The Camino de Santiago wasn’t always de Santiago, and it didn’t always end in the saint’s namesake city. According to some legends, the path was first trodden by pagan seekers following a route indicated by the sun and the Milky Way to the westernmost edge* of the continent — in their view, the end of the world, Finis Terra.
Today Finisterre, or Fisterra in Galacian, is still the ultimate destination for many pilgrims. I, alas, did not have time to make the full journey on foot, so I cheesed out and caught a bus. Though this was arguably contrary to the spirit of the thing, it did allow my to take in one biome that the rest of the Camino failed to offer: the Atlantic coast.
If I was hoping for any evocation of ancient mystery, I have to say, Fisterra was a failure. Perhaps it’s only the logical consequence of taking the bus, but the face of the town I saw was not only a tourist trap, but the particularly dreary sort of tourist trap that I associate with post-war British fiction — perhaps the nearest American equivalent is the Poconos or those parts of the Jersey shore not currently being staked out by birders or reality-TV crews. Most of the shops sold identical tat to that available in Santiago. One of my great hopes was spectacular seafood — judging by the ships going in and out there was no reason not to expect this — but everything was overpriced and the only condiment was far, far too much salt, utterly out of line with the delicious food I experienced in the rest of Galacia.
The Yellow-legged Gull fits in with Fisterra in that it is not, at first glance, very romantic. Until 2007 the British Ornithologists’ Union lumped it with the Herring Gull, perhaps the classic “sea gull” of human contempt. But DNA analysis not only established Larus michahellis but gave it two subspecies of its own. Now it has cachet and even a certain Mediterranean charm.
The gulls themselves, who do not speak Latin, did what they always do in my eyes: They improved an otherwise dull landscape. Not quite Coney-Island bold, they picked their ways across the strands too rocky for tourists, too precipitate for the locals and their dogs. They soared above the boats. They rendered me quite eccentric in the eyes of my companions, who couldn’t quite dig my excitement.
The Yellow-legged Gull was the last new species I was to add to my list on this trip, after I got sick in Barcelona and found myself confined to my hostel, unable to reach the warm waters of the Mediterranean or even creep to the park in hopes of a Spanish Sparrow. So, end of the world, and here ends the story as well.
*Cabo da Roca in Portugal is actually slightly farther west, but at the time accurate measurements were not much on people’s minds.