Santiago de Compostella

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 SANABRES: A quieter pilgrim way

With all the media attention on the Camino Frances, the main pilgrim route to Santiago across Northern Spain, in the last 5 years or so,it has become a victim of it’s own success .

In the summer months especially it has become a bit of a too well worn path with thousands of pilgrims competing for beds in the alburgues and remote landscapes decorated with a string of  rucksacks trudging towards the horizon.

Having walked the Frances 10 years ago and wanting to return via a less crowded route we chose a branch of the Via de la Plata, the silver way, that comes up from Seville . 40kms north of Zamora, you have a choice to either carry on to Astorga to join the main trail or veer west along what becomes the South-Eastern Way.


Also known as the Camino Sanabres it is the longest Galician leg and from where we joined it at Puebla de Sanabria it’s 250 kms to Santiago.

It’s a handy route for those with a couple of weeks to explore the Way and reach Santiago with more than enough kms under your feet to qualify for a  Compostela at journeys end. In fact, for those in a hurry, the required 100kms are achievable from Ourense, a 30 min high speed train journey after flying into Santiago, followed by a 5 day walk back.

For those with more time or energy on their hands (and legs and feet) there are buses and trains travelling east from Ourense to different stops along the route.

DSCN2045Arriving at Puebla de Sanabria we discovered pretty quickly that the high speed train track being built between Galicia and Madrid was going to be crisscrossing our Camino for awhile , causing a few diversions here and there, but soon we were passing through the first of many beautiful and ancient Galician villages, Terrosa DSCN2056 where an old fella, spying us, rushed into his house to retrieve many ledgers for us to sign and stamps for him to print into our Credential or pilgrim passport.

A few kms later we were booking into a privately run albergue in Requejo  DSCN2058 where we met a couple  we were to spend much of the next 10 days with when we had dinner at the resturante up the road offering 3 course pilgrim menu and lashings of red wine for €7.

Next day we climbed and climbed into the mist on ageless tracks passing under vast new roadways DSCN2060to reach the highest point on the Camino at 1320mts. We continued through the soft rain over the uplands and another pass into Galicia without much of a view. As we descended the weather improved, the construction and traffic noises faded and we felt we were on the Way.


An overnight in Vilavella on the softest most formless mattress we’ve ever been trapped DSCN2066 in was followed by a short but beautiful 12.5km stretch on ancient original stone paved camino.


We crossed sparse moors with gritstone outcrops looking a little like Cornwall or Hampi in India.


A lovely old trail with beautiful wild flowers, blue sky and sunshine led us to a very well appointed municipal albergue in A.Gudina.

Arriving early we had the place to ourselves but as the day went on it filled with fellow pilgrims which resulted in a night of snoring and wheezing, encouraging us out pre sunrise next morning DSCN2097

for a 35km stretch over the high ground with views far and wide of rounded green hills and a many fingered lake.


In the afternoon we were revived by coffee and cake in the old ramshackle village of As Eiras where the local Camino Assoc had a little volunteer run cafe in one of the ancient stone buildings.


The architecture in these deeply rural Galician villages is one of the most attractive features of the Camino and has survived almost unchanged for hundreds of years.

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Surrounded by well managed coppiced and pollarded forests of chestnut, walnut and oak, rich agricultural land and colourful and productive flower and vegetable gardens, the people may have been poor and isolated but were obviously rich in the fruits of the earth.

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After our weary bodies had rested overnight in a stylish new municipal albergue in Laza it was another long haul uphill through forest


to reach Albergueria, an ancient hamlet with a bar and hostel adorned with thousands of scallop shells signed by pilgrims.

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Being a sunday we were joined on the Way by more walkers with day packs enjoying the tranquil woodland paths and highland trails.

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An overnight in another new hostal in Vilar do Barrio ( all municipal albergues in Galicia cost just €6) and another bargain and wine soaked dinner at the plain and simple restaurant opposite gave us the energy the next day for a 36km hike down more medieval pathways to Ourense.

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With only a little over 100kms to go we decided to have a day off in this large town and enjoy the free public hot spring pools with which it is blessed. One of the largest supplies of geothermal water in Europe have been used to create half a dozen sets of stone lined pools, complete with parks and gardens along the banks of the river Mino which winds through the town. Open all and everyday they are a great social magnet with many old folk bathing and chatting each morning for hours on end.


A day of rejuvenating soaks in different pools of ranging temperatures had us ready for a long, steep uphill stretch for 4kms followed by a section on old cobbled and sandy trails through ancient oak and chestnut woodland, over gorsey moorland and past well tended gardens of vegetables.

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The stones beneath our feet resinated with the lingering energy of countless  previous pilgrims over the thousand years before we passed by and the religious purpose  of the Way was often brought home by the shrines and statues that lined our path.


We came upon Casa Caesar where a friendly and generous pilgrim guardian welcomed us into his home and plied us with all manner of homemade food and drink, showed us a vast collection of momentos and photos and regaled us with stories and anecdotes we couldn’t understand. You don’t get those experiences on most hiking routes.


Fortified, we carried on to Cea, famous for it’s wood fired bread ovens, another beautiful and ancient stone village.The albuergue was a skilful blending of antique and modern looked after by a hospitalero sporting a fine moustache and Galician beret.


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The next couple of days flew by as our bodies, by now “track fit”, walked on automatic. Perfect walking weather. Hot and sunny when we were in the woods and cloudy with a cooling breeze when crossing the open high ground.


The trail was the by now familiar mix of little fields, forest, hamlets, gardens, paths, road, tracks, a little more built up now we were approaching Santiago. In Toboada we came upon a medieval church which was full of interesting symbolic art.

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The weather changed on the afternoon of the second day and we got caught in a downpour on the approach to Banderos. Luckily the strangely designed modern albergue there had heaters blasting hot air into the dormitory and we were soon dry again.

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Another day over farmland and through forest followed by a final climb of 200mts got us to our last albergue of the trip. We speculated on weather the Galician government gave the design of these to keen young trainees as this one at Outeiro was another modernist block.



Our final leg into Santiago was only 16kms but we were on the trail early. The hills were wreathed in mist and the trees all dripped with recent rain as we made our way down to the roads leading towards the suburbs. The rural feel and mixed farmland lasted right up to the city gates which we entered from the south east and avoided the crowds of pilgrims coming from the Camino Frances until, suddenly we were in the cathedral square and it was time to celebrate our achievement and part company with our fellow pilgrims.

Santiago de Compostella at last!

Santiago de Compostella at last!