Adventure Profile – Mark Feeney
Mark Feeney tells us about recent trips on the Camino Frances.
1. Tell us all about yourself?
My name is Mark Feeney. I joined 23rd Antrim Derriaghy 3 years ago having never been in Scouting before, even as a kid. I’ll pretty much give anything a go once and joined Scouting Ireland after tagging along to a backwoods experience with a relative in Castlewellan and a bunch of Scout Leaders, the majority of whom, I am lucky to now call friends. I had starting getting into the outdoors in 2016 with hiking (no camping at that stage). Since joining Scouts, I’ve been getting more involved in hiking, camping (including Bivvying and hammocking), backwoods, and have developed a love for the outdoors. What started out as a small box of gear in a corner of a room is now turning into half a room. I’ve completed the Mourne Wall challenge with a few Scout Leaders, hiked/climbed Carrauntoohil and have a few more plans for the coming months/year!
2. Talk us through your Camino?
I’ve been out on the Camino de Santiago de Compstella (The Way of St James) a few times now since 2016 and have been to Santiago de Compostella twice during those times to claim my Compostellas. The latest journey was supposed to be part of a trip to show two fellow Scout Leaders through the first part of The French Way (Camino Frances). Unfortunately they couldn’t make the trip, I had already booked the plane tickets and will never miss a chance to head back out.
This journey started on the 9th July and I had around 165kms to walk in 7 days. Some days had planned to be longer than others. Rucksack had been reduced in weight to 7.5kg excluding water and food. The route is probably one of the most way marked routes in the whole of Europe and even if half of them went missing, you just need to keep heading west and follow the rest of the pilgrims.
It’s pretty easy to get out to the start of any of the Caminos available. Mine started with a drive to Dublin Airport, flight to Biarritz, a shared coach with my first Camino mates for 45 minutes to the lovely French town of St Jean Pied de Port. A day of sitting around, chatting with strangers and putting novices’ minds at ease about the challenge that lay ahead. Always amazing to be back on The Way but it was different this time, not having any apprehension or nerves about what was in front of me, more excitement watching new people try it for the first time.
The French Way to Santiago is 780km (500 miles). It starts with the hardest of all of the ‘stages’ which is up over the French Pyrenees into the Basque Country in one day. It is pretty much straight up from the word go, with little to no shade after you hit the first proper stop of the day at Orrison (views that make it all worthwhile). The walk is pretty intense and can have a big impact on those who are doing it for the first time. But getting over the top isn’t the end of the tough first day. An extremely steep descent awaits straight away, which takes its toll on your shins, knees, toes and overall mental fatigue. What awaits is Roncesvalles and an ice cold beer/refreshment. If you can do the first day, the rest of the Camino is not a challenge. I could go on for a quite a while about the rest of the route, but it is pretty straightforward. Walking through small villages, into larger towns and coming across two large cities Pamplona and Logrono. The route is made up of a mix of dirt trails, stone pathways, very small amounts of road walking and a hell of a lot of walking in hills away from the beaten track.
I, without planning, managed to arrive on the Friday into Pamplona for the middle to end of the San Fermin bull running festival. A hell of a culture shock for someone who has been used to quiet villages and towns for the last few days. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people from every walk of life, every age from toddlers right up to the oldest of OAPs. Everyone dressed in white with red scarves. The city in full festival mode. Absolutely hectic scenes. I was so tempted to put my name down for the bull run on the Saturday, but a fear of really raw meat charging at me and ultimately the cruelty of the event made me step aside. It’s part of the Spanish culture so who am I to argue.
The end of this journey was Logrono – a central hub to travel elsewhere in Spain by bus or train. I travelled by train to Bilbao to spend a night and then fly back to Dublin the following day. Bilbao is an extraordinary place, full of museums, art galleries, tapas bars and has a relaxed feeling for such a busy city.
3. Did you meet any interesting people when you were out?
Too many to mention them all. Met an interesting guy from Sweden, 65 years of age, who had just completed 800 miles of the Appalachian trail in the US. He had a few more weeks to kill and decided to come back to the Camino to relax. Most people would think he was nuts.
Everyone has a story to tell on the Camino. Some take a while to get talking and others never stop talking. Quite a lot of people are on the Camino to clear their minds or make a pretty big life decision. This trip had the same mix of people and as their stories are not mine to tell, I’ll leave that there.
Met an amazing group of people who formed their own Camino families over the first few days. Mix of 50 year old men, a 19 year old NYC girl, Dutch, German, Irish, Canadian, Swedish, Japanese, Belgian, more Irish, Italian and many more. By the end of my 8 day walk I had a wonderful blend of 3 Camino families out for a night of tapas and drinking.
4. What were their motivations and why did you decide to go on pilgrimage?
Everyone who goes to ‘do’ the Camino goes with a different reason, ranging from “A friend did it years ago”, “I saw the film” (the infamous ‘The Way’), “I needed a challenge”, “I needed to take a break” and so on.
The whole point of me going on the Camino initially in 2016 was because all my mates had got married and couldn’t do the lads holidays anymore, and I didn’t fancy sitting at a resort pool on my own. I had heard about the Camino originally through a friend of my sister, then an aunt and uncle plus my dad going out there.
For me, the fact that everyone is heading to the same place (eventually), on the same route and everyone is a stranger, it made sense for a single person travelling on their own to do. I wanted to test my physical fitness and test whether or not I can blend in/stand out in a crowd of strangers from all over world. Getting to Santiago was a big part of it but clocking up kilometres isn’t my thing. Faster you go, the less you see and the more you miss out on, especially talking to and meeting strangers. I have made some lifelong friends out of the Camino. Even if I don’t see the people for a while/years/decades, when you do catch up you always remember the getting up at 6am to go walk in the freezing cold or rain for absolutely no reason, always thinking ‘I would never do this at home, I must be mad’.
5. What were your favourite places on the route?
There are a tonne of amazing spots and places to see. My favourite places on this stretch of the French Way have to be St Jean, Puente la Reina, Los Arcos and Logrono… most are due to the makeup of the towns but the majority are due to memories that I have made with countless friends from all over the world.
My all time favourite places are O’Cebriero and Finnisterre….go and visit them, you’ll not be disappointed.
6. Talk to us about the food you ate?
The great thing about the Camino, apart from the people, scenery, atmosphere, lifestyle and hiking, has to be the food! Personally I don’t like visiting large resorts that have been changed to suit tourists. Parts of the Camino Frances are now starting to cater for people who don’t want to immerse themselves in the native culture, but thankfully quite a lot of places haven’t joined that craze.
- Typical breakfast is rock hard white bread/baguettes, butter/olive oil, marmalade/tomatoes, freshly squeezed orange juice and tea/coffee. Some alberques/hostels will offer cooked meats, cheeses etc. but typically that’s my breakfast.
- Along the way lunches typically range from a huge slice of tortilla and a café con leche. Stocking up on water as you go and anything else to cool you down. To sustain me through crazy temperatures, oranges, tortilla and trail mix is normally stuffed into any free space in my rucksack.
- Dinner is the best part of the day. Typically, most villages/towns have a few bars or restaurants that will serve a menu de peregrine which can cost anywhere from €9 to €15. It is a 3 course meal with a bottle of water or wine. Some of the menus have changed to easy to eat foods (e.g. spaghetti, chips with meat etc) but some places will give you what is local to the town. Lentil soups, hams, cheeses, sausage, chorizo croquetas etc.
During this trip, especially on my last night, I tried as many tapas and pintxos as possible. The city that I finished in, Logrono, which is the first city in La Rioja has a famous street Calle de Laurel. It is lined with tapas and wine bars. Every afternoon and night of the week there is a friendly atmosphere, a blend of tourists (mainly Spanish thankfully), locals and pilgrims. You can move between tapas bars. Foods range from fish based to vegan. All delicious and definitely helped by the fact that it is one of the best places in Europe to be for wine (the vineyards are not far away at all).
7. Now tell us about your accommodation?
Normally when I’m out on the Way I stay in hostels and alberques, in dorms that house anywhere from 4 to 40 beds, normally bunk beds. Prices start from €5 up to €18 a night depending on size of the place and availability of beds. They can be sweaty, humid, noisy (e.g. farting, sleep walking, sleep talking, night terrors and everyone’s favourite – snoring). There are donitivo beds available or places to stay where you leave a donation of what you feel the stay was worth and in my opinion is the closet way for you to be a ‘real’ pilgrim.
For this trip, I went during a time of the year that I wouldn’t normally go, given the temperatures during the day and night. With temperatures staying in the mid-teens during the night and with no air conditioning, I started staying in pensions which are a little more expensive, prices averaging €18 a night. I normally had my own room and bathroom. I have to say that I prefer alberques with a large number of beds, it can be frustrating but hilarious if you get in the right frame of mind and understand what the Camino experience is all about. Too many people go out thinking it is a typical holiday and miss out on some of the richest experiences, but still pay a huge price.
The best and worst place was a municipal albergue in O’Cebriero, freezing cold showers and close to maybe 80 bunk beds in a huge dorm. Not something people would normally pay for, but waking up half way through the night to go to the bathroom and trying not to disturb someone was a mini adventure on its own.
8. Did you have moments you’d describe as “spiritual”?
I’ve never been big on the religious or spiritual side of things, mainly because I probably can’t identify what either of those words mean. On the Camino, for me, there are moments that do stick out and that make you stop and take stock. They range from a breath-taking sunrise across an insane vista, watching a group of what had been strangers becoming the closet of friends and seeing the better side of humanity in general. One of my favourite memories, which is probably the closet to spiritual I would guess, was sitting at the end of a 335km stretch of the Camino Frances with my dad in O’Cebreiro at 4,350ft up. He had gone to bed early and I sat up to watch the sunset at, what felt like the top of the world. It was extremely peaceful with nothing but the sound of the wind coming up through the valleys. Serene.
9. Was there any low points on your expedition?
On this expedition, the only low point was that I had already completed this section but that came with massive benefits too. Given that I can’t take 6 weeks off at a time, every trip you meet a group of people who become your ‘Camino family’. You wake up with them, share breakfast, lunch and dinner, share things about yourself you wouldn’t normally share with strangers, laugh/cry together.
You do all this for days on end, and for me I have had to say goodbye to 7/8 groups of people as they headed off to complete the entire Camino in one visit. Someone told me once (not sure of its validity) but if you walk the entire Camino Frances with another person it is equivalent to spending a year with your spouse in normal day to day life! So I suppose for every low there is high…
10. Did the feeling of completing the Camino, outweigh any bad?
I’ve completed the Camino Primitivo from Oviedo to Santiago in one go over 12 days and getting to Santiago is always a relief, especially on that route with the heavy rain and freezing cold heights. But getting to Santiago de Compostella normally means that your journey or pilgrimage is at an end. For most people getting there for the first time means the end of a 500mile, 35+ day journey.
Getting up the next morning and not putting your shoes on broken feet, packing your rucksack and slinging it on your back is a very confusing thing. It is nice to say that I have walked around 1400kms on various Camino routes and that I have two Compostellas to my name. However, my reasoning for being out there is to experience a different lifestyle, meet new people, try new things and get my head cleared from the normal day to day stresses.
So I suppose just being out on the Camino and taking the rough with the smooth is all part of the game. Santiago, for me, is bittersweet.
11. Did you keep a “passport”, is it something you now treasure?
I have one fully completed pilgrim passport that brings back so many memories of places I have stayed, nights sharing bottles and bottles of wine with mates and ultimately the Santiago de Compostella stamp saying I have been there. My first pilgrim passport, is tatty, dirty and falling apart…this was due to being drenched in torrential downpours (all Marte Kaiser’s fault), falling in mud and is just another reminder of some of the best craic I have had on the Camino.
The other pilgrim passports are just as important but the first one has so many memories attached to it that I would love to have it framed, its reversible so that’s not possible.
12. What’s next?
Given the confidence that the Camino has given me to travel on my own, meet new people from every corner of the world and come home with good experiences – my only limitation is myself (outside of pesky money and time etc).
I am aiming to walk the Portugese Way from Porto to Santiago de Compostella maybe next year. But I am definitely going back to the Camino Frances when I turn 50 to walk from St Jean to Finnisterre! Hopefully I am able!