When Eric and I approached Santiago de Compostela two years ago, the crowds of people around us grew by the day, as did their anticipation. Together we counted down “the last hundred” kilometers to Santiago, where the remains of Saint James waited for us in an enormous cathedral. On the morning of our arrival in the holy city, we left before dawn to get there in time for the daily pilgrims’ mass, and to see the swinging butafumeiro.
It was thrilling.
But then, the next morning, Eric and I again woke at dawn, strapped on packs, and passed through a sleeping city. We were still headed west.
Why? That’s a question many of our pilgrim friends asked us, and something I’ve heard often since then.
Fewer than 10% of pilgrims who arrive in Santiago walk the additional 90 kilometers to Finisterre. Some of the rest are limited by time, and based on the conversations I had, many of the rest didn’t see a reason to continue. After all, Santiago is the historic destination, and where we get the Compostela. This is the Camino de Santiago, not the Camino de Finisterre. Why keep walking?
I can see their point. But for me, the Atlantic Ocean was always the goal. And it isn’t quite accurate to say that Santiago is the historic destination. After all, the residents of the Iberian Peninsula made spiritual journeys to Finisterre for hundreds of years before Pelayo unearthed a grave under a star.
It’s true. The Santiago pilgrimage, like many Christian traditions, borrowed heavily from the cultural traditions in place before it. (For further reference, see the origins of Christmas trees and Easter bunnies.) Celtic pagans had journeyed west to make sacrifices at the Ara Solis temple on the point of Cape Finisterre* for centuries before the Romans left the Italian peninsula, and so by the time the Spanish bishop established Santiago as a prime pilgrimage destination, the local Celtic population had a long history and familiarity with the tradition of traveling toward “the place where the sun died.”
Not that I walked to Finisterre because of the pagan tradition, any more than I walked to Santiago because of the Catholic one. I went because I’d already walked more than 900 miles, and it seemed like an epic journey west should end with my feet in the ocean. Where, as poet David Whyte says, there is “no way to your future now but the way your shadow could take, walking before you across water, going where shadows go.”
I wanted to walk until I couldn’t walk anymore.
And so that’s what I did. Those last four days** were the most peaceful, contemplative, and fun days of my Camino journey. The crowds disappeared, and the smaller groups of us who were still walking bonded over long hours on quiet trails, and even longer dinners in small villages. My body was exhausted and ready to be done. But my soul longed for the ocean, and the place where my feet reached the water.
Still not convinced the extra 90 kilometers are worth it? Check out this video from a Camino pilgrim who brought a drone to capture the view from above. Stick it out until the end, at the point of Cape Finisterre itself.
And then tell me how this is not the most fulfilling, compelling end to a long-distance walk you’ve ever seen.
What’s your experience? Did you walk to Finisterre? Why or why not? Was it worth it?
* Finisterre (“end of the earth” in Latin) is also called Fisterra in the native Galician language. It can all be very confusing.
** Most pilgrims walk from Santiago to Finisterre in three days, but because of where the towns and albergues are located, it requires walking two 35-kilometer days in a row. I had no interest in pushing that hard at the very end, and we were in no rush. I’d learned by then that “walk your own Camino” meant not trying to keep up with the younger, fitter, faster crowd. If we were meant to see them again, we would. So I planned a more sedate, four-day approach, with a stop in tiny Santa Marina.