Seamus Murphy walked the Camino del Norte in September 2016. He wrote a journal detailing his experiences and the people he met while on Camino which was thought-provoking, humorous but enjoyable at the same time.

Day 1 – September 1st, 2016

Santillana del Mar

Day 1 of the Camino del Norte. Met a group of Jock McArdle’s walkers from Dundalk – Come on the Town! About 520 kilometres to Santiago. I keep wondering if I left the immersion on!

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Credit: Pedro Lastra on Flickr

Day 4 – September 3rd, 2016

Piñeres

Left Cantabria and now in Asturias. It is still cattle country and a bit like at home. Stone ditches, dried cowshite on the tarmac, slurry wafting on the warm breeze, silage bales swelling and smelling on the verges. Cowbells are cute and charming for a couple of hours, then they are really annoying. But they should put the cowbells on the Camino cyclists (los bicigrinos) who hurtle down narrow tracks scattering nosotros peregrinos peatonales a la derecha y izquierda.

Day 7 – September 6th, 2016

La Isla

14233246_10155191018047306_3332153477398014916_nLos Picos de Europa from a safe distance, the Ring of Gullion just doesn’t prepare you for that sort of thing. One of the great things about this route is that from time to time you get a chance to take the boots off and walk in the edge of the surf along some of the best beaches in Europe. I got an hour like that today and then I hauled into a village called La Isla.

There was an albergue but I couldn’t find it. Then I saw a couple of German young ones with what looked like Viewranger on their mobile phone so I started following them which is an old Camino trick (no, following the Viewranger not the young ones, but anyhow!) The albergue had no sign out and an old woman opened the door on a chain. She looked like the Cailleach Beara. So I headed back to the main road where there had been a sign for a hotel and found it in half an hour in the hot sun, on my last legs. The barman/receptionist looked at my passport and then told me to come into the bar where they were celebrating something or other. His English was worse than my Spanish.

One of the reasons for doing the Camino is these quite extraordinary situations you can land into, and the rest of Europe seems firmly convinced that our job in the EU is to keep the party going. So they have no draught beer but they are trying out a consignment of fermented apple juice in large bottles and we get stuck into that. He hands round tasty empanadas. I’ve had nothing since breakfast seven hours before. I haven’t seen the room but this stuff tastes good. Then a German couple turns up with a booking but they can’t get the barman to look it up, he keeps forcing apple brandy and empanadas on them. Then the kitchen help for the evening turns up. She is Peruvian from a barrio in Lima with an utterly unpronounceable name but she tells us to call her Machu Pichu because the one thing everyone knows about Peru is that Machu Pichu is absolutely beautiful. So we do.

Mixture of Spanish, German, some French and very little English but sure we’re flying. Machu Pichu goes to the kitchen and rustles up prawns in spicy tempura batter and some sort of minced pork in a pimiento sauce which is delicious. By this time Hansel and Gretel are relaxed, room and shower forgotten as they tear into food and drink. I finally had to call a halt because I wanted to be able to wash a few things as it’s getting hard to live with myself and hang them out without falling off the balcony. Heading back down for dinner shortly.

Day 9 – September 9th, 2016

Aviles

These are Asturian horreos (fada on the first o), grain barns built on tapering pillars of rock topped with large slabs to stop rats and mice getting at the corn.

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I woke in my tiny room above a bar in Villaviciosa, took out my earplugs and looked outside and saw the square below was wet. OK, Spanish local authorities are rather good at power-hosing away the sins and stains of the night economy at some ungodly hour before dawn. But when I got down there was a fine, steady, driving mizzle, what my granny – may God be good to her – used to call thon oul’ wettin’ rain. It was very warm and clammy and the choice was between putting the poncho on and getting drenched in sweat or leaving it off and getting drenched in rain: when I walked with the Wee Binnians we used to call this the boil-in-the-bag dilemma. So I buttoned up and set off west along La Avenida de Carlos Marx. The next item on the agenda was the split, as Brendan Behan said.

14232991_10155200699187306_4907682724019017808_nAbout 5km on the Camino divided: a route over the mountains could knock 150km off the distance to Santiago. Problem is that most of it is over 1000 metres high with a deep valley every day. And worse, accommodation is sparse, cafes few and shops none, so you need to carry food and be ready to rough it in the mountain refugios. They call it El Primitivo and I had toyed with the idea at home in a pub with a nice flat map, but now I could actually see the mountains.

As I stood at the fork in the road along came two French ladies I had dallied with the day before. They looked like early-retired teachers or possibly a couple of escaped nuns on the run: everyone on the Camino has a story. They told me they were taking El Primitivo and enquired if I would be joining them. But no, that road was too hard for this oul’ dog. I’m too old for it, or them. I’m like the census returns, broken down by age, sex and religion.

Not that the northern route was any doddle. In the next hour and a bit, I climbed to 450 meters on a steep, rough-cobbled medieval track. I knew I had two more ridges almost as high and the only establishment of any kind was four hours away from where there was a café at a crossroads in a place called Peón. The problem when I landed into Café Pepito was, it was booked out for the local Fiesta of the Virgin and they weren’t even serving coffee to smelly pilgrims. I was starving, it was 4pm and had nothing since breakfast before eight and nothing ahead for 2-3 hours. Then fate intervened in the shape of Hansel, the German from a couple of nights before in Machu Pichu’s hotel. He was with a younger German woman now; I didn’t ask but she was a definite improvement on Gretel. They lectured me on heading into a bare mountain stretch carrying no food – and offered me some of theirs. So we sat on a bench by the recycling bins and feasted on coarse bread and tuna and chorizo and cheese and serrano ham. I was actually disappointed they didn’t have a half-decent Rioja or at least a chilled Liebfraumilch in one of the rucksacks. But fed and replenished, I tackled another ridge.

A couple of hours later I finally got off-road on a nice track by a river in a forest of huge eucalyptus trees, and that was where Frau Forty-K found me. She is a very nice Dutch lady and she said she was tired and did I know of any accommodation coming up. I said I was aiming for a campsite with rental cabins about 3km ahead which I would be happy to have her share, and she came with me. We rented bunks in a cabin at a nifty 6 euro each, but when we got there we found a Pole, an Italian and a German girl had sequestered all three bottom bunks. Top bunks are a bad idea if you need relief in the night, not least because you can put your foot in someone’s face trying to get down.

We all went for dinner together in the campsite restaurant, pilgrim menu at €10 including wine. That’s where I found out the Dutch woman had been averaging 40 km a day since she crossed the border at Hendaye-Irun, which is incredible. I’m happy with half that. This is apple country and the Italian wanted to show us how the Asturians oxygenate their cider by holding the bottle above head height and pouring it into a glass at knee level. He spilled a lot but we drank a lot – the Polish guy thought it was wasteful nonsense. I sat up late while she regaled me with tales of her travels – she is running out of Caminos. This morning we walked at first light for half an hour until we found a roadside bar for breakfast, then she took off. The last I saw of her was her cute, shapely rucksack disappearing around a bend in the road. I’m just not fast enough for her, in so many ways.

Day 10 – September 10th, 2016

Soto de Barco.

This is just a bit of the lobby of the hotel I am staying in, El Palacio de la Magdalena. The bathroom is bigger than the cabin six of us shared on the campsite the other night. The hotel down at the roundabout recommended by the Camino guidebook, not least for its grilled octopus, would have done nicely but it’s boarded up.

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When I walked in the receptionist managed to keep the frozen smile in place while her eyebrows were taking off to the north. Yes, she had a room but… she had to talk to the manager. They conferred and both came back and said they were happy to offer me a room at the special pilgrim rate – €80. I said fine but please don’t tell me what the usual rate is, I couldn’t sleep. They gave each other such a lovely little knowing smile.

She looked as if she wanted to pick me up and put me in the room with tongs. She kept telling me they were a spa hotel and I was free to use the spa and a bathrobe was being sent up. No thanks –I had visions of them making me walk through a sheep dip first. She then got some poor lackey – South American I would think – to carry my rucksack to the room which made me feel really stupid. I had just carried it over two mountains!

The cathedral in Santiago where we are all headed is said to have the biggest incense burner in the world. When they light it and swing it the length of the nave on special days the Santiago Fire Department has monitors on the spot. The reason for the ceremony is obvious – the almighty stench from the assembled pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Things haven’t changed all that much. After nearly two weeks of hand-washing with stolen hotel soap in bidets and sinks with no plugs the clothes are in pretty poor shape and not really clean. I don’t know what secret society removes the sink plugs along the Camino but they are very efficient. A flat universal plug from a pound shop is a good investment for peregrinos. 

The German girl from the hut the other night passed me on the mountain today with the Italian cider expert in tow. These two seem to have become an item judging by the way she has assumed full girning rights: Giulio walks too slow, Giulio doesn’t know how to use a washing machine, Giulio calls his Mama in Venetia every few hours to report in. He does – I heard him. The other Italian lad in the hut, Marco, only took one glass of wine at dinner because he had promised his Mama he would not drink too much on the Camino. This is really weird. Lying to the Mammy about the oul’ drink is an absolute rite of passage in our culture and if he was a man at all at all he would learn to lie convincingly because sure you don’t want to be worrying the Mammy, now do you? 

Marco was quite funny when I met him at a bar in Aviles yesterday. He asked me if I had seen The Way, the movie about the Camino with Martin Sheen and James Nesbitt. I’ve seen bits of it but we hardened peregrinos will never admit to having seen it all and certainly not to having enjoyed it. The plot is that Sheen’s character’s son died on the Camino and Sheen comes back carrying his ashes to complete the trip. So Marco says: Papa says to me, Marco for Christ’s sake don’t die on the Camino or else your Mama will make me do it with the ashes.

And so to Frau 40K. She obviously doesn’t walk quite that far every day. Last night I was sitting eating a pizza in a pavement restaurant in Aviles, engrossed in guidebook and route for today when someone tapped me on the shoulder. As the hill-walkers say, I hardly her with her clothes on; she had even packed a skirt in her rucksack. She joined me for a meal and a bottle of vino tinto and for a couple of hours she padded the story of her life that she had begun at the campsite.

But this morning,  I think she got away. I left Aviles at 7am in the semi-dark with no breakfast: she probably left later since she had breakfast in her hotel deal. She was pretty much bound to catch me up but I saw no sign of her on the trail. T the thing is that a few kilometres out, the sign-posting was terrible because of roadworks and like quite a few others I got lost in a little place called Salinas. We went around in circles for the best part of an hour and she may have got past me. But that’s not the worst problem, it’s where it happened. For the rest of my days I am doomed to have those lines from Bobby McGee running around in my mind: “Then somewhere near Salinas, Lord, I let her slip away, searching for the home I hope she’ll find.” Nobody does wistful quite like Kris Kristoffersen.

Now for certain members of my extended family who will inevitably say I just made that up to get a nice closing flourish, Salinas is 5.5km out of Aviles on the Northern Camino and can be seen on Google maps. Of course, I could make it up, but I didn’t. It’s actually more interesting to observe and then record from memory. Truth is far more than a litany of facts and things. I know that tomorrow morning when I face west again and take the next mountain track with the rising sun warming my back and drying my underwear, Frau 40K will be out there in front of me. I probably won’t see her again, but like the truth, she’s out there.

More from Seamus in the next issue of Shamrocks & Shells.