After six kilometres we arrived in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where we stopped for coffee and a discussion about the day ahead. I wanted to explore the town without being under the pressure of time, although it became apparent, that my interest in Santo Domingo was not shared by all. It was clear that Sue wanted to pass through it as quickly as possible, in the same way we had done with many other places, and as we left the café I felt that the disharmony between us was evident.
Santo Domingo, the man after whom the town is named, was an eleventh-century Benedictine monk who devoted his life to caring for pilgrims. However, what piqued my interest was a story featuring a young German pilgrim who paid the price for rejecting the local innkeeper’s daughter in favour of continuing his pilgrimage. She wasn’t best pleased, and decided to exact her revenge on him by planting a church treasure in his belongings. The crime was duly reported, the young pilgrim was charged with theft, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. All very swift.
His parents, despite their grief, continued their pilgrimage to Santiago, and as they approached the town on their return journey, a voice told them that their son had been saved by Santo Domingo. Hearing this they went to see the judge who had sentenced the young pilgrim to death to tell him that their son was still alive, despite being hanged. The judge, who was in the middle of roasting chickens when he heard the news, was not inclined to believe them. ‘Your son is as alive as these chickens I am going to eat,’ he said. Just at that moment, the chickens he was cooking – a cock and a hen – leapt from the spit and crowed ‘Santo Domingo de la Calzada where the chickens crow after being roasted’. Since then, descendants of the cock and hen remain in residence in the cathedral in celebration of the local legend.
The Cathedral was first on my list of places to visit, but I couldn’t gain access without a ticket; for that I was directed to the tourist office. There, I cast my eyes around at the souvenir collection and found myself particularly drawn to an emerald green rosary. As I touched the cross, tears came to my eyes and I began to realise that I was facing a decisive moment; continue ahead with my comrades or take a risk.
As I walked around the Cathedral my decision became clear. Even though I had only walked six kilometres, and it was still hours before midday, I would stop in Santo Domingo. I accepted that I needed to slow down to really experience here, and to do that I had to take the risk of following my inner compass. Oddly, I also felt it was time to return to the municipal albergue experience. In some ways my Camino had begun to feel less like a pilgrimage and more of a walking holiday – or perhaps I hadn’t learned how to have both. The pilgrimage experience, something that is really personal to each individual in its meaning, was what I had come to experience. Although the social contact was important, I wondered if it took me away from my deeper journey, or maybe I just hadn’t learned how to navigate between them. My feelings had guided me to a deeper longing, and I sensed that my Camino at that point was about following the courage of my heart.
At the agreed meeting time, I returned to tell the others my decision, which they accepted without question. Elisabeth had returned with pastries and we gorged on those before saying goodbye. I didn’t know if we would meet again, it seemed unlikely as they would be a whole day’s walk ahead of me. After they headed away I sat outside on a bench wondering how I would kill time until the municipal albergue opened at lunchtime. Not to mention the though of the long day stretching ahead with nothing to do and no friends to do nothing with.
The albergue reception provided a view into the large downstairs dining room with access to a rough and ready garden for relaxing and hanging out washing. Upstairs I walked through the old, empty, dilapidated rooms. It was like going back in time to 1950s Ireland, with brown patterned wallpaper and lino floor covering, threadbare carpet, crooked walls, squeaky floors and stiff water taps. It didn’t feel in any way nurturing or comforting and I noticed how empty I felt after the exhilaration of my earlier decision. The reality of my loss began to sink in fully. I didn’t want to spend any time upstairs so I returned to the relative homeliness of the ground floor dining room. From there I had a good vantage point, and I watched some of the first pilgrims arrive; notable amongst them was the advance party of two who were booking beds for seven men from Friesland (a province in Holland). Such a request got my attention and I knew I would remember them.
I felt more alone than ever as I realised all the familiar faces had gone ahead – not just Manoel, Sue and Elisabeth, but all my other Camino acquaintances. The full impact of my decision hit me and in part, I regretted my decision. It was like beginning all over again. I hadn’t anticipated how vulnerable I would feel without my friends, but at the same time I knew there wouldn’t be anything new without letting go of the old. In the dorm, I felt lost among all the new arrivals with their different languages and I asked two women where they were from without actually being interested in their response. Although they told me they were from Holland, they could have been from Mars for all I cared; my enquiry was merely an attempt to conceal how lost I felt.
As I look back, I realise how important the group was for me. Its protection fortified me until I could set out on my own again. Yet to have remained with the group for longer than was necessary would have masked what I needed to resolve within myself.