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“Buen Camino”

15 November 2012

Book review : Buen Camino :  A Father-Daughter Journey, from Croagh Patrick to Santiago de Compostela. Written by Natasha and Peter Murtagh and Published by Gill & Macmillan on 25 March 2011 for €16.99/£14.99.

To begin : A recollection from my own Camino …

The village, hamlet really, has lodged itself at the end of the ridge Shash and I are walking. Late July, gone midday and with the temperature in the thirties, we find a welcome stone table and benches in the square. As our sacks slip to the ground, we take a moment to recover and let the landscape absorb us.

We are following the Camino on our way to St Jean Pied de Port. Lunchtime in rural south-west France is always respected; machines are turned off, tractors are parked, artisans put down their tools.  Even the dogs stop barking. And so, conscious even of the noise we make rummaging around our sacks, we pull out a baguette and a chunk of mature brebis (ewe’s cheese) and begin to prepare to eat.

Moments pass and the window of a low single story building is flung open. Except we see later that it’s a large house, snuggled into the side of the mountain, so that only the top floor shows toward the square. And from the shade of the overhanging terracotta tiles comes a shout: De l’eau fraiche?  A call so full of mountain honey that it just melts away without seeming to disturb the silence. And with that, the window closes again.

A gate squeaks.  It is wrought in iron and swings gaily on its hinges.  I’m guessing wood doesn’t last long here; and it’s job is to keep out the sheep and the cattle from the potager (vegetable garden) as they pass from field to field through this small but functional square.

In his working clothes, waistcoat and beret, (he’s Béarnais) he canters across the short space, arms in full embrace of precious contents.  He puts down two litre bottles of chilled water, du frigo, from the fridge, but not too cold; a couple of leaves of lettuce and three very large tomatoes, that he pulled from the vine and washed for his own lunch.  He’s the village caretaker and after a little chat about us and our journey, him and life in the village, he leaves us to enjoy our meal while he attends to his own.

Sometime later he re-appears jangling a set of keys, he wants to show us La Salle, the function room, that all the villagers have been busy restoring. It’s for weddings and feasts he says. It’s clearly a long time since he spoke English, but the smile that comes with it says everything. La Salle is superb, and full of character and what we smug dwellers of the industrial era like to call “old world charm”…

“Buen Camino peregrino…”

Two peregrinos come to town

So, being fond of my own long distance walks, when I heard that the father/daughter combo Peter and Natasha Murtagh were coming to my town to offer a presentation of their book Buen Camino, there was no choice but to go. I wanted to hear their tale first hand; wanted to hear about their experience, their adventure, about the people they met along “the Way”.

Buen Camino is a kindly greeting, one shared among comrades along a now famous route.  Literally translated as Good Way and meaning everything from Lá maith agat to the old Scots may your road be rising with bonjour, buenas dias, egun ona, hiya and a myriad of other greetings tossed in. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, or from whence you hail; buen camino is a universal phrase; and a kind of short code that walkers on this collection of ancient European long distance footpaths use to greet each other, to wish each other well, to share, in passing, that unique event that binds them all together; to know what it means to walk along those ancient pilgrim routes toward the city of Santiago de Compostela and perhaps to that end of land from ancient times, Finisterre.

Here’s what the official promo literature says of the book:…

Natasha, Peter and the ‘Camino family’ of friends they meet on the route all learn things that cannot be learned in school—to slow down and appreciate what’s really important in life. They share experiences and adventures that ‘Dundrum shopping centre, UGG boots, MTV, ‘The Hills’ and all that other crap will never, ever top’. They run with the bulls, experience life on less than €20 a day, get pulled unwittingly into religious processions, and have brushes with blisters, bed-bugs and oddballs.

For Peter, it is an opportunity to give something special to his daughter before she sets out on her own, independent life, as she looks towards starting university. As they walk the Camino he observes that she is ‘walking away from him in a sense, growing stronger, more independent’. It is also an opportunity to reflect on his faith and on the recent deaths of his parents, whose ashes he carries in a silver box to be scattered in the sea at the end of their journey.

Natasha’s & Peter’s Way…

We are sitting in the charming Seasons café in Skerries, drinking Spanish wine and eating tapas; a taste of Spain that Peter hopes to broaden with their presentation of the history and heritage of The Camino. The two of them have already given talks like this a number of times, frequently as an introduction to screenings of the film The Way recalling their experiences and reading from the book, to give people a feeling of what it’s like to do The Camino, to experience it.

“Because it’s a fantatic experience” explains Peter. “It’s easy to do, it’s out there, you only have to go and do it and you’ll come back with a shed-load of memories”.

He goes on to explain how and why they chose this particular pilgrimage route; or should I say “long distance walk”,  for both confess that they do not perceive themselves as pilgrims but as travellers; pilgrims of life perhaps. He explains the decision to begin with a climb of Croagh Patrick; the connections they wanted to make for themselves and others; and their choice to climb that mountain in the dark, early on July 25th arriving at the summit for the sunrise.  For  in 2010 that day was both Reek Sunday and St James’s Day; and the rays of sun that fell upon them also fell upon the city and cathedral of the “St James of the field of stars”, Santiago de Compostela . For Natasha her decision to make the journey is an acquiescence to her father’s wish, and she talks about how she stretched herself into this long distance adventure; and how when each evening she wrote up her thoughts for the day, that they were her thoughts, for herself, never consciously recalling that these were destined to become public words.  It’s a charm. And we are invited most innocently into the the way they are and the way they become, as they walk.

St Jean Pied-de-Port and onwards…

Homage to The Reek well paid, the two of them fly off to France and arrive in Bayonne to take the clukedy-clunk chemin de fer from the ancient Basque capital of Bayonne to the start of the next section of their Camino adventure, which begins in a small Basque town which suitably translates from its french name as “St John at the foot of the pass”; and is the start of the Way to Roncevalles their next stop.

From here, the two of them carry us through a wonderland of history, mystery, and myth; heritage, inheritance and excitement; and an almost magical realism as they explore both the story behind the Way and the stories of those they encounter en route; using the Way itself and the people they meet, to trigger their own self-exploration and an investigation of the chronicles of generations before; from the early pre-christian belief that the souls of the dead go to the home of the setting-sun; through the history of the Christian struggle to preserve their land and culture against the Moors; to some of the many human stories of todays walkers of the Camino.

Some of the family of Camino walkers well met by Natasha & Peter along the Way to Santiago…

It’s an endearing style, almost like letters from a close friend, comments on the landscape, the towns, local people and special places; descriptive, informative, revealing. But Peter is a man of generous spirit, and so it is Natasha who takes the opportunity to explore the simple reality that not everyone you can meet on the Camino is “nice”. And during the presentation reads an amusing account of her encounter with a fellow “Caminoist”  somewhat lacking in personal decorum; but I won’t spoil the story for you here, it’s in the book!

Peter is clearly a man in love with all human and natural heritage, with the landscape and the people he finds there; and after reading a while it’s possible to begin to gauge how much he must simply have left unrecorded in his journal or the final book, simply for the problem of space.  His descriptions  are at times evocative; and as I write this I recall how he described the changes as they approached Santiago and how the  rhythms of the countryside were reminiscent of Ireland perhaps fifty years ago. So as you read such paragraphs, you really want to go.

To the end of the earth?

The entertaining story never falters as they describe their approach to, and final arrival at, the romanesque cathedral in Santiago; But what next? Is this the end of the Camino?

Passports in Santiago… stamped by the hostels along the Way…

After their 800km trek the route itself carries on for a further 85 km to the sea at Finisterre… quite literally the end of the earth.  But 90% of walkers of the Way go no further than Santiago, and in her journal Natasha expresses a feeling that this feels right.  It’s three days of walking away from Santiago she confides; and wonders if the path might be less of a “good” path and some how less “official”. But:

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Walking out of Santiago this morning was a little sad but about two kilometers along the way something hit me, and seemed to hit every other pilgrim who decided to walk on: the Camino was back. The path had never been more beautiful, and there isn’t a soul in sight. It is all mine.

They finally arrive at the last (or first) of the scallop shell waymarks in Finisterre, where Peter takes out his little silver box for the last time and we are privileged to share in his lustration as he recalls the moment he took the ashes of his parents and laid them in the waves that lap the shores at the end of land, at the end of their journey.

And Natasha reminds us that life goes on…. and gets a tatoo.

Your own Shed-Load of Memories
Advice to would-be walkers of The Camino

Here are some extracts from the advice Natasha and Peter offered to members of the night’s audience who expressed an interest in walking The Camino themselves.  This sage advice,  based on experience is not in any special order and came mainly in response to audience questions:

  • There are several major routes from various European countries. Choose a route and a duration to suit.  Think about doing it in a group and/or over several years.
  • It’s not mountaineering, but you do need strong boots (Peter has his own story about this); and make sure you have your boots well worn-in.
  • An average fit person could do it. They suggested walking something like Bray Head, Glendalough, or Howth head as practice, starting off with 6 km and working up to around 18/24 km in a weekend.
  • They both had a strong inclination toward recommending that walkers stay in the pilgrim hostels, (which generally they considered very clean and very well run), rather than hotels or the equivalent of bed & breakfast
  • The minimum distance to qualify to be recognised by The Church as having completed The Camino, is 100 km
  • What you bring you carry, so think carefully about what you need.
  • You can get away with carrying a sleeping sheet in the summer, but you’ll need some kind of sleeping bag for other seasons.
  • You don’t generally need to carry a lot of water.  Every 5 km or so there will be a cluster of houses, a café and perhaps a bar.
  • By the end of the Camino (the were walking in August) they favoured getting up around 5am to be walking by 5.30

 And the last word of info goes to their press release…

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is an increasingly popular walking holiday, with only 20% of pilgrims taking the trip for religious reasons. Like Natasha and Peter, many of those they meet are simply enjoying the chance to take a step back from the real world, and to enjoy the fun and altered perspective that comes from living simply when you turn away from contemporary, urban life. It is an experience that will stay with them for a long time and from which many feel somehow changed.

The Authors: Natasha Murtagh is a first-year student of English and Philosophy at UCD.  Peter Murtagh is a managing editor at The Irish Times.

The Book: Buen Camino! is published by Gill & Macmillan on 25 March 2011 for €16.99/£14.99. I’ve noticed its available in many local bookshops. For further information contact the publisher Gill & Macmillan

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