A long ancient bridge led us into the picturesque town of Hospital d’Ortega a few days after leaving Leon. At 204 metres it is the longest bridge along the Camino – and considering the tiny river it crosses – about 200 metres longer than strictly necessary. The majority of this aged relic stretches over a large expanse of bright green grass, which in all likelihood we could have just walked across. Our home for the night was a quaint little alberque that had been recommended to us – a peaceful and serene place until a large gaggle of Italian cyclists arrived.
They were the epitome of what Italian bicycle enthusiasts are, and what I assume must always have been. Their scruffy, yet curiously manicured stubble, set in contrast to their intensely bright lycra, which clung to them in an almost obscene manner. As Italians are known to do from time to time, they vocalized their love of life at decibels unknown to other nationalities. There were grumbles from some of the more traditionalist pilgrims in the alberque. I kept quiet. I secretly enjoyed their bold gusto – once they had changed into an attire altogether less bulging of course.
The following morning, as the sun hovered low in the sky bathing the world in a bright orange, a lone figure appeared on the horizon. He was slouched lazily on a makeshift bed under a raised tarpaulin sheet. Next to him stood a ramshackle stand complete with various snacks – ranging from simple fruits, to yogurts and coffee.
“Ola” he called, “Help yourself, it’s all free” he added with a friendly wave. I poured a coffee, took some fruit and placed a few Euros in his donation box before walking over to talk to this curious man. His name was Alex, from Barcelona. No reason was given as to why he was sitting in the middle of nowhere, under a tarpaulin sheet giving away free beverages and snacks.
And you know what – I didn’t even ask.
“Have a great life” he said warmly as I shook his hand to leave. What a wonderful way to say goodbye to somebody.
In a tiny village set on the River Jerga we sat down for diner at a long table already groaning from the food spread across it. I won’t lie, I was a little disappointed as I sat down opposite a man who looked like a chemistry teacher, who might also like to watch paint dry in his spare time. His wife looked marginally more interesting but the situation had all the hallmarks of a dreary dinner hour.
As had happened many times in the proceeding weeks, my initial judgement was well off. We were quickly swept along in their story. They had met at a young age, a brief relationship fizzled out, and eventually both had married separately, and had children. The man’s wife had died of cancer a few years ago, while the woman that now sat beside him had recently been through a divorce. As each of them came through their individual trauma, a chance meeting brought them together again – and they had fallen in love. A formal wedding service awaited them back in the US after their completion of the Camino.
“But we thought we didn’t want to wait” he said, taking her hand.
“So in St Jean de Pied Port we went to a chapel and married ourselves, just the two of us” she finished. It’s rare you see moments of true love, but in that instant they glanced at each and smiled – deep in each others eyes.
A surge of emotion swept through me and I thought it best I didn’t speak for a while. It was one of the most extraordinary stories along the entire trail. We never saw them again, but it’s the one story I’ll always remember.
We had been unwittingly following a man named Jesus for the past week. Every day or so he would arrive in our lives, hug us warmly, babble away in Spanish and give us his recommendation for where to stay in the coming miles. He travelled in breezy white trousers, and always with a large smile. He spoke no English, and had a small hearing aid tucked behind his right ear. If the more widely known Jesus had lived into his sixties and moved to Spain, he would be this man. In Foncebadón he greeted us on the steps of the simplest alberque in the tiny town clinging for life on the side of a dramatic hillside.
“Manana, Cruz de Ferro” he murmured, his eyes glistening magically, titling upwards towards the hill behind the town. A special morning was coming.
A ferociously bright red sun emerged from the mist and hung low on the horizon. A thick autumn morning dew hung to the world. A man emerged sleepily from one of the two tents in the meadow, yawned and scratched his ass. The Cruz de Ferro stood fifty metres away. A simple iron cross standing a top a large mound of small stones beside the path. Placed sometime in the 11th century the cross has become one of the most symbolic points along the way.
I took out the small stone I had carried from England, and as tradition dictates, placed it near the foot of the cross, among the hundreds of thousands of others that had settled over the many centuries before. It is said that the stone represents the burden of which you carry through life – pain, emotions, your regrets. The unnecessary baggage that we haul on our shoulders. A million thoughts whirled through my mind. The vast sense of the personal history of others was almost over powering. Some rocks had a photo of a lost loved one sat beside it, some had simple messages. But the majority were just a rocks. Simple rocks carried from all of the world, each with its own complex history. Each with its own pain and suffering, each a personal story. When you thought about it like that the mind expanded to the point where the human brain begins to struggle.
The most spectacular day followed. The path wound tightly along the high hill ridge and out to the dramatic landscape. High up in the hills of Northern Spain there was absolutely nothing that could be done to remedy the various issues on my mind regarding the future. It was a day to forget every little worry that plagues life – to shut up and just enjoy.
As we passed the final 100km point the trail began to become crowded once again. There was a strange mix of those who had come from St Jean and those who had just begun. An infusion of the rugged and weary and the bright eyed starters.
We were now barrelling into autumn. The mornings had grown colder, I could no longer waltz out in shorts and a t-shirt. I began to notice spider webs. Large intricately woven webs dripping with the morning damp. The landscape made me think of Ireland or Scotland now, intense greens painted the world, leaves began to curl and burn bright reds and oranges.
Santiago was now just a few days away. Most people were showing the sharpened emotions that came with knowing the end was coming. Some looked worriedly to the future, and the life that would resume once they moved past Santiago. A fear of what would happen next after they stepped off this rutted little footpath, and out of the this simplistic way of life.
By a stroke of luck, the day we entered Santiago the sun shone gloriously. Either day beside it, it rained constantly. As we peaked a hill just outside, the city appeared below us. Slowly the dreary outskirts gave way to pleasant winding old streets, bustling with both pilgrims and residents.
The sounds of bag pipes drifted down the narrow ancient lanes. The cathedral loomed up on our left but the path took us through a small darkened tunnel beside it – bright sunshine glowing, beckoning from the other side.
It was now just a case of a number of steps, rather than a number of miles – rather than a number of hundreds of miles. Ringed on all sides by glorious buildings, the cathedral square is like a triumphant homecoming. Taking in the smiles and congratulations from other pilgrims we eventually reached the centre. A middle age woman, who I had vague memories of meeting weeks ago approached and gave me a huge hug.
“Congratulations” she said warmly before moving off as quickly as she had arrived.
I slipped the bag from my shoulders, placed it on the ground – and turned to face what I had been walking for 34 days to see.