Sarria is only 113km away from Santiago de Compostela and is a very popular starting point for many pilgrims. The reason therefore is that many people would like to receive their ‘Compostela’, a religious certificate written in Latin, expended by the Church when pilgrims prove they have either walked 100km or cycled (or travelled on horseback) 200km to Santiago de Compostela.
And this is what makes Sarria incredibly busy and touristy. Although it was not the first time that I considered the Camino Frances overly crowded, my experience in Sarria took it to a new level (and not to forget, I wasn’t there in peak-season).
After a rather sleepless night (there were two men in the dorm who had mastered the art of snoring) I started walking a little later than usual – which I regretted immediately. The hostel I was staying in was in the outskirts of Sarria, but as soon as I arrived in the centre I understood how the Camino experience was about to change (at least the outer experience). There were several school classes from different parts of Europe, a group of around 70 German pensioners (unfortunately, one of them died even before reaching the first village – yeah, life is full of surprises, so it makes sense to live it to the fullest), loads and loads of individuals and small groups of people (especially people from Spain) starting their Camino. With regards to the Spanish people I had heard that obtaining the Compostela still is a rather important thing – some of them apparently even sent it with their job applications. This might also explain why so many started their Camino in Sarria, maybe less for the experience than for gaining some credentials – who knows.
The first 5km out of Sarria were not much fun – at all. It seriously was like a Camino highway. You were walking in a constant stream of people. I was seriously considering to take a bus and just skip the whole section to Santiago. But then again I really wanted to continue walking. I felt extremely stressed and all my relaxation seemed to disappeared. In Barbadelo, the first village I passed, I took a break to have a second breakfast, but even more importantly to escape the crowds. Obviously, the cafe was also packed. In the cafe I met two of the Danish ladies with whom I had been walking before – who were equally stressed.
And it just felt a bit unfair. We had been walking the Camino for weeks, we had been through so much pain and stuff and these people just started walking here with a daypack. It was like: We are the real pilgrims and they are the fake ones. However, thankfully I did remember Eckhart Tolle’s words: resistance causes suffering. And then I thought to myself: well, it is entirely up to me what I make out of the experience. And so I continued walking…
Shortly after I ran into the other Danish lady again – and we continued walking together. A little while later an Irish girl joined our group. And walking in a group of three made this experience much more tolerable – at least we had time to complain about all the ‘fake pilgrims’ (as my mind liked to label them – obviously they were as ‘fake’ or ‘real’ as I was – but the mind does not really work like that ;)).
The highlight of that day was definitely the 100km mark. It was almost a bit of an emotional experience. Now the distance was less than 100km to Santiago – and our Camino experience slowly came to an end.
The walk seemed to last forever that day (it was only 20km). We finally arrived in Portomarin in the late afternoon and organised a room for the three of us. The evening included the usual drinks and the usual pilgrim’s meal – plus, we tried the Galician signature dish: pulpo (octopus) – which does look a little gross – but tastes quite good.
The next morning I decided to start walking much earlier – to beat the crowds. So it was not really as relaxed as before – it was all very rushed. All the time the thought of the hundreds of pilgrims not far behind me made me walk faster and faster. I often did not even dare to stop for taking a picture. I felt like a horde of monsters where right behind me trying to get me. My mind likes to exaggerate – slightly…
Although there were not as many people walking in the early hours of that morning I was certainly not the only one.
Similar to the previous day I spent a lot of time listening to music – which I had hardly done before. However, music just helped to make me feel calmer and obviously helped to blend out all the noise around you. Even a ‘Buen Camino’ can become rather annoying if you hear it every 30 seconds.
It was early May now and even though the mornings were still chilly temperatures around midday climbed up to 30C – so walking around midday was not really pleasant.
Another thing was that people were now really concerned about getting stamps for their Credencial, in order to obtain the Compostela. Apparently you needed two stamps each
day to show that you actually walked the complete section (and not cheated). I guess cheating would still be possible though. You could take the bus or a car and just drive to different locations (stamps were available now in every bar, cafe, church, hostel) and collect all the stamps required. People are geniuses in finding ways to cheat – so I am sure it has been done before ;).
I also met the most extravagant pilgrim I had met on the Camino. A man with no luggage whatsoever. Wearing a very colourful outfit and carrying a Garfield-looking like soft toy animal in his arms. I had a brief conversation with him – and it was one of those moments where you don’t know whether you are the crazy one or they are. But who am I to judge anyway.
Because I was aware of all the people that were walking behind me, I had a very brisk walking pace and had already walked 20km before 1pm. Even though I usually skipped lunch or just had a quick snack, that day I stopped in a restaurant which had been recommended to me for its delicious pulpo. The restaurant was packed with people I had met before and it turned into a very social and happy lunch break.
Even though I was extremely tired after lunch I decided to continue walking, because I just did not want to stay in a place where everyone else was staying – but much rather in a small village, which would also give me a head start the next morning.
So I continued walking for another 4km until I reached the tiny village of Xan Julian. There was only one albergue in the village and it was being run by a rather young couple (probably in their late twenties/early thirties). They were super nice and when I voiced concerns about staying in a room with what looked like super snorer (usually elderly, overweight men) they put me in a room with two younger men (who unfortunately were also on their way to become super snorers – as I found out later).
In the evening I joined the communal dinner – which was delicious. During dinner I found out that there was one family staying in the hostel who were walking the Camino (the section from Sarria-Santiago) with a 83-year old family member – a very agile woman. It was her wish to walk the Camino, so they all joined her. How very nice.
The owners also told me a little bit about their life of running a business on the Camino. Although they did love the environment they mentioned that it was difficult to sustain a living. Rental prices on the Camino continuously increased while pilgrims were looking for cheap accommodation.
What I also realised was that I was ready to enjoy people’s company much more – without the attachment. Whereas I was struggling with attachment issues after I had injured my ankle and had to let go of the initial group of people I was walking with I was now really relaxed about meeting people, enjoying their company and letting go of people. Obviously, initially I had to go through a process of letting-go, but after successfully completing this process I felt much lighter now. The so much discussed concept of living in the moment – which is real and so hard to do.
The next morning I could enjoy the benefits of staying in a tiny village. The hundreds of other pilgrims had stayed in the larger town I had passed the day before – and were thus behind me. My lovely Italian roommate invited me to a cup of coffee before I started walking – enjoying the peaceful early morning atmosphere. For the first two hours I did not see a single soul… well, maybe a few bug souls were around – but we were perfectly fine with each other (before I stepped on them and destroyed them unknowingly…).
I passed a few beautiful towns on the way, took a few breaks and slowly the amount of people around me was increasing. Around midday the crowds were back (I have no idea how that worked) and it was HOT. So I had to take breaks frequently. That day you could find me in almost every little restaurant or bar along the way – looking for refreshments…
Another thing I want to mention is that during my Camino I saw a few people with small children. One of them – a single mum – with a brisk walking pace and a stroller repeatedly overtook me. And the child seemed to have fun. See, all is possible.
In the afternoon I arrived in the town of Arzua (25km) – a rather industrial town and not my favourite choice for an overnight stay. However, the heat almost forced me to stay there for the night. After a stop in another bar I gathered my remaining strength and found a nice albergue. When I walked into the room I was welcomed by the people who had been also staying in the last albergue – the ones I had made such a fuss about not to be in a room with, because of my assumption that the elderly chubby man would snore. I love life for really just laughing at you and all your efforts to escape suffering :).
I then communicated with my Danish pilgrim friend via social media and shortly after she arrived and she contacted the Irish girl that we had been walking with before and soon we were all in the same room. What followed was a lot of sangria, the good old pilgrim’s meal and heaps of wine.
What should be mentioned it that the guy who I had suspected of snoring and I had tried to escape from did not snore at all that night – however, one of the girls did snore. Ah… good that we humans are full of prejudices and so many times it is all just complete BS.
The following day started quite rushed. Although Arzua was certainly not a wonderful place to stay there were loads of albergues in this town and thus, loads of other pilgrims. Hence, I felt the pressure to escape the crowds. I started walking at early dawn – still twilight, but already there were quite a few other people walking. I did a bit of speed walking, well, it was almost close to running – but I really did not want to walk in a big crowd of people.
Santiago was now less than 40km away – almost doable to reach in a day. That day I hardly took any breaks. I walked and I walked and I walked. And it was hot again. At some point I had to sit down for a while because my feet were just so sore. I missed the place where I had initially planned on stopping and so I just continued walking – because, returning
was just NOT an option. I passed Santiago airport and was now officially in the greater area of Santiago. However, the heat and my feet were just killing me – and then again, why the rush? When I passed a few houses and saw the sign ‘guest house’ I knew what I had to do. Yes, it was time for
another single room – and maybe it was a good time to relax and properly shower before arriving in Santiago. Apparently that is what the previous day pilgrims used to do, too.
The evening I spent in the guest house’s garden, doing my washing, snacking on unhealthy food and enjoying a glass of wine. Additionally, I used the wifi and my single room to organize a few logistical things like my return flight.
However, even though I had considered myself to be the only one in the single room I was being reminded that this was not entirely the truth. Shortly after I had been falling asleep happily I was being woken up by a ‘zzzzzzzzzz’ sound right next to my right ear. So, yes, I had a roommate. I do have to admit that I tried to eliminate my roommate, but she outsmarted me (as far as I know it is only the females that bite you, hence the she). So we continued sharing the room, thankfully I had some repellent with me.
When I woke up the next day it was raining – and I was glad that I only had a 12km walk ahead of me to reach Santiago. I took my time and only started walking at 9:30am. Obviously, as soon as I stepped outside it started pouring – but hey, I had my sexy rain outfit, right? Out of fashion and ego reasons I actually did decide against putting on the rain pants – but when my hiking pants were soaking wet a few minutes later I wished my vanity would have just shut up.
I walked for around an hour before I passed a campsite which also had a little cafe attached to it. Obviously, it was packed with pilgrims who were all seeking shelter. I ordered breakfast and saw a Korean man with whom I have had exchanged a few smiles before. He approached me and with broken English he asked for my name. He then added that my smile would always make him so happy. Awww… how nice is that. I wonder why we are always so critical and not pay more compliments to each other. So nice.
When I continued walking i saw in the distance ahead of me my Danish pilgrim friend. The people next to me must have been surprised. From one second to the next I tripled my walking pace and shortly after I caught up with her – completely out of breath. But I thought: would it not be much nicer to share the arrival into Santiago with a person who had shared some part of the journey with me – if I had the chance?
And then we arrived in Santiago.
But we were not the only ones. We were surrounded by a big group of people, including a Spanish school class.
When we arrived in the centre of Santiago I was almost overwhelmed by all the hustle and bustle. Additionally, we were being told that pilgrim’s mass would start pretty much immediately. My Danish friend really wanted to take part, so we rushed to the pilgrim’s office where we could drop off our bags. Mass was packed (I don’t think mass is anywhere else as packed as in Santiago – ALL the time). We only stayed for a short while, mainly due to the fact that we had just arrived, were wet and had still not really arrived –
as in mentally, spiritually etc.. I then accompanied my friend to the place where you can pick up your Compostela but there was a MASSIVE queue – waiting time was between one and two hours. Due to the fact that I did not have to rush I decided to do it another time – when there were hopefully less people.
After checking into a really nice hostel (each bed had a little curtain, yes, some privacy is nice, then again I don’t want to know what people might do with that kind of perceived privacy) I walked around the old town for little while. I bumped into two of the Danish ladies before the three of us were being joined by our other Danish and Irish friend. The five of us spent a lovely evening with good food and good wine and celebrated our journey – our Camino. Yes, we had done it 🙂
After a good nights’ sleep I woke up all refreshed. I knew that the pilgrims office would open at 8am and in order to avoid the crowds and long waiting times I decided to be one of the first ones to be there. When I arrived there shortly after 8am only a handful of people were already waiting. And i was very pleased with my decision not to wait for 2 hours the day before but rather try it another time. After only 5 minutes it was my turn. I was being handed out a questionnaire where I had to state from where I had started walking (and show them my Credencial) and my reasons for walking the Camino – watch out: only if you tick the boxes for spiritual or religious reasons you will get the Compostela. But don’t worry, if you have done it for recreational reasons or whatever reasons then they have created another certificate for you (welcome to the modern times) – you just cannot have the Compostela 😉
So what is the Compostela ?
The ‘Compostela’ is the original religious certificate written in Latin, expended by the
Church when pilgrims prove they have either walked 100km or cycled (or travelled on horseback) 200km to Santiago de Compostela.
Originally, pilgrims used the scallop shell as proof of their pilgrimage but this quickly became a fraudulent practice with many people buying and selling shells. From the 13th century, the Church introduced a more rigorous system based on letters, the origin of the ‘Compostela’.
The ‘Compostela’ was a valuable document: pilgrims used to travel to Santiago in pilgrimage, in many cases as a penance. By getting a certificate showing they had walked to Santiago they could get back home and show they had paid their penance; repented for their sins. Apparently, a roaring trade of forged ‘Compostelas’ boomed in Santiago in the Middle Ages. The way to Santiago seemed to be paved with good intentions!
For some, walking to Santiago and getting their ‘Compostela’ meant they had secured their reference letter or VIP ticket to heaven: the ‘Compostela’ was considered an important paper, one to show St Peter at the gates of heaven.
In the 16th century, the Catholic Queen and King Fernando and Isabel, created the Foundation of the Royal Hospital and started the construction of a pilgrims Royal Hospital in Santiago, in the building that hosts today the luxurious Hostal dos Reis Católicos Parador hotel. By showing their ‘Compostela’ pilgrims could stay for up to three days. Today, the hotel still provides a free meal for the first 10 pilgrims who collect their Compostela from the pilgrim’s office each day.
And: I had not only secured my VIP ticket to heaven – I was also among the first 10 pilgrims of that day to receive the Compostela – and thus a free lunch :). Yay.
We were being told that we should wait in front of a gate right next to the hotel Parador. At 1pm sharp the door was being opened and we were being led into the restaurant. A very chic restaurant and we looked totally out of place with our pilgrim outfits. We were then being served a 4-course meal of the finest quality and enjoyed a glass (or four) of delicious wine. What a a treat – we had a wonderful time. And how wonderful had it worked out? The day before I had the choice to queue up for two hours to get my Compostela – but I didn’t. When I went back the next day I had to queue up for 5 minutes and received an invite to a free meal in a 5 star restaurant. Sometimes life is like that. You get really angry and frustrated that Plan A does not work out and when you try Plan B you ask yourself why you were even considering Plan A.
After a short nap (I felt rather tipsy after drinking all that wine) I spent the afternoon visiting the cathedral and attending mass (now I was in a much calmer mood than the day before and could actually enjoy the ceremony), walking around town, bumping into some people I had not seen in weeks (which was really nice) and having an overall very relaxed day.
And that was a proper farewell to my Camino experience.
However, I was not quite ready to say goodbye just yet – so I decided to continue walking to the coast.
And here is the short video summary:
So far I walked approx 553 km, took a bus for around 100 km, cycled for 185km and I had been walking/driving/cycling along the Camino for 31 days.
To be continued (and almost finished now)…