Walking on sunshine: The Camino
Have you ever thought about setting off on your very own tailor-made camino? That's what we did the summer before last.
We (a small group of assorted ages and very assorted walking experience) had several stipulations.
First, we didn't want to kill ourselves walking hundreds of miles along the Camino de Santiago (and we hadn't much time).
Next, we did not want to stay in very basic accommodation.
And we definitely didn't fancy lugging huge rucksacks from Point A to Point B every day.
Many camino packages can give you solutions to these requirements, but we concurred that they all seemed to involve too much hard slog - the walking stages each day were just that bit too long, for some of us at least.
And they could be pricey enough.
So where to start? First of all we checked out the invaluable Camino guidebooks by John Brierley. The Dublin-born author has written several books about all the Spanish caminos, and has walked them all. Besides accurate descriptions of the terrain, he has maps and tips, and names, addresses and phone numbers for accommodations all along the way.
The latter range from hostels and B&Bs to small hotels - and virtually all of the proprietors will collect you from the camino - and drop you back the next morning.
There was still the perplexing question of getting our baggage from one place to the next, but a quick search on the internet solved that.
It was astonishingly simple to arrange all this by email with Sherpaontheway.com. They charge about €7 per bag per delivery stage, with reductions for groups.
You send them a list with names, times and dates of each night's lodgings, and they send you the individually-named labels as email attachments which you can put in water-proof coverings and fix to your bags.
You leave your bags at the reception desk by 8am as you depart and they do the heavy lifting for you.
Some of the places we chose were not visible on their list but when we asked if this might pose a difficulty, the laconic reply was, "No problem". And it never was - we trustingly sent them the money and they did the job: our bags were always there waiting for us each evening when we arrived at our next stop.
Our next decision was about our route. Mulling it over, we came upon the Epilogue Camino - the 90km walk that starts in Santiago de Compostela and goes west to Cape Finisterre.
Brierley's book Camino Finisterre covers every centimetre from Santiago to Finisterre (plus some alternatives). We also double-checked TripAdvisor for reviews of likely lodgings.
Aer Lingus flew us to Santiago de Compostela and the airport shuttle left us near the budget-priced Hotel Mexico, about a quarter-mile from the Cathedral area, which is surrounded by cobbled streets alive with restaurants, souvenir shops and hundreds of happy wanderers. Some looked weather-beaten and full of the joys, having clearly just completed whatever challenge they'd set themselves.
Others, like us, were fresh, raring to go, but slightly apprehensive.
Next morning, with the sun barely up, we set off after a cafe breakfast. Our path started from the big square in front of the almost deserted cathedral.
Walking through a public park we soon emerged into the countryside. Birds sang, a dappled sun shone through leaves of tall eucalyptus trees, the air was scented, the going was easy, and all seemed right with the world. We had water bottles in our small backpacks but hardly needed them. It got hotter, but we knew from our maps where the first stopping place was for our "elevenses". We found it closed.
Oh well, we soldiered on, only sweating a little bit. The road rose with us, but not in a good way, but we made it to our second stop OK and enjoyed a nice lunch with other walkers.
Our plan was to walk a mere nine or 10 miles, to break-in the less experienced walkers in our little pilgrim band, but when we phoned our first guesthouse (Casa Alda Gasamans) they explained they could only pick us up at Ponte Maceira, where the forest met the road network. This was a further five miles in the heat of the day. OK, we said piously, we'll offer it up. (Other words may have been uttered by others.) And so we began the ascent of Trasmonte. The book describes this as a gradual climbing path, sheltered by trees, but it can seem like the Matterhorn to those who have foolishly had white wine with their lunch.
We were met by our young hosts and whisked to Casa Alda Gasamans, a big, old rural farmhouse converted into a comfortable guesthouse with a superb dining area. There was a big swimming pool in the garden. And our bags were there awaiting us.
Our next night's stop was about half a day's stroll away on largely empty country roads. Albergue Turistico de Logrosa looked grey and unpromising from the outside, but we were made very welcome by Antonio who showed us to very pleasant modern rooms. It was midsummer's day, so that evening Antonio lit a bonfire in the garden and we and other guests sat at trestle tables enjoying an alfresco dinner with lots of wine, with wild Galician music swirling around us from Antonio's CD unit.
Day three was when we hit cattle country.
The landscape changed from wooded slopes and sheltered paths to more open countryside with big fields and distant views, and cows everywhere - in barns and other shelters, and meandering along the roads. You had to mind where you were putting your feet.
It got very, very warm indeed. The rest of Spain makes jokes about Galicia, saying it rains all the time there, "just like Ireland", they laugh. But during our little camino, the place was having a heatwave. By now, of course, we were seasoned walkers and there wasn't a bother on us - until we rang our third night's host. A few of us can speak pidgin Spanish and loud English but the man on the phone was speaking pure Galician. He kept jabbering excitedly until we deciphered the repeated word "cafe" and went to one we could see in the distance.
Soon a large jovial man in a large car arrived. We piled in and he took off, taking both sides of the road on every bend.
Where on earth were we going to end up? As it happened, his Hotel Rustico Santa Eulalia was lovely, his wife was lovely, and their chef was lovely. We had nice rooms and a great meal for a ridiculously good price. And next morning Antonio (yes, another one) dropped us a few miles further along the camino from our pick-up point. Cheating? Maybe, but we were lucky to survive his driving.
A further two days of relatively uneventful walking brought us to the coast. We had seen some beautiful countryside, met some interesting people, cooled ourselves in a mountain stream, and had been rescued from a wrong turn by a little old lady. Cape Finisterre beckoned in the distance, and we began a final brisk march in hot sunshine.
Finisterre itself is a small resort town, but the famous lighthouse is a few kilometres further on, up a long hill and then down. That last bit proved an endurance test in the midday heat, but it was worth every drop of sweat just to get there. After a long celebratory lunch we caught a local bus back to our last overnight stop, picked up our heavy baggage and caught another bus. Just a few hours later we were back in Santiago.
Including a few diversions along the way we had walked over 100km. We had gathered no official certificates, but this time as we joined the other pilgrims at the cathedral we didn't feel like impostors. After all, we had gone to the end of the earth to get there.
Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela four days a week in summer, and three a week in April and October. A shuttle bus from the airport connects with all central accommodation.
Where to stay: (in Santiago de Compostela): Hotel Mexico PR is a three-star, well-run quiet and comfortable hotel with friendly staff. Rooms from approx. €71 per night (they don’t do breakfast).
For a little bit of luxury, the Hotel Carris Casa de la Troya, is a small boutique hotel near the Cathedral and good restaurants. Rooms from approx. €92 per night.
What to take: Good walking boots or shoes are essential — and don’t buy them new a week or so before you go. Light rain gear is also a must, but, fingers crossed, you won’t need it. Toiletries, insect repellent, sun cream/lotion and sun hats and a small water bottle. Walking sticks/poles are not essential, but they’re for sale all over Santiago de Compostela. Your “civilian” clothes and other items can follow you in your heavy baggage.
TAKE TWO top attractions
Polbo a feira
Boiled octopus, sprinkled with coarse salt and paprika. Drizzled with olive oil, it’s traditionally served on wooden plates with sliced boiled potatoes in their skins, and bread.
Reputed burial place of the apostle James, this is the destination of all camino walkers. A highlight of any visit is to see the swinging of the mighty Botafumeiro, the biggest censer in the world, during mass.