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Once we reached the old part of Santiago with its narrow streets and shady arcades, we knew we were almost at journey’s end. We had spent our first night there before catching the bus back up country for the start of the walk.
After dinner that evening we had strolled away from the restaurant to find ourselves caught up in a swelling crowd, making its way towards the cathedral. Curious, we allowed ourselves to be swept along, and at the very moment we arrived in the square, packed with several thousand people, all the lights went out. For the next thirty minutes we were treated to a spectacular son-et-lumière, projected onto the façade of the cathedral which reared into the darkness like a vast mottled cliff, sculpted by wind and rain into fantastic embellishments and ornamentations.
Even in daylight, seen now across the town rooftops, the spires were impressive – a beacon for footsore, weary pilgrims. We were approaching the cathedral from behind and above. As we passed what looked like a small bishop’s palace with an ornamental garden in front of it, an exuberant group of a dozen or so young pilgrims came in from a side street and broke into song. Now we could see down to the deep archway that led into the cathedral square, and this first glimpse of our destination, combined with the cheerfully raised voices, provoked a strong wave of emotion and I was surprised to feel my eyes start to water. We followed the group down the slope, Sarah hobbling determinedly behind me, and as we approached the archway we began to hear Galician pipes above the voices. In the shadows of the archway was a young piper in traditional dress, accompanied by his dog. He broke into a jig as we entered the arch and the music filled it, quickening our pace for the final few steps. Then we were in the square, suddenly overcome with emotion. We stood there and hugged each other and wept.
The square is at least the size of a football pitch. It was filling up with tourists, locals and pilgrims, many sitting or lying stretched out exhausted on the flagstones, surrounded by their walking paraphernalia as if in some modern caravanserai. It was eleven o’clock and we’d made it with an hour to spare. We limped to a cafe just off the square, ordered coffee and took off our boots to wait there for midday. Though we’d walked less than a fifth of the distance some of the other pilgrims had covered, the sense of achievement was almost overwhelming.
Later we made our way into the cathedral and found a pew, stowing our walking gear like everyone else at our feet. The mass lasted an hour and at one point priests from half a dozen different countries stepped forward in turn to address the congregation in their native tongues, all framed by the fantastically ornate gilded cave in which sits a larger-than-life-size effigy of Saint James. Sadly they didn’t swing the botafumeiro, the enormous incense burner which is suspended from high above the apse and takes several priests to set in motion. Originally intended to fumigate travel-stained pilgrims, today its purpose is more theatrical than hygienic.
Before the service began we had glimpsed our Australian friend and exchanged congratulatory smiles. As we left the cathedral we realised that we badly wanted to find her and tell her how much she had come to represent the spirit of the camino for us. We never did. Over the next twenty-four hours we scanned bars and plazas and cafes but she wasn’t there. Perhaps she had already left for Finisterre. She will never know how much she gave us heart for our journey.
But perhaps that is what happens on the camino. Unknowingly we all give each other heart, because of the common purpose, the connection to some long, deep pulse of humanity. Why else would we have felt as we did, that our hearts were almost bursting, when we finally walked into the cathedral square?