Friday, 20 September
And so it began, and all too early! After all the talk, the classes on pilgrimage, St James, the Camino, the walking socks, the sleeping bags and the passport scares, there we were, in the monastery reception at 7.40 on Friday morning waiting for it all to begin. Fr Martin led us in prayer and gave us the ancient blessing for pilgrims that millions of people have received over the centuries that people have taken the Way of St James. A lot of the monks turned up to wish us well and at the end of the service sang a Latin chant, the Sub tuum praesidium, the oldest known hymn in hour of the Virgin Mary in which her intercession is sought for preservation from danger. We received our pilgrims passports, the credencial which is to be stamped along the route and which we will present in Compostella to receive the certificate indicating we’d completed the pilgrimage and had walked at least 100 kilometres.
Then, onto the bus for the trip to Dublin and the hassle of security, mislaid passports and the usual things that add to the excitement and ratchet up the tension. After an uneventful flight we arrived in Santiago Airport and were met by Miguel, the bus driver who drove us on the two hour journey to our hostel in Sarria. This was a very comfortable, modern building situated right beside the Camino route so that throughout the evening and from early the next morning we could hear the pilgrims making their way past our windows. After supper we had a short prayer service and received our scallop shells, the emblem of the Santiago pilgrim since at least the ninth century.
Saturday, 21 September
After breakfast and prayer we hit the road. Today’s leg would take us from Sarria to Portomarrin, a distance of 24 kilometres through the gentle, green landscape of Galicia. Both the weather and the landscape were very like Ireland and we spent the day putting on raingear and taking it off between the showers. The route led us along a lot of country lanes and through small hamlets and farmsteads with their distinctive smells and odours. They seem to grow a lot of maize here and each farmyard has an unusual elevated structure or silo used to dry and store the maize ears and to protect them from rats. At a couple of places we saw people harvesting fields of large pumpkins.
As Sarria is the last place in which you can begin the Camino there were a lot pilgrims on the route with and we soone started meeting people from all over the world. All along the route there are small cafes offering food and drink to the wayfarer. The arrival of 42 of us at lunch time caused more than a little panic and a lot of confusion for the poor lady who had to serve us. We stopped in small churchyard in the afternoon and were introduced to Romanesque architecture, something that we will see a lot of along the route and which we’re already familiar with from Glenstal. We made good progress and soon our destination came into view on the far side of the River Mino. Portomarrin is an ancient settlement but a modern village as it had to be rebuilt when a hydroelectric dam was placed on the river in the 1950s. Our hostel was a large modern building with beautiful river views and after a huge supper we headed out to explore the town. The main feature is is the twelfth-century church of St Nicholas. We learned that it had been built by a group of warrior monks called the Knights Hospitaller and moved block by block to its current site when the dam was built. For the second time we ended the evening with the Gandalf chant and retired for the night.
Sunday, 22 September
A few tired legs this morning but spirits were high nonetheless. Some of us slept through our alarm clocks however this did not impact on our morning plans. The morning was a fresh, warm and most importantly – dry. We began by gathering outside for prayer and setting out our plans for the day – a day with 24km from Sarria to Palas del Rei. While the teachers were concerned with organisation, some of us were really quite excited about the Ireland match against Scotland. Our plan was to watch on our phones. Thankfully we had good coverage so as we began to set out on our mostly uphill walk, we gathered in small huddles to peek over someone’s shoulder. A favourable result meant that out spirits continued to be very positive.
We paused for an early break which ended up being slightly longer than planned however everybody seemed happy with this. The café had really cheap prices for both food and coffee so everyone was pleased with this. Prices seem to be very low across the board along the Camino.
As we carried on through the 24km trek, we gradually split up into smaller groups and spread out a little. This meant we had some longer than normal conversations with those we may not normally speak with for so long – especially some of the teachers.
The route offered many small quaint villages with plenty of beautiful scenery separating them. ‘Buen Camino’ is the phrase that people would say as they pass by one another, which means ‘Have a Good Way’. Luke encouraged us with his hyper enthusiasm in greeting others, which ended up being quite enjoyable and a great way of meeting people from all over the world.
At last around 3.30pm we encountered Kieran and Fiona waiting for us at a café signalling that we were getting close. We carried on another kilometre or so until we met the village, finally getting to rest our feet.
At this point the high spirits had died down a little but nobody was in poor form. The village was really quite nice and we went to Sunday Mass before dinner. Although this was mostly in Spanish the priest gave a long greeting in English, French and Italian to include all the pilgrims who made up most of the congregation. The priest also used a guitar on the altar that brought a few smiles to our faces. After a nice dinner, we headed to bed early, as tomorrow will be a long day.