For a ‘clean break’, look no further than Spain’s Camino

by Gazette Reporter

Pilgrimage – the word conjures up austerity of a Lough Derg kind: three days on Station Island where St Patrick underwent his purgatory, with black tea, dry toast, no sleep and an abundance of prayer resulting, it’s hoped, in a closer walk with god. Or the loss of a few pounds, maybe.
Looking further afield, what about northern Spain’s Camino De Santiago De Compostela? The Way of St James can engage body, mind and spirit singly or in triplicate if that’s your wish.
Peregrinos from all corners of the globe are attracted to it, those of all religions and none, who are fighting fit or more used to the armchair. Everyone has their way!
Home is the starting point and Santiago de Compostela the end. This is where the remains of the apostle, St James, were reputedly shipped from Jerusalem for burial in the Middle Ages.
St James’s Gate in Dublin 8 was Ireland’s traditional departure spot – it could be yours if you rise to the challenge.
St James’s Day is July 25 and when it falls on a Sunday, Santiago’s cathedral declares a holy or jubilee year.
The next is in 2021 – so you’ve plenty of time to plan, do the odd reccie. Seriously!
Over 776km of track await you, winding over hills, through vineyards, almond groves, down into valleys, alongside noisy motorways, through cities, towns and villages dripping in history.
A vast current of “peregrinos” flows through the area every year, recharging their spirits and helping to fuel a depressed local economy in the process. People drive, walk, cycle, run or, in my case, hobble towards the west.
The ever-helpful Irish Society of the Friends of St James (www.camino.ie) is there too for practical advice. I booked a return to Santander which unfortunately determined my route – I couldn’t start in the Pyrenees without the journey devouring days of walking. So the society advised starting in Pamplona, finishing in Burgos, home of El Cid and, during the Spanish civil war, base for General Franco’s government.
Its 13th century Gothic catholic cathedral is a vast and undeniably impressive mass of spires, gargoyles and golden stone.
Preparation is key for a stint on the Camino and the trick is to travel light. I decided to take a suitcase, however, for stuff that wouldn’t fit in my 35kg backpack and have it forwarded to the following night’s B&B.
Here my language deficiencies glowed. More than once, my case went AWOL and I finished up buried in a beer.
Why didn’t I listen and learn Spanish? Even a smattering would have helped.
Once you arrive, your days, however many or few, will be totally governed by a pattern of rising before the sun, walking, eating, sleeping.
Buy John Brierley’s guide to the Camino. It divides the route into 33 stages with an average 23.5km per stage, from St Jean Pied du Port to Santiago de Compostela. In fairness, it will become your own pocket resource centre – worth the investment.
Brierley subdivides each stage further with elevation and terrain ahead clearly explained. You always know where you are, how high you’re going to go, and so can judge your energy en route and stop if you know you can’t finish the full stage. An accompanying commentary recommends and rates albergues, restaurants, historical sites … and this is only a fraction.
On advice, I brought no books. But in my two weeks, I couldn’t find an English newspaper or magazine so I read the guide from cover to cover and back. It was worth it. But be advised – bring a (light) book.
My first trek, out of Pamplona towards Puente la Reina, was unforgettable.
At 6am half the world was walking and smiling with me. I found the scallop shell markers no problem. The fact that I hadn’t had breakfast – not even coffee – meant nothing.
And although in the days ahead I got lost once or twice or found, particularly in the cities, that I was doubling back, the shell and arrows and John Brierley helped me hold course.
In all, I completed eight only stages. Alas, a mosquito bit my eyelid as I made my way out of Logrono one morning for Navarrete. It knocked me off track for a day and left me looking as if I’d gone the full 18 with Rambo. Get the EU health insurance card from the HSE. I didn’t and it cost.
What do I remember most? The friendliness of the Spanish and their patience as I mangled their language; the massive cathedrals in almost every tiny town that seemed to heave with gold. An Irishwoman I met on the way went for the regular pilgrim blessing and was invited along with others into a room where many gold icons were on display. How can all that be in there, she said, when the people here are so poor?
I also remember feet – all shapes, sizes and various states of distress. I brought a pair that were great for Ireland’s springy bogs. But on the hard gravel of the Santiago trail? They were a killer.
If you’re travelling in the heat, make sure your boots are light but with a really substantial sole so your feet don’t bruise and blister from pounding the rocky earth.
Bring plenty of plasters, creams, powder and socks too. Look after those feet, they’re doing a tough job.
Finally, the food is plain, simple and when it comes to dietary requirements, you’re on your own. The lack of choice makes life so simple it would be great if we could bottle it and bring it home.
Finally, this you’ll hear everywhere you go from everyone you meet: buon camino peregrinos!

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