The path to Portuguese Santiago remained in my heart, so I decided to return again to the city of St. James from Galicia along the French Way.
But then who was this Giacomo? And what did he do to become a saint? Soon I am leaving for my second journey and I realize how ignorant I am. I vaguely know his story but now the time has come to deepen the subject, I owe him a little attention to this Giacomo.
Wikipedia tells me that James was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and this will certainly be a vivid memory for those who did doctrine or attended some Sunday Mass. Son of Zebedee was one of the first Christian martyrs. He was beheaded in the persecutions ordered by King Herod in the year 42 AD.
His disciples stole the body from Jerusalem and brought it to Galicia, becoming the protector of pilgrims, wayfarers and soldiers. As the story goes, we know, the ship sank, the Saint’s remains were discovered in Charlemagne’s time in a field under a starry sky…
I had already walked the road to Santiago, and that feeling of serenity, of satisfied tiredness had made me promise that I would return. I had felt the beautiful emotions of Portugal and now for my second time I decided to face Spain and the French Way.
The last stretch from O Cebreiro to the tomb of St. James will be my way.
Santiago de Compostela
I think that in a little while I will walk through its alleys again, I will relive its magic. I wonder what this path will be like, if I will rediscover the silences, the affinities between mind and body that I have already experienced. What will I find along the way? What charm will it have? How and what will I let myself be overwhelmed by?
Like all the first times, will the path you have taken first have the taste of unique and unrepeatable things?
I do not know how to give myself an answer, at the same time I do not want to let myself be conditioned and I take every possible expectation or prejudice of any kind out of my mind.
Preparing my departure for Santiago
I prepare myself yes, because the journey requires a minimum of preparation. You have to walk, walk, walk. Train your calves, awaken your ankle joints, put your hips back in shape. Then, afterwards, much later, you can leave.
My second walk of Santiago
For my second path I decided to take the classic route: the French path starting from Saint Jean Pied Port. However, we only cover the last 160 km, those from O’ Cebrerio to Santiago de Compostela.
First day: O Cebrerio – Triacastela.
I arrived in O’ Cebrerio which is already afternoon. It is a small village nestled in the mountains with a fantastic view of the valleys below; round stone buildings with thatched roofs called Pallozas make it a unique and particular centre.
But it is next to the only pre-Romanesque church in the village that I make an important meeting. Here is buried Don Elias Valina. He was the parish priest of the village and between the end of the 70’s and the beginning of the 80’s he had an enlightening idea:
Tired of seeing the wooden rectangles pointing the way to Santiago rotting in the rain, tired of having to constantly point the way and tired of having to ring the church bells to help pilgrims find their way through the fog on winter nights, he asked the citizens to bring him a gift of painting.
He saw a can of yellow paint delivered, the only one left over from who knows what. With that he took to draw arrows on the pavement, on the walls of houses, on trees, on every possible place indicating the direction of the path. Over time the pilgrims and volunteers did the rest, unifying the whole route along the path under the sign of the famous yellow arrows.
I stay a few minutes in front of Elias. Is it just a legend that the only paint left over was yellow or did he ask for that colour? A colour that can be seen even at night in the moonlight alone, a colour reminiscent of solar energy, a positive, cheerful colour, but also hinting at a vague spirituality? Who knows.
I greet the good parish priest and follow the first yellow arrow that shows me the direction and tells me that Santiago is 160 km away.
Big black clouds loom before us when we meet the statue of the pilgrim who is advancing along the way fighting against the wind. We are high up, and we too proceed against a cold air that blows impetuously. The statue has been immortalised in an attitude that thousands of other pilgrims have done or will do. It almost seems as if it wants to teach us, or spur us on to continue. I accept the invitation and advance at a good pace.
Second day: Triacastela – Sarria
Galicia is a succession of green hills. The air is fresh, humid and pervaded by a particular smell that I still can’t detect. In the middle of the nothing of a small oak grove, a building emerges, claiming the title of art gallery.
Just beyond the entrance there is a small table with a jug of water and glasses. Inside there are paintings, plates, a notebook where you can mark your visit by writing your name, your origin. I would be browsing through it for hours but our journey is still a long one.
We leave the forest and nature changes, here and there in the shimmering greenery large yellow broom shrubs stand out. They dot the horizon, dot the landscape. Stains of colour that touch us, accompany us.
We pass through small settlements, piles of houses with adjacent stables, vegetable gardens cultivated with cabbage, salads, tomatoes. Now I recognise it perfectly: together with the smell of cow dung, soaked with that of the stable there is in the air the smell of freshly milked milk, curd, cheese. In fact, a famous Galician cheese is produced in these areas.
The milk drips from the shapes hanging in the courtyards, just outside the houses. It’s a rural area, the houses are humble, people don’t even raise their heads when we pass by, they have to work the fields and manage the animals.
They say that when it rains the streets and lanes are a river of straw and manure. We do not run this danger, at least for today. It will be thirty-five degrees, the sun is breaking the stones.
A stop for a “Corto”
In the meantime, it’s time for a snack, you really need a “short” to refresh you. A short is a small glass of Galician beer, the famous Estrella. They serve it in a round glass, with the stem. It is a pleasure to order it, to drink it.
The cost is minimal, one euro, and the quantity is just right for not having any remorse of conscience… then the short can be taken at any time, with or without a snack. “Let’s make a short film” becomes a battle hymn!
Third day: Sarria – Portomarin
I slept badly, an agitated and not at all restful sleep. But two things that I immediately encounter tear me a smile: a stork’s nest perched on a lamppost and a century-old tree that seems to act as a lookout for the path.
We proceed and I feel something in the atmosphere that I can’t quite define: it’s not a particular smell or a stench. It is more a sensation that has accompanied me since we left Sarria.
100 km from Santiago
The feeling gets stronger. You feel a dynamism, a different energy that looks more like a kind of confusion. The pilgrims kilometre after kilometre become more numerous, more and more cyclists speed past us, fast and silent.
Then I understand. We are approaching the 100 km to Santiago, the minimum number of kilometres that a pilgrim has to travel in order to be entitled to Compostela.
Here is the indication. Smeared, impoverished, scarred. They say they have stolen the tile thousands of times, in fact this shines so much is new. I’ll stick with it. This one, among the thousands and thousands of concrete columns that we have met, should be the one that is best held, homage, if we want to reverence it. But it is not. The human soul once again surprises me with its ugliness. Especially by the pilgrims who should cherish such a thing.
The photo is a ritual, I start again with a sad soul, something has broken, the spell has faded away.
The further I go, the better known how the people of Galicia have opened their doors to pilgrims. There are banquets set up in the gardens, they provide their bathrooms. I cannot resist this.
I pee, wash my hands and face, then I take a banana from the table and leave two euros. Will it be a few? Will it be too much? The lady thanks me and smiles at me. I sit outside the house and eat the banana. It’s a constant coming and going of people coming in, eating, drinking, laughing, shouting, calling each other out loud. Where is the silence? Where is the peace and where are the noises of footsteps?
I’m getting back on the road when I see a small dog coming in with two bags on either side of his back, followed by his owner. They have the same colours of backpack and the same bags. People stop the dog, they want to pet it. The owner is proud, he says that the dog is carrying his food, his water.
I wonder if the dog agrees… marching for days and days, sleeping outdoors or in hostels, carrying a weight on his back that becomes excessive with the miles… or maybe the dog really wants to go and pray on the remains of Saint James?
It is late afternoon when we see on the other side of a river, on a hill, the city that will host us for the night: Portomarin.
Before, this Galician city stood where the waters of the river now stand. They dismantled the village church stone by stone and rebuilt it high up, then around the houses and the whole village.
A long, bristling staircase awaits us to enter. Just what it takes to end the day in beauty.
We take courage and face the last effort, laughing.
Fourth day: Portomarin-Palais do Rei
The next morning Portomarin is a ghost town, the narrow streets fading into the fog. Too bad the church is closed, I would have gladly seen it. I have a coffee at the bar and have a “sello”, that is the stamp of the place on the Credential.
The walk continues on a hill for hours, the fog remains below us, a cotton cloud covering the earth. We are an army of people on the march. We meet small souvenir markets, dozens and dozens of shells show off. They even give us free hugs if we want.
After a path that winds through a wood we enter a small church to lay the saddle. There is a gentleman sitting behind a desk. He is blind. He holds the stamp firmly in his hand. Each of us takes his hand and places it over the free space. He then activates the stamp.
They are slow, calm movements. There is something reverential in this ritual that repeats itself. I wonder how many hands he will touch every day, how many Buen Cammino will wish he who sits here and of the walk, perhaps, is content to put stamps.
I go out into the light and squeeze my eyes, it takes a short, right away, no doubt.
Fifth day: Palais do Rei – Arzua
In the end it had to happen. We walk along a lane full of roots, holes. There are a thousand of us, one behind the other or in groups. I walk next to two travelling companions, for days we have been forming a trio, we are inseparable.
We expect if one slows down and even if we distance ourselves we follow each other with our eyes, respectful of the loneliness of others but ready in case of need or ready to reunite willing to exchange a few words.
I don’t know how it happens but yet another cyclist almost caught me in the middle. He arrived shot, silent, we only hear the screeching of the brakes, his swearing. To avoid a pothole he loses control of the bike and avoids me by a whisker. He’s middle-aged, of robust build. Why don’t you go slower, I ask him, why don’t you ring a bell to warn of your coming? The exchange of words is not very courteous, on the one hand patience has run out, on the other you think you own the road.
The man starts again, faster than before. So we meet him again, we say to ourselves, maybe in a tavern eating a tortilla, drinking a cup of dyed wine. This has been happening for days… we met the dog with the bags, the Australian couple with the pots hanging from their backpacks, an English lady with white gloves and her companion.
We are meteors that come and go, that move away and then reunite.
The cyclist’s episode, however, makes me wonder what’s great about this route. At home I told myself that I had no expectations, I felt that I would not find the same atmosphere as the Portuguese route. But then, I wonder, where is the sense of this journey?
The answer comes to me after about six kilometres. We find yet another church. I am tired, I have pain in my leg, I want to get this dust off me, I want to sit down. I already pray for the silence and the coolness inside. But what awaits me I cannot even imagine.
The church is bare, a modest altar, wooden benches, stone ceiling and walls. I sit down and turn my eyes. In a niche there is Jesus on the cross. His left arm is nailed down, his right one is facing down, stretched out to help those who are suffering, to help those who are tired, to support those who are tired. This is the meaning.
It is humanity, the meaning of this path. The humility of those who suffer but want to help their neighbour, of those who do not think of themselves but of the other. I think I have never seen and felt such a beautiful and deep feeling. I leave the church and finally I feel good, in peace.
Sixth day: Arzua – San Paio
It is still night when the rain wakes me up. Violent gusts reinforced by the wind crash down on the windows. This had to happen after days and days of sunshine.
We leave hooded under our capes, rain trousers. After not even two kilometres I don’t know which is worse, the water falling from the sky or the water bouncing off the pavement. We look at each other and all we have to do is laugh. We come back as children and soak our feet in puddles, we walk on the water towers. After three hours we don’t laugh any more, we are all cold, the wind then slams the cape between our legs and we risk falling with every step. We stop in a tavern and wait for the rain to calm down.
Let’s start again, I’m the last one together with two other companions. The rain has calmed down and at the end it’s snowing. We walk fast to recover but then we realize we are lost. When was the last time we saw yellow arrows? We were supposed to meet a small village but we didn’t even touch it or see it from a distance. Another lady is also lost. She is English, she says she is very tired, her feet hurt. We help her carry her backpack, in the meantime we try to understand where we are with the help of google maps. We decide to cross a field, that way we should find our way back.
In spite of the tiredness, the rain, the wet feet, the sweaty body under the plastic cape I am calm and when at the end we will find the village and the rest of the group we will toast with one short, two short, three short and nothing will seem better to me.
Day 7: San Paio – Santiago
We go down for breakfast and the newspaper reminds us of the flood the day before.
Today is the last day of walking in Galicia, it’s cloudy but it’s not raining. We are close by now. We climb Mount Gozo, the mountain overlooking Santiago on the west side. If it were clear we would see the bell towers, the whole city lying under the mountain.
A tide of people is approaching, but there is silence. We walk along a fence where pilgrims have attacked hundreds and hundreds of crosses.
We reach the top. We are welcomed by the monument erected on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Santiago, not very beautiful in truth. And then we have no choice but to descend towards the city.
Here is Santiago, with his pebbles and spires. His people singing in the street and those walking barefoot with bandaged feet. The people of the souvenir shops and the people of hugs and tears.
Europe was born on a pilgrimage to Compostela, says one of the many writings we encounter.
And again the square welcomes us. It envelops us and licks our wounds.
“The goal is the path”, I think with a certain melancholy. And never were words more truthful.
The rite wants that after the pilgrim’s mass he goes to Manolo for lunch. In the chaos of the restaurant I drink another short. But how many will I have drunk?
I think back to the cyclist, who knows if I will meet him again later, in the square or in the streets of the city. And if so, what will I say to him? But when I arrived, I realized that it would be impossible to see him again.
Buen Camino to all!