Baby James peeks out from inside his laundry basket, exploring a world of which he will only live to see 23 months.
James Gerard delves into the recesses of his mind for the name of his youngest son before breaking out into a wide smile – ‘James Joseph’.
Baby James, my nephew and godson, would have been 15 in a couple of weeks had he lived.
James Gerard, my father 90, and I, James Joseph, am about to turn 50.
They will be with me as I walk the 111kms last leg of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-west Spain, from Sarria to Santiago where the bones of the apostle St James the Greater are reputedly kept.
This is our story.
SARRIA, 8.45AM, FIDAY, OCTOBER 16
Sarria to Portomarin, 23.230km, six hours
I start the day with an Our Father and cross myself with the holy water I took back from the Basilica of St Anthony of Padua this summer. I trust he will help me from getting lost on the Way.
That I am here at all is something of a miracle. Despite the clearly marked yellow arrows on pavements, roads and walls, I find myself at either end of the main road heading out of Sarria before stumbling upon the cobbled uphill path out of town. I am on my way.
Bathed in sunshine
My first stop after just a few stops is La Magdalena convent where I take a photograph of the stone kilometre marker with the Camino shell logo which states that it is only 111kms to Santiago.
God has bathed Sarria below in sunshine while ahead an American is giving thanks for His blessings, leading his group in the rosary.
‘Buen Camino’: I greet my first ‘peregrino’, or pilgrim, Wendy, a sparky bank manager from Armagh and take a photograph for her next to an old stone bridge.
She will be the first and last person I meet on The Way and I will make many more friends besides.
Kaleidoscope of colours
The Camino is a kaleidoscope of Autumn colours. I walk along the same path trodden by medieval pilgrims, a carpet of yellowing chestnut shells, past farmhouses with their distinctive raised grain houses adorned with crosses and through picturesque hamlets where frisky cats will dance around your legs.
Pilgrims need two stamps each day, dated, from churches (an imprint of the chapel), cafes and shops to get their certificate in Santiago.
It is mid-afternoon when I cross the River Mino into the old town of Portomarin.
And like the pilgrims of old I head for my resting place and a bidet (they’re good for feet too).
PORTOMARIN TO PALAIS DE REI, SATURDAY
22.340kms, six hours, 15 minutes
Nahid had been sat opposite me around the altar earlier in the church in Portomarin square as her group’s pastor, Fr Jeff, preached, her beautifully manicured fingers clenched in prayer.
We are striding uphill now out of Portomarin and cross-country… her sneakers look more suited to that activity. And yet Nahid is a veteran of pilgrimages – and a survivor to boot.
A 50-year-old mother of two, she is following her calling, just like eight years previously when she returned to her Iranian homeland for the pilgrimage of St Jude, knowing that as a convert to Christianity she was risking her life.
Walking in His Path
And so it proved as the guard who checked her details asked if she appreciated that as an apostate she had signed her own death warrant.
Rather than convert back to save her skin, as many do, Nahid put her faith in God. After the service, with a storm breaking, help arrived from a driver who bundled her into his car and sped her to safety.
Her brush with death has not stopped her returning to Iran since. We walk and talk: I mostly listen. I think my fruit sweets help. I also feel that wherever Nahid walks in the future there will always be someone there to protect her.
PALAIS DE REI TO ARZUA, SUNDAY
28.410km, seven hours
I am increasingly testing St Anthony’s patience.
My Camino involves me staying at designated hotels along the way, chosen by tour providers CaminoWays.com which ensures that my luggage is sent along to the next night’s designated billet.
At the end of a day’s walk with weary limbs and senses and then having to show your passport at reception it is easy to put it back in the wrong compartment of your backpack.
St Anthony finds it… for his usual fee.
I return everything to the backpack, fruit, sweet cakes and a refiled water bottle from the breakfast bar. It will tide me over before I have to refuel again at the first stop.
Guntram is a great believer in refuelling. He has been walking stretches of the Way with his cousin and two childhood friends from Austria for the last 12 years. This year he intends to reach Santiago and he will take a lager in every bar along the way.
Friends, family, young, old, every nationality, and Christians of all colour walk the Camino and new alliances are forged with every step.
Anna, a Brazilian, and Andy, a German, who have met on the road from Saint Jean in France are two such for whom the journey will not end in Santiago. Nana is another Brazilian pilgrim, she is walking with her parents and they plan to arrive in Santiago on her father’s 70th birthday.
The Camino is less busy in the autumn and it is heartening and energising to meet new friends again.
Carry your cross
I quicken my stride as I see Jennifer, Nahid’s hairdresser pal from the day before.
As I approach I notice that she is crying.
I give her a hug, some consoling words and help carry her cross on the final stretch. She showers blessings on me… at least that’s what I think they are as I absent-mindedly walk off with her backpack.
ARZUA TO AMENAL, MONDAY
22.50kms, six hours
I’ve only gone and upset God now.
I stumbled across a ghoulish Galician ritual the previous night in a restaurant on a cobbled street.
A group of locals were stirring a fiery cauldron, casting spells into the air and inviting me to drink their brew.
They called it Queimada. Halloween is close and it is always better not to mess with the Dark Forces at this time of year particularly in a strange foreign tongue.
The One Who Sees Everything has sent down his storms on us today. Thankfully, this stretch is wooded, my boots are damp, but I am in good company.
Skyler, an American artist and his life-coach girlfriend Jenny are leading a small group which among others includes his sister Tosha, an illusionist’s assistant turned stuntwoman.
And yet the conversation keeps returning to this writer from Ireland who had set a wasp on a poor defenceless woman only a day into her Camino.
Lessons on the Camino
We find Waspwoman Wendy at that night’s billet, break bread and listen to Jenny’s tales of a pilgrim who was staying in a hostel where someone relieved themselves on her sleeping bag while she was in it.
I fall into my dry, cosy bed after a long day’s walk and find myself dreaming of running water.
AMENAL TO SANTIAGO, TUESDAY
19.150ms, five hours 20 mins
Two bright stars pierce the early morning, a portent – they did for the first pilgrim too.
A bright clearing through the woods: it is almost as if God himself has lit up the final last steps to his Apostle’s resting place.
The Camino and 111kms of walking in dizzyingly beautiful Galician country is an ethereal experience and I float to the cathedral from the first Santiago sign on the outskirts of town.
I have my last stamp, my Camino certificate. I have embraced the statue of the Apostle, above and at the back of the altar and it is time to take my pew.
Guntram flashes a smile from across the aisle, he has completed his 12-year journey. We embrace and exchange Buen Caminos.
Anna turns around and does the same. She introduces me to her parents and tells me that they have arrived that day from Brazil to surprise her.
Nana is also there. She tells me what Happy Birthday is in Portuguese ‘Feliz Aniversario’ and I greet her father.
The Pilgrims’ Mass in the Cathedral is a celebration with the Botafumeiro its showpiece.
The Botafumeiro is an 80kgm thurible, or silver incense burner, a metre and a half in height which is lowered by eight tribaleros (red velvet-cloaked clerics during the service). It reaches speeds of 68kms, and at the top of its swing, 21m it almost touches the transept.
The ceremony lasts around six minutes. In medieval days pilgrims would arrive unwashed and the incense was believed got cleanse their bodies and souls.
I marvel at the wonder of it all with Nora from Kilkenny, In anticipation she offers me a tissue.
I have been doing well, holding it in, but as the nun leads the congregation in song and we go into the Our Father the tears come.
For my own father, James Gerard, for the enormous responsibility and privilege of being a father myself, and for my nephew Baby James.
My Camino is my own, but it is also everyone else’s Camino too. It mirrors the journey of life, love, light, loss and renewal.
Nora puts a consoling hand on my shoulder. I would compose myself at the back of the church but I’d be worried that if I stepped out into the aisle they might start swinging the Botafumeiro again.
Who to go with/how to get there:
I travelled with http://www.CaminoWays.com and http://www.aerlingus.com.
CaminoWays.com organises guided and self-guided tours on the many routes across Spain, Portugal and France. Prices start at €560pp sharing for a six-night Camino trip, walking the Camino Frances from Sarria to Santiago.
Including half-board, luggage transfers from hotel to hotel and holiday pack with pilgrim passport and route info.
Airport transfers, hotel upgrades and bike rental are also available.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org (01) 525 2886. This year is a Holy Year for Pilgrims as declared by the Pope. The Holy Door of the cathedral will be one for the Year of Mercy,
This article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail in 2015.