Encounter with the Secret Pilgrim

I had heard rumours of a so-called secret pilgrim, or hidden pilgrim, from the concierge at our hotel in Santiago. It was all a bit cryptic, so I decided to find out more. But first, it was time to visit the museum and tour the cathedral – including hugging the Saint.

Santiago cathedral

This latter is another pilgrim tradition. Saint James’ relics are contained in a large life-sized reliquary in the cathedral. And by climbing the stairs behind the altar and under the watchful gaze of a member of the clergy (no selfies allowed) you can embrace the jewel-encrusted golden reliquary.

St James reliquary

And then we explored the rest of the Cathedral, finding niches and side rooms richly decorated with Camino symbolism.

Santiago cathedral

The Cathedral museum, housed in the former Benedictine monastery next door – was the very monastery from which Dom Salvado came to Perth in Western Australia to found New Norcia – itself the subject of an Australian pilgrimage route. The museum held a wide range of art objects and religious objects – chalices and the like, and statues formerly mounted on the Cathedral, and a couple of spare Botafumieros that have been used over the past few centuries.


We met up with Camino friends Dekel and Jack once again. They had walked to Finiserre and Muxia and had returned to Santiago before departing back to the UK. We shared a wonderful meal and drinks with them before parting. It is definitely worth hanging around in Santiago for a few days to meet up with those wonderful people we had met along the way.

Jack and Dekel

Later in the evening, it was time to seek out the hidden pilgrim. He was a shadowy figure, only seen at night. And there is a story attached.

Legend has it, that centuries ago a monk fell in love with a nun and planned to elope. He told her he would dress as a pilgrim (great disguise as there would have been thousands of pilgrims as they are today), but at the appointed hour she didn’t show, so he appears every night hoping for her to turn up. It is, of course, a trick of the shadows formed by the base of the lightning conductor and his staff is the shadow if the support column for the Berenguela clock tower – but it makes for a good romantic – even gothic – story! It was made all the better for the late evening gloom and the rain that fell steadily throughout my search for the pilgrim.

Secret Pilgrim

It was time to celebrate with a Tarte de Santiago – the famous Galician almond cake that provided excellent sustenance along our journey. We would not be eating many more of these once we left Spain, so it seemed a fitting conclusion to our Camino. Next stop Madrid, then Rome!

Tarte de Santiago


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Camino Kilometre Zero at Finisterre and on to Muxia


We felt that our Camino would not be quite complete without a visit to Kilometre Zero at Finisterre, and a side visit to Muxia. Finisterre is reputedly the place at which the boat carrying St James’ body landed on the coast of Spain, and the place where the local pagan queen denied permission for his burial, ordering that he not be buried within three days walk of the coast – and hence why he was taken inland to Santiago de Compostela – to lie beneath the field of stars.

We took a bus tour – partly because we were running up against visa deadlines, partly because after 42 days walking it was nice to rest, and because the tour would be informative about what we were seeing.

Finisterre – which literally translates as the ‘end of the earth’, or more poetically, the ‘end of the world’ – was indeed what the Romans considered to be the end of the known world at that time. From here there is almost nothing but ocean between us and the Americas. Consequently, the place developed a mystique – especially when there was an ocean fog, where people could literally sail away and be swallowed up in the mist. It was considered a gateway to the underworld or the afterlife.

The area was once inhabited by the Artabri – a Galician Celtic tribe – who were Sun worshippers and a ritual site has been identified nearby with that practice. And there is archeological evidence of continuous habitation on the peninsula since around 1000BC.

The Faro, or lighthouse was built in 1853 and is still in use today – albeit with updated lighting! And it is open to visitors.

Faro de Finisterre

There is a tradition that pilgrims would come to this place and burn their clothes (a practice now outlawed) perhaps as a ritual of purification, or as an actual disposal of clothes that by now would be pretty rank if you hadn’t washed them regularly along the way. It was also a place to collect your scallop shell as proof that you had completed your pilgrimage. Today pilgrims start with the shell to identify themselves as pilgrims.

This place also marks the true end of the Camino – with the 0.00km marker. It is the Spanish equivalent to Lands End or John-O-Groats, although there is another zero kilometre marker in Madrid – from which distance from Madrid is measured right across Spain.

Zero km marker

We stopped for lunch in the main town. Despite us being in a fishing port, we had steak and salad, served by a surly youth, for whom our lunch was clearly an unwelcome interruption to his day. However, we did have a lovely view out over the harbour with its colourful fishing boats and enormous seagulls.

Finisterre fishing boat




Muxia, for its part, is reputedly the last place that St James preached, and where he prayed for guidance on how to convert the locals. At this point, he had a dream which took him on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he was subsequently martyred.

There is an ancient cross to mark the place, just near the church. The town of Muxia is named for the monks that established a nearby Benedictine monastery.

Cross at Muxia

The church at Muxia is known as the Santuario da Virxe da Barca, which translates roughly as ‘The Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Boats’. It was badly damaged by fire from a lightning strike in 2013 which destroyed the sacristy; the main roof; and the ornate baroque central altarpiece. The church has since been repaired, although it wasn’t open when we visited (I managed a photo through the window). According to Wikipedia:

“The sanctuary was originally a pre-Christian Celtic shrine and sacred spot. This part of Spain was resistant to conversion to Christianity, and was only converted in the 12th century. The Christians built a hermitage on this location at first, and later the present church in the 17th century.”

Church at Muxia

The church houses quite a collection of model fishing boats – these are brought into the church by local fishermen to seek divine protection while they are out on the ocean. It is, ironically, a form of sympathetic magic that has been invoked since pre-Christian times, or perhaps a kind of Dorian Gray for boats.


Muxia is located on the Costa de la Muerte – the coast of death – so-named because of the large number of shipwrecks along the treacherous coastline. So it is perhaps not too surprising that sailors in the local fishing community seek divine protection.

Such divine protection was not so forthcoming on 13 November 2002 for the oil tanker ‘Prestige’ which ran aground at Muxia, spilling some 20 million US gallons/75 million litres of oil into the Atlantic and along the coast from Portugal to France, with Muxia being the worst hit. A massive cleanup followed, and a large compensation payout was made to the local fishing communities, but many small coastal fishing and farming villages reliant on coastal industries and tourism were badly affected by the spill.

A monument has been erected up the hill from the church to recall the incident. The monument takes the form of a broken rock – symbolic of the break in the ship, the wound to the sea and also of how the disaster divided the community through the economic hardship engendered by the damage to the area. The monument is called “A Ferida” and was sculpted by local artist Alberto Bañuelos.

Monument to the tanker Prestige

There was also a kiosk selling locally made lace – it is always fascinating to watch a skilled lacemaker at work – such nimble fingers and such fine work!


The tour also took us to a waterfall – reputedly the largest such fall in Spain.


But the tranquil bay was visually far more interesting, if less dramatic …


Then it was on to see the great Horreo at Carnota. It is apparently the largest in Galicia, and our guide enthusiastically explained how it worked to dry the corn cobs and maize. They were built narrow enough to get air flow around all of the corn cobs, and the mushroom-capped stilts deterred vermin – rats and the like – from entering and spoiling the crop. As for the size? This one was built and owned by the church, and held the tithe tributes from the local market gardeners. By tradition, each farmer was to give ten percent of their crop to the church, who would store it and use it to feed the clergy, the pilgrims and the poor – likely in that order. It was also a safe store in case of crop failure. Horreos are a significant feature on the Galician landscape, although similar grain stores and drying houses can be found throughout France and rural UK.

Horreo de Carnota

And finally, we came back to Santiago de Compostela. Tomorrow it will be time for another visit to the Cathedral and to search for the Hidden Pilgrim!


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Santiago moments, and an encounter with the Botafumeiro

We were looking forward to seeing the famous Botafumeiro, but we wanted to make sure we had our Compostelas, or certificates of completion. So first thing, we headed down to the Pilgrim Office to receive our Compostela – the certificate we receive to mark the conclusion of our pilgrimage. There are three categories of pilgrim: those who walk for religious reasons; those who walk for less specific spiritual reasons; and those who walk for sport, health or just to see the sights. For us, it was, I suppose, a spiritual reason, though we are not religious by inclination.

Compostelas with shells

The hospitalero carefully examined the rows of stamps on our credential, to verify we had walked at least the minimum 100kms. She asked where we had started, and we told her that we had started at St Jean Pied de Port, though we didn’t walk the Meseta, but walked the rest. She nodded, and carefully inscribed my name in latin – Hieronymus – like the painter. As she handed us our Compostelas, she smiled and said “congratulations, well done!” And the tears welled up as the scale of our achievement became real.

We took some time out to compose ourselves in the adjacent Pilgrims chapel, before heading out to meet with fellow Australian pilgrim Alan, one of our Camino friends. We shared a breakfast and coffee. Soon, he departed for the airport to begin his journey home.

Alan Garside

Then it was time for us to head off to find the Correos (Post Office) to retrieve the parcel we had sent from Pamplona, and then on to retrieve the bag we had sent from St Jean seemingly an age ago. They have a great service – you can send a suitcase or bag from St Jean Pied de Port and they will hold it in Santiago for up to 2 months without extra charge. We were directed to an Albergue a few streets away to collect it. And within a few minutes, we had our bag.


We got it back to the hotel and opened it up. What’s with all this stuff?? Did we really think THAT was an essential item? Why did we pack this?? And so it went. Then it dawned on us. We had changed. The Camino had changed us. And we realised that in our busy lifestyle, we accumulate so much stuff that is simply unnecessary. Having lived out of a backpack for six weeks, we realised just how little we actually needed on a day-to-day basis. I also noted that my boots were worn down, and Sharon’s walking shoes had worn right through the sole. And then I thought about how the journey had shaped us as we had shaped our shoes.

And I was reminded of a story I once wrote – one of my Stranger Tales – about the three kinds of wear:

                                   Three Ways of Wearing

The stranger went down into the village for he was unsure about the direction of his destination. In the main square there were few people, but they were intent on their business and paid no heed to him.

All, save one, a woman who was sewing a quilt at a small table. She had glanced at him once or twice when it seemed as though his gaze would not be caught. At length the Stranger set out across the square, as though looking for something. A sign, perhaps.

She beckoned him over, held captive by the mound of fabrics around her. “I can tell you where you want to go” said the woman. Startled, the Stranger turned to her, quizzically, for how could she know where he wanted to go before he’d had the chance to tell of his journey.

“Oh I can tell you where you want to go, but it will cost you.” She said. He reached for the purse that hung by his side “Not that stuff – I have no use for money.” “Then what use is it talking to you?” asked the Stranger. “I want something closer to you,” she said. “But I have nothing of value,” said the Stranger. “That depends…” said the woman. “What I want,” she continued ” is something you have worn.” “Ah,” said the Stranger “that depends on what you mean by ‘worn’. For there are three ways of wearing.”

The Stranger reached into his bag and removed a sock which showed daylight where once there had been a heel. “First, an item can be worn out, like this sock – it has been abraded by the world with which it has made contact until it becomes weak and no longer provides protection.” He made as though to put it on. “Then the item itself can be worn, meaning I can wear it, in the sense that I can fit it to my foot.”

“And what of the third?” Asked the woman. “Ah that is the greatest loss,” said the stranger “For in wearing the sock, the sock wears me – I bear the marks of the creases in the sock, and the sock has abraded my skin until it is quite shiny and raw – indeed I have left much of myself in this sock.” “Then give me the sock, for you have no further use of it,” said the woman. The Stranger shook his head sadly and said: ” That I can never do, for this sock bears witness to my journey. It is the only reminder I have of all the miles I have walked in search of my destination.

“Well, that is all the more reason why I must have the sock,” she said, and with that, the woman snatched the sock from the Stranger’s hand and stashed it quickly beneath her pile of fabric. “Now tell me of your journey, so that your sock may continue to bear witness for generations to come. The Stranger sighed deeply, for he knew there would be no arguing with her.

And he sat down on his heels and began to tell her of his travels. At length, the woman nodded, satisfied, and said “We have made a bargain, and now it is my turn. You should seek lodgings nearby and return in three days and I shall tell you how to complete the next stage of your journey”.

The Stranger found lodgings on the outskirts of the village, for now, he was bound to await the return of the quilter. On the third day, he went out to the Square – by now it was crowded and the quilter was nowhere in sight, for it was market day and before long dust filled his eyes and nose, and the sounds of spruikers, dogs and exotic birds filled the air.

At length he stopped at a tea tent for refreshment, searching the crowd and swallowing his growing disappointment with each mouthful of tea. As he rose to leave he felt a tug at his sleeve. A small boy beckoned and led the Stranger away through the crowd between the cacophony of tents and stalls, people and animals. Then abruptly, through a break in the crowd, he saw a pile of fabric around the knees of the quilter. The woman finished her thread before looking up at him – directly into his eyes.

“You have given freely of your memories, and now it is my turn,” she said. The woman gave him a square of fabric that at first glance resembled a geometric blackwork pattern. “This is where you have been – your sock will lead you home as surely as Ariadne’s thread”. And as he examined the pattern he saw that it was a beautifully embroidered map. He thanked her and turned to leave, but she held up her hand: “Wait,” she said, “This will take you home and it will help you recall your journey, but your path lies elsewhere…” and reaching down she handed him a second square – a blank piece of fabric. “This will take you where you need to go.” she said.

“But I don’t understand – you have taken something from me and given me something in return, but how will a blank piece of fabric lead me to my destination?” asked the Stranger. She smiled then, and said “I have taken both something and nothing – you still have your sock, I merely gave it a new context and a new shape. The map you carry is made from the thread comprising the sock but now the thread marks your memories inscribed in fabric. The ‘wear’ has become ‘where’.”

“And what of the second piece?” asked the Stranger “It is for you to give it a new context – already it carries the image of a quilter – the rest is up to you.” And she smiled, and it was a beautiful smile.

I now had my photos and notebooks, and a few days in which to prepare for the next part of our journey. But first, there was something important to do.


Our Camino friend Kathy would be arriving, and we exchanged texts to find out when she would be arriving in the Square. And at the appointed time we went up to the square. It was late afternoon, and clouds hung low overhead. There were a few people milling around as pilgrims do in order to take in the scale of their achievement, and as a way to keep moving when they have reached their destination, in much the way that after a long drive you stop the car, yet the road seems still to be in motion. It is like waiting for the soul to catch up when you have arrived.

Santiago cathedral

There was one lone figure standing still with her backpack, and slowly looking around. Sharon saw her first, and with a shout we ran to her and hugged a deep embrace. We talked a while, then she went to find her apartment, and we arranged to meet for the pilgrim mass at the Cathedral.

Kathy Kolobong

Kathy arrived early, and we were not far behind. She managed to save us a space in the front pew. And the Cathedral filled quickly to capacity. There was singing, and a welcome to pilgrims from many countries – we heard Australia mentioned – and from many starting points, including from St Jean Pied de Port. This was our welcome. The mass was solemn and beautiful. There was a nun leading the singing, and she had a magnificent voice that inspired you to join in with her. The liturgy was in Spanish and mostly unintelligible but the spectacle was moving nonetheless. No filming was allowed during the Mass itself.


As the mass ended, the famed Botafumeiro – the giant thurible (incense burner) – was unfurled, opened and lit with a sense of ceremony. Then eight strong men hoisted it on ropes and swung it almost to the roof. It weighed nearly 100kgs fully fuelled so the swing was spectacular and skillful. It filled the air with incense as the choir filled the air with music. Camera flashes went off and as the Botafumeiro swept past the pews along the aisle across the Nave, a small child crawled out into the aisle fascinated by the swinging object passing a few feet above. We held our breath that rope holding the fiery brazier would hold, until at length the swing was slowed, one monk detached from the group and waited for the thurible to slow, then in one last sweeping motion he grabbed the side and swung the Botafumeiro to a standstill. And the congregation erupted into spontaneous applause. It was breathtaking!

We headed out for dinner together. It was wonderful to have someone to share our experience with, and to hear her stories. It is a special experience on the Camino that few would comprehend who have not done it. We walk our own Camino, but there is also the common experience of those who have dared to push themselves into a new space, and arrived successfully at the other end.

Tomorrow we will tour the Cathedral, and museum, and then perhaps take a bus to Finisterre and Muxia.


INDEX – If you wish to follow our journey from the start, or jump in to any of the Camino posts,
here is a link to the index page – also found in the navigation bar at the top of this blog