Transformative trails

An Cailín Rua

WALKING ON SHELLS A scallop waymarker along the Camino de Santiago route.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

A decade ago, I packed a too-large rucksack, and with two far-fitter-than-I friends, hopped on a plane to Bilbao to undertake the closest thing to an endurance race I’d attempted at that time (or since).
After two days spent gorging on some extraordinary tapas – of which I still dream – and wandering around the Guggenheim (unexpectedly encountering Antonio Banderas on Floor 3), we rose and at dawn hopped off a bus to commence a ten-day trek on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, a short stroll of approximately 270km.
Back then, the most exercise I’d ever done at once was a 10km run, and that was enough to almost give myself a coronary.
Naturally, I’d done precisely no training. I wisely packed a pair of boots I’d worn about twice, and an excess stone’s worth of clothes I would not wear once. With a dodgy knee and asthmatic lungs, in the company of two marathon runners, I was apprehensive. But in the wake of a sad, traumatic period in my own life, the challenge was timely. The sunrise over Astorga Cathedral saw us off on our quest.
Unsurprisingly, the first two days were a disaster. An unseasonable heatwave meant it was 15 degrees hotter than anticipated. I developed a blister the size of the Isle of Man on one foot, and one the size of Greenland on the other.
We had limited Spanish. I was slowing the fitter pair down. Tempers were fraying in the heat, not helped by my moaning. The food was repetitive and bland – a decade on, Spanish omelette makes us all retch. The heavy bags and sore feet meant all three of us developed a hobbling gait as every muscle ached. There was sunburn and insect bites and the snores of fellow pilgrims at night. Idyllic!
But as the days progressed, we found our groove and rhythm – mine, admittedly a slow plodding one a few hundred metres behind the other two.
Alone amidst firstly the arid Leon landscape, then the lush green Galician hills, I was forced to confront my demons and grief from home. The tiny churches where pilgrim passports were stamped offered healing peace and cool solitude. Fellow pilgrims became familiar pals as days passed. The chilly, dark 5am morning starts before the blazing sun appeared meant that by 9pm, we were out for the count, but not before that blissful, satisfying, ice-cold ‘cerveza’ after the day’s walking.
The changing landscape was a delight. Expanses of sunflowers, dirt trails through fields, streamside paths in sheltered copses, quiet country smallholdings. Throughout, the yellow arrow and scallop of the Camino guided us towards Santiago.
By the time we reached St James’s Cathedral, the other two had had enough. As the ‘Botafumeira’ swung wildly through the aisles during the ‘peregrino’ mass, leaving clouds of incense in its wake, I had to nudge my sweaty companions on either side awake, less they miss the spectacle. One, usually unrelentingly cheerful, had become uncharacteristically subdued. The other, in agony with shin splints, dumped her boots defiantly in a bin outside the cathedral.
I, on the other hand, was devastated to finish. A decade on, I remember those ten days as formative. They taught me the value of perseverance, the power of solitude and the worth of true friendship. And blister plasters.
You may ask – why can’t we experience something similar in Ireland? Well, we can.
For a taste, there is Tóchar Phádraig, a 35km route from Ballintubber to Croagh Patrick. But we do have a longer option.
In 2019, a tourism masterplan was launched for the Beara-Breifne Way, a 500km walking route from Dursey in Co Cork to Blacklion in Cavan, via Ballaghaderreen, following the 17th-century march trail of chieftain O’Sullivan Beare. Developed by communities along the route, this trail, with its lack of reliance on conventional transport, represents a sustainable tourism opportunity. It should benefit the rural towns and villages along the midlands route, well away from Ireland’s established tourist trail. Like the Camino, it has a ‘passport’ to get stamped along the way.
At a time when we seek the solace of the outdoors more than ever, perhaps the Beara-Briefne Way is ideally placed to be our very own Camino.
Just don’t forget the plasters.