We arrived at Santiago de Compostela a little past mid-day. After weeks of walking through the mountains of northern Portugal and Spain, entering the city felt like a dream. I couldn’t feel the constant pain of my backpack anymore, a pain that I’d learned to live with, and I was in such a hypnotic state that I neglected my usual habit of looking behind me to make sure I hadn’t dropped anything.
We zigzagged through the narrow pedestrian streets of the old medieval city, mixing with its thousands of people, colors, sounds, and smells. Sometimes, a familiar face would pop up among the crowd, of someone we had met along the Way. I would smile and jokingly say, “Finally, right?”
Then, suddenly, my girlfriend grabbed my arm and pointed: “Is that…?”
It was. We had caught our first glimpse of the cathedral’s towers. They were imposing, majestic, almost like they belonged to an ancient fortress overlooking and protecting the old town. We weren’t the first ones to notice them, of course. Gasps, laughs, and excitement filled the air of the narrow street, and I could feel the happiness surrounding me like it was something solid.
We suddenly felt the need to walk faster, and I understood how athletes running a marathon must feel when they see the finish line for the first time. I could no longer feel my sore legs or blistered feet. Nothing mattered anymore, we were finally there.
We turned left at the end of the street and it opened up in a massive square, the Plaza do Obradoiro. The square was packed with tourists and pilgrims of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and social statuses. We were all so different, but shared the very same feeling of ecstasy in that moment. Towering over this sea of people was the majestic cathedral. Its two towers were more splendorous than in any picture ever taken, and I was speechless, no matter how many times I had seen it before. People say it contains the remains of the apostle Saint James the Great, which were found hidden in that very same place over 1,200 years ago.
Pilgrims have been walking the Way of Saint James for hundreds of years now. What started as a Christian tradition has transcended to something bigger. In medieval times, only the faithful walked it, with little more than the clothes on their bodies. They saw it as repentance for their sins, a crusade for the soul. Several even fell to their death on the way (you can still find an old stone cross where one died walking). Now, the vast network of paths that belong to “the Way” (called caminos) moves thousands of people every year, from everywhere around the globe and with all sorts of beliefs.
The first time I walked it I was just 14 years old. I was born along the Portuguese Way (Camino Português) itself, which passes through my small medieval hometown in the north of Portugal. I grew up watching pilgrims coming and going every day, following those mythical yellow arrows painted on walls and pavement across the town. I was fascinated to find out that if you follow them, you will end up in Santiago. When I was old enough, I was finally able to walk it myself–to become one of those strange and exotic people I grew up watching.
The Way was a very different experience back then. Not only there were fewer people doing it, but the pilgrim hostels, or albergues, were also completely free. The Spanish government hadn’t yet found the gold mine that is the Way, so it was not the business that it is today. It was pure, innocent, true, and real. It wasn’t a fashion or trend, so people often saw you as a madman when they found out you were walking all the way to Santiago. There were people who lived in the Way, people who were walking for 12 years straight, just to arrive there and walk back through a different camino. No matter how hard or how long you had walked, you always knew that at the end of the day, there was going to be a hot shower and a warm bed waiting for you.
Everything’s changed now. In the 170 miles of the Portuguese Way, we found dozens of people walking with us. We found albergues asking for $7 to $10 USD a night. We found dozens of new privately-owned hostels, and restaurants serving pilgrim menus with astronomical prices. People now look at pilgrims as tourists, and you know what they say–tourism means money!
I honestly didn’t care. I’m a street performer–a juggler and musician, among other things. I can go wherever I want and I know I will survive after walking the Way for almost a month, with nothing more than just a backpack. We juggled when we could, we played the guitar, we laughed, we cried, we ran from the police, we slept in some albergues for free or on the street when they wouldn’t let us. Sometimes we ate, sometimes we didn’t. We made friends, we lost things, we got our tent stolen, and we broke our guitar. Most of all, we improvised and lived each day on its own, as life should be lived.
There’s an old saying that says, “The Camino will provide.” And it’s true.
After all the cities, adventures, sweat, and pain, we were finally there, looking in awe to the magnificent cathedral in front of us. At that moment, an overwhelming sensation goes through your whole body, and you feel like you’re capable of anything.
We’re not religious at all, but we could see what they mean.
Once we were really there came the ancient pilgrim question: “Now that we’ve arrived, what are we going to do?”
You guessed it: we walked back home.
Have you ever walked the Way? We want to hear your story in the comments!