Camino Postcard 12: Belorado to Burgos

22.4.19. At breakfast this morning we returned to the question of what to do next: Walking was out of the question as Ellena’s knee remained swollen. Shall we take a taxi? No, that will be too expensive. That leaves coaches, then.

But where would we take it? We settled upon Burgos, a large city at the end of the next Brierley stage after this one, fifty kilometres ahead. Going to Burgos would put us ahead of schedule in terms of our Camino journey and also save us between two and four days worth of money (anything between €60-90)

I looked up coach prices on-line and found, to my pleasant surprise, that we could get to Burgos for €3-5. The debate was over. Ellena felt bad for making us take the coach but as I wrote in my journal, the Camino should be a life affirming experience, not life destroying, and if we had walked she would have risked doing further damage to her knee.

We saw bigfoot

Taking the coach was absolutely the right thing to do and if anyone is ever silly enough to challenge me on this point, I will call them small minded stick-in-the-muds who put ideology ahead of love and challenge them to a duel to preserve the honour of all pilgrims who have ever been forced to take transport.

At the bus stop we met a pilgrim who was about to return to Los Arcos – he had received a call from the Spanish police: the mobile phones stolen at the albergue there had been recovered, could he come and collect his.

Despite the cheapness of the ticket, the coach was a very modern one with wi-fi and all. Unfortunately, it still made Ellena and Carolin a bit sick, so we were all glad to alight when we arrived in Burgos an hour or so later.

As we collected our backpacks, we met Mike from Alabama. He joined us for second breakfast in a nearby café. Mike had slept in the bunk next to mine in Los Arcos and lost his mobile phone to the thief. I can’t remember if he had been told about their recovery, but either way, after we mentioned it, he had no intention of going back to collect his – after the theft, he simply took a bus to the next town and bought a new one. If I had had my mobile stolen and had the money, I would have done exactly the same. Mike was good company and it would have been lovely to see him again; unfortunately, after today, we never did.

Side view of Burgos cathedral. It was my view while writing about Nicola Fixx

From the café we wondered through the centre of Burgos, round its grand cathedra and towards the municipal albergue, another large one in the manner of Pamplona and Roncesvalles. When we checked in, one of the hospitaleros gave all three of us a fistful of attitude for skipping two stages. I found out later that he did that to everyone so for him it was probably just banter but given our circumstances we did not appreciate it.

The thing is, pilgrims walk, and are expected to walk; the minute you start taking transport, even if you know your cause is just, you have the weight of other people’s expectations on you, and it is always heavy. To banter about this, you have to know your audience so that you know they’ll take your humour in the right way. This is the first rule of humour, and especially of banter, and the hospitalero broke it. As a result, he ended up causing unnecessary anger and distress, rather than getting the laugh he no doubt expected.

We found our beds – annoyingly we all had top bunks; fine for Carolin and me but difficult for Ellena – and rested. After a while, I took my notebook and went for a walk. I wrote some notes for my Nikki Fixx book in the shadow of the cathedral. Ellena and Carolin inspired me to really get on with it during the Camino. I am happy to report that I am still getting on with it now. Who knows, maybe this summer will be the one when I FINALLY finish it…

When I returned to the albergue, I found Ellena and Carolin sitting outside the bar opposite the albergue. I joined them for a while but when they went drinking later on I returned to my bed.

Squeak!

Camino Postcard 4: Pamplona to Puente la Reina

The Camino Begins Again

14.4.19. Saying goodbye to Pamplona, I left the city via the campus of Navarra university. Along the way I saw a tap, and considered taking water from it but as there wasn’t a sign saying agua potable – water drinkable – I didn’t. This was me being super cautious. But did I need to be? After all, if the water was not potable there would certainly be a sign saying so, wouldn’t there? On the other hand, I later heard from one or two other pilgrims, some nasty stories about the taps and illnesses caught from them. I never reached a firm conclusion but as I never drank from a tap after Zubiri I guess I had already made my mind up.

So, I tramped along the side of the road with a bottle half empty. Ahead of me lay hills crowned with wind turbines. They would be a constant and distant companion for some days to come. Today, my path would take me past them and to the top of the alto del Perdón – the Mount of Forgiveness. For a while, the path rose only slightly but as I approached the hamlet of Cizur Minor, the steeper upward climb began and with a couple of breaks never let up until I had reached the top of the alto. Having shed weight from my backpack in Zubiri and Pamplona, however, I found the going easier than expected.

I was a happy walker today – the alto del Perdón features in The Way and so I couldn’t wait to reach the famous sculptures at the summit and walk in the footsteps of Martin Sheen and co. Onwards I marched… until I flagged and paused to take a break.

I stopped briefly in a couple of places. Firstly, at a little plateau where a kind pilgrim took the photograph of me that (I hope) you can see to the left of this text. The photo gives just a hint of the wonderful view we had of Pamplona and the surrounding countryside.

My next stopping point was at the wonderfully named Zariquiegui. Here, I stepped into a church and got my pilgrim passport stamped and then bought some more water in the local shop. There is an albergue in Zariquiegui and as I gulped down my drink, pilgrims sat outside it, enjoying the sun and eating brunch. I tried to go in to the albergue to get another stamp but it was busy and not very big inside. As I didn’t want to hit anyone with my backpack, I made a tactical retreat.

The path wound on. Two or three weeks later I read of an American pilgrim who died on it. Requiescat in Pace. I don’t know why he died but if it was of a heart attack I think he must have brought his death with him. The path to the top of the alto was good exercise, but not especially strenuous. Perhaps the American pilgrim had a condition that was provoked by that exercise, as ‘easy’ as it was. It is a very sobering thought to think that we might be carrying around within ourselves the seeds of our deaths. Say a prayer for him and all pilgrims who have, or will, die on the Way. They die doing well before the Lord.

I reached the top of the alto. After purchasing an energy drink from a van-café I sat down to drink and enjoy the sculptures. Here is a lovely blog post about them.

By the time I arrived at the top of the alto, there were already pilgrims there. Pilgrims were coming and going all the time. I really wanted someone to take a photograph of me beside the sculptures. Who could I ask?

Two young women arrived and sat down. I recognised them. They were the friends I had met on the first day, resting against the crash barrier. One of them was very attractive. Ask them, I told myself. I didn’t. Too shy. Well, then, try not to look at them; it’s rude and they might notice. Okay.

Presently, someone asked me to take a photo of them so that gave me the opportunity to ask if they could return the favour.

After resting, I walked around taking in the atmosphere. Nearby was a police car. I asked the officers if I could photograph its badge. I’m not sure they understood me but they let me. I was keen to do so because, as you can see above, it incorporates the Roman fasces into the design.

I can’t remember if I mentioned this before but in case not, the fasces – which was a bundle of wood and an axe bound together – was the symbol of the ancient Roman Lictors. They would carry the bound wood when walking with the consuls for whom they acted as bodyguards. My heart belongs to Alexander the Great but my before I ‘discovered’ him, I lived in ancient Rome so its always a joy seeing anything that reminds me of those days.

On leaving the alto del Perdón I descended a path that for its first third was comprised of loose stones. It was very treacherous – I nearly turned my ankle several times – so progress was slow. Along the way, my fleece fell from my backpack. Luckily, someone saw and handed it back.

Eventually, I reached the end of the section. (If the Spanish government ever decided to smooth that path out I would absolutely support it. It is the only Camino trail that I hated walking). Puenta la Reina was still 12 or so kilometres away but now the path was smoother and after the town of Uterga, more or less flat. The high point of this section of the walk was being passed by two horse riders and watching them as their horses trotted on.

I approached Puenta la Reina at some point in the mid-afternoon. I was tired and in need of rest. As a result, when I saw an albergue-hotel – the Jakue – at the edge of town, I ditched my original intention of going to the municipal albergue in the centre. The Jakue would do.

One man was in charge of checking the pilgrims in. Fortunately, there were only two people in front of me. And coincidentally, they were the two women I had seen at the crash barrier and alto. I don’t remember thinking much about them at the time. I was probably too tired. I sat down and waited to check in. Presently, it was my turn. One of the women asked me if I would like a beer. Oh, would I ever! I had walked 25 kilometres so a beer would be just what the doctor ordered (possibly; he might suggest water). I didn’t respond in quite that fashion. Instead, I said words to the effect, Thank you; that would be very kind. She bought me one, and invited me to sit with her and her friend. Thus, I met Ellena and Carolin, who, though we were walking a pre-determined path, changed the course of my Camino. As it happens, Ellena has started writing her own account of her Camino journey; you can read her blog here.

We drank and had a good chat before separating. That evening, the three of us ate together, too. In between times, I hand washed my clothes and spent too many euros trying to dry them. I should have hung them outside but it was now late in the afternoon and I did not like the idea of carrying damp clothes tomorrow. Unfortunately, some albergue dryers were not really up to the task of doing what they were made to do!

And that was my day. Quietly momentous.

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.