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Santiago de Compostela: My One-Hour Camino

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While I can’t claim to have walked the Camino, I can certainly confirm I have walked on the Camino. For an entire hour.

I wonder whether I should have walked at all…

I was a tourist, not a traveler, a sightseer, not a participant, a voyeuse in a way, or to put it more kindly, perhaps a witness. But in no way a pilgrim.

I recently spent a week in Santiago de Compostela to write and research the city and watched from my guesthouse window as pilgrims entered the last stretch of their journey. My work wasn’t related to the Camino at all but I was interested: the Geneva variant of the St James Way goes almost past my house in rural France and I often see pilgrims at the start of their journey, with two months of walking still ahead of them. To get a feel for it I often walk small parts of it nearby, telling myself I’ll walk the entire way someday.

el Camino de SantiagoWhy not do that again, right now, and see the Camino from what would be my beginning and my end?

I rode the bus to the Monte do Gozo, the start of the Camino’s final leg, where it unfurls from countryside to suburb and finally, into town.

The fresh air gave me a momentary illusion of actually walking the Camino, rather than strolling through the countryside on a sunny day: shady paths through cool forests and green hills and rural villages. Was there something in the air or was it just my imagination? I wasn’t on the Camino at all; I was an interloper on a country road watching real pilgrims go by.

I could tell it was the end because most walkers moved quickly, a determined look on their faces. Some were limping, others grinding their teeth, and a few stopped along the way, savoring the end of what was a lengthy journey of weeks or even months. They walked singly, in pairs or in groups, quiet and subdued, with a few hellos and ‘Buen Camino’s’ in that tired ‘I’ve almost made it’ voice.

A few even looked surprisingly spry, nothing like what I’d expect after hiking for weeks. Some had joy in their eyes, others appeared mournful, knowing they were reaching the end. Is that really how they felt? I asked my friend Amy ‘Gigi’ Alexander, who walked the Camino several years ago.

“I was so elated, so happy. It was the climax, the end, of what had been something, a task, that I had scarcely believed I was capable of,” Gigi recalled. “It was a tremendous ‘I actually did it’ feeling that surpassed any expectations I might have had. The city represented the end of the journey, but the Camino is within.”

That last hour particularly seemed to hold special meaning. “I felt physically overwhelmed. I had stopped walking in my hiking boots and left them behind for the end of the journey, for in spite of breaking them in, my feet were a bloody mess,” said Gigi.

“At the end you just want to get there; you are so close and so you have this resolve to just keep going, in spite of any physical issues you have. There’s no pain at that point, because you are on adrenalin, and that’s what moves you through the streets.”

It must be difficult to know you’re within reach of your goal…

Santiago de Compostela

While I’ve often wanted to walk the Camino, for now I’m limited to its end-point, a simple spectator to the end of a thousand journeys.

And what an end it is. The noontime Pilgrim’s Mass, crowned by the terrifying swing of the gigantic botafumeiro, a censer or thurible so huge it would fly across the nave and maybe even through the stone walls should its massive rope break.

It’s impressive enough at rest, but once it starts swaying the temptation to pull out those cameras (despite being warned by the loudspeaker not to) is simply too strong.

Botafumeiro of Santiago Cathedral

Botafumeiro at Pilgrim's Mass at Santiago de Compostela

Apparently the botafumeiro doesn’t swing every day so I was fortunate: at 80kg (176lb) and 1m60 (5’3″) and filled with charcoal and incense, it is no bauble. Its burning contents invade the church with fragrant (some would say stifling) clouds. It is an impressive container and I’m thankful to be at some distance.

I watch the pilgrims lean reverently against the pews, their backpacks and walking sticks strewn down the aisle while a litany of their names is called out: Alejandro, Javier and Cifu from Valladolid; Jenne from Austria; João and Maria from Portugal; Etienne and Véronique from France; Klaus from Australia; Lauren from London. And so the list goes on. A quiver of recognition crosses each face whose name is called out, the concretization of a journey’s end.

El Camino - the end

Outside the Cathedral, a line snakes into an unprepossessing arcade: the Pilgrim Office, where the final stamp goes into the pilgrims’ passport after a questionnaire satisfies authorities about their motives. It looks like the worst part of the journey, where tired and hungry women and men and children wait interminably for the line to inch forward, through the door, around the corner, up the stairs.

Not at all, according to Gigi.

“Getting the Compostela was a wonderful thing; the people in the office were so encouraging and friendly. Once again, I felt unified with the other pilgrims.”

So much for appearances.

“Sometimes when I get overwhelmed by the demands of my life now, I think back to the Camino, and I am reminded that I can do anything and push myself through anything. The Camino is one thing I’ve done in my life that keeps giving back to me. It’s a richly spiritual journey and it remains a crystalline moment in my life, a time when all I had to think about was the next step.”

“I’m going to do it again someday.”

Perhaps I’ll come along.




  1. Jennifer on November 20, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Gigi sounds very inspirational! And even if you’ve only walked a little bit, you’ve at least started the Camino. That is more than many can say. I wouldn’t be shocked if you did do the whole things one day!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 20, 2012 at 6:39 am

      She absolutely is! What you don’t know is that as she was traveling, she volunteered for months in the mountains of Panama, which is where I actually met her (having corresponded through my website about a packing list, of all things!). She also volunteered at Mother Theresa’s orphanage for several months in Calcutta. And came to visit me in France – she is a trained gardener and for a while (before the dogs got at it) my garden looked sublime. I’ve rarely met anyone with such energy. That said, yes, I do plan on walking the Camino someday. But I couldn’t be in Santiago and not at least walk a tiny bit of it…

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