I didn’t sleep well. Between my cold and the anticipation of walking into Santiago it was a restless night for me. Our roommate, Francesco, was up and out ahead of us, pursuing his goal of being the first in line at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago. Bill and I packed up and we were walking in the dark by 6:30 a.m. I was wound up and wide awake as we started the short final stage of our Camino.
We had read the office opened at 8 a.m. and we planned to get there to see it open.
Walking into the city did not feel the way I thought it would feel. As excited as I was to arrive, I felt a kind of grief deep in my soul that our adventure was coming to an end. We followed the faithful, yellow arrows deeper into the center of the old city and saw more and more pilgrims emerging from shadows and streets to gather for one last walk together.
As we approached an archway beside the cathedral, the sound of bagpipes welcomed us. Walking through the passage we came into the square in front of the cathedral and the space expanded and opened up before us. We looked around, tried to take in the moment as we continued on down to find the office.
And we joined the line. A long line. At 7:45 a.m., 15 minutes before they would open. And the line kept growing.
We could see the front of the line from where we joined and as we waited with all the other pilgrims, we watched a small group of four women arrive. They looked at the line and after talking to one another for a few minutes, Americans for sure, they moved right to the front of the line. Waiting with the rest of us was not on their itinerary. They spoke to the volunteer at the door to the office for several minutes. It seemed like they were making a case of some kind for themselves but ultimately the volunteer sent them back – back to the line that had grown while they made their case – back to the back of the line to wait like the rest of us. It’s one of the things pilgrims learn to do on the Camino De Santiago.
At 8, the line started moving forward slowly and steadily. We thought we would be handed a number and time to return later but instead we received a number and followed the majority to a catacomb like waiting room. I was 109 and Bill was pilgrim 110. Many, many came after us. By 9 a.m. our numbers came up and we moved back upstairs. On our way to join the new line for our certificate we ran into our new friend, Francesco. The Camino provided again. It was a beautiful moment as he had just walked out of the office with his Compostela, saw us and hugged us, overcome with emotion. He was having a dream come true right in front of us and we got to be a part of it.
Saying good-bye to Francesco, we joined the line going in and were surprised at how quickly and efficiently we moved through until we each stood in front of a volunteer who asked us for our credentials (our pilgrim’s passport in which we collected our stamps), asked us questions about where we were from, where we started our Camino, if we had walked the whole way and then put our pilgrim’s names on our Compostela, gave it to us and then we walked out through the gift shop.
There’s always a gift shop.
Bill and I regrouped outside. We both had our last stamp and our Compostela certificates. It was still early, and we had time to make it to the Pilgrim’s Mass in English. The Botafumeiro, the great, swinging incense container, was not in use as the Cathedral itself was undergoing renovation and repair. We gathered in a smaller chapel with a hundred or more other pilgrims in the first Mass we had attended where we would understand the language from beginning to end. It was a beautiful way to end this journey.
People came forward in the Mass to light candles and say a prayer for someone in their lives, someone they had been thinking of and praying for or had met on their Camino. Pilgrims would light a candle, tell where they were from and share their prayer. It was the most interactive and laity filled Mass I have ever been a part of.
After the Mass we walked outside and took in the sights and sounds now that the Sun was up and people filled the plaza in front of the Cathedral. Pilgrims were arriving, taking pictures in front of the Cathedral, gathering in small groups to take pictures with one another – it was buzzing with life and celebration. As we started to round a corner of the Cathedral a young woman approached us from the crowd and asked if we remembered her. She looked familiar but neither of us remembered her until she told us we had met on our first day out of St. Jean, when we had all stopped beside an older lady, Anna, experiencing excruciating leg cramps. She was from Mexico but had translated Anna’s German to English and back again for us as Bill administered first aid and I offered some of my ibuprofen. It was another Camino miracle to have this quick reunion that tied together our first day with our last day on the Way. She told us she had seen Anna again along the way and was confident she had or would make it all the way to Santiago.
We found the Pilgrim’s Museum and walked through it and immersed ourselves in the history of the Camino. It was an interesting vantage point for us to view he history on the day on which we completed our own Camino. It was an amazing mixture of history and story-telling and artifacts and I filled my phone with pictures.
After the museum we felt the need for second breakfast which consisted of café con leche and croissants in an upscale hotel restaurant where our waiter took one look at us in our “road gear” and treated us as shabbily as we were dressed.
Finally, it was time for us to walk through the Cathedral and to see as much of it as the renovations would allow. There was a long, snaking line that we joined that would take us up behind the altar and then down into the crypt below where the ossuary rested that was said to contain the remains of St. James (Iago). As we walked along, we came to the place where the lineup momentarily intersected with the line down and we looked up at the line coming down from behind the altar and in the brief moment we would be at that exact place to see those coming down, there was our old friend, Loli, who we had met at the end of day 2. We shouted, we hugged, we took selfies, we quickly caught up and then she was moving down into the crypt, and we were moving along to go up around and then behind the altar.
Yet another Camino miracle and a beautiful gift for the end of our walk.
After this we stood in the plaza and made a video for our friends and family back home, found a place with wifi to upload the video while we ate lunch. Then we went in search of the Church of Saint Francesco. While we were trying to find it, we suddenly bumped into Thomas from Vienna and Andres from Hungary who we had met along the Way. They knew the Cathedral and told us how to get there and took us, straight away. Another impossible connection at just the right time.
We toured the Church of St. Francesco. It was incredible.
It was later in the afternoon when we returned to our hotel and checked into our room. We napped, showered and eventually went back out for our last supper on the Camino de Santiago. The epiphany I had expected on arriving in Santiago was not the epiphany I received. As we sat and ate our meal, connected briefly with a couple of pilgrims seated beside us, it was small and quiet and simple. While the whole day had felt like a celebration that was better than anything I could have planned, as evening came, our last evening on the Camino, the unexpected epiphany I received was simply this – the last entry in my journal –
“We have always been on the Camino. We will always be on the Camino.”