Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

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Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum on the banks of Bilbao’s River Nervion is one of the greatest buildings in the world – it is astonishing from the outside and the inside. It is impossible to walk around it without a smile on one’s face at the audacity, daring, innovation, imagination and sheer chutzpah that went into its creation. And what an inspired idea it was by the Basque Government in 1981 to suggest to the Guggenheim Foundation that a museum be built in the run-down port area of Bilbao, a provincial Spanish city, and what a success the venture has been since its opening in 1997. It has put Bilbao firmly on the map and has drawn huge numbers of tourists to the city.

I was there recently – my second time in this beautiful city – at the tail-end of my Camino trek from St Jean Pied de Port to Logroño. I only had my Sony pocket camera with me – weight considerations ruled out the carrying of a heavy DSLR – and I took a series of snapshots to give my impressions of this fascinating building.

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Camino de Santiago – St Jean Pied de Port to Logroño

This is an account of my Camino trip from 1st May to 7th May, 2015.  I have previously walked from Sarria to Santiago and from Burgos to Leon and I have written about those trips also on this blog (search under “Camino” if you’re interested). Click on the photos for full size.

 

I closed the door gently behind me and stepped into the chill night air. 4:55 am. Two hours before sunrise. The Camino path was just around the corner and the way was lit by the streetlights of Los Arcos. In a hundred yards or so I was into the dark countryside. As bright as the moon was, I needed my head-torch to see the way – it would be very easy to miss one of the Camino markers. The night was still. As soon as I was well away from the lights of the town I stopped and turned off the torch so as to savour the sounds and sights of this part of rural Navarra. A dog was barking somewhere in the distance. A few birds were singing in the fields – which surprised me given this early hour. A car passed on a nearby road. The contours of the land were easily discernible thanks to the nearly full moon. Flashing lights on the horizon marked a line of wind turbines. The lights of Sansol, the next town 7kms away, were due west of where I was. Of humans, fellow Peregrinos, there was no trace. I was alone.

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Dawn on the Camino

Looking at the night sky and seeing the land by the light of the moon is something I like to experience at least once during my Camino treks. I like to get out early when few others or none are about and then walk into the light. The symbolism of doing so on this ancient pilgrimage route is obvious but I just enjoy the sense of wonder and awe that it produces. But enough. I had to press on. This was my last day of walking and I had 30 kilometres to go to get to my final destination – the city of Logroño.

Six days previously I had set out from St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. The morning had been overcast but visibility was good as I made my way up the paved road towards the hostel at Orisson where I would stop for breakfast. Even though the highest point of the Route Napoleon over the mountains – the Col de Lepoeder – is 1,450m there is a gentle enough ascent: the steepest part, such as it is, is between the Huntto and Orisson hostels. It really is no big deal and it is on a paved road for most of the way. Forget any images you may have of scrambling up a steep mountain.

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St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees – the traditional starting point for the Camino Francés

However, about 30 minutes beyond Orisson the weather turned bad: a gale force headwind began to blow and rain became torrential. As we ascended it became colder – there were traces of snow in places – and the walking conditions were miserable. All one could do was struggle on at an angle of 45 degrees into the wind and rain and grit one’s teeth with determination to get the hell over the mountain as quickly as possible and down the other side to Roncesvalles. Again, to emphasise the point, these were conditions that would have seen a mountain climb at home abandoned for fear of falling or getting lost but there was no such danger here (the way was well marked at all times) – it was just very uncomfortable.

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On the ascent out of St Jean Pied de Port

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Near Orisson

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Looking back just before the bad weather struck. 

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Fog, rain and wind

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A clump of snow on the summit

I was glad I had brought my walking poles this time. They provided much needed support on the descent down the muddy woodland path on the Spanish side. I had been hoping for a hot meal at one of the restaurants in the town but everywhere was full up so I continued on to Espinal, 6kms away, where I had booked a bed for the night. I was glad I had. The large albergue at Roncesvalles, I heard later, was packed out and people were even put up in converted shipping containers such was the demand for spaces. The hostel at Espinal, by contrast, had plenty of beds to spare. It may have lacked the camaraderie and sense of achievement that would have been in evidence in Roncesvalles but it made up for it in comfort and quiet. It had taken me 8 hours to walk the 32kms from St Jean Pied de Port which was pretty good going in the circumstances.

Happily, the weather cleared and the rest of the trip was calm and rain free. The next two sections – as far as Pamplona – were mostly through woodland with the path still sticky in places after the rain. The woods were beautiful with the trees wearing their fresh green leaves and the birds in full song. Near Zubiri a cyclist who had just passed me fell on an exposed bare rock section of the path as it descended towards the town and broke his leg. He had to be lifted out by helicopter.

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Brighter, drier conditions on the second day. Note the snow on the mountain in the middle distance

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A cyclist on the ascent of the Alto de Perdón with Pamplona in the background 

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One of the iconic structures of the Camino, the Monumento Peregrino on the Alto del Pedrón – a series of natural sized iron figures representing pilgrims of a former age who would have done it on horseback or riding donkeys as well as on foot.

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A  peregrino with donkey (the donkey is on the left)

After Pamplona the countryside opened out and from there on each day brought us through some of the most scenic parts of the Camino. Walking conditions were ideal – a cool breeze and mostly overcast with occasional sunshine. And, of course, as ever on the Camino – good company: as well as the scenery, the opportunity to meet interesting and amusing people from all over the world is one of the great attractions of the walk. I was astonished to find, in a hotel in Puente La Reina, an old schoolmate of mine whom I hadn’t seen for over 40 years. He was walking with his wife as far as Estella, had heard about me from other Irish people whom I had met on previous days, and approached several men in the hotel asking them if they were me – I have changed over the years after all  – until he found me. It is indeed a small world.

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One of the most remarkable women I met – Texan woman Leigh Ann Peters who lives in Colorado has taken a year out to backpack around the world and has been travelling since last November. After doing the Camino she intends to travel around Europe and then on to South America before returning home for her son’s wedding in October  

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San José, California man Greg with a fellow American girl cooling their feet in the river at Estella 

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Walking towards Maneru

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Remnants of the old Roman road, 2000 years old, outside Puente La Reina 

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An elaborate map of the world in a field 

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A handy reminder in Uterga as to how far Puente La Reina is

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Free wine at Irache – just put a container under the tap and pour

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Journey’s end – Logroño

But now, here I was, alone in the pre-dawn heading towards Logroño. The towns of Sansol and Torres del Rio were asleep as I passed through and in the absence of any open restaurants I breakfasted, on the hoof, on my energy bars and orange juice. By the time I got to Viana people were up and about and I had coffee and a tortilla in a little café in that picturesque place. Then it was time for the final push towards Logroño and just before the city I passed from Navarra into La Rioja with vineyards producing that excellent wine in abundance all around. As I sat in one of the city’s plazas I contemplated the finish of another Camino section, the people I had met, the beautiful country I had passed through and I looked forward to doing another one next year.

Bad Photos of Irish Properties For Sale

Originally posted on John Finn Photography:

Updated 11th March, 2015

Daft.ie is Ireland’s biggest property site and it’s a valuable resource for anyone thinking of buying or renting property. You can browse through images of houses, apartments and commercial premises from all around the country, images that have been uploaded by auctioneers and estate agents.

I would love to say that the photographs have all been well-taken – properly lit, in focus and well composed – but, alas, that is not so in a frighteningly large number of cases (if a quick browse through a random sample of properties is anything to go by).

Which prompts the question: why, if you are an auctioneer/estate agent, do you not ensure that properties are presented in the best possible way so as to entice prospective buyers/renters?

It is not good enough to use a 10-year-old compact camera to fire off a few out-of-focus shots and hope for the…

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Carrauntoohill, December 2014

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Carrauntoohill is the large peak on the right

I’ve been hillwalking in the MacGillycuddy Reeks since the 1980s and I’ve probably been up Carrauntoohill, the highest peak in the range at 3,406 feet – and the highest in Ireland – at least once a year over that time.

It was in the news recently when some people carried an angle-grinder to the summit and cut down the steel cross that had stood there since 1976. This was in protest, apparently, at the number of schools run by the Catholic Church in Ireland. The culprits have not been identified nor are they likely to be.

The incident resulted in some debate in the media as to what should be done – should the cross be re-erected or, as Atheist Ireland recommended, should there be a “more inclusive” symbol put in its place – if, indeed, there should be any object put there at all. The need for planning permission was mentioned, something that was not of concern back in 1976.

In the event, one week after the felling, the cross was re-erected by a group of local people and there it stands none the worse for its sudden impact with the stony ground. The culprits unwittingly helped in its swift restoration due to the clean cut at the base and because they did not cut it into pieces and hurl them down the steep northern side of the mountain. I suspect that once they felled it they got out of the area as quickly as they could.

I’m glad it’s back upright. The first sight of the cross as one makes one’s way through the last few hundred feet to the summit is always a relief – finally! I’ve made it! In poor visibility it serves as a useful landmark. I’ve never regarded it as a symbol of Catholic triumphalism – it’s just a simple steel cross that has been there for a long time and the summit would not be the same without it. Leave it be.

The incident prompted me to make another trip to Carrauntoohill last Saturday. The recent cold weather would have the Reeks looking their best with their winter raiment of snow. The forecast was for good sunny spells and the only consideration at this time of the year was the hours of daylight – it would be getting dark shortly after 4pm and the round trip to the summit would take about 6 – 7 hours so an early start was necessary. I left home around 5:45am for the 1.5 hour drive to the starting off point at Cronins’ Farm and I began my trek up the Hag’s Glen at 7:30am. The sky was beginning to brighten but a head torch was necessary for the first 20 minutes or so.

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Sunrise behind the Eastern Reeks

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Sheep crossing my path up the Hag’s Glen  

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The first rays of sunlight hitting the flank of Carrauntoohill 

My route was up the glen and thence the ascent of the Devil’s Ladder – a 500 feet steep gully – on to the saddle (a narrow, level stretch of ground between Carraountoohill and the Eastern Reeks) and thence the remaining relatively easy 1000 feet to the summit. This is the most popular route although there are more interesting options such as via The Bone, The Heavenly Gates or O’Shea’s Gully.

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Ascending the Devil’s Ladder

The snowline began about half way up the Ladder and it was thick on the ground on top. The usual path was not visible due to the snow and so I just followed the footsteps of a climber ahead of me. By the time I got to the summit visibility had significantly worsened. It was obvious that there wasn’t going to be any sunlit vistas of the Reeks anytime soon and it was too cold to linger there for  long. After a bite to eat I set off back down the slope. It was snowing now and the marks of my footsteps on the way up were becoming indistinct. I was soon down below the cloud however and the saddle at the top of the Devil’s Ladder wasn’t too far away.

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Looking towards the summit of Carrauntoohill from the top of the Devil’s Ladder

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The first glimpse of the summit cross in the deteriorating visibility

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I usually try to avoid going down the Devil’s Ladder as it can be awkward to negotiate and there is a lot of loose rocks to contend with. However, my preferred option of descending via the Zig Zag path would have meant climbing Cnoc an Toinne the top of which was above the cloud line and I wasn’t prepared to deal with poor visibility in the snow. I made my way down the Ladder therefore and my walking poles gave me badly needed support.

It was disappointing that despite the good weather forecast the night before there wasn’t a clear sky on top. The views are spectacular when there is and especially so when there is snow on the mountains. Still, seven hours traversing this wonderful part of Ireland is always a pleasure regardless of the weather.

Camino de Santiago – Burgos to León

In September 2013 I walked my first part of the Camino de Francés from Sarria to Santiago and I wrote about it here: https://carrigmanblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/camino-de-santiago-sarria-to-santiago.  Like many others who have walked a section of the Camino, I returned to do another part of it and in September of this year I walked from Burgos to León, a 180 km trek across the Meseta.

This was a different landscape entirely to the Sarria to Santiago section which was through countryside very much reminiscent of parts of Ireland. The Meseta is open and mainly flat with wheat fields stretching as far as the eye can see. Some people hate it for its relative monotony and lack of variety. I loved it. I found the landscape to be quite beautiful and some of the towns and villages were far more picturesque than any I came across in Galicia.

I had timed my trip to coincide with a full moon – something I would recommend to anyone doing a week or two at a time – and it was a wonderful, numinous experience walking a few mornings in the still countryside bathed in bright moonlight a couple of hours before dawn. Even at those early hours there were other peregrinos (pilgrims) on the path. I even heard of people who walked only at night and slept by day- which is a bit extreme.  However. doing at least one very early start – 5am or thereabouts –  when there are clear skies is a must-do.

I have added a section below the photographs containing some practical advice for anyone thinking of doing the Camino either in whole or in part and information on what worked for me.

Here are some photographs that give an idea of what the route is like – click on them to see them in larger size:

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The first day out from Burgos, the outskirts of the city have been left behind, and we are on the Camino proper. 

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The wheatfields are full of stubble now as the wheat has been harvested.

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One of the iconic views of this section  – downhill towards the village of Hornmillos del Camino.  Roman legions would have passed this way.  

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The well dressed peregrino! Note the wide-brimmed Tilley hat to guard against the sun and the Buff neckband – a versatile piece of cloth that can be used as a headband, neckband, etc. Ideal for dunking in a water fountain and putting on one’s head to cool down. Brierley’s book of maps sticking out of the left Craghopper trouser pocket.  The walking poles are not mine – they belonged to the photographer. I didn’t use walking poles but most walkers did.  They’re probably more useful in more hilly terrain than the Meseta.

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A panorama of typical countryside. 

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Just after dawn.

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The ubiquitous yellow directional arrows mean that it is practically impossible to lose your way. The Camino is exceptionally well signposted.  

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Another of the yellow arrows as well as the scallop-shell sign pointing the way. 

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Occasionally the Camino intersects with a public road. The STOP signs are usually adorned with graffiti.  

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Approaching the village of Hontanas. 

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The last few kilometres into Castrojeriz is on a tarred road. Some small sections of the Camino are on such roads. 

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A picturesque row of houses in Castrojeriz.

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An old door and window in a village street.

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A couple of older folks having a chat.  

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The moon reflected in the Rio Pisuerga at Itero de la Vega. 

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The approach to Carrion de los Condes is by the side of a (not very busy) road.

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This is part of the 17km stretch between Carrion de los Condes and Caldadilla de la Cueza – straight as a die as far as the eye can see. It was built by the Roman army – it’s part of the Via Trajana that connected France and Spain. I defy any man to walk this section and not imagine himself marching along in the uniform of a Roman legionnaire. It’s long and monotonous. It helps, if doing it on your own, to listen to some music to while away the time.

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Some weary looking Sunflowers.  

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One of the doors to a Bodega – where wine is stored – at Moratinos. 

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This particular peregrino was carrying not only a substantial load on his back but he had a peculiar looking two-wheeled contraption in which he carried more stuff. He stepped into a harness between the two bars at the front and off he went, flat right tyre and all (he must have forgotton to pack a puncture repair kit). Most peculiar.  He has done the Camino several times, he said, and he needed an extra challenge this time. He didn’t want his photo taken so I have used one that doesn’t reveal his face nor shall I name him. Without doubt, the most extraordinary walker I met. And he’s Irish!

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Occasionally, you come across a memorial to a peregrino who died on the way.

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Stormy skies. There was a thunderstorm between El Burgo Ranero and Mansilla de Las Mullas. Ear-splitting thunder and spectacular lightning. It was a marvelous experience walking along with flashes of lightning all around.   

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On the outskirts of León, the endpoint of my Camino this year.

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The Cathedral of Santa Maria de León. 

 

PRACTICAL ADVICE 

FOOTWEAR: wear good quality walking shoes, not boots. Mine are Merrells:

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Buy a pair one size larger than your normal shoe size. Be sure to have them “run in” at least a few months before you do the Camino. Otherwise, you will increase your chances of getting blisters, the bane of the peregrino. Which brings us to the subject of socks …

SOCKS – I brought “1000 Mile” socks which are “guaranteed to prevent blisters”. I must admit I was sceptical of this guarantee and had put it down to advertising hyperbole. My doubt was unjustified – the socks work: I hadn’t even a hint of a blister over the eight days I was walking and other walkers who had them reported the same happy outcome. They work because of their dual layer construction which eliminates friction between the foot and the shoe. It is this friction that causes blisters. The same result could probably be achieved by wearing two pairs of socks – a thin inner and a thicker outer. Bet that as it may, I am now a true believer in 1000 Mile socks – available at all good Outdoors stores and via Amazon  – and will wear them for all long walking and hiking from now on.  A further piece of advice that was given to me by a seasoned Camino walker whom I meet on the bus from Bilbao airport: don’t change your socks every day – wear them for three or four days at a time –  and have a right sock and a left sock. I did so and it may or may not have contributed to my blister-free bliss. I wasn’t going to take any chances. (Not that I wore those socks all day – when I reached a day’s destination and showered, I changed into a clean pair. But I put back on the other socks when setting out the next morning.)

BACKPACK: buy a good quality one such as those made by Berghaus, North Face, etc. Get it in a dedicated Outdoors store where an assistant will be able to advise you regarding the best fit for you. A 30 to 35 litre bag is more than enough. Do *not* buy a cheap bag in a discount store. I met a man who did just that and he bitterly regretted it.

WHAT TO BRING: as little as possible.  Reducing the weight of your backpack is of paramount importance. Mine weighed 7kgs but I met others who had it down to 5kgs.  Here is what I had in my bag :

1. A spare Craghopper trousers (with removable lower legs to turn them into shorts)
2. A pair of lightweight shoes for relaxing in after the day’s walk was over.
3. Two Tilley briefs (they are quick drying and there are male and female ones)
4. Two pairs of 1000 Mile  socks
5. Tilley hemp hat
6. A lightweight jacket for those cool mornings.
7. Three tee-shirts (could have got by with two)
8. iPod
9. Lightweight rain jacket (did not use)
10. Two-metre length of string and a few safety pins for drying clothes
11. Phone/camera charger and socket adapter
12. Spare 16GB memory card for camera.
13. Sony RX100 compact camera with 16GB memory card
14. Phone
15. Mini-tripod (pocketable) for camera.
16. Pilgrim Passport
17. Small cheap notebook and biro
18. John Brierley’s book of maps.
19. Razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, “King of Shaves” mini-bottle of shaving oil
20. Compeed blister plasters (did not use)
21. Factor 30 sun-screen
22.Boarding passes/passport/money/keys  23. Petzl head-torch  24. Six large (10 inches x 10 inches) zip-lock bags for storing some of the above items 25. Kindle 26. Two bottles of water.

Adopt the mantra: wash one, wear one. Live simply. As a woman said to me, the Camino is one place where no one gives a damn if you are wearing the same outfit for two days in a row. It’s not a fashion parade.

I DON’T WANT TO CARRY A HEAVY BAG – WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS? If you have used a travel agency to organise your trip it will probably have arranged to have your gear brought to your next destination each day. All you need to carry is a light day-pack. You can also avail of this service on your own – check out http://www.jacotrans.com/p/english.html. You will see leaflets advertising their service at most accommodations. It’s a handy service to fall back on if necessary.

WHERE TO STAY: here is where I confess to not being a real peregrino – I have never stayed in an albergue, the dormitory type of hostel accommodation where people sleep next to and over each other. It’s just that I am a very light sleeper and I fear that the nightly noises and comings and goings of my fellow pilgrims would interfere with my much needed sleep. I know I’m missing out on the communal spirit and bonhomie that the albergues engender and the loss is all mine, I’m sure. Still, I prefer my privacy and that’s that. So, I stay in hostals (not to be confused with hostels) which are like our B&Bs – you have a private room to yourself (and your partner, if relevant).  They cost more – about €30 on average – as against €10 or so for an albergue but for me, for the short duration of my Camino, it is worth it. I get my sleep and I don’t have to worry about security (apparently, when taking a shower in an albergue you have to bring your passport, money and other valuables with you in a plastic bag).  I also stayed in hotels when hostals were not available.   Which brings me to how I booked them:

BOOKING  ACCOMMODATION: I used Booking.com which I think is an excellent website. It also has a brilliant smartphone app which synchs perfectly with the website. Alternatively, you can just arrive in a town and check around for a room.  At the very least you’ll end up in an albergue. Don’t worry – you won’t end up sleeping on a bench.

HOW FAR TO WALK EACH DAY? This is where you need one of John Brierley’s books. Brierley’s guides are excellent in that they provide a detailed map for each day’s walk and most walkers carry either his “Pilgrim’s Guide To The Camino de Santiago” or his “Camino de Santiago Maps”. (Available in good bookstores or from Amazon.) I prefer the latter. It is a reduced version of the former and contains the maps and a brief description of the walk. It has none of the spiritual waffle of the bigger book and it is much lighter to carry – always a major consideration. Here is an example of the walk from Carrión de los Condes to Terradillos de Templarios:

 

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You don’t have to stop at Terradillos, of course. You can carry on to the next village, or further again, if you wish. However, Brierley has chosen a daily distance of 26.8kms for this stretch and daily distances of between 20 and 27kms are about right. Yes, you can attempt distances of more if you like but be careful – you can easily cause an injury to yourself by too much daily exertion. Relax after your walk. Chill out. Explore the village or town. Meet fellow walkers for a few drinks. Join them for a meal. That’s what the Camino is about, not trying to set some kind of distance record.

A TYPICAL DAY:  Aim to get on the path at least a half an hour before sunrise. In September, this meant setting out at 7am at the latest. Check for the yellow arrows as you leave the town/village. You will see other walkers already on the trail. There will usually be a village a few kilometres away and you can stop there for breakfast if you haven’t already had one. Be sure you are carrying water, especially for those long stretches where there are no facilities.  Drink plenty of water. After stopping for a coffee and something to eat, set off again. Keep a nice even comfortable pace. This is not a race. If you are walking with another person or persons and they are moving too fast for you, let them off. You can catch up with them at the next stop. Enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside. Talk to other walkers, maybe walk with them for a while. Take a rest when you feel the need. There is no rush.  You will reach you destination for the day between 12 noon and 2 pm usually and if it takes longer, so what? There is plenty of time. Just be careful about the heat of the afternoon – it can be very intense.

When you book in to your accommodation – albergue, hostal or hotel – you can relax, have a shower, do your laundry and then head out and explore your surroundings and maybe have a drink with other walkers. Later, you can meet up for dinner, or stay on your own, or with your partner, whatever. You’ll probably go to bed around 9pm. The Camino is no place for late night carousing. You’d suffer too much the following day.

And that will be the daily routine, more or less, for however long you intend to walk.

IS IT SAFE? Absolutely. There is no question of any threat or menace attaching itself to any aspect of the Camino. For a woman walking on her own therefore there should be no concerns whatsoever. I passed several women solo walkers in the pre-dawn hours. There are always walkers ahead of you and behind you. So, if you were unfortunate enough to suffer an accident you can be sure that within minutes someone will come along to assist.

WHEN TO DO IT?  You can do it at any time of the year but Spring and Autumn are the optimum times. Avoid June, July and August because of the intense heat.

WHY DO IT? A good question. People do the Camino for a variety of reasons. There are bona fide pilgrims who are doing it for traditional religious reasons; people who want the opportunity of a long distance walk to think about Life, The Universe, And Everything; individuals like André from South Africa whose wife died last year and he was doing it in her memory (with a picture of his wife on the back of his rucksack); others (like me) who enjoy the physical and mental challenge and who want to immerse themselves in an environment and in an activity totally different to The Real World back home. There is a very refreshing Zen like quality to the experience. The regular daily routine of putting one foot in front of another, wondering what is around the next corner or over the next hill, the concentration on getting to your destination – all contribute to pushing your normal everyday concerns back home into the background and enabling you to live, to some degree at least, in the Now. You will invariably return not only in better physical shape but mentally as well. And perhaps, as Bernard from Galway said to me, “you have to be a little bit mad to do it”.

There is also the fact that you are taking part in something that stretches back to the 12th century, that the path you are treading has been walked on by hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of people before you and pilgrims will continue to pass this way long after you are gone.  This sense of participation in a great and ancient enterprise is both humbling and empowering. It provides purpose and meaning to what in one sense is just a long walk but ultimately is so much more than that.  It is remarkable that what grew out of a medieval religious worldview, a perspective that is alien both to the modern religious as well as secular mindset, should be growing in popularity every year. The desire for pilgrimage – a journey of spiritual significance regardless of how one interprets “spiritual”, be it the traditional believer’s journey for a saint’s blessing, or the modern man’s quest for mindfulness or whatever- seems to be a powerful one and the Camino satisfies that need regardless of one’s religious or non-religious affiliation.

HOW TO ORGANISE THE TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS:  There are travel companies that will do all the arrangements for you but it is cheaper and easy to do it yourself. I flew from Dublin to Bilbao with Aer Lingus. If you are starting in St Jean Pied de Port fly Ryanair to Biarritz. If doing the Sarria to Santiago section fly Aer Lingus to Santiago. You can also fly to Madrid and get a train from there. There are many options depending on which section of the Camino you want to do. For rail timetables check out http://www.renfe.com and for buses, http://www.alsa.es. (You can get great online fares – my 5-hour train journey from León to Bilbao cost €12.50!) As ever, Google is you friend. I started planning my trip in May so give yourself plenty of time.

I hope this has been of some help. Please contact me if you have any questions.

 

 

 

 

Ballycotton Island Tour

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Ballycotton Island from Ballinamona Strand.

[Click on any photo to see a larger version]

I first set foot on Ballycotton Island three years ago when a local fisherman dropped me off there at 6:30am and collected me four hours later. It was highly irregular as visitors were not permitted on the island which is the property of the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Not that it bothered me. I was fulfilling a life-long ambition. I was reared in a cottage along the coast road to Knockadoon and the island, its powerful light and deep booming foghorn were part of my earliest memories. I therefore made the most of the opportunity when the chance to surreptitiously visit it eventually arose and it was a wonderful experience. I was the only person there for the duration. It was like being marooned on a desert island (but in a good way).

There is no need any longer for clandestine visits. Since July of this year there are organised tours of the island with access the the lighthouse itself (something that was not, of course, available to me on my previous visit). Ballycotton Lighthouse Tours is a new company supported by SECAD (South & East Cork Area Development), Ballymaloe Foods and Cronin Millar Engineering and with the cooperation of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.  The driving force behind the initiative is Yasmin Hyde, daughter of Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe House, and owner of the Ballymaloe Country Relish company. It was she who had the vision for public access to the island and it is great to see that it has become a reality.

I took the 90-minute tour last Saturday. A tip to prospective visitors – book in advance. Business is brisk and my granddaughter and I were lucky to get the last two places on the 3pm sailing. Tickets (€20 adult, €10 child) are available at The Inn By the Harbour which is on the right hand side as you drive down the hill to Ballycotton Pier. For more information see: http://www.ballycottonislandlighthousetours.com

The newly acquired boat (appropriately named “Yassy”) is licensed to carry 12 people plus crew. The short crossing  lasts about 10 minutes and so should be bearable by all but the most chronic thallasophobes.  The water was flat calm for our trip.

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 The “Yassy” returning to Ballycotton pier with a group of visitors.  

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Sailing to the island.

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The once shining white walls of the island are now a dirty grey due to not being painted for several years. This is a pity and is something the Commissioners of Irish Lights should address.

Our guide was Eddie Fitzgerald. Eddie is a former lighthouse man who served in Ballycotton Lighthouse as well as in several others around the country. He knowledge of, and obvious love for, all things lighthouse related and his ebullient  personality made for a most entertaining and educational experience. (It was only afterwards I learned that Eddie also has another string to his bow that he didn’t divulge on the day –  he was a member of famed 1970s East Cork pop group Gina, Dale Haze and The Champions.)

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 Guide Eddie Fitzgerald at the start of the tour on the island.

For a detailed history of the background to and the building of the lighthouse and the changes that were made over the years check out the Commissioners of Irish Lights Ballycotton page: http://www.cil.ie/tourism/our-lighthouses/ballycotton.aspx

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Eddie telling us about the lighthouse men’s houses. 

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Ballycotton is one of only a few black lighthouses in the world.  

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The highlight of the tour for me was entering the lighthouse, climbing the granite steps and walking out on the balcony with its fine views.

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    A detail of the consummate workmanship apparent in the granite steps inside the lighthouse.

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 Looking west towards Ballycotton village. 

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Looking East towards Capel Island. The hexagonal structure in the foreground is the remains of a housing for a bell that was used in the 19th century, before the foghorn, to warn mariners they were near the island.

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 “Yassy” returning to the island with another group and to take us back. 

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 The pier on the north side of the island.

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The tour represents a marvelous opportunity to visit one of the landmarks of East Cork and is well worth the price.

Highly recommended.

Dunlough Castle

The first sight of Dunlough Castle invariably elicits the response: “wow!”

After a 20 minute walk first through pleasant meadows and then an easy climb up rocky ground the castle with its three towers, bounded on one side by sheer cliffs and on the other by a lake, comes into view.

“Wow” indeed.

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(Left click on any photo to see it in larger size.)  

“A hidden gem” is an over-used travel cliché but it is appropriate in this instance. The castle, on the north-western point of the Mizen Peninsula in West Cork, is hidden from the public road and is not touted in any brochure as a popular destination. It is on private property, is not sign-posted in any way, and visitors are not so much encouraged as tolerated. It is well worth seeking out, however.

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The lake was man-made. A legend persists that if one sees the spectral Lady Of The Lake one’s death will follow soon. 

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It was built in 1207 by Donagh O’Mahony who was driven west to this extremity by the invading Normans and their Irish allies. The O’Mahony clan lived peacefully here and in other castles in the area for the next 400 years and earned a living primarily from fishing related activities. Their fortunes declined after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 and by 1627 the castle had passed into loyalist hands. It was probably abandoned soon afterwards.

The dry-stone construction nature of the building has meant that many of the stones have fallen over the centuries. Still, for a castle that is over 800 years old, and given its location in one of the wildest parts of Ireland, it is in remarkably good condition. Visitors should note that there is a risk in getting too close to it (although it is impossible to resist) as one never knows if the next falling stone could be on one’s head!

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Detail showing the dry-stone (no mortar) construction and some of the fallen stones.

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An interior view of one of the towers. 

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Note the sheer drop into the sea.

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On the ground above the castle is this memorial to Andy Brubaker who died on 24th March, 1996. I would welcome any information on him.

Where it is.

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How to get there.

If you have a SatNav dial in these co-ordinates: 51.478, -9.815.

This will bring you to the small car parking area at the edge of Dunlough Bay.

If not, keep on the road for Mizen Head. When you come to the junction with a sign showing Mizen Head 3kms to the left continue on straight, turn right at the next junction and keep on the narrow road until you reach the car park.

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The car parking area is next to the magnificent Dunlough Bay.  

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The land is private property and is owned by the famous French/German writer and illustrator Tomi Ungererer whose  house is in the distance. From here, you walk. You are *not* allowed to drive up that road.  

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The route is roughly as shown on this map.

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Veer left as shown before you come to the house. Do *not* approach it!

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I would suggest €2 as an appropriate donation.

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The route is through verdant meadows and (in the distance) steeper rocky ground.

When you get back it is worth staying awhile to drink in the beauty of Dunlough Bay. I was there on a beautiful day in mid-Summer. It must be a wild place indeed during a winter storm.

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Dunlough Bay from next to the car parking area.  

 

(Thanks to Noel Lane of Cork City who told me about this magical place.)