Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Coast of Death and Life

For many pilgrims standing at the point at Finisterre is the final end to their journey. Whilst Santiago holds the joy and excitement of arriving at the cathedral and the tomb of Saint James, many keep on walking to this more ancient place. The Romans believed that this was the end of the world. Where heaven meets earth. The place where if you sailed to the horizon your boat would drop off into the eternal abyss. When I gaze at that same horizon I can understand why they thought this and why modern pilgrims feel an almost primeval urge to walk until you can walk no further.
I find Finisterre a strangely underdeveloped little village. It has a few hotels and hostels but the harbour remains very much the work place of small fishing vessels which have plied their trade here for a millennium and beyond. It is messy with all of the smells of diesel oil and rotting fish, discarded ropes and fragments of fishing nets. Every day the seagulls still herald the return of the boats.

As pilgrims walk through Finisterre, past the albergue and up the hill out of town excitement mounts. Everyone I met when I was last there felt it. Near the top the waymark records 0 Kilometres. The end has been reached. The pilgrims I met fell to silence. The little group dispersed. People had their own thoughts. Private reflections on the journey which had gone and perhaps a cocktail of emotions about going back to the life left behind. In a whoop of excitement a boy made a little fire with paper and with great ceremony burned his socks. Although I suspect they may soon have disintegrated anyway we watched as he carried on a pilgrim tradition. Some burned all of their pilgrim clothes and plunged into the sea. The symbolism of leaving pilgrimage behind and beginning the next stage of life cleansed at the end of the world is powerful but I shudder at the thought of trying it myself.
Finisterre is the end of the world and the end of the pilgrimage route, they say. Well perhaps, because the next village round the coast Muxía claims to be the “religious end” to the pilgrimage to Santiago. Whatever the merits of this claim I find the walk round to Muxía beautiful and quite reflective. Muxía is a small fishing village very reminiscent of similar communities on the coast of Scotland. Unlike them however it boasts a miracle. Several actually. “This is the place where the Virgin Mary arrived in a stone boat to encourage St James in his work preaching the Gospel.” The hospitalero explained. “And there on the beach in front of the Church of El Sanctuario de la La Barca lies the evidence.” If you look closely you can imagine that one giant rock might be the upturned hull of a boat. But this is a place of imagination, romance, superstition and folklore. This is the coast where the Pedra de Abalar can be rocked by a group of people standing on it and depending on which way the see-saw falls gives yes or no answers to important questions. Other miraculous properties are said to be held by the Pedra dos Cadris where if you wriggle through the low archway you may be cured of kidney or back problems. In the 18th Century these magic stones were said to have powers of fertility but conception had to take place on the stones themselves. It is understandable that this uncomfortable, tourism averse, practice died out.
There is more to the beauty of the coast line and the rugged people of the fishing villages of Galicia. I have been reading a book loaned to me by Antonio who himself started off life as a fisherman. It is called, “Costa de la Muerte - Historia y and Anecdotario de sus Naufragios” by José Baña Heim.
Often when looking at the history of the sea and its people we can get caught up in the excitement of stories about piracy and smuggling, treachery and daring-do. This coast line has all of these from the tales of locals leading ships onto the rocks with lanterns so they could plunder the shipwrecks, to more modern tales of smugglers bringing in booze, tobacco and sadly latterly narcotics.

There is another side to the story and Antonio gave me the book as a result of conversation we had about his childhood as a small boy being sent out on the fishing boats and how hard the life was. The women waited to see if their husbands would return as this can be a savage coastline with merciless seas. In 1890, for example, the Royal Navy training ship, the Serpent, went down with loss of the lives of 172 boy sailors. To this day the small “Cementerio de los Ingleses” marks the spot at Punta Boi. The author has recorded some 200 shipwrecks over the 100 years to 1987 which resulted in 3,000 deaths. Even today some 20 sailors and fishermen per year lose their lives off of this coast marked by numerous granite memorial crosses . Small wonder that Antonio’s mother with the others in the village waited to see if the ships brought home more than fish in the evening.
These are people who have had more than their fair share of personal and environmental disasters to cope with. At this time when we are thinking about the situation in the Gulf of Mexico we remember that three of the world’s worst oil tanker disasters occurred on this coastline. The last was in 2002 when the tanker, the Prestige, floundered on the Costa de la Muerte the coastline most threatened was around Finisterre and Muxía. People rose to the occasion and thousands of volunteers turned up to help clean up Galicia’s beloved coastline. “Nunca Máis”, “Never Again” became the slogan on posters everywhere some of which can still be seen by pilgrims.

This is the land to which pilgrims have travelled for over 1000 years. For many the end of their pilgrimage on this Coast of Death marks the beginning of a new way of life. From death to life – how could it not be so?


  1. As I read your beautiful post, I realize that I have never left the Camino. Maybe I too should have burnt my clothes and dived (dove?) in the ocean to start new all over again... Instead, it's as if the Camino had entered my bloodstream and wanted to stay there...

  2. Beautiful post, Johnnie...makes me want to walk again! Like Claire, I feel the Camino in my bloodstream. However, when I consider that as a call to live each day as if on the Camino, no matter where I find myself geographically..then the beauty really begins. How fortunate we are to be pilgrims.

  3. a delightful reminder of my October 2009 stroll from SdeC to Fisterra and then Muxia without a map, a fitting end to my first Camino . We did meet briefly at the Confraternity of St James office- Buen Camino