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Pilgrim father... and son

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Stand in the spacious square of Plaza del Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostela and you will see foot-weary travellers from all parts of the world arrive at their destination, the great Romanesque cathedral of St James the Apostle.

They stand awestruck, smile, hug, dance or just burst into tears. They have arrived. They have achieved their dream. Through many trials and trails they have reached their destination. They have completed their Camino.

But why do they put themselves through the tough treks that may have tested them physically, spiritually or mentally to reach this place?

There are as many answers to that as there are pilgrims on the road. In the Middle Ages, the three major places of pilgrimage were Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela.

Rome still draws the crowds. Jerusalem is problematic. But even in this secular age, Santiago's popularity is increasing -- possibly because it retains more of the spirit of pilgrimage as a long physical journey, a time for reflection, the shared experiences and a deserved sense of achievement.

Legend has it that St James the Apostle, son of Zebedee, was executed by Herod and his body was brought to Galicia in a stone boat. His remains were discovered just in time to have him made the spiritual champion of the Catholic Spanish in their battle against the Moorish occupiers. Now, patron of Spain, he is said to be buried in Santiago's cathedral.

Today's travellers are following in the footsteps, literally, of millions who preceded them over the centuries to visit this shrine. Some undertake the Camino trail for religious or spiritual reasons and some just for the pleasure of the walk. They will see countryside and a way of life far from the tourist circuit. Each morning, they will set out with the hope that they will arrive safely somewhere that night.

They will learn that their needs are basic; water, food, shelter, a bed, a place to wash and health to continue.

The most popular route by far is the Camino Francés starting in St Jean Pied de Port, continuing over the Pyrenees and across the north of Spain for around 800km. In the summer, this route can become very congested. The demand for beds in the hostels can be as great as for sunbeds in the Costas. The full Camino Francés will take up to five or six weeks and dem-ands a good level of fitness.

A few summers ago, I went solo from Burgos to Santiago and covered 500km in three weeks. Tough but rewarding.

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But why be a martyr when being a pilgrim will do? For a shorter, less demanding but most enjoyable Camino, try the Camino Portugués. At a steady pace, this route from Portugal's second city of Oporto to Santiago is manageable in less than two weeks. Follow the painted yellow arrows, which mark the Camino route, and you will get there.

My son Johnny and I walked from the cathedral in Oporto to Santiago over eight days without over exertion, so the full 240km length could easily be done in 10 or 11 days. Basic fitness, proper gear and common sense should suffice.

So, what is the difference between the French and the Portuguese route? Well, about 560km for a start. The length of the Camino Portugués makes it feasible to complete within the fortnight most people have for an annual holiday. The terrain is less difficult than the Camino Francés and the distances between stopping places generally shorter. Then there is the novelty of walking in two countries and comparing and contrasting the differences experienced en route.

We flew out from Dublin and decided to stay the night in Oporto. We planned to set off next morning from the city's Se Catedral and go all the way to Santiago's Cathedral on foot.

With the pilgrim's emblem, the scallop shell, on our rucksacks and hope in our hearts, we strode off for the long trek. Unfortunately, we were soon lost in the city and ended up taking a bus to the outskirts, picking up the yellow arrows to get on our way.

Late that evening we arrived at our hostel in the charming village of Rates. It is housed in a recently renovated building with a library, most mod cons and a museum, as well as three dormitories with more than 20 beds. There were three of us that first night; Johnny, myself and Stefan from Germany, plus a few mosquitoes. Not just a bed but a whole dormitory each. This was definitely going to be the road less travelled.

We were off early the next morning for an easy 16km to Barcelos, following the yellow arrows along busy roads and country lanes and passing harvest fields where whole families worked at the maize. From grandparents to children, all were toiling under the hot sun.

Over the Rio Cávado at Barcelinhos, then past a notice informing us that there had been a 14th-century lavatory there for the convenience of pilgrims going to Santiago. We knew we were out of the woods.

Barcelos was gearing up for Fiesta Nova and the villages and parishes from all around had each erected a decorative arch. Barcelos is the place of origin of Portugal's tourist mascot, the rooster, and he is seen everywhere here. The town has no hostel but the tourist office is most helpful in recommending places to suit all pockets.

After a good night's sleep in Barcelos we began a long, demanding, 34km journey to Ponte de Lima to find the fiesta in full swing. Great music, parades, stalls and thousands of revellers, but we had no place to stay.

However, luck was on our side. We got the last double room in the Hotel Imperio de Minho. That is one of the appeals of the Camino: heading off each morning not knowing what the day will bring or where you will end up each night. Just travel in hope.

The next day, after 17km through overgrown paths, thick pinewoods and steep climbs, we arrived at Silvia Castro's B&B. A double room with shower was €15 each and Silvia even did our clothes washing. She organised a lift for us to a bar for food and we were ferried back by one of the drinkers. In St James we trusted.

Our last day in Portugal brought us to Valenca, a popular tourist city with magnificent moats and walls built to protect locals against their neighbours, the Spanish. Across the bridge, over the Rio Minho, and we were in Spain in the province of Galicia. At the end of the bridge is Tui, with its unusual fortress -- like a cathedral with sheltered cloisters and well-kept gardens. Well worth a visit.

Galicia is Spain's Celtic province, where the rain in Spain falls mainly. The albergue (hostel) in the heart of Redondela is a wonderfully restored townhouse which we shared with a growing number of pilgrims. A party of 18 from Slovakia complete with their own chaplain had joined, but there was still no pressure for beds -- unlike the places on the Camino Francés approaching Santiago from the east.

Next stop Pontevedra, with its purpose-built albergue and delightful medieval city centre with tapas bars, cafes and buzzing squares in the evening. An easy walk by woodlands and paths north to Caldas de Reis, over the Roman bridge, and into this little spa town to ease our weary feet. Blisters, causes and cures are a constant topic among the walkers, a change from talking about the weather. The consensus was that Compeed plasters and ointment were best.

Our last stop before Santiago was Padrón. Its main claim to fame is that it is the place where the stone boat carrying St James' remains is said to have been tied up. There is replica of the Roman mooring stone by the river. The original is in St James' church nearby.

If the leaving of Oporto was tricky, the entry to Santiago was less than triumphant. We spied the twin spires of the cathedral but lost the yellow arrows and went totally adrift in a massive new road development site amid diggers and bulldozers. Eventually, and several extra kilometres later, we entered the great Plaza in front of our destination. Tired, relieved and mildly elated, we had arrived.

Mission accomplished.

At the cathedral we observed all the pilgrim rituals. We embraced St James' statue and viewed the casket of his relics. We stayed for the beautifully-sung pilgrims' Mass at noon and gasped as the huge incense burner, the Botafumeiro -- used over the years to kill the smell of the travellers -- swung across the transept. We presented our fully stamped-up Pilgrim's Credential and were awarded our Latin Compostela, certification of our successful journey. We ate at the pilgrims' favourite cafe, Casa Manolo, at €10 for three courses.

The Camino Portugués is shorter, more relaxed and really user-friendly. The local people en route are kind and supportive. We were given statuettes of the Barcelos rooster. We got free pastries with our coffee in a wayside cafe. Harvesters called us over and gave us bunches of grapes and apples.

We were stopped and asked about our specially-printed Irish T-shirts and encouraged on our way by waves and cars tooting horns.

Though fewer than on the Camino Francés, the other pilgrims were like Chaucer's friends; an interesting mix. Ours ranged from devout believers to non-believers to New Agers, who seemed to believe just about anything.

There was not such a diversity of nationalities on this Camino. It was mainly Germans, a few Portuguese and the big group from Slovakia enjoying their new-found freedom to travel and the joys of budget airlines. We became particularly friendly with them and gave them a small plaque of the Derry City coat of arms and they gave us a little bust of an angel. Of such little gestures are lasting memories formed.

The Camino took us into pine woods, eucalyptus forests, along dusty tracks, up steep inclines, over medieval bridges and onto Roman roads. We strolled over modern highways, along riversides, in and out of farmyards, villages and towns. Sometimes Johnny and I walked and talked; sometimes we just walked. But we saw a way of rural life largely unknown in Ireland today.

We shared time together and enjoyed music, culture, food, architecture and had experiences other holidays don't reach. Just follow the yellow arrows and take to the Camino less travelled.

Buen viaje.


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