Pilgrim paths

CAMINO MOZARABE: Almeria to Granada 5

Tocon to Granada.

Both of the last two stages of our journey on the Mozarabe from Almeria were spectacular and we were glad we had given ourselves the extra time that the stop in Tocon had allowed. It would have been a long haul from Peza to Quentar in one go, as it was we only had 16 km from one albergue to the next. As we walked past the big walnut trees below the bar, whose nuts the family had been cracking as we’d had dinner the night before, a woodpecker was hammering away in the branches above us.

We walked out of the village on the road for a km or so then turned up through boar churned woodland to a sparsely vegetated hillside and rejoined the original Quéntar route along a gravel track that climbed higher and higher.

Juniper appeared amid the white crazed rock that covered the landscape and we followed the track in a massive zig zag down to an area recreativa among riverside poplar trees.

Climbing again we passed through a pine wood that had been tapped for its resin. This thick sap like substance produces both rosin and turpentine. Apparently demand is on the increase because the natural material substitutes pollutant petroleum derivatives.

Higher and higher the track led us to more and more spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada’s and the hills that enveloped us. New benches,map boards and post and rail fencing were signs that there was a fair investment in encouraging this Camino route or hiking the area in general.

And then we finally reached the highest point of the entire route at the bizarre surroundings of an old talc mine. 1418m high with views across to the highest peaks in mainland Spain, covered in a smooth shiny white blanket.

What goes up must come down, and so we started our descent towards Quentar, passed some lovely fincas set among a sea of olives.

The almonds were flowering nicely as we approached the village, busy with bees from the hives we’d seen higher up the trail. Soon enough we were in the town and installed in our little hut complete with a tiny terrace in the sun.

Our last day. Quentar to Granada 20km.

Following the yellow arrows down through the town in the morning we reached the river and turned along it, watching the ducks ride the mini rapids beside us. Turning up a narrow verdant path that led to a series of well watered gardens and orchards we soon reached Dudar, a village celebrating its saints day and the origin of all the fireworks that we’d heard in our cabin the night before.

Up again out of the village steeply for 200m altitude gain, to arrive at the remains of impressive French engineering works from the 19th century. A major water syphoning system to bring irrigation from one hilltop to another.

We reached the ridge and enjoyed a long hike along the easy track soaking up the distant vistas as explosions from Dudars celebrations echoed around the mountains. For once we were sharing the Way, with weekend runners, cyclists, walkers and motor-bikers.

It was getting busy. And getting cloudy/ smoggy- we weren’t sure. But we were above the thick blanket that covered Granada. Our route turned down off the ridge, towards the ruins of a massive Jesuit monastery surrounded by olive groves that were being harvested by a gang of men and a lot of machinery, including the tree shaking tractors with the encircling funnel screens (you’d have to see them).

We nearly lost our way crossing the olive grove-( grove seems to imply somewhere small and intimate and not the immense and poisoned industrial scale monoculture they so often are) but followed the incline down to the rushing waters of the Darro river and a lush path to the gardens of the Sacromonte abbey.

Suddenly we reentered a world of people after 10 days of near solitude. Saturday in Granada is busy of course and we had to adjust quickly as we moved through the throngs in the old city beneath the Alhambra and played spot the Camino sign in the centre.

The various arrows and apps deposited us outside the doors to a church in the corner of the huge monastery of Santiago. We were in the wrong part of the convent but saw all the St James symbols and headed in to get our credentials stamped for the final time.

The place was full of a wedding party- whoops- so Sally waited with the packs outside and, assured by someone who seemed to know that yes , this was the place, I ventured in. I was confronted by all the wedding guests posing in front of the ornate gold leaf alterpiece and was pressed upon to become the wedding photographer on their cameras. After performing my duties to their satisfaction I squeezed through the crowds and managed to get a nun to get our credentials stamped and returned to me in the crush of celebrants. Job done. Time for a selfie.

A slightly surreal ending to a great weeks hiking on what is now my favorite Camino route.

CAMINO MOZARABE : Almeria to Granada 4

Guadix to Tocon

Our first section of the two to Tocon was one of the most surprising to us, with great contrasts in scenery when we had been expecting a long slog across the plain. I guess the profile should have told us.

Of course it worked out a little further according to the GPS by which time Sally’s foot was giving her some pain which took the edge off some the pleasure of walking through such natural splendors.

After a nice night at the man made splendors of the Guadix albergue and admiring the grand edifices of its glory days we followed the signage out of town.

A last minute stop off in a cafe for a peregrine breakfast, we were pleasantly surprised that it seemed to be run by social services and our two big tostadas with tomato and olive oil, two cafe con leches and two fruit salads cost us €3.80. The Camino provides! Suddenly we were away from the buildings on a dirt track that led up into eroded hills surrounding good flat farmland- with tractors and even a combine harvester hold up in holes ( in the rock- alongside old abandoned cave houses).

A beautiful stretch followed all the way to Purullena, about 7 km, of an up and down sandy track through pine trees with the “badlands” on either side. The erosion had created gorges that got narrower around us and we found ourselves in a winding tunnel of towering sandstone with openings many meters high.

The old abandoned holes became transformed into a thriving housing sector very shortly when we arrived into town. We had wanted to see the inside of a contemporary cave and the opportunity arose almost strait away with a three story museum right on our path.

The owner explained that the cave houses, with doors and windows shut were pretty constant about 16 or 17 degrees maybe 18-19 in summer. And even in the terrible rain and floods of the recent Storm Gloria the houses stayed perfectly dry owing to the iron content in the fine clay. The structure of the material is such that the ceilings ,and all inside spaces, will hold up as long as the rules governing proportions are adhered to. 40% of the people in his town live in caves and most of the good clay hills have been used. But there is a lot of renovation going on- and some expansion. Must be tricky when your extension is over someone’s bedroom. It would seem a logistical and legal quagmire but he seemed to see no problems and thought it an ideal building method. Another bedroom? Dig away! Another story? A little trickier but no material costs!

The middle floor was laid out as a home of maybe 50 years ago and the final, upper floor was stuffed full of ethnological artifacts.

We’d spent too long there and hurried on, on paths and tracks between small fields of fruit veg grapes and grain to Marchal, another troglodyte town that was making great efforts to be attractive to visitors and especially, pilgrims.

A high road past amazing rock formations and lovely wood and farmland with bueno vistas took us up in quick succession to Los Banos, with a wealth of hotels and hostals servicing people who come to “take the baths, (there are hot springs here but not accessible to us unfortunately), and Graena where we had a look at the 15th century church and shopped in our first cave supermarket.

A long riverbed track past mostly grapes and cave bodegas and then too much hard surface tarmac road- although the dramatic views made up for it- and we had made it to the 150km marker.

Finally La Peza came into view- and we left the tarmac to switchback down a steep mud track into the village where the albergue in a municipal building was cold but the local bar served a hot lentil stew.

La Peza to Tocon. 15km

We had decided to take two shortish days rather than one really long one to Quentar. This meant climbing up to 1200m again, splitting off from the usual route to Quentar to go to Tocon where the Camino Association in Almeria have procured and done a lot of work to a house and made an albergue. Then after another few Kms the original route is regained the following day. Nice and easy.

So it started with a long climb, but yet again the weather, the views and the interesting country made it a joy. So much so that I sloppily played Louis’s “Its a wonderful world” as we went.

The route was also shared for quite a way with horses, as this was the first designated riding route in Granada province, and we past one of the resting places with a newly made drinking trough.

Descending again for awhile we joined a stream bed beside a road that wound its way up through rocky woodland and jutting monoliths of talc(?) to an altitude where the snow still held on.

At the pass of Blancares the routes split and we made our way the couple of km to Tocon down a charming path with newly made wooden post and rail fencing. The tiny village is in an idyllic setting, with clear mountain water running through- supplying plenty of fuentes. The steep concrete road led us to the albergue on a sunny terrace with views to the mountains and the local bar, the only source of sustenance available, a few yards away. A great place to rest up awhile.

CAMINO MOZARABE: Almeria to Granada 3

So we did this:

from Alba steadily rising to Hueneja at 1200m. Then on the next stage we did this:

Hueneja to Alquife.

Which looks dramatic but was all between 1150m and 1275m so pretty easy going. And GPS reckoned it was 21.5km to Lacho Albergue at the top of town. They are always at the top of town! It was a -2 degree start so the steep initial climb was handy for warming us up as we left the town through acres of almonds and cherries, looking back down onto the Marquesado plain with its dozens of wind turbines. Spain’s second largest, it puts out 200 megawatt.

The iPhone camera is hopeless for capturing the wonderful vista of the snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada to our south and the Sierra de Baza to our north. The smooth soft blanket looked deep and powdery and we guessed the skiers and snowboarders were having fun.

The pretty village of Dolar after 5kms was having market day so we bought some nuts and fruit and hung out in a plaza bar for a breakfast of tostada and cafe con leche.

We climbed again up and along a beautiful old track with far ranging views over a sea of mostly almonds. Good to see so many healthy trees and so many young ones being planted. Hopefully these can replaced some of the Californian ones that are consuming so much water and are killing so many bees with pesticide usage. Seems like with the rise in vegetarian and veganism the demands for almond milk will grow hugely and here in Spain there was plenty.

The campo was mostly empty of dwellings but we did pass one that will go in my imaginary portfolio of deeply rural, off grid retreats that I’ve been adding to on my rambles over the years. It had a fine old chestnut tree and terraces fed by a complex system of acequia or little irrigation canals. And a view to die for as the agents might say.

We reached the highest point of the day at nearly 1300m and there were still patches of snow on the track. Sally was delighted to find a boar skull from which she extracted the tusks ( a longtime hobby/ interest/peculiarity). From this height we could see the whole 1500 acre site of the massive Andasol solar power station twinkling on the plain below. Using parabolic troughs to gather the suns rays they use tanks of molten salt as a thermal energy store and so can produce power for 200,000 people day and night. Costing €900 million it was money well spent.

Then down to our next stop, in the main plaza of Ferreira where we had our sarnies and I had a non conversation with a lovely old fella I couldn’t understand a word of.

We walked on the edge of the pine forest and natural park with our eye on the imposing castle atop the hill above La Calahora, another charming ancient/ modern mix town. On our way out we passed the casa of an artist in steel whose gates were also imposing.

From La Calahorra we took a bit of a dog leg route to Alquife passing along farm tracks some of which seemed to have been cobbled at one time. We slowly approached the giant mounds of earth and rock that had been extracted by the workers at what had been Europe’s largest open cast iron ore mine. Started by the Romans it had been operational till 1996 but now lay abandoned and in ruins, although there were still some staff and security around. 40% of the iron extracted in Spain had come from this place, leaving a very large hole in the ground which, frustratingly, was out of site.

A few of the almonds had come into flower and where covered by eager bees, although their appetite must be well sated when the other countless thousands are also covered in nectar rich blossom.

We also spotted, on the slag heap behind the mine fence, a big mountain goat puck who watched us curiously but seemingly unperturbed, perhaps knowing he was unreachable.

It was a relief to finally arrive at Lacho, greeted by Manuel and shown around his growing empire. After a shower and rest we returned to the shop for supplies and returned to find a big fire set in the kitchen/ living room which we enjoyed as the sun set behind the snowy mountains and the temperature plummeted.

Alquife to Guadix 25km

After a little climb to start it was downhill all the way the following day.

Leaving Alquife by a track alongside the slagheap wall of earth it took some time to be clear of it and out onto the plain, and some time for the sun to warm the frosted landscape.

But by 10 we climbed into the village of Jerez del Marquesado where it was their turn for the market. Too early to stop, we carried on another 7 km, past some mysterious chimneys that nearly escaped my camera, and up into some pine woodland, adorned with bizarre wooden sculptures of Christian symbolism.

Finally the down hill straight began with a run down through the woods to a big reservoir in a lovely setting.

Cafe com leche and tomate tostada and a stamp in our pilgrim passports were supplied by a surprisingly modern and stylish cafe bar in Cogollos de Guadix where there was also a fine example of the old water cisterns and acequias ( and related graffiti ).

And then we walked out onto the wide, very wide, open spaces of the plain. With huge skies overhead and 360′ views of a ring of distant Sierra it must have been a lonely place to live and a hard place to work. Eventually we came upon a great gorge, and climbing down into it we followed what must be a dry river bed towards Guadix.

A couple of hours later we arrived at the outskirts of the town, with cliffs of sandstone(?) burrowed out into a warren of homes, chimneys sticking up out of the ground like mushrooms. The cuevas barrios are a sight to behold and the houses seem to encompass a range of styles and social classes.

Deeper into the centre of town, around the cathedral, were fine but frequently faded grand old buildings, including our albergue, lovingly restored over the last 35 years and full of fine art and antiques. A treat after a long days hiking.

CAMINO MOZARABE: Almeria to Granada 2.

Alboloduy to Abla- 30km

Stepping out of the albergue in Alboloduy in the morning it was obvious it had been raining during the night from the wet and puddles about but thankfully the skies showed no immediate threat as we left the town to rejoin the riverbed as directed by the markers.

We had left the river Andarax at Alhabia the day before to join the river Nacimiento which would take us all the way to Abla and beyond. The deep rich layers of sediment washed down over millennia had created fertile ground alongside the riverbed that nourished a wide variety of crops but as we delved deeper upstream and away from the town the sides of the valley closed in and we were forced up on an old mule track with views down to the abandoned fincas and their hard won terraces.

The tamarisk and cane wound through the steep sided valley bottom like a golden thread. The trail was littered with the droppings of an animal we guessed to be mountain goats, and sure enough as we reached the tarmac road at the top of the mule track we saw a herd of them bolting away across the mountainside. Turning off the road again we passed an old water cistern built 100 years ago before descending on a zigzag track back to the riverside and another series of mostly abandoned fincas.

From here to the town of Nacimiento, where we stopped for coffee, was a beautiful stretch through cane forests and along a forgotten valley of old abandoned farmsteads, once upon a time busy with working people.

The sky had been darkening and looking more threatening for awhile and we had hoping the weather would hold but soon after leaving Nacimiento, about halfway to Abla, it began to spit, then drizzle, then rain, then lash it down with a strong wind driving it mercilessly straight at us. Heads down we hurried on hoping for shelter. Eventually coming towards the little settlement on the outskirts of Dona Maria I spied a large covered patio opposite some houses. Split into three, each with a door, first two locked, the third open. We hurtled in, throwing off our packs and sopping jackets. The owners were calling from the house opposite, “yes it ok- go in.” Before long ,as we tried to dry things out on the handy washing line and watched the downpour outside, the mother and son(?) arrived with plates of bread and cheese and jamon and a bottle of wine and much kindness and chat. A hard time turned to a good time as the daughter(?) and father all came over with hot homemade cake and hearty handshakes.

Our new best friends. They insisted on sending us on our way with an umbrella each which might not have looked like hightec hiking gear but were given and received with love and joy. And they continued to keep us dry until the next joyful event a few km later.

We had reached Ocana and messaged Nely for the door code of the Association albergue when miraculously she appeared in her carshe had spotted us on her way to check the Ocana albergue. More hugs and directions and off we went again into the riverbed and rain.

Then, bizarrely, a couple of men in a car started warning us about the dangerous waters in the river and said we should not walk there. So they drove us the 5 km to Abla saving us over an hour of sodden hiking. We soon had a couple of electric heaters in the albergue bedroom drying everything and marveling at how the “Camino Provides”!

Abla to Hueneja 22km.

The snow capped peaks around us looked more inviting than threatening the next morning as we set off from the luxury of the well appointed Association albergue, all of which are run on donations and the hard work of a band of dedicated volunteers.

We were now crossing the vast high plain of the Marquesado del Zenitel, a pretty flat and fertile area of fruit and wind farming. We went on the old main Almeria- Guadix-Granada road, the ancient Camino Real, that still has a wealth of different foods and fruits growing in the well tended gardens.

The old highway used to be busy with travelers needing food and lodging, supplied by ventas now in ruins amongst the windmills.

On cue, at coffee time, we were led up into the village of Finana and a welcoming bar before carrying on across the wide plain littered with the remnants of past lives.

Past another imposing but redundant travelers hostelry at Venta Ratonera we reached the outskirts of La Huertezuela where the surreal sight of another Spanish urbanization that never happened greeted us. Abandonment through the ages.

From there it was another 6 km or so along an increasingly narrow and rocky riverbed and heathy and prosperous looking olive farms, over the motorway, and into the town of Hueneja- with its graffiti croc, nice doors and well trained vine.

Housed in a slightly bizarre 3rd floor flat next to a school our home for the night featured murals, fantastic views of the snowy mountains and some beers and wine left in the fridge by previous pelegringos.

Buen Camino.

ST DECLANS WAY : Cahir to Ardmore 85km: 25th-27th June

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A year and a half after I first hiked some of St Declans Way in Co. Tipperary I went back to complete it last June. Previously I had walked the ancient route from Cahir north to the finish/start at the famous Rock of Cashel, and then returned to Cahir along the Tipperary Heritage Way following the River Suir. This time I started again at Cahir and continued south for 3 days to reach the Co Waterford coast at Ardmore where Declan is said to have founded Ireland’s first monastery sometime in the 5th century, and beating St Patrick to the claim of bringing Christianity to the Irish.

With the pilgrimage revival in full swing and this route being dubbed the Irish Camino, my hopes were high. There has been a lot of promotion of this and other Ways recently and now, thanks to the Camino Society of Ireland, 25km walked on Irish pilgrim paths will count towards the 100km needed to claim your certificate or compostela in Santiago.

Indeed, there is now now need to travel to northern Spain to obtain a certificate, with Irish pilgrim passports stamped on completing 125km over 5 routes in Mayo, Wicklow, Cork and Kerry entitling you to a Celtic Compostela.

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And so on a fine midsummers day I set off from Cahir Castle admidst a bustling crowd of holiday makers. A quick stroll in the riverside park to admire all the tree trunk carvings and then I followed the Tipperary Heritage Way signs through a woodland thick with “fairy” houses and along a sunlit dappled path passed the golf course and towards the rustic and ornate “Swiss cottage”.

 

It was there that the first directional confusion occurred. I was working off the maps that were produced in the mid 90’s, when the route was initially devised and laid out. These maps aren’t the most clear or detailed but were all I could find. I had also managed to download the route on to my phone Viewranger app but this disagreed with the maps and all physical signage had disappeared. Calling into the Swiss Cottage reception for help the ladies informed me that there seemed to be a lot of directionally confused people trying to locate the Pilgrim Path nowadays and were unable to shed any light on which of a multitude of choices was the right one.

2018 had been billed as the official relaunch/ revival of the route, touted as being fully signed and “de-vegetated”. I knew that the very active “KnockmealdownActive” group had organised a series of 5 hikes over the entire route on the last Saturdays of the month, starting in March, and had been attracting about 300 people a time, but these were of course guided hikes without the need for signage. Considering the fanfare that accompanied the relaunch and the €150,000 from the Rural Recreation Fund to get it together I was disappointed over the next few days to be confronted with old, fallen or hidden signage from the 90’s and often no signage at all, abandoned at the crossroad.

After following the wide and sparkling Suir for another km or so I was led up to a road where I was heartened to see a yellow arrow, a sure indicator of a pilgrimage route, even if it was pointing in the opposite direction to mine.

 

 

It was more than 10km of tarmac road before I crossed the Suir again at Ardinnan on small roads that roughly followed the ancient Rain Bo Phadraig, the Track of St Patricks Cow, through lush and productive grain growing farmland, occasionally passing the earthen cottages of a bygone era.

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Ardfinnan, now a sleepy village, had once been an important and strategic stronghold, protecting a major route into the province of Munster. The castle from around 1100 was built by King John, later to be owned by the Knights Templar and the bishop of Waterford before being sacked by Cromwells cannons. I stopped here for a fish and chip dinner by the river before pushing on toward the Knockmealdown Mountains another 10km away to the south. I had to backtrack a little when I missed the sign hidden in the hedge. I was now following the Heritage Way again until the forested slopes of the Knockmealdowns.

 

 

A few kms to the south of Ardfinnan lay the ruins of what must once have been a beautiful monastery whose history is now lost in obscurity. Lady’s Abbey has been dated variously between the 12th and 15th centuries and lying, as it does, alongside the Rain Bo Phadraig-“the most important Ecclesiastical highway in the Diocese” it must have witnessed a lot of foot traffic over its life, including the shuffling lines of the starving in the famine years as they made their way to the nearby poorhouse.

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The renowned fertility of the Tipperary landscape showed through in the golden grain as I passed fields of barley, oats and wheat awaiting the summer harvesting.

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Another few kms walk on the quiet backroads and I was led down a path to the River Tarr, a tributary of the Suir, where i crossed on a 1930’s metal bridge while a dog chased sticks in the wide and shallow waters below. The river, which rises in the Galtee mountains to the northwest, meanders across the limestone through which a couple of mighty springs bubble up, feeding the flow of clear waters. It’s rich in life; salmon, eels and sea lamprey and has a reputation as an excellent brown trout fishery, which in turn attracts herons, egrets and kingfishers.

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Not far down the river, when a fine new stone bridge was built to span the Tar,  the first pedestrians to cross were a couple of goats and so the village that grew there became known as Goatenbridge. The evening was drawing in and although it was high summer and the light would stay with me for a few hours yet I was anxious to move on and reach the forested mountains where I stood more chance of finding a place to bivvy for the night. The forecast was for the prolonged dry spell to continue so I had left the tent at home to cut down on my pack weight and only carried a sleeping bag and mat.

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The first St Declan yellow arrow I had seen led me up on forest trails into the Knockmealdowns as the lights of the farmhouses in the rich vale below started to twinkle on. I was driven on from my first choice of encampment by clouds of midges, a problem of being tentless I hadn’t considered. Losing my way for awhile I blundered and backtracked through more and more unsuitable surroundings before finally, as the light faded, chasing some sheep from a trackside patch of grass and settling down for the night, weary after 8 hours hiking over 26km.

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The morning sky was a similar canvas in reverse, the darker reds slowly dissolving into slighter hues of pink and blue.

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Another fine day promised in this summer of official Irish heatwave and drought. I retraced my steps aways, past the waterfall heard but not seen the night before, to find the route revealed by a tiny sign amidst the bracken, up through the trees to the open moorland above, a relief to be beyond the embrace of the dark green forest and out in a space with further horizons.

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Clearly visible as I made my way up and over Bottleneck Pass at 537m were the deep trenches cut by the horns of the enraged cow belonging to St Patrick as she chased the robbers of her calf from Cashel to Lismore. Or so they say. An ancient path certainly did cut through the shallow turf southward towards the sea shining silver in the mornings light.

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Crossing from Tipperary and into Waterford it was a fine hike down the Rian Bo Phadraig, the sunken, sometimes sodden, path through the heather and bilberries eventually merging, on more level ground, with stony tracks and finally tarmac roads.

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The Rian led me all the way to beyond Lismore when I turned onto the Bothar na Naomh (Path of the Saints). We have visited Lismore castle a few times in the past and the gardens are always a delight. After a cafe breakfast I embedded myself amongst the flowers, scrubs, trees and architecture for a restful few hours, reluctant to leave in the heat.

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There were a lot of sculptures dotted around the grounds including ones by a couple of my personal favourite artists- David Nash and Antony Gormley- and the castle has its own contemporary gallery with a continuous showing of exhibitions.

Finally wrenching myself away I watched a fly fisherman below the castle and then followed the river Blackwater downstream through verdant growth on Lady Louisa’s Walk.  Lady Louisa was the daughter of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, ancestor of the current owner the 12th Duke. It wasn’t long before the sweltering sun and the cool looking water conspired to slow my hike again by tempting me into a still pool at the edge of the fast flowing river.

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Much refreshed I continued cross country for awhile before joining a road to Cappoquin. From there I had many many kms of Tarmac road, passing some grand but neglected remnants of the colonial and protestant past. Affane Church of Ireland, nearly lost beneath a mass of Ash and ancient Yews, was surrounded by overgrown gravestones and mausolea with fine cut stone and handcrafted iron railings, attesting to the wealth of the inhabitants of this productive land. It was here that the route turned away from the Bothar and onto the Casan na Naomh (Path of the Saints), long buried under the hard footsore surface of bitumen.

Eventually reaching Knocknaskagh I at last started down the charming ribbons of narrow boreens that marked my walk across Waterford and that proved to be the fond and abiding memory of the whole St Declan’s Way. In fact I was now, for the first time, on what is known as St Declans Road.

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I was getting weary after travelling 30km that day and the slender tracks with high hedges either side didn’t make for great camping so I was optimistic when a chatty local recommended that I stop in at a “new age travellers” house a couple of km further along who would be sure to put me up.

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And so it was. I was welcomed into the restored cottage on a few acres of grazing by a lovely fella whose name my declining memory refuses to return to me. Although suffering from a debilitating disease he had, with the help you tend to get if you give, built up a homestead previously destined for the bulldozer, rescuing and raising horses and foals- and sheltering weary travellers. He offered me a variety of options and I chose a caravan, sleeping soundly after a couple of pints of homemade cider. Cheers.

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With the high ground of the Knockmealdowns and Bottleneck Pass sat on the horizon 30km and a days hike behind me I set off on my final leg to Ardmore down a sequence of peaceful and still boreens, some recently cleared of vegetation in what my host had said was preparation for the creation of publicised walking routes.

At the crossing of the River Lickey I somehow missed the path to the left and crossed over the stepping stones, the unusually dry summer and low water levels helping considerably. It was only after fighting my way through the undergrowth on the far bank and blundering into a pilgrim path waymarker that I discovered the handsome wooden footbridge.

The Pilgrim Path post was the first i’d seen on this route. The design comes from a stone carving in Co Cork and depicts a medieval pilgrim complete with tonsure, or shaved head, hat, tunic and staff. Used when the Heritage Council first initiated the re-awakening of various pilgrimage routes in Ireland I had come across it in Mayo, Cork, Kerry, Wicklow and Offaly.

After leaving the dragonflies and darting fish behind in the babbling brook I climbed up onto another earthen trackway, once known as the Bothar na Riolog, and back into a sunny summers day with the temperature rising.

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As the heat rose my desire to get to the sea climbed towards obsession. Passing a bicycle atop the hedge I stopped and internally debated the likelihood that it was abandoned and the morality of taking it on a final, speedy journey to the coast and the cool blue waters. A pilgrim couldn’t  take a chance on bad moral judgement so I reluctantly turned away and plodded on what was now hot tarmac.

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A short(ish) distance and a lot of sweat later I broke through the crowds of beachside holiday makers and followed the retreating tide to the relief. Dropping my pack and stripping off my clothes I ran into the shallows and, without a pause for the jellyfish, continued until submerged. Ahhh.

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The hottest summer on record. The hottest day of 2018 would be the next day. And only a few months since Storm Emma, The Beast from the East, had dumped tonnes of snow on this area, filling the sunken roads to the top of the hedges and shutting the county down for days.

But my journey was not over yet. I had to complete the 5km Cliff Walk, taking me passed the 12th century round tower and cathedral. At 95ft high the tower is one of Ireland’s finest and very well preserved and next to it is St Declan’s oratory where once the saints body lay before the medieval enthusiasm for relic collecting saw him scattered.

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A sandy path between potato fields drew me up to the cliffs edge with an invigorating Atlantic sea breeze whipping up the waves crashing on the rocks way below.  In the distance stood the castle and coastguard station of 1867 now surrounded by a dancing mass of wild flowers and circled by raucous seabirds.

A concrete lookout post from WW2 seemed incongruous amidst such harmonious beauty and was certainly of no use in 1987 when the Samson, a crane barge, went onto the rocks. The rope that attached it to a tug had broken in gale force conditions off the Welsh coast and a day later it washed up on Rams Head. It now slowly rusts away and a couple of years ago the entire jib collapsed into the sea, depriving countless seabirds their roosting spot.

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Walking back in time from 20th to 4th century ruins I rounded Ardmore Head and west along the cliff path overlooking Ardmore Bay to arrive at the origins of Christianity in Ireland. St Declan’s Well served as his Baptistery from 416AD, a good few years before St Patrick was to appear on the scene, when he founded the first monastery over by the round tower a little distance inland.  In later life, tiring of the hordes of pilgrims he built himself a little cell near the well and retired to a life of quiet contemplation. He died there and a church was erected that to this day is the site of pattern rituals on the saints day, July 24th, and often a midnight mass the night before.

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There was one more sacred relic to witness before I finished with St Declan’s Way. Before leaving Wales for Ireland Declan received a golden bell from heaven after giving mass. Now this bell was obviously very precious to him and he wanted to bring it with him to Ireland. Unfortunately it was forgotten when they set off leaving Declan to pray hard for its safety and low and behold his prayers were answered and the bell appeared, borne atop a rock floating on the waves ahead and leading the way to the Irish coast. Declan promised to build a monastery wherever the rock, and the bell, came ashore. And so it was.

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I don’t know if the tradition continues but it used to be that on 24th July people would crawl under the stone to receive spiritual benefits (and cure arthritis – although it’s hard to imagine a sufferer of that being able to manage ). It’s also said that the stone should not be approached by the “unworthy” so I kept my distance.

And so this pilgrimage was complete. I don’t have a “passport”, and will receive no certificate or “compostela”, but I carry with me abiding memories of walking beside the Suir and the Blackwater, climbing over the Knockmealdowns on an ancient trail, strolling the sunken sandy boreens of Waterford, from the seat of the high kings in Cashel to the origins of Celtic Christianity  at Ardmore. I think I would have been OK with the rock on the beach.

ON THE PILGRIM PATHS IN THE LAND OF SAINTS AND SCHOLARS

At a time when 200,000 weary pilgrims a year queue up for their certificate in Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain, walkers in Ireland are re-discovering their own, much less visited Caminos.

Way before a religious hermit stumbled upon the bones of St. James in 814AD and kick started what has become the most popular long distance hike in the world, Pagans and then Christians were following ancient paths to sacred sites throughout Ireland.

Barefoot pilgrim on summit of Croagh Patrick

The pilgrimage to the hallowed peak of Croagh Patrick overlooking the 365 islands of Clew Bay in Mayo existed 3,000 BC and was popularized by the Patron Saint of Ireland 500 years before St. James’ way got going. It still draws 30,000 people to the summit on the last Sunday in July, or Reek Sunday.

Croagh Patrick's well worn scree slope

Patrick is also associated with an Island in Lough Derg, Co Donegal, attracting pilgrims from all over Europe since medieval times – a site so important that it was the only Irish place named on a world map of 1492.

There are other, more unfamiliar paths now being promoted as walking trails with a difference and together they make up about a dozen routes over 250 kms of tranquil country lanes, stone paved tracks, paths through meadows and forests, across heather moor and bog lands and over rocky mountain summits, passing through some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe.

In County Mayo the 30km Tóchar Phadraig (St Patrick’s Causeway) was in use in Pagan times as the Royal Road to Cruachan Aille, the original name for Croagh Patrick and during its clearance by a local initiative ancient stone flagstones came to light indicating its archeological pedigree.

The route leaves from Ballintubber Abbey and meanders over low lying fields and through a serene and timeless landscape dotted with a round tower, holy wells, druidic sites, famine graves,
medieval churches, mass rocks and sacred stones, including the miraculous rock of Boheh. This cup and circle marked stone from around 3,000BC was the focal point of Sun worshippers and used to divide the year into 3 in prehistoric times when standing at this spot at sunset on April 18th and August 24th the Sun lands on the very peak of Croagh Patrick and then proceeds to roll or slide down the Northern slope, the angle of setting Sun and mountain side matching exactly – a truly jaw dropping sight. Even without witnessing this phenomena the view of the iconic quartzite cone of ‘the Reek”, visable for most of the way, is what draws you irrepressibly onward.

Slieve League donegal, a pilgrim destination for over 1000 years

Other ways in the West include the spectacular Slieve League Pilgrim path with its 400m sea cliffs in Co Donegal and , in Connemara in Co Galway, the mountain pass of Maumeen – another Druidic sacred site that became overlaid with Christianity.

The gateway to St Patricks oratory at Maumeen

Statue of St Patrick at Maumeen co. galway

Two of the most striking and atmospheric of these age old paths are in the scenic Southwest and can both be enjoyed in a long weekend.
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Cosán No Naomh (The Saint’s Road) Dingle, Kerry. 24 km

The enchanting Dingle peninsula is the northern most of the five fingers of land jutting out into the Atlantic from Ireland’s southwestern coastline and near its western tip is glorious golden Ventry beach

Ventry Beach - the start of Cosan na Naomh (The Saints Road)

– the trail head for a centuries old path traditionally culminating 952 m higher, atop Mount Brandon, the highest peak in the country outside of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.

Approaching the 952m summit of Mt Brandon

The summit of Brandon was, like Croagh Patrick, the scene of pre Christian revelry celebrating the festival of Lughnasa in honour of Lug ,the God of the Pagan Celts ,at the end of July. Come Christianity and the mountain was appropriated by St Brendan who supposedly spent time on the summit praying for a safe return from his sea voyage to America in a leather skinned currach nearly 1,000 years before Columbus.

From the beach it’s a relatively flat 18 km walk along tranquil ,fuschia lined backroads and fields to the grotto at the base of Mount Brandon from where a more arduous 6 km return hike to the Summit will reward you with breath taking views of the dramatic coastal and mountain scenery (if not shrouded in fairly common mist and cloud!)

The graveyard of the 12th century Kilmalkedar church on the Cosan na Naomh

The route will certainly envelop you in the mists of time and takes in many ancient sites of interest including bee hive huts, holy wells, Churches, Ogham stones and the iconic Gallans Oratory whose dry stone sloping roof and walls have been keeping out the driving rain for 1,000 years.

The view west to the Blasket Islands from Mt Brandon

The route is well marked with posts sporting a yellow pilgrim symbol and directional arrows which will lead you across this beautiful Irish speaking area.

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Saint Finbarr’s Pilgrim Way – West Cork . 36 km
Drimoleague to Kealkill 22km / Kealkill to Gougane Barra 14 km

Starting at the Top of the Rock, Drimoleague, this two day walk follow’s in the footsteps of Cork’s Patron Saint Finbarr who visited in the 6th Century before setting off to Gougane Barra to set up his monastery in what became Ireland’s first National Park.

Kealkill megalithic stone circle and standing stones

There is a fine Walking Centre at Top of the Rock which as well as dispensing information on the many walks in the area offers transport, luggage transfers and accommodation for campers or in a range of wooden glamping “pods” and makes for a good base whilst undertaking this trail (topoftherock.ie).

Reckoned by John G. O’Dwyer, author of Pilgrim Paths in Ireland, to be the finest of them all this route reveals some of the best scenery in West Cork as it traverses three mountain systems and four river valleys.

The old mass path, St FinbarrsWay on the Ilen River

Serene and gentle at times alongside rushing streams and through lush green meadows the way becomes more demanding when it rises on old bog roads and forest tracks to cross the higher uplands and open mountainside, before reaching the cliffs overlooking the tranquil lake of Gougane Barra.

The bog road at Glanaclohy on St Finbarr's Way passes massive glacial erratics

It is this variety in the trail and the far reaching views of Bantry Bay and the mountains surrounding it that make this such a special walk that well rewards the effort put in on and rocky and boggy stretches.

The peninsulars below St Finbarrs Way reaching out into the Atlantic

Although mostly in the wild western counties there are pilgrim paths in other areas including, in the south, the 96km St Declan’s Way from Ardmore in Waterford to the Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary which crosses the Knockmealdown Mountains, and Saint Brigid’s Way in the east, rediscovered or created in 2013 along a 112km route linking the Saint’s Shrine and Holy Well in Faughart, Co. Louth to her Monastic City in Kildare, passing a variety of Sacred Sites along the Way.

Also in the East is Saint Kevin’s Way in Co Wicklow, starting either in Valleymount or Hollywood where the Saint slept in a cave and ending at Glendalough. Both routes are less than 30km and take about six hours.
Although this way includes a fair bit of road walking the second half from Ballinagee Bridge up over the Wicklow gap, down along the Gendasan river and into the hauntingly beautiful lakeside valley make it worthwhile.
St Kevin came here to retreat from the world and spent his life in quiet contemplation and after his death in AD 618 his followers developed it into a thriving monastic centre of learning that has now become a tourist hot spot.

In the centre of Ireland is Clonmacnoise, another medieval seat of Knowledge and artistic culture and the destination of countless thousands of seekers over the centuries.

Looking down the Medieval highway of the Esker Riada towards the once great monastic city of Clonmacnoise on the banks of the river Shannon
Now know as the Pilgrim Path the way follows the ridge of the Esker Riada, a glacial gravel deposit that afforded the traveller a dry route raised above the wetlands of the Shannon Callows. Starting in Ballycomber the flat route takes 25km to reach the monastic site of Clonmacnoise on the mighty river’s bank to which it owes its original popularity being on a transportation hub of water and roadways. Now developed as a cycleway rather than a walking route it nevertheless is a worthwhile trip into the tranquil heartland of Ireland.

Details of these and other routes and the annual pilgrimages along them can be found at pilgrimpaths.ie.