Finisterre or The End of the World
Finisterre, Galicia, Spain
“So you’ve never been to the end of the world,” remarked my friend Ethan, as we boarded a bus that would take us to Finisterre -a small outpost on the outer limits of the Galician coast in the northwestern corner of Spain. “The home of powerful spirits,” he read from a guidebook. “The home of local farmers and fisher-folk,” I added. A place that can easily capture your fancy with its low gray skies and small wooden boats.
Finisterre today holds the imagination of most travelers, making it the object of many visits. Its prominence on the coast has made Finisterre a popular destination for backpackers and hikers that migrate religiously to its cliffs and beaches. Boasting over 100 natural beaches, the “Death Coast” in Galicia offers an abundance of trails, campsites, and lighthouses that cater exclusively to eco-tourism. Finisterre stands out as a rocky peninsula, the source of many Pagan and Christian legends, renown for its natural beauty and spectacular sunsets.
After living in a densely populated city like Madrid, the open space of the coast seemed like the ideal place to decompress. We hopped on a bus in CoruÃ±a, and moved from curve to curve like a long metallic caterpillar that unwinds through mounds of indigo, brown and green. The coast is lined with clusters of pine, eucalyptus and chestnut that stretch out beneath the Atlantic sky. Driving through it, I get the sense that we are approaching a place outside of time – a place of menhirs and lost sea gods, where open wood fires and torches once illuminated the way home.
Primitive sun-worshipers were the first to congregate in Finisterre, believing it to be the westernmost edge of the world. Romans referred to this stretch of the Atlantic as the Sea of the Dead, believing that the entrance to Hades was just over the horizon. Medieval Christians soon followed from their pilgrimage to nearby Santiago de Compostela, where they would come to reflect on the souls of the dead. The long frontier with the Atlantic has made Finisterre the end-point of many journeys, a spiritual place where you can feel close to the ocean.
Lunch at a Tavern
Like traveling or reading, eating can be an enlightening experience. When we arrive to the center of Finisterre, we take a walk through the market, imbibing the smells and colors of fresh fish, and homegrown fruits, cereals and vegetables. We glance over a Menu del DÃa in a tavern close to the port, and settle for two large portions of Polbo a feira (“Polbo” is the Galician word for “octopus,” and “a feira” indicates the way it is served with olive oil and red pepper.) We also get two cool glasses of AlbariÃ±o, one of the leading white wines in Galicia. For dessert we have another regional treat: two crepes (filloas) filled with cream, and some freshly brewed coffee, cafÃ© de pucheiro as it is known here, with a few drops of augardente (grapa) to lift our spirits.
The Sacred Mountain
After lunch, we decide to make our way up to the lighthouse. We walk along the edge of the Atlantic up a mountain that is known as Monte Facho. This is where many medieval pilgrims came to get closure after their long journey to the tomb of the apostle Saint James in Santiago de Compostela. This is where the Celts came to practice their cult to the sun and the ocean, and shared in their devotion of stones. Many stones today have become the bearers of a secret language, containing various inscriptions and religious icons that have been hollowed out with time. Christians would later build on Celtic and Roman tradition, sculpting large pieces of granite into crosses (known as cruceiros), and placing them along the sides of roads and shrines to bless travelers on their journey. You can see one of these crosses in front of the church of Santa Maria de Areas, which is located just outside of the town on the way up Monte Facho. Inside the church, you will find another testament to western migration: the figure of Christ, known here as the Cristo da Barba Dourada (translated as the “Christ of the Golden Beard”), is the subject of many processions, and is said to have made its own pilgrimage to Finisterre, carried in by the ocean’s tide.
When we reach the lighthouse at the top of Monte Facho, it becomes clear that Finisterre is a place where travelers and pilgrims alike come to reflect on their existence. Who am I? Where do we come from? Where am I going? Sitting on the rocks, we meet a woman from Canberra that has just finished her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Tess had been walking for thirty-two days, starting out in Roncesvalles, on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. The skin around her ankles had deteriorated and bled from the rubbing of her boots. Now she walked around in sandals, exposing her ankles to all the salt and moisture in the air. “This is the first time that I’ve felt any physical discomfort in the whole 5 weeks,” she said. We continued to talk about her pilgrimage and the significance of walking: “The last 100 kilometers to Finisterre felt like a ‘little extra’ that I needed to get my spiritual fill,” she explained. “I didn’t walk from a religious perspective, so the big cathedral in Santiago and the possibility of a dead saint in the catacombs wasn’t the closure I wanted. An ocean, now that’s something I couldn’t walk beyond!”
Late into the afternoon, we set out to find a good vantage point for the sunset. Ethan and I walked down to one of the side beaches where we saw other pilgrims celebrating the end of their journey. Some of them were eating barbecued sardines and drinking white wine from a carton. Others had built a small fire in the shelter behind some rocks. They plucked off bits of clothing – underwear, socks, t-shirts – and threw them into the fire. Then they made a flopping dash for the surf, where they remained for a few seconds. We felt like we were witnessing the end of something meaningful. At sunset, we watched the sky grow intensely orange, until it became eclipsed by night. The moon rendered everyone and everything in a spiritual light, transforming the beach into a shrine.