This post is a bit of a mix of things that I’d like to share from the days after we finished our hike and had returned to Santiago before the journey home. We had booked another two nights in Santiago and were glad we did, because the city redeemed itself a bit and we left on a spectacular high note. Our final days in Santiago co-coincided, completely by chance on our part, with the build-up to the Festival of St James, which is the biggest fiesta in the city’s calendar! The festival is of course an auspicious time for pilgrims to arrive and the streets were more alive than ever. We spent many hours in the great cathedral square watching the celebrations of new arrivals and soaking up the atmosphere. It was moving to see pilgrims of all ages and walks of life enter the square and to watch their different reactions, from open joy to quiet tears as they tried to grasp the moment… others quite justifiably lay down on the flagstones and went to sleep. Many had walked or cycled 500 miles (800km) along the Camino Francis to be there, others had come in on other Caminos like the Primitivo, Norte, Ingles or Portugues, while others still had beaten their own paths across Spain and Europe beyond. I hope the selection of photos below (mainly taken by Barry) captures the energy of the city in those pre-fiesta days.
Waves of tired pilgrims march through the streets towards the cathedral, many were too tired to look that happy.
Under the final arch before entering the square, pilgrims are usually welcomed by a Galician piper, but on this day the new arrivals were welcomed by a more unusual duo.
A group of cycling pilgrims (bicigrinos) celebrate their completion of the Via de Plata, a 600 mile (1000km) pilgrim route from the city of Cadiz in Andalucia.
A typical scene in the cathedral square as pilgrims unwind, shed their kit and hot boots and enjoy the buzz.
These pilgrims were in a pretty bad way after arriving, obviously in pain they seemed to have little energy or inclination to celebrate.
For some pilgrims the moment of arrival can be disorientating and overwhelming. Here a couple stand lost in their thoughts among the crowds.
The original pilgrim himself, Santiago stands removed and enigmatic above the colourful scenes in the plaza below.
Barry and I pose on the steps of Santiago cathedral with our certificates of completion from the Camino Finisterre. These certificates are a bit more interesting than the Compostelas (issued on arrival in Santiago), as they show the Cape at sunset. It’s perhaps a bit silly to get the certificates but hey, we won’t be walking across Spain again any time soon!
As Barry took pictures, I sat amongst the new arrivals on the square and was soon joined by Kiwi pilgrim Andy, who was keen to know what my thoughts on arriving in Santiago were. Like us, he had mixed feelings about it, and we sat chatting for ages about pilgrimage and the meaning (if any) of it all. We dispensed with the small talk almost immediately and plunged into the sort of conversation I wish I could have with more people, but with whom it is rarely ever possible. Such conversations can often be easier with a perfect stranger because people are not so confined by their usual context, but it was also Andy’s warmth and willingness to be open and honest with his thoughts that made it such a joy to talk with him.
Andy had started his pilgrimage in Lisbon and had walked-in on the Camino Portugues. Back in New Zealand he worked as a tour guide and loved his job partly for the flexibility it gave him to travel in the off season. When Barry came back we all headed for a shady patch in a local park and sat chatting for much of the afternoon about anything from life, love and regrets to Brexit, Buddhism and Kiwi politics! Later, as we went to say goodbye, Andy asked if we were going to stay-up and watch the fireworks that evening. It was the eve of the Saint’s Day and the fireworks traditionally welcomed in the day of the Fiesta at midnight. We said no because were still tired and had an early train the following morning. With a wry smile Andy said ‘that sounds terribly sensible’….we took the hint and arranged to meet him again at 9pm.
And that’s how it happens sometimes when traveling, a chance meeting, a little push, and we ended up sitting amid the crowds around the cathedral, watching the most astonishing fireworks I have ever seen. Things kicked-off at 11:30 and it was initially disconcerting to see such powerful pyrotechnics exploding around the spires of one of Europe’s most venerated cathedrals. But then it was Spain, and it wouldn’t be a fiesta without a healthy dollop of madness….and several fire engines standing by. Over the next 30 minutes, the frenzy built and built, until there were not longer any distinct fireworks and the sky was a continuous explosion of light. Great clouds of incandescent embers drifted into the darkness across the rooftops, while hot ash and the odd burning fragment of firework rained down on the crowd. The noise of explosions melded with the ricochets from the buildings until it was not so much a case of hearing the noise as feeling it, the shock-waves jolting through our bodies and pummeling our ear drums. We were not watching a firework display, we were IN a firework display! It was hair-raising anarchy, the realm of manic laughter. And then at midnight, it suddenly ended. Into the stunned silence, the great mellow bell of Santiago began to chime for the Day of St James.
I have uploaded two videos on Instagram Here. Just click on the only firework images and they should play….P.S. turn your sound up too!
The fireworks got off to a sedate enough start The spires of Santiago cathedral in silhouette to the left.
On the way to the train station the following morning, we passed the bedraggled remnants of the night’s revelry, smashed beer bottles on the pavements, couples still feeling the passion on the kerbside and groups of youths outside the coffee bars, in high spirits but definitely the worse for wear. We were sad to leave to Santiago, but could not have hoped for a better farewell. And so began our three day epic to get home from Spain to the UK….perhaps I should explain. The obvious choice would have been to fly directly and cheaply from Santiago, it would have taken less than 2 hours. Instead we were catching a train for 11 hours across northern Spain to the French border at Irun, the following night we were on a sleeper train to Paris and then on a midday bus from Paris to London. We have travelled to Spain from the UK and back four times in the last year and I am pleased to say that we have not flown once. Partly this is an intention to travel more slowly and contentiously, but underneath it all lies my terror of flying. Flying home would have been so easy compared to all other options, but after trying to visualize how I’d cope, quivering before take-off in an EasyJet, all courage failed and I had to strong-arm Barry in to the train option. He was not amused, but bless him, he agreed…I’m not sure he had much choice.
And so after 11 hours on a train from Santiago, we arrived in Irun near the French border. It was a beautiful, soft evening and we caught a taxi out of town to the Cape de Higuer campsite, the exact spot where we had started our Pyrenean GR11 hike from almost a year ago. See our first GR11 post Here. It was a surreal being back and gave pause for thought on all the hiking we’d packed into the last 12 months! The sun was setting rapidly out over the Atlantic and, as it touched the horizon, we enjoyed a special moment watching the silhouettes of jumping dolphins. We pitched next to another small tent with two pairs of serious-looking hiking boots outside the porch. I made an informed guess that the couple must be GR11 hikers, and sure enough, when Paul and Dasha returned later on, they were indeed setting out on the GR11 the next day.
The moments after they arrived were filled with lively discussion as they found out we had done the GR11 and we found out that they had done the GR5 (Grand Traverse of the Alps) last year. There was lots of information to swap and we were happy to help with some insider tips about the trail ahead. They were very upbeat and full of anticpation, and despite being glad to have a break from hiking for a while, I was more than a bit jealous of the stunning mountain journey that lay in wait for them. The Pyrenees really are world-class hiking and I guess I have a cheeky eye on returning to do the GR10 (on the French side) one day. A couple of minutes into chatting and Dasha suddenly asked ‘do you do a blog?’…..’I recognize you’. Turns out she had been looking on ‘wildpilgrims’ a few days ago as part of their GR11 research! Obviously I was chuffed that they had found the blog and used it for their planning (my original intention) and also more than a bit amazed at the coincidence of our meeting. Unlike in the USA, the European long distance or ‘thru-hiking’ community is small and pretty dispersed, so it was an absolute pleasure to spend some time with two others who understand and share the same enthusiasm.
Packed and ready, Paul and Dasha just about to set-off on their GR11 hike from Cape de Higuer. Best of luck to them both on a grand adventure!
After saying goodbye to Paul and Dasha early the next morning, I set the water on the stove for tea and lay back on the luxury of my NeoAir. It was a pleasantly overcast day and the campsite, full of families, was gradually waking up around us. I was pleased that we’d got to spend our final night in Spain in the Hubba, after several nights in alberges I always feel a great sense of peace in the tent, it really has been a great little home. Some readers might be wondering what has happened to our plans for the GR5 this summer. The bottom line is that we are both pretty tired and although Barry is in good shape, I have some minor joint and tendon issues which probably deserve a rest. The GR5 promises to be a magnificent route and we want to start it feeling fresh and able to give it our best attention and effort. It is far from forgotten, just simmering on a low heat for a while. For anyone looking for GR5 inspiration, hiker and blogger Antti Rantanen has just published a book of his GR5 adventure. I have not had chance to read his book yet, but have a copy and look forward to sitting down with it soon. Antti is also doing the GR11 this year and details of his trip and his book are available on his blog longdistancetrail
In the next blog I’ll be doing a quick run-down of some key trip statistics and a more detailed review of the GR1 as a trail from the point of view of quality, planning and logisitics.