The Portuguese Espiritual fireplace was the first one I faced over the years. I have always been fascinated and curious that hundreds of thousands of people came to this place every year from France, Spain and Portugal.
The paths to Santiago are a web of routes that start from various areas: England, France, Spain, Portugal, to gather in Santiago de Compostela, in the centre of the beautiful square where km 0 is located.
Portuguese Chimney Espiritual map
From Bayona to Nigran, first stage of my Portuguese fireplace Espiritual
The group with whom he decided to travel on the Portuguese journey from Lisbon. We only cover the last 140 km.
After sleeping in Porto, a city where you can see the suffering of the crisis, we take our first steps from Baiona, a beautiful village overlooking the sea of the first of the three Galician fjords that we will travel.
In a small church of grey stones we take our Credencial del Peregrino, a document that will demonstrate, through stamps, the path we have travelled. It is a certificate of passage to document the stretch of the path we have travelled. Whoever gives us the stamp, be it the owner of a bar, of a hostel, of any place of refreshment, the priest of a church or of a monastery, will look at your shoes, will look at your physical state looking for fatigue in your faces, will make sure that you are travelling on foot from the dust on your clothes. We should present this booklet to Santiago in order to have the Compostela, an official document that certifies without a shadow of a doubt the path travelled.
After leaving the church we take our first steps and it is a great emotion to find on the pavement the first yellow arrow indicating the direction, the first shell of St. James open to form a fan. For days they will be our reference point, our polar stars.
We cross the village and walk along the fjord for hours, above beaches, inlets, cliffs. The sea, on our left, becomes a constant element. It is beautiful, of an intense blue, a shimmering green. We witness the ritual of the low tide, the sun slowly descending on the horizon.
The first thought that goes through my brain is that I have to remember everything, every stone, shell, wood, stone, clod of earth, tree, flower, puddle, wave. I have to drink this journey slowly like a glass of water. It must fill me and flow in my body up to my toes, to my toenails. Water that regenerates, after having been thirsty for so long. I pick up a small light grey stone from the sand, I turn it in my hands, I dust it off. I feel it warm with the sun, rough, alive. Inside a pocket of my backpack it will keep me company for the whole trip, I will lay it in the cathedral, on the remains of St. James.
From Nigran to Redondela: Second day
It is only the morning of the second day but I already have my rituals, it is the feet that take up most of the time before departure, a little ankle stretching, a massage with a cream that makes the skin soft and smooth, then the socks, the shoes. The feet are important, the thing that matters most, I take maniacal care of them. I’m afraid of getting sores, blisters. I want to walk without pain, or at least I tell myself that I have to do everything I can to prevent this from happening.
We leave the sea and the hills welcome us softly, it is a succession of churches, monasteries. They are all in grey stone, the essential structure. The path winds near them and I imagine in ancient times the real pilgrims advancing from one church to another praying. An Espiritual path and I wonder what we have today of spirituality.
There is a smell of wet earth, the green foliage in the undergrowth and tall plants glisten. The path is of beaten earth, pine needles define it. But then suddenly, after a bend, the sea is with us again, splendid under the late afternoon sun, it is the second fjord of Galicia that we enter.
From Redondela to Pontevedra: Third day
In the evening the sun sets very late, at twenty-three it is still clear. Maybe that’s why while I start the day the shops are still closed, you can’t see anyone around. This is a ghost town, the first one after kilometres that I am about to cross, I don’t meet children going to school or people getting ready for work. The Spanish sleep late, the shops open at ten o’clock and the school at nine. I give up buying fruit, a sandwich.
I dive into the houses while their inhabitants greet the new day. I am so close that I can listen to their breaths, breathe their smells. I get smells of coffee, good hints of unknown foods. I pass between the houses so close that I peek inside the doors next door, I notice the habits, the uses, I could reach out my hand and touch the freshly washed clothes lying on the wires waiting for the sun to take them.
I stop and wonder if we can. If I can invade their intimacy, with what right can I trample these alleys. I feel like a thief, maybe if I stopped, if I became part of this landscape even for an hour, for a day, it would be like asking for forgiveness for this intrusion but I cannot stop, I am just passing by, a matter of moments, of steps and then I will vanish far away.
I hear a door slam. The country is deserted but it is not so. I look around again and I feel forgiven. They don’t see each other but they are there, they have left messages. Everywhere there are concrete shells stuck in the walls, above the doors, hanging from the gates, from the windows. I see carved arrows in the wooden doors, applied to decorate the balconies. I take a few steps and I come across a niche carved into a wall. Inside there is everything: holy pictures, rosaries, dolls, shells, writing, photographs. It is as if they were saying: you can, you can pass, we are here, we are with you, you are not alone, go, Buen Camino.
Pontevedra is a lively town, full of people, children, bars and outdoor restaurants as only a Spanish city can be. A quick shower, we free our feet from our shoes by wearing a pair of sandals (not before the same care in the morning) and the city opens up around us. It’s beautiful, pulsating with life, clean gardens, people standing around talking, laughing. Tiredness is far away, it’s time for civilisation, for good food. In the bathroom of my room there is no toilet rim, the bedspread is full of not very identifiable stains, there is no toilet paper, but I don’t care, patience.
Fourth day: Pontevedra Armenteria
We leave Pontevedra, almost thirty kilometres await us today. We visit the Monastery of Poio, austere and silent, with a fresh green cloister.
Let’s continue. We go up and down a few hills, we move away from the sea.
The paths are in the middle of greenery, silent and deserted. I proceed with particular calm, I hear the rustle of the wind and the tinkling of my shell tied to my backpack banging against something. It is a rhythmic cadence that goes hand in hand with the rhythm of my steps. I feel at peace, mind and body are in tune and it is a pleasure, I am part of this uncontaminated nature, there is harmony, there is intimacy. A sort of balance that is difficult to achieve under normal conditions, in everyday life at home. Here, now, now, there is nothing to reach, to want, to desire. Or to solve, accept, plan.
Here, now, there is only the pavement to bite slowly, with respect, with humility.
I photograph my feet, a childish, childlike gesture. But they are the ones who take me, they are the engine and I am not ashamed of my gesture. Feet and mind, but I cannot photograph the mind. If I could, now, I would do it.
And then there it is again, the sea.
We go along the coast, we stop in a small fishing village, we eat octopus alla galega, a speciality. The octopus is boiled, seasoned and sprinkled with sweet paprika. A simple recipe but the meat melts in the mouth, the paprika pinches slightly on the palate and the sea is inside us. We drink chilled and sparkling white wine. There is lightness in the air.
Let’s leave the place and continue. A rather high hill awaits us, they say it is tiring, they say walk slowly, save your strength.
We climb up and the show below us opens immense and beautiful. The sea, the islands, the mussels, the cities, the green. I would never stop admiring it.
We go into the woods. Now the fatigue makes itself felt. I’m last in line, but that’s nothing new. I slow down, stop to drink, pee behind some bushes.
I’m recovering but I’m tired, my legs start to shake.
I can see the bell tower of the Monastery de Armenteira from afar. Over there I will make a stop, a long stop.
Just outside the monastery I aim a bench. My legs can’t hold me any longer and I shake from the effort. I throw myself into it. They say that the third and fourth days are the most tiring, after the adrenaline of the first days the tiredness takes over, the kilometres I have done fall on my shoulders, all at once. Then you get used to it.
I am so busy taking off my shoes and socks that I didn’t notice that a lady occupies the extreme space at mine. She is very old, her face wrinkled, her skin darkened by the sun, her hair white, short.
He is scrutinizing my every movement. He looks at me while I take off my latest model shoes, ultra light, super cushioned with super technological soles, he has his hands laid on his lap over a flowered apron on the blue, his toes twisted just intertwined and follows my every movement while I get rid of the padded socks in the right places, reinforced, ventilated, the latest study in trekking. I stare into her finely blue eyes, washed out as only old people’s eyes can be. What I am doing. My feet are well cared for, smooth, soft. Hers are inside old slippers, worn, dirty but dignified like everything else about her. She stares at me and says nothing. What is she supposed to tell me? Who knows what she thinks of me, of people like me, spoiled people, tired of the usual holidays who are looking for alternative ways to have fun. I put on my socks, my shoes.
I would like to reach out my hand and touch hers, I would like to hug her but I don’t. I sit next to her for a moment. Silently I thank her and I apologise, I am on her path but she is the path.
Fifth day: From Armoury to Villanova de Arousa
Ruta da Pedra and da Agua, the stone and water road, is a path that runs alongside a stream, stone mills dot its sides. It is very cold, a humidity that penetrates but I would not like to be anywhere else in the world. The water falls into waterfalls and rivulets and I with it. It guides me and teaches me that everything flows away, everything passes, everything is now and already past.
It is the passing of time that marks us but I no longer know how much time has passed as I go down with the flowing water, maybe just an hour, maybe three. Time no longer matters, it is no longer a bond, a rope that pulls me and then pushes me away. Time loses its power, it becomes an abstract thing, made only to be forgotten.
The stream flows into a river and that’s what we skirt. A slow and sleepy river on the right, vineyards as far as the eye can see on the left. There is nothing else.
I feel an overwhelming need to be alone. I accelerate and detach the few people I have near me.
And it is not true that there is nothing else. There are bird songs, a faint lapping of water, a rustling of leaves. At home, before leaving, I thought that when I would have walked I would have questioned the meaning of my life, retraced my life, remembered my joys, analyzed my mistakes, but no, my past life is far away, it’s as if it wasn’t even here with me, as if it wasn’t mine. Life is now, step by step. This walking is a continuous leaving, a lightness around that makes space inside. There is no future either, what will be after now does not concern me, as if the future that awaits me, as for the past, was not mine.
And then here it is again, the sea, for the last time, the third fjord.
Sixth day: From Villanova de Arousa to Milagroso
It’s dawn. The sea calls me, I run outside. The low tide has left uncovered beaches and cliffs. But that’s not what surprises me, it’s the dozens and dozens of women bent over the beach. What they do, I wonder. I get closer to two. They are clam hunters. They take advantage of the low tide to pull the clams out of the sand. They work quickly, quietly and methodically, they put the big ones in a bucket, the little ones leave them on the sand, the sea will take them back. I ask their permission to photograph them, they just smile at me and give me their consent. The sun is already high, I return, I get ready.
We leave the sea, go up the river Ulla on a small boat. On foot would be a stage of sixty kilometres, impossible to do.
The wind is in our faces, the water is flowing fast. We approach a mussel cultivation, we look at the functioning of the harvest, of the first washing. We continue. We approach a small island. There are three crosses. The Judas explains to us that the ship carrying the remains of St. James sank here.
The crosses sway on the river, there is peace here, a kind of sacredness.
The remains of St. James were found inside a wooden crate kilometres ahead, in the middle of a field under a starry sky, the same place where the city of Santiago de Compostela (field of stars) was later built. All this is poetic, I can feel it on my skin. And it is not the fresh air that makes my skin crawl. It is that we are getting closer, Santiago is now at the gates.
We see it when we resume walking, there are many more people now, a concentration of backpacks, boots, hats to shelter from the sun. We are just under twenty kilometres away and the sadness assails me, in a little while, tomorrow, all this will be over.
Day 7: Arrival in Santiago de Compostela.
It’s still dark. We must arrive in time for the pilgrim’s mass at noon. We meet two more churches and then follow the tracks of a railway.
I think back to the days just gone by. They were intense, but also quiet. I feel that I have taken away the superfluous, taking it away I have made myself richer. An inner richness without compromises, that goes back to the origins, where the little was everything and that everything made us feel good, satisfied, satisfied.
We enter the outskirts of the city. We return to the noise of cars, horns and traffic. The green gives way to concrete, but that’s the way it has to be.
We can see the spires of the cathedral from afar, but they seem to move away, we never arrive. We are welcomed by flowerbeds, well-kept gardens.
Now, the square is just a handful of metres away.
I’m calling my husband. I want him to participate, as if he were here with me and not miles away. A few metres away, I tell him in a broken voice.
And then there will be the square, this navel that sucked us in. Congratulations, she replies, even her voice is excited, you did it, bravo.
Yes, I did it. And I feel alive, as never before.
Entering the square is emotional. It is a wave of pure emotion that involves and overwhelms everyone. The mass of people is united, they breathe in unison, they dry their eyes and embrace each other, merging into a single body.
It is the sharing and awareness of having walked a stretch of road and life together, the personal and general recognition of having overcome the limits we had imposed on ourselves.
Pure physical and spiritual fulfillment. It is victory and humility.
The Botafumeiro, the largest censer in the world, swings above our heads. The church is overflowing, the sacredness of the palpable moment.
Yet this rite has nothing sacred, the pilgrims of yore used to come to church after the long walk and stink so much that the priests invented this practice to disperse the smell of the bodies.
The incense blessed but above all perfumed the air.
Now it is an attraction, but also an obligatory stop for those who have made the journey.
I have one last thing left to do. I get in line, the queue is slow, I have time to look around, hear ten languages spoken at the same time. The steps that go up behind the altar are worn, millions and millions of people have walked on them. Above is a bust representing St. James. People embrace this bust, they kiss it. When it’s my turn I don’t know what to do, I don’t feel like hugging it and even less like kissing it, I’m not so devoted. I decide to touch it, I put my fingers on one shoulder and my ten seconds are over. But the route is not, it goes down and then down again. Under the altar there are the remains of St. James. Here the environment is more austere, simple, without ostentation of gold and jewels. I feel much more at ease. I take out the stone. Now that I have to leave him I am sorry, he has been a good companion. But a promise is a promise. I lay it in a corner of the floor with others. A prayer of thanks comes naturally to me and why not, it can’t hurt. Then I leave the crypt, not before I have wiped away a few tears.