Camino Postcard 3: Zubiri to Pamplona

Gateway to the Future

13th April 2019. I got a good night’s sleep in Zubiri and so set off for Pamplona the next morning in good spirits. It didn’t last. As soon as I left Zubiri, I had to climb a long slope, which hurt my right leg a bit; it would take nearly two weeks before it got anywhere near used to climbing upwards and even then I would be glad whenever we came to a flat path.

At the top of the slope was a very welcome water tap. I filled my water bottle. As it turned out, this would be the only time on the Camino that I would use these taps.

Ninety or so minutes later I arrived in Larrasoaña and stopped to take a photograph of its medieval bridge (above). Thinking back to the early days of the Camino now, I feel like I crossed quite a few of these. I don’t know how many I did actually cross but you have to hand it to medieval architects and builders, they certainly knew how to make things last.

Somewhere between Larrasoaña and Pamplona I passed the above farm building and entered Basque country. I wish I knew more about the Basque people. About the sum of my knowledge is that they are fiercely independent and that their language is not related to any other in Europe (is this correct?).

Certainly, it does look very different to Spanish; with its use of hard letters like K and X it has a rough hewn, dwarfish, feel about it – it’s as if the language came out of the earth rather than from the people. But maybe it just means that the Basque people are of the earth in a way that no one else in Europe is. I don’t know. Before I go back to Spain in the future, though, I hope I can learn at least a little more about them.

It was about this time that I noticed a habit of at least some Spanish people – saying ‘hello’ to you as they pass you so that it is next to impossible to say ‘hello’ back. That was a bit vexing as one wants to be as friendly as possible.

By the bye, one or two of the people that I met today had a very proud bearing. They reminded me of the Spanish as depicted in the Asterix books.

Graffiti is popular feature of the Camino Francés; the vast majority of messages are positive, though a few are sadly negative; sometimes, like above, they are questions. I saw many political slogans as well

Further along the path I stopped at a bar-hostel called the Parada de Zuriain where I met a little cat who liked to beg but was not so fond of the cockerels walking around. Not long later, I came upon a group of people who were getting ready to climb a nearby cliff face. This gave me a chance to be witty and say to another pilgrim that if we did the same it would be a shortcut to Pamplona. Rather shamelessly, I am still laughing at my own joke!

All in all, the road to Pamplona was not a difficult one. Although periodic climbing was involved, I think it was still the easiest day yet. That’s just as well as it was surely the hottest.

To reach the city of bulls I had to first walk through a town called Burlada. That didn’t take too long but after a day of walking, I really wanted my first urban environment to be my destination. I took one last break in Burlada, strapped on my backpack and began the final push. Presently, I was approaching the city’s walls. Between us was one final road crossing.

Now, and for a brief moment, things got difficult. The yellow arrows told me to cross the road and go straight on behind a large wall. However, the other pilgrims with me were ignoring the arrows and walking up the road on the outside of the wall. This was a test of my resolve: did I trust the yellow arrows or other people? Did they know something I didn’t?

I trusted the arrows. My reward was to take a short cut along the Paseo Vergel to the Portal del Francia. The road taken by the other pilgrims was the Calle Vergel. It also took them to the Portal del Francia but by a longer path. I have to admit, I felt quite pleased with myself for sticking to my guns and trusting the arrows, thus finishing the day’s walk ahead of those walking along the Calle Vergel.

At the French gate, I took the photograph below. Afterwards, I looked it at and admired the way I had managed (by accident) to catch the sun’s rays. Unbeknownst to me at the time, however, I had also caught something else in the photo. Or rather, some people. Some people who would turn out to have a very great impact on my pilgrimage. Unfortunately, if you are reading this between 29th – 31st May 2019, you’ll have to wait until Sunday 2nd June to find out who!

Once I entered the city, I made my way to the Jesus and Mary albergue, and checked in. That afternoon, I got confused by a grumpy bar lady, ditched my sandals (too heavy and bulky for my backpack) and bought a pair of flip-flops, went to my last Mass in Spain and failed to tell the difference between a washing machine and dryer in the albergue. Oh, and visited the bullring to pay my respects to one of my most favourite writers, Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway loved watching the bull running in Pamplona. He also set one of his books here – Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, which is based on a trip he took to the city in the 20s

When I arrived in Pamplona, there were a lot of people there – drinking, laughing, chatting, walking about, seeing the sights. It was good to see them enjoying themselves but I felt no desire to be part of it. In fact, I couldn’t wait to leave – pilgrims need quiet; they need villages and hamlets. I hadn’t considered before arriving in Pamplona, but I knew afterwards that towns and cities were not for me. Not if I wanted to be true to my pilgrim spirit.

Camino Postcard 2: Roncesvalles to Zubiri

Rommel was No. 1

The monastery albergue at Roncesvalles

12th April 2019. My second day on the Camino Francés got off to an inauspicious start when I couldn’t find the token that entitled me to a cheap pilgrim’s breakfast at the Roncesvalles monastery-albergue. I later found it in my note book. On the day, however, I just went to the bar and ordered what I now rather think is Spain’s staple drink – a café con leche (coffee with milk).

How was I feeling after yesterday’s exertions? Not so bad, actually. Perhaps a bit achey – I needed ibuprofen during the day – but ready to walk 790 kilometres.

Actually, it’s a funny thing: I was walking the French Way but as far as the Spanish are concerned, the route begins in Roncesvalles. No. My start was in St. Jean Pied de Port. I had walked 25 kilometres already and was ready to walk the next 790.

After my café, I got going in damp but dry conditions. I managed to navigate my way through the narrow aisles of a small convenience store without knocking anything over with my backpack and outside passed some stone picnic tables that reminded me of the stone altar in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

Today’s path took me through woodland without ever being too far away from the road. I also had to cross a bridge that was made of separate stone blocks: a very interesting experience when you are still getting used to your backpack!

Following the rigours of the Valcarlos route, the way to Zubiri was a lot easier. Yes, there were elevation changes but nothing like yesterday’s. The only significant difficulty came towards the end when I had to descend a broad path made of stone embedded in the ground – not by human hands, alas, so it was uneven and awkward to navigate, even with the help of my trekking poles.

Oh yes

At the end of the descent was a van-café, which I was delighted to stop at and buy a couple of drinks from. There, I met a man named Frank who was walking with a big pair of headphones. He used them and his phone to hold business meetings as he walked, which still seems to me a very pro’ activity, albeit not one I would recommend: I think it’s better to enjoy one’s surroundings than remained separated from it. Each to their own, though.

Going back to Frank, though; he was the first of a number of Germans that I met on the Way, two of whom would prove to be very important to me. If you read the first post in this series, you have actually met them already, but I’ll say no more for now.

After leaving the van-café, it was a short 3 kilometre run (no, not literally!) to Zubiri. My original intention had been to walk on to Larrasoaña but having walked 25 kilometres I was ready for a rest. There was a problem, though: when I arrived in the town, I found that the municipal albergue had closed down. Fortunately, a private albergue nearby had plenty of beds available for only a few euros more and so I checked in there.

Free advertising: This albergue was called the 2 Etape. If you stop in Zubiri on your Camino, pay it a visit; the rooms are small and the lady in charge very friendly.

In Zubiri I finally got rid of some of the weight in my backpack. It wasn’t easy. I decided to leave a pair of trousers behind, some of my medical equipment, and – most painfully of all – my favourite copy of Arrian.

Why did I ever bring it? I had another translation on my iPad (although I shouldn’t have brought that with me, tbf). So, it had to go. On Day 1, I learnt about the preciousness of water. On Day 2, the importance and necessity of letting go of anything – no matter how good – that weighed me down.

That evening, I had dinner in a local café. The previous evening, I had sat at the same table as a woman who was more interested in her phone than with talking (or maybe she couldn’t speak English). In Zubiri I was put at a table with a German father and son. For a while I just kept to myself. Then, the father very kindly offered me a glass of their wine. We got chatting and things went on from there.

Kind of. Either out of a perverse desire to ruin things for myself or because I like lobbing verbal hand grenades into peoples’ laps and seeing what happens next I ‘happened’ to mention my friends E. and T. who once got into trouble at work for creating a list of their favourite Nazis.

Before you think that you’ve strayed onto the blog of a far right lunatic, I should say that E. and T. were being dry, banterous and ironic. My favourite types of humour. Although I explained this to the father and son I have to admit I’m not sure they really appreciated the whole anecdote. To their credit, they didn’t have a go at me, order me to leave or beat me up.

As it happens, this would not be the last time I mentioned the infamous list and E. The list would get an airing again – in conversation with Germans, because of course, and they actually laughed! But more on them in the next post…

Just before dinner, I met the lady who gave me a bottle of water yesterday. We had a good chat (not about Nazis) before going our separate ways. We would meet each other again a few more times between Zubiri and Santiago. I also met a fellow who I would not see again until Finisterre. By then, I had forgotten him; he remembered me, though, and the fact I had to get rid of my favourite book!

Camino Postcard 1: St. John Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

Mistakes Were Made

At 6:45am on 11th April, I set off from the municipal albergue at the top of the Rue de la Citadelle and under the shadow of the late medieval Porte Saint Jacques.

My original intention had been to follow in Martin Sheen’s footsteps (in The Way) and take the Napoleon Route over the Pyrenees but the SJPdP Pilgrims’ Office had told me that it was closed due to bad weather; with a little regret, therefore, I turned right out of town instead of going straight on, and headed towards the Valcarlos route, which would take me through the valleys at the foot of the mountains.

The Camino Francés is marked with yellow arrows, usually on posts or painted onto walls. This chalked arrow was the first I saw after leaving St. Jean Pied de Port.

What about those mistakes? The first was that my backpack was too heavy. I had known this in London but not removed anything as I didn’t know what to get rid of. Instead, I left everything in situ thinking that I could remove anything that I didn’t want or need in St. Jean. In St. Jean, however, I still couldn’t decide so it all remained.

The second was that I drank my water too quickly. I had two bottles. Both were empty after about two and a half hours of walking. No problem, I told myself, there are water taps along the way; I will simply refill the bottles when I get to them.

A good idea, but there was a problem: there were no water taps. Or, did I miss them? Either way, I was in a bit of a fix. A partial solution came when I found a bar where I was able to take a drink. I should have asked the barman to fill my bottles up but was too shy. A miracle occurred: unprompted by me, he kindly offered to fill my water bottles up. I gladly handed them over.

There are two Valcarlos routes. The first follows the road; the second, a beautiful woodland path that takes you through the valleys for the majority of the way to Roncesvalles. I followed the latter.

The country path is not for anyone with weak legs or, for that matter, strong legs and a too-heavy backpack as it continually climbs and falls. At first, this doesn’t matter so much but as the day grinds on and you get more and more tired, the never-ending undulations make a psychological battle of the route – your will to succeed versus the Valcarlos’ desire to grind you down and make you give up and either turn back or stop for the day or – the ultimate shame for a pilgrim – call a taxi from the next hamlet that you come across.

On that point, let me say here that if any part of the Camino grinds you down so much that you feel you cannot continue or causes injury to you there is absolutely no shame in calling a taxi or taking a bus. I don’t care if you are in the Pyrenees or past Sarria or anywhere in-between: the Camino is either a life-affirming experience or nothing. If you need to call a taxi or take a bus, do it. That’s your Camino and anyone who says otherwise can get knotted. As you will read, I travelled by both bus and taxi during my journey and I don’t regret one ride.

Also, people who say it isn’t your Camino as if you are just a cog in the machine of Camino tradition can also get knotted but that’s another matter and I should get back to the narrative.

When I left St. Jean, clouds hung overhead but it was at least dry. Soon, however, rain began to fall. For the rest of the day, it would continue to do so on and off. As I drank more and more of my water, the irony of having less to drink despite the wet conditions was not lost on me. I began to look at the rivers below me with great longing. By the afternoon, I would very much have liked to throw myself into them in order to quench my thirst.

A little waterfall – is it safe to drink?

I made a third mistake: it was to not turn back when necessary. For example, when the woodland path bypassed the village of Valcarlos. When the path crossed a road further on, I should have turned back and gone to the village to either buy more water or look for a tap. Instead, I told myself to keep moving forward; only one thing mattered: getting to Roncesvalles. This was wrong. Yes, I did eventually get to Roncesvalles but in a much worse state than I might have been had I let go of my walking ideology and been pragmatic.

As the day wore on, I took an increasing number of breaks. I must have looked a real mess because nearly everyone who passed me asked if I was alright.

Two people and three things saved my life: the man who let me have a swig of his water bottle after I had finally finished mine, and the American lady who gave me – gave me! – one of her water bottles. Given what a precious commodity water is on the Camino, this was an act of incredible kindness.

The three things: ibuprofen, Kendal’s mint cake, and chocolate. The ibuprofen suppressed the pain in my sore right leg and the mint cake gave me a valuable sugar rush and the strength to keep going.

During the afternoon, I saw two pilgrims taking a break by a roadside crash barrier. A good idea! I wanted to do the same there and then but didn’t want to invade their space or stop so close that they could see I was copying them. Even when exhausted, propriety reigns! So, I walked a little further on and took out my bar of chocolate. Dear reader, I don’t think I ever enjoyed food more!

By two or three o’clock in the afternoon, the clouds were getting lower and lower. I was on an upward path and before long, above the cloud level. The clouds started to close in and I began to worry that I would get lost in them. Just in the nick or time, however, I left the woodland path and arrived at Ibañeta. From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump (if I had had the energy, which I very much didn’t!) to the monastery albergue at Roncesvalles.

I arrived there sometime after three pm, nearly ten hours after leaving St. Jean. I was exhausted. A very kind hospitalera not only sat me down but pulled my boots off for me and gave me in quick succession two cups of tea. Heavenly.

A last drama awaited me: every time I took a break en route, I threw my backpack to the ground. It usually landed on my sleeping bag. At Roncesvalles, I discovered that the bag I kept the sleeping bag in was not water proof. Fortunately, four hours of airing was enough to pretty much dry it out. Thank goodness – sleeping in a damp sleeping bag would have been more than I could bear that night.

Navarrean (?) king Sancho VII the Strong (1157-1234) is buried at Roncesvalles

After tea, I attended Mass at the church attached to the monastery and joined a tour of it. It was a beautiful and peaceful end to a long and difficult day. The good news, though, was that I had survived and that in terms of sheer physical effort it would prove to be the most difficult of the whole Camino. Not that the rest of the walk would be easy but nowhere would be as hard again.

Writing The Camino

My last post on this blog was on 10th April this year – Camino Postcard: St. John Pied de Port. I wrote it on my iPad the day before I began the Camino.

My intention had been to walk every day and in the afternoon or evening write a new ‘postcard’ to let you know how the day had gone.

As it was, however, that did not prove to be a practical idea: after finishing the day’s walk, I was either too busy, too tired, or, I have to admit, too lazy.

Well, I am happy to report that I am writing this post back home in London a week after finishing the Camino – I reached Santiago de Compostela on 16th/17th May (two dates? This will be explained).

So, let’s stop being lazy and start writing my Postcard account of the journey, which turned out to be the most wonderful experience of my life.

As of today, I will try and write three posts a week – on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday. If this does not prove possible, or I find I have time to write more, I will let you know. Don’t forget, though, you can get my posts delivered to your e-mail inbox by following the blog (see the sidebar on the left).

Without further ado, then, I shall end this post, and start writing Camino Postcard: St. John Pied de Port to Roncesvalles.