Stage 35, Oct 11, Santiago de Compostela, resting day

The last step.

Despite it was still more than an hour before the start of the Mass at noon, the cathedral was already packed with the  usual multicolored crowds. Outside all the entrances, guided tours were queuing for their chances to enter and pay their respects to Santiago but likely also to shoot endless pictures of the rich decor in the main altar area. Even on a second look, the cathedral is lacking spirituality and seems another example of religious speculation perpetrated over the centuries to impress simple people with opulence and display of power.

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Still in this state if mind, I took a seat in the area reserved for pilgrims, and noticed Father Xavier sitting on the bench just in front of me. We hugged each other, and then I sat quietly waiting for the beginning of the Mass.

All around me, on the streets, in the hostel, in bars and restaurants, all pilgrims look for each other to congratulate and compare plans, impressions, projects.

I simply cannot understand the reason for all this joy. I am annoyed by all this superficial rejoicing which  seems to me just a  bragging for something with marginal merit. All the road is marked with millions of yellow arrows making practically impossible to get lost even in the darkest wooded areas; everyone wears supertechnical garments that limits the weight and are also quick dry to reduce the need of backup clothing; shoes are sophisticated pieces of engineering tooling; there are Albergues, food and drinks every 2 km or so apart from only few cases; there is abundance of blessing from the Lord and guidance from the Apostle James. Everyone just needs to use legs and a bit of endurance to get the Camino going despite blisters, tiredness and some degree of discomfort.

To my experience, the Camino is only an excellence exercise of patience and humility, with nothing to brag about and nothing to impress other fellow pilgrims.

The rejoicing, I thought, should come from other places. From the physical effort standpoint, I am happy to be here today after having having been on the road for 38 days, walked for 35 and covered 864.8km since. Mentally,  I have been focused and determined to continue despite my share of obstacles. Spiritually speaking I have done a number if good starts, but none or very few I have been able to develop to a level of contentment.

While I was there, reflecting, it occurred that during the past many years, I never confessed in front of a priest, in his primary role as doctor of the soul. All of a sudden I desired to take the Holy Communion rightfully, which is going through the ritual of the Holy Confession.

I leaned over to Father Xavier for an advice, whether I could approach the Communion just through an act of repentment in front of God. He beamed back, and asked me if I wanted to take Confession instead.

I could not refrain a bout of commotion which started very deep inside me, and without being able to confirm it with words, my wet eyes in his, nodding in confirmation, that, yes, this was what I wanted but I did not know how. He motioned me to move out of the benches and there we were leaning against one of these massive stone pillars, sitting on the base capitel, Father Xavier and me, in our walking clothes, accomuned by our mutual pilgrim smells, reciting prayers and exchanging vows of repentment and absolution, using Italian, French and Latin in a mix of feelings which were transcending the languages, nationalities and roles. He thanked me for the last step I finally completed, one last step which is worth of thousand of kilometers and thousand of years.

I did the assessment of my conscience for all these kilometers and many days, preparing for something but not knowingly that finally my purpose could have been achieved just on the last step.

Now I finally have come to the end of my journey. Along the road, not far from Santiago, one of these unknown hands wrote:

“La fine del Camino, es il principio del tu Destino (The end of the Camino, is the start of your Destiny)

I think now I can understand the meaning and will be a subject for further meditation during the next few days.

I am adding a few pictures of the monastery that has been our home for two days.

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Tomorrow we shall leave to continue towards Muxia and Finisterre, at the border of the mighty Atlantic Ocean through a mystical land dotted with Celtic, Pagan and Catholic remains.

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Stage 35, Oct 10, Brea-Rabiña to Santiago de Compostela, 26.2km, total time 7:30hrs

Santiago! At last.

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A non glamorous reception from the holy city, under a torrential rain with no quarters. Actually the closer Luigi and I were walking to the center and the impressive cathedral, the stronger the downpour was becoming. The entry in the cathedral, instead of being full of pathos for the encounter with the Apostle, was more a necessity to find a shelter. Many other pilgrims thought the same way and were using the secular naves as a collective undressing room leaving poodles of rain dripping from the multicolor ponchos and raincoat all over the place. It needs to be said that after the purity of the gothic cathedrals of Burgos and Leon, the rich baroque of the cathedral in Santiago strikes a note of excess to the limit of resulting rather disturbing and with no atmosphere.

Since the weather forecast is calling for continuing showers also for tomorrow, we decided to rest tomorrow to visit the cathedral with more devotion and attend the Mass at noon with the Pilgrims’ blessing and the ceremony of the swinging incense burner across the whole cathedral.

I offered Luigi to share a room and we found a suitable accommodation at the Hospitale of the Greater Seminary, where they give to pilgrims as rooms the actuall cells of the monastery. The accommodation is basic, but the location is central and facing the cathedral.

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The trail approaching Santiago is crossing woods of eucalyptus trees, which in the crisp and wet morning were diffusing a very intense aroma reminding me of the medicine my mother was giving me when I was calling in sick with nasal congestion.

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Everyone has mixed feelings about having reached the journey’s destination. Most of the pilgrims are walking slowly or taking extra breaks in part because of the rain but perhaps also to prolong this strange feeling of freedom of being always on the road.

The arrival under the thunderstorm is not preventing us for getting to the pilgrim’s office to take our own copy of the Compostela certificate. Now all the long hours on the road, the many kilometres under our shoes, all the mood swings, the excitement and despair, the immense solitude and the hundred if faces encountered every day are all volatilized in an instant.

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A special sense of inner peace is now pervading me, with a mix of satisfaction and surprise for having accomplished so much, and at the same time the incredulity for having completed such an undertaking apparently with no superhuman effort.

After tomorrow, we will resume the walk for the last 4 stages to reach Muxia and finally Finisterre. There I will accomplish the last part of the ritual: throw into the ocean waves a special stone given to me by my dear friend Massimo, and leave behind my shoes under the lighthouse in Finisterre, as a final memento that one say, one time I was there and I did it.

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Stage 34, Oct 9, Melide to Brea-Rabiña, 28.0km, total time 7:15hrs

There are 4 things that, after the facts, I could not do without.

First is a Canadian Tilley hat, a present from my beloved wife Raffaella. It has been a great companion in all weather conditions, shading the eyes and the face from the fierce sun, or providing sufficient coverage from the rain. Even battered by the road, it keeps in excellent shape and gives me a signature adventurer’s look.

Second is the no-H2O rain jacket from Patagonia, a kind present from my friend Stefano. It is absolutely waterproof and in conjunction with a backpack cover, makes a poncho totally redundant. In addition to a fleece makes an excellent windbreaker sufficiently comfortable to withstand also the near zero temperatures of certain early mornings.

Third is my cotton scarf, a gift from the tour agent when I visited Cambodia. A simple cloth that can protect the throat from excessive cold, or raised up to cover nose and mouth during wind and dust storms. It also can be used as bandana and a turban, and lastly as a pillow case in Albergues not providing one.

The fourth is the silk liner bed sheet, that is providing sufficient protection from the not so clean environment of some Albergues. With an extra blanket it is warm and comfortable to make your own resting alcove despite all the snoring in the dormitory.

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Of Melide, there is not much to recount except the local specialty, the pulpo gallego (octopus, galician style). It was so good, that I forgot to take a picture. Oddily enough, I found an Israeli couple at the restaurant, both pilgrims on the Camino, and witnesses of the universality of the pilgrimage, beyond nationalities and religious boundaries. The oddity lies in the fact that the octopus is not kosher food for Jews, and despite my attempts to let them try the food, Bhatia, the lady, did not give in. Eli, the husband, instead was really appreciating it and we shared a couple of servings with abundant toasts with the local wine. Later, Luigi, the crazy pilgrim walking since July 1st from Rome and Avid,  Swede, joined in and we had some good time together.

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The new day started with the unmistakable tic-tic of rain drops outside the window, and you could feel the longer than usual preparations of the pilgrim crowd, since nobody is really eager to start the day walk in the cold, in the dark and under a dripping rain.

But Santiago is getting closer, and most conversations are about return  flight schedules, and whether continue to Finisterre of not. Certainly the weather now more typically autumnal, is more suggestive of joyous family gatherings perhaps around a fireplace roasting chestnuts, than planning more extensive walks.

It rained the whole day, turning the trails into water streams and the dust in mud. My mood has been good and happy inside my super waterproof rain jacket and under the wide brim of the dripping hat. I figured out I could by one if these gnomes or other creatures of the woods. A red-breasted robin which I believe is the very same bird that greets me every morning, hopped a few times on the road just like assuring me that everything is in great harmony and I was sort of  accepted in this fascinating world of the woods.

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Incidentally, I have favoured an excellent plate of local queso con miel ( heese with honey) in Arzua, another insignificant city but with an excellent cheese making tradition.

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I have to recall back what I said previously about Galicia. It seems that the influence if the closer Atlantic Ocean always affects the weather which makes the county to resemble Britain or Ireland, according to some comments of the well informed. Also it is a bit disappointing that there are countless small rivers which flow along the North-South direction, whereas the Camino is heading on a East-West direction. The effect is that the road us a continue rollercoaster with deep descents into valleys to ford the rivers followed by steep climbs. Under a persistent rain horrible pools of mud and everpresent cow dung are formed at the lowest points creating some difficulty in proceeding fast.

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I wanted to stop at the 20km mark to Santiago, but the conditions of the trail suggested me to take it easy and stop a bit before.

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The sky decided to open a little, suggesting an endorsement of my decision to stop. Maybe I will be able to wash my stuff and dry up before tomorrow. Santiago is still within tomorrow’s reach.

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Stage 33, Oct 8, Hospital Alta da Cruz to Melide, 27.1km, total time 7:05 hrs

The belt is coming short of holes to tie up my pants. With the Swiss Army knife I managed to drill a few more, in the attempt to maintain a dignified posture holding my pants up. I am not sure of how many kg I’ve lost, but from the baggy appearance of my pants, I guess I’ve shrunk by two sizes at least. In relative terms I probably eat one half of my normal  intake, and I do 10 times more exercise. If my metabolism has not radically changed since I started, I run the risk of exploding by the time I resume my ordinary and sedentary lifestyle.

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There are situations around certain people or places, that you can immediately relate to aN extraordinary radiating energy. Often words fall short in being able to describe what is the special atmosphere surrounding such people or places, but you can sense the superior spirituality which springs out of some open spaces amidst secular oaks, or certain monoliths covered with mildew stains as they were placed there much before the dawn of mankind by some foreign presence.

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Likewise it happens with certain people who, if I were a stronger believer than I actually am, would probably be incarnations of angels. They look at you directly into the eyes, and you immediately are connected to them forever.

I met Father Xavier casually through common acquaintances and we exchanged just a few words. After I started my inner work on the 7DS, I was in the need to compare my notes with a shepherd of lost souls, and so Xavier seemed the best opportunity for electing him as my sponsor for the dissecting project of my own human nature.

When I met him the second time at a crossroad, he was consuming a frugal meal of fruits. He looked at me with half banana still in his hand, while in less than a minute I vomited upon him all findings so far and my anguish and anxiety to receive a feedback on my research on the forces motivating the sinful behavior in the human nature.

“Xavier, I said, I am confused since I draw a lot more joy and happiness from sinning than I have from practicing a life of virtue. All these “good” behaviors, seem to be unnatural and paved with enormous probation and sacrifice. How can this generate joy?”

“Roberto, he answered, what you are describing is an attempt to attain sainthood. There are much smaller steps to be taken.” He then suggested to reflect on my experience to realize that the joy and happiness resulting from indulging in a sinful behaviour is of materialistic nature and often of short duration. On the contrary, the practice of the virtue, is of higher intensity and longlasting. “For instance, he added, your sharing with me your doubts is an act of Humility which is indeed helping me in facing the doubts of my own”.

Later he made me reflect on how the concept of sacrifice is often associated just to a forced abstinence.  Unless you can attain “sobriety” from a particular DS and therefore freedom of choice, your mind will always pull you down to the fake pleasure of sin. He used expressions often associated to the psychological dependency from substances. “Yes, he concluded, sinning is like taking drugs. You know they will kill you, at least spiritually, but you often cannot break free on your own will. What you need is a spiritual program that can guide you out. May this Camino be the spiritual program that will help you to break free from your own patterns”.

These comments are now shaping up my program. It is somewhat clearer now. I took a simple quiz on the Internet which highlighted which of the 7DS is representing my typical sinning pattern. I have to do some serious work: I have 1 DS as very high, two as high, two as medium and two as low or negligible. Will I be able to make it now that Santiago Is only 51 km away?

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Stage 32, Oct 7, Barbadelo to Hospital Alta da Cruz, 29.4km, total time 7:45hrs.

In broad terms, if the Meseta region after Burgos can be paralleled to Hell, then Galicia is undoubtedly Paradise. This is not only in reference to the superb green and hilly landscape compared to the desertic dry wheatfields of the Mesetas, but also with reference to the attention and respect for the pilgrims and their needs.

For one is the milestone system provided by the land administration that marks with no fail every 500m on the trail. With a sudden relief, I realized I could actually switch off my own GPS tracker and  use the public system to measure my progress, and cut off the endless discussion of which system is most accurate. After all, who cares of precision in a life that is timed by the position of the sun in the sky and the thickness of the dust layer on your shoes?

Today I feel in peace with God and myself. I am fit and strong and despite some late showers last night, the day is clear and sunny.

Last night was one of those nights, in which I felt very uncomfortable in   joining the communal table for dinner, because of the noise and the superficial small talk. I was ready to eat in a corner a leftover of stale bread with some chocolate squares, if it were not for Marivel, a girl from Panama but living in Madrid, also annoyed by the confusion in the main dining room, who was able to negotiate with the restaurant to let us use a small table in the kitchen. With a simple and nice gesture she then invited me and another couple to join her for dinner. Maybe this helped to set my mood for today’s walk.

I took so many pictures today but I will be able only to post a few to document the various shapes of the Camino trail in this magic countryside.

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Need to say though that as small villages are very charming with their stone houses and comfortable front yards, the major cities in Galicia are often ugly and totally lacking personality.  So are so far Sarria, Portmarin and Melide.

The frequency of crosses and milestones decorated with pilgrim’s offerings is rapidly increasing, and the abundance of stone as building material is seen at almost every corner with small tabernacle or remnants of medieval inscriptions.

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Tomorrow I will elaborate further on the key encounter of today, Father Xavier, a French ordained priest who studied philosophy and theology in Rome and spent two years in L’Aquila after the earthquake to help rebuilding the ruined churches and also the devotion of the local people in trusting again God’s ways.

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Without doubts he has been the most influential person encountered so far, and being a modern priest admitting his doubts, he draws a lot of respect.

Unfortunately he opted to stop in Portomarin for the night, while I kept on going until Hospital Alta da Cruz. Later through email he informed me about his intentions to quit the Camino for personal motives. For sure I will keep in contact with him and possibly I shall organize a trip to visit him in his community near Le Puy in central France.

Santiago is now only 71.8km away.

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Stage 31, Oct 6, Triacastela to Barbadelo, 22.5km, total time 5:50hrs

Reverend Augusto Posada Lopez, parish priest of Triacastela. attends to his small flock of devout villagers and a much larger flock of ever-changing pilgrims. He is one of those down to earth priests which know what is in the heart of people and how to address doubts and fears with simple universal words that trascend the barrier of the spoken language.

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During Mass he addressed the audience in manifesting openly the joy of search and discovery, and on the way out he approached me asking why I was not rejoicing: “Father, I said, I am not sure about what to search for”. He hugged me and said: “Hermano, perhaps you have already found what you were looking for but you keep it inside. Let it go out. Recognize Jesus in every fellow pilgrim and listen to what they are saying to you”. Then he gave me few sheets of paper where he drafted some personal notes on the purpose of the Camino, and looked me deeply into my eyes. “Go now and practice Charity”.

On the way out from Triacastela this morning, the words from don Augusto resonated in my mind and once more prompted me to revisit my resolutions concerning the Seven Deadly Sins (7DS). Charity (Caritas) is the virtue to practice to balance Greed (Avaritia). So from a different angle, don Augusto suggested me to start from addressing Greed.

For the records, the 7DS are: Lust (Luxuria), Gluttony (Gula), Greed (Avaritia), Sloth (Acedia), Wrath (Ira), Envy (Invidia), Pride (Superbia). The Seven Virtues to practice in counterbalance the 7DS are
respectively: Chastity (Castitas), Temperance (Temperantia), Charity (Caritas), Diligence (Industria), Patience (Patientia), Kindness (Humanitas), Humility (Humilitas).

Documenting the task is as always much easier than putting the doctrine to practice. As done many times already, I shall leave back a stone when I have worked out a satisfactory self-assessment on each of the 7DS.

The stage today was uneventful and I did not meet anyone worth remembering. The road was mainly crossing wooded areas, between spooky oak trees and loaded chestnut trees waiting another week to openn up and release their sweet fruits.

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Stage 30, Oct 5, O’ Cebreiro to Triacastela, 21.3km, total time 5:45 hrs

The advantage of getting a comfortable accommodation on the top of a mountain, is that you can just cuddle up in the warmth of the bed until sunrise, and then start counting your blessings as the sun   breaks through the morning mist.
I think there is no better natural wonder than watching the start of a new day from atop of a mountain. The bells of the little church added the spiritual dimension to what was already astonishing.

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The descent to Triacastela was very pleasant crossing grazing fields for cattle whose neck bells were echoing in the valley from afar.

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A tall statue of a pilgrim battered by a fierce wind, is posted at the high point of a pass as a sign of respect for the hardships that pilgrims of all times went through to reach the longed destination. Santiago is only 145km away from that point.

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In this very spot, I met Tom, a premier league baseball coach from Palm Springs, California, who retired from the job to assist his cancer stricken mother who recently passed away. Now he seems a bit lost without a bearing and the Camino more than a tribute to his mum, seems a need to gain confidence on himself. Anyway we stuck together for the day, and I even proposed him to share a room at the target destination.

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Another keynote encounter for the day was finally my dreamed-about young and pretty Russian girl, by the name of Maria! However having worked out some of my deadly sins, during the long solitary hours of walk, and in particular Lust, I only entertained her with some polite conversation and I learned that she is assistant curator of the Heritage museum in St.Petersburg for medieval art and history.

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At Triacastela, Tom and I booked a double room in this quaint private Albergue, and I improvised myself as doctor to medicate the terrible plagues on Tom’s feet. The poor guy has been walking in such state if devastation for many kilometres, just because his oldest daughter shall meet him at noon on Oct 10, in the main square in front of Santiago cathedral. To meet this schedule he has to cover at least 30k a day, but I have doubts he can do it. Anyway I did my best as an engineer to cover up his martyred feet.

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Santiago is now only 130km down the road.