“Knowing I Would Return”
People walk the Camino de Santiago for many reasons. Some seek peaceful meditation. Some are on a spiritual path. Some seek healing. Others are looking for healthy exercise and interesting people. I was searching for myself. The Camino provides for all intentions.
In 2011, I walked the Camino (The Way of St. James), a 500-mile pilgrimage from the French border to the city of Santiago in western Spain. It was physically demanding and transformational. On my walk, I had burdens that needed to be resolved and left behind. A Camino ritual is to pick up a stone for a burden and put it in your pocket. You can carry this burden all the way or place it on a path marker so that another pilgrim can carry it for you. Conversely, you can take a stone from the marker and carry someone else's burden for them. The cross at mile marker 340 on the highest point of the Camino is called Cruz de Ferro. It accepts pilgrims’ burdens. On this hill, I left behind the stones that symbolized my 30-year marriage and the unresolved problems that complicated my life. Over time, intentionality and value have defined my days.
On this path, there are many rituals and legends, such as the story of Apostle St. James, who was buried in Santiago in the Cathedral of St. James after preaching Christianity to believers and pagans both. Many pilgrims have traveled from all over Europe to Santiago to honor his presence and receive his healing power. The Cathedral of Saint James, built in 1075, with a striking mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture lies within the walls of the city. When you enter the city, time slows down and allows you to feel its symbolism and history.
Since 2011, I have dreamed of returning to Santiago, located in the region of Galicia, where the weather is cool with blue skies and white puffy clouds except when it rains – a light lovely rain. I remember passing into Galicia and relishing the green forests and hilly terrain, as opposed to the mountains behind me. I imagined when donkeys pulled carts along these paths.
My husband Denis of five years and I arrived in Santiago in July 2023, attended Mass at the Cathedral and found the Pilgrim House. It is a welcoming place where you can meet other walkers and learn about their travels. I thought it would be a good introduction to the Camino for Denis. At dinner, we met a young man named Peter, who had started his journey in England and had already walked 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles). He was searching for inspiration on his ministry. A Danish doctor sat next to me and had just arrived from Porto, Portugal. She sought relaxation from a hectic hospital. Our plan was to walk further west from Santiago to Finisterre and then to Muxía, to experience the end of the world that kisses the Atlantic. We borrowed walking poles from the Pilgrim House and were on our way.
With the Cathedral behind us, the business of life was left to others, and we focused on our feet, our packs and the beauty of the Way. Everything we would need for the next eleven days was on our back. The path was quiet. Markers with blue and yellow symbols that represent a scallop shell showed the way. Scallop shells are native to Galicia’s coast. Early pilgrims walked to the coast to collect a shell as proof that they had completed the Camino. They also used scallop shells to drink water and wine and eat small amounts of food donated by the churches. Today pilgrims hang scallop shells from their packs to identify with the Camino. When you see a pilgrim, the greeting is “Buen Camino!!” After my journey, I was on an escalator in Madrid with my pack, and an older man shouted “Buen Camino” a few times before I realized he was shouting to me. He and I smiled and waved. It’s a special community.
As we walked through Galicia, rectangular boxes on pillars stood in front of many houses. Hórreos (pronounced OR-ray-os), as we learned, were built of stone in the 15th century to store and protect feed for animals, mostly corn. The pillars prevented rodents from destroying the annual harvest. Today, the hórreos are no longer needed, but remain crumbling with vines growing through them in front yards.
We wanted to stop at the 6-mile marker on the first day, but the albergue (hostel) was closed, so we walked another 7.2 miles to Negreira. We ignored one of the few rules of the Camino: to start slow. In the evening, Denis's calf was swollen, and I had a heat rash above my ankles and aching shoulders. Our re-assessment included booking the van service to transfer our packs for $5 Euros to our next accommodation, but we would continue to walk the 12 miles. Such optimism for 70-somethings.
The next day, we climbed a 1400-foot mountain. Wind turbines crowded the mountain ridges and lush corn fields grew everywhere. We felt sore, but nothing to complain about. The hotel was off the trail, so it came with transport. I asked the driver if the corn was sold in Santiago, because the population in this region was small. He laughed.
“The tall corn is for the cows,” he said, “and the short corn for the chickens!” That's living off the land.
When I got out of the van, my legs didn't work. Our legs were swollen and needed a break. Turns out we walked 21 miles that day. Not sure how that happened. During a delicious dinner, we planned to go by bus to Finisterre, rest for a few days, and then circle back to resume our journey.
In Finisterre, Denis’s legs continued to swell. At the hospital, they took five vials of blood, put him on a saline drip, and x-rayed his legs. His calf and ankle muscles were inflamed and the doctor said to take it easy. He suggested seven days of rest.
While in Finisterre, we ventured out of the hotel for a short walk to a small fishing museum. The docent was a retired fisherman with the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager! He called himself Nerium. His true name is Francisco Manuel Lopez Martinez. Alexandre Nerium is his pseudonym as a poet; he’s on Wikipedia. Nerium rounded up the visitors into a circle - two Spaniards, two Indonesians, one Brazilian and two Americans (us). He explained how the nets were created to capture specific fish. Sardines try to swim through the net to get the bait and catch their gills in the nanoholes. Small octopuses swim into a trap, eat the food, and stay there because they feel comfortable. He continued. During the beginning of ocean navigation, a heavy stone bell was dropped into the water with a long rope until it reached the bottom. The fathoms were counted on the rope to determine the depth of the ocean. To detect which fish frequented an area, animal fat was stuck to the bottom of the bell. When it was retrieved, sand, grasses, plankton, and mud identified the fish below. The creation of nautical maps relied on these discoveries. The fisherman shared his presentation in Spanish, body language, props and a bit of Brazilian, and we all understood. We happened upon him because we couldn’t travel far on our swollen legs. What a moment this was.
Pilgrims have a partnership with the Camino. You do your best, and it accepts you as you are. If you can’t physically accomplish something, you find a way. After another day of rest, we circled back to the coastal route and avoided a mountain. The Camino is about moving forward. Denis's face lit up when he saw an outdoor gym with all his favorite equipment. He tried each one and felt at home. Further on, fields of corn and apple orchards led to forests and an unexpected breathtaking beach. For the next mile on our return to Finisterre, the water soothed our feet and legs!
Along the way, you never know who to expect. While waiting for the outdoor shower at the beach we met a couple of well-toned 20-something guys from Germany and South Korea. The German shared that he was walking the Camino while on paternity leave. He explained the baby was at home with his girlfriend. We moved on because both of us were too shocked. Neither of us had a proper response to leaving your child and its mother to go on vacation. Even still, a beautiful day on the Camino ended with an Italian dinner and a glass of wine.
Finisterre, or Fisterra, as it is known in Galician, is translated from Latin as “End of the World." The lighthouse at the “End of the World” stood two miles up a hill on Cabo (Cape) Finisterre. It was a beautiful walk, with the bay to our left and Monte Facho on the right. I sat on the rocks on the edge of the Atlantic and looked toward America, thinking about how grateful I am to be completing this journey and how it has changed my life.
The "End of the World" is home to an ancient pilgrim ritual to burn an item of clothing worn on the Camino. This further symbolizes leaving your burdens behind and pursuing a new chapter of life. Unable to locate the fire-pit described in the guidebook, I found a protected cove to burn my shirt. I arrived unprepared, no matches. We looked around to see if anyone had a smoker’s face. The Spanish word for matches is partídos. The man we spoke to looked confused when I asked him. A bystander informed me that I used the word for a soccer match. We all had a laugh, but nobody had a light. Next, I approached an English-speaking waitress in the café and asked if she had a match. She loaned me her lighter. Denis kept watch, because I wasn’t sure if this was a legal place to have a fire. Seeing my pink tank top burn to ashes brought me final closure. I had kept that top for 12 years, knowing I would return to the Camino for this moment.
When I started the Camino in 2011, I was looking for something - my future, myself, whatever I could find. Today I am a writer, have a partner I love, and continue to deepen my relationships with my family and friends. And I'm getting better at eliminating the noise in my life — going places just to have something to do. It makes more time for reading, exploring new ideas and engaging in political activity.
Leaving Finisterre felt good, although Muxía beckoned from the North and became an extended destination. It’s a fishing village about 17 miles from Finisterre and takes two walking days to reach it. There are many ancient legends about the meeting of the Virgin Mary and St. James in Muxía. We will see the sun sink below the Western horizon and muse about the vastness of the Atlantic from a new perspective. Our backpacks were transported to Lires, the halfway point. This part of the walk is mainly a cart track through the forest, with views of the Atlantic to the west and more corn fields to the east. The eucalyptus trees were ubiquitous, but there was no beautiful scent, as I had experienced on the Camino before. They must need more moisture than the dense forest holds. We ate our sandwiches in a light rain after we found sitting rocks and talked about how our adventures affected us.
Denis said, “My experience is different from yours. You are here after walking hundreds of miles on the Francés Camino. It's a personal and emotional experience for you. But I enjoy the peaceful walk through the countryside, following the way markers, and spending time together without distractions from the outside world. It was also intriguing to see how people live in these rural villages.” I asked about a favorite time.
Big smile. “Working out on the gym equipment in the park was awesome, and going to the Asian variety store called the China Store, where you can buy a bag of bolts and panties on the same visit.” This was so heartening to hear. I knew Denis was enjoying himself, but it was different from our usual journeys to the cities. I initially hesitated to share this walk with him, because it is so personal. Another grateful blessing.
We stayed at our first albergue in Lires. Denis agreed to stay in one; without this experience, it would not be the Camino. It was cozy, only four bunks to a room. The largest room I had slept in had more than 50 bunk beds. The albergue was connected to a hotel and a restaurant, which is unusual. We hesitated to dine there as a hindquarter of beef hanging in a glass freezer stood in front of the dining room. We rarely ate red meat. But we found a few fish dishes on the menu and a table in the corner. The fish stew with noodles was delicious, and the Spanish flan, baked custard topped with caramel and whipped cream, brought back more memories. So wonderful.
One last mountain range stood between us and Muxía. In deference to our legs, we took a taxi to downtown Muxía near our hotel. When we made the hotel reservation, the host asked if we wanted twin beds or the matrimonial bed. A perfect way to distinguish between a European double (twin beds pushed together) and a single bed. Muxía (pronounced Moo-SHE-a) is solidly located on the side of a hill overlooking the authentic Galician fishing village. It survives on tourism and on rich fishing grounds offshore. It’s known for beautiful sunsets and more legends.
Muxía is connected to the Camino because St. James was sent to Santiago to convert the pagans to Christianity. Believing he had failed, he came to Muxía to rest and heal. As the legend goes, the Virgin Mary arrived in a sailboat, assuring him that he had been successful with the pagans and should return to Jerusalem. The boat turned to stone, and the sail remains on the Atlantic shore as a mammoth stone with miraculous healing powers. Denis took off his shirt and tried to move the sail. Another fitness model photo!
Muxía had a festival that weekend, and we danced to Spanish music in the streets. The instrumental music was recorded as young women sang from their hearts on stage. This is a tradition we need more of in the US.
Back in Santiago, I had to finish a project that inspired me in Finisterre - a tattoo of the Camino shell above my left ankle. I never thought I would get a tattoo in my lifetime, but inspiration overwhelmed me. I love it. Now I carry with me every day the joy and knowledge I have learned on the Camino.
Thanks for reading! Leave me a like or a comment so I know you're out there.