Thursday, April 21, 2011

Day 13. Arzúa to Santiago de Compostela (40 km)

We did start a bit earlier than usual, and it is still dark. It is Sunday morning, so the few cars we see on the road are of those who caroused all night, and we are weary of drunk drivers. Finally it gets clear enough that we can see the yellow arrows that have guided us throughout the route, and we can take the pilgrims path. But it has been raining for two days, so the path is muddy and slippery. I feel tempted to keep to the highway, but Raúl is a purist and prefers following the path through the mountains.

The day is overcast, and there is a gentle drizzle, but the country we are moving through is glorious. At some point the sun breaks through the clouds and the pasture fields blaze like emeralds surrounding old stone farms from which issue columns of smoke rich in comfort and fragrant with breakfast. We have not had breakfast, or coffee, because every bar we pass is closed.

The drizzle is intensifying, and without really noticing we are getting wet. It is borderline between drizzle and rain, so I decide not to use my rain jacket. It is a bit cumbersome and makes me sweat, and I am sweating enough with the ups and downs of the path. We are done with the big mountains, but there is enough relief here that for every descent to a valley there is a walking ascent to the next ridge. It is slow, slippery work, and despite all our efforts the morning is ticking away.

Finally we find a place that is open, sometime around 10:30 am, and we gratefully gulp cups of café con leche. The friendly bartender also fixes us an appetizer of jamón serrano and cheese, which restores our much diminished strength. Alright, this is it, Santiago or bust.

It was almost bust, because now it is raining on earnest, and pretty soon we are soggy wet. But we press on, with the interminable up and down, until finally we make it to Lavacolla (32 km). The story goes that this is the last big stream before Santiago, so pilgrims took the time to make their ablutions (hence the name, which in Spanish means “clean your butt”) and made themselves presentable for coming into Santiago. The good Lord has taken care of our ablutions with his rain, and still dripping we push up the last hill. It may be the last hill, but it is interminable. All our forces are spent and we climb it with our hearts.

Finally we reach Monte de Gozo (37 km). From here, we are told, the pilgrims got their first sight of Santiago, and rejoiced at having reached their long awaited destination. I am not sure where to look, because it is quite hazy, but another rejoicing pilgrim points toward some distant pines and says “There, to the right of the pines, you can see the tower of the Cathedral.” My God, it must be several hundred miles away!

One last push and . . . we did it! Covered with glorious mud we enter Santiago de Compostela, sometime around 2 pm. 550 kilometers in nine days, and with only three flat tires. We barely remember the fluvial valley of Burgos, the hot meseta of Castilla, the fertile plains of León, the snow storm in Cruz del Ferro, the valley of the Knights Templar, the insane climb to O Cebreiro, and the grueling ridges and valleys of Galicia. We are here!

After unloading our few worldly and soggy possessions at a convenient hotel, and spreading them out to dry like if it were the laundry yards of Mumbai, we headed to the Cathedral to give thanks and to complete the rituals of the pilgrim. Our credentials are examined, and we declare that we have done the trip from Burgos for cultural and religious reasons, and in exchange we receive a certificate that goes back to the Middle Ages, in which it is stated that Raúl and Horacio (names written in Latin) have completed the pilgrimage to Santiago “pietatis causa” (for reasons of devotion).

The last step, which we gratefully do, is to hear mass in the magnificent Cathedral, and to pray for those for whom we have made the pilgrimage. We missed the Pilgrims Mass, Sunday at noon, and have instead come to the 7:30 pm mass, but it is a solemn act nonetheless, and a fitting finale to a most remarkable trek.

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