There are many official Camino de Santiago routes. Each pilgrimage bares a different flavor – either crossing the edge of the Cantabrian mountains in Northern Spain, or the French foothills of the Pyrenees through Castile and León, or making the long, sun-soaked Northbound ascent of the Spanish or Portuguese interior – but they have one thing in common: all roads lead to Santiago de Compostela. With few exceptions (there are some standalone but nonetheless affiliated paths in Italy), the kilometer signposts steadily count down to the dramatic cathedral in the heart of the Galician city. On any given day, hundreds of backpackers will be gathered in the front courtyard, taking pictures, giving high-fives, and waiting in line to get their certificate of completion.
But then a curious thing happens. The yellow arrows and ubiquitous scallop shell plaques continue to lead willing wanderers west of their triumphant finish line. Not only that, but the distance markers reset their countdown from 89. Unbeknownst to many, this marks the beginning of the 2 – 4 day extension known as the Camino Finisterre. This short bonus camino leads past the fishing village of Fisterra to a lighthouse at the tip of Cape Finisterre on the Northwest coast of Spain. It is here that yet another signpost radiates the ever-so-satisfying zero. It is here that some hardcore pilgrims consider to be the true end to any Camino de Santiago (though in reality, only about 1% make the additional trek). And it is here that pre-Columbian inhabitants of Iberia assumed they were standing at the end of the terrestrial world.
A Brief History of Finisterre, Spain
The Romans bestowed the Latin designation of finis terra ("end of the Earth") to this rocky outcrop at the Northwestern edge of the Iberian Peninsula. But prior to the arrival of the empire, and well before Christianity swept through the region, this place held deeply spiritual significance to its Celtic inhabitants. The Celts, who were referred to as the Gallaeci by Romans, were found to practice animism, or paganism – a belief system grounded in nature. At the westernmost tip of the cape, they built a stone temple, called Ara Solis, in honor of the sun. Here, they would watch in awe as the celestial entity dipped below the horizon, ostensibly dropping into what would eventually be dubbed Mare Tenebrosum (the Sea of Darkness).
Though the conquest over the Celts was complete by the turn of the millennium, references to this Celtic Promontory at the end of the world were made by Roman author and commander Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia) in 77 AD and by Ptolemy (Geographia) in 150 AD. Christianity took hold of the cape throughout the 3rd and 4th centuries, firmly supplanting animism and leading to the destruction of the sun temple. Around the 7th or 8th century, a chapel was built in roughly the same location.
As the Camino de Santiago rose in popularity during the Middle Ages, some pilgrims continued on to the coast to further enhance their pious journey, to collect an emblematic scallop shell as proof of their feat, and perhaps, to inadvertently continue the long-standing sunset tradition. It is uncertain how many people extended their medieval pilgrimage to Cape Finisterre, but eventually, the trail was almost entirely abandoned. That is, until the late 1900s. But the big resurgence came after the release of the 2010 Emilio Estevez-directed film, The Way, captivated audiences, thereby significantly increasing the amount of Camino Francés participants (and by proxy, Camino Finisterre spill overs) in subsequent years.
Somewhere along the line, another fun tradition sprouted up. This one involved the burning of one's clothes (or at least a single item). The walk itself is said to purify the soul (or rid one of their sins), while the sartorial bonfire symbolizes rebirth. These days, the practice is officially disallowed, but people will be people, as is evidenced by small sections of charred rock.
Nowadays, the municipality of Fisterra is a thriving tourist town and active fishing community. Non-pilgrim visitors drive into town for many of the same reasons: to sprawl out on Langosteira beach, to enjoy freshly caught dishes next to the water, to take pictures, and maybe have a coffee or glass of wine, at the Lighthouse of Finisterre (Faro de Fisterra), to gaze out to where we now know North America lies (albeit, far in the unseen distance), and maybe even to keep the inspiring pagan practice alive.
The Geography of Finisterre
Contrary to popular belief, Cape Finisterre (Cabo Finisterre) is neither the westernmost point of continental Europe nor even mainland Spain. The former belongs to Portugal's Cape Roca (Cabo Da Roca), while the latter actually sits just North of Finisterre: Cabo Touriñán. But the visceral impact of standing on the rocky outlet (perhaps perched on the modest summit of Monte do Facho), facing the stiff North Atlantic winds, is undeniable. Objective measurements are a pedantic non-part of the equation. Truly, this is the end of the world.
To add even more mythical, somewhat ominous qualities to Finisterre's reputation, the cape is located along the stretch of Northwestern Spain known as Costa da Morte, which translates as "Coast of Death." This morbid designation indicates that countless ships since the 1500s have succumbed to the capricious waters and unforgiving shoreline in these parts.
My Walk to the End of the World
Last summer, I walked the Camino Portugues from Lisbon to Finisterre. As my mind inevitably wandered throughout those long stretches of solitude, I imagined some important, life-affirming crescendo when I reached the end. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the daily process of the pilgrimage, but I also imagined that scene at the end of The Way (even though it takes place in Muxia) when the main character releases the ashes of his son in equal parts sadness and catharsis. I wondered what parts of myself and my past would evaporate at the world's end. I wondered what sins I was atoning for. I wondered if I might even cry. But reality isn't like the movies. It is more gradually paced, with no orchestral swells or precisely-placed scene transitions. Nature also tends to be indifferent to our fantasies.
The day I walked into the town of Fisterra, it was pouring rain. I hadn't seen a drop since I started my trek one month prior, but on my big finale, it was relentless. All I could do was hide under my poncho, and push hard to the final albergue. I couldn't see much, and eventually, I didn't even care. I was also grumpy because of a dumb fight I'd had with my girlfriend (who met me in Porto to walk the Coastal Way). Couples fight. And traveling couples are prone to some extra bickering. All-in-all, I'd say we do pretty well. But that fateful morning, we had simply had it with each other. As a result, we walked about a half-kilometer apart for the entirety of the final day (not exactly the spiritual vibe I was hoping to get swept up in). Even more comical, we didn't even go straight to the lighthouse. That was deferred until the following day.
Just as sure as the sun sets, it rises anew, which in our case, brought much better weather, and settled temperaments. And so contrary to everything I had imagined about the thrilling conclusion to my first camino, I posed next to the 0-kilometer post clean and energized. Had I blown it? Where was the mud, sweat and tears? Where was the cathartic release? For a moment, I felt remiss. And then, I let that feeling go.
If I sound underwhelmed it's only because I built up silly expectations for what my last steps should have been like. Upon reflection, the real value of a prolonged pilgrimage is connecting with the concrete world, and the wonderfully average lives it intertwines. Yes, Cape Finisterre is a beautiful place. There's no taking away from that. But don't let your Camino de Santiago experience be dictated by the end. Let it be about that never-ending hill, that stubborn blister, that cool German guy you went back and forth with for four days, that evening you scrambled to find accommodations, that perfect little cafe you stumbled upon, the stamps, the wrong turns, the indulging of voracious appetites, the passing head nods, and the "Buen Camino!" exchanges.
My favorite part about Fisterra was hanging around town for three extra days, letting the highs and lows of the journey wash over me in waves. The town is cute, the people are all in good spirits, and the infrastructure is ideally balanced. There are no hectic highways, but there are nice cafes, restaurants, hotels/hostels, and plenty of places to feed the walking addiction (it is seriously difficult to turn off when you're done). I loved my time spent on the Camino Portugues, and I can't wait to begin again this November, when I'll try the typically-crowded Camino Francés during the off-season.