We packed our umbrellas and put on our rain jackets before heading out on our journey to Santiago de Compostela. The early morning skies had been calm and clear when our ship arrived at the port of A Coruña, but stormy weather was in the forecast, and we had been advised that it rains a lot in this part of Spain. The country’s northwestern corner along the Atlantic coast is in the province of Galicia, one of several areas referred to as “Green Spain,” with a lush, verdant landscape and a wet oceanic climate.
A line of taxis was waiting outside the port, with many offering fares to Santiago de Compostela. We only needed to travel the short distance to the A Coruña Railway Station, and after a brief negotiation with an English-speaking driver who seemed to serve as translator and coordinator for the other taxis, we were on our way. The A Coruña station was an easy place to navigate without knowing the language. Platforms were well-marked, and our seats for the 40-minute trip were assigned when I had booked our tickets online through Renfe.
I was both excited and intrigued to visit Santiago de Compostela. Famous as the last stop on the Camino de Santiago – also known as “The Way of St. James”– the city is steeped in legend and history going back to the Middle Ages. Pilgrims on spiritual, religious or personal journeys walk the 500-mile Camino, carrying a “passport” which is stamped at various points as proof that they were there. When they arrive in Santiago, they receive a certificate of completion called a compostela at the Pilgrim’s Office and can attend a special service at the Cathedral.
The scallop shell symbol of the Camino de Santiago can be spotted everywhere in the city and was the first image that greeted us as we climbed the staircase at the train station. We crossed the Avenida de Lugo and began our 15-minute walk to the Old Town and Cathedral, taking an unplanned and beautiful detour through Alameda Park.
We arrived at the streets of Old Town just as the shopkeepers were starting to open their doors. Several bakeries on the Rúa do Franco offered samples of Tarta de Santiago, the local almond cake. There were restaurants and souvenir shops at every turn in the narrow, winding streets, and with the Cathedral poking up through the distance, we easily found our destination.
As we reached the Praza do Obradoiro, pilgrims were arriving from their journeys. You could feel their exuberance as they threw down their backpacks, posed for photos and celebrated reaching the end of their month-long adventures. Even with gloomy skies, threatening storms and scaffolding covering the front of the Cathedral, it had a happy, festive vibe.
A staircase to the left of the Cathedral led us to another square, past a bagpiper and to the entrance we had been looking for. This façade was especially beautiful and gave us an idea of what was hidden under all the scaffolding on the other side.
Inside, the Cathedral was busy. Crowded with tourists as well as locals, it was a real working church in every sense of the word. It was easy to walk along at our own pace, and we later learned that the design was created to accommodate a large number of pilgrims, with aisles wrapping all around the apse and behind the altar, enabling pilgrims to walk around the entire church without disturbing the services.
Another green light in the Cathedral led to another stairway, taking us up and behind the altar to a gilded statue of St. James. Pilgrims are supposed to hug the statue as they look out onto the cathedral. It’s an interesting perspective and worth the wait, but photos are not permitted. A priest sat in a chair by the statue the day we were there, and everyone seemed to be obeying the “no photos” sign!
Back outside, the rain was coming down as we made our way into Old Town for lunch. I had made reservations at Malak Bistro, which features Middle Eastern and vegetarian dishes along with traditional Galician fare. It was a cozy spot for escaping the dreary day, and the food was wonderful. We had a great time talking with the friendly owner Johnny Jabbeer, who is originally from Palestine, and with an American woman at the next table who had just completed her second pilgrimage on the Camino. She was exhausted and getting sick, had trudged through sleet, snow and muddy trails and had slept mostly in bare-bones pilgrim hostels called albergues. And she said she loved every minute – especially the people she had met whom she referred to as “my Camino family.”
Before boarding the train, we stopped at one of the bakeries we had passed that morning. We wanted to pick up a couple of slices of Tarta de Santiago, but it turns out that individual slices are not available and that you have to purchase an entire cake! The saleswoman at Casal Cotón offered samples of her family’s almond cookies, little crunchy versions of the Tarta and a delicious souvenir from Santiago.
Our train to A Coruña was on time, and we made it back to the port well before our ship was ready to head out to sea. It had been a really interesting day, and I thought a lot about the pilgrims we had seen and the woman we met who had walked the Camino twice.
I doubt I will ever take a pilgrimage, but I love the romantic notion of the whole thing. I know I would treasure having endless time to just think as I put one foot in front of the other. But I also know I’d get restless and want to get on to the next adventure. There are just so many places to see. And after all, tomorrow we would be arriving in Bilbao.