CAMINO ESTRECHO: Between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic 2

The skies were clear and the air crisp and cold when we set off at dawn from the campsite and returned to the beach. The skyline of Moroccan mountains were sharp behind a gentle mist rising from the sea as we climbed the mountainous dune to reach the road recently cleared of sand that threatened to bury the trees.

The road crossed the top of a forested peninsular that was or had been abandoned to the military although still part of the Estrecho natural park our whole journey was contained within. A really attractive stretch of wild country that was spoiled somewhat at the end of the cul de sac by the deserted military buildings.

Surprisingly, beyond the military flotsam was an enclave of fincas and villas and a couple of restaurants with wonderful views across the straights. The road became a sandy track that wove its way over the headland between the pines with their rounded pincushion canopy.

The cloudless sky had warmed a lot and, exiting the shade of the trees into more open country, we took a drink and snack break after about 10km in El Lentiscal, another favourite camper parkup.

The sea here was calm again. We had been blessed with slight breezes since arriving on the coast famous for its strong winds beloved by kite and wind surfers. We hadn’t wanted to be struggling against a maelstrom of sandblasting particles.

A little out of the village we called up to the imposing visitor centre building for the equally impressive Roman ruins of Baelo Claudia. In fact the 2000yr old archecture was fairing better than the modernist structure. Inside the towering exhibition spaces were lines of buckets collecting drips from yesterdays rain and streaks of water stains marred the plain white walls. Many of the digs finds were in other museums and the display barely warranted such an ostentatious edifice but I admired the donkey head jug handle among other relics.

Realising that a track leading off from the back of the site would save us a circuitous loop around on a steep road we snuck over one fence, wandered through acres of scattered Roman stonework, and scrabbled under another to gleefully regain the trail having ” beat the GR system!”. But our smugness was short lived as we still had a long climb ahead to take us way up above the famous Bolonia sand dune and over the Punta Camarinal peninsular, home to another military exclusion zone. Work was ongoing on the trail with new signage, car parking and concreting.

It was a spectacular section of trail , worthy of upgrading to attract more visitors, through a tapestry of rock and palm and pine and flowering scrub with views to the sea and Africa in the distance. Some goat farmers were privileged to live here overlooking the 500 year old Torre de Cabo de Gracia, whose lookouts warned of Barbary pirates back in the day and whose light protects seafarers still. The beach below, accessible only by foot or boat, is reckoned to be the finest on the coast.

From the tower it was a short walk to a shock. From an empty and wild natural environment we emerged to a view of a controlled and subdued one. One where mankind had definitely made his mark. Mostly in the form of the kind of macho but minimalist architecture that would feature in a Bond movie. Our last bed of the trail was here somewhere and we walked a long way on broken and weed choked paving to find it. Obviously not a place where people walked. No shops, restaurants, bars or social hubs to walk to. Just multi million euro villas to drive into through electronic gates.

As it happened our place in Atlanterra, a suburb of Zahara de Los Atunes, was more modest and rustic although part of a Finca on the market for €5 million.

Lovely gardens and views more than made up for the lack of dramatically cantilevered roofs and floor to ceiling glass walls.

The complicated bus and train timetable homewards meant we didn’t have any time to walk further up the coast and Jesus, the gardener, would give us a spin to the bus stop in the morning.

Time to chill and take stock of our hike. That day we’d covered over 20 km of ups and downs and although the last steep climbs were a struggle we were pleased with our efforts and the scenery, weather and slow motion discovery had, as usual, made it a joyful experience. The Parque Natural Estrecho had been yet another wonderful ingredient in Spains diet of delights to sate our hunger for rambling riches. And in the morning we walked onto the beach at the trails end in the town that celebrates – the Tuna.

CAMINO ESTRECHO: Between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic 1

On a quick escape from the frozen north we decided to tackle a few days level(ish) trekking as far south as we could get in Spain. I had discovered a Camino route from Algeciras westwards towards Cadiz that also mainly coincided with a couple of coastal GR routes, the GR 92- Sendero Europeo Arco Mediterraneo to Tarifa and the GR 145 Arco Atlantico from there onwards to Zahara de Los Atunes where we intended to finish.

After a beautiful train journey from Antequera to Algeciras along many of the routes previously walked on the Gran Senda de Malaga we hopped in a cab and alighted on the trail at Las Pantallas leaving another 10 km or so to do. The strange construction was a wall built in 1942 to hide a military road up to the gun emplacements from prying eyes on Gibraltar.

The surreal oddly artistic military defence continued off and on as we continued uphill into the Natural Parque de Estrecho, named after the Straights (of Gibraltar). After 5 bouts of Chemo (with added Immuno) therapy I wasn’t able for too much too steep or too long and Sallys knees etc have been in better shape so it was a relief to gain the plateau summit at about 250m and stop for the view and snacks.

We turned off the tarmac and continued on a potholed track across glorious country with free grazing cattle and views across the straits to Africa before a final cruel ascent off trail to our cabin for the night at the Eco Huerta Grande park in El Pelayo.

Rain in the night and more promised meant we didn’t take time to explore the extensive gardens of La Huerta in the morning but carried on down the trail through verdant country with cork oaks and herbage running wild. We turned off the main track to head down to the sea past long abandoned fincas.

From here we followed the GR 92 along the shore line up and down on slippy muddy tracks between beaches littered with the tragic remains of immigrant inflatables.

And unfortunate cattle.

We reached the Torre de Guadalmesi where the car tracks continued to Tarifa but we stayed with the GR/ Camino route which followed an interesting geological line of uplifted rock and scattered WW2 concrete bunkers.

It had been raining for long enough to have us soaked and cold by the time we reached the outskirts of Tarifa and,weary of the ups and downs, we were glad to finally, after about 19 km altogether, reach our posada for the night and hang up all our clothes to dry.

In the morning we hit the market for breakfast before heading off from the signboard on the prom westwards on the GR 145/ Camino de Estrecho with blue sky ahead and dark, threatening clouds behind us. We were led onto a long section of wooden boardwalk before a protected area of dunes meant the trail was diverted alongside the busy main road.

We were grateful when we were led away from the road through pines towards the shore again. This stretch of coast attracts a huge amount of campervans and there were many parked up where we took advantage of shelter when the rain came again.

We abandoned the GR when it returned to the roadside and continued along the beach, facilitated by the low tide, past more crumbling bunkers, interesting rock formations and art, to reach our A frame tent on a campsite at Valdevaqueros after about 13 km.

After an afternoon/ evening of eating, drinking, washing and watching camper antics we hoped for dry conditions over the next two days of trail and retired to our surprisingly delux boudoir for the night.

LAST LEGS: Sierra de Gredos

The Sierra de Gredos mountain range and Regional Park, about 150km west of Madrid, is a beautiful area of towering peaks, glacial lakes, oak woods and river valleys that we had explored once before- in the snow- and had always wanted to return to. So when Jill, Sally’s sister, asked for a suggestion for a walking holiday destination in the region of Madrid and Salamanca it was an obvious choice, especially as we were invited to join them.

Problem was an ever increasing series of tests, scans and consultations had resulted in an ever decreasing picture of good health and the closing of windows of opportunity. We managed to get there though, about a month ago, unsure of my hiking ability but sure of the restorative power of being out there in the wilds.

We stayed in an eco airbnb in the little hamlet of Navacepeda de Tormes on the northern side of the range where I thought the trails alongside the clear rushing waters of the Tormes river would make for leisurely strolling. The ancient buildings in the village of 160 inhabitants were sadly in decline as depopulation continued although the area is popular for summer holidays with Madrilenos seeking cool mountain air.

We discovered the bear paw nailed to the church door- carbon dated at 400 yr old, making it possibly the last bear in the Gredos. Hemingway, who came to the area, had written of it and a street in the village is named after him.

On our first evening we walked down to the river and up the Garganta del Barbellido to a lovely natural swimming pool overlooked by a picture perfect medieval bridge. Although the water looked and was very cold I couldn’t resist immersion into the picture myself

I knew from our last visit that there was a road that reached way up towards the peaks on this northern side – to a car park “La Plataforma” which saved 11 km and 500 m of ascent- to gain access to the high altitude trails. I was happy to hear that Jill and Ralph were keen to take the hire car up there in the morning from where we would attempt the well worn route up to the Laguna Grande.

So, starting out from 1750m in the crisp mountain air, still in the shadows of the surrounding ridges but under an immaculate blue sky, we joined the stone laid path and started our ascent into the sunshine – slowly but surely.

The autumnal browns and greys of the grasses and rocks were dotted with the shocking crimson pink and purple flowers of crocus which surprisingly seemed to fair best on the well trodden path.

We were on one of the traditional paths that cross the mountain range used for many centuries. There is a long history of transhumance here, the seasonal moving of cattle to and from the high pastures, and availing of the climatic differences of the north and south facing sides of the range. These old paths were also used to exchange goods, as the economies of the different sides were based on different products, and reached their peak in the 15th and 16 th century. I wonder how our current road systems will be used 600 years from now. We crossed paths with a man with pack horses coming back from supplying the Refuge high above us, continuing the centuries old ways.

We came upon a large group, herd, cluster,??, of male Ibex. A semi-protected species they seemed to be doing well, with an estimated 5000-8000 in these mountains. The Gredos are one of 4 species of Iberian Ibex , 2 of which, the Portuguese and Pyreanean are now extinct. Along with the other surviver, the Southeastern, their greatest threat now apart from loss of habitat and illegal hunting is sarcoptic mange, a deadly disease.

After an hour or so of gradual climbing we stopped at Los Cavadores spring for a drink and snack break before continuing a little further to the high point ridge at 2200m.

Crossing the broad flattish area of Los Barrerones we started to descend and the awesome views of the Circo de Gredos made the effort of the climb a very reasonable price to pay.

From here we could see the highest peaks of the range, La Galana and Almanzor, at nearly 2600m. We could also see, in the distance beneath the peaks, the Laguna and the refuge beside it, a truly spectacular setting in which to stay. Making our way down the rocky path others joined us- it was obviously a popular destination, with beds for 65 and meals and drinks available.

Hard though it was to tear ourselves away from the hospitality and the view of the cirque towering above we had to make the return trip, with a slower, more gentle, ascent this time. We passed a lot more hikers heading for the Elola refuge for the weekend and the pack horses returning again with more supplies for them. When we stopped at a fuente we were surrounded by ibex, this time females and juveniles, seemingly well used to people on their patch and unperturbed.

Back at La Plataforma, and pleased with our efforts, we decided to return the following day- Jill and Ralph to ascend to El Morezon and us to descend via the Garganta de las Pozas and Garganta de Gredos to the river Tormes.

It looked like it was going to be a busy weekend at the Refuge when we arrived at a nearly full car park in the morning and a stream of fit looking folk snaked their way up the rocky road before us. They included a team helping to transport a young fella in an off road wheelchair contraption – determined and vocally animated they left us in their wake as they forged ahead on route to some peak. Fair play.

At the top of the rise above the car park Jill and Ralph set off south on an old path that led to a pass at Puerto de Candeleda while we turned north across the grazing area of Prado de las Pozas to find the river we were to follow down stream for 15 km.

Another glorious day of sunshine and blue skies was now enhanced by the sounds of gurgling and gushing as the crystal waters gravitated down through the glacial moraine, accompanied by the occasional clank and clonk of cow bells.

When we stopped for a pool side break I couldn’t resist stripping off and becoming one with the mountain stream- but not for long. Bracing could describe it. We crossed over to the eastern bank and carried on down through concentrations of crocus, passed an old farmhouse turned refuge, to merge with the Garganta de Gredos and its rushing waters coming down from the Laguna Grande.

After a restful lunch on the Puente de Roncesvalles we rambled on, stopping for a peek into another farmhouse Refugio where a family had taken up residence for the weekend. We were now below the 1500m tree line and oak woodland lined the valley walls.

The well made stone path took us down into lush farmland of grazing cows and pine plantations before merging with another river and PR walking trail to the Cirque. Now back in ” civilisation”, a road of giant stones led us to the best of it – a friendly bar beside the river Tormes.

As a herd of free range horses joined us on the river bank we luxuriated in the lushness of it all, accompanied by flowing water all day, at the end of summer, so different to the parched south of Spain with its dry rivers and empty reservoirs.

It had been wonderful to be out in the wilds of Spain again. So many trails- so many beautiful spaces. It would certainly take more than a lifetime to know but a fraction. But I would urge anyone to explore, experience and ramble as many as time allows. Not just Spain of course but anywhere in as natural a world as you can reach.

Contact with and connection to nature can create the love, respect and empathy needed to restore our dangerously unbalanced relationship with the rest of the threatened co-habitants and eco systems of our abused world. It can heal ourselves and our surroundings.

Last Legs? Hopefully not quite yet but time is obviously running out. Enjoy it and protect it while you can. I’ll leave you with some images of Salamanca and Madrid. From the man made sacred spaces that were built to inspire the same sense of Awe that nature had supplied for millennia.

Sacred nature.

DONEGAL: Rambling in the Gardens of Gentry

A long awaited return to the Republic’s most northerly county luckily coincided with days of late summer sunshine- perfect for strolling the manicured lawns and walled gardens of some of Donegals fine collection of surviving Big Houses.

We started by exploring Oakfield Demesne, originally built in 1739 for the Dene of nearby Raphoe the house was extensively renovated and restored by Sir Gerry and Lady Robinson when they acquired it in 1996 and set about creating a glorious park and gardens over the 100 acre estate.

Sir Gerry who died last year put life and soul into creating a varied parkland in the lower half of the land, digging a 40ft deep lake, planting 40,000 native trees, building follies and a maze and laying 4.5 km of miniature railway track with trains and wagons – all from marshy farmland.

The Robinsons commissioned a lot of monumental sculpture which is placed around the kms of garden trails.

We took an informative tour of the normally private upper gardens- 50 acres of mature trees set in chequerboard lawns, sweeping wildflower meadows, another man made lake with accompanying Nymphaeum fed by the original Victorian ram pump, ancient woodland and award winning restored walled gardens with topiary and paved formality as well as wild and exuberant planting of exotic flowers and scrubs. I was too immersed in the plant spotting to take pictures.

After the cosseting of the comfort of controlled nature we sort out the wild and untamed and headed for the towering sea cliffs of Horn Head on the north coast.

The 360 degree views from what the famous naturalist Robert Praeger called the “finest headland on the Irish coast” were spectacular and covered Inishowen and Malin Head to the East and Tory Island and iconic Errigal and Muckish mountains. Even here all was calm, the normally crashing waves gently resting at the base of the 200m cliffs, the flat waters making an easy job for the boats hauling lobster pots in the morning when we set off from the camper on a 12km hike around the coast.

From the WW2 look out post we headed towards the Napoleonic signal tower never used to warn of a French invasion, and followed the dramatic geology westwards across the heather. The ending of headage payments on sheep and the resulting overstocking and overgrazing had enabled the once sheepwrecked and eroded landscaped to recover into a thick and healthy sward.

The head is rich in natural and man made features- Neolithic tombs and stone circles as well as phenomena like McSwines Gun, a blow hole that used to send a geyser 100 m up into the air with a retort head up to 10 miles away, and the sea carved Marble Arch. From there we watched some of the internationally renown colony of sea birds wheeling in the void. Shags, puffins, razorbills, gannets and many others call this place home returning to nest year after year.

We turned our back to the sea at an impressive stone wall and struck out into the interior on a direct line towards a very distant camper passing a remote farmstead whose horse and donkey were surprised by the unusual visitation. It must be a tough spot to try and wrest a living and we passed a scattering of sad and ruined cottages as we struggled through the heather to the comfort of a tarmac car park.

We drove south to the Muckish Gap on route for the Derryveagh Mountains. A spectacular road led us through the valley to the Bridge of Tears where, in the famine and poverty stricken days of the 18th and 19th century, family’s would accompany those heading for the emigrant ships of Derry port. Sad farewells and painful final partings took place here for a multitude over the decades as the departing crossed the bridge with the expectation they would never be seen again.

From a poignant symbol of the poverty of the peasant class to the ostentatious display of wealth and power of the ruling classes at the scene of “one of the worst excesses of Irish landlordism”.

In April 1861 John George Adair or “Black Jack”,who had used money from his slave owning families’s sugar plantations to buy up 16,000 hectares of mountain, bog, lake and woods to create the Glenveagh estate achieved international notoriety by forcibly evicting 244 tenants and destroying their homes. He had a vision for a grand hunting, shooting and fishing fiefdom and having swapped his Gaelic “eyesores” for imported Scottish sheep he had the castle built in 1870 for his new American wife who, unlike her hated husband (dead by 1885), is remembered as a kind and generous person who survived him by another 35 years. The estate lands were bought by the state in 1975 and the castle and gardens were bequeathed to the nation in 1981, becoming Ireland’s third national park in 84.

The gardens around the castle, originally laid out 140 years ago, were divided into a variety of planting schemes, connected by a network of pathways. A walled garden in Jardin Potager style rises up behind the castle where the stone for its construction was quarried and after exploring these we took the high looping View Point Walk to the hillside above.

The gardens are part of a National Phenology Network that records the timing of natural events such as budburst, flowering, leaf fall and migratory bird comings and goings to add helpful data to climate change research and agriculture, tourism and gardening bodies.

Next stop Gartan Lough on the southern side of the estate where we spent the night after a refreshingly cool swim.

Setting off early to walk the Lough Inshagh Trail back over the estate moorland towards the castle we called in to the birthplace of St Colmcille, the 6th century prince turned monk who went on to found the monastery on Iona. The tranquil spot is marked by a large Celtic cross and a large flagstone decorated with Neolithic cup markings. The ” Stone of Sorrows” was thought to hold a cure for homesickness and loneliness and many emigrants are said to have spent the night on it before leaving Ireland.

The old estate road that once took the gentry to the Protestant services at Church Hill must have taken much labour in constructing its 7km across the bog and moor, as did the 45km of fence that encloses the herd of red deer.

The track was lined with prickly heath or Perettya/ Gaultheria Mucronata an invasive escapee from the castle gardens and clumps of rhododendron amongst the heather did not bode well but on Garton mountain, passed the lake, there were sheltered pockets of old oak and holly woodland. We stopped to soak in the view before returning to the camper and our next treat.

Next to where we had spent the night was a gem of a place unknown to us. Glebe House and it’s large courtyard gallery and glorious lakeside gardens is operated by the OPW after being gifted to the state in 1981 by its owner, the English painter Derek Hill. The Regency style house was built as a rectory in 1828 but became a hotel by 1898, welcoming guests for over 50 years apart from a period of occupation by both the IRA and RIC during the war of independence.

Derek Hill was a very well connected artist who also welcomed guests to St Columbs, as it was known, from the worlds of Arts to Royalty. A keen collector he stuffed his house with all manner of art and craft from around the world and over 300 paintings by leading artists of the 20th century, often bartered or swapped for his own work. He bought light and water to the house and decorated it with original William Morris wallpaper and textiles. We had a fascinating tour of the house before exploring the beautiful grounds while ethereal music mixed by sound artist Sven Anderson from Dereks collection of 1500 operatic and classical records floated from exterior speakers.

Derek Hill gave his house, garden and priceless collection to the nation 20 years before his death, living in a nearby cottage all that time and frequently joining the tours to see what people thought of it. A real treasure, well loved and maintained with new exhibitions frequently put on in the courtyard gallery, it deserves more recognition.

Our last stop before the long drive south was a place we first explored 20 years ago. On the shores of Lough Eske near Donegal town we discovered a ruined castle amid a coillte forest. With trees growing up through the roofless interior and an ivy clad tower the grounds were covered in massive rhododendron from which I took a lot of cuttings. None of them went on to grow into new lives but the castle did. Bought in 2006 by developer Pat Doherty millions were invested in a 2 year restoration of the building built by Thomas Brooke in 1861. The giant rhododendrons are gone but now an extensive 5 star hotel has risen, phoenix like, from the ruins.

The Bluestack Mountains formed a dramatic background to Lough Eske estate when we went for a cycle and skinny dip before leaving. Once compelled to hiking up them now content to stroll the gardens wrestled from the wilderness by an Ascendancy long gone.

RIVERWALK: Nore Valley Way

A heatwave upon us we decided on a watery walk shaded by mature hardwoods growing from the fertile soils of the south east. Having boated and hiked both the Barrow and the Suir it was to the last of the three sisters we headed – the Nore.

Following the meandering river south from Borris in Ossory after its journey from the Devils Bit mountain, we drove through Durrow and Ballyragget to The Weir swimming pool on the northern edge of Kilkenny city. Arriving at dusk it was too late to swim (not for others) and the morning was too chilly (not for others again)so we set off to our trailhead in the Castle Park as more swimmers arrived.

The Nore Valley Way is a three stage, 34km, walk and the middle section is still, after many years, not completed. Kilkenny to Bennetsbridge is 12 km, the gap from there to Thomastown is 11km and Thomastown to Inistioge is another 12km. But still, there are bus and train links to and fro between the stages so it’s possible to break it up or complete both stages in a day.

We started on the tree lined avenues of the Canal Walk in Kilkenny Castle grounds and after a couple of km crossed the river to the east bank on the Ossory bridge.

The river was wide, shallow and clear. The long spell without rain had lowered the level considerably and Irish waterways had asked the public to report any signs of overheated and distressed fish. We were kept cool on the shaded path through the trees, refreshed by the gurgling and twinkling of water over shallows.

An access issue forced us up onto a road for a little while before crossing a stile into riverside fields again. This walk was characterised by the wide variety of stiles employed- seemingly every type going. We passed Inch sawmills with huge stacks of planked hardwoods, sawn by the power of the water for generations. This river, for hundreds of years has provided the power for woollen, paper, grain and sawmills as well as the water for breweries and irrigation of the fertile land. We passed many, both ruins and fine homes, with a network of mill races and ponds slowly returning to a pre industrial landscape.

There were areas of quarried stone where the famous Black Marble was worked but now all was quiet and the cobbled track was used solely for recreation. Walkers, fisherfolk and in this weather, wild swimmers. We passed an extravagant and forlorn designer extension in the woods before coming to a swimming spot near the motorway bridge.

Soon after our cooling swim we came upon a remote horse box coffee shop, unfortunately closed, and then were approaching Bennetsbridge and the old mill complex now housing the Nicolas Mosse pottery totally powered by the water turbine that also feeds into the national Grid.

From another mill building and grain silos we caught the bus back to the castle where we explored more of the park and toured some of the arts week exhibitions.

Originally a wooden structure built by Strongbow to control the fording place, in 1195 the stone towers were built, three of which still survive. Home to the Butler family for 600 years, the Marquess of Ormond gave it to the nation in 1976 and it continues to be a very popular place for local and tourists to visit.

Leaving our overnight camper spot in the riverside park the next morning we drove to Thomastown swimming spot where the glorious sunshine, a gouty toe, a charming village packed with over 30 art exhibitions and a reservation for the night at the nearby Mount Juliet estate were enough to persuade us to leave the next stage walk for a day and kick back a little.

A swim, sunbathe, tour of Creative Arts Festival shows and more repurposed mill buildings and it was time to see how the other half lived up at the Big House that is Mount Juliet.

The 500 acres of rolling parkland that the house overlooks from its high ridge include a golf course (of course) , formal gardens, mature oak woodland, man made lakes, the Nore valley and acres of fenced horse paddocks. Riding, fly fishing, archery, falconry – and golf- all go on in this pocket of privilege. We wondered if the delay in completing the Way was due to obstruction by the estate.

Taking the bus from Thomastown in the morning we set off on the final 11km walking upstream from the pretty village green at Inistioge. Picnickers, canoeists and fishermen were soon left behind and we saw no one else the entire walk.

The abundance of fish in the clear waters ensured a lot of herons on watch and I was thrilled to see a florescent kingfisher darting along the bank. Swifts and ducks were plentiful but we didn’t spot an otter unfortunately. Climbing up through the woods around Ballyduff House we had a couple of Kms of backroad walking before we were led down through dappled old coppice to the river again.

With the temperature reaching record heights we searched unsuccessfully for a good swimming spot as we drove sheep from the shade on the final stretch past a Strongbow tower to finish at the GAA pitch.

Back to the swimming place to cool off before the drive home happy to have completed the trio of the Sisters river walks.

Another recent waterside walk was back in the Hidden Heartlands, on the banks of the Shannon.

Starting at the River Cafe housed in the early 19th century Napoleonic tower, part of a series of defences against a French invasion that never happened, the 5km loop led us from the 1757 bridge, along the riverbank and back on an old bog road.

The bog lands of central Ireland are going through a huge change, from Brown to Green as the marketing lingo has branded it. Bord na Mona, in its seismic shift from carbon source to carbon sink, is embarking on a “Just Transition” to renewable energy producer, recycling operator and bog restoration through rewetting. The vast area of Blackwater Bog, down the road from the decommissioned peat power station at Shannonbridge is silent. The once familiar yellow machinery for the vast milling, harrowing, ridging, harvesting and transporting operations are rusting slowly as they become consumed by the Greening.

The Irish waterways are a beautiful natural resource, no more than its mountains and coast, and vastly under appreciated. Here’s hoping that in the attempts towards a more sustainable future they are nurtured, promoted and protected.

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes: Part 5

O Arial to Santiago de Compostela: 1 day : 16.5 km

Our last day on the Way started, as usual, in the dark. We only had 16.5 km to do but wanted to get to the Cathedral square with Isobel and Catarina and I was going to go full monty and go to the 12 o clock mass with them. We returned to the main road where we had eaten the day before with Tomas O Maítín from Connemara, an interesting multi Caminoist (17!) who claimed to be a descendant of Ricard Martin AKA Humanity Dick, who had basically owed Connemara. We were initially shocked by the number of pilgrims on the move, but turning off onto the tracks we all spread out and peace returned.

We had breakfast halfway after a couple of hours in a cafe that called itself ” The last Stop” and met up with Rami and his wife who later strode past us at high speed never to be seen again.

Alternating between urban and rural as we moved ever closer to the end the anticipation in the groups, couples and singles with packs on their backs was almost palpable.

The symbols of our journey were all around us as we moved through the suburbs, now with Catarina, and still by times on leafy lanes.

Without warning the cathedral towers were suddenly right ahead and in a moment, but after a fortnight, we entered the plaza, where many many people were experiencing the same emotions. Elation, gratitude, joy, bewilderment and love- to name a few.

We met others, Isobel and Yolanda and saw the Dutch walking group leader dancing madly round with a bunch of kids. People hugging, people sobbing, people laughing with relief. It’s over.

Time to get into the cathedral- the original focus of the whole cult of St James, a show with a cast of millions that’s been running for two thousand years. Leaving our packs outside in a display of faith and trust we followed the young Spanish couple known from many encounters into the sacred space where we visited the saints underfloor crypt before searching for a seat in the already full house.

As great luck, or divine intervention, would have it we had placed ourselves in the very best place to witness an event that happens on various holy days or can, in some circumstances, be paid to take place. The lighting and swinging of the Botafumeiro. A medieval air freshener, designed 800 years ago to purify the air of 100’s of sweaty pilgrims, its 1.5m high, weighs 50 kg and is loaded with another 50 kg of incense and charcoal. A crack squad of “tiraboleiros” do the rope work and get it swinging at 70 kph after a minute and a half of ” pumping” sailing high high up into the naves.

Quite a treat to witness. A last supper with Caterina, check in and shower at old quarter hostel, a wander through the multitude of Camino souvenir shops and I went off to the Pilgrims office and got my Compostela , the certificate that should ensure my sins are wiped and my name is down at the pearly gates. It will join the one I gained 17 years ago and the ” dual pilgrim” cert bestowed after the Kumamo Kodo pilgrimages in Japan. All good insurance cover. The Cathedral plaza was by then a place of relaxation and celebration.

Many foot sore people finally able to rest. We had all done well to get here. Sally’s feet were in very poor shape, I still had painful gout in my right foot, Emma, the Camino newbie, had finished un blistered. To celebrate we had dinner in Paradise, or Cafe Paradiso. Emma was leaving on an early flight in the morning while we had time to visit the Pilgrimage museum with interesting displays on the history and culture of this timeless worldwide phenomena.

So many Ways. So little time. Ultreia !

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes : Part 4

Pontevedra to O Areal: 3 days : 55.5km

A good evening in Pontevedra enjoying a meal courtesy of Emma’s prize bond win but a bad night for me thanks to a sudden and acute flare up of an old affliction ” gouty toe”. Awake from 3.30 and fearful of the long climb ahead I was made more understanding of those suffering from blisters and other foot afflictions. “The Camino Provides” they say- seemingly this can include sufficient pain to bring humility and understanding. Or that was my lesson for the day anyway. We’ve taken to adopting a thought or meditation to work through each day in an effort of self improvement. But being us we keep returning to base level after expressing uncharitable opinions, or facts as I like to call them.

Anyhow we set off pre dawn across a smart city with a beautiful old quarter we shared with groups of fun loving youth on the way from party’s and clubs. We also explored a pilgrim vending arcade which catered for all our needs from drinks, snacks and plasters, creams and badges and pilgrim scallop shells to condoms, lubes and a wide range of vibrators and masturbators. And some “Naughty Hedgehogs”.

Luckily not far out of town we turned onto the Variante Espiritual and left all lustful thoughts behind as we climbed up past crosses through forest and farmland to the church of San Pedro, where Emma gave an impromptu service from the outside pulpit and we stopped for petroglyphs and coffee.

Moving on through more farmland and forest and grateful for the shade as the sun gained power my toe slowed me to a state where a snail crossing my path before the monastery of San Xoan seemed prophetic.

Soon we were down at the sea/ estuary following a grassy path round to the lovely historic town of Combarro with a wealth of horreos lined up along the shoreline, 8 stone crosses and lots of funky old houses.

And yapping dogs.

A steep steep climb up from sea level to a spring and resting place was the first stop in a 437 m climb in the sun, slowly making it to a viewpoint and then off the road and onto forest tracks again for the final long and painful ascent past more petroglyphs that were too far off route to bother with.

Finally the descent. The last few kms, down through shady forest on rocky track to be rewarded suddenly with a yearned vision. The bar at Armenteira. And the monastery next door. (But later after food and drink).

Another, final, hobble and we were settling in to the Albergue where we again met old camino buddys. Manfred the Austrian snorer, Catarina , the young Portuguese woman we’ve been with for days, Rami and his wife,the Israeli couple with the kettle, the silent Korean man, the mother and daughter from Slovenia and Isobel from Holland who manages just fine with half an arm missing. We’ve left many others behind or they went the Central when we went Espiritual.

In the morning we set out anticipating the highlight section of the route, the ” stones and water” path, a stunning section following the river past 51 ancient mills and cascading falls for the first 7 km.

Truly wondrous- but you kinda had to be there. After a coffee break in Barrantes we followed the croaking frogs and shoals of little fish up the crystal clear waters of the river Umia, busy with walkers and cyclists and surrounded by lush grape and kiwi crops supported by a network of wire and stone pillars.

Finally away from the waters we once again followed small roads and some forest tracks stopping in Mouzos to join in the celebrations for San Michael and have a salsa dance in the plaza.

Arriving hot and bothered at the Ria de Arousa estuary we stopped briefly for paddles and bathing in the warm shallow waters and then limped on for the final furlong into Vilanova de Arousa past lots of people enjoying a more sedentary lifestyle. A good small private albergue with a kettle and milk in the fridge, big sofa and packets of biscuits and a fine waterfront restaurant meal with Isobel put an end to another fine day on the Way with a boat trip in the early morning to look forward to.

Not a good night unfortunately. The lodgings were fine but not the clientele. 3 Portuguese men arrived later and one was an extreme snorer. Emma and then Sally fled to the lounge/ kitchen where a sofa had to do while I was left to employ various short term measures in desperate attempts at restoring peace. In the end exhaustion helped and I slept again till 6 when we broke fast and returned to the harbour to join the group of pilgrims embarking for the Translatio. This is the name given to the boat journey made up river to Pontecesures by the remains of St James after he was martyred in the Holy Lands and is the worlds only maritime pilgrimage route.

” Led by an angel and guided by a star” St James faithful followers brought him back in AD44 to the lands he had converted and landing up river at present day Padrón carried his body by ox and cart and buried him on Mt Libredon where it lay forgotten for nearly 800 years ( allegedly). The Translatio route is lined with 17 stone crosses and a lot more mussel rafts. Dolphins played in the waters around us as we headed out into the estuary and up the River Ulla on the ” origin of all paths”.

We went by the remains of the Torres de Oeste, once a large 7 towered castle now overshadowed by a road bridge and strangely a pair of viking longships.

Soon after passing the Nasty Nestle factory we left the river and walked the couple of kms to Padrón where we got an extremely warm welcome from Pepe in his bar stuffed with pilgrim memorabilia and an even warmer goodbye. Opposite was the Igrexa de Santiago church where we got another stamp in our credentials and admired the painting of the boat journey of James.

We had rejoined the main route again so the place was thick with peregrinos resting, eating and passing through on their last leg to salvation. A lovely old lady called Marina gave us the heads up on the proper original way, thankfully a little shorter, before proudly showing me her garden.

Onwards, down tiny passageways and over the railway, passed churches with Asian looking steeples, pilgrim statuary, intense flowers, tumbledown hamlets and odd graffiti surrounded always by forested hills beneath blue blue skies.

Tonight we have a three bed private room so far on our own in a hostel 16 km from Santiago. The bonds with other pilgrims has grown and tomorrow is our last together. We will be surrounded by hundreds of people who have walked for weeks and months with great effort and have finally reached their goal.

Could be emotional.

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes: Part 3

Mougás to Pontevedra: 4 days : 87 km

A short 16 km day ahead planned luckily which will go easy on Sally’s feet and Emma’s first day, although we still started early enough, rising with the pilgrim tide from their beds at the albuergue. With no kitchen and milk that had turned to yoghurt our fresh supplies of Irish tea bags were of no use to us and without a bar or cafe for miles we walked off under the lightening sky to venture once again into Galician Connemara.

Again alternating yellow cycleway with sandy coast path for about 5 km we then turned up a forest track that became a wonderful and ancient stone paved track with the grooves of millennia of wheels carved into the granite. Stopping at the top after a short but sharp climb for restorative chocolate we admired the views over to the Cape Silleiro lighthouse.

Coming down towards the coast on the other side of the headland through the pine and eucalyptus I passed a farmer calmly leading some sheep to graze. The rugged mass of the Cíes islands came into view. Supposedly a fine example of eco tourism, the limited number of permit holding visitors can only stay at the one campsite although there are 3 restaurants and a well stocked shop to enjoy after exploring the sea and trails on this National Park.

Continuing on towards Baiona we passed a lovingly crafted 1940 faux castle tower with a fuente inside and in the plaza where we finally got a coffee, the Baroque Capela de Santa Liberata and the older 12 c church of Santa Maria.

Then through the historical quarter to the shore and ,following a cycle and walkway around it, soon reached the river Minor and crossed it on the beautiful Ponte da Ramallosa guarded by San Telmo, the patron saint of sailers.

A short climb past bars and restaurants to explore later lay our goal, the Hospederia Pazo Pias, where €15 secured a bed in a 17th century palace set in lovely grounds.

Gotta look after the pilgrims.

Pilgrims familiar from the night before joined us but we lost them again the next day when we decided to take another variant. This one avoided a lot of the suburban sprawl of Vigo, instead adding 2.5 km overall, but with an earlier finish for the day after 16 km or so. The start was a mix of urban and rural lanes and streets and woodland paths and tumbling streams.

There were lots of grand old houses indicating great wealth in the area and a fine selection of horreo, the traditional grain stores, wash houses and veg gardens.

A lovely stretch of stone paved woodland took us up to views over the Baiona and Vigo coast and the Cies islands. By coffee time we’d reached Priegue, stopping for refreshment before heading up into the forest again.

We had decided to stay at the Albergue O Freixo which meant leaving the main path and hiking another 5 km through the forest mostly on a trail that led past numerous old water mills and a couple of speeding bikers. Very beautiful and peaceful we stopped for a long rest amongst the towering eucalyptus.

Emerging from the greenery an open landscape of rocky ground and forest lay ahead. Hoping for the Albergue to come into view we were arrowed up and up and finally, gratefully, we arrived- at the same time as Angie, who, with the help of google translate, looked after us well.

The Albergue was also a thriving community centre with function room and fully equipped kitchen we could use to cook our dinner. There was also a community run bar which came in very handy and evening classes in Pilates and ,weirdly, bagpipe and drumming combo which didn’t come in quite so handy as the pipes and drums started just before bed time. They also prevented Austrian pilgrim Manfred from using a mattress in the classroom so as to spare us his monstrous snoring. So late that night the three of us in turn abandoned the dorm and transferred to the classroom- now only disturbed by the carousing of the community drinkers till the early hours.

With a biggish hike of 23/24km ahead in the morning we set off early and a bit bleary after a disturbed night. Down and down into the big city of Vigo as the lights went out and the sun came up.

The walk through the city was much more pleasant than we had feared, going through wooded parks and along riverside trails. Even close to the city centre there seemed room for gardens. And art.

On the north side we joined a route called the Senda da Auga that runs for 10 km beside a covered pipe taking water from the mountains to Vigo. Tarmac road to begin, with gorgeous views down the estuary to the sea, and then lovely shady woodland path with waterfalls and fountains. We passed and we’re passed by plenty peregrinos- so different to the empty Mozarabe route.

Emma listening for water, unsuccessfully.

At the end of the Senda it was a short 2.8 km to our bed in Redondela, housed in a beautiful old stone building nicely renovated into a municipal Albergue where the usual registration, shower, bed making, rest ritual was followed by the usual eating and drinking and more resting ritual.

A quieter night, an early rise, a chilly start- through the mix of old and new on the way out of town. Memorials, sculpture, gardeners, a stretch of busy main road, a climb through woods, and when needed, a funky cafe/ albergue for cafe and tostada.

From the cafe in Arcade we crossed the river Verdugo on the Ponte Sampaio and climbed again on ancient wheel rutted stone tracks through the forest and down through fields and vineyards, stopping for rest and chocolate by a feet soothing frog pool.

We were briefly diverted when crossing a new road construction, and then brought down through another section of towering eucalyptus forest to the Capela de Santa Marta where we gathered another stamp in our pilgrim passports.

A short distance further on was a split in the trail- the shorter by a km and with a cafe was beside a busy road, the longer was a peaceful 4 km stretch beside a tranquil stream. Although we had already decided on the river walk a postman stopped at the junction and proclaimed the virtues of the ” tranquilo” route to us. We had come together with the more popular Central route of the Portuguese Camino back in Rodondela and the Way was busy with peregrinos but many were chilling beside the shady stream.

Leaving the woods and water we went under the highway passing more graffiti and under the railway to arrive, after 19 km, at the Pontevedra albergue just as it opened, where a very stern and officious man had us all filling the dorm in order- top and bottom bunks- no anarchic freeform. Ah well, you’d put up with it for an €8 bed for the night.

And Emma’s won the prize bonds so big dinner tonight!