From the start, my decision to visit Santiago de Compostela was rather arbitrary. Since I went through Portugal from South to North, the next logical step was to continue my Northern trajectory into Spain. Prior to arriving, I had few expectations and knew very little about the town aside from the fact that it was the terminus of the Camino de Santiago. I debated walking a section of the Camino, but considering my visa constraints, I preferred to allocate my time elsewhere. Many travelers I'd met in Portugal indicated that a fair portions of the trail were near large thoroughfares and, since I was traveling during the tourist season, the trails would full of pilgrims making the exact same trek.
I’ll save my hiking days for Switzerland.
The city of Santiago de Compostela is quite small and it takes, at best, two days to see just about everything. To get an idea of the size, a lap around the old town center takes less than forty minutes to complete on foot. As I made my way through the city, I was perpetually confounded by the exceedingly erratic layout of the streets that appeared to zigzag throughout the old town. Even after three days, I still found myself getting turned around and walking in the clear opposite direction I intended. At the end of the day, it’s a rather small issue because wandering through Santiago is a remarkably enjoyable experience. The city is well maintained and full of beautiful old churches adorned in elaborate sculptures in nearly every direction.
When I arrived in the city there were two aspects of Santiago that immediately jumped out at me. First off, I could actually speak and understand the language! I need to savor my time here in Spain because this is the only country where I can even attempt to speak the local language. Once I leave, I’ll spend the remainder of my trip either hoping locals understand English or dancing around trying to communicate through charades.
Oh the joys of travel...
My second realization was a source of endless amusement for me - nearly every single person I passed looked like a relative of mine! It was wonderfully comical to see the remarkable resemblance these old men and women had to my family back home. For those of you who do not know, my mom’s side of the family can trace their roots back to Northern Spain. Years ago, my great-grandfather left Spain when he was sixteen years old and set up a new life in Cuba. When Castro came to power, much of my family left Cuba and eventually settled in the US or Puerto Rico. Since much of my great-grandfather’s family stayed behind in Spain, I actually still have relatives living in Gijon, a town just West of Santiago. With any luck, I’m going to each out and see if we can meet up while I’m in the area.
My visit to Santiago happened to coincide with the start of the high tourist season and the city was already full of hikers who just completed the Camino. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the level of tourists inundating the small town, but the silver lining was that I didn’t stand out in the least. Every single pilgrim I came across was decked out head to toe in hiking gear and carried a backpack easily two or three times larger than my own.
If anything, I looked like a local.
While I did enjoy my time in Santiago, my overall impression of the town was uneventful to say the least and I didn’t really find anything truly compelling about the town. Unlike many of the cities I’ve visited so far, by the end of day two, I saw everything there was to see in the city. Nearly every point of interest was some sort of cathedral, monastery, or museum with a deep religious significance. While I hit up all the attractions, I’m not particularly religious, and there are only so many cathedrals one man can take.
In the end, it turned out for the best since a several days were complete washouts thanks to the weather. In such times, I generally turn to my fellow travelers for entertainment, but there was an odd, cliquish dynamic in my hostel. Many of the people were either working or staying at the hostel for months at a time and, since they had spent such an extended period of time in each other's company, they had little incentive to branch out. While I consider myself a talkative person, it took several days to before I could break through the group’s barrier. Eventually, I managed to go bar hopping with the group and they all opened up - it just took more effort that I was expecting.
There were two girls who thankfully did not follow this standard and were immediately social from the get go. The first was a receptionist visiting Santiago from Scotland, and the second, Izabella, a perpetual backpacker from a small town way out in Siberia. Both were great company and although I may not visit Scotland this time around, Izabella does spend a portion of her time in Moscow and speaks fluent Russian. I’ll cross my fingers and hope we can meet up again in Russia, but we shall see.
During my last few days in Santiago I reached out to my relatives in Gijon that I mentioned earlier, Pepin and his wife Carmen. While my aunt and uncle visited them in Gijon several years ago, there is generally minimal contact with this branch of my family tree, so much so that my own mother has never actually met either one in person. Thanks to my uncle, I knew their names, address, and phone number, but considering how last minute everything was, I was skeptical the plans would actually pull through.
Nevertheless, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I have no idea when (or if) I would ever be this close to Gijon again, and even if I did return years from now, there is no guarantee Pepin or Carmen would still be around. I was fearful of communication issues since neither of them spoke a word of English (and my grasp of the language was merely conversational at best), but I made the call and left a voicemail hoping for the best. It must be rather perplexing to get a phone call out of the blue from a remote relative in the States who just happened to be passing through Northern Spain.
“Hi this is Andrew, you’ve never heard or met me before, but I’m a relative of yours from the US and I’m going to be in town two days from now. You want to meet up?
Luckily, my last day in Santiago turned out to be quite exciting. At the recommendation of one of the hostel staff members, I went hiking along the Rio Sarela that runs next to the city center. While the forecast called for rain, there wasn’t a single drop all day and it was the perfect activity to take my mind off of the phone call that I was eagerly anticipating.
Plus, part of the trail was on the Camino de Santiago.
…so technically I walked part of the Camino.
When I returned to the hostel there was still no response from Pepin. Disappointed that my plans may not pan out like I was hoping, I began preparing for my next city, Valencia. Since there wasn’t any reason for me to visit Gijon aside from my family, I’d decided to skip it and head further South. After figuring out all the logistics, transportation, and accommodations for Valencia, I was about to book everything when my phone began vibrating with an incoming call... it was Pepin!
Change of plans, I’m going to Gijon!