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My Camino by Maria Walsh – PART 1

Three years after completing the 500-mile Camino Frances, MEP and former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh headed back to the Camino to finally reach ‘the end of the world’ with best friend Mary. Her Camino diary was originally published by Her.ie.

My Camino by Maria Walsh

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Why I’m walking the Way

It’s been a busy and adventure-filled few months and as I found myself ending my EU election campaign, I promised myself… time. And folks, if you want time, space and a beautiful adventure, the Camino is a perfect place to start. I am joined for this adventure by my best friend, Mary Hickey. She has walked the Camino previously, going from Sarria to Santiago and covering 100km.

This is not a new experience for me, either. I have been a Camino advocate since 2016, after walking for 30 days of ‘The Way’ from St. Jean Pied de Port, in the French Pyrenees, to Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain. A beautiful adventure, yet one that was challenging in every sense of the word.

This route that we are walking this week is coastal. It’s historic. It’s a perfect place to gift yourself time and space for reflection. Over the course of seven days, we will walk 120km.

We are journeying from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre, before ending our final day in Muxia. This is a special route, as you follow the footsteps of thousands of previous pilgrims – the name derived from the Camino’s religious history that’s given to all walkers – and arrive at what was believed to be the ‘end of the world’ in Roman times. In more recent years, pilgrims have burned their clothes, boots and belongings as they reached the end of their walk at the Cape of Finisterre.

Pilgrims I met who have walked the Camino de Santiago have shared with me that a journey along ‘The Way’, is broken up into sections. The first 10 days is your physical journey. The second 10 days is your mental journey, with your final 10 days capturing your spiritual journey. Looking back on my own 2016 Camino experience, there is undeniable truth to this.

I ‘fell into step’ with Camino Ways last year. It’s a brilliant company that organises trips for new and experienced Pilgrims to routes across Europe. Ireland even boasts its own Celtic Way, which Camino Ways has been integral in sharing with people.

Mary and I are doing things slightly different for this trip. We are staying in hotels and have a distance to walk each day set out for us by Camino Ways. This is great for busy-minded people who are looking for support and help in navigating their journey.

But it will still be hard. I like push myself, and the time and daily distance we’ve been set is a little shy of the precious 27-30km distance I would have done in 2016. However, it’s exactly what I need right now – structure, relaxation, and time to listen to my busy brain and body.

There has always been something about the Camino and Santiago de Compostela. I am excited to share my time, my thoughts and my energy as Mary and I journey to the ‘end of the world’.

DAY 1 – Santiago de Compostela

There is a calming sense to Santiago de Compostela. When you arrive, be it by foot from the Camino or by taxi from the airport, you are greeted with a sense of familiarity. It’s a small town, walkable and in good weather you could get lost – shopping, eating and drinking from early until late.

My friend Mary and I arrived close to 5pm. After a quick change, we were ready to re-explore. Our hotel, Pousadas de Compostela, is a perfect place to kick off your walk, and an absolute ideal place to finish. We are a seven minute stroll from the magnificent Cathedral Santiago de Compostela.

Outside, we sat and watched the arrival of the Pilgrims, and the family and friends who greeted them. Unfortunately there is work happening within the Cathedral so access is limited. When I was here previously, the Cathedral’s external walls that were getting the facelift. Be prepared if you are anticipating a visit inside the Cathedral; tours are available throughout the week but would definitely require a little forward planning!

We strolled to the Tourist Office to pick up some maps, read about our chosen route and witness the many Pilgrims who have just finished their pilgrimage get their hard earned ‘Compostela’ – the certificate you receive at the end of your Camino. What a feeling that is!

We read that the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James) developed in the Middle Ages, a spontaneous and popular result of Latin Christianity. The city was built over time to become a place which celebrates solidarity, brotherhood, friendship, hospitality, knowledge and mutual understanding. These are just some of the values shared amongst those who live here and those that find themselves journeying here. Santiago de Compostela reported over 327,000 Pilgrims last year, an increase of nearly 25,000 from the previous year.

I shared with Mary how in 2016, when I last walked the Camino, I was disappointed that my journey had ended when I arrived here. Sure, I was proud of the miles and the days I had worked through, but I found myself sitting and looking at the Cathedral, Compostela in hand, feeling sad that ‘my time’ had come to a halt, despite knowing that it inevitably had to come to an end!

There are many reasons why people find themselves here, either starting their Camino like Mary and myself, or finishing their Camino like we have both done previously.

The routes have developed since the early ages as a form of spiritual path or retreat for someone’s growth in spirituality. But don’t let that hinder your own involvement in the Camino. In 2016, I met more atheists here than I did Christians.

I met people who had never walked or hiked. I also met gym enthusiasts, and people who had walked the same route every year since they retired. I even fell into step with a Bishop from Barbados! It’s a bubble of special people.

I remember feeling on my final day in 2016 that the Way of St. James was less about what box you tick on a census form and more about you as a person, your values, your drive and your understanding of how you want to grow.

And now Mary and I will begin our route to Finisterre and Muxia, a new challenge for us both.

There has always been something about the Camino and Santiago de Compostela. I am excited to share my time, my thoughts and my energy as Mary and I journey to the ‘end of the world’.

DAY 2 – We begin walking … and talking

Mary and I made a pact to carry our bags. Some believe it’s the true Pilgrim way, but over the course of our 21km journey today, we both, at various points felt we should have allowed our bags to go their own way!

Today’s route took us from Santiago de Compostela to Negreira. We left the Pousadas de Compostela Hotel late at 8am. For some that may seem too early to be starting your day, however, if you find yourself walking Camino the ideal leave time is between 5.30-6.30am. This allows you not only to tackle your day as early as you can, but most importantly, it allows you to finish your Camino walk before 2pm, which has you retiring out of the blistering Spanish heat just in time.

The route today was perfect. A gorgeous combination of small hills and flat terrain taking us into small villages, open fields, river walks, beautiful valleys and forest tracks, with only a short 3.5km uphill battle. This is Camino at its best!

Along the route we stop for a cafe con leche and a freshly made orange juice. Small cafes are dotted throughout today’s route. I would encourage everyone to take five, relax, enjoy and meet fellow Pilgrims.

It’s evident from their souvenir-adorned backpacks that some of our fellow Pilgrims had journeyed many miles farther than Santiago de Compostela. Some travelled alone, some with youth groups and we even met a larger party of pilgrims who kicked off their morning with beers and wine! Camino welcomes us all.

Some may wonder what do you do while strolling a short 21km. Mary and I chatted for most of it. We talked about everything and anything, shared stories, reminisced on how we became friends in 2014 at the Rose of Tralee Festival. We discussed our experiences from our own previous Camino journeys, and what we hoped to gain from this ‘Way’. It’s amazing how much two people can chat once they get going!

Along the route we were greeted and we shared ‘Buen Camino’, a good wish and acknowledgement from fellow Pilgrims and locals. Mary seems to feel the need to be fluent in Spanish, announcing the many towns and villages we strolled through.

A little over 3km from Negreira we arrived in Pontemaceira Vella. It’s a beautiful small village connected by a stone bridge. Unbelievably tranquil.

We arrived into Negreira at 1.00pm. A perfect time to check in, take off our boots, wash the 21km journey away, and stroll around the built up town. Truthfully, Negreira is not as picturesque as Pontemaceira Vella but for Pilgrims on day one, it has plenty of options for allergies (hostels), pharmacies, stores and restaurants.

We fell into conversation with Raul, a 40-year-old local. He was born in London but has been living in Negreira for several years. His parents still live in the UK and the conversation quickly turned to Brexit, love and what his town has to offer! He shared how his town benefits greatly from Pilgrims, with people walking through from April to October.

If you decide to include Camino in your life you’ll quickly find that conversations between Pilgrims and locals are special. You get a deep insight into the mindsets and the beliefs, and debate is second nature here. As the sun went down, I reflected on the many conversations we shared with strangers and how those are a special part of the voyage.

We also stopped to speak to a worker from the Tourism Office who shared her insights into the day ahead. Tomorrow is the toughest of the seven days, with over 28km to be covered – and the first 13km of that is uphill… If you get a short reflection on tomorrow’s journey, you’ll know why!

For now we rest our sore legs and sleep.

DAY 3 –  A HARD DAY’S WALKING

Today was the day that we knew was going to kick our derrières!

Mary and I left Hotel Millan at 7am. Again, a later start than most Peregrinos (Pilgrims). With a rolling 28km of hills and road ahead of us, we estimated a 1pm arrival to Hotel Casa Jurjo in Abeleiroa. A lot of small battles were fought and won by the legs and minds today.

Today was different to most Camino days. There was little to this route except hills and road. There were not many cafes or stamp collection points. We did not pass a single church, which added to the day’s intensity. Those welcome chapels afford the voyager the chance to catch their breath, take refuge from the blistering heat and, of course, to send up silent prayers.

It was a slow, quiet day, passing few fellow Pilgrims. Those we did pass had their attention fixed on overcoming the difficult route ahead of them. Many of those Pilgrims would have travelled quite the distance, from places such as St. Jean Pied de Port, or Le Puy.

I was reminded quite often today that, for many, the journey to Finisterre is the end of their Camino. It is the end of their adventure and the end of their pilgrimage, which brings with it a mix of hopefulness for the future coupled with sadness that the journey has concluded.

We stopped twice in cafes en route today. One stop in particular, at Cafe La Penne, was special. The Barista was a local Spanish man who was welcoming, especially when we shared we were Irish. He was wearing an Irish wristband, gifted to him by a Galway Pilgrim. They had sadly lost touch some six years before, and the barista was eagerly awaiting his friend’s return.

We took a photograph, waved goodbye, and for the remainder of the journey I reflected on our fortuitous meeting and of the connections that Camino fosters with people all over the world. How many people are left with charms and memories of charming people?

Our hotel is based a few kilometers off the Camino route. We spotted a Camino Ways sign by a bus stop and, after trekking down a hard hill, we were able to catch our breaths and wait for the hotel owner to pick us up. This is unusual for Camino, but a welcomed trip as the town of A Picota is larger than Lago where we had finished walking, and we were greeted with welcomed bottles of cold water.

After a dinner to wrap up our evening, we were booked to return by taxi tomorrow morning to where we stopped – no kilometers missing, we promise!

Our evening was spent catching the sun behind the hotel – a hard task for two busy minds. As the hotel was preparing for a wedding tomorrow, we found ourselves surrounded by peacocks, hydrangeas and dream catchers. A surreal moment!

We were both reminded of life beyond the Camino. After catching up with friends and family at home and saying goodnight, it’s now time to rest our tired legs and gather our energies for tomorrow’s 26km.

Maria travelled with CaminoWays.com and her diary was originally published on Her.ie.

For more information about the Finisterre Camino or to book your trip, contact our travel experts

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