If a scriptwriter had created a scenario for the final few days to Santiago they could not have been as magical as my reality.
Not only did I discover some superbly comfy and welcoming pilgrim hostels, each with a unique charm and character, but I was again walking in the company of some favourite Camino friends. It is part of the normal ebb and flow that even the closest of new friends walk at their own pace, often separating for days and sometimes never connecting again.
Deciding on an early start for the final 15 miles (25km), I stepped outside the Santa Irene Albergue to be greeted by an invigorating chill and an inky-black sky sprinkled with bright stars – and there too was my familiar friend Jupiter, waiting to confirm my way West. Magically the rain and clouds of recent days had vanished to make way for a perfect dawn.
We walked in companionable silence, some considerable distance apart, each cherishing this quiet solo time with our private thoughts and aspirations. Occasionally I’d click on my headtorch for a few seconds to look for the familiar Camino signs with their seashell emblems which had guided us more than 500 miles (800km) since starting in France 28 days earlier.
Heading into forest, a carpet of autumn leaves muffled footstep and the usual hypnotic clicking of my trekking poles, while tall trees crowded above to block out much of the starlight. Owls hooted mournfully and seemed to be asking their own questions about the meaning of Life. Who? Who?
I silently answered: “If not me, then whom.”
Gradually the sky was painted in the delicate shades of the dawn, revealing droplets of water gleaming like precious strands of jewels in spiderweb necklaces. It was heart-wrenching in its beauty and still Mother Nature had more: a mist rolling in from nowhere and everywhere to complete the magic and mystique of this momentous morning.
I’d already decided to dedicate this day to the Findhorn Foundation community in northern Scotland, honouring the many individuals and the collective who have been such a source of inspiration and comfort in my searching. Many Findhornians have become valued friends.
Every morning I walk in Nature with an attitude of gratitude, focusing on all the many gifts in my life and remembering that my loved ones are only a thought away, even if I can’t be physically with them for birthdays or celebrations.
This week I’d celebrated from afar with my precious friend Inga Hendriks, an award-winning photographer who turned 36. She has taught me to laugh at myself and at life and together we confronted her terror of heights by braving the world’s highest commercial abseil three years ago.
My pal Nigel Everingham, an attorney with a wicked sense of deadpan humour and a razor-sharp mind, clocked up 60 and with each click of my sticks I was saying a Thank You – the trekking poles were a farewell present from Nigel and his wife Jenny.
I felt warmed by all the love in my life despite that biting cold that is most intense around sunrise. I spotted a friendly café just when my hands were beginning to lose all feeling. I wrapped them around my new favourite daytime drink, a hot chocolate beverage known as ColaCao in Spain. There was animated and excited chatter from fellow peregrinos and music playing – I shot the Sheriff was a song from another world and time!
Resuming my walk, Santiago gradually loomed into view, although the skyline was a far cry from the scene that had greeted pilgrims in centuries past. In the Middle Ages Santiago de Compostela was Christendom’s third most important place of pilgrimage behind Jerusalem and Rome. The Cathedral beckoned from miles away then, although today it is partially hidden by modern buildings until you are almost upon it.
Arriving in the Old City I thrilled to that familiar sense of religious awe I first felt as a very young boy visiting Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona. Entering the famous Prado Obradoiro square with its ensemble of historic buildings was a moment to eclipse even that encounter, rivalling my first exploration of the Vatican. I was spellbound, forgetting my cynicism about an organisation rooted in power, wealth and dogma that has been responsible for so many wars and so much heartache.
The Cathedral is remarkable and to make the day complete I met more of the great Camino friends I’d lost contact with along the way, all of us enjoying the pilgrim routine of getting our Credencial (a kind of pilgrim passport) stamped and being awarded congratulations and a Compostela certificate, which apparently assures me of time off in Purgatory as a reward for my pilgrimage. I reserve comment!
Today I loved everybody and my joy was complete when we all gathered for an al fresco dinner together around the corner from the Cathedral, some returning again the following morning for breakfast in another animated café.
Many had decided to attend the famous noon mass, but my focus was already on Finisterre, which literally means the end of the Earth.
German neuro-psychologist Susanne Verbiesen and Irish gardener Paul O’Neill insisted on strolling with me to the outskirts of the Old City until it was time for final embraces.
I felt an incredible rush of love, joy, peace and beauty, seeing the sacred in all around me and recognising that the light in the eyes I was looking out of – and into – was God’s light.