Westward, to the World’s End

We have come to the end of the world, my shadow, my backpack, my blisters and I.

For here at Cape Finisterre, this wind-whipped westernmost spit of Spain, European travellers once came timidly to stand at the end of all known lands and gaze at a horizon that held behind it horrors and mysteries beyond imagining. Here, in the Middle Ages, before the great Discoverers set sail into the unknown, their world ended.

Finisterre

There’s a light at the end of the world now, an automated tower that blips out a cautionary beam into the frequent fog that cossets the broken coastline and hides the headland.

Today’s traveller knows (as Columbus and others only suspected and hoped) that beyond the blurred horizon lie the Americas. Yet, wheeling gulls still scream into the wind the selfsame warning they keened centuries ago to sailors who dared to set course westward from here into the setting sun.

I have come to this northwestern corner of Spain in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of Christian devotees down the ages: pilgrims who from the 10th century onwards funnelled out of Europe and tramped contemplatively through France, across the Pyrenees and westward through northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela and the legendary tomb of the biblical disciple and martyr Saint James. Then they walked on to Finisterre – the End of the World.

Theirs was an ordeal of devotion, a soul-sapping journey of many months and countless dangers. Their only reward, the lure that drew them onwards in the face of beasts, bandits, disease and deprivation, lay in the dogged belief that reaching the supposed tomb of St James would earn them spiritual benediction to ease their entry into heaven when they died.

So they came, across the centuries and many hundreds of miles – the dreamers, the devoted, the diseased, the pious, the penitent, the hopeful and the hopelessly hellbound, striding and shuffling their rank passage to absolution.

By the 12th century their numbers had established the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela at the end of The Way of St James – the Camino de Santiago – as Christendom’s third-most holy shrine after Rome and Jerusalem.

My journey cannot compare. For I am a modern traveller, not a mediaeval dreamer, nor even a true pilgrim. I am drawn more by a simple desire to do it because it’s there than by religious fervour; but also by a need to slow life down, even if only for a short time. And nothing puts the brakes on the pace of life as walking does.

Modern trappings are greatly different too: microfibres, mobile phones and multigrain energy bars make mine a more bearable expedition than that of unwashed pilgrims clad in coarse wool cloaks and carrying gourds of sour wine and parcels of hardening crusts.

Nor in time and distance do I match the mediaeval peregrinos – both have become different concepts in the 21st century. I have 18 days available so I start my walk on the Camino from Leon, once the capital of a mediaeval kingdom on the high central northern plains of a Spain in the grip of Moorish conquest. Santiago lies 320km to the west. This road is my Camino.

To get to Santiago, follow the scallop shells and yellow arrows.

The shell, today a ubiquitous tourist-trade trinket, is a 1000-year-old symbol of achievement returning pilgrims would wear to prove they’d reached the tomb of St James and the start of the endless sea at Finisterra. The arrows are a more modern waymark. Both, thanks to local authorities, church organisations and tourism bodies, point the walker’s way to Santiago.

They lead ever onwards: some times bright, prominent symbols set in glazed ceramic tiles on urban walls and roadside pillars, sometimes barely discernible splodges of faded yellow on lichen-roughened stone fence posts. Here on dirty tarmac a curving yellow slash ending in an arrowhead urges the walker to follow the gravelled lane to the left. There a crooked painted marker takes the guesswork out of a fork in the forest path. Scallop shell symbols in sidewalk paving stones form follow-me lines through city centres, even decorating iron manhole covers.

Sustained by coffee and biscuits and urged on by a pre-dawn breeze at my back I walked through the gateway of Leon’s Convento Santa Maria de las Carbajalas after a night fortified by Bendictine nuns’ plainsong in the chapel and interrupted by pilgrims’ snoring. In the chill early light, brass scallop shells set in the sidewalks were my compass.

On the outskirts of the city I faced an option emblematic of life: follow the highway with the comfort of knowing you won’t get lost but endure the discomfort of passing traffic; or strike out into the countryside and revel in a more rustic heaven.

I chose the dusty track.

I was walking with Swyn from Wales, who had been working in Galicia on environmental projects and spoke Welsh and Gallego. In time we would share many miles, hours and opinions with Betty, an obstetrician from San Francisco, and a day with Markus from Frankfurt, a disillusioned refugee from the world of financial brokerages who’d set off on foot from Geneva.

It is a joy to unfold at this pace a map of smells, sights and sounds; to feel minutes rather than miles moving underfoot. Under the big sky of Spain I was a participant in my travelogue, not a passenger in a passing picture show.

Villadangos del Paramo. Villar de Mazarife. Hospital de Orbigo. I tramped steadfastly across a landscape of farms and fields, villages and vistas, coffee stops, cafeterias, bars and overnight albergues. Beyond Astorga, once the centre of Spain’s chocolate industry, the flatness began to fold into hills and soon the backs of the hills arched more steeply.

Murios, Santa Catalina and onwards. Ancient church bells tolled in a flintstone tower and a dishevelled couple cuddled their dog in cold sleep beneath a tree as I slipped past the monastery in Rabinal del Camino on a quiet morning, walking alone with my face to the mountains. Near the abandoned village of Manjarin I stopped briefly at the rustic refuge run by eccentric Tomas Martinez de Paz: this day he wore a Crusader’s tunic over camouflage trousers and rang a hand bell to signal a pilgrim’s arrival. He has a story to tell, if you have the time.

Later I stood still in the breeze on a sloping track as a tiny dust devil danced out of the trailside dandelions, dipping around my feet in a flamenco to the castanets of crickets. Then it was gone. But the castanets continued: chirrup, chirrup. Off in a field, softly clanking cowbells orchestrated a slow dance of purple petals wind-waltzing amid the grasses.

I shuffled past a brooding Crusader castle into Ponferrada on a morning yellowed by the city’s modern air. With centuries of history looming over my shoulder I purchased walking sandals to ease the pressure on my bruised big toes. My boots would be snug in my backpack for the rest of the walk.

Beneath my feet the metres passed, then kilometres, uncounted but not unnoticed, taxing but not tortuous. Fuentes Nuevas. Camponaraya. Cacabelos, where newly harvested vineyards spiked the evening air with the promise of wine and farmers lined the streets throughout the night in snail-slow convoys to deliver precious grape loads for pressing.

After Villafranca del Bierzo began the rising road into Galicia.

My companions and I – now including Sophia, a social sciences student from Wiesbaden in Germany – sweated and slowed as the damp and green province beckoned from above. Eight ascending kilometres later we crested at O Cebreiro and looked down on cloud-fattened valleys whose beauty took away what breath we still had.

Onwards in the green and high vistas to Liñares, Hospital de la Condesa, Alto de Poio, Triacastela, San Cristobo …

On a dappled afternoon I descended through apple-sweetened lanes lined with cowsheds and barns rank and rich with the stink of livestock, to Samos and in the shadow of its great monastery, where work and prayer are the watchwords and silence is the practice, I met two resting pilgrims.

The middle-aged Australian women would have been anonymous in the transit lounge of a modern airport; below the walls of the looming facade of Benedictine scholarship they starkly emphasised the analogy of the Camino de Santiago as life’s journey. Cousins from Geelong near Melbourne, Australia, and more distant Mt Isa, they spoke matter-of-factly of their progress, pulling long-handled, wheeled airport luggage along the tarmac roads and avoiding the more rugged sections of the route. Neither doubted for a moment that they would reach distant Santiago.

That evening in the fastness of a monastery founded originally in the sixth century and with Greg-orian chants echoing hauntingly from 400-year-old chapel walls my physical tiredness dissolved.

I left before sunrise, when streetlights were only half-awake in yellowed tubes of morning mist.

To Sarria and onward, upwards through forested relief to Barbadelo, where I lay in a flowered field and pondered the futility of anger. Over dinner, prepared by a supremely sociable host in Casa Carmen farmhouse, my questions drew from a table companion a tale of a pilgrim’s progress more melancholy than any bittersweet fiction.

Fifty-something Gunther, a tanned and bearded Austrian of studied courtesy, told me unemotionally that he’d been walking for some six months. His wife had died after a short period of serious illness. Childless, shattered and bereft he’d stuffed a backpack, closed the door behind him and walked away from the loneliness of a home they’d shared for 20 years.

Through Austria he strode, through rain and cold, across Switzerland, into France and towards the Pyrenees. An uncalibrated spiritual compass put him on the pilgrim path to Santiago.

“When you get to Santiago, what then?” I asked. He smiled wanly. “I will have to wait for my soul to catch up with me.”

I saw him again as I left Casa Carmen the following morning. Again that wan smile. “The wine was good last night,” he said. We’d shared a bottle.

Ultreya, Gunther. Buen Camino.

A hundred kilometres to Santiago now. I have walked two-thirds of my intended journey and already I feel the reluctance to let it end.

Morgade, Ferreiros, Portomarin – a town built on a hill overlooking fragments of the original river port that was drowned by a lake backing up behind a 1950s dam (St Nicola’s church was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt in a square in the new town). Memories of the old town are preserved in framed monochrome photographs on the walls of the bar in Taberna Perez.

Gonza, Castromajor, Hospital de la Cruz, Ligonde, Eirexe, Palas de Rei, Leboreiro …

In Melide I passed through the press of a Saturday morning market and later dined on pulpo, Galicia’s simple yet memorable octopus delicacy.

Boente, Ribadiso de Baixo, Arzua …

Still the yellow arrows and emblematic scallop shells beckon.

At Salceda I pass a milestone marking 26km to Santiago. The city, its great cathedral and its legend entombed are calling loudly now but even after walking for 13 days I don’t want my journey to end. Five kilometres onward I stop at Santa Irene for my last night on the Camino de Santiago.

Midmorning the following day I see Santiago from Monto de Gozo, the vantage point from which pilgrims of earlier centuries first glimpsed the spires of the great cathedral. The hill is a modern mess now, home to a sprawling accommodation complex for pilgrims that’s sorely underused for a blot of this size.

Follow me, follow me … the symbolic shells and arrows call more loudly now as urban sprawl draws me in. The streets become narrower, the crowds thicker, as I plod on, dog-legging through the cobbled maze. Down the steps of a covered alley, through the arch below and into a bright, sunlit square alive with exuberance and awe.

In a skewed poetic moment here on Plaza del Obradoiro there are shouts about my ears and a song beneath my feet.

It was a more emotional arrival than I’d expected: my spirit soared as bells pealed from the 13th century edifice of the magnificent cathedral, a flight of uncharacteristic vanity fantasising that they pealed for me.

I thrust my camera into the hands of an understanding stranger to record my moment of homage to a long-dead saint whose name still inspires this walk to the end of the world.

Available time obliged a bus ride for me to Finisterre and back to Santiago (the devout believe it a duty to walk).

Yet in this city of legend, hope and happy communion, few journeys end. This journey is a dream, not a destination.

We know we will return.

I have walked smoothly on tarmac and trod sorely over broken stone; rock, gravel, rutted tracks, grass and scree have passed underfoot. I have tramped damply over dank carpets of fallen leaves, amid cowpats, horse droppings, rotting apples and mud; on plains, past cultivated fields, through vineyards, over mountains, under canopies of oak and chestnut trees loud with late-summer heat and through farmsteads quiet with noonday rest. I have traversed territories familiar with a look of home, crossed stone bridges built when Christianity was young by sandalled centurions in the service of Rome, and lingered in the shadows of centuries of history.

I met travellers from the round Earth’s imagined four corners, suffered blisters, bruises and sleepless nights amid chorused snoring. I drank rustic red wine and ate garlic-rich meals with equal exuberance amid conversation flavoured by the

lilts and cadences of a dozen languages.

I sweltered and sweated, I shivered, I limped and I laughed. I loved every moment and I rarely looked back.

And so I have come to Finisterre, the end of the world which I know to have greater limits than this rugged spit of land.

I face it without the fear of those who came long before me but finally I turn my back on it and retrace my steps with sadness, for my Camino, at least, has ended. On this road I have looked into my heart and found anew a richness in life – and I wish it had no end.

Kevin Jacobs, Managing Editor, YOU Magazine, Cape Town