Friday, June 5, 2015

The End of the World

Path marker

Finisterre (or Fisterra, in Gallego) is a lovely fishing village on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Before Columbus 'sailed the ocean blue' Europeans thought the westernmost outcropping of rocks here was the end of the earth. Many modern pilgrims choose to walk on to this destination for several reasons: 

1. It's hard to stop. You get into a routine of walking, and Santiago feels in some ways like just another city. The road goes on. So those who want/need a more visual or visceral 'end' continue until they really can't go any further west. 

On the road again...

2. One needs better closure. For many pilgrims who walk a long distance, the last 100km and Santiago are more crowded and commercial than the previous parts of the walk. One former pilgrim warned us about this. He explained that, in a way, it is preparing us for re-entry to the busy-ness and commercialism of the world we live in. But fewer people make the walk to the ocean. So, for those who would like to have some peace & quiet to process their experience a bit, have a few more days of walking in solitude, and have some time to think/write/etc, the walk to Finisterre and time in the village provides the opportunity to do so. 

One of several Celtic symbols to be found on this part of the walk

3. They say the Celts did it. Before Christians 'found' the remains of James & 'created' the pilgrimage we now have, it is believed that some of the Celts made a journey of a similar nature, following on the earth what they believed to be the pathway of the stars. Their journey led all the way to the ocean, which pointed, for them, to Something bigger and more powerful than humans. A lot of 'spiritual but not religious' pilgrims continue for this reason.

I'm sure there are more reasons, but these are the ones we heard cited most often. 
Pilgrim resting beside road marker

Who would have thought when we began that I would want to keep going after Santiago?!? Kirsten had expressed an interest in making this part of the journey since we began planning. I had always assumed I would take the bus and have a few days at the seaside while she made her way here. After we hopped on our hay wagon and got going again, things changed a bit. In part, I (and my feet!) got more accustomed to the daily walking. Because we'd been walking for weeks, and since we knew we had plenty of time, we were less worried about how far we went each day. That meant we were able to go at a pace my body could better handle. It was fewer kilometers per day than before, and it made a huge difference. As we neared the last 100km, I started to realize there was enough time for me to walk to Finisterre, too. And I was surprised to find I wanted to!

Pilgrim statue

As we neared Santiago, the last three days were hard ones for me. Three days out I fell down. Nothing dramatic. I had scaled mountains, crossed rivers, and come down some crazy steep rocky paths. But a piece of loose gravel in the road tripped me up and I was down. Kirsten helped me up, but it was frustrating to say the least. Then, the next day I fell again! A wayward tree root was my nemesis this time. Again, I was fine. Just a few bruises. But it dented the sense of confidence and accomplishment which had been steadily growing on the trail in the end. Partly to get my mojo back, I decided to walk on to the sea. And we decided to walk each at our own pace - meeting up in Finisterre. Kirsten wanted to see what she was capable of after our long journey to Santiago, and so did I.  

The road to the sea

Turns out we both learned some things. I got back some of my confidence. Kirsten was able to go further faster, but found that it was harder on her body than she had hoped. Both of us discovered we prefer traveling with someone to walking alone. We both met some interesting people and saw the sights, but we found we appreciated having someone to talk with at the end of the day about all we'd seen and done. It also turned out to be beneficial. On the way into the town of Cee, the last place to stay before Finisterre, Kirsten discovered that the last few kilometers were very challenging - steeply downhill and quite rocky. Happily, she shared that information with me - thanks to free wifi! Since I was still bruised from the falls before Santiago, I decided to be smart rather than stubborn and did not walk those 10 kilometers. Instead I took a taxi. This meant (a) I wouldn't mess up my knees or fall again, & (b) I was able to catch up to Kirsten and we walked the next day into Finisterre together. 
Sail sculptures in Cee                                 From Cee one can see the sea :-)

Finisterre is a lovely place, and the ocean views as you approach are simply amazing. It is traditional for pilgrims who make the walk here to watch the sunset by the lighthouse. Keep in mind that the sun isn't really setting here right now till about 10:00pm. So we decided to spend more than one night here. The first night we went to pick up our credential to show we had done this part of the Camino, walked around the town, and then went out for a delicious seafood feast. The next day we slept in - so very welcome after all this walking! Then we purchased some provisions at the store, packed up a backpack and began the 3 kilometer walk out to the lighthouse at the end of the world. 
We can see Finisterre!
So close...
So pretty!

We spent the afternoon and evening exploring the point, having a picnic, drinking some cava to celebrate and watching the sunset with other pilgrims. 
The zero kilometer marker

We met some folks who were out for the day with family, chatted with a group of international exchange students who were there on a field trip, and even saw a couple having wedding pictures taken! It was a fun night. 

Some pics from the lighthouse...

But what we noticed more was the beauty of the rocks, the mountains, the ocean, the sky...and   on this eve of Pentecost, the power of the wind! All of this - everything we could feel, see, hear, smell - was so much more glorious than anything we saw in a church or cathedral. God truly does it better than we humans ever could. This place, this evening, felt much more like 'the end' of the walk to us than had Santiago. As the sun dropped below the Atlantic, we were both a little teary-eyed remembering how far we had come (physically and otherwise!) in the last 40-some days. 


As we said our farewell to the sun, we stood up and turned around, only to find that the mountains behind us were bathed in the lavender light of twilight. The scene literally stopped us in our tracks. Then, as we began our walk toward town, the lighthouse beacon began to shine. It was certainly hard to leave this spot.

Our time here at 'the end of the world' helped underscore the beauty we have seen across this country. In the landscapes and the people. It gave us space and time to look back over the weeks of walking, to remember moments both silly and poignant. We had some hard days and there were tears along the way. But we learned new things each day, met interesting people from around the world and laughed harder than either of us has in months - maybe longer. Our pilgrimage was cathartic, and empowering, and humbling, and so much more. Then, we found at the end of the world there is still more. There is joy and light and stunning beauty and a pervasive feeling of hope for what is yet to be. 

Yes, for us this was the end in many ways. However, we both wanted to walk on. So after a day of rest we began one last walk to the sea...  

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The End (according to the Catholic church)

Mount of Joy - statue commemorates Pope JPii visit

On Friday, May 15th, after more than 40 days of walking, we finally made it to Santiago de Compostela. It was a dramatic entry - mostly because the last pedestrian bridge into the city - next to a major artery - (after descending the "Mount of Joy") is over a huge 6 lane highway. As we were walking over, a semi truck drove by and the gust of wind it left in its wake literally blew the hat off my head! Luckily, I was able to catch it before it flew down onto the traffic below. 
                                   View of Cathedral & walking into town

The Roman Catholic Church considers the cathedral in Santiago to be the end of the Camino. We made our way there and to the official pilgrim office to receive our certificate of completion, known as a 'compostela'. You must present your pilgrim credential, which has been stamped along the way, to prove you have walked. There is a form you fill in which asks for your name, country and reason for walking. The options include religious, spiritual, sport, cultural, etc. Before you know it, you are presented with the compostela (free, suggested donation 1-2€) and offered a traveling tube to protect the paperwork (2€). Then, of course, you exit through the cathedral gift shop. 
                                                 Our compostelas - in Latin

There are also pilgrim masses offered each day at noon and 7:30pm in the cathedral. We went to the evening one. It was kind of amazing to see just how many people were packed into the giant church - standing room only. I should say: we knew before coming that the pilgrimage is a 'Catholic thing'. We Presbyterians have been treated well and welcomed into churches along the way. But we are definitely aware of our Protestant identity in some new ways. Parts of this final service felt worshipful: the nun teaching us all songs to sing for the service & the homily about how the Camino is a vision of Christian community we should take home with us. But once again, we were sad the table isn't open to everyone. It felt like a disconnect to go from hearing from a priest about the whole of Christian community to witnessing communion served only for the Roman Catholics, and the cup only for the priests. 
One of many entrances to the cathedral

Also, we just can't get used to the over-the-top silver and gold baroque decor in many Spanish churches, especially in the cathedrals. We appreciate the art, and the support artists have received from the church. However, it's hard not to think of how else the church could have used the money spent on precious metals and jewels. And the image of St. James the "matamoros" or "Moor slayer" riding high on a white steed, sword drawn, is just not one I want to see - especially at the front of a place of worship. There is a legend in Spain that James (long dead) came back to help the Christians reclaim the Iberian peninsula from the Moors. While we are sure this was a great way to rally the troops (I mean who wouldn't want a saint and apostle on your side?) we both have some issues with portraying a martyred apostle as a killer and glorifying this aspect of the story above what we know of his actual life. Especially when this violent depiction is physically much larger than any image of Christ at the front of the worship space.
Retablo at the alter in Santiago 

During the mass we also got to see the famous botafumierio in action. This is the thurible, a container in which incense is burned. The Santiago cathedral is known for having one of the largest ones - some theorize it was large in medieval days to help with the stench of unbathed pilgrims. It is swung over the worshippers at the beginning or end of the mass. While the priest reminded us that this was an object used for worship, for many it was clearly more like a bit of theater: watching the team of monks pull on ropes to make the giant silver object fly, smoking overhead, nearly touching the ceiling with each swing, iPhones and cameras snapping pictures and capturing video footage. (You can learn more here:
Or watch it in action on YouTube here:

For many pilgrims this is where the journey ends. They attend mass, hug a statue of the saint, pay respects to the silver box which supposedly contains his bodily remains, and receive a compostela. But for others the walk is not done. Those more in touch with the Celtic spirituality of the region than the Catholic faith continue on to the coast of Spain. That is what we have done. 

We'll write more about that in other posts. As for Santiago, even though the Catholic rite wasn't as meaningful for us as it was for some, we still rejoiced at having made it to Santiago for the feast of the Ascension, and were grateful to sing along with other pilgrims in worship. We were happy to get our compostelas and visit with a few other pilgrims we had met along the way. But to be truthful, it didn't feel like the end for us. Partly this was due to the exclusion of believers to the table. Partly this was due to the abundance of gift/souvenir/junk shops & kiosks which give the area a VERY touristy feel. And part was probably just that we always hoped to walk on to the sea. So our first stop after Santiago was Finisterre. It was so named because until it was discovered that the Earth is round, it was thought to be the end of the world. So, we packed up (again) and walked on from the "end of the Camino" to the end of the world....

Path on the Camino de Fisterra

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Last Hundred Kilometers & Thoughts On Real, True Pilgrims

                      Pilgrim vs. Tourist sign posted in an albergue

Is a true pilgrim one who walks the farthest? Carries the most on their back? Makes the most sacrifices to be on the walk? Has the most burdens in their heart, mind or soul? Is the true pilgrim one who attends mass at each church, prays without ceasing while walking and makes a donation at every opportunity leaving a trail of lit candles in their wake? Is it the person who has the coolest walking stick, the biggest shell or the one who knows the most history pertaining to St. James, Spain, or how medieval pilgrims made the walk? 

At the 100 kilometers to Santiago marker

It may seem silly, but as I mentioned last month, the topic of what makes a "real pilgrim" (versus a tourist) is entirely too common along the Way of St. James. This has become even more prevalent as we enter the final 100 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims begin in many places, and there are several routes marked. We began walking in St. Jean Pied du Port, France. Many who are on this route began in Lu Puys, France, or in Spain at Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Burgos, Leon or other spots. The Catholic Church, who gives out a sort of certificate of completion to pilgrims, has said that one must walk more than 100 kilometers for the pilgrimage to 'count'. Therefore, when we reached the town of Sarria, the town just beyond that 100 kilometer mark on this route, the number of pilgrims increased. Substantially. Maybe even exponentially.

As did the grumbling among those who had already been walking for twenty, thirty, forty, or more days. Who were these people 'doing the minimum', and did they count as "real" pilgrims?
City coat of arms in a park

Last month I shared that we were moving slower than we had hoped for a variety of reasons. And we did, in the end, opt to 'hop on the hay wagon' (AKA: we took 2 days off to let feet heal and caught a train to get us on track with the walking time). It was a good decision that has meant we were able to keep walking and will have time to get to Santiago, as well as walking to Finisterre  and Muxia along the coast. In fact, by the time you read this, we will (hopefully) have done just that. 

Some artists' visions of what a pilgrim is...

We are not alone in finding ways to make the pilgrimage happen while dealing with the unexpected. There are pilgrims who have opted to send their backpacks ahead via taxi each day, carrying only water and necessities. There are some who catch a bus or taxi for parts of the path that will be too hard on already stressed knees, ankles, tendons, etc. There are some who opt to stay in a hotel rather than the bunk style hostels in order to catch up on sleep or soak sore feet. In short, lots of folks who have been walking for a while have done things they weren't planning on to be able to continue the journey. 

But the 'old' pilgrims sure had some thoughts about these 'new' folks. What about the ones who had sent ahead suitcases filled with clothes (and HAIR DRYERS!) in taxis, while we were still wearing the same two tired outfits we've been rotating and hand washing for about a month? What about the ones who used online booking sites to reserve hotel rooms, and even spots in our hostels when we had been taking what we could get (and were grateful for it!) in the bunk room? Some newcomers even had the nerve to be overly excited, wanting to CHAT early in the morning while the seasoned crew was trying to get packed up for the day?! 
Suitcases awaiting shipment via taxi to meet their owner at the next hostel

It sounds silly, but it's all true. And, if I'm being honest, I do have to confess to being annoyed that the path got crowded, and to a bit of being judgmental when asked where I had reservations for the night - aargh! Needless to say, I've been having to pray a little about the log in my own eye... 

It also got me to thinking. First of all I wondered how the folks who started weeks before me, or who were veterans who have walked many times, felt when we were the new pilgrims. They might have thought we asked silly questions or rolled their eyes at our naïveté, but instead - to a person- they were patient and kind and helpful. 

All of this also reminded me of the church. How do we welcome those who decide to join us on the journey? I know there are times when we forget that church might be scary, new, or disorienting for someone. We are all so used to our routines that it's easy to forget they might be foreign to someone just joining us. It's something we can all work on as we seek to welcome people into the community of faith. I have observed many of you graciously reaching out to someone who is new to our ways- explaining where we are in the service, sharing a hymnal, walking someone to coffee hour or a classroom, or patiently answering questions about a service opportunity. 

The thing is all of us are trying to be 'true' pilgrims. And it has less to do with kilometers walked or pounds carried, and more to do with the things of the heart. Showing our love of God and neighbor by how we treat one another, how we welcome the newcomer, the stranger in our midst - these are more important marks of 'true' pilgrims this side of paradise in my book. So, I'm working on sharing the road more graciously, encouraging fellow pilgrims to welcome our new companions, and remembering with gratitude the grace of all those who have helped me along the way. 

At Cruz de Fero

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pilgrim Food

While training for this adventure we ran into a woman in Eugene who shared that her daughters had walked the Camino in recent years. She assured us we would enjoy the walk, but cautioned us that the food was "horrible". We had trouble believing that we couldn't find good food in Spain, and are happy to report that we are, in fact, eating well! But some folks have asked us about meals 
A good day in España starts with café con leche!

 A typical Spanish breakfast is toast with butter and jam and a cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. Sometimes you can also get fruit, and only rarely is there is yogurt, cheese, meat, eggs, cereal, etc. Once in an while breakfast is part of your lodging fee, but you can usually get something at a local bar for about 3-4€. Lunch or daytime snacks are hit or miss. We keep nuts and a couple pieces of fruit in our packs just in case. Often we are able to stop for a snack of Spanish tortilla (the egg, onion & potato dish we've mentioned before) or a bocadillo (aka sandwich) which is a baguette-like bread with cheese or ham or sometimes Spanish tortilla inside. These plus other snacks (like chocolate:-) can be gotten at bars or little shops along the route (if there is a town on the way). 
Almost to a bar = snacks!

For supper, MANY restaurants, bars, etc. offer a 3-course pilgrim menu with starter, main, and dessert (along with wine, water & bread). Sometimes you order from choices, other times you are simply served 'the menu', and sometimes the place you are staying has a communal meal served family style. Most dinners are between 8€ -15€. Once in a great while it is part of your room cost. Many albuergues also have kitchens for pilgrims to use if you wish to cook. We haven't done this, mostly because we aren't in the mood to cook in strange kitchens after walking all day, showering, and doing our laundry. It is SO much easier to eat whatever you are served. There was one day we knew we were staying in a town with no dinner options, so we brought picnic snacks of bread, cheese, fruit and nuts (and chocolate!) to hold us over. 
Chocolate museum in Astorga

While Spaniards eat at different hours than most pilgrims, the places along The Way, especially in the little towns whose whole economy is supported by pilgrims, are usually open and happy to serve you. There are also little shops, called tiendas, that can vary from the size of a small convenience store to a room in someones's home. They carry a wide variety of things: usually pre-packaged items, basic first aid, and sometimes they'll make a sandwich or have fresh fruit.  Many of them also carry travel size toiletries, band aids, and pilgrim 'souvenirs'.  
Cheese Tasting @ a Queseria in Gallecia

We are also good at trying local 'specialties' as we pass through a region. So Basque cake in the Pyranees; garlic soup with fresh bread in the early days; chocolate in Astorga; red wine everywhere, especially in Rioja; cider, seafood (including pulpo, AKA octopus)and amazing cheeses in Gallicia. All in all, we have eaten VERY well. Some folks have asked if we are losing weight with all the walking. Some pilgrims have mentioned their pants are looser. We think they haven't tried as many items that aren't on the typical pilgrim menu as we have! While we haven't stepped on a scale, my guess is we are about where we started on that front. We have made up for the extra burned calories by having good food along the whole walk, and are grateful to have done so! 

Pulpo- octopus boiled, then topped with olive oil & spicy paprika