The lady who sat down at my desk was large and impeccably well dressed. She was in her mid sixties and her well groomed hair was silver with a blue tinge to it which only ladies of that age seem to achieve. She wore a watered silk dress of deep blue set off by many strands of gold around her neck and even more on her well manicured, puffy, fingers. “Can I help you?” I enquired. “I’ve come for my Compostela with my husband,” she replied. With that she handed over her Credencial or Pilgrims’ Passport. I went through the routine first confirming her name. “Maria Angeles Rodriguez Garcia?” “Yes,” she nodded. Then looking at the stamps on her passport I said,” You started your pilgrimage in Ferrol on the Camino Inglés?” I enquired. “Yes,” she nodded. “Did you walk all the way? Did you only travel on foot?” “A pie” (on foot) was her quick reply. “Could you fill in this form please?” I continued.
But if the terminology is different from country to country one thing which unites all pilgrims at the end of the road in Santiago is their possession of a Pilgrim Passport or Credencial full of the stamps they have collected along the way. They need this record of their journey to sleep for a few euros in the huge network of albergues along the routes. They also need it if they wish to get the traditional certificate, the Compostela in Santiago. For some this is just a piece of paper which holds no importance. For others it is a very significant symbol of the journey they have made and the effort it took. Compostelas in some form or another have been issued for 300 years. To obtain the Compostela pilgrims need to have walked or rode on horseback the last 100kms or to have cycled the last 200kms into Santiago. Stamps or sellos are very easy to get and pilgrims usually get one where they sleep and in a café or restaurant along the way.
The lady handed me back her form. I gazed at her credencial again. The stamps were all there. However I know the Camino Inglés very well. It is a tough little route with considerable bite in places. “Had this manicured lady really walked to Compostela?” I wondered to myself. “Que tal el Camino Inglés?” I enquired how she had found the route. “Bien” she said, not giving much away. “You walked all the way?” My fingers walked across the desk in case there was any doubt what I meant. “A pie” she said again. I decided to enquire just a little further without appearing to be a smart Alec. “This stage between Betanzos and Hospital de Bruma” I pointed to the two sellos, “Did you walk that stage too?” My reason for asking is that 11 kms before Bruma there is a steep ascent which takes the best part of an hour. If this woman attempted it she would need oxygen and possibly a helicopter. My question hung in the air. At that point her husband, the Varón, approached. They exchanged a few words. He fixed me with a stare and said, “Hemos andado toda la ruta” confirming they walked all the way and defying me to say otherwise. I reminded myself that we are not the police.
So fellow pilgrims when you reach Santiago and someone asks you if you have walked all the way don’t put your feet on the desk and say “look” as I felt like doing, just understand that some people don’t!
However the confusion about gender terms and the heated arguments about who walked where and when did nothing to dampen the immense pleasure of meeting to many pilgrims during my 5 weeks there. During that time all pilgrim records since the middle ages were broken. We issued 2,500 Compostelas, one day, we were going at a rate of 220 per hour, we passed the 200,000 barrier which will be hard to beat in future. On one weekend 12,000 young people arrived. It was hot and got hotter. But I have many memories of these weeks…
A final word about the growing respect I have for the people who have limited time to walk to Compostela because of work or family commitments. In the main they are Spanish and mostly they walk from Sarria just over the 100 kms limit. These are the ones the long distance walkers disparage. “Tourigrinos” we’ve all called them. No doubt some are and no doubt some use buses or cars to collect sellos. But there is no doubting the evidence of my own eyes as I’ve seen them limp into the office in a state of exhaustion with feet covered in blisters and tendons strained but every one of them says “It was worth the pain”. Their chests swell with pride when they get their Compostela. I’m left in no doubt they are as much pilgrims as anyone else.
But there are exceptions and as the lady in the blue silk dress walked away with her husband both with their Compostelas in hand I wondered what the point of having it is if you haven’t earned it? That's their problem.