Hiking Northern Spain-The Way of Saint James: Santiago

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Well, I made it.  I am in the great 12th century Cathedral in Santiago, and I must admit, he end of the journey is somewhat of an anti-climax.  Yes, I have fallen to my knees in prayer.  After all, I have walked a long way to be here.  But I think as in most things the important part is the journey itself, which is just a preparation for the destination, after all.

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I started out this morning from my apartment on fire, walking at a furious pace that I didn’t think I could sustain.  An indifferent waiter failed to bring most of my breakfast this morning, and I am running on empty by 10AM.  There’s only so far I can run on orange juice, coffee, and toast.  Thumbs at least half down for the hotel Acivro.

For the very first time, I am not passed by anyone today except bicycles.  Miraculously, my knee is not complaining.  Just as surprising is that, even though I am on the last leg of the Camino, the road is not filled with other hikers.  Perhaps it is because of the bad weather.  It is raining again today.  I have had only one day of sunshine on the trip.

This is not a scenic walk.   Santiago is a big city, and I spend much of my time on or right next to big highways, airports, and other signs of civilization.  There are occasional points of interest, such as a monument to the Knights Templar who used to protect the pilgrims on this route, yet they are few and far between.

But it isn’t easy, either.  There is a long, steep uphill section that is a real challenge.  I crest each hill just before running out of steam.

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Yet my spirits are high.  In fact, I feel indomitable today.  The end is in sight!  As I pass the airport border, I can see thousands of makeshift twig crosses hanging from the chain link fence.  I make an Orthodox cross of my own and place it among the others.

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When I see the “Santiago” wayside sign that is a photo-op for every pilgrim, I am encouraged.  Surely this must mean I am close?  I am even more excited when I enter the city and begin walking on sidewalks.

But in reality I am only a little more than halfway there.  Still, I reach the old section in under 4 hours.  Not bad for an old man walking 12 miles with a pack, much of it uphill!

And that is where I began this story.  At the cathedral.  It is of course at once beautiful and huge, built at a time when the church was meant to honor God rather than merely be a warehouse for His people.

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I am not an architectural expert, but I’ve stayed at a Holiday Inn, and there are some definite Italianate-Gothic elements.  Wikipedia says baroque, but I think they’re wrong.  There are even some style precursors to what became the Spanish mission style in the New World.   In any event, it is a massive, imposing stone structure, one of the largest in the world, and it is surrounded by other almost equally impressive buildings.

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As you enter the church from the west side you should see a sculpted stone masterwork, the Portico de la Gloria.  Unfortunately, and this happens frequently with ancient buildings in my experience, it is being restored, and I can only see the central pillar which depicts Christ’s human genealogy, but that has been worn down over time as pilgrims have lovingly caressed it.  Like many old church buildings, I’m distressed at the obvious wear and tear.  Yes, they’re working on parts of it, but on the outside, there are large plants growing from the west façade.

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Still, the church amazes.  You can marvel at the cavernous barrel-vaulted central nave, or the world’s largest censer, which weighs almost 200 pounds and is suspended from the ceiling.  It takes 8 men to swing it using pulleys, but is not operating when I am there.  Surprisingly, you can enter into the high altar, from where you have a view out over the shoulders of a statue of St. James to the nave below, his arms outstretched, and his back covered with a jewel-encrusted robe.  Tradition says you are to hug his likeness in gratitude for a safe journey, though I do not.  Underneath, there is a crypt where the saint’s relics lie.  I stop here and say a small prayer, as well as at a small chapel which contains a piece of the True Cross, placed there in the 9th century.

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Interestingly, there is a statue of St. James as a Moorslayer, which is why is he is considered the patron saint of Spain.  Tradition has it that he appeared at decisive moments in history when Christians needed victories to overthrow the Muslim rulers.  Sadly, most people don’t know that Islam almost swept through all of Europe 14 centuries ago, engulfing nearly the entire Iberian peninsula and getting as far as the very gates of Vienna before being decisively defeated.  It seems that we are at war with them again.  Yet we invite them into our lands.  Strange.

But there is much more to Santiago than the cathedral.  I have time to walk the streets, which are full of lively street performers, some in period costumes, musicians, and of course, tourists.  But there are lots of locals and their families, and it is a genial, festive mix.

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Like most medieval towns, it reeks of gothic atmosphere, with winding narrow streets that seem to go on forever, and where the sun never seems to find the cold grey stone under foot, save in the squares, where there are fountains, and statues, and kiosks selling T shirts.

I step over to the Oficina de Pelegrino to get my certificate proving that I have actually completed the Camino.  I am greeted by a British native and volunteer who briefly asks if I enjoyed my trip, and did I walk it?  Then she turns me over to a pleasant young girl who wants to see my credencial stamps proving I stopped at cities along the route.  After satisfying herself, she cheerfully provides me with a nice looking document with my name on it in Latin.

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I walk out the door, and I feel like a chapter of my life is closed, and a new one opened.  Let us hope so.

I grab a bite to eat at a local bar, hurrying to get in my order before they close at 4.  The waiter tells me that octopus will be the easiest thing to cook in the 5 minutes left until they all take a siesta.  I almost groan, because it’s getting a little old, and it’s relatively expensive at $17, but I go for it.  A plate comes out heaped with the cephalopod.  I mean, this must have been a Monster of the Deep, with half-dollar sized hunks of flesh, each of which is a cross section of an arm.  It makes the stringy little bar food we call calamari look like some toy-sized cousin in comparison.  I wolf it down, groaning under the strain.  There must have been two pounds of it.

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Later, I go out at night.  Now remember, in Europe, it gets dark at 9:30 or so.  Well, the sun came out at around 6, bathing the cathedral in a glorious warm glow that radiated like the sun.  Unfortunately, I left my camera in the room.  Oh, well.  But the memory still remains.

I meet up with Anna again, who is actually a fairly accomplished novelist, it seems (Anna Smith).  She tells me over a cocktail that she has a home in Ireland for sale.  We think we will see each other again in town, but we never do.

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And that’s my story of the Way.  It’s a simple tale really.  If you go, it’s as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.  Even small steps can change a person, or the world.

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