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!

Croagh Patrick

Another box in my “to do” list was ticked on Thursday – I climbed Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s sacred mountain.

I had intended doing it when I was up in Mayo last year but weather conditions were poor on the day and I didn’t attempt it. I took advantage of the exceptionally good weather this week and, on a whim, I set off for Murrisk – the village at the foot of the mountain – for a three and a half hour drive from East Cork  on Thursday morning.

I arrived at the car park at the base of the mountain around 2pm. I was going to wait until after 6pm before heading up. The average time for the 7km round trip is between 3 and 4 hours and with sunset not due until 10:05pm I had plenty of time before darkness fell. In any case I had my head-torch so the prospect of walking in darkness didn’t worry me. However, after checking into the B&B across the road and after a cool drink in The Tavern I figured I might as well start the climb. I would take it easy as I wanted to be on the summit near sunset. It was now 4pm.

Croagh Patrick is 2,507 feet (762 metres) high – 100 feet lower than Knockmealdown which I climbed a few weeks back. However, it is a much tougher prospect as one has to climb every one of those feet as it starts at sea level.

The Reek as it is known is of course the most climbed mountain in Ireland as it has been a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of years. St. Patrick is supposed to have spent 40 days fasting on the summit after which he banished snakes from Ireland! There is evidence that it was also a place of significance in the pre-Christian era and may have been used for Summer Solstice ceremonies.

The highlight of the modern pilgrimage is Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July when in excess of 15,000 people make their way to the chapel on the summit. It is particularly popular among members of the Travelling Community many of whom do some sections of the walk barefoot. There is a significant macho-man element in the latter, I am told, but whether that is the case or if it is purely penitential I do not know. Regardless of the reason it is astonishing that it is done at all – the ground underfoot is rocky and sharp; it is difficult enough with good footwear – it must be horrendously painful in one’s bare feet.

There is a stall selling walking sticks as you exit the car park towards the start of the walk and it is highly recommended that you purchase one as the upper reaches of the climb are over loose scree and you need all the support you can get. I had my Manfrotto monopod and I used that instead.

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The start of the well-worn track  (left click on photos for larger size)

The path up is, as to be expected, well defined and there is a constant trickle of people negotiating it. It is a straightforward trek up to the saddle with only a few loose rock stretches. As you ascend, the beautiful vista of Clew Bay and its islands open out below you. One of those islands is Dorinish which was once owned by John Lennon but was sold by Yoko Ono after his death.

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Looking back towards Clew Bay

The saddle affords fine views to the south and the path takes an easy level course until the base of the upper cone. The path now veers steeply upwards across loose scree and it is difficult going. The best bet is to keep to the right of the path where there are more firm footholds. This was easy enough to do on the day with few people about; how it must be on Reek Sunday I can only imagine.

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Looking south from the saddle to a well-cultivated peat bog  

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Names and phrases spelled with stones including “Aideen I’m Sorry” – I hope she forgave him

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The upper cone – the path wends its way through loose scree 

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Looking back from half way up the upper cone  

I was relieved to reach the top. It was calm and very hot. The views across all the compass points were magnificent. The chapel itself was closed but a small window showed the basic interior with the centrepiece being a large statue of St Patrick. The gleaming white of the exterior leant the scene a Santorini-like effect especially given the blue sky and the dead heat of the day.

The chapel was built in 1905. Builders lived in huts on the summit for the six-month period of construction. Excavations had uncovered a dry stone oratory – similar to the one at Gallarus in Kerry  and it dated from the period 430AD to 890AD.

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There were a few hours to go until sunset so I relaxed in the shade of the church. Walkers came and went. Some had no more reached the summit when  they turned on their heels and headed back down again, a behaviour that puzzled me – why come all this way and not soak in the scenery for a half hour or so at least?

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One of the three “stations” – I didn’t see anyone doing them

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St Patrick’s Bed

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Looking north across Clew Bay to the Nephin range of North Mayo

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The highest toilet in Ireland –  and in good condition too

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The sun sets towards the Atlantic with Clare Island in the middle distance

The sun began to dim appreciably around 9pm and I took a few photographs as it began to sink towards the Atlantic. A thick blanket of haze soon obscured it well before the actual sunset time of 10:05pm. I headed back down the mountain in the fading light around 9:30pm but I did not need the torch to light the way and I reached the car park at 11pm exactly.

Croagh Patrick is a magnificent mountain and it was a wonderful experience to climb it. That said, I found it very tough going in the 29 degrees heat and in the absence of any wind. I was exhausted at the end of it. My admiration for the people who climb it on Reek Sunday – often in wet and windy conditions – has been considerably increased as a result.

Preparing for the Camino

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Walkers on the Camino – photo courtesy of Scott Connolly   

I had been thinking about doing a section of the Camino de Santiago for the last year or so. A friend of mine, Rita Scannell, did most of the forty-day Camino de Francés last year – from St.Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella, the terminal point for all the Camino routes. Reading about her progress on Facebook prompted me to give a portion of the walk a try and I had early 2014 in mind.

Then, a few months ago, a Twitter contact, Rosaleen Fitzgerald (@clonrf), did the 115km section from Sarria to Santiago and she tweeted about it. I was walking in Youghal one day shortly afterwards and Rosaleen’s observations on the trip came into my mind. About five minutes later I bumped into an old schoolmate of mine, Liam Cooper, a  man I hadn’t seen in more than twenty years. Within the first few minutes of our meeting he mentioned, out of the blue, that he did the Camino last year. What a coincidence! (Or maybe an example of Jungian synchronicity?)

The following week  I attended a First Communion ceremony in Dennehy’s Cross Church in Cork City. I spotted an item on the noticeboard in the doorway: “Next Thursday, A Talk on the Camino by David Clifford in the Church Crypt”. The coincidences were piling up! I came to the conclusion that I was meant to do the Camino. It was definitely in my future. There were too many signs for me to ignore it.

The talk by David Clifford made up my mind. He has done the Camino several times and by different routes. Last year he did the Via de la Plata, the 1,000km trek from Seville which takes 6 to 7 weeks to complete. His excellent slide presentation of photos taken en-route and useful advice as regards how much and what to carry etc., led me to decide there and then to do it, and to do it this year, not next. When I got home I booked the flights (Dublin/Santiago) for September and a hotel in Santiago for the last two nights.

I don’t have forty  days to spare for it though and so I’m just doing a short section, the 115 km stretch from Sarria to Santiago. I’ll be away for just a week and will be walking for 5 days with the average daily walk taking about 6 hours. Very much a Camino-lite then in contrast to Rita’s and David’s full-on treks. Maybe next year.

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The full Camino de Francés route  

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The section from Sarria to Santiago

And I’m walking on my own which is also recommended. Experts such as David say you should avoid walking in a group at all costs – the fast walkers will be annoyed at having to slow down to let the slower ones keep up and the slow ones will feel under pressure to keep pace. Besides, part of the attraction of the Camino is meeting other people and walking a part of the road with them as they tell their stories.

I don’t have any doubts about my ability to do it. I’m in good physical condition and I enjoy walking and hill-climbing. Still, I’ve started to increase my daily walking routine to about two hours per day with two four-hour walks per week. My walking speed on the flat is 6.4 kms (4 miles) per hour which is not bad. (A useful app for keeping track of your walking distances and times is RunKeeper.)

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Photos from the RunKeeper app of two favourite routes of mine – one from Killeagh to Youghal and back and the other around my home place of Carrigtwohill. Both avoid busy  main roads for the most part.  

I should certainly be well prepared come September. One of the biggest problems walkers on the Camino have is blisters. I figure that regular walking at home before you go and having your walking shoes well run in should minimise the risk of getting them. Still, I’ll be packing the Compeed just in case. (Liam, my schoolmate mentioned above, recommended Merrell hiking shoes and I bought them. They are on the expensive side – I paid €145 – but shoes are probably the most important part of your kit so it’s as well to get a good pair. Avoid the bargain offers in Lidl and Aldi! I have a pair of good Brasher mountain-walking boots but hiking shoes rather than boots are better for the Camino.)

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The Merrell Interceptor Hiking Shoe

There is a wealth of information on the web about the Camino. David Clifford recommended two sites in particular: http://www.mundicamino.com/ingles and http://www.godesalco.com/plan (for downloading the route to a smartphone).

The guidebook for the Camino de Francés that everyone recommends is John Brierley’s “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago” and it is easy to see why – it is packed with helpful information for every stage of the walk.

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Another book just published is “The Dance of Christian Life – Reflections on the way to Santiago de Compostella” by Scott Connolly. Scott is a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Seattle and in 2012 he did the full forty-day Camino de Francés. He kept a journal each day and took numerous photos with his iPhone. He was convinced by Rita – who he met on the way – and others to publish his journal and photos as a book and it is a sumptuous publication. It was designed by Rita and printed by Watermans of Cork. As the title suggests, it is informed by a deep religious belief – he is a priest after all! – but it will be of interest to anyone who either has done or is thinking of doing the walk. It is full of interesting and funny anecdotes. He set out each day with a carefully chosen scriptural verse to inspire him but also used the music of Rhianna, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez to put a pep in his step!

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The cover of Scott’s book – check out that cool hat!   

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All proceeds from the book will be donated to a new Cancer Center in Scott’s parish of Bellingham, Seattle. Not only is it great value for the minimum suggested donation of €20 ($25 in the States), the money will be going to an excellent cause. It has a limited print run however and is expected to sell out quickly. A small number of copies are available in Ireland through Rita Scannell and she can be contacted at 0876823498 or at ritascannelldesign@eircom.net . In the US you can buy it by PayPal from this link:

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=6VUX7NV7HSTG8 <https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&amp;hosted_button_id=6VUX7NV7HSTG8>

Scott’s purpose in doing the Camino was a specifically spiritual one – to renew his vocation to the priesthood and to his vocation as Pastor of the parish he serves. Why am I doing it? I’m simply looking forward to the challenge – such as it is (I’m already feeling a certain regret that I didn’t sign up for a  longer walk) – and of trekking in the beautiful Galician countryside.

I’m looking forward to meeting other pilgrims on the way and of listening to their stories. I like the fact that the Camino is more than just a long-distance walk. It is primarily a pilgrim route and has been for hundreds of years.

I like the fact that something that should be an anachronism in the modern age is increasing in popularity every year. This isn’t evidence of some religious resurgence of course – people of every religious persuasion and none do it – but it does betoken, I think, something beyond the mere long-distance physical challenge.  John Brierley in his book urges readers to find a spiritual purpose for taking the journey, whatever form that spirituality may take. David Creedon talked about the different mental mode he finds himself in, how after a week or two he finds himself living fully in the now and how liberating that is. Alas, my short week is unlikely to result in such enlightenment but I have every confidence nonetheless that I will find it a richly rewarding experience in ways that will probably surprise me.

Audiobooks

I’ve been a member of http://www.Audible.co.uk – the audiobook company now owned by Amazon – for four years. My monthly subscription of £7.99 entitles me to one credit which lets me download one book a month. If I wanted to I could purchase additional books but I’ve found that the monthly credit is sufficient. When I first joined one could only download the audiobooks to an iPod but latterly this facility has been extended to smartphones, tablets and other MP3 players as well. This is a great advantage as it reduces the need to carry two devices when out walking – which is when I usually listen to them.

Audible Website

Time was when I listened to music when walking but now it is almost exclusively books. One can also listen to them in the car – most recent cars have an “aux” channel on the radio console which, with the addition of a cheap cable readily available in any electronics store, allows the audible content to be broadcast. If your car doesn’t have such a facility you can purchase a battery powered device that will let you stream the audio content through an unused FM frequency. They cost about €20 and are well worth it. Obviously you could listen to your MP3 player/phone via earphones while driving but I’m not sure if it’s safe or legal to do so. Besides, it looks odd.

There is nothing like an interesting book to shorten a long walk or journey. Much as I love radio there are times when I want to escape from the unremitting gloom of the news, the opposing voices of the latest Great Debate, the talk-radio moaners and whiners and the inanities of the music DJs. A good book is a blessed relief from all that.

I don’t think I’ve ever downloaded a book that I didn’t finish. I check the reviews on sites such as Amazon as well as those on Audible itself and so far I haven’t been disappointed. The quality of narration is very important of course – a poor narration can impede the enjoyment of an otherwise excellent book – but I’ve never come across a narrator that I did not like. You can listen to a sample of each book’s narration before purchasing and decide if you could live with that voice for the duration.

Some books benefit from being narrated rather than read as the characters come to life in a way that they might not when one is imaging how they speak. Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” is a case in point – the narration by Simon Vance is masterly. The different characters’ voices are unique and memorable and add hugely to the enjoyment of the novel. You are transported to the Tudor court in a way not possible through a conventional reading.

The longest book I’ve listened to is William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” which is 57 hours and 13 minutes long. It is a riveting history and one that has stood the test of time well (it was originally published in 1960). It took me about two months to complete.

Third Reich

Other memorable books include Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Keith Richards’ “Life”, “The Popes” by John Julius Norwich, “Fatherland” by Robert Harris, Le Carré’s “Smiley’s People” and David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”. Mitchell’s book is one of my favourite novels – I had already read it twice and the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox, further enhanced my enjoyment of it. It is a wonderful read in any format. More recently I have greatly enjoyed “The Fry Chronicles” narrated by Stephen Fry himself and likewise the comedian David Mitchell’s “Back Story” also read by the author (who is not to be confused with the novelist).

Jacob de Zoet

I have just finished Ian Fleming’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” narrated by David Tennant. I was wary about downloading a James Bond book. I had read them all when I was twelve and thirteen and I was a devoted fan. I remember my sister getting me “From Russia With Love” from England because while it was not (as far as I know) officially banned in Ireland (this was 1964/65) it was not available in the local bookshop or library either because of its racy content. The whiff of notoriety surrounding it only served to whet my adolescent appetite of course. And it was a tremendous read (and one of the best Bond films). But that was a long time ago. Were the books really as good as I thought they were then? Would I be disappointed in them now with nearly a lifetime of reading behind me?

Bond OHMSS

The original Pan paperback cover of “OHMSS”

I’m glad to say I enjoyed it enormously. David Tennant is a brilliant  narrator and Ian Fleming was an excellent writer. His books are much more interesting than the films – hearing Bond’s thoughts fleshes out the story in a way that a film can never do. “OHMSS” kept me keenly interested throughout even though I knew how it ended (and what a devastating end it was).

All the other Bond books are available on Audible and they are narrated by actors such as Kenneth Branagh, Damian Lewis, Hugh Bonneville, Rory Kinnear and others. Whoever commissioned the series deserves the gratitude of Bond fans. I shall certainly be re-living my early adolescent Bond obsession over the coming months thanks to Audible. My advice is to forget the films – especially the camp Roger Moore ones – and discover the books for the authentic 007 experience. That said, it is almost impossible for me to imagine anyone other than Sean Connery as Bond. He was the original 007 and the early films – “Dr No”, “From Russia with Love”, “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” – co-incided more or less with my reading of the books. They were also fairly faithful to the original stories whereas a lot of the later Bond films bore only a passing resemblance to them and recent ones none at all. Ian Fleming wrote 14 Bond books whereas there have been 23 films with more to come.

Audible James Bond

Some of the other Bond titles in the Audible library

But enough about Bond. There are over 100,000 titles to choose from the Audible catalogue. Audiobooks have come into their own thanks to their compatibility with MP3 players, tablets and smartphones and are ideal for anyone on the move be it for work or leisure. And being actively mobile – walking or driving (I can’t comment on running or cycling as I don’t do either) – I think is integral to the experience. On all other occasions I prefer to read rather than listen.

Unlike listening to music, listening to an audiobook requires concentration in the same way that reading a paper book does. I’ve sometimes found my attention wandering and have had to re-wind to get back on track just as I’ve often read paragraphs or even pages of a book and did not take the content in. That concentration, that absorption in the story, takes us out of ourselves and helps us forget about our worries and woes for awhile and is one of the great joys of reading.

Coumshingaun – A Walker’s Guide

The Coumshingaun Horseshoe is the finest high-level walk in the Comeragh Mountains in County Waterford. It provides great views of Coumshingaun – a magnificent example of a corrie lake – as well as the countryside to  the north, east and south. On a clear day, for example, the new bridge in Waterford is clearly visible as is Hook Head in County Wexford.

The terrain itself is also very interesting from a walker’s perspective – the southern spur with its rocky outcrops requires some mild scrambling in places and is reminiscent of The Reeks while the boggy plateau provides an opportunity, if time and weather allows, to explore such points of interest as Crotty’s Lake and the Mahon Falls.

The walk itself can easily be done by any reasonably fit person and it will take between 3 and 4 hours including a meal stop. Be aware though that there are precipitous drops into the corrie so great care must be taken. It is best avoided in poor weather unless you have been there before. As ever when going into the mountains observe basic precautions: wear appropriate clothing and footwear, carry a map and compass and/or a GPS unit (and know how to use them) and if walking on your own let someone know where you are going and when to be expected back. Don’t assume your mobile phone will work  as coverage may not be good.

Getting There: coming from the N25 take the Carrick On Suir road (the R676) at Lemybrien and drive 10 kms as far as Kilclooney Forest car park which will be on your left.

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Take the well defined path through the forest.  You will exit the forest at a stile and the southern spur of the Loop will be in the distance. Aim for the rock that I’ve indicated in the following photo – there is an obvious path for the first while and then it’s just a matter of walking upwards over the moorland until you get on to the spur at the rock (or near it). From there it’s upwards and onwards!

 

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Looking back as you make the initial ascent of the south spur there are some fine views of the countryside to the east and north:

 

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There is a distinct path to follow:

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As you ascend, Coumshingaun Lake comes into view:

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The spine of the south ridge with its rocky outcrops:

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At the latter end of the ridge you leave the rocks behind:

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The final obstacle on the ridge is a steep section requiring a scramble onto the plateau:

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Looking back at the southern spur on the right, the lake and the northern spur:

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You are now on the plateau and you have left the strenuous ascent behind:

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As you head towards the northern spur there are great views of the lake:

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You now descend via the northern spur. Be very careful negotiating the boulders as you descend – take your time: it’s easy to injure yourself here so it’s safety first. There is a path of sorts – if you can find it – that will make the descent to just below the lake that bit easier. Then it’s an easy walk back towards the rock I indicated on the southern spur and thence to the car park.

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I’ve been asked is it suitable for children. I would say definitely not unless they are used to going into the hills. The walk is challenging in parts and requires some scrambling (using hands as well as feet) – especially the last part of the southern spur just before you reach the summit plateau. Neither is that section suitable for anyone who may have a fear of heights and/or suffers from vertigo. A better option for younger children would, perhaps, be to veer off when you reach the spine of the spur and head over to the lake.

Parcel Motel

I’ve received my first delivery via Parcel Motel and the service has been excellent: easy, convenient and great value (in fact, it didn’t cost me anything in delivery charges as the first two are free.)

For full details see: http://www.parcelmotel.com

The item I ordered from Amazon.co.uk – a wine decanter-  could not be shipped to the Republic of Ireland for some reason best known to Amazon. No problem. Parcel Motel provides its customers with two addresses – one in Dublin and the other in County Antrim. So, I chose the latter for my UK delivery. When it was received at the Parcel Motel address in Antrim it was couriered down to my local Parcel Motel at the Topaz Service Station in Midleton. They sent me a text and an email with the relevant PIN number and I picked it up within the hour.

The service is ideal for people who are at work when the post is delivered as it saves them the bother of having to go the local Post Office to collect the item. It is also ideal for purchasing items that Amazon and other retailers will not send to the Republic. Also, a lot of  Amazon items are postage free within the UK (the item I ordered was) so you can save money even when paying the Parcel Motel delivery charge of €3.50.

This is the text I received to let me know that the item was ready for collection:

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The Parcel Motel at Midleton:

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You input your mobile number and PIN via a touchscreen and then the door opens and there’s the parcel:

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The UK address on my parcel:

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This is a brilliant service: quick and super-efficient. It is safe – all Parcel Motels are in 24-hour attended locations and are monitored by CCTV –   and, for €3.50 per delivery, outstanding value.

Highly recommended.