Eventually the road gave way to mountain track and I was bent double with sweat pooling in my glasses and dripping down onto my shorts. As I hauled myself, exhausted, up the last of the 1440 metres to the top of the Col de Lepoeder I could see the abbey at Roncesvalles nestling in the trees some way below. I knew, having reached that goal, and put my boots into the specially constructed boot depository, that smelled like a dump for rotten Camembert, that I would make it the remainder of the way to Santiago de Compostela.
Roncesvalles set the tone for the days to come. Up early, walk and then buy food for lunch. I quickly learned that taking a rucksack into a small shop in an isolated village was not a good idea as when turning to look at what was on offer I invariably set about demolishing shelves stacked with tinned food. Comments were made but I don’t think any of them were, ‘Good morning, how are you?‘
I would then complete the morning’s walk and have lunch. After I would walk away the afternoon before stopping at a hostel to get the prized stamp on the passport. I would need one from each place I stayed on route to show to the church authorities at Santiago de Compostela in order to get my certificate for completing the journey.
Then it was wash that day’s clothes, complete my journal, check the photos and bed at 9pm and hope to get to sleep before the snoring started. Rows of bunk beds were the order of the day and, believe me, there were seismic grunts coming from some nostrils that made me mighty glad I had opted to take earplugs. There is no discrimination, men and women share the same space and those that are unmarried get a taste of things to come.
The Basque country quickly gave way to the vineyards of Rioja and the wide gravel paths that meandered through them. I breakfasted on grapes straight from the vine, a deliciously sweet and juicy start to each day. I was soon to pass through the cathedral cities of Pamplona and Burgos where the trudge through the latter’s seemingly endless industrial suburbs proved a daunting task. It was worth it, though, as I later wandered through the massive Gothic cathedral where El Cid, the city's most illustrious son, is buried.
Between Burgos and Lyon is the Meseta, a vast area of endless fields with no boundaries, hidden valleys, open plains, and tiny villages dotted along the way like carelessly sown corn seed. It is the place that many choose to avoid by taking the bus from Burgos to Lyon, for once you have accepted the challenge of this land you are open to all the elements can throw at you, and for me that was to be stifling temperatures and a headlong wind that seemed to push me back like a giant open hand.
The stony tracks were long, straight, unprotected and seemed never ending, and when I thought I had got to the end of one another limitless horizon appeared. This is part of the Camino where stubbornness and determination are your allies, and timidity and self-doubt your foes. It took me four days to cross the Meseta and I’m glad I took it on.
The region of Cantabrica is the penultimate challenge before entering the home straight that is Galicia. Throughout my journey I had to be aware that the sun was constantly shining on my left as I plodded westward, and afford that side of my body special protection. Once in Cantabrica the mountains to my right curled round toward me like a scimitar and I knew that these were the last real challenge before reaching my goal.
By now I had left more villages in my wake than I had left to pass through, yet I still had soaring temperatures to contend with. As I struggled late one afternoon through the village of Trabadelo the thermometer on the wall of the church was registering 40C, I thought it prudent at that stage to cut short the day’s walk and seek shelter.
At 1,300 metres the village of O’Cebreiro is usually clouded in mist and rain. Once more I was climbing in excessive heat, my back bent double and my hands supporting my pack as I struggled to the top. A few kilometres from the village I walked into Galicia, and the final leg of my journey.
It rains a lot in Galicia which means its fertile soil is covered in a patchwork of greens of varying hues. Small farms lie along narrow walled in dirt tracks which, in the early morning, as the sun breaks the dark veil of night appear as they must have to the Medieval pilgrim. As I made my lone journey through them only the snuffling of the cattle and lazy bark of a slumbering dog broke the eerie and mysterious silence. Farmers were praying for rain as the unusually hot weather continued and the incessant heat started to crisp the vast quantities of sweet corn that would serve as winter fodder.
At noon on the twenty-second day I entered the suburbs of Santiago de Compostela after a hard morning’s walk. The signs reinvigorated my aching legs as they beckoned me towards my goal. Down a steep hill past the eccentric pilgrim’s shelters at Mont del Gozo to cross a wooden pedestrian walkway that traversed the motorway like some Middle Age afterthought. Along the pavement and through the jungle of car showrooms, bathrooms for sale and anodyne office blocks.
The pilgrim signs and gold coloured shells embedded into the pavement were drawing me in like a fish on a hook and I found myself walking faster and harder. I was now into streets bordered by four story glass balconied houses. One last set of traffic lights negotiated found me in the old town surrounded by sombre and self important stone buildings. A last uphill march taken at a gallop, before I dropped down to walk under an arch where a lone piper was blowing a lament that only a bag of cats could make sense of. Descending a handful of steps I found myself in bright sunlight that illuminated the huge square in which the extravagant Gothic spires of the cathedral of St James paid homage to a sky of deep blue.
I punched the air and clapped in self congratulation, no one took any notice, they had seen it all before. Just another pilgrim arriving, but this pilgrim was me. I had sweated gallons, nursed sore feet and an aching back and stumbled through twenty two days of dark starts, and, in the process, had raised over £3000 pounds to help those that had made all this possible. As I entered the cool darkness of the cathedral I prepared myself to give thanks to them, for at that moment they were all that really mattered.
When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today