A highlight of my walking week in Portugal was having a beer with a group of ten Spanish people and singing Irish songs with them on request.
I was there with my wife Yim Soon to walk for five days on what is known in English as the Fishermen’s Trail, a series of paths that follow the rugged and beautiful Atlantic coastline along cliff-tops and beaches, and so-called because they were used by the fishermen to gain access to remote bays and coves. We had bumped into the Spanish group on our first evening. They were sitting outside a bar in the town square as we got off the bus from Lisbon and I asked if they knew where our hotel was. One of them began to speak in good English and kindly offered to take us there.
Now, Yim Soon was unable to walk for the first three days, having injured her ankles whilst training for the long hikes! So I walked the 15-25 km per day while she took a taxi to the next place. I was usually glad of company and on the third day I came across the Spaniards on the trail and we got chatting. They were all teachers from the Basque country, three of them English teachers, and Anna, it turned out, was married to Noel who’s originally from Dublin and whose mother is from Galway. I told her that my dad had been a Galway man and that was it; I was instantly accepted into their group. I complimented Luis, the man who’d shown us where to go on the first evening, on his English and he said he’d learnt it from Noel, to whom he goes twice a week for conversation. Luis hadn’t quite mastered the Dublin accent but he knew one or two choice expressions…and I taught him one or two more to take back to his next lesson!
We spoke a lot about Dublin and I was impressed (because it’s one of my favourite films) that Anna was friends with Brian Mac Aodha who plays the pipes in a scene in The Commitments. She’d met his brother on her first trip to Dublin as an 18 year old au pair, a trip on which she’d also met her husband to be. I thought ‘here I am walking along a cliff in Portugal with a group of Spanish people, one of whom has a mother in law from Galway and who knows someone who appeared in The Commitments: how wonderful!’
It got even better. The group told me how they had a little routine on their frequent walking trips. At the end of the day’s hike the first thing they do is find a bar and have a beer. I really hoped they would invite me to join them for a beer…and they did! And as we sat outside a bar in our destination village drinking our beer Anna asked if I knew the Wild Rover. Well, who doesn’t know the Wild Rover! I duly sang it, and then gladly sang it a second time, recorded “for Noel”! I sang a few more songs and Luis and one or two of the others added some nice harmonies. And I did the ‘Galway Shawl’ for my dad and for Anna’s mother in law. Then they sang a couple of songs in Spanish, and there was even one in Basque. And it was utterly magical.
I had to walk on a few extra kilometres to where Yim Soon and I were staying that night so didn’t see the Spanish the following day, but at the end of the fifth and final day’s hiking when we were sitting in a village square having a drink with Steen and Anni from Denmark who’s we’d got to know along the route (no Irish connection there but they were lovely all the same!) the group suddenly appeared, coming for their customary beer, and we greeted one another like long lost friends.
As I recounted in a previous blog, using a phrase I’d learnt from a woman I met on the Camino in Spain (and after telling her I’d spoken the previous day with a Spanish man who was married to a woman from Newry who knew my uncle Pat!): ‘el mundo es un pañuelo’, the world is a handkerchief. And what an amazing and richly woven handkerchief it is.