On Thursday night I booked into a hotel near the airport and my alarm wakes me on Friday morning at 4.30am. I’m flying north to Santiago in the dark but arrive as the sun rises dramatically over the tarmac.
There’s a airport-bus strike, so four of us share a taxi which conveniently drops us near the cathedral square; so early that even the pilgrims haven’t arrived. I was last here in 2016 after walking 500 miles along the Camino del Norte.
I met an Ecuadorian American at the airport; we shared a taxi and then headed off for breakfast and then browsed a few of the thousands of souvenir shops than line the streets.
I have decided to do a different sort of pilgrimage this year and reserved three nights nights in the Benedictine convent of San Pelayo near the cathedral.
It’s shockingly austere, a veritable fortress on the outside. My map app directs me to a shadowy archway where I ring a bell; a sister appears on the other side of a metal grille. She directs me to a wooden door and I walk in and up the stairs.
I was about to abandon my pack on a bench, when the Residencia door opens and I’m ushered by Hermana Monserrat, a sister dressed in a black and grey habit and made most welcome.
My en-suite room is airy with tall, shuttered windows overlooking the garden, with views of the cathedral towers over tiled roofs.
Having settled in, I need to do some last minute shopping; a sun-hat and packable-mini rucksack and thankfully find both in the same shop.
My four- course lunch is eaten alone in a windowless dining room, served by a smiling nun. Surreal, like the last scenes of 2001 Space Odyssey, I half expect to see my younger self through the adjoining doorway.
Then I lie on my bed and watch the light and reflections cross the bare white walls and am reminded of the subtle interiors of the Dutch Old Masters. It is silent except for the garden water-sprinkler and the thunderous quarter-hourly cathedral bells.
After a long siesta I head into the cathedral square. The cathedral seems to be shut for renovations, but the cobbles are strewn with happy lounging pilgrims celebrating the end of their journeys. The sound of Galician bagpipes drift from a gateway and I feel envious and fraudulent wearing my leggings and walking sandals.
Supper is at 9pm with a Spanish guest for company; another feast of homemade tortilla, salad and sardines. We muddle through a conversation in English and Spanish; he’s an industrial electrical engineer studying theology.
I’m tired and go to bed at 10.30pm, armed with ear plugs to counteract the cathedral bells and the distant carousing of pilgrims celebrating in the plaza...