Camino Love Affair: Why the Irish love the world's best walk
More and more Irish are walking Spain's Camino de Santiago. What draws them to this epic hike with a heart?
The Travel Writer: Pól Ó Conghaile
'The whole point is the journey...'
When I finished my Camino, it felt like there were hard-boiled eggs inside my calves. My toes were pillowy with blisters. It was a hike over several days, not weeks, but I felt exhilarated. And the words of one fellow pilgrim, whom I found walking with her companion and a donkey towards Santiago, were ringing in my ears:
"But that's just the destination. The whole point is the journey."
On paper, it seems mystifying. Why spend your hard-earned holidays tramping some 25km a day? But I'm just one of an increasing number of Irish people drawn to the route. In 2008, 1,535 Irish pilgrims received certificates from the Pilgrims Office in Santiago. By 2016, that number had rocketed to 6,542. And that's just those who finished their Caminos in the city.
What's going on?
Air access has improved, with direct flights to Santiago, Bilbao, Vigo and Santander. Martin Sheen's movie, The Way (2010), sparked a surge of interest.
Set on the fringes of the Atlantic, it's also true that Ireland and Galicia share deep links, and Catholic pilgrims have travelled from points like St James's Gate in Dublin since medieval times. Many still walk for religious reasons, but there's also a growing trend for immersive experiences in travel, and the food, people and culture along the Camino are tantalising.
"A more cultured traveller has emerged in recent years, and the Camino resonates with them," says Maria Golpe of CaminoWays.com.
In a survey of 3,000 pilgrims this year, it found just 28pc of respondents walked for religious or spiritual reasons. Some 28pc did it for the challenge; a further 18pc to connect with nature and escape the daily routine.
In truth, there are as many reasons to do the Camino as there are pilgrims, as our stories (below) attest. It can be done for as little as €5 a night, or you can pamper yourself in luxury Paradores. But for Irish people, the simple, social appeal is huge.
"There's an openness and camaraderie on the Way, and conversing with strangers and exchanging stories is in our nature," says Mark Folens of FollowTheCamino.com. We have also become more engaged with health and mental wellness in recent years, he says (they even do Camino Zen tours, mixing yoga and hiking).
Three years since my own Camino, a souvenir pebble still hangs from my backpack.
It's that kind of walk.
The friendship: Catherine Dundon
'People were so happy to be part of the experience togther...'
“I walked the Camino del Norte with my friend Niamh. We did it in stages over three years. I suppose we really wanted to go back to something a little more simple, to disconnect from our high-paced lives.
"We did it very simply; we carried our own backpacks and stayed in a mix of hostels and guesthouses. We did the Camino del Norte, the one that’s less popular, because we didn’t want to be meeting up with too many people. We only found out afterwards that it’s recommended for the more seasoned hikers, which we certainly were not!
“We went for about eight or nine days each time. A lot of people did what we did, because it’s really hard to take a month or the guts of five weeks off, unless you’re retired. We usually did it in May or September, depending on how we could fit it into our own schedules. You meet people of all nationalities, and what we found great was that in Northern Spain, not a lot of English is spoken.
“You meet a whole load of people, but you only know their first names — you don’t know what they do, how much they earn, or who they are, which is great.
“What was the most challenging aspect? Going uphill! That was the hardest part. When you’re carrying 10kg and your own bodyweight over the mountains, it’s an awful lot harder on your legs. But once you’re on the path, you just have to keep going. It’s amazing how you put the kilometres behind you.
“I don’t think we had any specific expectations, other than to just go and take time out for ourselves. To experience a slower pace, to disconnect, and to count our blessings in a different kind of way. Plodding along does give you a lot of time to think. It’s an amazing experience, it’s very hard to describe, to be honest. As you get towards the finish, you kind of don’t want it to end.
“There were a couple of times I wanted to quit, though. My socks would be wet, all of me was wet, and it was so dangerous on the slippery stones. I’d just think: ‘What are we doing?’ No matter how good your rain gear is, you still feel wet and sticky and disgusting.
“My favourite part of the day was the 11am stop for a café con leche! You’d have already done a third of your walking at that stage, and you have a great sense of achievement once you have a big chunk of it done. It’s lovely being up for sunrise before everywhere starts getting too busy. It was always so nice to sit, stop, and put the bag down.
“One thing that really surprised us was how people were prepared to share. You were literally carrying everything on your back — including your bit of chocolate, spare water, medical supplies… but people were so happy to share and to be part of the whole experience together.
“We’ve done other walks since, but nothing is the same as the Camino.
- Catherine Dundon runs Dunbrody Country House Hotel (dunbrodyhouse.com) with her husband, Kevin (in conversation with Nicola Brady).
The Guide: Juan Rodriguez
'There's nothing to be afraid of, just walk, walk, walk!'
“I’m from a place called Tui, on the border with Portugal. The Portuguese Camino actually goes through my village, which is why I’m so familiar with it — I was born on the Camino!
“I first walked the Camino in 2004. It was my best Camino, to be honest. I think the best way to experience it is to put on your backpack and, without thinking too much, just start walking. There is nothing to be afraid of. Just walk, walk, walk!
“Some people do yoga, or meditation, but walking the Camino is my own form of meditation. I do the entire French Camino every year on my own, as well as different sections with my customers many times, of course. It’s a fantastic physical activity but a great psychological activity, as well.
"To me personally, it’s nothing about religion, but it is a very spiritual experience. It’s so much more than just a long walk. It’s about a community feeling, going back to that period when human beings had a sense of humanity and a sense of sharing.
“My favourite route is the French Way. It feels like I know every stone on that route, but every Camino teaches me something new. It’s the most popular and there are a lot of people on it, but that’s one of the things that makes it special — to share the experience with so many people from around the world.
“You always make friends on a Camino, and I still have the same friends from my first one. I still have those friendships, and visit them now and again. Unfortunately, some of them have died, because they were older. But that memory is there and will be forever, because that’s something you will always keep from the Camino. Many people meet and marry on the route, too. Those stories often happen and it’s real, it’s very special.
“In the end, what you experience on the Camino is the opposite experience to, say, jumping from a helicopter. It’s about sharing bread, and reminding yourself how important the small things are.
“What I really lke about my job is showing people my country and trying to convey what the real Camino is. I love to show off Spain, which is a country that I love, and particularly the region of Galicia. I love to show people all the little things that sometimes the guidebooks don’t show. The little things that are difficult to explain, but that are very important when you do the Camino.”
- Juan Rodriguez is from Galicia, and now guides pilgrims along the Camino with his company, Caminobytheway.com (in conversation with Nicola Brady).
The First-timer: Geraldine Carton
'I was struck by the gorgeousness of the experience...'
“So, you’re basically just going walking around Spain, non-stop, for a week?”
“Eh… Yep, pretty much!”
That’s how the majority of conversations went in the run-up to my walking the final 111km of el Camino de Santiago de Compostela this October.
Why do it? I wanted an adventure. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I hoped to encounter some story-worthy characters along the way. That, plus having recently left a job meant there was time to play with before I flicked into proper quarter life crisis/ Oh-God-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life? mode.
Day 1 kicked off, admittedly, to a dubious start. I hobbled out of my B&B full of optimism and anticipation (hobbling because I had a bag about 47 times my body weight), and only then copped that I didn’t have a clue where the trail actually began It was 9.35am, which, by Camino standards, is equivalent to starting your 9-5 office job at 3pm. There wasn’t a soul to be seen. Eventually, a kind local woman took pity and pointed me towards the yellow arrows that marked the route. I was mortified to realise that these arrows were everywhere.
Nevertheless, I was officially on my way!
The Camino is as much about the people as the path, and I met some real crackers along the way. There was the Canadian couple who whispered about a mysterious free-flowing ‘wine tap’ (Disclaimer: I did not come across any wine tap). There was Shirley from LA, who recounted wistful stories about her late husband — the creator of R2-D2 in the first ever Star Wars movie.
And how could I not mention The Gals? This was a group of wonderful, Irish, 60-something women that I came to befriend and spend some of the happiest moments of my trip with. My heart swelled as they shared bashful tales of college sweethearts, proud accounts of 35-year marriages, and gentle descriptions of the little details that kept love flames flickering. All over walks, salad, bread, ice-cream and wine.
It didn’t take long for a routine to be established. I covered about 20km a day, usually catching up with The Gals (who preferred an earlier start) around lunchtime. But the Camino wasn’t what I expected. There were no epiphanies; not even one of those ‘Aha’ moments that Oprah Winfrey is always going on about. What I did get was a good mental spring clean. Quiet mornings spent plodding along were incredibly peaceful, and during this time I had the opportunity to think about things I wouldn’t usually: “What happens when we die?” Or “Why are tampons taxed as a luxury item in Ireland?”
I remember stopping at one point and taking a deep breath as I looked out over cornfields. Nothing of note was really happening, but I was just struck by the gorgeousness of the experience. I hoped to be able to savour the feeling of pure, quiet contentment for years to come.
It took me six days to complete the 111km. The last day was a tough 26km slog, and I arrived into Santiago looking like a staggering wreck (visible sweat marks, extreme hat-hair, food stain on T-shirt… Get in line, boys). I went to the Cathedral for tradition’s sake, but wasn’t really that bothered. Completing this journey might have been a personal achievement, but its ending was anti-climatic and all I actually wanted was an ice-cream.
It wasn’t until I heard my name being called out that I changed my tune. It was Siofra and Marion (two of The Gals) and they were waving madly. The relief and excitement I thought I’d feel as soon as I got to Santiago finally washed over me as we hugged and congratulated each other at having finished that “godforsaken walk”.
I dropped my ice-cream, but I didn’t care.
At that point I was basking in end-of-the-Camino joy, which is something that not even the best ice-cream in the world can replicate.
- Geraldine Carton (24) walked from Sarria to Santiago this October. Read her full Camino stories at camino-encounters.squarespace.com, or check out her Instagram at @geraldine_carton.
The Fundraiser: Lucia Ebbs
'We were all there remembering someone...'
“My sister Kate lost her daughter Jenny in 2002 to Sudden Cardiac Death. I’d always thought of doing something in her memory, and in 2014 I signed up to do the Camino with Kate and our niece, Aoife.
“I was 50 that year, and decided to just go for it. The Camino was on my bucket list from the time I watched Martin Sheen in The Way, so when CRY decided to add the Camino Trek to our list of fundraising events it seemed to be a perfect match. Somebody had to go from our team so I thought: ‘This is meant to be.’ There were actually 15 of us signed up that year, all taking part for CRY.
“For me, it was a huge, massive personal challenge. I thought I was a walker before I headed out, but I definitely wasn’t! I did a couple of 10km walks and one hike before I went, but I should have been walking a lot more. That said, you kind of just do it, putting one foot in front of the other. The mantra of the Camino is ‘walk, eat, sleep’ and that’s what I did.
“Your first day is the most challenging. If the weather doesn’t work for you, it can be tough. I remember being on the bus to Sarria for two hours, and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to walk all this way back!’ That was a big wake-up call. It’s an amazing week, but it’s only when you get to Sarria you realise what a huge challenge it is.
“I never wanted to quit. I had it set in my head I was going to do it. Particularly towards the end of the week; you’re emotionally and physically drained, you’ve got all the aches and pains, but giving up was never an option.
“It was a huge personal challenge for all of us. As a group we walked, we talked, we laughed, we cried, we sang. It was the hardest week of my life, but probably the best week.
“We were all there remembering somebody, so it was an emotional time. Everybody shared their stories over that week, and talked about who they were remembering. When you get to Santiago, the sense of achievement is amazing. You’ve walked for six days, and when you arrive into the city and just think about what you’ve achieved — that’s a feeling I’ll never forget.
“Although we hadn’t all walked together during the days, we decided that on the last day we would walk into Santiago as a group. On our last night, we went to the Pilgrims’ Mass. The celebrant speaks in five languages, and it was a special moment when he welcomed us, the CRY group from Ireland. More tears. We had a clear view of the altar and the Botafumeiro, which is lowered from the ceiling and filled with incense. As the Botafumeiro swings, the choir and congregation sing. It was an amazing moment in the Cathedral — a profound and life-changing experience that I will remember forever.”
- Lucia Ebbs is Business Operations Manager for CRY — Cardic Risk in the Young (cry.ie), a charity that raises awareness about Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD). She walked the Camino Francés in honour of her niece, Jenny (in conversation with Nicola Brady).
The Camino: 3 ways to do it
1. The ‘Easy’ Option
If you want your bags transported for, and the comfort of pre-booked accommodation, then book an organised tour. CaminoWays.com offers numerous options, including a seven-night trek on the Camino del Norte from €605pps, not including flights. It’s offering 10pc off 2018 bookings made before December 31.
2. The Group Option
Don’t want to tackle it alone? Travalue.ie is offering a Classic Camino Experience on the French Way from May 19 to 26 of 2018, so you can travel with a group. Bags will be transported and your accommodation is sorted, for €795pps (€195 single supplement) including flights.
3. The DIY Option
Feeling adventurous? Go it alone. Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Santiago up to five times a week from March to October, from €54.99 one-way. From there, the easiest way to get to Sarria is by sharing a cab (€120) with other pilgrims. The albergues (hostels) cost around €10 per night, and private double rooms are around €50.
- By Nicola Brady. Prices subject to change.
Read more:Secret Camino: The Camino de Santiago's most scenic shortcut