A PILGRIM’S PROGRESS
By Gerald Schmitz
To world’s end and back to Santiago again
My Breton companions Bernard and Guy had spent only a day in Santiago before heading back to walk the further 90 kilometres of the Way that leads to the Atlantic Ocean. For many centuries from pre-Christian times this westernmost coast was a mythologized place at the edge of the known world — “finis terrae” to the Celts and Romans. Today in the scenic fishing villages of Fisterra and Muxía it is the farthest end point for pilgrims going beyond Santiago to the origins of its designation as a holy place.
I was happy to have spent more time in Santiago, taking a bus to Fisterra across the rugged Galician terrain before winding for several hours along a coastal route with ocean views. On arrival I took up a lady’s offer of a private room in a lovely small pension close to the harbour. Then it was down to the port and along the seawall, climbing around the ruins of the Castelo San Carlos before starting the seven-kilometre roundtrip up to the famous faro (lighthouse) at land’s end. There was an autumnal chill in the mist under overcast skies. The wind off the water buffeted me as I passed a pilgrim monument about halfway up where I came across Bernard coming down. I hurried to reach the impressive vistas ahead before fog closed in.
When I got to the lighthouse and places beyond — where some leave behind worn belongings of a long journey (even burning them as a rite of shedding these trappings) — I made a fortunate decision to go down the rocks as far as possible. A bleating sound reached my ears over the crashing of the waves, and at the very precipice into view came wild goats grazing on the precarious ledges. It was a wondrous sight almost hidden past the human markers and soon to disappear in the fog. For that moment it held me in a quiet awe that no postcard can capture.
There was a realization too that my camino was nearing its end. The next day was overcast, damp and windy, the low visibility dissuading almost all from thinking about walking north from Fisterra along a 29-kilometre coastal route. The panoramas had to be left to the imagination as I gazed over the colourful boats in the harbour near a monument to the numbers of Spaniards who have emigrated from these shores. Several buses took me to Cee and then Muxía where I joined Bernard and Guy in the albergue Bella Muxía.
According to legend this famous Celtic ocean village is where the Virgin Mary landed to prepare the way for the Apostle James, his remains supposedly entombed in a stone boat discovered eight centuries later by a monk directed to its location by a row of stars. The church dedicated to her, Nuestra Señora de la Barca (Our Lady of the Boat), is strikingly perched on the rocks at land’s end. I’m so glad we came here since it was destroyed by fire on Christmas Day.
Exploring the shorelines, I clambered down to huge rocks above the pounding surf, some held to be sacred from Druid times. Near the church is a great Pilgrim Rock monument. This is truly kilometre zero. As dusk descended dramatic skies suggested a primeval world’s end and a pale moon rose over the cross of Our Lady’s church.
An ocean view of Nuestra Señora de la Barca and the Pilgrim Rock monument at Muxia. A journey comes to its completion. (G Schmitz photo)
It was raining when we arrived back in Santiago by bus the next morning. But it cleared up heading to the noon pilgrim mass concelebrated in different languages by 10 priests, again followed by the botafumeiro incense ceremony. That afternoon I visited the newish pilgrim museum and took my last peregrinations in the streets where so many thousands of pilgrims have walked before.
Oct. 17 we bade Santiago farewell, boarding a train to Irún on Spain’s northeastern coast, the usual starting point of the Camino del Norte, the main alternative to the Camino Francés. Overnighting there we left Spain the next morning, 45 days after we had walked across the Pyrenees.
I would still go on to Lourdes before returning to Brittany, visiting its Celtic land’s end at Pointe St. Mathieu (2,000 kilometres from Santiago) before flying home to Canada. I welcomed these extra days to think about an experience that will stay with me forever.
*This series will conclude next time with some reflections on the Camino and the meaning of pilgrimage today.