather than throw myself onto the floor in disgust, I promptly got my camera out and became just as ill behaved as everyone else. Oh how the mighty can fall. (I am attempting to put a video onto the blog, it will probably take me a while to figure it out)
I hung around for a few minutes after the ceremony and then quietly nipped away. Two minutes later I had checked into the hotel, had ascended in the lift (can you imagine, a lift!) and turned the key in the door. Unfortunately what awaited me was not a suite at the Waldorf. It might be best described as a cross between a prison cell and a nun’s bedroom in an old convent. It certainly hadn’t been done up since the 1930’s (nor would it have been the height of fashion in the 1930’s). I flung myself onto the bed (a bit lumpy with a white sheet and prison blanket) in a huff. Then the rain started to bucket down outside, I took out my supply of chocolate bars and within twenty minutes I was as happy as larry. And so having finally made it to Santiago, I decided that I wasn’t in the least interested in seeing the place and stayed in bed all day. I emerged at 8pm, only because I was famished. It was dark and gloomy and the rain was still pelting down. I was dark and gloomy and certainly had no desire to bump into anyone for an evening’s socialising. In the end I did bump into probably the most grounded woman I had met on the Camino. We had a wee bit to eat, a glass of wine and then early to bed. Not quite the rock n roll ending eh? .