Stage 9 - Santiago di Compostela

24 - 26 September

Santiago signpost The final morning of the walk I had mixed feelings. here was the anticipation of finally reaching my destination, but also a significant fear that it would an anticlimax. Also there was the prospect of ending and farewells. I walked the final stage largely alone, and did not meet anyone I had previously walked with along the way. This also led to a further fear of having no-one to share the experience with on arrival. Nevertheless the sight of the first sign saying I as entering Santiago was a satisfying experience. This one is a bit deceptive as it is not far from the airport and hence nearly 10km from the final destination!

The route takes the pilgrim up Monte di Gozo, a hill from where one is supposed to be able to see the twin towers of the Cathedral. I Must confess I could not see them. Monte di Gozo is now a huge pilgrim complex, and very ugly in my opinion. There is a monstrosity of a sculpture on the top which is made worse by being daubed with graffiti.

Panoramic view of Santiago

The walk into the city was longer than I expected, and the route was not always entirely clear. However I arrived at the Cathedral without too much difficulty, and immediately met with a German group I had encountered on several occasions. Arrival felt quite emotional and there was a real sense of fulfilment. Inside the church I met a Spanish father and son I had shared some of the journey with a few days previously. At least my fears of not meeting up with people were unfounded. This picture of the city was actually taken from the Hostel, about which more later

Queue for the Compostela The next task was to get my Compostela, the certificate saying I had completed the pilgrimage. Having located the office, with the help of a French couple I had shared a meal with earlier on the route, I queued to have my credencial examined and to collect my certificate. Then it was off to the Hostel, which was basically the entire second floor of the minor seminary. Basic, and not as clean as it could be, but friendly and convenient.

Heading back into town, I soon encountered many of the people I had met along the way, including some from the very earliest days. My memory of those final few days will be one of sitting in bars, cafes and restaurants sharing food and drink with many many people. If the Camino is like life, a journey with many meetings and partings, then Santiago is heaven, where we all meet together at the end.

Santago Cathedral facade I did relatively little sightseeing in Santiago, but of course I did spend time in the Cathedral. It is a spectacular building. Basically Romanesque, there have been baroque additions, including this facade. And yes, the sky was that blue - the only tweaking to this photo is to correct the converging verticals. In fact the weather in Santiago - and Galicia as a whole, was superb. Given Galicia's reputation for rain rivals that of its namesake, Wales, I count myself as very fortunate.

One of the traditions of the pilgrimage is to embrace the statue of St James which stands behind the altar. This is achieved by going in to the back of the church via the Puerta Santa (Holy Door) and going up some steps to embrace the statue from behind. In the middle of the day the queue to do this stretches right across the Plaza behind the Cathedral. However in the early morning there is barely a soul there (though when I went the BBC were recording a broadcast in one of the side chapels, which added to the atmosphere).

Santiago Cathedral interior The Interior of the church reveals both dimensions of its architecture. The basic lofty romanesque construction is quite clear, but there is the most elaborate Baroque altarpiece in the centre. There is also an astonishing organ, the trumpet pipes of which jut out over the nave as can be seen here. During the 2004 Holy Year (a Holy Year occurs when the feast of St James - 25 July - lands on a Sunday) there were pilgrim masses three times a day. I attended two of these, concelebrating on the second occasion. At the end of the pilgrim masses the great incense burner (known as the Bottafumero) is filled with coals and incense, and swung by eight men until it reaches the ceiling, to the accompaniment of a fanfare on the organ.

Santiago cathedral tower This picture shows the tower of the Cathedral. In the foreground the statue of a priest giving Benediction which is atop a fountain commonly used as a meeting place for pilgrims and so often referred to as the pilgrim fountain. It is also quite close to the pilgrim office.

My journey was now at an end, and it was approaching the time to return home.My flight was due to leave Santiago Airport at 7:30 on the Monday morning, so it was a very early rise and departure. I arrived alone, and I departed alone. But in the meantime I met many people. Indeed, while I saw much of beauty, and enjoyed the walking, the most important dimension of the pilgrimage for me was that of encounter. Encounter with others, encounter with myself and encounter with God. For this reason my final picture (and the only picture not taken on my camera) is of one of those encounters - sharing a drink with some friends outside a cafe in Santiago di Compostela!

Santiago cafe