Nearly two weeks after we finished our 6 days of trekking on the North and French Caminos, the leg muscles and blisters are now back to a more normal state. Our family gang of 6 enjoyed the experience hugely and some are making plans for another assault. Two of the party, our brothers-in-law, Cormac and Larry, suffered the most from blisters and muscle aches, but struggled on regardless to get to Santiago de Compestela. Each of us found our own bit of new knowledge about ourselves – more of a journey of discovery than destination.
For me, the joy of having a family group of distinct individuals working together towards getting each other along the path in often very hot sunshine, suffering from pains and hangovers was my bit of inward pleasure. To be able to enjoy some spectacular mountain and coastal views along the North Way and the shade of the country paths with the constant stream of fellow peregrinos (pilgrims) along the French way was what I had come out here for and it didn’t disappoint. Having had only limited face time with my siblings prior to this, it was great to be able to intereact one on one and collectively with Pete, Pauline and Joe, as well as with Cormac and Larry, over the 6 days on our Camino.
One of the highlights was the beautiful Alberque (pilgrim refuge) at Ribadiso. Housed in a beautiful restored farm building, it was situated by a small river with its own grounds to allow the peregrinos enjoy the rustic beauty on the banks. Another highlight of our journey was meeting at the Alberque with an elderly Belgian (Flemish), Hugo from Antwerp with his faithful donkey, Miriam. She was tethered alongside the river and created a fuss with lots of cameras whirring to catch her picture. They were regular companions for us at various sections along the way to our target. I witnessed Hugo collecting his own 4th “Campostela” and her 2nd one at journeys end. The girl in the Compostela office didn’t deem my 120 kilometres acceptable, as they were not consequetive, wheras, Cormac my brother-in-law and co- conspirator in organising the group, got one! No justice.
We found a wonderful sandy beach at La Franca, a fiesta in San Vicente de la Barquera, a rowdy session in our hostel at O Coto with a beautiful Austrian doctor singing classic songs for our entertainment. One of the more enjoyable stops was at a little chapel in a woody retreat near Llanes where we had time to enjoy the shade and do some personal meditation. A cheeky ringing of the bell (it required hoising Joe up on our arms) brought the caretaker running from a nearby farmhouse. Oops!
The views along the Cantabrian and Asturian coastlines with the Picos de Europas looking down on us made our trek from San Vicente to Llanes a wonderful visual experience. Quiet places along the paths at river fords and small churches offered time for reflection and peaceful meditation. A full moon swim in a river at Ribadiso added a little zing to our experience but made it difficult to sleep, with all the dangly bits still cold!
On our last day’s trek, once we reached Monte de Gozo – on a hill overlooking Santiago – we could see our destination and a temporary weight lifted from our shoulders for the final assault. A bit like an army that had trudged through a jungle and suddenly found itself in a clearing with its destination visible in the distance, so was our final walk. The midday sun bore down unrelentingly from above, the hard concrete path beneath our hot boots, our muscles aching and blisters biting all conspired to make that final leg a torturous trek down to the old city, where the massive Cathedral of Santiago stands proudly.
But all the pain was worth it – we sat and enjoyed the pleasure of our achievement, chatting with fellow peregrinos who had also just arrived. The number of Irish pilgrims was astonishing and I even met my namesake, another Charlie Kavanagh, along the way and again here in Santiago. Tired from our exertions, we made our way to the Hotel I had booked in advance, about 10 minutes away. A quick siesta, shower and fresh clothes had us back into the old town to soak up the atmosphere where tourists, peregrinos and locals mixed in the narrow streets and outdoor tavernas all around the cathedral.
The big thing for all peregrinos, religious or otherwise, is to attend the midday pilgrim Mass in the Cathedral. Packed to overflowing, a beautiful Mass was concelebrated by a large number of priests with choir singing and the very touristy swinging of the tourabel (incense burner). A group of brown robed “swingers” worked in perfect co-ordination to make it swing back and forth in front of the altar, almost reaching the high ceiling at the apex of its arc.
Behind the altar, I visited the crypt where the remains of St James (Santiago) and 2 fellow disciples are housed in a silver casket – a wonderful moment to cap the whole experience.
Having enjoyed my week with my family, the one thing I failed to get them to embrace – local Spanish cuisine and eating habits. While I was sampling the pulpo (octopus), langustinos (prawns), cordero (veal) and more, they were going for the more familiar beef and fish dishes found on most international menus. My parting snack before heading to the airport was a plate of langustinos a la planca (grilled prawns) washed down with the local beer Estrella Gallicia. The taste lasted in my mouth all the way to Dublin.
We flew Dublin to Bilbao on 8th Sept 2011, walked for 2 days from San Vicente de la Barquera(8th) via La Franca (9th) to LLanes (10th), bussed it from Llanes to Lugo (6 hours) and then to Palas de Rey and walked to O Coto (11th Sept). Next day, we walked to Ribadiso (12th), then to Pedrouza (13th) and finally to Santiago on 14th Sept. Our flight back to Dublin was on 15th September. We averaged c.20kms a day doing 120km in total over the 6 days of walking. Our costs were flights, busses, hotels, hostel, alberques and food/drink with most people spending between €400 & €500 in total each, without presents.
Next year, myself and Cormac hope to do 2 weeks from the start of the Camino del Norte, starting in Irun. Getting the time will be the problem, the will is there to do it. We might have a few joining us for one of the weeks also. The pilgrim greeting as you make your way along is Buen Camino (Have a “good way”).