We are now in Santiago, the finishing point for many pilgrims. Yesterday we received our certificates of pilgrimage - our Compostela - and today we went to the Pilgrims' Mass at the cathedral. No one had paid for the giant incense ball to be swung (it costs quite a few hundred euros apparently and was originated in the Middle Ages as a way of disguising the tasty odours of well-travelled pilgrims) but we were offered the exquisite singing voice of a nun instead, a very moving experience. And, as promised to someone who has donated to my fundraising who has ME herself, I lit a candle in the cathedral for all those with ME.
We both felt a little flat when we reached the cathedral square yesterday: I had previously imagined our arrival in slow motion and full of warm greetings from all the pilgrims we had met on our way; but instead we found a cathedral covered in scaffolding and a square full of anonymous tourists. I suspect that this slight flatness is to do with the fact that we haven't actually finished our pilgrimage: tomorrow we begin the final part of our journey, adding another 90 to 95 km to our current total of 1281 km. We are walking to Fisterra - believed to be the edge of the world in the Middle Ages.
This week has had a different feel to previous weeks. In the first few days in France we met no one as we walked; when we joined the Chemin we would see a few pilgrims a day; by Spain, especially at the start, the numbers increased to tens if not hundreds. This week we think there were about 1000 people, including quite a few school groups, walking a day. It took a bit of getting used to but by the third day I was in the zone, taking photos of some Spanish boys carrying their flag and discovering a woman with a group of French children, who we had actually met about six weeks ago on the road. There was a sense of excitement on the Camino this week, as we drew nearer and nearer to Santiago.
We had fewer encounters but those we did were very special. We kept bumping into Lonnie, and celebrated our arrival in Santiago with her last night at an amazing restaurant, not even leaving until 11pm, several hours later than our usual bed time. Returning to the cathedral square in the early evening, we got our congratulatory hugs: from a Danish couple we first met 3 weeks ago and two Spanish men (father and son) who finally finished their pilgrimage after 5 years of week-long walks. We lost Finn the Pilgrim Dog but I briefly found Pipo the Pilgrim Puppy. Not really comparable.
We have also really enjoyed the food this week. Alex's birthday was marked by our decision to go off-piste in a restaurant and order a la carte instead of the usual pilgrims' menu. We had Galician octopus (served on potato and sprinkled with paprika), shrimps in garlic and our first bottle of white wine for 60 days. Another night we found ourselves in what seemed to be a motorway cafe but the food was made to order and we had the best Calamari I have ever eaten (sorry Greece) and fried Padron peppers. And last night's meal - incredible. The wine took a dip in quality for a few days with a memorable red that tasted like mushrooms but I am pleased to report that it is back on track. We haven't been holding back on the wine front, it should be said. All pilgrim menus - between €9-€12 - come with three courses and a bottle of wine.
Finally the landscape has continued to surprise us. We thought this last week would be less interesting, knowing that the dramatic mountains had ended and we were still far from the sea; we found ourselves in woods, however. Not the magical ancient woods of last week but woods full of giant oak trees and - unexpectedly - eucalyptus trees so tall it was impossible to see their tops. The smell (and in the absence of my usual soaps, shampoos, creams, believe me, I have become sensitive to all smells) was wonderful: clean and sweet. And autumn seems to go on and on. Walking in forests with leaves falling around you is a pretty special experience.
Onwards now to the end of the world.