This is a post from Des O’Dowd, thanks.
I retired on the 1st of September 2008 and I wanted to celebrate my new life and new freedom. The Camino de Santiago was the challenge and adventure I needed. So in late September, like children going on a school tour, my fellow retiree Pat McEvoy and I arrived at Dublin Airport with our rucksacks packed. We flew to Biarritz and two hours later we were in the beautiful village of St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. Our adventure had begun.
The Camino de Santiago is a 500 mile pilgrimage trail from St. Jean where pilgrims from all over Europe would assemble and travel together to the grave of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. In 813 a Shepherd named Pelayo was drawn to a field by a “bright light” or star. So we get compos (the field) of the stars (Stella). St. James is St. Iago which gives us Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims leaving Ireland would assemble at St. James Gate on the Liffey to begin their journey. Each year up to 200,000 people make the journey or part of it for 200,000 different reasons.
The first practical step to doing the Camino is to purchase John Brierley’s book “A Pilgrims Guide to the Camino de Santiago”. Everything you need to know can be found in its pages. If you like you could contact the Irish Society of the Friends of St. James on the web and get yourself a Pilgrim Passport. Each hostel or Albergue you stay in will stamp your passport and when you arrive at the Cathedral you will receive a Compostela Certificate of Completion of the Route.
The entire Route is very pilgrim friendly. Every few miles there will be Albergues which are cheap clean dormitory style accommodation (€9 per night) or Hostels which would be private rooms with showers etc costing approx €20 p.p. In every village, there will be a bar serving excellent three course Pilgrims menu for €9 including wine. The local Spanish people are more than friendly and will call out “Bon Camino” to you as pass. A knowledge of Spanish is helpful but it is not a problem to get by without it. The weather can be quite hot in June, July, and August so perhaps the best and quietest months to travel are April, May, September and October. Most people tend to start to walk at first light and have their walk completed by 2pm in time for a relaxing lunch. There is a tremendous sense of camaraderie and support among the multi-national group of Peregrinos (Pilgrims) and people of all ages and backgrounds become friends along the way.
Pat and I decided that we would not attempt the entire 500 miles in one session (approx 35 days) but broke the journey into four separate visits. September 2008 we crossed the Pyrenees and travelled 150 miles to the lovely town or Belorado. Words cannot describe the beauty of the Pyrenees at dawn and the peace that envelops you as you wander through the olive groves and vineyards. In April, we returned to Belorado and crossed the long flat Meseta until we completed another 150 miles and arrived in the historic city of Leon in time for the christening of my brother’s daughter Olivia in the Church of Santa Maria del Camino. All along the way we made new friends and spent happy nights sitting under the stars sipping the excellent Vino Tinto at €3 (A bottle that is!). Then this September 2009 we returned with two more retirees Joe Conway and Hugh Curran and walked perhaps the most beautiful stretch to date, to the town of Villafranca. What a pure pleasure it is to be strolling through the vineyards on sunny mornings as the local farmers pick their grapes. (One does after think about what the teachers back home would be doing just now?). So far we have walked 400 miles and not a drop of rain has fallen on our hands. We returned home exhilarated, refreshed and already planning our return in April 2010. Then we will cover the final stretch into Santiago through the beautiful mountainous region of Galicia. I can’t wait!
We have encountered many people in their 60s and 70s strolling along at their own pace and intending to do the entire Camino in one session, there can be no better way to spend an early retirement. The Camino gives you time to think. There are beautiful old village chapels at every turn in the road if you choose to visit or pray. The Camino is a challenge to face but with each day’s walk to there are memories and a sense of accomplishment and peace.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.