On October 30th, late in the afternoon, we staggered up the Mount of Joy overlooking Santiago, filled with disappointment that all we could see were sprawling modern buildings with the great cathedral completely obscured from our gaze. We had envisioned arriving at the crest and seeing the original medieval city in all its splendor, cathedral spires flashing like a beacon, laying invitingly before us in the valley. Not the case. Nonetheless, we wended our way down the final two kilometers of a thirty-two kilometer day through the suburban scree which jumbles around the outskirts of modern Santiago.
Finally, we found the great cathedral in view and we made our way immediately, not to the Pilgrim's Office to get our Compostelas, but directly to our new hostel quarters at the Seminario Mayor de Hospedaria, an arm's length from the cathedral. This is a massive two-city-block building housing several hundred simple rooms for dead-tired pilgrims at reasonable cost. It was a wonderful place to decompress and debrief with other pilgrims. We collapsed in a heap of dirty clothes in our tiny cell, which, though it be small and spartan, had a private bathroom with a hot shower--bliss!
Stuart made himself at home immediately in pilgrim-style:
The next day, All Hallows Eve, we made our way to the Pilgrim's Office, and stood for the obligatory photo in front of the Cathedral:
With great joy we met up with our loosely affiliated camino family as they one-by-one entered the city through the square in front of the Seminario Mayor...What a great location with the Camino wending its way right past us so that we were privileged to witness every pilgrim arriving in the city for the first time, heading doggedly to the Pilgrim's Office!
We spent the next two days exploring Santiago and
meeting up with our camino friends for a farewell dinner. Many of them were planning their walk to Finisterre or Muxia in the following days, but we had decided to forgo those final kilometers leading to the Atlantic Ocean in favor of returning home a few days early. Somehow we knew that we were done with our walking, and Hurricane Sandy hitting the East Coast of the U.S. made our return home more urgent since everyone we knew and loved was being affected by the storm.
"We are all pilgrims -- grateful for the harvest and yet longing for home."
Lastly, we attended the All Saint's Day Mass at Santiago Cathedral, a very grand service full of processions with pilgrims flowing in and filling the aisles with their mochillas as they arrived, the Archbishop of Santiago presiding, and the famous butofumeiro which was swung through the transepts right above our heads.
On a journey filled with rituals--pilgrim Masses, leaving stones on pilgrim-built cairns and memorials along the Way, embracing the statue of St. James in the cathedral, the foot-preparation rituals for each day's walk--I think the rituals that touched me most deeply were the ones I shared with the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have come before me as well as those who will come after. I am thinking of the most profound ritual of standing with pilgrims in the dark corner of the Cathedral at the Gate of Glory below the column depicting the Tree of Jesse, where atop St. James sits serenely holding a scroll, with each of us silently holding out our hand to "touch" the column in that place where the impression of a million pilgrims' hands has worn a one-inch deep impression of a human hand on the Tree of Jesse. Pilgrims are no longer allowed to touch the column; it is surrounded by scaffolding to keep us at a distance, but every pilgrim stands near it, and instinctively holds out their hand in the air to line up with that impression as if to touch that place, that place of arrival. It is, I think, a pilgrim ritual with great power; the sense of solidarity with so many other souls in marking the moment of the end of a pilgrimage is inexpressible in words.