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!

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes: Part 2

A Guarda to Mougás : 1 day: 20.5 km

Leaving Sally to nurse her feet and catch a later bus I braved the steps ( easy enough first thing) and wove my way past the church of Santa Maria and fading buildings on back streets that led me down to the wild and rocky coast and a charming path north.

It was all very much like a sunny south Connemara with tiny strips of land separated by granite stone walls. After a while I had to leave the coast and climb up to join a sandy track that led to the main road and a yellow strip of cycleway I had to suffer for a while on and off as it alternated with dirt tracks lined with enough broom to ward off any lingering evil.

Luckily coffee time coincided with passing a little bijou cliff top test stop before carrying on caffeine charged through lovely pine woods to the rock petroglyphs that I couldn’t really make out.

The variety of little personal spaces along the sandy tracks was entertaining. Although a few lucky soles had somehow secured permission to build houses most were happy with just garden spaces or cabins/huts/ or boats! And some were ringed by solid granite walls of monumental proportions.

And the variety of track also made up for some stretches of yellow cycle way.

On the approach to Oia I passed the little chapel of San Sebastián and shortly after the massive bulk of the monastery of Santa Maria. Sally had seen me from the passing bus and decided to join me for the last few Km so we continued together through Spanish Connemara.

The last leg of the day continued on by the sea before a little detour inland where we passed a pile of stones celebrating the peregrinos.

21km from my bed in the Convent we arrived at my bed in the Albergue. A different class of accommodation to be sure but a pilgrims way is varied.

And our friend Emma had joined us from Ireland.

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes : Part 1

PORTO to SPAIN : 4 days: 90 km

Emerging from the airport at midnight we only had a few minutes walk to a modern little boutique hostal where free beers awaited in our room. No sooner drunk than a knock at the door bought glasses of pink sparkling wine and cake, and at 6.30 in the morning a breakfast hamper of all we could wish for.

A few meters around the corner we came upon our first yellow arrow of our journey in prosaic form. A painless start from plane to path- we were off down the still misty cobbled streets, past crosses and shrines and gardens and verges rich with the colours and scents of flowers wild and cultivated.

We kept crossing paths with Michael, a German Pilgrim of our vintage who we bonded with over the next few days before our schedule pulled us ahead. After nearly an hour we cleared the end of the runway and the sun burnt off the mist as we followed miles of cobbled road through eucalyptus forest and freshly cut fields of grass. Running alongside the busy motorway and shopping centre for awhile we were glad to return to the ancient streets of Mindelo. Stopping briefly for a tiny super strong cafe and local treat pastel de nata, it wasn’t long before we were crossing the river Ave into Vila do Conde beside the massive monastery of Santa Clara.

Another hour of urban walking brought us finally to our destination for the day after 20 km, the albuergue in Povoa de Varzim where the cafe opposite fed us well while we waited for the albuergue opening hour of 2 o’clock. The obliging host gave us a private room as a married couple- a first for us. We rested, showered, laundered and eat and drank in a sunny beach side restaurant pleased to have succeeded the first day at least.

In the early morning light we headed off along the seafront and onto a boardwalk that took us through the dunes for 8 km. The seaside resorts had not really awoken after winter yet so pilgrims, locals and fisherman were all that were about. Many men were fishing for something on the rocks and in the shallows with gaffhooks , something I had never seen before. It didn’t look like they were having much luck. We passed the remnants of windmills and many neatly stacked and covered piles of seaweed.

Eventually the thousands of decking boards ran out and we were led inland through an area of intensive poly tunnels and fields of crops, all of interest to us gardeners. They were harvesting spuds already!

Through a nice quiet stretch of woodland where we rested for breakfast and on into Fao where pilgrims gathered. We followed the arrows cut into the road over the river Cavado and along the prom in Esposende, a busy town rich in pilgrim sculptures.

Nearly 25 km done, under a hot sun on a lot of hard cobbles, we were getting weary and stopped at a mini market for beers and the makings of breakfast and lunch. A thankfully short distance later we arrived at our Albergue for the night in Marinhas, housed in a beautiful old building, where the shower, rest, drink, eat , sleep regime was a welcome end to the day.

A lot of movement early as some pilgrims were up before 5 making bedtime redundant, so we were out the door before 6.30 heading up more cobbled back streets past the now common mix of traditional and ultramodern homes and well kept veggie gardens. Out of town we began our first real track, a lovely stretch through woodland alongside the river Nieva complete with watermills and an ancient clapper bridge. Many feet had passed over it through the ages.

Our first climb, of about 100m, took us up out of the woodland on wisteria lined narrow cobbled tracks between fine granite walls to the church of Santiago de Castelo do Nieiva, the oldest church outside of Spain dedicated to the Man, with a carved dedication from 862ad. Stopping awhile for a rest and chocolate/ banana breakfast we were soon back on a lovely sandy track through the young oak and unstoppable eucalyptus.

Down into Chafe for coffee and Coke and on over more granite cobbles along more narrow lanes past large ancient houses then steeply up past stone and timber corn houses and decorated washhouse to hilltop shrine and cross.

With Viana do Castelo in view on the other side of the wide river Lima we descended steeply on road and track festooned with wild flowers and crossed the bridge built by Eifflel in 1878 to reach the city where, with over 20 km done and another 10 km to do before our beds, and Sallys feet ailing bad, we did the right thing and caught a bus.

20 minutes bus ride saved us 2 or 3 hours of walk and Sally a lot of pain. Alighting in Carreco we had a beer whilst waiting for the mini market to open then continued to the joyously beautiful Casa do Sardao Albergue, a funky and lovingly restored and converted family farmhouse. The place hummed with good vibes and architectural integrity. The friendly owner showed us proudly around with stories of generations past. I wish I’d taken more pictures. A gem.

A good nights sleep but we were up early under the flashing of the lighthouse on the coast to take the tea before once again setting off on granite cobbled lanes between granite cobbled walls. I don’t know if the plant life is particularly rich here or if the granite is a very hospitable environment but it was a joy to have so much at head height.

We were soon led into the forest on massive granite slab paving where countless thousands of pilgrim feet have trod, passing the very many pillars and crosses where pilgrim hands have placed offerings.

We passed the beautiful but forlorn Quinta de Cabanas, home to the poet Pedro Homem do Melo as well as a huge 280 yr old magnolia tree and site of a monastery since 564AD. Restoration and landscaping is in progress around the huge riverside complex and it will be rewarded. The path took us away up through the wool bombed forest to reach the little chapel of Our Lady of Amparo where the guardian family were deliberating the best placement of the May Day wreath of yellow broom.

The ancient ritual of Maias in Portugal sees people gathering broom flowers on April 30th to adorn their gates and doors before midnight, to protect from evil for the coming year. Nowadays even machinery and vehicles are likely to be fortified in this way, although I was surprised that super safe Volvo needed it.

After another peaceful stretch of forest on a wide cobble road we descended quite steeply towards the coast, crossing the river Ancora on the medieval stone slab Ponte da Torre and passing another old water mill.

The seaside resort itself was buzzing with Mayday celebrations and markets. After coffee in the square I headed on out of town on a dirt track beside the railway, waving as the train past expecting to see sore feet Sally on board. (But she hadn’t found the station and had hitched- getting dropped off far further than wanted and had to hike back to meet me.)

On reaching the crescent beach in Moledo I followed the esplanade till the end and continued on soft sandy tracks through the forest to the Boat Taxi across the broad river Minho where Sally joined me for the ride to Spain.

Jumping from the speed boat onto the sands of Spain we lost an hour so had a quick lunch and carried on to A Guarda on the boardwalk, through the gallery forest and beside the rocky shore, to finally reach the harbour town bathed in sunshine rising up steeply from the sea. The sight of a long steep flight of steps was enough to convince us that a stay in the converted 16th century convent at the bottom was a well deserved treat after 3 nights in dorms.

We’d made it to Spain.

COMERAGH MOUNTAINS: The Nire Valley Coums

Just south of Clonmel you leave Tipperary and enter Waterford and the ground before you rises up into one of the most beguiling mountain ranges in Ireland, the Comeraghs ( from Cumarach- full of hollows). Named after the glacial coums or corries nestled into the sheltering arcs of towering cliffs of old red sandstone, their drama has drawn walkers for a long time and I’d been trying to get into them for years. With the dry and sunny weather due to end soon I took off for a couple of days exploration.

Arriving after dark in the Nire Valley car park it wasn’t till the morning that I could appreciate my surroundings, at the head of a peaceful and deeply rural wooded river valley with the massed bulk of the central plateau before me to the south.

The map board indicated a number of colour coded loops which I would incorporate into longer more demanding hikes. First up I followed the white marker posts through the heather on the trail to The Gap, spooking grazing sheep as I went.

This has been a route over the mountains for centuries and was known as Boithrin na Sochraide, the Funeral Road, and was used up till 1926 for transporting coffins 6 miles east to Rathgormack as the Nire valley had no graveyard. Some of the large boulders on the way were known as places to set the coffins down in order to rest. It had also been engineered into a famine relief road in the mid 18th century. This catastrophe, caused by extremely cold and dry weather, resulted in failure of grain and potatoes and a greater loss of life, proportionately, than the Great Famine a century later. 1741 was known as Bliain an Air, the Year of Slaughter.

I past a lot of burnt ground, the setting of fires was a frequent and dangerous occurrence in the hills to increase grass cover, and the dry conditions rendered the boardwalks obsolete. As I approached the Gap I thought perhaps there was billowing smoke advancing but I discovered that it was the whispy edge of a thick blanket of cloud on the eastern side of the ridge.

From the Gap I turned left to follow the Seven Sisters ridge to the summit of Knockanaffrin at 755m. The steep linear arête is a separate northern protrusion to rest of the range and the precipitous drop to the east would have given me views to the Blackstairs and Wicklow mountains were it not for the cloud and haze. Occasional lumps of quartzite sparkled in the sun but most of the lumpen rock sculptures teetering on the edge of the cliffs were a coarse conglomerate.

My first corrie, Coumduala, and its lough revealed itself hundreds of meters below as I moved up to reach the little cairn marking the summit of Knockanaffrin, the Hill of the Mass, although it’s an unlikely setting for Mass even in penal times.

Onwards to the next peak, of Knocksheegowna, past Lough Mohra and the tiny figures walking towards it on loops from Glenpatrick forest. From the trig point I headed down south east across the broad expanse of mountain past a series of sheep pens to reach the stream and track that took me back past ancient homesteads to the road that led to the car park with the sun setting on the Nire Valley.

Next morning I was off early to undertake one of the classic walks of this region- the circuit of the Nire/Nier Valley Coums. The river, which seemed to be spelt both ways, gathers together from tributaries emerging out of half a dozen corrie lakes and this route would take me on a sweeping arc around the plateau high above them.

( Apologies to OSI for flagrant breach of copy-write)

Setting off down the farm track from the parkup I went to admire a tall standing stone before continuing down to ford the river and begin the climb through boggy and tussocky ground to gain the broad western shoulder of Coumfea.

There were many streams to cross and many remnants of sheep that died of unknown causes, another reminder in the pleasant sunshine of how tough things here can be. As I gained altitude Lough Coumlea came into view enclosed by the tiered cliffs.

At last on the easy bit, I had only to follow the tracks of quad and sheep around the corrie rim, atop the precipitous cliffs and through eroded turf hags admiring the necklace of dark Coum pools far beneath.

Passing Coumalocha I continued north around the rim over Curraghduff above the Spilloge Loughs where I had to cross the stream that tumbled over the cliff. In winter the winds are reputed to blow the water back up over the cliffs to freeze into bizarre formations on the rocks and vegetation. Contouring around the mountain I turned into the ” blind” coum of Coumlara, without a lake, and I clambered down to meet the stream that becomes the Nire.

Now down onto one of the waymarked loops I had only to follow it back through the heather, on boardwalks through boggy ground and over a wooden bridge above the nascent Nire to return to the camper.

The final leg was shared with another couple and we talked of the great plumes of wildfire smoke we had seen to the north and watched as a helicopter beat back and forth across the mountains. On my drive out of the beautiful valley I met a flashing fire engine urgently rushing into the hills. The radio news also featured stories of hill fires in Cork, Kilkenny and Wexford. It’s time to hope for rain.

HYMANY WAY: River and Bog in the Hidden Heartlands

A gloriously dry and sunny St Patricks Day holiday weekend gave us the opportunity for our first long walks since being back in Ireland. We decided to keep it local(ish) and headed back to an area we know and love, starting our micro adventure by the motor cruisers in Portumna harbour and starting off on the Hymany Way.

The first 17km are atop the embankment that run along the western side of the Shannon, built by the ESB as part of their 1920’s Ardnacrusha hydro power station mega project.

” One of the finest pieces of working industrial archaeology in the country” the raised earthen bank protected the low lying land from flooding and water levels in the river were controlled by a series of 3 pumping stations taking water from the inner man made water course when needed. It makes for fine walking with views of the river and callows on one side and deeply rural farmland on the other. With no roads nearby the peace and quiet is tangible with only the occasional cruiser interrupting the birdsong and wind rustled reeds.

We stopped for lunch at a small copse of giant ash trees that were home to a large badger colony, some of whose tunnels disappeared into the bowels of the tree trunks.

The 90km Hymany Way from Portumna to Ballygar in East Galway is one of the 11 sections of the Beara- Breifne Way that runs 500km from West Cork to Leitrim roughly following the line of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare’s March in 1602. The two week retreat from hostile Anglo forces saw his party of 1000 soldier’s and camp followers reduced to just 35 by the time he got to his ally O’Rourkes castle in Leitrim.

When we got halfway to Meelick we stopped again, opposite Ballymacegan island where an old pier and abandoned riverside restaurant project at Esker Riada reminded us of camping here 25 years ago on a boating holiday. From here we returned to the camper, drove to Meelick and explored the newly restored Weir walkway.

Built to control water levels in 1840 the 300 m weir walkway had been closed in 2016 after bad storm damage and restored over 3 years and €3 million. Crossing from West Bank to East you arrive on Incherky Island where the gravel walkway continues to Victoria lock where from the new oak lock gates on the western end you can look out at the point where the 3 counties of Galway, Offaly and Tipperary and the three provinces of Connaught, Leinster and Munster all meet.

Next morning we set off south down the embankment again on to the halfway turn back point. The wild and watery Shannonside was in contrast to the oldest church in continuous use, Meelick Abbey which appeared on our right. Founded for the Franciscan order in 1414 it was preparing for the Saturday evening mass when we went to explore the church and cloister.

The Shannon Callows Special Protection Area stretches for approx 50 km from Athlone to Portumna and we were walking the finest of it. This vast area of seasonal flooding means unplowed or reseeded, enriched fields of mixed species of wildflowers and grasses, scrubby woodland of willow and alder which offer a wonderful habitat for insects, birds ( 66 calling birds identified) and wintering waterfowl along with mammals like otters and hares. Sheep graze the embankment keeping the grass nice and short for walking ( in places without grazing the Way can become almost unwalkable in summer).

We passed the area thought to be where O’Sullivan and his followers,( already depleted by a third), hoped to escape the hostility of the Munster chiefs by crossing the Shannon into Connaught. Losing 10 men in their first attempt in a small craft the desperate folk slaughtered and skinned 12 horses to cover an 8m boat and ferried across 30 at a time. Unfortunately for them the welcome was no better in the west as they struggled on northwards. Weary ourselves, we were able to relax in the sun.

Having walked back to the camper at Meelick again we missed out a few km of toad walking and drove instead to Clonfert for our raised bog hike in the morning. Before finding our parkup for the night we explored St Brendans Cathedral- founded in 560AD by the man whose own home made animal skinned vessel had got him all the way from Kerry to what became known as America. He is buried in the ancient graveyard near the magnificent 12th c Romanesque doorway with its superb carved sandstone details.

We went to reacquaint ourselves with the votive tree and the 400 yr old yew walk to the ruin of the Bishops Palace. Supposedly an overgrown hedge it was originally part of an extensive pleasure garden now long rewilded.

The Palace, occupied since the 16th c , had fallen into disrepair by 1951 when it was bought by the infamous British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. As someone who had spoken out against the use of the Black and Tans in Ireland he was kinda welcome here and the money and time he and his wife put into the restoration and the employment of gardener, housekeeper, cook and chauffeur were also welcome. All the work putting in heating, lighting and water was for nothing however as the house burnt down 3 years later.

Just down the road is the Clonfert and Garryduff bog, for decades exploited for the fuel to run the Shannonbridge power station across the river, now still and silent as Bord na Mona cease all peat harvesting and the power station sits idle. We found a peaceful parkup and walked the old rail track for a look.

The final leg of our journey in the morning took us along a tiny back road by the callows past abandoned homesteads to the Grand Canal extension across the bog to Ballinasloe, filled in by Bord na Mona who lay a train track on top to funnel wagon loads of turf towards the hungry furnace of the power station.

The Hymany Way took us off the track and up onto a gorse tunnel track on the bog edge and then into woodland where the waymarkers were being englobed by the swelling trunks.

We were near to Decoy Woods were wildfowl were trapped for the Bishops table. Without the drainage pumping new ponds and lakes of swans and water birds were appearing and birch woodlands were springing up. The Transition from Brown to Green as Bord na Mona has branded its new Eco credentials has started and none to soon. It was shocking and startling to see the vast amounts of plastic used to cover the milled peat had been left in the environment.

An old bog track ( with more saddening sites of dumped rubbish) took us to a stretch of tarmac road. A quiet backwater, already semi deserted with empty houses, I wondered how the unemployment created by the closure of the bogs would affect the dwindling community. The road led us back to the vast expanse of worked bog at Kylemore lock on the Grand Canal extension.

The last picture is of the old lock keepers house and barracks. The boggy nature of the canal banks made for easy sabotage and 3 police barracks were built along the route to deter scheming locals hoping for some repair work. Bizarre to see an old turf locomotive on the track through the lock gates where once a 20 hr daily service ran from Ballinasloe to Dublin with first and second class passengers in seated cabins and restaurant cars with fine wines and spirits ( first class only!).

After lunch around the abandoned Bord na Mona stores and workshops we set off down the track for a long haul back to the camper on the filled in canal. It seemed almost criminal that an amazing engineering feat, employing over 1000 men in its 14 mile of construction in 1824, should have been so robbed of function.

Massive change has come again to the midlands boglands. The rehabilitation of the Brown to Green scheme is underway. The Just Transition fund is channeling millions of euro into projects for walking and cycling routes, climate action training, digital hubs, transport links, bio energy, wind and solar farms, medicinal herbs inc cannabis, and the restoration of bog to a living working carbon sink. The Bord na Mona plan for Garryduff is ” setting the site on a trajectory towards establishment of a mosaic of comparable habitats including wetlands, fen, Reed swamp, wet woodland, heath, scrub and birch wood.”

At a crossroads between turf and renewables, between Brown and Green, I’m glad the transition was started before the current war related fuel crises made cautious minds falter.

BASQUE COUNTRY: Parque Natural de Gorbeia

Our last exploration in Spain before braving the Bay of Biscay homeward bound for Ireland was this 200km2 park, the largest in the Euskadi region of Basque Country. Established in 1994 it forms a bridge between the Pyrénées and the mountains of Cantabria in a series of dramatic limestone sierras.

In a stunning contrast to the parched dry south we started by walking in lush green fields and forests beside rushing streams and gushing waterfalls.

In the little traditional hamlet of Usabel we followed the road past the mill pond of a former forge and , later, hydroelectric turbine and the adjoining 16th c farmhouse. The traditional 3 storey farmhouses of this area were built to house livestock and workshops on the ground floor, hay and corn on the top and domestic living was sandwiched, insulated, between the two.

Climbing up a narrow lane way and along a field side path we entered some coppice woodland and herds of stocky horses similar to a breed we’d seen raised for meat.

We shortly passed through Urigoiti, another hamlet of ancient vernacular buildings, one with an inbuilt bread oven and another with tree trunk beehives adorning its wooden siding.