The Last Stamp – Reminiscence of an 828 Kilometre Walk
After 38 days of walking through the Northern Spanish countryside through the provinces of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and finally Galicia, we had arrived in the legendary city of Santiago de Compostela just as the sun had begun to break through the thick morning fog to shine down upon Santiago’s fabled cathedral. Trekking through the ancient, metallic gold streets we arrived at our final Albergue, fittingly named The Last Stamp as all of us only had one space left to emboss inside our Pilgrim Passports. To celebrate, we went out to eat a special lunch at the Malaka Bistro, a restaurant that had an extraordinary selection of Vegetarian and Vegan food. Afterwards, we savoured large cups of Gelato from a corner Heladeria before purchasing two large cakes of Tarta de Santiago, the almond speciality cake of the city.
With our stomachs full and our accommodation sorted for the night, there was only one thing left to do. We climbed the ancient stone steps to Santiago’s legendary cathedral and slipped in just as the doors closed to signal the beginning of the iconic Pilgrim Mass. The warbling voice of an organ began to sing from somewhere behind us as the Priest and the Acolytes entered, their red cloaks flickering in the light. Prayer rang out from among the pillars as the Acolytes began the ritual of swinging the “Botafumeiro” back and forth, the incense wafting out of its silver cage like a cloud, gliding over our heads and enveloping the entire crowd of silent pilgrims.
Suddenly, I felt my knees begin to weaken, my limbs go heavy and my eyesight blur. The sweet incense began to burn. At first, I thought I was simply tired from our final 19 kilometre (11 Mile) trek earlier that morning, but it was a few minutes later when the cathedral gong began to toll booming, unrelenting peals without mercy, that my thoughts cleared and my mind could function. I was tired but not physically. I was exhausted emotionally. It was the realisation that for 38 days my life had been moulded into the rhythm of one foot placed after another, of the beat of our shoes against gravel, concrete, dirt, sand and grass, a pulse as lighthearted as a free-flowing dance and yet as deeply rooted as the wild hills of the Basque Country.
Now it was all over.
There would be no more Albergues or golden shell signs or heavy backpacks to hoist on in the morning. No more blisters or early morning whispers as we got ready to begin another day’s walk and no more open, unending road.
My Camino had finally concluded and I had just realised it.
The rain began to fall as we walked back towards our Albergue, one final walk that I could still count as part of our Camino. Never before was trudging up three flights of stairs so draining and never before was I so happy to see a bed. My bunk was positioned perfectly so that I had a glorious view of the Torre de la Berenguela and we were in such close vicinity to the Cathedral that every 15 minutes, the powerful tolling of the church bells shook the building’s foundation. I crawled under my puffy white bedspread, ears blocking the rich resonance of the gongs and the sound of joyous laughter as another group of pilgrims reached Santiago, and within mere seconds I was asleep.
The next morning we took the bus to Santiago’s airport where we were scheduled to pick up a rental car, which we would have for the next 3 weeks. What we didn’t expect was the lengthy winding snake of a line and the hour-long wait that came along with us. But all is well that ends well, because we were unexpectedly upgraded to a bigger and better car, without the extra charge. By the time we were all organised, it was almost midday when we left Santiago de Compostella. With the open road awaiting us, we began to retrace our footsteps along the Camino, back to the city of San Sebastian, the place we had spent the night on Day 1.
As I write this, the feeling I immediately connect with is the utter surreality of the experiences of the emotions I felt throughout the day. It was somewhat akin to feeling the deepest emotions attached to the experiences you have lived, but feeling them as if you are watching a movie in rapid fast-forward mode, dialogue included.
The tugs of the heartstrings and the whirring of the mind were so intense, it somewhat demeaned our overall experience. The sacred nature of our journey was somehow being defiled by this car, completely oblivious to its speed and the effect it was having on us. It made me think of how much humankind’s journey has been so greatly affected by the advent of technology. Has it even been willfully diverted from its intended course? Has the speed with which we travel in life blinded us from that which is there in front of us? I am starting to believe there are things in our lives that are right there before us that we are no longer capable of seeing.
Through our car window the villages, towns and cities that we had walked through materialised one by one, now nothing more than a momentary glimpse.
“There’s that bridge we crossed!” I cried out.
“And that path we took!” my brother pointed feverishly.
“And the river we dangled our feet in!”
“That Cafe we ate at!”
“The Beach we walked on!”
It was a thunderbolt of an impact when we realised just how fast our car was transporting us. In less than an hour, we had driven what had taken us 3 entire days to experience. The road less travelled whispered in my ear. We stopped briefly at Baamonde, Day 33, to buy one last Tarta de Santiago and thank the kind lady and owner of the shop again for lending us a pot to cook our food in almost a week before.
We sped on, our next stop the town of Ribadeo, Day 29 of walking, where we had stayed to rest while Lalika’s injuries had healed. Here we met with our good friend Mirma for a cold glass of orange juice and to share a slice of Tarta de Santiago with her. Without her generous help in our time of need, our journey might have been untenable. With an invitation extended for Mirma to come visit us at our home base in Águilas, we drove onwards.
The kilometres were whittling backwards like Wells’ Time Machine, churning in the breeze… 300 km in the blink of an eye. The light began to meld from afternoon to early evening, as we travelled over the colossal freeways of the sky, the same ones that we had touched the chalky white bases of when we had been walking. We needed to slow down. The hues of purple began to change the way the world looked and the coastline called to us. We stopped again right near the border of the Asturias and Cantabria, close to day 19, where we found our newest family member Steve the Rock. We took the moment to breathe in the salty air of the early evening, looking over the rocky crags of the jagged Cantabrian shores that are so beautiful in their many colours of azure that it takes your breath away. 425 km in just six hours, yet 20 days walking.
Travelling on the journey became a blur as the sun slowly set on the day. We almost gave up trying to recognise the landmarks of our journey. As the dusk turned to a pitch black, the sheer ascents and steep descents could only mean one thing, that we were back in Basque country. It was now getting close to 11 pm and it would be too late to call in on the Albergue in San Sebastian, so we decided last minute to leave the last 90 km for the next morning. This took us back to Day 6, that rainy afternoon, where two hunchbacks of Notre Dame emerged from the supermarket.
We drove our car to the very spot where had stealth camped on night six. In seconds flat our tents popped up. Our heads were so heavy from the weight of the thoughts of the day, we were asleep within minutes.
With the morning sunrise, we emerged from our tents to see Pilgrims on their way, still another 30 or so days of walking in front of them. Buen Camino, we called out. And then suddenly in that new bright dawn, I was ready to let it all go. I wished the fading silhouette of the passing pilgrims well and with that, put the idea of reminiscing behind me.
We made the last 90 kms, or five days walk in less than an hour. A beautiful sunny day greeted us as we arrived at San Sebastian. The city looked exactly the same and yet our experiences existed worlds apart. We spent the rest of the day exploring the inner precincts that we hadn’t seen last time, due to the need to rush and the cumbersome burden of our large backpacks. We enjoyed an afternoon by the beach, surfing the perfect blue rolling waves before eating a few spinach and corn Empanadas on the saffron sand.
Afterwards, we made it to our sanctuary for the evening; the wilderness lodge of Ongi Ettari and the lovely community of people that reside within. This paradise within the Basque mountains was where we stayed on our very first night after a harrowing 32 kilometre (19 Mile) day and now we were back to pick up a few things we had left behind, as well as reconnect with old friends. The sweet, icy Mate juice we received on arrival coupled with warm smiles and hugs amplified a feeling of welcome and for the first time since arriving at Santiago de Compostela everything felt complete.
Getting ready to walk the Camino, I read up on countless blogs and articles about how to prepare for the Norte trail and they all told me the same thing: ‘The Camino isn’t a walk that will leave you the same person you started out as.’ I don’t think I really believed them at the time. How could 38 days of walking truly change you? Well, turns out, it can. And in so many more ways than you realise.
The truth is, at times I felt that walking the Camino de Santiago del Norte would consume me. It pushed me to a place where my feet stung like a thousand needles were stabbing them apart, to a place where the heat burnt like an incendiary explosion and where all I wanted to do was sit down on the grass and take out all my frustration on my backpack. It pushed me to the very edge of my limits and then finally beyond, to a place where pain no longer existed, where everything was a comforting silence, a place where I was alone with my thoughts.
Then bizarrely, like an uncanny phenomena, it strengthened me. The sun nourished me with every step and the ground toughened my feet to two sturdy oaks. I woke every day with a zeal to set out on the day’s path and even welcomed the harder trails. We battled our way through the heat and laughed when it rained and I even picked up a book or two to add to my already hefty backpack.
The word discomfort no longer hung over me like an ominous shadow and I think I realised this on a particularly misty morning, when the tent was soaked and it was bone-chillingly cold … and I just smiled.
Now, after it all, it’s the strangest of sensations to not have to set alarms for 5:45am and rise with the sun or wrestle my sleeping bag back into its case every morning, or tiptoe around the Albergue as to not wake our fellow pilgrims. There were no more afternoon Tortilla de Española breaks and no more laughs over Ensalada Mixta and Patatas Fritas. It was over… And I was okay with that.
We will never forget our time on the Camino. All the experiences had, friends met and times shared. Every single second is still alive within me and now, within this blog. I have read the stories of so many pilgrims. Now I have shared my own. The road had ended and yet another lay open before us, a new, open road to embark on with enchanting cities and breathtaking countryside to explore. There would be ancient history to immerse ourselves within, future friends to be made, and thrilling new explorations to be had. Yes, one adventure had indeed ended, but another was only just beginning.
If you haven’t read about our time walking the Camino, click here for all 38 days our Norte Experience!