Guest post: photos and writings by Silvia Pizzamiglio
Santiago de Compostela is the third holy city of Christianity after Jerusalem and Rome.
Legend has it that a hermit shepherd, around the 813, began to see each night some lights in a field (hence the name Compostela, stellae campus, field of stars). The apostle James appeared to him in a dream and invited him to dig a hole in that point to bring his tomb to light: this was exactly what he did, discovering a marble tomb containing a body.
Hailed as a miracle, the news spread all over the country and a chapel first and then a village were built to celebrate the event: Santiago de Compostela was born and soon became a destination of the utmost important for Christians.
Pilgrims begun to arrive from all over Europe to pay visit to the grave of the saint, a symbol of resistance to the Muslims that were conquering Spain.
Nowadays route is identical to the medieval one that was also walked by Charlemagne, St. Francis of Assisi and Isabella of Castile.
Since then, the travelers were called Pilgrims: a HAT on the head to repair them from the sun and from evil thoughts, a MANTLE on the shoulders to save them from the rain and bad words, a STICK in the hand to protect them from enemies and bad actions, a PUMPKIN in the bag to save them from thirst and a SHELL to identify them.
Today the pilgrims undertake this adventure for very different motivations but, even if only a few are driven by religious reasons, once arrived in Santiago it is almost impossible not to attend the Pilgrim’s Mass: it is a call that cannot be silenced.
Once scheduled the departure date, June 21, the summer solstice, we began the training for the physical fatigue. We bought the shoes in March and started walking with them on to let the feet, the ankles and the legs get used to them. Then we began to carry the backpack on our shoulders, to train the neck and the back. The euphoria was increasing at each walking because the departure date was approaching.
We got the “Credencial”, the document that every pilgrim must have stamped by every restaurateur, hotelier or bartender that offers him hospitality along the way. Demonstrating to have walked at least the last 100 miles without interruption (200 by bike) you are entitled to receive the "Compostela", the certificate of pilgrimage.
We bought the equipment and technical clothing reccommended by those who had already made this pilgrimage, light and easy to dry: the bare minimum to fill the 50-liter backpack, the house we'd carried on our back for three weeks, a real challenge of minimalism.
We fly from Bergamo towards Madrid, where we take the train that in three hours leads us to Leon, the city we have chosen to start the Way, distant 320 km from Santiago de Compostela: we haven’t enough holidays to walk all the 800 km of the French Route.
On the train, as I observe the landscapes run fast, suddenly comes the awareness of what I'm facing: a true test of strength for body and mind, a demanding and tiring journey, but exciting and enlightening, that will maybe help me to find the answers I'm looking for.
As we arrive in Leon, nice and cozy, we find the “albergue” and we are immediately thrown in a community experience: shared bathrooms, large rooms full of bunk beds, boots and backpacks lined up, sleeping bags laid out on mattresses, laundry done by hand and hung outdoors. Pilgrims are polite and respectful, we are all there with the same goal to be achieved, aware of the difficulties but happy. We try not to make noise, not to disturb those who are resting, before going to sleep prepare what we need for the next day, trying to stay in the bathroom as little time as possible: a great opportunity to learn patience, sensitivity and attention to the neighbour.
We have little time to visit the city, the Way calls.
We wake up at dawn, a wonderful sun gives us the good morning, we start to take picture. We meet a girl who wishes us: "Buen Camino Peregrine!" and we feel now part of an extraordinary journey.
Getting out of the city we find ourselves in Paramo, the Leon’s plateau that swallows us in his silent and colourful countryside: around us only sun and wind, croaking frogs and chirping of birds. Hundreds of storks with their giant nests on the bell towers watch us during our first steps.
We learn quickly the inebriating power of the nature’s scents: the thyme and rosemary, the wet earth on rainy days.
The soul, there, is filled with peace.
After three days of hot sun, dust, grain fields, we leave Leon’s region and enter the Bierzo. The landscape changes. All around us steep paths, rocks, stones, low clouds, multicolored beetles, elegant and majestic birds of prey.
LA CRUZ DE HIERRO (The Iron Cross)
At 1500 meters above sea level, on the Mount Irago, we find the Iron Cross, which seems to connect earth with sky.
The base of the cross is formed by a knoll of rocks and stones brought here by pilgrims. Tradition has it that the stones come from the country of origin of the pilgrims who, placing it at the base of the cross, get rid of the weights that afflict their soul.
I experience it at first hand. As I walk, step by step, I get rid of the burdens I carry on my shoulders: the silence, the nature, the encounters do help to think and to find answers to questions that I brought in the backpack.
And "magically" backpack becomes lighter every step I take.
In fact, after traveling many miles, I find out things that I already knew but that were quite difficult to accept.
Even if the exertion is big, the fact of having a goal to reach helps me to bite the bullet and move on. I get trained to deal with strain, trying to win the pain in the shoulders and neck, my weak points.
From the outside, the days seem all the same: wake up at six, breakfast, departure. A stop for another breakfast after a couple of hours, a snack again after two hours and at 13 a sandwich for lunch in a meadow or on the staircase of a church.
In the afternoon, around 16, a break before the arrival at the scheduled destination. Shower, rest, a look at the photos of the day and then the dinner. If you decide to eat out, many bars and restaurants offer the pilgrim’s menu: two courses, bread, water, beer or wine, coffee and sometimes the dessert at 8/10 €.
You can choose to dine in the “albergue” if it has a kitchen, sharing a meal with the other pilgrims: a nice experience to share emotions, real-life stories, practical advice and unforgettable laughs.
THE HARDEST ROUTE
Each route has its difficulties, more or less significant.
The seventh day was for us the most difficult. We knew that we would meet some hard climbs because from 630 meters above sea level we had to reach the 1296 meters of the arrival point, going through the O Cebreiro pass that marks the entrance to Galicia. With favorable weather conditions, the route results tiring but the landscape is all worthwhile.
We haven’t been that lucky.
When we start walking, the sky does not bode well and, after a few hundred meters, the rain starts falling copious and decides to accompany us for all the 25 km we have to walk today. The road, a mountain path, is so much muddy and slippery that some trails are transformed into streams. A cold wind begins to blow with force and our clothes, even though they were designed to deal with the bad weather, begin to get soaked.
We focus our thoughts on the feet, careful not to slip, but the only thing we desire is to dry off and warm up. At 15 we reach Fonfría, our destination, and the albergue where we stay seems a paradise: comfortable beds, heating on, newspaper to absorb water from the shoes and a dinner all together. A beautiful experience: 50 pilgrims around the same table to share food, experiences and thoughts. Despite the difficulties, it is one of the stops that I remember with more pleasure.
Galicia is the last region we cross. Here, in one day you may find fog, low clouds, a subtle and insistent rain and the sun shining. We pass through enchanted forests in which we expect any moment gnomes, elves, fairies and dragons come out somewhere around us, green pastures with sheep and cows, streams full of gurgling water, small villages, stables, little churches.
We discover the Hórreos, elevated buildings made of stone and wood designed to save corn and hay from the rodents and humidity typical of this region.
After a week of walking I realize to be physically at the top, mentally full of energy. Positive thoughts are growing in number, I discover to feel less pain, I walk without thinking of the miles that have still to go. It’s a magical feeling.
"After spending a lot of time walking along the path,
it comes the time when the road makes you walk "
(from The road to Santiago by Paulo Coelho).
When there are 100 Km to Santiago, excitement and satisfaction are at the top.
Suddenly the Galician forests give way to fragrant eucalyptus trees.
Finally, after 13 days, 320 km and more than 100 hours of walking, we arrive in Santiago: the entrance to the city is not particularly nice, because you get there after walking for more than an hour behind the airport). After the usual photos, we go now to look for a place to sleep and rest.
In the afternoon we take with pride our Compostela and at 19.30 we attend the Mass of the Pilgrims in the immense Baroque cathedral, finding there also many fellow travellers we met along the way. The Mass is in Spanish, but for us Italians it’s easy to understand.
During the homily, the priest asks three main questions: Why am I here? Why did I make this journey? What I’m going to take home?
I investigate inside me, I listen.
The Botafumeiro, the enormous censer moved by 8 people, is swung creating an intimate, deeply spiritual atmosphere. In the past it was turned on to cover the smell of the pilgrims who spent the night directly into the cathedral and along the way hadn’t many occasions to wash.
Two nights in Santiago are enough: we’re ready to depart again.
My head and my legs are asking me to hit the road. Marina takes the train and goes ahead, her ankle prevents her from doing other road walk. I walk alone.
ON THE WAY TO FINISTERRE
Three days and 117 km separate me from my final destination.
The way out from Santiago is definitely much more exciting than the way in, maybe for the colors of the dawn, maybe for all the things that I realize to have done up to this moment, maybe because what I'm about to do is all mine and only mine.
The first day goes by without particular difficulties and in the evening I dine at the same table with a Japanese lady, a French couple and a just-married Spanish couple. A tangle of languages and cultures that’s just fantastic.
The second day seems endless, 47 miles long, but I visit Muxia and meet the ocean.
The third day runs fast. I face the final climb through pines and eucalyptus, contemplate the stunning scenery with the wind that caresses my skin and the sun that warms me. I listen to music for the first time while I walk, but only with one headset on, because I want to leave one ear at the disposal of the sounds of nature.
I meet the ocean again and I see Finisterre from the top. I stop for a moment and breathe deeply. In an hour I reach my goal and I get excited at the thought of having made it by myself, with my legs, my shoulders, my head and my heart.
Marina is waiting for me and after three weeks of sharing with strangers, we enjoy the luxury of a two-beds room with a private bathroom.
These last three days have been special, many thoughts have pop-up in my head, memories and future plans. It was a test of strength that I won: I turned the solitude in strength and I concluded the Way.
In Finisterre you can get the “Fisterrana”, the certificate for the achievement of this last stretch of land.
There are three "rites" to be observed in Finisterre.
The first is the ocean sunset.
We go to the lighthouse, three miles from Finisterre, extreme point of Spain. From here you can admire the immensity of the Atlantic, you encounter the wind and the majesty of nature. You can go alone on the cliff over the lighthouse, getting lost in your own thoughts about what has been done this far and what is to come.
Hundreds of years ago this was believed to be the world’s end.
The second rite is a bath in the ocean: I just wet my feet because the water is too cold and in this point the coast is called “Costa De Muerte” (Coast of the Death) because the stream is very dangerous: I prefer not to take risks.
The third is the bonfire: at the lighthouse, the tradition is to burn an object that has come with you along the way, a garment or something symbolic. Marina and I burn the shirts that we have worn during the last three weeks. With my shirt I burn the past, to come back home lighter, with new eyes, and more aware of who I am and what I'm capable of doing, learning to appreciate the little things and to understand that every problem has a solution because things are simpler than we perceive them.
The journey teaches that some things happen independently of our will, teaches us not to postpone what we can live now, teaches that people always come at the right time and in the right place where they are expected.
And that you don’t choose your life, but you have to live it.
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