Pilgrimage to Santiago

By Dr. Paul Severn

I think it was me who suggested it, but really in jest … however the idea took hold and so it was that on the Friday before the May Day Bank Holiday I found myself on an aeroplane to Spain, with four of my fellow final year deacon students form St Mary’s College Oscott. We landed at Santiago de Compostela and took a coach to Lugo, where after a few drinks and some delightful Galician (the local region) tapas we settled down for a first night.

The significance of Lugo is that it is 100km from Santiago on the Camino Primitivo. For the pilgrimage to ‘count’ one has to walk 100km (about 63 miles), or it’s 200km on a bicycle or on horseback, although, of course, many people travel much further. Furthermore, in order to get the certificate of completion – the compostela – you have a pilgrims’ passport or ‘credencial’ which is stamped along the way to show you have really made the journey. Having collected my first stamp at my real starting point, St David’s Church, East Cowes, I collected my first Spanish Stamp (or sullo) at Lugo, before setting off through the Camino gate in Lugo city wall. Navigation is easy since all along the way, every couple of hundred meters, is a way mark, adorned with a shell and a yellow arrow pointing the direction. Additionally, the distance to Santiago, in kilometres (to three decimal places!) was shown, so as we journeyed, we could see ourselves getting ever closer.

We had little stops for a coffee, a beer and a delightful lunch at Albergo Okandido where we ate local bread with local ham and cheese. After lunch it was hot and uphill so we struggled a bit, and I had thought we would stop in Vilamaior de Negral, but the Camino skirted round it rather than going through it so we had to press on to Ferreira where we were very grateful to stop at the Albergo de Cruz. This was a traditional hostel and the three Portsmouth boys shared a room with two sets of bunk beds! Yours truly had to sleep on the top of a bunk bed for the first time in over forty years! But it was only 10 euro a night and dinner with wine was a complete bargain at 9 euro.

The following day we were up early. At 6.30 am it was just getting light, the birds were starting to sing and it was still quite chilly. I put ‘preventative plasters’ on my feet and after a quick breakfast we were off again. The five of us naturally fell into two groups, two of us (including me) walking at a slightly faster pace and the other three slightly slower. For me the second day was the best day of walking, up and over a ridge of hills with graceful wind turbines gently rotating along the top. I was surprised at just how verdant and green this corner of Spain is. We completed another 25 km to reach the halfway point of our walk at Melide, a significant juncture, since here ‘motorways merge’: or rather the Camino Primitivo (our path) joins the Camino Francès (from St Jean in the Pyrenees) and there were noticeably more pilgrims on the way.

The Camino has a very international feel and we met also sorts of people from Germany, Holland, France, the USA, Australia to mention but a few. Everybody greets each other: “buenas dias, buen Camino!” I should add at this point, that one of our number had very wisely married a Spanish lady (Marta) and had lived for some years in Madrid, so we were very blessed with a fluent Spanish speaker, which was a real bonus.

I’d rather pass over day three. I had sore feet, blisters, and was none too keen on another 25km. However much of the day’s walking was through wooded areas, where a mud path, with dried leaves and fallen pine needles on top made for a much softer walking surface than the majority of the path which is tar macadam and a couple of metres wide. The last five kilometres after lunch was agony for me, but we all encouraged one another along and we all made it, arriving in A Brea, where we found the ‘Pension of the Way.’ We had a lovely large, airy four-bed room, for the three Pompey boys and after a little rest I began to recover.

Day four was our final day of walking and, with the end in sight, blisters and sore feet were easily overlooked. Anyway, after a brisk five miles to coffee and another brisk five miles to lunch we ascended the final hill, over the brow of which Santiago came into view. To be honest the descent to the cathedral through suburban and the urban sprawl was not the most scenic part of the walk, but we had made it! All five of us completed the full 100km with no recourse to buses or taxis.

We venerated St. James in his cathedral, although this is currently being renovated and scaffolding a polythene sheets are the dominant feature. The giant thurible or botafumeiro which swings from a place in the rooftop, was not operative, but we did see it, in a protective wooden crate for safe-keeping. Finally, we went to the pilgrims’ centre, and on showing the multiply stamped credencial we were issued with our testimonial or compostela – the certificate of completion.

A pilgrimage is a physical journey that symbolises or prompts a spiritual or interior journey and I should add that we prayed the office together every day. We said a lot of rosaries, which seemed the most natural thing as we ambled along, and we attended Mass. On Sunday in two tiny churches on the way served by a very elderly priest and with only a handful of locals and on the last day Mass was offered, in English, at the pilgrims’ centre with a large international crowd. I was delighted to be asked to administer the chalice – so I am now an international extraordinary minister of Holy Communion! (Apologies to any EF readers!)

Lastly, we three Portsmouth deacons-to-be got to know each other better than before sharing our highs and lows, our hopes and expectations and our prayers. Somebody remarked, that by the end, it seemed as if he had two new brothers and I am more than happy to say ‘Amen’ to that.

Paul Severn, May 2019