James Keoghan makes the discovery made by all pilgrims on the Camino — the more you walk the easier it gets.
James Keoghan, €15
THE pilgrim on the The Way of St James — the trek from the medieval village of St John Pied de Port in France, across the Pyrenees, through Galicia to Santiago de Compostela in Spain — once faced bandits, cut-throats and disease on his quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Today it’s blisters, backache, ligament problems, and the snoring of fellow hikers bunking in the hostels along the route.
These were what faced James Keoghan, author of Currahoo to Santiago: My Camino, a descendant of Ristéard Mac Eochagáin — an officer in the service of Red Hugh O’Donnell, when he set out on an 816km pilgrimage to Santiago in memory of his ancestor.
The result is a readable, sometimes humorous mix of walking guide and travel memoir.
Like many long-distance hikers, Keoghan finds the start can be the hardest part — a steep climb out of Pied de Port, known as the Route of Napoleon, provides the first of many tests.
Walkers on the Camino, though often relishing the solitude, soon find themselves part of a large family, passing each other with the greeting ‘buen camino’ as they travel from one marker to the next, and meeting over beer or coffee in the albergues and bars along the route.
A sense of spiritual fellowship resonates through this book, but so too does the pleasure of traversing a historic land: 12th-century churches still in use; ancient Roman bridges; fountains of fresh drinking water that have refreshed travellers for centuries.
The dusty tracks of the Camino also meander through vineyards, and, in keeping with a long tradition, a fountain near the town of Irace dispenses free wine to passing pilgrims, courtesy of a generous local family.
Keoghan makes the discovery made by all pilgrims on the Camino — the more you walk the easier it gets: muscle cramps ease, ligaments stretch and adjust to the level of activity, and each step becomes more sure-footed, even on the loose gravel paths descending from higher ground.
Despite the variety of the landscape, Keoghan has a useful warning for walkers — pilgrims should be prepared for periods of boredom.
As in any countryside in the world, some stages of the Camino are dull, flat hikes through featureless farmland, or alongside endless roads shimmering in the heat.
After the medieval city of Burgos, where the sheer size of the Cathedral de Santa Maria strikes wonder into every traveller, comes the stretch known as The Devil’s Anvil — which involves “tramping along through enormous wheatfields stretching as far as the horizon, interspersed with villages every 10km, all now mostly deserted — and not a human soul to be seen”.
It is often not the hills and heat which test the walker, but the monotony.
Pilgrims approach Santiago de Compostela across a railway bridge and through the city suburbs before walking under the Porta do Camino (The Gate of the Way) and on to the Prazo Obradorio where the final marker of the journey, reading ‘zero kilometres’, stands in front of the cathedral.
For the 70-year-old author, who walked 816km in 43 days, the sense of achievement is mixed with physical exhaustion.
At mass in the cathedral, a giant incense burner is swung back and forward — a practice said to date from medieval times when a bishop objected to the smell of the destitute pilgrims who had completed the Way dressed only in rags.
Walking the Camino means different things to different people, but whatever the motivation, James Keoghan’s book should be read by everyone who wants to take on the challenge.
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