Camino de Santiago: the last leg

In April 2015, I set off with two of my best friends to walk a final leg of the Camino de Santiago in Galicia, Spain. Most people think that the cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostela is the culmination of the pilgrimage but there is a final journey that pilgrims have been making since ancient times, and this is the Santiago – Finisterre route. Finisterre means ‘the end of the world’ and is a fitting description for that moment when your weary legs collapse on that beautiful beach and you watch the sun descend into the ocean.

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I must start by mentioning that my two fellow walkers are seasoned pilgrims: Karen has completed the full Camino Francés (780 kms no less) and Aoife has walked two-thirds of it. Both wanted to complete the final leg and make it to the aptly named Costa da Morte, or Death Coast, and invited me to join them. We opted for the longer route, taking a diversion via the gorgeous coastal town of Muxia, and finishing in Finisterre. 129 kms in four days. What were we thinking? I jest of course. It was totally worth it and I look back on it with fond memories. I also won’t lie – it was bloody tough going. But we laughed our way through it. Blur and St Vincent albums also helped… As did copious amounts of Ibuprofen and mainlining Coca Cola.

Our journey started and ended in the stunning city of Santiago de Compostela. I hadn’t expected such a gem of a place to start our travels and wished we’d booked an extra few days.

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As we were going to be slumming it for a few nights (more on that later), we booked into a very nice hotel the night before we set off. Knowing we had a full day’s walking ahead of us, we planned an early night, but you know what they say about the best laid plans… We arrived during Semana Santa, or Holy week, and were lucky enough to see one of the bizarrely beautiful Easter processions through the city.

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That same night we ate one of the best tapas feasts we’ve ever had in the wonderful María Castaña restaurant and which warranted a mention in my blog Meals to make you weep with gratitude It wasn’t just the great food (and wine) that made this restaurant stand out in my memory. We were also treated to an impromptu performance by a choir at another table. It was pretty special. And as we were strolling back to our hotel that night (or early morning), we were distracted once more by the sound of music, or more specifically, the mournful strains of Tchaikovsky coming from a lone violinist on one of Santiago’s (by now) deserted squares. It stopped us dead in our tracks and we stayed to listen to him play for another 20 minutes or so. A beautiful end to our first evening.


Not such a beautiful start the next morning, getting up after five hours of sleep to complete a 26 kms walk. But after a massive hotel breakfast (stockpiling for the day ahead), we bounded off enthusiastically to Negreira, our stopping-off point on night one. My enthusiasm might have waned somewhat after a few hours with the weight of a 10kg backpack on my back, but the scenery en-route lifted my spirits. Galicia is a gorgeous part of Spain: green and lush. Almost like Ireland, but with nice weather.

Here is our last view of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela as we head for the hills:

 

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Day 1: Santiago de Compostela to Negreira: 26

Day one’s terrain was mixed: the early part involved a route through forests of eucalyptus trees; an invigorating way to start the day. Our senses were definitely heightened, and by heightened I mean constantly runny noses and breathing like dragons. This was followed by quite a steep uphill climb for approximately 4 kms on quite rocky ground. Doesn’t sound like much but when you’ve been walking for a couple of hours, starting to get hungry, the temperature has climbed up to the 20s and it feels like you’re carrying a bag of rocks on your back, trust me, it’s not for wusses.

The next part was a bit easier, following small country roads and passing through gorgeous little flower-filled villages with pretty cottages. I was craving the shade of the forest at this point though. It was early April and we’d been (mis)informed that the weather would be similar to Ireland and to wear warm clothes. By mid-afternoon we were basking in 25 degree sun.

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4 kms from the end we had to stop for an ice-cream break. Not the greatest of ideas. I honestly thought I’d never be able to stand up again. The last 4kms (uphill of course) felt like 44 kms. Some swearing and whining followed (just me. My friends are saints) until we finally stumbled upon a hostel on the outskirts of town. At that point I thought my ankles were going to snap in two. Ok I may have exaggerated somewhat on the 'slumming it' aspect. We had a room all to ourselves and two bathrooms across the hall. Nothing felt as good as that first shower. Well maybe taking off my hiking boots. And that first beer in Negreira later that evening. We ate a lot of food that evening, slept like the dead, and were up again at the crack of dawn. We got up at 5:30, covered our feet in plasters and were walking by 6am. In the pitch dark.

Day 2: Negreira to Olveiroa, 33 kms
Our second day commenced in an unusual (and slightly terrifying) way. At 6am we strolled out of Negreira in the moonlight. All very pretty so far.

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I knew we had a tough full day’s walking ahead – 7 kms more than the day before, starting with a 10 kms ascent – so was mentally psyching myself up for that when my beloved friends, who were in possession of our guidebook, informed me that we would soon be entering a forest and would walk through said forest for 6 kms. In the pitch dark. With one head torch. Now I love trees. I really do. I just don’t love woodland in the dark. Every sound is amplified. Every shadow is magnified by the head torch beam. Your mind plays tricks on you. I’m having all sorts of ‘Blair Witch’ thoughts, not helped in the least by the stories being relayed by my friends. Karen decides now is a good time to recount a story from her previous Camino travels of walking by herself through a forest in the dark, and which involves meeting a strange man with a knife in his hand. It all ended well as he had no sinister motive (apparently) but at this point I was not loving the Camino experience. Or my friends for that matter. But the sun gradually started to come up as we walked through the forest. It was quite beautiful. And I started to enjoy our walk again. We emerged from the trees back onto the road, and into this gorgeous landscape.

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It was still early in the morning and we’d covered over 10 kms by 8am, the temperature still pleasantly cool. I loved how silent the world was at this time of day. The only sounds were birdsong and the gentle whirr of the windmills in the distance. And my friends’ singing but that’s another story. We walked another 7 kms or so and stopped for a very early lunch. I murdered a bocadillo con tortilla in about 10 seconds flat, drank three coffees, 2 litres of water and was raring to go. At this point we’d covered almost half of our daily distance and it was still only midday upon leaving the cafe. Feeling verrrry smug.

It didn’t last. We almost ran the next few kilometres, our bodies fueled and happy. Then the sun came out in full force. We were completely exposed on the open road and there was little shelter to be found. My boots were really starting to hurt and I had blisters everywhere. So with 10 kms to go we threw our bags under a tree in a field, took off our boots and flaked out on the grass for half an hour. It was bliss. The sun was shining, the landscape magnificent, and we were loving life. Then the time came to get up and walk again. The smugness evaporated. The last 10 kms were really tough going for me and my legs and back ached throughout. I found it mentally and physically hard going, and just wanted to dump my bag and sleep at the side of the road. But we kept going and reached Olveiroa after 4pm. I can’t describe how hungry we were at this point. Karen and I ate two dinners each in the space of an hour. We may have had a glass or two of Rioja. There was a little bit of slumming here: a bed in a dorm, as we’d arrived late and hadn’t booked ahead. One shower between 8 people. I’m not a fan of communal sleeping – I've had the Interrailing experience in my twenties and now I like my comfort. But I was so exhausted that sleep wasn’t a problem that night. However, I booked ahead for a private room in a hostel at our next stop in Muxía.

Day 3: Olveiroa to Muxía, 856 kms….. Oh okay 39 kms
Day 3 holds one of my best memories of the trip. And yes of course it involves food, but more on that later. It was also, without question, the hardest day. I blame John Brierley. Like most other pilgrims on the route, we were using his Camino guidebook, and up until day 3 it had been accurate and really useful. His observations were spot on and his landmarks kept us on the right track. Until day 3. According to his book, this section is approx. 32 kms. Slightly shorter than the day before, so psychologically we were raring to go at 6am and looking forward to arriving in Muxía and being beside the sea for the first time this trip. But as it turns out, this particular route is actually 39 kms. We had a FitBit which tracked our distances and on this day, it didn’t tally. We realised at about 3pm when we stopped for a coke, under the impression from the guidebook that we had only 4 more kms to go, that this was not the case. Google maps told us that there was, in fact, 11 kms left to get to Muxía. I couldn’t put in print the words I bestowed on poor Mr Brierley’s head at that moment.

Not to libel John Brierly (I'm over it now. No really...) there is a fairly good explanation for this. The typical pilgrim route from Olveiroa is straight to Finisterre (32 kms in total), with fewer people taking the diversion, as we did, via Muxía. In his defense, John Brierley’s book takes the typical route to Finisterre, ending his journey in Muxía, so the final part of his route was in reverse to ours, and involved a different course for a time. I imagine the discrepancy happened at this point. So just be aware of this if you’re thinking of following in our footsteps.

And now for the good stuff. I’d highly recommend this wildly beautiful coastal route, but maybe split this section of the route over two days. The landscape is really picturesque, particularly when you finally get your first glimpse of the sea.

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The highlight of this day for us was a unique one, and one which holds a special memory in my heart. This day’s walking fell on Easter Saturday, and as a result, many cafés and restaurants were closed. We ended up walking for about 13 kms with just some nuts, fruit and bottles of water to keep us going. We reached Dumbría at about 10am – ravenous and hopeful that a feast awaited us here. And it did, in the most unexpected place. We wandered through the town and didn’t see a soul. It looked completely deserted and everywhere was closed. At this point we were starting to panic a little as the next town was quite a distance away and we were out of supplies. As we were exiting the town I saw an older man sweeping up outside a bar (I cannot recall the name, nor can I find any reference to it online). As he went inside, we gingerly pushed the door open and he smiled at us. In my very basic Spanish I asked him was it open and could we have a coffee. He welcomed us warmly and invited us in. I then asked him was it possible to have something to eat for breakfast. He asked what we would like and I asked if a Spanish omelette with bread was possible. He said it was very possible and asked us to sit down and make ourselves comfortable. He had no English and I have basic Spanish but we managed to communicate throughout. He brought delicious cafés con leche and some water and then disappeared off into what we can only assume was his home, attached to the bar. He proceeded to make a tortilla española for us from scratch in his own kitchen, popping out every now and again to see if we needed anything. He emerged after about twenty minutes and presented us with the most amazing tortilla I’ve ever seen. Oozing with olive oil, perfectly cooked with melt-in-your-mouth potatoes and onions. And a big basket of crusty bread.

I cannot describe how good this meal was, and not just because we were starving. It was the most perfect example of a tortilla and we told him so, saying it was the best one in Spain. He just laughed. At this point a few locals had popped into the bar for coffee and were amused by the three very grubby and tired looking hikers tucking into a feast. In a bar. It was just one of those perfect moments: all the tiredness from the morning had evaporated and we were being treated like kings by this wonderfully kind gentleman. He brought more coffees, then gave us some cake and biscuits. It was the feast of a lifetime and I will never forget it.

It was a particularly hot day that day so the last 11 kms were tough going.. The small towns and villages we walked through that day were particularly quaint and rural and we met some interesting characters, not least these little guys taking a stroll down a main street.

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We were greeted warmly everywhere we went and were even invited to a ‘grande fiesta’ that evening by an elderly man as we strolled through a tiny village. The landscape was lush and gorgeous, the sky was blue, the small towns were very picturesque and we were almost at the sea – life was pretty good in the overall scheme of things.

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And it just got better when we finally arrived in Muxía. And what an entrance to a town. There is a (very long) boardwalk along the magnificent seafront which brings you right to the centre. We were exhausted but so happy to finally be there. We had booked into Albergue Bela Muxia which was the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at. We were greeted by the nicest older man on reception who made us feel so welcome and was a fountain of knowledge about the town, giving us some recommendations on great places to eat. We had great fun with him, laughing as he tried to pronounce Aoife’s name, then gave up and informed her he was going to call her Jessie :) We had booked three beds in a four-person dorm so I asked could we pay for the fourth bed to avoid having to share. He said he would just charge us for three beds but would block off the fourth bed so no-one else could check in – a nice and much appreciated gesture. He was such a warm and friendly character, and a great ambassador for this lovely town.

The hostel itself is really modern and spotlessly clean. I cannot describe how good it felt that particular evening to throw off my hiking boots and have a long steaming shower. We bought some beer and ice-cream and I sat outside on the terrace and watched the world go by, the burning pain in my legs soon forgotten. We ate in a wonderful tapas restaurant recommended by the receptionist: O Porto close to the seafront. The food was fantastic, particularly the local seafood. It was so fresh. We ordered a vat of prawns, which poor Aoife spent about 25 minutes de-shelling for her more squeamish companions. That night we slept like the dead.

 

Day 4: the final trek to Finisterre – 31 kms


Our last day’s hiking started with a moonlit walk along the coast at 6am. It was strikingly beautiful and so peaceful. Eventually we turned off the coast road and headed for the hills through some very charming hamlets. Directions were a little more difficult to follow this day: as I mentioned already John Brierley visited Finisterre first, and then walked to Muxía. We were doing the opposite, which involved having to start from the end of his guidebook and read his directions for the final day’s trek in reverse. Great fun!

Needless to say we got a bit lost over the first hour or two. Up to this point, we had been following the Camino shells, which clearly point the route pilgrims are to take. However at this point, the shells started pointing in an upwards direction (whaaat??) with the M for Muxía and F for Finisterre not always visible, especially in the early morning light. See what I mean – here we have arrows pointing in both directions. A tad confusing no?
 

But we eventually found our track and began the last leg of our journey. The sun was coming up as we made our way through a wooded area – the hill felt like a mountain but the view made it a little easier.

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Our final day’s walking fell on Easter Sunday. We hadn’t really taken into consideration that many restaurants and cafés would be closed on this day. We knew we had a long walk before we reached the first major town and our first stop-off for breakfast. We just didn’t realise quite how long that walk would be. 17 kms to be exact. We had completed about 11 kms and descended ravenous and tired on a small village which was mentioned in our guidebook as having a café. It was closed. A small meltdown followed, which may have involved the dramatic throwing of a backpack on the ground, saying ‘I can’t walk any more without food’… A ten minute roadside rest followed. Still not feeling particularly chatty, I sought solace in Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish. That album saved my life and got me to the top of an endless hill without crying. Headphones off, I joined my friends again. Sanity (and perspective) was restored.

At 17 kms a beacon of light lay ahead – a restaurant -  open and packed with people, mostly walkers, coming from both Muxía and Finisterre. I cannot describe how happy we were to finally sit down and eat. And my god did we eat. Tortillas, baskets of bread, chips, cake, multiple coffees, chocolate. We stayed for over an hour and then hit the road for the final leg of our journey to the ‘end of the world’. And what a gorgeous route this is. We hit the coast again and were greeted by this magnificent sight. Almost there.

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We got to the outskirts of Finisterre by 4pm and checked into our lovely hotel which was located right on the sea – Hotel Playa Langosteira. We had a huge triple room with bathroom and a terrace with sea views for €65 per night. Unbelievable value. It’s not fancy but it’s really bright and clean, and the rooms were great. Breakfast was also included in the price. We showered, rested our legs for an hour, and then headed for the beach at Finisterre to watch the sun go down. It was a special evening, sitting there on the beautiful white sand on an almost deserted beach with two of my favourite people in the world, looking at this view and with a bottle of wine to celebrate.

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It was a wonderful four days and my memories are now only happy ones (the other ones make good stories though…) Each day was different and the landscape so varied. We met wonderful people and each meal was a feast. Note to self: if you’re planning on doing it, choose your travel partners wisely. Or do it alone. It can be an intense experience, and tiredness and hunger do strange things to people, so be prepared for anything. I chose well and they’re still talking to me so it’s all good :) 

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