800 years of the Irish in Santiago

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Hundreds of scallop shells, each hung there by a passing pilgrim and each one with a personal message. So many stories…

Since at least the year 1220 there have been Irish people leaving St James Gate – home, now, to Guinness – and heading by sea and land to Santiago de Compostela. Of course St James is the English name for San Tiago. I’d left St James’ Hospital a little dejected at having been told that post concussion dizziness and fatigue take on average 43 days to pass if you completely rest the brain or, on average, 100 days if you use your brain (that’s me, I fear, as I don’t know how to switch my brain off), when I saw the sign, pictured below, outside St James’ Church on St James’ Street.

There is an office, there, in the church, staffed by volunteers, giving information and documentation for those intending to walk the Camino de Santiago. I decided to drop in and see if any of them wanted to come to the book launch next month (date to be confirmed). A friendly chap there told me that, when excavating to build the Dublin City Council head office on the banks of the River Liffey they found thousands of scallop shells, such as those above that I photographed on the Portuguese way while researching Pins and Needles. According to the guy, it was customary for pilgrims arriving back in Dublin by boat from their Camino to Santiago to throw the shell that they’d carried for the entire trip overboard and this is what led to the huge number of them on what would have been the riverbed. I’d been surprised, when first arriving in Santiago, to find that Galicia is a Celtic culture and that the people there see themselves as being connected to us here in Ireland. It seems that our connection does, indeed, go back through the centuries.

St James Church
To the left hand side of this church front on James Street is the Camino Ireland Office, staffed by volunteers and providing a wealth of information for anyone considering walking the Camino.
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Birth of a character captured…

I was archiving old video footage and came across the clip below from walking the Camino De Santiago while researching my book ‘Pins and Needles’. It’s the moment when I decide that I need a character who will be able to help the Spanish speaking vagabundo and the priest to communicate. The rest is history. You’ll now find the character Álvaro in the book…

To chose ‘the road less travelled’

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The pilgrim passport or ‘credencial’ in which you collect stamps from places you stay or eat along the way. This is your proof that you’ve done the walk so that you can get  your certificate or ‘compostela’.

When people say they have walked or wish to walk ‘the Camino De Santiago’, they usually mean the French route from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago De Compostela in the Spanish province of Galicia – a journey of about 800km or 500 miles. The fact is, though, that ‘the Camino’ is a network of routes that converge at the Cathedral of St James in Santiago. My book, ‘Pins and Needles’, is set on the less popular Portuguese way which starts in Lisbon. Actually, my book is set on just the last 100 kilometres or so. One hundred kilometres is the minimum distance that you must walk abefore you can claim your certificate or ‘compostela’, as they’re called. It’s also an ideal distance to cover if you have a week to get there, do the walk, check out the city of Santiago and get home. I’ve done the final 100km of both the popular French route from Sarria and the Portuguese route from Valença or Tui neighbouring towns across the River Minho – which forms the Spanish/Portuguese border – from each other. For me, the Portuguese way is ideal for this short Camino. I’ve listened to many walkers who have hit the this last stretch of the French way and moaned about the sense of tourism that they are suddenly faced with after weeks of an experience that they found much less commercial. I could see what they meant. The little engraved plates on the milestones that tell you how far you must still walk have pretty much all been stolen by souvenir hunters on the final few days of the French way. Instead, the Portuguese route – which I walked over 10 times in researching ‘Pins and Needles’ – still feels genuine. The signs are still in place. You meet other peregrinos but not in such vast numbers.

I’m putting the finishing touches to a free downloadable guide to this ‘one week on the Portuguese way’ that gives general tips on walking the Camino as well as how I recommend the trip to be broken down into five stages. If you subscribe to or keep an eye on this site I expect to have it available within the next couple of weeks. If you want me to send it to you when it’s done, drop me a mail at mail @ screenpublications.com or leave a comment to let me know.

By the way, may I add that ‘travelled’, with a double ‘l’ isn’t, as my spellcheck insists, incorrectly spelt. Unlike in the USA, it’s how we spell the word in Ireland and Britain.

Four key packing points for the Camino

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On the Camino your material world often comes down to what you’ve decided to carry on your back.

I’m immersed in writing a guide on walking the Camino De Santiago that I plan to make available for people who are considering following the footsteps of my “Pins and Needles” characters along the last 100km or so of the Portuguese route. I’m on the bit about ‘what to bring’. When it comes to packing – and I get asked about that a lot – I realise that there are two areas of advice – general and specific. The specific deals with what type of backpack works best, what footwear to go for and what to avoid et cetera. The general, though, comes down to these four points which I thought I’d share here:

  1. Make sure that clothing is light and fast-drying. You can layer up for warmth but a thick, soggy article of clothing is something you want to avoid.
  2. Be prepared for cold rain and hot sun. Either can happen – and quite possible on the same day. But don’t overdo it. Remember that your raincoat could remain unused and your sun cream might come home unopened. Ten day weather forecasts are pretty accurate so consult them.
  3. Don’t bring a large bag. You’ll end up filling it. A smaller backpack forces you to be economical with what you bring.
  4. There are shops in towns along the route. If you forget something or find you need it you can buy it. On the other hand, if you bring something you don’t need you’ll be stuck carrying it.

Well, I’d better get back to writing the guide…