Camino de Santiago – León to Sarria

I  did my first section of the Camino Francés in September 2013 – from Sarria to Santiago. Like so many others who have dipped their toes into the Camino, the bug bit and the following year I walked from Burgos to León. This was followed in May 2015 – St Jean Pied de Port to Logroño – and in May 2016 I did the Logroño to Burgos leg. (I have written blogposts on them all – search “camino” if interested.) All that remained was the section from León to Sarria and I walked that over eight days this May. All done! Not as pure a Camino experience, no doubt, as doing it in one go over 33 or so days but I enjoyed my annual trips as well as the planning and the preparation and the always pleasant re-acquaintance with the wonderful country of Spain.

Day1 1

Statue of a weary pilgrim in León

Day1 2

Looking back at the Camino between León and Villar de Mazarife. My advice is not to stay at Villar de Mazarife – it’s a small town devoid of charm or interest. Go on to Villavante – or Hospital de Órbigo – instead.

My first day out of León was not auspicious – it was bitterly and unseasonably cold. I hoped this would not continue by the time I reached the Galician mountains in a few days as I did not have suitable warm clothing in my backpack. Thankfully, the weather improved dramatically the following day and, apart from an hour’s light rain outside Ponferrada, it remained calm, dry and warm for the rest of the time. Other than walking through a storm when traversing the Pyrennees on the St Jean to Logroño section I have been very lucky with the weather. People have spent a week and more walking in constant rain and it is an ever present possibility in Galicia given the province’s proximity to the Atlantic which, as we know in Ireland, can result in very variable weather.

Day2 1

Between Villar de Mazarife and Villavante. The long straight stretches are typical of the Meseta, the flat upland of Spain, and continue as far as Hospital del Orbigo when the landscape becomes more varied.

Day2 2

The bridge at Hospital De Órbigo.  The original was destroyed by the town’s inhabitants in the 19th century to slow the advance of Napoleon’s army into Spain. It was restored in more recent times.

Day2 3

Part of the gentle hill country beyond Hospital de Órbigo.

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Self and “friend” between Hospital de Órbigo and Astorga.

Day2 4

One is rarely out of sight of other walkers on the Camino.

Day2 5

The Cruceiro de Santo Toribio near Astorga.

I stayed in albergues – inexpensive dormitory bunk-bed accommodation – twice but in private rooms (hostals – similar to our B&Bs – and hotels) otherwise. I don’t like albergues for the simple reason that I am a very light sleeper and if there is a snorer in the room I find it difficult if not impossible to sleep. I bring ear-plugs but they are no match for a loud snorer and on each occasion this year I was unfortunate to be in a room with one. The first night I snatched some fitful sleep but on the second night – in O Cebreiro, after a very long, hard walk/climb – I got none at all as the snorer was as loud as a tractor. That municipal albergue cost me only €6 but it was a bad deal – I would gladly have paid ten times as much for a comfortable hotel room and a good night’s rest. The average cost of the private accommodation was €45 per night. Good value, in my view if you are a light sleeper. Otherwise, you can’t beat the value that albergues provide – private ones charge about €10 per night and municipal ones €5 or €6. Just be prepared to put up with noisy neighbours and be sure to pack good ear-plugs. An Australian woman told me she spent A$50 on a special industrial grade set and they were the only ones she found effective.

Day3 2

A colourful rest stop west of Astorga.

Day3 1

A stork in its nest atop a church steeple, a common sight.

The landscape varied from the flat Meseta upland as far as Astorga to the Galician highlands and valleys from thence to Sarria. Like any Camino section, parts of it were monotonous – especially where road walking was concerned (as in the 8 kilometre section through the industrial outskirts of Leon) – but it was mostly through beautiful verdant countryside accompanied by the sounds of birdsong (especially cuckoos – there was an abundance of cuckoos!).

Day4 1

The ancient village of Foncebadón. It thrived as a stop-off for pilgrims in the Middle Ages but by the 1990s there were only two people, a mother and son, living among the ruins.  Slowly, there are signs of a revival but most of the buildings are still shattered and derelict.

Day4 2

The Cruz de Ferro between Foncebadón and Manjarin. It is traditional to bring a stone from one’s place of origin and place it on the mound.

Day4 3

Items  in memory of loved ones at the Cruz de Ferro.

The highest point of the journey – and the highest point of the entire Camino Francés – was between Rabanal and Molinaseca at an altitude of 1,505 metres (the Col de Lepoeder on the Pyrennees is 1,300 metres). The climb up to O Cebreiro (1,300 metres) was the toughest day of the lot but it more than made up for the effort with the magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.

Day4 7

The highest part of the entire Camino Francés.

Day4 9

The descent to Molinaseca requires great care. I’m glad I didn’t have to negotiate it in wet eather.

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The view from my bedroom window in Molinaseca. The bridge over the River Meruelo dates from Roman times.

Day5 1 Villafranco del Bierzo

Approaching Villafranco del Bierzo. Some stretches of the Camino are on public roads but they are generally not very busy as the motorways have taken most of the traffic.

I had been looking forward to O Cebreiro for more than the views. Here is buried a man without whom we probably wouldn’t have the Camino as we know it today and I was anxious to pay my respects at his grave in the little village church. Elías Valiña Sampedro, originally from Sarria, was the Parish Priest of O Cebreiro. He had an abiding interest in the history of the Camino and in 1965 he did his doctoral thesis on the history of the pilgrimage in the University of Salamanca. When the authorities in post-Franco Spain decided to promote the route for historical/cultural reasons Elías Valiña was at the forefront of the campaign. It was he who came up with the idea of the iconic yellow directional arrows which every walker depends upon. In the late 70s he loaded up his battered old Citroen with cans of yellow paint and set about painting arrows to mark the way. He was once stopped near the French border by two suspicious Guardia Civil and asked what he was doing; he answered that he was preparing for a French invasion! Alas, he died in 1989 at the age of 60, too soon to see the enormous increase in pilgrimage numbers in subsequent years. In 1989, 5,760 people received their Compostela (a certificate of completion) in Santiago; in 2016, it was 277, 915. He was a great man and all of us who have walked any part of the Camino owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

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The bust of Elías Valiña at the church of O Cebreiro.

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The bust surrunded by various commemorative plaques.

Day6 3

His grave in the church. It reads (my rough translation of the Latin):  “Dr Elías Valiña Sampedro, Parish Priest of this place and famous restorer of the Way of St James and friend and brother to all pilgrims”.

Day6 4

One of the many plaques commemorating him. “Thanks and Peace to Don Elías Valiña who preceded us all in the love of the Camino”.

Day4 8

The yellow arrow, symbol and indispensable navigational aid of the Camino, brainchild of Elías Valiña.

There is a bust of him on a plinth outside the church but it seems few people pay it any attention. I sat on the wall opposite it for 30 minutes and in that time not a single person stopped to examine it. Anyone who did give it a passing glance probably thought it was a memorial to a local politician or something. Nor is this lack of awareness of the man unusual in my experience – I have spoken to Camino veterans who have never heard of him. Which is a pity given the importance of his research and scholarship to the revival of the Camino in modern times and the fact that his genius idea, the ubiquitous yellow arrow, is not only a symbol of the pilgrimage but an essential aid for everyone on the trek. Anyhow, visiting his final resting place was something I had long looked forward to and was the highlight of my 2017 Camino.

Day6 8

The view from O Cebreiro looking back towards the province of Castilla Y León.

As I mentioned, I got no sleep that night in O Cebreiro and I was out the door and on my way the next morning at 5:45. It was still dark – sunrise wasn’t until 7:16 – and I had to use my head-torch to find my way for the fist 30 minutes or so. I had 22 kilometres to go to my next destination, Triacastela, and I wasn’t sure if tiredness would prevent me from walking all the way. My plan B was to call a taxi if necessary. In the event, I got there without any problems and the fact that the day was one of glorious sunshine and the countryside was so picturesque buoyed my spirits and helped my forward momentum. I need hardly add that I did not stay in an albergue that night in Triacastela nor on any night thereafter. And never again, I hope!

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A statue of a pilgrim at the Alto do San Roque (1,270 metres) between O Cebreiro and Triacastela.

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En route to Triacastela.

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Verdant Galician countryside.

The walk from Triacastela to Sarria via Samos was mostly though beautiful woodland along the banks of the River Oribio. This was the Camino in idyllic pastoral mode. Approaching Samos I heard the sound of a church bell and then, through a gap in the trees, there was the famous Benedictine monastery below me. I stopped off there for a guided tour and afterwards in a nearby café, had lunch with Brendan from Cork and Jim from California whom I kept meeting along the way.

Day8 1

The Benedictine Monastery at Samos.

Day8 2

The Monastery.

Day8 3

Between Samos and Sarria.

Day8 4

Journey’s end – Sarria.

And then it was on to Sarria, my final destination, and the town from which I did my first Camino. I stayed in the same place as I did back then, conveniently located on the Camino just on the entrance to the town.

I had closed the loop.

Which of the five sections – St Jean Pied de Port to Logroño; Logroño to Burgos; Burgos to León; León to Sarria; Sarria to Santiago – would I do again?

Each has its attractions but the one I’d go back to, I think, is Burgos to León. That is the section that a lot of people avoid because it is across the Meseta and is regarded as being too flat and monotonous. I loved it. I loved its wide open expanses and its big skies. I loved setting forth very early a couple of mornings and walking by the light of the moon. Standing alone in the vastness of the Meseta, in a place where millions of pilgrims had trod before me, and staring up at the heavens was a numinous experience that I shall long remember.

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The road goes ever on … across the Meseta.

Why do it at all?

Why indeed. A thousand years ago and for hundreds of years afterwards people did it for religious reasons, to gain an Indulgence in order to minimise their time in Purgatory. They set forth from all over Europe and spent months – sometimes years – walking all the way to Santiago and back again. We may smile at their simple credulity but the pilgrimage was, in my view, one of the great civilising enterprises of medieval Europe. People from across the continent would have met each other en route and exchanged knowledge with one another. When they returned to their towns and villages they would have seeded their communities with new techniques and insights.

And consider how brave it was back then for people to undertake such a hazardous journey- people who, for the most part, would never have previously traveled more than 10 miles or so of their homesteads. They set out into unknown territory and all its attendant hazards – bandits, wild animals, dangerous terrain. All in the service of a compelling religious imperative, one that even the most devout modern believer would find it difficult to comprehend.

I don’t think too many people nowadays do it for overtly traditional religious reasons (and certainly not me) but it is impossible for even the most secular of us not to contemplate the motivations of those who went before us and to imagine what difficulties – and joys! – they experienced.  There is a awareness of being part of an ancient tradition and one that may well  last for another thousand years.

Why do it? It’s a retreat, of sorts. A retreat in the Christian tradition is time spent away from normal, everyday  life for the purpose of reconnecting with God. Define God, if you like, as one’s Higher Self, or The Cosmos, or whichever Post Christian or New Age notion that you find fitting. The time away from normal life is a powerful incentive. You leave your family and friends and disappear into the fastness of Northern Spain for a time and forget (as much as one can in this age of connectivity) about the world of everyday routines and concerns. A County Longford woman I met had her phone with her but carried it just in case her family needed to contact her urgently. She did not connect to the internet and other than hearing other walkers talk about news items she was blissfully and deliberately unaware of what was happening in “the real world”.

It is a pilgrimage, of course,  and in all religious traditions a pilgrimage consists of a journey to a holy place for the purpose of gaining spiritual knowledge and renewal. The physical journey is a metaphor for the human one and like every human life is beset with disappointments, sacrifices, torments (snorers! blisters!) and the like as well as bountiful joys.

The medieval pilgrims believed that the bones of St James the Apostle lay in the sarcophagus in Santiago; there is no modern historian who gives that legend any credence – it was devastatingly demolished by the French historian (and Roman Catholic cleric) Louis Duschesne in his 1900 paper “Saint Jacques en Galice” (St James in Galicia).  There is in fact a better case to be made for the bones to be those of Priscillian, a 4th century bishop of Ávila who was put to death for heresy.

Louis Duschesne

Louis Duschesne – he brought modern historical methods to bear on the Saint James in Galicia legend.  He was a Monsignor of the Catholic Church.

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The tomb in the Cathedral of Santiago purportedly containing the bones of Saint James.  It is highly improbable that it does.

One can simply regard it as a good physical and mental work-out in pleasant countryside and with the opportunity to meet agreeable and interesting people. It’s no walk in the park though – you need to be fit and willing to undertake physically and mentally challenging walks day after day. It will be the hardest walking that most people will ever do.  Day three is often the day of reckoning for the unprepared – exhaustion, blisters, tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and other ailments can manifest themselves by then and can result in the end of the Camino for the unfortunate sufferers.  Forget about any romantic notions of having epiphanies around every corner or life changing encounters in albergues: think more of grindingly long trudges in weather that can vary from days of torrential rain to oven-like temperatures in high summer followed by spartan accommodation and basic food. There were times when I looked up at the jets heading south to the Costas and envied those aboard who would be sipping Margaritas by the pool in a couple of hours. And yet despite the hardships, the Camino casts a seductive spell. Walking it has been one of the best things I have done in my life.

Some Practical Advice

Blisters – How I Avoid Them 

There are numerous suggestions for avoiding blisters. This is mine. Make sure you prepare for the Camino several months in advance by regular walking. Get your feet used to pounding the pavement.

Wear a pair of 1000 Mile (trademark) walking socks – they have a dual layer construction which, they claim, guarantees against blisters.

Have a right sock and a left sock and – advice given to me by a Camino veteran – wear the same socks on the trail for three to four days at a time before washing them.

Gehwol

Use Gehwol foot balm before and after each day’s walk. Some people use Vaseline – Gehwol (available only from Amazon) is far better.

Travel to León

I flew from Dublin to Madrid with Aer Lingus and got the 14:40 Ave train (300 kph!) to León. When you arrive in Madrid Terminal 2 get the free airport bus to Terminal 4. From there get the train (not the Metro) to Chamartín train station. It costs €2.60 at the automatic ticket machine.  It’s best to book the Madrid to León train online at Renfe.es. The two-hour trip cost me just €16.55.

Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. 

(I flew back to Dublin from Santiago.)

There is a regular bus service from Sarria to Lugo.  It takes about 30 minutes. It’s not possible to book it online. Check out Monbus.es for the schedule. The Lugo to Santiago coach leaves at 10:45 and takes the motorway via A Coruña. It arrives in Santiago around 1:15 pm.  Book it online at Alsa.es. It cost me €9.00.

Camino Francés – Logroño to Burgos

I was waiting outside the Bilbao Airport terminal for the bus into the city after my flight from Dublin when I was approached by a young Irish woman who asked me if I had been at that airport in September 2014.

I had indeed, en route to and from the Camino Francés section I had done that year – from Burgos to Léon. Helena – that was her name – had recognised me from that time. She and her friend Gabrielle had also done a section then and like me were now returning in May 2016 to walk from Logroño to Burgos

Many Irish people like Helena, Gabrielle, and myself opt to do the Camino in sections – a week or two at a time – rather than the full route which typically takes about 30 days. The airfare is cheap and not everyone has either the time or the desire to do the whole thing in one go.

People outside of Europe  generally commit to the entire Camino. In most cases it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the airfares from the States, Australia, South America or wherever are too expensive to warrant doing it in stages. Plus there’s the more authentic experience that walking it without interruption for a full month or more provides.

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Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum 

I stayed overnight in Bilbao and had an early night as the following day I was catching the 6:30 a.m. train to Logroño, the endpoint of my stage last year, and then a long 30km walk to Nájera.

The journey to Logroño from Bilbao’s Abando station took 2.5 hours. A walk of 30 minutes from the station got me to the Camino which is marked by directional signs all along its length. It was now 9:30 a.m. which was a little late to be setting out from the city – most peregrinos  (pilgrims)  would have left before 8 a.m. Still, there were people – singles, couples, groups – ahead of me and behind me. One is rarely if ever alone on the Camino – if you don’t see anyone up ahead or to the rear you may possibly have taken a wrong turn.

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I joined the Camino at this point

There was now a long 30km walk to Nájera. My 2016 Camino had begun.

Which prompts the question – why do it?

The Camino is no walk in the park. It requires stamina, strength and determination to withstand daily walks of between 20 and 30 kilometres. You have to be physically and mentally prepared. It’s often bloody hard work which will leave you exhausted at the end of the day. Physical issues – especially with your feet – that you may not be aware of if you haven’t been doing long training walks will very quickly manifest themselves. The food is just adequate and the accommodation – especially if you stay in the albergues (hostels with mixed-sex, bunk-bed dormitories) – can be spartan, not to mention uncomfortable and noisy. Plus there’s the Northern Spanish weather to contend with – days of torrential rain are not uncommon in the Spring and Autumn, the best times to do it as the heat of Summer can be too intense.

Some people, I think, have unreal expectations of the Camino. There was a thread on the Camino Francés internet forum originated by an American woman who asked: “where is the ecstasy?” She had heard so much hype about it being a blissful life-changing experience that she was disappointed by the reality. It was “just a series of very long walks”.

I met an Australian woman near Belorado who likewise was regretting her journey. She had been attracted to the idea of the Camino but had not appreciated the difficulties involved. Her feet hurt, she had blisters, she found her body didn’t really loosen up until the afternoons but, because of the need to get to an albergue early in order to have a bed for the night, she had to continue setting out early in the day. She “had no idea what it was I was thinking” when she committed to doing it and she regretted her decision.

So why do I do it?

Because I can, is one answer. I am of an age where I am very conscious that the time may soon come when I may no longer be able to do it. Carpe diem and all that.

Then there’s the experience of walking through the often very beautiful Spanish countryside not knowing what’s around the next corner or over the next hill.

And there’s the wide variety of people that one meets, people who are often interesting and/or funny. I think one of the biggest attractions of the Camino historically has been the meeting of minds that it lends itself to. When medieval pilgrims set out for Santiago – in most cases probably the only long-distance journey they would take in their lives – and met others from different countries or provinces the resultant exchanges of views and knowledge must have had a positive seeding effect when they returned to their respective communities. That was a time when travel really did broaden the mind.

The Camino is well serviced by accommodation – everything from the basic albergues to (for an occasional treat perhaps) Parador hotels in the major cities. Nor is there any rip-off. The prices are very reasonable and there is free WiFi in practically every place you stay.

The food is OK if not exactly haute cuisine. A typical pilgrim’s meal available in alburgues and restaurants along the way consists of a starter (e.g. a mixed salad), a main course (e.g. chicken and chips – *very* common) and a dessert (e.g. ice cream – often a choc ice in its wrapper).  To drink you’ll usually have either water or wine and the wine is served by the bottle. All that for about €10. Very good value.

Finally, there is the getting-away-from-it-all feeling, leaving the real world of bills, politics, responsibilities and all that stuff behind, opting out of the normal routine for a while, focusing instead on the day’s stage, how long it’s going it take, where to stop for refreshments, getting into a walking rhythm and generally feeling better every day as the physical exertion releases all those happy endorphins. And at the end there is the sense of achievement of once more having finished it successfully.

That’s why I do it.

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This interesting looking man was selling fruit and cakes at a stall nor far from Logrono. He had no set prices – people were free to donate what they wished. A wise strategy , I think – he probably got a lot more than he would have had he charged normal prices.

 

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Vineyards abound in the Rioja region 

Navarette

Approaching Navarette

Navarette Old Pilgrims Hosp

The remains of an old pilgrim hospital at Navarette

Najera

Approaching Nájera – the first day’s destination   

Najera River

The River Nájerilla as I passed over it the next day leaving Nájera

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Looking back in the direction of Nájera

Near Santo Domingo

Between Ciruenda and Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The vineyards of Rioja are mostly behind us and we are now in cereal growing country – from wine to bread. 

Near Ciruena

Looking back from near Ciruena

A word of caution in respect of accommodation: the Camino is in a sense becoming a victim of its own success. I have heard and read many stories this year of alburgues becoming full up relatively early in the day. People are setting out often well before dawn in order to be sure of getting a bed for the night at their destination. This can be very stressful and it can rob people of the enjoyment they should be experiencing.

I have always booked my accommodation a few months before travelling and this year I was very glad I did so. I had no worries about where I would stay any night as I had reservations in every place I stayed. (I use Booking.com – an excellent accommodation booking service.)

One way over the problem is not to do Brierleys. John Brierley has written the definitive guide to the Camino Francés and he recommends daily stages – Brierleys – that people (including me) tend to blindly follow. So, for example, stage 9 of the Brierley guide is from Nájera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, 21 kms. The result is an influx of pilgrims into Santo Domingo and if the numbers are excessive there may not be enough beds to go around. What people should do instead is either stop 6kms before Santo Domingo at Ciruena  or continue walking another  6kms as far as Granon. Don’t slavishly follow Brierley; do your own stages and you should have no problems if you haven’t booked ahead.

Alburgue

Alburgue beds. This is the albergue I stayed in at Agés. It was very cold and I did not have a sleeping bag, just a light sleeping bag liner. Brrrrrr!

I also tend to use hostals rather than alburgues. Hostals (not to be confused with hostels) give you your own room and bathroom and so are very conducive to a good night’s sleep. Alburgues on the other hand are mixed dormitory bunk-bed establishments and you can be very unlucky if you are (like me) a very light sleeper and one or more of the other residents are snorers. Or if someone gets up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and make a racket in the process. Or if they decide to set out at an unearthly hour and wake everyone else up while they noisily make preparations. On the plus side, albergues are cheap and the communal evening meal is a great way of getting to know people.

There are travel companies that will pre-book all the accommodation for you and will also transfer your bag from one location to the next. Go for it if such convenience appeals to you but be prepared to pay through the nose. It is much cheaper to do it yourself. Nor is it a problem carrying your stuff on your back. I actually think it’s beneficial to walk with a backpack as it keeps your back straight. Several people who suffer back problems have remarked on how it has helped them. The trick is in choosing a good backpack and carrying only the minimum. Aim for a combined backpack/contents weight of about 7 kgs.

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My backpack and its contents; total weight 7kgs.

Santo Domingo

Approaching Santo Domingo de la Calzada

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A view from the bell-tower of the church of Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

In Santo Domingo de la Calzada I stayed in the Hospideria Cisterciense, a hostal run by Cistercian nuns. And very nice it was too. A notice at reception stated that a daily Mass for pilgrims would be held at 7 pm and I decided to go. I had been expecting a large group of pilgrims to be present at the small church but there was only myself and a French woman – the other dozen or so attendees were elderly locals, mostly women. The priest was very elderly and frail and the poor man was on crutches and had to be assisted to the altar by a nun. He sat down behind the altar to say Mass. Communion was distributed by the nun. At the end the priest gave the usual blessing and, as this was a Mass for peregrinos, bade all walkers a Buen Camino! –  the traditional Camino greeting and farewell that everyone uses.

Santo Domingo Rio Oja

The River Oja at Santo Domingo  

Santo Dom to Belorado N120

Some sections of the Camino are adjacent to busy main roads as at here outside Santo Domingo. This third day from Santo Domingo to Belorado was my least favourite part because of the nearness and the noise of the highway.

Near St Juan De Ortega

Day 4 between Belorado and Agés – a lot of today’s section was through forest.

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Myself at a stop in the forest a few miles before St Juan de Ortega. A girl had made these artworks and was selling fruit and juices. It was very cold during this stage but then again the elevation was around 1,000 metres.

San Juan Forest

The path through the forest before St Juan. 

Ages

Agés

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The Camino at Agés 

My last day – day 5 – was from Agés into Burgos. There was torrential rain and it didn’t let up until I was well into the city. I finished about 1 p.m., stayed overnight in Burgos, got the 10:30 a.m. train to Bilbao the next day and flew back to Dublin the following day, Saturday.

Everything had gone according to plan and, once again, it was a most enjoyable Camino.

Next year my plan is to do the stage from Léon to Sarria and that will complete my Camino Francés.

After that, who knows? I may repeat a section, or I may do one of the other Caminos such as the Portugués or the Del Norte. Or perhaps walk from Santiago to Finisterre.

So many options, so little time!

 

Details of my previous Camino trips can be found on this blog at:

https://carrigmanblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/camino-de-santiago-sarria-to-santiago/

https://carrigmanblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/camino-de-santiago-burgos-to-leon/

https://carrigmanblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/camino-de-santiago-st-jean-pied-de-port-to-logrono/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Boissevains and Ballynatray

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A few miles north of Youghal, County Cork, on a bend of the River Blackwater, in one of the most beautiful places in Ireland, stands Ballynatray House.

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The present house dates from 1795. In 1969, Horace Holroyd-Smyth, who died in a shooting accident, bequeathed the house and the 850 acre estate to his cousins, the Ponsonbys of County Tipperary. It had deteriorated badly by this time and it continued to decay in the years that followed. It looked as if dereliction was going to be its fate.

This would have been an ignominious end for a house that had survived the destruction by the IRA of so many great houses in Ireland during the revolutionary period of 1919 to 1923.  The wanton burning and looting that took place is a shameful blot on our history.  Even Stalin made sure that the palaces of the Tsars were preserved for posterity.

Then, in 1995, a little miracle occurred. A wealthy couple, Serge and Henriette Boissevain, had been searching Europe for a suitable home and they came upon Ballynatray.  They purchased it for £1.5 million.

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Henriette and Serge Boissevain. Henriette was born in London on 30th January 1949, the daughter of Adolph Willem Carel Bentinck Van Schoonheten and Gabrielle Wilhelmine Hedwig Marie Thyssen-Bornemisza Von Kaszony.  Her uncle was the German steel tycoon Baron “Heini” Thyssen-Bornemisza .  Serge was born on 10th July 1947 in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, Ile-De-France.  They had known each other as teenagers but went their separate ways. Serge married Chantal Marie Francoise Girault in Marseille in 1969 but the marriage was dissolved in 1977. Henriette married the Marquess of Northampton but this ended in divorce. She then married Richard Thompson, a businessman and this was also dissolved. Serge and Henriette met again and were married in 1978. They were inseparable for the rest of their lives.

Over the next few years they spent millions renovating the house and improving the estate. They employed the best engineers, builders and craftsmen with one end in mind: transform the crumbling residence into a jewel that would sparkle by the waters of the Blackwater.  And in this they were singularly successful – Ballynatray now stands resplendent, not merely restored to its former glory but surpassing it.

But then, after this investment of time, money and love into Ballynatray, the Boissevains decided to sell up and move to southern Spain. Henriette’s health required that she live in a warmer and drier climate. The estate was sold in 2004 for €12 million to English businessman Henry Gwyn Jones who has lived there since.

In Almadén de la Plata, 85kms north of Seville, Serge and Henriette set up a ranch for the breeding of Cartujano horses, a passion of Henriette’s. However, in November 2010, Henriette died suddenly. She was only 61 years old. Serge was bereft and he went into a spiral of despair which culminated in his taking his own life a couple of months later in January 2011. He was 63. They had been married for 34 years.

This was a tragic conclusion to the lives of the couple who did so much to rescue and restore Ballynatray. The house and its grounds stand testament to their achievement and they will be remembered with gratitude for generations to come.

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Molana Abbey on the Ballynatray Estate. It was founded in 510 Ad by Mael an Faidh (Mael the Prophet). The existing ruins are of the Augustinian Priory established by Raymond Le Gros. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538.

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Molana Abbey is on the bottom left. It was originally an island – Dairinis – but a causeway was built in the 19th century to connect it with the mainland. Ballynatray House is in the upper centre. 

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The ruined Church of Ireland church at Templemichael to the south of Ballynatray. The Boissevains installed a car park here for visitors  to the church and Molana Abbey.  

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Templemichael Quay.  Stanley Kubrick filmed the duel scene from “Barry Lyndon” here.  Ballynatray Estate was also used for other scenes in the film. 

 

 

 

Goya: The Portraits

I flew to London a few days ago to see Goya: The Portraits at the National Gallery. The exhibition is on in the Sainsbury Wing until 10th January and if you like art and have the time I would urge you to go. Even with the bad Pound/Euro exchange rate it’s worth the trip: Ryanair flights are cheap and you get some time in a wonderful city. I love London and I try to get there a few times a year.

Ah, you say, I like Goya, but I have a book of his paintings, or, I can look them up online – why bother with the hassle and expense of going all the way to the National Gallery? Look, here’s a few of the pictures on my high-res smartphone.

That’s like listening to a Mozart symphony on a tinny little radio in comparison to sitting in a concert hall at a live orchestral performance and letting the sound overwhelm you.

Standing in front of an original artwork is a wholly different experience to casually flipping through the pages of a book or looking at images on the internet.  Here, you are within inches of the surface of a painting made more than 200 years ago by an artist of genius. You can see detail that no photograph can ever replicate.

The sizes of some of the paintings can astonish you and this is something that reproductions can never prepare you for (unless, maybe, you carefully note the sizes quoted in books and websites and can imagine them in reality – I don’t and can’t).

Then there’s the ritual of descending the stairs in the Sainsbury Wing, showing your ticket to the attendant, entering the low lit area of the exhibition (ambient light levels are kept low to protect the works but they are well illuminated), and going from room to room to view all the 71 exhibits. You emerge feeling exhilarated from the privilege of being in the presence of genius, from the sheer magnificence of the works on display.

You can’t download that.

Here are some screenshots from various websites of a few of the paintings.

Goya Self Portrait 1780

A Self Portrait circa 1780.

 

Goya The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children

The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children, 1788.

From the catalogue: “Posssibly drawing on British portraits, particularly those by Gainsborough, Goya creates a sense of animated informality.”

Goya The Dowager Marchioness of Villafranca

 The Dowager Marchioness of Villafranca, 1796.

“A moving demonstration of his ability to portray old age with respect and sympathy.”

Goya The Countess Duchess of Benavente

The Countess Duchess of Benavente, 1785.

She was one of Goya’s greatest patrons and was a very forward thinking person. She and her husband commissioned works satirising Church corruption and the backwardness of Spanish society.

Goya Charles 111 in Hunting Dress

Charles 111 in Hunting Dress, 1786-8.

Charles 111 was “famously and unashamedly ugly”, as the catalogue puts it.

 

Goya Self Portrait 1795.

Self Portrait, 1795.

This gives some idea of what it must have felt like to sit for Goya, to be the object of that penetrating stare.

 

Goya Marchioness of Santa Cruz 49

The Marchioness of Santa Cruz, 1805.

Part of a trend in Europe at the time of depicting young women as classical personifications.

Goya Friar Juan Fernandez 51

Friar Juan Fernández de Rojas, circa 1800.

The friar was an intellectual who espoused modern theology. The sheer intelligence of the man is apparent in this superb portrait.

Goya Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon

The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón, 1783.

Goya has included himself on the left and the painting is a nod to Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”.  A strange but beautiful painting.

 

Goya Duchess of Alba

The Duchess of Alba, 1797.

A huge painting, this depicts the highest-ranking woman in Spain after the queen. A widow with a fiery temper she is pointing to an inscription on the sand which says “Sola Goya” (“Only Goya”). This was once thought to mean that she and Goya were lovers but scholarly opinion now suggests that it is instead a reference by Goya to his supremacy as a painter. To which I say to the scholars – “yeah, right”.  

The above reproductions only give the merest idea of what the originals are like.

I repeat: seeing them in reality is a different experience altogether.

So, if you can, go.

A Flight Over East Cork

The best present I got last Christmas, thanks to my children and son-in-law, was an Atlantic Flight Training Academy gift voucher. This entitled me to a 60 minutes flight from their base at Cork Airport. I’m a bit of an aircraft and flight nerd so this suited me perfectly.  Not that I was interested in flight training per se –  I just wanted a pleasure flight and an opportunity to take some photographs. Most recipients of such vouchers are probably in the same, er, boat.

AtlanticFlightSchool

I had never flown in a light aircraft. The nearest I came to it were trips on the Aer Arann/Aer Lingus Commuter ATR 72s  – twin-engine turboprops – and I was looking forward to the experience. When I phoned the company to make an appointment for the flight I was pleasantly surprised to be told they could accommodate me the following afternoon. This was perfect as the forecast was for a calm, bright day.

The formalities over – you have to complete a short form, get a visitor’s badge and a high-vis vest – I was led to the aircraft by my pilot for the trip, Alan Walsh, a fellow East Cork man. He asked me where I’d like to go and naturally I said the East Cork direction.

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Then it was into the left-hand seat and Alan proceeded to carry out the pre-flight checks. This is something that aviators around the world do as a matter of course, whether they are flying a small aircraft like this or a jumbo jet, and it ensures that no risks are taken as far as safety is concerned.

We then donned our headsets, Alan started the engine, and communicated with Air Traffic Control giving details of our route and asking for permission for take off. Once this was given we headed out to runway 35, pointed the aircraft north, increased the throttle and in a few seconds we were airborne and flying over Cork City.

From there we made our way down to Carrigtwohill ( where he circled my house), Midleton, Castlemartyr and on to Capel Island. On the return leg we went along the coast to Garryvoe and Ballycotton and thence to Roche’s Point, Spike Island and on to Carrigaline before turning right to land at runway 35.

Alan checked with me throughout as to where I wanted to go (e.g. around Capel Island) and in turn he kept Cork ATC abreast of where we were headed.

Our speed was 100 knots – about 115 miles per hour – and we flew at 1500 feet. Conditions were perfect and ideal for photography. I was surprised at how calm the flight was; even though the day was fine I was expecting, given the size of the aircraft, some buffeting and turbulence but there was none. The headset kept noise to a minimum and it was a very pleasant experience overall.  It is something I would recommend anyone interested in planes or sightseeing from a height to do.  Christmas is coming and if you are stuck as to what present you should get for someone you should certainly consider an Atlantic Flight Training gift voucher.

 

Please click on any photo to see it in larger size. All photos were taken with a Canon 6D and a 24-105L lens. I was shooting through a window so there are invariably some glass reflections evident in some of the shots.

 

IMG_8156The cockpit.

IMG_8169Cork City looking north to the Galtee Mountains on the top right. 

IMG_8179The old city dump at Kinsale Road now an environmentally friendly landfill site and soon to be a major recreational area.

IMG_8190The Jack Lynch Tunnel.

IMG_8197The River Lee with the suburbs of Blackrock and Mahon in the foreground.

IMG_8203Fota Castle in the foreground with Carrigtwohill on the upper right.  

IMG_8221Fota Wildlife Park.

IMG_8332Midleton.

IMG_8364Lough Aderra near Castlemartyr.

IMG_8373Castlemartyr with the Castlemartyr Resort and Golf Course in the foreground. 

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Youghal is in the middle distance and beyond that is West County Waterford. In the foreground, the River Womanagh flows into the sea. 

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Ballymacoda. I was christened in that church in the foreground by a namesake of mine (but no relation).

IMG_8442Knockadoon Head and Capel Island.

IMG_8451Capel Island.

IMG_8466Capel Island.

IMG_8525Ballypherode, Ballymacoda. My father was born and raised in the house in the centre (with the single white van in front). First cousins of mine live in that house and the house directly above it. 

IMG_8555Ballycotton.

IMG_8578Ballycotton Island.

IMG_8609 Ballycotton Island.

IMG_8640Roche’s Point.

IMG_8665Roche’s Point.

IMG_8738Spike Island.

IMG_8733Spike Island.

IMG_8749The outer Cork Harbour. 

IMG_8789Heading in to land at Cork Airport’s runway 35.

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Photographing the Milky Way

One of the most awesome sights one can observe is the arc of the Milky Way on a night when the sky is clear, when there is no moon visible, and when one is well away from the light pollution of cities and towns. Once you are in such a location in such conditions you will notice a faint band of light going across the sky. In late summer in the Northern Hemisphere it stretches from the southern horizon to the North East. (Be aware that it will not look as dramatic and as bright as photographs of it would suggest. Photographs are taken using a typical exposure time of between 25 and 30 seconds and are thus able to capture far more stars than are visible to the naked eye. Photographers also invariably boost the contrast and colour for pictorial effect.)

Milky Way 1

The Milky Way is the name of the galaxy in which we reside. It is just one of an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the Universe. It contains something between 100 and 400 billion stars and is about 100,000 light years in diameter. Our solar system is located within a minor spiral arm of the galaxy, the Orion Arm, and is about 27,000 light years from the centre. When you look towards the southern part of the Milky Way you are looking towards the centre of the galaxy whereas towards the North East you are looking in the direction of the outer edge. Here endeth a very elementary astronomy lesson.  I would strongly recommend that you refer to the numerous astronomy websites for more detailed information.

From a photographic point of view the technique involved in photographing it is straightforward and is well within the capabilities of all DSLRs and more advanced compacts. A tripod is essential of course as the shutter speed needs to be between 25 and 30 seconds. Anything longer than 30 seconds will cause the stars to streak due to the rotation of the Earth. A high ISO is required – typically 3200 or 6400 ISO although you may be able to get away with 1600 if your camera doesn’t extend beyond that. The higher the ISO the greater the amount of digital noise but this can vary from camera to camera. A full-frame sensor camera will generally have much less noise than an APSC or smaller sensor one. Noise can be reduced at the post-processing stage – Adobe’s Camera Raw has a very good noise reduction feature and plug-ins like Nik Software’s Dfine2 and Topaz Labs’ DeNoise5 also do a very good job.

You will need a wide lens to capture as much of the spectacle that you can (although homing in on a section of it with a longer lens can be very effective too.) And use it wide open, at its maximum aperture. In the photographs below I used a Canon 15mm f/2.8 and a Canon 17-40mm f/4 at 2.8 and 4 respectively on a full-frame Canon 6D.

You will not be able to use automatic focus and this can prove to be a problem if you arrive at your location in darkness. What I do is focus on an object on the horizon while the light is still relatively bright and then set the lens to manual: I know then that the focus is on infinity. The disadvantage is hanging around until it gets really dark. Manually focusing on a bright object using Live View may be an option but in my experience it has proved to be unsatisfactory. Don’t rely on just setting your lens to infinity without focusing on something – it will invariably not be accurate and the stars will appear as blobs rather than points of light.

Remember that it should be a moonless night. You might be able to get away with a moon if it is in either a Waxing or Waning Crescent phase but anything bigger will result in too much light in the sky. I use the Sundroid app on my phone to determine the phases of the moon and when it’s due to rise and set. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is another such one that I use.

Use a cable release to fire the shutter and, ideally, use mirror lock-up to minimise vibration. If you haven’t a cable release set the delayed action shutter release to 2 seconds or thereabouts so that when you press the button the shutter isn’t activated straight away and so any camera shake is avoided.

Exposures will have to be bracketed to get the best results from your equipment but the essentials are: ISO 3200-6400, 25- 30 secs, wide open aperture.

And don’t forget a good torch to find your way back from whichever dark-sky spot you’ve chosen.

MilkyWayAug15 1

 This photograph, taken not far from my house, and looking south, shows the unfortunate effect of light pollution (in this instance from the towns of Carrigtwohill and Midleton in East Cork). To the naked eye the light wasn’t particularly obtrusive but the exposure of 30 seconds has amplified it significantly. The streaks of light in the sky are meteors – the photo was taken on 13th August during the peak Perseid Meteor Shower period.

MilkyWayAug15 3

 Another photo from the same location this time looking north-east . The streaks are a combination of aircraft and meteors. Again the light pollution is evident even though it was barely discernible to the eye. In both of these photographs I was using the Canon 15mm fish-eye and I chose not to correct the perspective, hence the curved horizons.

Why did I choose that location when I knew the downsides? It was a last minute thing – a break in the cloud and proximity to home. At least I got to see some meteors.

The following night, the 14th August, resulted in much better settled conditions – a nice clear sky from early evening. I therefore made my way to Ballytrasna Cove near Ballycotton.

Ballycotton Ballytrasna

Ballytrasna Cove is a secluded cove on the Ballycotton Cliff Walk.  It is good for Milky Way photography in that (in summer at least) you are shooting due south and it is hidden – well, mostly –  from the lights of Ballycotton Village and Lighthouse to the east and Whitegate and Cork City to the west. It is not as pure a dark-sky area as parts of West Kerry perhaps but it is the best place I know in East Cork.  

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At 10:22 the International Space Station came into view and it is represented here as a streak of light due to the 20 second exposure (it wasn’t yet totally dark, hence the shorter exposure time).  

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A few meteor streaks are visible.

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The streak of light on the lower right is the Aer Lingus flight from London on its descent to Cork  Airport. Underneath it to the right is the light from the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse and the broader glow on the right is from Cork City. A meteor streak is visible in the centre of the frame. The bright glow on the left horizon is, I think, from the Kinsale Oil Platform.

So, the technique in photographing the Milky Way is fairly straightforward and in the post-processing of these images I have confined myself to basic exposure, contrast, colour temperature, and sharpening adjustments. Nothing esoteric or convoluted. Such photography therefore is within the capabilities of anyone with the appropriate equipment. The only problem, given our climate, is getting the right weather conditions.

The Bridges of the River Blackwater

Over the last few months I have been photographing the bridges over the River Blackwater in Munster. There are, by my reckoning, based on a close examination of Google Earth and the Ordnance Survey maps, twenty seven of them and they are presented below. If I have inadvertently omitted any I would be very much obliged to know.

My modus operandi in locating some of the more obscure bridges was to identify them first in Google Earth and/or the Ordnance Survey site.  Then, using the Loc8 site I got the Loc8 8-digit alpha-numeric code for each one. By inputting these codes into my Garmin SatNav I was able to navigate directly to each place.

The names I’ve given to them are taken from the Ordnance Survey maps modern and historic. I’m not sure whether or not some of the names on the historic maps (e.g. Charles’s Bridge, Duarrigle; Colthurst Bridge, Rathcoole), which I’ve used in the absence of any name on the current OS map, are still used by local people as they may have fallen into disuse since Independence.  Not that it matters really: this is not in any way an official compilation; it is purely for my own amusement.

The photographs are in geographical sequence, starting at the first bridge near the source of the river in County Kerry and ending at Youghal. Click on any image to see it in larger size.

1. DOCTOR’S HILL.  The first bridge over the Blackwater, a few kilometres from its source in County Kerry.BlackwaterFirst

2. BALLYDESMOND

Blackwater Ballydesmond3

Blackwater Ballydesmond2

Ballydesmond Bridge proved to be the most frustrating one to photograph – thick foliage prevented any access to the riverbed and I had to be content with these mere snapshots. 

3. LISHEEN BRIDGE, FARRANKEAL. The nearest side is in County Kerry, the other in Cork.Blackwater Creggeen Rockmount CK Border

4. MOUNTINFANT BRIDGE, LACKA CROSS.  Out of sight over the bridge to the right is the large Munster Joinery factory.Blaxkwater LackaX KCborderMunsterJoinery

5. NOHAVAL BRIDGEBlackwater Clounts KCborder

6. DUNCANNON BRIDGE,RATHMOREBlackwater Rathmore

7. SHAMROCK BRIDGE, AHANE LOWERBlackwater Ahane Lower

Blackwater Ahane BW

8. CHARLES’S BRIDGE, DUARRIGLEBlackwater Nr Coalpits

9.  KEALEBlackwater Keale

10. COLTHURST BRIDGE, RATHCOOLE Blackwater Rathcoole3

Blackwater RathcooleIR

As I was making my way back across the field to my car after photographing this bridge I noticed a 4-wheel-drive vehicle with two men inside parked by the gate.  The driver asked me what I had been doing. It transpired they were charged with keeping an eye on the place for a group of Cork City fishermen who had exclusive rights to this part of the river and they thought I had been poaching! Hard to blame them really as I was wearing wellingtons and a fisherman’s type vest and my tripod could have been mistaken at a distance for a rod.   

 

11. BALLYMAQUIRK BRIDGE, BANTEERBlackwater Banteer 2

Blackwater Banteer

12. ROSKEENBlackwater Roskeen3

Blackwater Roskeen4

13. LOMBARDSTOWNBlackwater Lombardstown

Blackwater Lombardstown2

14.LONGFIELD’S BRIDGEBlackwater Longfields Bridge Nr Mallow

Blackwater Longfield BW

15. MALLOW RAILWAY BRIDGE Blackwater Mallow Rail

16.MALLOW N20 Blackwater Mallow N22

17. MALLOW TOWN BRIDGEBlackwater Mallow Old

18. KILLAVULLENKillavullen2

Blackwater Killavullen

19. BALLYHOOLEYBlackwater Ballyhooley

20. KENT BRIDGE, FERMOY   (The long shutter speed of 30 seconds has rendered the moving traffic on this busy route as a blur.)IMG_5599

21. FERMOY M8 IMG_5596

22. CARRICKABRICK VIADUCT.  In the 1966 film “The Blue Max”, a lot of which was shot in the locality, a stuntman flew planes underneath this viaduct several times.IMG_5580

Blackwater Carrickabrick

23. BALLYDUFF

Blackwater Ballyduff-Bridge-2.jp

24. STRAND BRIDGE, LISMORE 

Blackwater LismoreIR

25.AVONMORE BRIDGE, CAPPOQUIN

Blackwater IR-Cappoquin-Bridge

26. CAPPOQUIN OLD RAILWAY BRIDGE

Blackwater IR-Cappoquin-2

27. YOUGHAL

Blackwater Youghal-Bridge

Blackwater CCGYoughalBridge

Youghal Bridge 4

Blackwater Youghal 2

A more conventional view of Youghal Bridge. This is the last bridge on the river and its size is a marked contrast to the humble structure at Doctor’s Hill near the source.