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Monday, 22 August 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 35: Why I quit the Camino Frances

Vilei - Portomarin - 19km (cumulative 777km)
It was a tough one. Not in terms of making the decision to take my leave of the Camino Frances, I'd already given it a twenty-four hour stay of execution and by the time I'd got to Portomarin I'd come to the end of my tether. As I sat waiting for the bus to Sarria - a good 45 minutes - I watched over a hundred fellow pilgrims trudge into town. Portomarin, like Sarria, was a maze of restaurants, bars and, of course, albergues - dozens of them. It was one o'clock in the afternoon, they were all filling up fast. 
When the bus finally arrived I climbed aboard without the slightest tinge of regret, my only concern was that leaving the Camino only 90km from its goal might have a detrimental impact on my research but the truth is that if you ain't with a family by the time you get to Sarria and the magic 100km point, then you're going to be on your own all the way to the Plaza Obreidero; tough luck, loser. Emotionally? Well, having walked the Camino Frances in 2012 I know from personal experience that the final walk-in to Santiago can be a disappointment, you're just one face amongst the crowds, another pair of boots on a long-line of pilgrims queuing to get into the city. And if you're hoping to seek spiritual solace in the cathedral you might as well forget that too; prepare to be battered and bruised by hordes of ignorant smart-telephone-wielding tourists taking pot-shot photos of anything that remotely resembles a Jacobean relic. 
You'll hate the bastards. And you'll hate them all the more when you remember the simple solitude of the church at Eunate where you waited for an hour for the guardian to open it up. Or the golden swathes of the Meseta where you felt alone and closer to God - or whatever spiritual supreme-being floats your boat. Or the moment you watched the sun rise over the Montes de Leon. There's nothing you'll want more that to pack up your rucksack, pull on your boots and get the hell out of town, probably to Finisterre. 
But just in case there is any residual desire to commune with St James - not at the top of my list of favourite saints - I can rest easily with the knowledge that I'll be going to Santiago anyway, only just by another route. And not on a Saturday or Sunday.
No, my big issue here is not with the hundreds of pilgrims who join the Camino Frances at Sarria, that being the point at which, if they make it to Santiago, they qualify for their compostela. It's not with the newbies with their clean-as-a-whistle rucksacks and, on occasion, sounds blaring from smart-phone speakers although they piss me off so much I refuse to respond to their greetings. I don't have a problem with the groups of kids (i.e. under-thirties who are determined to have a good time over a long weekend at the height of the holiday season; they have as much right as me to be here and I'd rather they were out in the great outdoors than wasting away in front of a computer screen in the grim indoors. I've no time for the solemn pilgrims who wants the way to her/himself, even when that solemn pilgrim resembles me. 
So it was a tough one because it sort of defines me as an elitist misanthrope, a pilgrim snob who refuses to get down and get jiggy with the masses. My decision to quit says much more about me than them and it also, I fear, speaks volumes about the nature of my research. 
It also suggests that I'm more anti-pilgrim than pilgrim.

I took the bus to Sarria and waited two hours for a train that would take me, eventually to Vigo. Both the bus and railway stations are little more than 500 metres from the Camino but they might as well be on the other side of the world. And as I sat on the platform, a curious sense of relief swept over me; it was as if I'd been hiking under an enormous pressure which was now suddenly removed. For five minutes the railway line followed the route of the Camino Frances before it broke out and filed south into the Rias of Galicia. And like the dawdling train, within a short space of time I, too, had put the Camino behind me.

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