Camino de Santiago: Sarria to Santiago

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Last June I wrote about my decision to walk a section of the Camino  https://carrigmanblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/preparing-for-the-camino/ and on the 19th September my plans became a reality and I flew to Santiago to spend five days walking the path.

I am well aware that this was very much a Camino-lite. Five days and 110 kms are insignificant against the full Camino de Francés which takes about thirty three days. (There are other Camino routes as well and the longest is the Via de la Plata which starts in Seville and takes about forty days).  For those real Camino veterans, those that have walked either the whole route in one go or have done considerably longer sections than the Sarria to Santiago “tourist” leg,  this account will, rightly, read very much like a dilettante’s impressions.  It is written primarily for those who may be interested in giving the Camino a go but who do not want to  commit to more than a week’s walking.  Of more interest, perhaps, will be the photographs as they (I hope) give a good idea of what the route looks like and what to expect on the way. (Left click on any photograph to see it in a larger size.)  At the end of the article is a section I’ve entitled “Practicalities” – a list of items that I brought with me as well as a day-by-day itinerary.    

First thing to do before setting off was to get my Pilgrim Passport – my credencial –  stamped at the reception desk of the B&B I stayed at in Sarria.  Anyone doing the last 100 kms needs two stamps per day in order to qualify for a compostela –  a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage – at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago.  Anywhere you stay will stamp the passport as will churches, bars and restaurants along the way.

The accommodation I had booked in Sarria was ideally placed for commencing the Camino.  I walked out the door, took the next left and there was a yellow arrow pointing the way. The yellow arrow, like the scallop shell symbol, is a distinguishing mark of the Camino and, on the section I walked at least, meant that it is practically impossible to lose your way. At no point on the trek had I to ask myself – ” which way now?”.  In any event, all you needed to do was to follow other walkers. The Sarria to Santiago section is the most popular one and for nearly the entire route there were walkers within 200 yards or so of me at all times.

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Heading out of Sarria on a foggy morning

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110 kms to go! These  concrete waypoints as well as the ubiquitous yellow arrows guide the way

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After leaving Sarria the path wound through some woodland and then climbed into open farmland. There was a heady smell of pig manure from the fields.  The smell of manure and cow dung was prevalent  through long sections of the Camino as to be expected in an agricultural area.  It’s not exactly Chanel No 5 but it’s a healthy rural aroma nonetheless.

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Walking though the farmland in the early morning fog lent the scene an appropriate mystical feel and I was  reminded of the lines “For you are driving your horses through/The mist where Genesis begins” from Patrick Kavanagh’s “To The Man After The Harrow”.

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“The mist where Genesis begins”

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A soft-drink dispensing machine in unlikely juxtaposition with a farm building. 

As the morning wore on the sun burned off the fog and the full vista of the countryside was revealed.

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The path often went through little hamlets and farmyards:

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Cows have right of way

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This photo of cyclists reminds me to advise walkers to leave their iPods at home. Cyclists tend to whizz by every now and then and, especially on narrow sections, can be dangerous if you are unable to hear them approaching from behind. In any case, wearing an iPod is undesirable as you cut yourself off from the sounds of the countryside – the birdsong, the lowing of the cattle, the “cock-a doodle-dos” of the cockerels in the early morning – as well as impeding human contact which is an essential part of the Camino experience.

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 A walker feeding a horse an apple. Apples were in season and very plentiful.

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The first time I saw one of these structures – practically every farm had one – I was intrigued. What was its function?  The cross suggested some religious significance. Was it a shrine? If so, why was it bricked-up? Was it some kind of tomb perhaps? Used they bury bodies inside them? The truth turned out to be far more prosaic – it’s a corn-crib used for ripening husks of corn.

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Taking a break in the midday sun at one of the many cafés that dot the Camino. There is no need to take food or drink provisions in your rucksack. Apart from saving weight, stopping off at a café is a sociable event.

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Some short sections involve walking on open road, mostly minor roads with little or no traffic and occasionally you have to cross a busy main highway (the N-540).

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A punnet of delicious raspberries purchased from an honour stall – you take the item and leave the money in the box provided.

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Arrows point the way.

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My shadow in the early morning sunshine. I started out each day at 8 o’clock at the latest and walked for about 6 to 7 hours. It became very hot in the middle of the day and so walking for longer was impractical. The earliest I set out was at 6:45 am  on the last day into Santiago. It was dark and the moon and the stars shone. The route was through woodland and I had to use my head-torch for illumination.  It was balmy and the only sound was the crickets chirping in the undergrowth. Ahead of me, like fireflies, were other walkers shining their lights.  I passed two Spanish girls who had a tiny torch that gave very little light whereas my Petzl emitted a fine beam that lit up the path.  As I passed the girls one of them said – “Gracias por la luz!” I’m sorry I didn’t do more very early starts.  Walking from the darkness into light seems appropriately symbolic for the Camino as well as being a practical way of avoiding the hard slog of the hot afternoons.

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The bridge at Portomarin

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Walkers taking a rest by a refreshing stream 

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The Camino wends its way through beautiful countryside

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People leave their mark 

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Pulpo

At Melide, halfway between Sarria and Santiago is an obligatory stop-off point: Pulperia Ezequiel on the Main Street. It serves delicious pulpo (boiled octopus served with olive oil and paprika) which is reputedly the best in Galicia and, perhaps, in the whole of Spain. The place was teeming with walkers seated at the long communal wooden benches when I arrived there about 11am on Sunday.  Behind the counter where you order your pulpo is a large pot of boiling water in which the octopus is cooked overseen by a man with tattoos of tentacles on his arms. It is served on a wooden platter and, with good bread and a bottle of beer or a jug of wine, it is one of the finest meals you can have.  

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A memorial at O Pedrouzo to Myra Brennan of Kilkenny and Sligo who died in Santiago in 2003 after completing her second consecutive Camino

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Dawn light through the trees near Santiago on the last day of the walk

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On the outskirts of Santiago

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The open countryside has been left behind and the route goes through more built-up areas  

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A monument marking the visit of Pope John Paul 11 on the top of Monte de Gozo just outside Santiago

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Myself in typical dorky tourist pose by the John Paul 11 monument 

The end of the road: Santiago

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A constant stream of walkers ending their Camino enter Santiago every day

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People congratulate each other on completion and bid farewell, It can be a very emotional experience.   

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This young man did his Camino barefoot and his feet seemed perfectly fine. I heard him explaining to a couple of girls that he lost one of his shoes early on the route and as he couldn’t walk with just one, and as it was not possible to buy another pair, he simply went without any.

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Pilgrims queue up to get their compostelas (certificates of completion) at the Pilgrims Office. You have to present your stamped credencial (pilgrim passport) and you complete a register indicating your name, age, nationality, where you began your camino and whether you did it with a religious or a non-religious motivation.  There are separate compostelas depending on your answer to the latter.

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The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the terminus point of all the Caminos.  Every day at noon there is a mass for pilgrims and it is full to overflowing during the busy walking season. People of all religions and none attend as it is a fitting ritual to mark the completion of the walk. Occasionally, you may be lucky (as I was) to  witness the Botafumeiro (“smoke expeller” in Galician) being swung. It is a large censer – an incense holder –  suspended  from the roof of the cathedral by pulleys. Eight red-robed tiraboleiros pull the ropes producing increasingly large oscillations of the censer. It swings to and fro almost reaching the ceiling all the while emitting thick clouds of incense.

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Preparing the censer 

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The censer swinging across the transept of the cathedral  

My five days walking the Camino was a wonderful experience but it was too short.  When I reached Santiago I wished I had at least another week to go.  Like most other people who have tried the Camino, I want to go back again.  Next year I may do another section perhaps starting from St  Jean Pied de Port in France and go over the Pyrenees into Spain.  Or maybe the Via de la Plata from Seville to Cáceres.  Health and opportunity permitting  I can see myself tramping my way along some section or other of the Camino for several years to come.

 

Practicalities

What I brought with me:

1. Two Craghopper trousers (one with removable lower legs to turn them into shorts)
2. Merrell Walking Shoes (purchased several months ago and well worn-in)
3. Two Tilley briefs
4. Two pairs of Tilley socks
5. Tilley hemp hat
6. Fleece jacket
7. Four tee-shirts (could have got by with two)
8. Lightweight canvas shoes (for relaxing in after a day’s walk)
9. iPod (did not use)
10. Platypus hydration bag (used once)
11. Pocket towel (did not use)
12. Sleeping bag liner (did not use)
13. Lightweight rain jacket (did not use)
14. Two-metre length of string and a few clothes pegs for drying clothes
15. Phone/camera charger and socket adapter
16. Spare 16GB memory card and spare battery for camera (spare battery was not required)
17. Sony RX100 compact camera with 16GB memory card
18. Phone
19. Mini-tripod (pocketable) for camera (did not use)
20. Pilgrim Passport
21. Small cheap notebook and biro
22. Relevant pages ripped from John Brierley’s book “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago”
23. Razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, “King of Shaves” mini-bottle of shaving oil
24. Compeed blister plasters (did not use but still a vital piece of kit)
25. Factor 30 sun-screen
26. Biofreeze pain-relieving roll-on treatment (did not use)
27. Boarding passes/passport/money/keys
28. Petzl head-torch
29. Six large (10 inches x 10 inches) zip-lock bags for storing some of the above items

30. Kindle

The trick to carrying a minimum of clothes is to use the “wash one, wear one” principle. Tilley clothing is ideal for this as their products are quick drying and washed and hung out at night they will normally be dry in the morning.

I used a Berghaus “Freeflow 30+6” rucksack (36 litre capacity) to house the above. It proved a very comfortable fit and was very easy to carry. The total packed weight was 7.4 kgs.  If your bag weighs more than 10 kgs you need to seriously examine what you are carrying.  I am also assured by people who have done the full 30+ days Camino that a 30-40 litre rucksack is perfectly adequate.

I did not carry water. On the first day I filled the Platypus with 1.5 litres of water but I felt it added significantly to the weight so I ditched the contents. There is no shortage of cafes on the route and it’s pleasant and sociable to stop and buy water and drink it on the premises.  It all depends on your personal preference of course: some people like to have water available at all times.

I did not use walking poles. I had considered bringing them (I use them for hill-walking at home) but I decided against it and I’m glad I did. I think they would, for me, have been more of a nuisance than a help.

I did not use the iPod. Apart from the undesirability of insulating yourself from the sounds of the countryside and the interaction with other people there is a very real practical reason why you shouldn’t use one: cyclists. Cyclists tend to whizz by in groups of four or five and, on a narrow path, you would probably not hear the faint tinkling of their bells as they approach – those that have bells fitted to their bikes in the first place, that is (few of them do).

My itinerary

I did not go through a travel agency when planning the trip. I booked the flights online as well as the accommodation along the way (primarily via TripAdvisor and LateRooms.com).  There is no need to book accommodation if you plan on using the alburgues – the pilgrims’ hostels – which are widely available. I made a conscious decision to avoid them. I appreciate that by so doing I missed out on an important Camino experience but I am a light sleeper and I did not want to be disturbed by the comings and goings of people at all hours of the night during the busiest section of the Camino when the alburgues would be busier than at any other part of the route.

I flew from Dublin to Santiago with Aer Lingus on Thursday 19th September. I got a bus from Santiago airport to Lugo (about 2 hours) and another bus from Lugo to Sarria (30 minutes).

Friday 20th Sep:                  Sarria to Portomarin                      23kms     About 6 hours

Saturday 21st Sep:              Portomarin to Palas de Rei           22kms   About 6 hours

Sunday 22nd Sep:               Palas de Rei to Arzua                     28kms     About 7 hours

Monday 23rd Sep:               Arzua to Amenal                             23kms     About 6 hours

Tuesday 24th Sep:              Amenal to Santiago                        14kms    About 4 hours

I flew back to Dublin on Thursday 26th.

Mine Head Lighthouse

Mine Head Lighthouse in West Waterford is somewhat off the beaten track. To get there you have to negotiate a warren of by-roads in the Old Parish area and I would have given up had I not had the co-ordinates programmed in to my Sat Nav, co-ordinates which I had obtained by studying the location on Google Earth. The road ends at the entrance to a farm and from there to the lighthouse there is a driveable path of about a mile or so. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I should have sought permission to proceed at the farmhouse. On the basis that it is easier to seek forgiveness than permission I kept going and I didn’t meet anyone throughout my time there.

It is a wonderful looking lighthouse perched on a cliff-top with views across the coast of Waterford as far as Brownstown Head near Dunmore East. The white pillars near the Metal Man at Tramore were clearly visible in the late evening light. Looking west you can see Ram Head in Ardmore and beyond that Ballycotton Island in East Cork.

(Left-click to see images in larges size)

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The lighthouse looked resplendent in the Autumn sunshine and I was eagerly looking forward to sunset when the sensors or timers would activate the light and the lighthouse would do what it is meant to do: emit flashes at regular intervals. With a bright waxing-gibbous moon, a calm sea and little wind all the conditions were right for some stunning blue-hour lighthouse photography.

So, I waited and waited. Eventually, the sun set. Off to the south-east, Hook Head Lighthouse began to flash, its light just visible over the horizon. It wouldn’t be long now before Mine Head started to do its thing. I could hardly wait. It might be a long time again before I’d get conditions as good as this and I was going to make the most of the opportunity.

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Mine Head Lighthouse photographed from Ram Head, Ardmore 

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The light of Mine Head photographed from Ardmore 

I looked through the viewfinder anticipating that first magnificent flash. And then … a tiny little light, about the size of those halogen units you can buy in hardware stores, clamped on to the railing at the top of the tower started to flash. What the f….? Was this it? It was. I stood up and, John McEnroe-like, addressed the lighthouse in a loud voice – “ You. Cannot. Be. Serious.” I had waited a couple of hours for this piddling little light? Alas, I had. And with it went my expectations of capturing some great images of the lighthouse in full blaze and the light of the moon on the sea.

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The lamp that currently serves as Mine Head Lighthouse’s light clamped to the railings of the tower

The magnificent light built into the lighthouse itself is no longer operational and instead this puny latched-on lamp does the job instead. No doubt it serves the purpose but what a disappointment it is! What an insult to the men who manned the lighthouse down the years and who kept the fresnel lens of the light in optimum condition the better to signal to passing mariners. The beautiful tower built in 1851 might as well be knocked down if this is going to be its fate. The Commissioners of Irish Lights could just as easily erect a thin steel pole on the spot and clamp the light on top of it.

So, having waited for the amazing images that were never to be I packed up and went home.

What a disappointment!