“But what about Santiago itself?” You have asked this question, and rightly so. After all, wasn’t I walking towards the city of St. James for six weeks? And then, then I barely mention it even in passing? What kind of sense does that make? Let’s see if I can remedy that with a bit of a recap.

First things first

If you’ve been reading along, then you already know this: I am not a “big city” girl. Born and bred in Chicago, true, but finding my greatest moments of joy not in the cultural highlights of city life but rather wherever the beauty of the landscape calls. I don’t think I could ever get my fill of “countryside,” wherever it is to be found.

And this: for me, it was never really about “getting to Santiago.” I enjoyed, throughout the trip, noting the kilometers walked per day, but I never really paid much attention to the “kilometers remaining” until I reached my destination. It was always “the journey” that interested me, the getting up every morning and heading out to see what was around the next corner or over the next hill. Usually no sooner did I hit the outskirts of a town–and sometimes it took only a minute or two to walk from my overnight albergue to those outskirts–than a smile would light my face. (Though, truly, I was fascinated by any entry into tiny pueblos whose traversing took only a few minutes; the little towns brought variety to the day, along with stork nests in the church belfries, café con leche in the tiny bars, and a chance to have a small chat with the locals who watched us come and go and who wondered at the way of things, at how their towns had “come alive” again with the renewed interest in the ancient Camino.)

It was never really, for me, about Santiago. Not a great devotion to St. James. More a curiosity about him. He lent a structure to the journey, undoubtedly, and a chance to marvel at the medieval infrastructure that had supported the journeys of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in long-gone centuries. And the current infrastructure that continues to support, if in a more 21st-century manner. Without St. James, there would not have been a Camino to Santiago.

And I did, eventually, make it to Santiago. By bus. Twice. Here is that story.

Santiago #1: Saturday, May 11 through morning of Wednesday, May 15

So, on Friday pm, May 10, still 101 kilometers from Santiago, I found myself in Morgade, some 11 or 12 kilometers beyond Sarria. Morgade could not properly be called a pueblo or an aldea; it was just the location of an albergue where I had decided to spend the night, away from the crowd that would be overnighting in Sarria. It was only upon arriving in Morgade that I was brought up to speed about Ginny: she had had emergency surgery for an obstructed bowel earlier that morning in Santiago. I needed to get to the university hospital to “see for myself.” The next day was Saturday with limited bus service to Lugo, the town from which I’d be able to get another bus into Santiago. To walk the 10 or so kilometers back to Sarria or that many forward to Portomarín to catch the Lugo-bound bus would require heading out by 6:00 am, well before sunrise.

No, no. No vas a hacer esto. Mira. Te lleva alguien de aquí. Baja a la recepción para las 8:30.” The señora of the albergue would have none of it. “You’re not going to walk,” she tells me. “Someone from here will take you to a spot on the highway where the bus will stop if you flag it down. You just be in the lobby with your things at 8:30.”

And so, on Saturday morning, there I was. And there was the owner’s daughter with a car. Minutes later she dropped me off a few kilometers away and told me where to stand to watch for the bus which would be on its way from Sarria to Portomarín. I arrived early, a good ten minutes before the bus was expected. And waited. And waited. After those ten minutes, perhaps a few more, had passed, the same car that had dropped me off arrived in a huff. “¿No pasó el autobús?” It was the same young woman. What a question! Would I be standing there if it had passed? Of course not; I would have flagged it down, as instructed. “No es ése el lugar.” [“Get in, quick. I dropped you off at the wrong place!”]. Oh! We are off to a good start, aren’t we? But in I hopped, and, fortunately, we did not cross paths with the bus as she brought me to a place several kilometers beyond the first drop off. The bus arrived and pulled off to the side, as if expecting me, and I was soon on my way, luck continuing to be my faithful traveling companion.

To Lugo. An hour wait. On board another bus bound for Santiago. I have no memory of how long the journey took–a couple of hours, I suppose–but I do remember that the bus passed through numerous towns through which pilgrims were also passing. Lots of pilgrims. Tired but animated. It was a hot day, perhaps the first in which the temperatures were flirting with 80 degrees, definitely the warmest we had seen during our trek. I watched the pilgrims through the bus window. Would I be back among them? Did I even want to be one of their growing number?

As soon as the bus arrived in Santiago, my need to make peace with Google maps became apparent. I often protest that I don’t know how to use the app. If I have anyone else to depend on, depend I do. But in this case, I didn’t have that crutch and so… I did figure things out, in my own good time. I made it to the albergue where Ginny, not being a fortune teller, had made a reservation for herself, as this was the day she was destined to arrive, by foot, in Santiago had not her intestines intervened with ideas of their own.

A private room in the albergue, Ginny? Such a luxury? Oh, but except for the fact that it was surgery that landed you at the hospital, your shared room there was a far better place to spend the night than in the prison-like cell of the Seminario Menor. But who’s paying attention? There are more important things to do. I dumped my backpack, packed a daypack, and, Google maps at the ready, headed in the direction of bus line #1 to the hospital.

Where Ginny, smiles and grimaces, tales and tubes, hugs and hellos, awaits. Catch-up time. The full story emerges. Conclusions: 1) you do NOT want to have an obstructed bowel; 2) you DO want to always be your best self, assuring you that you will have friends when push comes to shove (or when excruciating pain comes a calling). Four young people at her albergue Thursday night/Friday morning, along with a very cooperative host, had seen to it that the ambulance was called, that Ginny’s belongings were packed up, and that she was in the capable hands of the university hospital. (Those four young people, along with at least 8 other pilgrims, made it to the hospital in the course of the next few days, with gifts and hugs and good wishes, confirming for Ginny that indeed this North-Shore-of-Lake-Superior gal had friends in many corners of the world.)

So… over the next few days, there were trips to the hospital, meals (and darn good ones! Cheap, too!) in the hospital cafeteria, strategizing with Ginny (an area in which I do not excel to put it mildly, but… did my best), serving as translator, interpreter, Girl Friday.

And there were some boo-boos. Like, for example:

  • Hopping on bus #1 when it was heading away from the hospital instead of towards it (result: see more of the city and then pay for the return trip in the correct direction)
  • Checking my backpack in a store that provided such a service so that I could do a bit of sightseeing and navigating without toting 15 pounds on my back…. but not realizing that the receipt I got did not include the address of the service (result: extra traipsing around the narrow streets of Santiago searching for a store that looked familiar, and finally stopping to ask for help which was promptly provided)
  • Getting the very last rectangular of the credencial I’d been carrying since St. Jean Pied-de-Port stamped in the sacristy of the church of San Francisco and, in the process of also getting a cardstock certificate in that same sacristy, losing track of my coveted credencial (result: repeated returns to San Francisco in search of it, returns which did not yield positive results; I will return home without that fun record of stamps/seals from the various albergues where I stayed and churches and/or museums which I visited… But, as you know, I took lots of photos and I hold lots of memories in my heart)
  • Bringing cousin Pat and Ginny’s daughter Colleen to the hospital cafeteria to show them how complete the menú was, only to discover that the best offerings are no longer available after 4:00 pm (result: their introduction to bocadillos and considerable hunger to add to their jet lag by the time we had a proper meal about 9:00 pm on the day of their arrival)
  • Leaving my daypack in the one-and-only taxi I took during my trip to Spain. In said daypack: my keyboard, the keys to my Airbnb location, my rain jacket…. (Result: just call me Lady Luck: the taxi driver was contacted and my daypack returned to the hotel where Pat and Colleen were staying)

“But I was wanting to know about Santiago itself! What you did. How you liked it. Was it amazing to finally be there as arriving pilgrims flocked to the square in front of the cathedral or headed for the pilgrims’ office to collect their compostelas? Come on, that’s what I want you to tell!”

So, frankly… it was disappointing to arrive by bus. I have to be honest. It did not feel celebratory. Much as I cherish solitude when I’m walking, arriving in a city of this size, alone, under some unfortunate circumstances, was far from ideal. I wouldn’t have not done what I did for all the world, but… as I went through some of the motions, it wasn’t with the highest spirits. You surely understand.

But yes, I eventually did

  • Get my photo taken in front of the cathedral, and I wore a smile
  • Descend to the crypt of the cathedral and pay my respects at the tomb of St. James
  • Ascend to the statue where pilgrims embrace Santiago from behind, and yes, it was an emotional experience
  • Attend the noontime pilgrims’ Mass at the church of San Francisco (most of the cathedral is “closed” for some restoration work in anticipation of the “Holy Year–any year when the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday, that being the case in 2021–so the coveted experience of seeing the huge butafumeiro swing across the apse was not an option…). That particular Sunday was a special liturgy for children of the parish. Their enthusiasm, that of the pilgrims, the folk-like nature of the mass with guitars, clapping, jubilee on everyone’s part, the simplified–but not simplistic–homily given by the friendly celebrant, made for a very moving experience
  • Take a lovely walk around Parque Alameda, doing several loops, enjoying the huge eucalyptus tree along with all the other trees and vegetation
  • Make a bit of peace with the narrow, winding, hilly, somewhat confusing streets which, in the right frame of mind, I might have found delightful
  • Eat one meal “out and about” but in a pretty quiet place (being “alone” in a crowd gives some people a good opportunity to “people-watch,” but in general is not a particularly comfortable experience for me). A couple of obvious pilgrims entered the quiet restaurant a bit after me and I struck up a conversation with them, learned they were from Ireland, heard a bit about their Camino, and thus the meal ended on a more pleasant note
  • Successfully move from Ginny’s reserved albergue to Ginny’s pre-reserved Airbnb and then to a pensión I found on my own (almost next door to the Airbnb) which situated me in a perfect spot to begin the Finisterre-Muxía portion of my walk if indeed I decided to take that on, and which was also close to the hotel where Pat and Colleen were staying
  • Manage to reserve a pensión for the night before my May 22 flight to Barcelona, a place located right at a good spot for hopping on a bus bound for the airport
  • Pick up a new credencial and maps, info, and an app to guide my way on the Finisterre-Muxía leg of the trip which had begun to look like the very best option for me
  • Play a very small role in guiding Pat and Colleen and introducing them to a Santiago I barely knew. Luck was with us when we found a great tapas place between their hotel and my pensión on the eve of my departure from Santiago
  • Get a haircut (did I ever!)
  • And, on Wednesday morning, after four days in Santiago, continue west, now in pursuit of the “end of the world”

Santiago #2: Tuesday, May 21, 4:30 pm onwards–Wednesday morning, May 22

And so it came to pass that, some seven days after exiting the city on foot, I again arrived in Santiago. Again by bus. And there the similarities with my first arrival end. We’re talking about a whole new ball game. Same city, but no comparison whatsoever.

  • For starters, the bus dropped me off “in the heart of things” rather than at the distant bus station. I made my way to my pensión with little effort, dumped my baggage, and began to send WhatsApp messages. There was no urgency to make it to the hospital this time, but….

But Ginny, Pat, and Colleen, were still in town, scheduled to depart for Madrid later that evening by plane. We would reconnect after all!

My friends Christine and Reinier had just returned by bus from Finisterre. We’d been missing one another by a couple of days here or there for weeks. Let’s see if WhatsApp can bring us together.

My new Finisterre-Muxía friend Cristina had taken an earlier bus that day from Muxía to Santiago. What were the chances we might meet up again?

How is all this going to work?

Perfectly! This, this was the jubilant entry into Santiago that I had missed first time around. People with whom to connect, in joy!

My texts revealed that Ginny was in line at the Pilgrims’ Office, hoping to be awarded her compostela. Christine and Reiner were near the cathedral. Cristina suggested we meet for beer and tapas and/or dinner at 8:00 pm at a bar near my pensión.

In less than an hour Christine and Reiner and I are joined at a cafe by a triumphant Ginny (yes! She got her compostela!), Pat, and Colleen. More sharing. More translating. English and Spanish and French… with a smattering of German on Reiner’s part). Toasts all round.

Ginny insisted we make one more attempt to locate my lost credencial (said attempt was made, but with no luck). Final hugs. What a trip we had taken “together”! Unforgettable!

8:00 pm: New friend Cristina from Barcelona gets a chance to meet “old friends” (Christine and Reiner) from the Rabanal del Camino monastery days) as we exchange memories and share insights over beer and tortilla española and…. a table full of other things which escape me. The crowd is large. And noisy. And, for just this once, that feels ok.

The next morning: Cristina will head for Barcelona by train; I’ll go there by plane; Reiner will drop down to Portugal, and Christine, who went to/from Finisterre with Reiner by bus will leave in the morning on foot to go back to Finisterre the “slow way,” probably adding on Muxía in the process. Like the rest of us, not really ready for her Camino to end…

And there you have it, the missing Santiago link, the kingpin of the Camino, the city on account of which everything else fell into place. The city without which there would not have been a Camino. Vibrant. Celebratory. But I had seen enough.

Off to Cataluña. And then Madrid. Odd not to have the hiking poles with me. Good-bye Camino! I will miss you!