At five am in the Galician countryside it’s very dark. We felt like the only people in the world as we walked down the lane from our hotel. The sky was full of stars, a dog barked distantly and we carried our walking poles so as not to clatter on the road as we passed through the sleeping hamlet. This was our fifth and last morning on the Camino de Santiago, and we had twenty-two kilometres to walk by mid-day in order to reach our destination, the daily pilgrims’ mass in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.
Shortly we came to a crossroads. The camino is marked mainly with yellow arrows painted onto trees, walls, telegraph poles, even the tarmac itself. The paint fades and here it was pitch dark. We took a guess and twenty minutes later found ourselves climbing into the next small town described in the guidebook. As we walked up the deserted main street another soul appeared, carrying a heavy backpack and wearing a headlamp. We fell into step with him gratefully, feeling like the novices we were.
Soon the path left the town and we were back in darkness again, climbing a leafy tunnel through oak woods. Our light-bearer was not talkative. A Madrileño, he had been walking the northern, coastal route for a week at thirty-five kilometres a day, nearly double the distance we’d been covering. His pace left little breath for conversation. But for the moment we needed him, so we marched smartly along behind him.
Other pilgrims were beginning to drift onto the path from their lodgings, solitary walkers, couples, little groups, sleepily mumbling ‘Buen camino’ to one another and talking in pre-dawn whispers. Pale pinpoints of light wavered through the woods ahead of us, the oaks now replaced by tall, scented eucalyptus trees. We could have left our Lucifer now, but it seemed we had become attached to him, drawn along in his slipstream as he forged on, overtaking everyone in his path.
Dawn was a long time coming. Clouds had drifted in and a fine drizzle was falling – the first we had seen in five days – when the sky at last began to lighten. We had been climbing slowly but steadily for nearly two hours by now and a glance at the map showed that we had already covered more than eight kilometres. I was starting to worry that we would burn out at this pace, particularly since Sarah had begun to complain of an aching shin at the end of the previous day’s walking. So finally, though not without a certain reluctance, we thanked our guide for his light and watched him disappear down the path ahead of us.
We were now on top of a plateau and making our way round the perimeter of Santiago’s airport. For half an hour or so we saw no other pilgrims. Perhaps we had missed the way and should have stayed with him. Or perhaps we really had overtaken everyone else, since no one would be joining the camino now until we reached the viewpoint and chapel at Monte del Gozo (Mount Joy – so named because, on a clear day, it offers weary pilgrims their first glimpse of the cathedral spires). Here minibuses disgorge day visitors to walk the final few kilometres into Santiago.
We dropped over the edge of the plateau to where, as the path met a main road, an elderly man was up early, handing out leaflets for his guest house. Although it was almost full daylight now we could see no waymarkings. My instinct said we should go right, but we asked the man and he directed us left. After an anxious twenty minutes, we picked up the signs again and at the same time sighted another group ahead.
The drizzle was getting heavier and Sarah was beginning to limp. I knew she was in pain; I also knew that, having initially dismissed the idea of attending the mass as being insignificant to non-believers such as us, over the last twenty-four hours, for reasons neither of us really understood, completing the journey at the proper hour, in the proper manner, had started to become the most important thing in our lives. This was soon to become a true journey of the heart, a fact which physical exertion, immersion in a new landscape, curiosity about our fellow pilgrims, and the gradual return of rusty Spanish, had so far largely conspired to keep from us.
We took a break, sheltering from the rain under the eaves of a house. Sarah changed her footwear and we ate the sandwich the hotel had provided for breakfast. Then, with ten kilometres still to go, we set off again.
To be continued …