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The very first question a modern pilgrim has to answer when he or she decides to hike the Camino de Santiago is whether or not you want to participate in the July 25th Holy Day celebrations in Santiago de Compostela. As you may or may not know, the 25th of July is the holiest day of the year in Galicia in northwest Spain. That is the day that the body of St. James–for whom the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela honors–was said to be discovered by the hermit, Pelayo, 800 years after his decapitation.
The celebration on the night of the 24th of July is one for the ages. Tens of thousands of people jam this small, provincial town. I’m no big fan of fireworks shows; but this one is in a class of its own, whether you are religious or not. Never have I felt so much solidarity with my fellow humans as I did standing in that renowned square watching this magnificent celebration. Afterwards, there is a huge band party in a smaller square behind the great cathedral in Santiago. The next day there are church services usually attended by the King and Queen of Spain (and occasionally the Pope), as well as rallies on behalf of Galician autonomy. The evening of the 25th there is another Galician folk music festival that is a huge favorite of pilgrims (and dancers!).
As the reader can probably tell, I am highly partial to the Holy Day events of the 24th and 25th of July. But perhaps not all pilgrims want to be so in the midst of the throngs and masses. In that case, they should choose to do the Camino at another time of year. However, if you do prefer to participate in all the events I should give you one warning. The 100 or 200 kilometers before reaching Santiago de Compostela, the Camino is bound to be jam packed, to the point of resembling a refugee crisis. Pilgrims habitually race each other to get spots in albergues. However, this is not as grave as it sounds. If you don’t get a spot in the main albergue, these towns always find alternative arrangements that are adequate. For example, some towns in Galician open their “polideportivos (gymnasiums” to pilgrims. This was actually a treat to me because I’m 7 feet tall and never fit on the bunks in the albergues anyway. But the mattresses in the polideportivos were always plenty long!
Santiago itself is a mass of humanity on display. It can be difficult to find an albergue (especially on Holy Years when the 25th of July falls on a Sunday). Some pilgrims make hotel reservations several months in advance (especially the Germans). However, I found that, except on the Holy Year, if a pilgrim searches around town enough, he or she can find a place to stay at ‘the pilgrim’s rate (5 or 10 Euros per night)’.
Many pilgrims continue from Santiago de Compostela all the way to the ‘End of the World’ at Finistierre on the Atlantic. This is a 61 mile trek and the topography is a bit more demanding. Nonetheless, anybody who has made it all the way to Santiago can surely handle it. Finistierre is an exotic, cosmopolitan city that reminded me a little bit of Key West, Florida.
Altogether, it took me 34 days to do the entire Camino Frances in both 2010 and 2011. The journey to Finistierre can be done in 3 or 4 additional days. Buen Camino!
Bill Walker, author of ‘The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago’, and www.skywalker-pct.com Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010). Walker, who is near 7 feet tall is now working on a book on the subject of height.