A sole bagpiper played a lament on the lighthouse rock. What else would you expect at the end of the world? At his feet was a tapestry of Celtic nation flags… Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Breton, and his native Galician.
We were walkers, peregrinos (the Spanish word for pilgrims) - gluttons for punishment that had not only undertaken a Camino to Santiago de Compostela, but carried on walking from there.
A marathon 770.9km pilgrimage from St Jean Pied-de-Port in France hadn't been enough. We'd felt it necessary to attach an extra 122kms west to Fisterra/Finis Terrae ('the end of the world'). That was where we gathered to listen to the piper's music, by the rock above the village on Cape Finisterre in north-western Spain.
Why? Because we are Irish, it's what we do - walk. Whether it's a city park, a country road or a coastal path. Whether it's within our 2km or 5km on lockdown, or past and future hikes on the Wild Atlantic Way, Wicklow Way or the Kerry Camino, walking is in our bones.
Like us, the Romans who popularised Finis Terrae were great walkers, and adventurers. It was there, at the westernmost point of their empire, where the sun went down and the living and dead merged, that they believed we ran out of world. Sandal-wearing centurions and Medieval peregrinos shared many of the same reasons for getting out on the road as we do now… cabin fever, contemplation, redemption, and exploring the world.
We initially overshot the lighthouse - myself and Armagh banker Wendy, my long-time walking companion whom I met as far back as Sarria, 100kms out from Santiago. She had forgiven me much in the week since, getting her lost on a straight path, and also shooing away a wasp which took sanctuary in her shoe and stung her. So I didn't deny her my company on the road to Fisterra.
From Santiago, it was a five-day trek of forests and coastal cliffs, ticking off chapels and grain stores (or horreos) and the site where the Celtic-built altar to the sun, Praza de Ara Solis, once stood. Passing lyrical-sounding towns like Cee (pronounced Si), Negreira and Albeleiros, we rested up in B&Bs - couriers taking our luggage to the next stop for when we arrived.
After our travails, Wendy and I promised ourselves the reward of a refreshment and plate of sardines in Fisterra. We walked down into the village where there seemed to be no sign of life bar some red bobbing fishing boats. Sorely tempted to help ourselves to some Estrella Galicia beer in a bar and a dish from the kitchen, we were interrupted by an old woman in a shawl who probably knew those Romans personally. But little English. And we had to resort to our own Camino Ways handbook to get ourselves back on the road and up our umpteenth hill again.
Tradition has it that a peregrino would leave a boot on the hill where a Camino clamshell signpost is marked with a zero mileage. Because his, or her, journey would have run its course. But warmed by the late autumn sun, by my companions and future possibilities, I declined.
I will be needing both boots for walks to come.
My own early memories of walks start on the Móinin Road, above the fields of the South Donegal townland of Brockagh. It's a small bogland path, but for my mam and me it was paved with gold. It's where she took her first steps and where I took some of my earliest ones, and where the peaty Donegal air and terrain filled me with my lifelong passion for walking.
Staying home for now, with travel restrictions across the world, I am using the time to plan my next walk - a return to the Via Francigena.
A companion Camino, the trail is based on the 1,700km route that led pilgrims from Canterbury in England to Rome in the middle ages. The beauty of Caminos is that you can start where you want, after all. Back in the day that was from your front door. Sound familiar?
The beauty of a good aul' walk, wherever we take it, is that we can dictate our own pace, who we want to stroll with and where we want to go, unless you get lost - and that can be fun, too.
On your Camino, you will stumble upon hidden gems and cultural curios, before you even reach Santiago de Compostela or Rome. You might find yourself exorcising the demons with locals in the Galician Halloween ceremony, Queimada. In a restaurant off the main street where they stir a cauldron, cast spells into the air and invite you to drink their fiery brew. Or, on the Via Francigena, you might follow in the footsteps of the 10th-century pioneer Sigeric the Serious (you would have to be), or uncover Etruscan treasures in the former Chigi Palace in the hilltop town of Formello.
At the top floor here is the Ostello Formello. Medieval pilgrims wouldn't have had the luxury of a hostel to stay in like this, and would have had to make do with barns or open fields. But today, guests can scale the stairs with its markings and inspiring inscriptions on each step, recalling the towns they would have passed on the 1,700km road trip from Canterbury. Twenty-something hostel helper Furio will impress you with his knowledge of St Patrick and local architecture and history, before you do a double-take at the rates he quotes: €15 with a continental breakfast thrown in on the square.
While Christian devotion was the genesis for pilgrims on the Caminos, and historic treks around Europe, today's walkers form a broader church. You'll see a cross as you climb every mountain in Catholic Tyrol in Austria, for example, but Irish walking groups who take to the peaks today are motivated more by their passion for trekking, and in this case, crossing the border into Germany.
You can do that through a simple unguarded gate, and can see evidence on a plaque along the way of how these hills had been fought over by brave airmen. If you worry that age or infirmity might be an impediment for you on the Tyrol's steep limestone slopes, don't. Older walkers on my Topflight trip were gracious enough to wait for this breathless, not so nifty fifty-something.
If you do like your walking expedition to have a religious flavour, the trip I took also included a day in Oberammergau in Bavaria. Back in 1634, the villagers here promised Our Lord that they would put on a Passion pageant to Him if only He would rid them of the Black Death. A bit of flattery goes a long way, the plague soon passed.
When we visited in the autumn, the Bavarians were in national lederhosen dress for another parade, to mark a special anniversary of their fire service. They had the drapes out too for the 2020 Passionsspiele. Thanks to Covid-19, they will now have to wait until 2022 to follow the Way of the Cross, when the recreation promises to carry even more resonance.
Religious or not, we are all of us increasingly reconnecting with the natural world during the coronavirus pandemic. Another holiday I recall in lockdown is the island of Tenerife, where walkers will feel truly blessed with the island boasting 11 different climates. The volcanic valley landscape of Teide is Europe's most visited National Park, until now drawing nearly three million in a good year across its 37 official trails. But I also felt like I had the place to myself.
The major walking challenge of my CanariaWays trip was the 12km tramp to Afur, which took us up a mountain, through a rainforest, down to a black-sanded cove and then up, up, up and away again to the terminus. Our guide and pocket rocket Eva skipped up - my progress was less ginger.
You'll have the skies to yourself on Tenerife too, with the island a centre for astrologers. On my trip, star-spotter and Paradores de Canadas del Teide Hotel guide Juan Vicente gladly (and madly) transported us with his beam across the Milky Way. And he will point out The Plough, The Bear and Castor and Pollux and Saturn's rings.
God may very well be in his heaven here. It was a humbling moment, and I pondered how oh so small and insignificant we are in the greater scheme of things.
When we return to our walking holidays, I hope we can slow down, smell the roses and listen to what nature, the spirits of our past, and Galician pipers at the end of a long walk in a far outpost, are trying to tell us.
The Finisterre Camino is a five-day, 100km trek for pilgrims walking from Santiago to Fisterra (the ‘end of the world’) inSpain. Of medium difficulty but high scenic beauty. caminoways.com
A six-night, 112km trek on the The Via Francigena (from Viterbo to Rome) includes woods as old as time, poplar-lined vias and towns with medieval watchtowers. francigenaways.com
The Zugspitze Glacier is a one-day, 15km trek and a highlight of a seven-day Tyrolean trip with five days’ walking inGermany. The last bit takes you by cable car to the highest point inGermany. topflightforschools.ie
Sign up for our free travel newsletter!
Like what you're reading? Subscribe to 'Travel Insider', our free travel newsletter written by award-winning Travel Editor, Pól Ó Conghaile.
Griffon vultures were circling above as we climbed steadily on day two of our Camino. The swooping birds didn't so much have their eyes on our meaty - dare I say, toned - calves. They were indulging in a playful flyover because they knew something we didn't.