Sunday 23 October 2016

The President joins the fellowship of the divine blister

Published 25/04/2009 | 00:00

The news that President McAleese has just returned from walking part of the pilgrimage route to Santiago in northern Spain has increased my already favourable opinion of our head of state.

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OK, so she walked only the last 115 km of the route, and she had someone to carry her luggage. But still, she has now joined the fellowship of the blister. I just hope she didn't face some of the obstacles I came up against when I undertook the full pilgrim route a while back.

My mission nearly came a cropper before I had walked a step. Air France (or "Air Chance" as a friend calls it) contrived to lose my luggage.

Luggage is very important on the walk -- or the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, to give it its full title. A lot of thought and planning goes into working out the bare minimum to take. The fact that you have to carry it 500 miles makes you wonder if you really need evening wear.

Eventually, my rucksack arrived, and myself and my wife made our way south by train to St Jean Pied-de-Port, a small town on the French side of the Pyrenees.

Our first morning was a stunner. We walked through the Port de Saint Jacques, the traditional starting point for the pilgrimage. There are routes starting all over Europe, from as far away as Scandinavia, but most of them converge at St Jean as it provides the best route over the mountains into Spain.

Mrs McAleese skipped this first, spectacular part of the route. The ascent over the Pyrenees is tough and treacherous (many get lost and retreat to St Jean to regroup) but it is very beautiful. The sight of the monastery of Roncesvalles is very welcome after a day on the road.

We fell easily into the routine of the pilgrim: wake and walk early to avoid the heat, stay in refugios or monasteries along the way, and collect your sellos (stamps from the various villages along the way to show to the authorities in Santiago as proof of how far you have come).

The President no doubt noticed how the spirituality of the Camino slowly seeps into your consciousness. The walking itself is like a meditation. Somehow it seems only polite to attend the pilgrim Masses organised in the monasteries along the way, a small gesture in return for their hospitality.

We undertook the walk as a holiday, but the pilgrimage aspect of the route, the long tradition of devotion, the ceremonies and rituals, and encounters with other pilgrims, all served to open us up to its religious side.

The Presidential party chose the most spectacular part of the route.

The climb to O Cebreiro in Galicia is the most arduous, but also the most stunning of the whole Camino. The terrain from here to Santiago is greener than the rest, and looks somehow Irish.

The fact that the whole basis of the pilgrimage -- the discovery of the bones of the apostle James in Santiago in the ninth century -- is shrouded in controversy does not seem to matter.

How convenient, critics say, that the church discovered another pilgrimage destination just as Jerusalem was in the hands of the Muslims. But these considerations are forgotten along the way as the walkers concentrate on the more earthly matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

I'm sure Mrs McAleese felt her spirits soar as she caught her first glimpse of the distant city of Santiago, and walked the time-honoured route to the central square and the cathedral, which Jan Morris called "one of the great sights of travel".

And I'm sure she felt the same sense of achievement when she received her certificate (the compostela), when she pressed her hand into the Tree of Jesse in the cathedral and when she walked up the steps to hug the statue of Saint James.

I hope she didn't suffer the same jolt as I did when I entered the city. I was walking with my brother-in-law on this last stage. My eyes were raised to the spire of the cathedral, my mind filled with images of medieval devotion.

The tap-tap of my stick was ringing out like a prayer.

"Jesus," says my companion, "there are some cracking bars in this joint."

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