The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching right across Europe and attracting hundreds and thousands of walkers each year. Some complete the entire route in 30 or 40 days, but many return in successive years to walk different stages of the route, which converge at the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried.
Here in West Cork, Drimoleague has its own hub of shorter walking networks and has been dubbed ‘The Walker’s Junction of West Cork’. The launch of the Drimoleague Heritage Walkways almost 10 years ago also marked the beginning of a group of enthusiastic walkers in Drimoleague.
A few years ago, one of the walkers, Anne O’Farrell, who was approaching her 50th birthday and wanted to do something special for it, raised the bar a bit higher with an invitation to the group to join her on the walk of a lifetime and tackle the much-lauded Camino de Santiago. “From the moment I started researching the Camino, I was fascinated by the history and adventure associated with this ancient pilgrimage,” she explains.
While this remarkable journey does demand physical and mental strength, it’s also about having fun and forging friendships along the way. 2017 marked the third year that the Drimoleague walkers, ranging in age from early 50s to late 60s, returned as a group to walk a stage of The French Way or Camino Frances…with a mandolin and concertina in tow!
One of the most popular routes, The French Way traverses both mountainous and flat terrain, passing through some of the most beautiful parts of Spain, including great cities like Pamplona, Leon and Burgos. It also goes through many very important pilgrimage towns, such as Saint Jean Pied de Port, Logrono and Sarria.
“The first year, 2014, we chose to walk the final stage of The French Way, Sarria to Santiago, as we weren’t sure if it was going to be a once-off trip, and it was recommended to us as being the most beautiful part of The French Way,” explains Anne. “As it happened, 114km later we had the Camino bug and the following year we returned to walk another stage of it.”
Each carrying a small Irish flag, the members of the Drimoleague group all travelled at their own pace, regrouping for coffee in the morning and at lunchtime before finishing the day with dinner followed by a sociable singsong. “The people along this route were poor but very welcoming; nearly every house you passed had a garage converted into a little coffee house, where you’d buy a cup for as little as 80 cent.
“There is never any pressure on anyone to go fast or slow,” says Anne. “You can have your bags transported along the way, as we did, and you have the day to complete the walk. Whether you want to get lost in the quiet of your own thoughts or enjoy the camaraderie of your fellow walkers, it’s totally up to yourself.”
The second year, in 2015, the group chose to walk the 147km route crossing the Pyrenees from St John Pied de Port in France to Los Arcos in Spain. “The walk over the Pyrenees was a steep climb and tough but the stunning views more than made up for the physical demands,” says Anne. “Octopus was the local fare, which most of us enjoyed eating.
“We witnessed the Good Friday Procession in Pamplona on that trip and the spectacle of the procession from the cathedral through the streets and boisterous celebrations really was spectacular; we had never seen anything like it!
“That year we met a group of young girls from Northern Ireland. They were staying in hostels so had a 10pm curfew each night. They loved the music sessions and socialised with us for a few nights. As a result some of them had to crawl in through the windows of their hostel after 10pm,” says Anne laughing.
In 2017, the group continued on in Spain, walking 160km from Los Arcos to Burgos, passing through orchards and vineyeards. As Anne’s husband Tadgh was recovering from heart surgery, the couple’s 28-year-old daughter Una took his place on the trip. “She loved the experience,” says Anne, whose other daughter Colleen is doing the Camino this summer with a friend. “Colleen is a step ahead of us,” says Anne. “Herself and her friend will carry their bags with them and be up every morning at six.” There were two mother and daughters and one mother and son travelling with the Drimoleague group this year.
The fare on this leg of the journey consisted of a lot of stews with chorizo and potatoes. “Sure our group would eat anything,” says Anne smiling. “This year we walked into one hostel where the woman made the most beautiful fresh omelettes in front of us. We were served them in a fresh baguette with a drink and all she asked for was a donation. When we go home, the son of one woman in the group commented that she was the first person he knew to walk over 100 miles and actually put on weight!
“The most important thing in making your journey as comfortable and enjoyable as possible is taking care of your feet,” advises Anne. “Pack proper breathable walking shoes and walking socks. A member of our group had her walking shoes with her but decided to wear her good runners for a couple of days and her feet were destroyed with blisters. If you feel a blister starting, you need to deal with it straight away. Bring a good foot repair kit with you and make sure you allow your feet to dry out well each night.”
Anne and her walking comrades are already looking forward to next year’s trip. “We can’t wait,” she says. “Our aim is to finish The French Way. It’s almost 400km from Burgos to Sarria, so we’ll probably get another two years out of it. I want to be ready to take on The Portuguese Way for my 60th.”
The Drimoleague group booked their trip through a travel agents, which included half board hotel accommodation and bag transfers each day along the route.
If you’re considering walking the Camino, there are small hotels and pensiones in virtually every village and town. There are also albergues, essentially hostels, which are very basic but extremely reasonably priced.
For more information on the routes, go to caminoways.com.