The Lord Mayor of A Coruña visited Dublin early in 2017 to promote the Camino Inglés from A Coruna to Santiago. He explained that the Cathedral authorities in Santiago had confirmed that Compostelas would be issued to pilgrims who could prove that they had walked at least 25 km in their own country before starting in A Coruña. The Camino Society Ireland had embraced the idea and were encouraging the concept of a “Celtic Camino”. The society confirmed that they would issue a Celtic Camino Compostela to pilgrims who could prove that they had walked the minimum of 25 kilometres on one of the Irish pilgrim routes or on a suitable alternative route. Thus began our pilgrimage along the Celtic Camino.
We decided that we would walk from our home in Bray to the church of Saint James and Saint James’s Gate in Dublin. The distance was over 25 kilometres and we felt that it would be appropriate to finish the first leg of our pilgrimage where so many medieval pilgrims had finished the Irish leg of their pilgrimage in the past before they embarked upon the treacherous overseas journey to Spain. Aileen and I were accompanied by two of our friends, Liz and Anna, as we walked the coastal route from Bray via Killiney. Our route was around Killiney Bay with superb views of the sea against the backdrop of Bray head, the Sugarloaf and the Wicklow mountains.
At Dalkey, we rounded the headland to Dublin bay and our first stop at the famous James Joyce tower in Sandycove where we discovered that they had a stamp which was perfect for our passports. We had earlier got a special stamp from the Bray local district council office which even had a scallop shell motif.
Our walk then followed Dublin Bay along the well-defined walking route that passes numerous Martello towers until we came to the River Dodder bridge in Ringsend. When we crossed the bridge, we left the road and followed the footpath that lead us over the lock gates guarding the place where the Grand Canal enters the River Liffey. Our route followed the river Liffey as far Temple Bar. We then walked past City Hall and Christchurch all the way to the Church of Saint James. There on the second weekend of Lent, we got our final stamp and collected our Compostela for the Celtic Camino at the Information Centre operated by volunteers from Camino Society Ireland.
One week later on Palm Sunday, we boarded our flight in Dublin airport to Vigo. The flight landed at 10:30 and approximately 45 minutes later we were seated on a RENFE train leaving Vigo station for A Coruña. Our journey through the Spanish countryside followed the Camino Portugues for some of the route past many familiar places. After a brief stop in Santiago, the train continued non-stop to A Coruña. We had booked a hotel between the port and the old town and after a seamless check-in we found ourselves exploring.
We revelled in the heat of a late Spanish Spring day while the locals pulled their Sunday best overcoats tighter against the cold. That afternoon we went by bike to the famous tower of Hercules, one of the oldest lighthouses in the world. The Celts knew it as Breogans Tower named after Breogan, brother of Mil, whose followers the Milesians are reputed to have invaded Ireland and defeated the Tuaithe de Dannan.
Later that evening, we explored the Old Town where we had our first experience of the Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions. We watched in awe as people of all ages wearing habits and masks carried the statues of their confraternities through the cobblestoned streets of the old town. Afterwards, we tasted some delicious tapas in the many bars off the Praza de Maria Pita.
Next morning we called to the City hall to get our sello and were lucky enough to meet the Lord Mayor Xulio who personally stamped our passports and saw us on our way. It took us three hours to walk out of the city and its outskirts. We missed our markers on a few occasions and had to retrace our steps in order to find our route. The local people who we asked for directions wanted to help us but were themselves unfamiliar with the actual route of the Camino. Obviously, pilgrims were still a novelty on this part of the Camino Ingles. We ourselves only met two other pilgrims on this stage of our route.
Out of the city we followed the Rio do Burgo to O Burgo itself and then uphill around the airport until we reached the open countryside around the Ancient church of Santiago de Sigrás. We walked through familiar Galician countryside for the next 20 kilometres. Familiar because we felt that we could have been walking in Ireland. The route was well marked with ubiquitous yellow arrows. We walked uphill for a 5 kilometre stretch through green farmland and steep forests until we reached the high ground near Hospital de Bruma. On level ground again, we saw farmers wrestling with giant polythene sheets as they prepared polytunnels to be erected over a berry crop that was already in place.
We had joined with the main Camino Ingles shortly before the village itself and met many pilgrims who had walked from Ferrol. When we were getting our sello in the albergue in Bruma the caretaker noticed our Camino Society passports and insisted on showing us a plaque in the kitchen of the albergue from pupils of Blackrock College to commemorate their Camino. Little did he know that our Celtic Camino had taken us past the front gate of that very institution. That night we dined with other pilgrims enjoying the fellowship of the Camino in nearby Hotel Canaima.
We rose early the next morning and walked through the pre-dawn gloom along country roads before breakfast in the next village. As the light improved we were amused to see a full sized model dinosaur looking at us from across the road while we sipped our cafe con leche. Outside after breakfast it became clear the dinosaur was in the company of other unusual statues used for fiestas or other events. Our Camino passed normally after that along a largely level trail to Sigueros, a typical Camino town. We arrived at lunchtime. The town was unusually quiet but we discovered that this was due to places being shut for the Semana Santa holidays. After our showers we walked around the town. Children played on the streets while their parents observed from a distant balcony or street-side cafe table for our part. We were nervous about whether we would find a place to eat but we need not have worried. The cafe we found was soon full of local families starting their Easter break. We ate well and slept even better on the night before we entered Santiago.
The following morning we walked through eucalyptus forests for the first 10 kilometres of our journey. Through the morning mists we saw distant shapes of other pilgrims on the road ahead of us. They were elusive however and we never seemed to be able to catch them. We walked alone for the first three hours of our day. We were hungry and found that of the cafes were shut for Semana Santa. In our minds we expected to find the outskirts of Santiago around every corner, but alas that was not to be. After what seemed to be an excessively long walk on a track way running parallel to a large industrial complex we finally arrived at Cafe Poligono and much to our relief it was open. Breakfast never tasted so good.
At last we were in the suburbs of Santiago. Our last hour was spent walking through the outskirts of the city until we finally arrived at the Convento San Francisco and our entrance to the old town. Minutes later we were in the Praza do Obradoiro and our walk was over. We carried out our pilgrim duties in the Cathedral, hugging the Saint before we visiting the pilgrim office to queue with trepidation for our Compostela. We expected some confusion or at least some questions when we produced our passports and our paperwork but everything went without a hitch. We left clutching our new compostellas for the Celtic Camino. Our Camino had finished…for this year.
By Basil Fallon.