Since I've shared the journey with you all, I thought it only fair you should get a peice of the arrival too.
So the final leg for me was a 20km stretch from Arca O Pino into Santiago. Predictably the over-eager among the pilgrims was up and rustling sleeping bags into backpacks from 5am. I, on the other hand, felt there need be no rush and along with only about 3 of the 120 people in the Albergue, didn't leave until after 6.30am (tardy!).
There's a clause in the Pilgrim's Code that says that as long as you complete the final 100kms you can still be considered a Pilgrim and are thus eligible for the sought after 'Compostela' (certificate, essentially). This means that from the largest town just before the 100km mark (Sarria), there are about ten times the number of pilgrims that were on the Camino previously. This includes (thanks to the school holidays) every church youth group in the North of Spain.
What I'm getting to is the fact that, although many had set of early, I still managed to find myself wedged between two or three large groups of teenagers with their portable music devices messing with my zen. So as we entered the forests outside Arca I dropped back to take some photos and let the crowds lollop onwards.
It was a mixed journey that morning. As we got closer the appearance of tourist tack increased, but we also seemed to go through some sort of retrospective of all the wildlife I'd met along the whole Camino. I saw poppies again for the first time since La Meseta and I saw a wild strawberry which I'd only seen previously in the low hills on the first day back in France. I saw butterflies and birds that I'd spotted along the way and the Oak leaves I've fallen in love with (have you seen their crazy shape - they're awesome!) were everywhere. And then, like a little call to home, there were eucalyptus trees EVERYWHERE. The eucalyptus forests started a couple of days before and in the heat the smell made it feel like I was walking on a bush track in Victoria somewhere. It's made me a little homesick, I have to say!
I've been without any firm 'friends' for the last week or so on the Camino, which has been both good and bad. It's harder to make new friends at this point, but even without those connections there is this incredible sense of community on the move. Lots of nods of recognition and 'Buen Camino' salutations and giggles when you realise it's the fifth time you've said that to each other that day. I'd had a think about the fact that I would be entering Santiago alone, with no one to meet me there. I found the prospect incredibly lonely at first and and then realised that this is a journey that I started alone and that ending it alone is, in fact, incredibly important.
So as I walked I started to reflect on what the Camino has given me to take away... I won't share it all here, but I will say that if I think back to who I was and how I felt when I started on the morning of May 19th I can feel the distance I have travelled. I'm not sure I can give it better words than that here.
The walk into Santiago itself is, like most entrances to cities have been, a little less than inspiring. There is a town just outside the city called Monte do Gozo where you can stand on a hill and see the Cathedral... I didn't. It was covered in people and I just wanted to keep going, which meant that I didn't actually see the Cathedral, which is the ultimate end of the Camino, until I was right in front of it.
The signage for the Camino seemed to get less apparent as I got further into the complicated little streets of the old city. In retrospect I'm not even sure I know how I found the way - I remember thinking I was just turning randon corners at one point, but I seemed to be heading somewhere. And then I was right next to it and a door was open... so I snuck in, with my pack on and my sticks in hand. It was the tail end of the Pilgrim's Mass that starts at 12pm every day. The heavily frocked priests stood at the centre with the incense burner above them, speaking words I wouldn't have understood in english, let alone Spanish (I never had a church upbringing... it often sounds foreign to me). The Cathedral was packed with people. All ages, all nationalities, all shapes, colours and sizes. And just as I was about to leave they all rose and started to file into the centre for the blessing of the Pilgrims... And I backed myself into my little corner and started to cry. Happy tears... or at least tears of not-sadness. There was such an amazing feeling of shared purpose, shared journeys and shared achievement in that space it was completely overwhelming. All of these people, we all walked every day, over so many days and through every kind of weather. We've shared incredibly intimate stories and experiences. We've shared meals and rooms and we've walked on the same pathways to reach this point. And now we're here.
I snuck out of the Cathedral and carried on down the steps to the square in front of the beautiful building. I found a spot in the sun in amongst the tour groups and the groups of hyperventilating teenagers and the encampment of protestors tents (a fixture in every Spanish capital at present) and I sat down. I pulled my bag close and sat and hugged it and cried some more.
It was quite overwhelming. For 42 days everything I have needed has been in that bag and in my physical and emotional capacity. And now it might be time to let some of the real world back in...
So as not to end on too serious a note, I will entertain you all with a story... It would appear that I am some sort of attraction magnet for elderly Spanish men (I know! Lucky right?!). I've had a few passing comments from toothless casanovas along the way, but it has peaked with a recent interaction with a fellow pilgrim.
I joined this gentleman and a couple of girls for a drink one evening. I should have known when they two girls made a swift exit as I sat down... I think they may have been looking for their out. I was it.
I'll summarise, but essentially, after wowing me with a couple of tales from his Camino, this particular older gentleman (who had been eating almonds which were now sort of encrusted around his teeth and the sides of his mouth - winning look on anyone) told me had booked himself a nice hotel room in Santiago and once he'd settled in a showered (thank god) he planned to go and take a turn about town and see if he couldn't find himself a lady friend for the evening. He used a line I can safely say, gents, should NEVER be used in any seduction situation. He actually said "A man has needs, you know". He explained that six weeks without a lady was enough and he implied in a round about way that I might want to join him for his turn about town... he did not mean as a 'wingman'. He made this clear when I saw him again in Santiago itself, but this time there was less implication and more direct invitation - would I like to come and eat seafood with him and then join him in his lovely hotel room. No sir, I would not. I don't think he'll ask again, bless.
So I'm here. I've had the obligatory post-Camino sickness (fever, exhaustion, nausea), but that seems to have gone this morning thanks to echinacea and aspirin. Tomorrow my mum arrives and we'll walk the 90kms to Finisterre together, which is the sort of optional extra stretch to the sea... I have dreams of dropping my pack on the beach and walking into the sea fully clothed. It has been too long since I was suspended in water!
I'll keep you posted.