Camino Postcard 36: Brea to Santiago de Compostela

16-17.5.19

The last day of our Camino! Joy and sadness intertwined.

After paying the dinner bill (see yesterday’s post), we set off from the pensión. There were no cafés in Brea itself – or at least, none that we saw – so we kept walking until we found a bar a couple of kilometres up the road. Afterwards, and admittedly not for the first time, I briefly considered a career as an action photographer:

We walked along the roadside and came to a hut with incense burning on a small table. A sign there proclaimed a great truth:

Sometimes a simple moment of joy is all we need to remember how lucky we are

Well, we can debate whether we are lucky, blessed or whatever but either way the sentiment is a good one.

On the table was a stamp for our pilgrim passports; we stamped ours before inhaling the incense one last time and heading on our way.

This morning, we met more doggos. Ellena greeted them happily. If Dogbook existed, she would have so many friends by now. The second time we saw a dog its mother watched on from a distance as she went about her work.

It was an overcast day and soon enough, rain started to fall. Off came the backpacks and out came their rain covers.

We stopped for lunch 15 kilometres from Santiago, at a place called Amenal. One thing I regret about the Camino is not making a record of all the non-pilgrim meals that we ate. There were one or two really nice ones. The café-bar we stopped at today comes into that category. The pizza was nice; really nice! If you walk the Camino past Amenal, look out for the café-bar that has the round ‘Kilometro 15’ sign outside it. That’s the place to go to for good food.

We continued – by the roadside, and then into woods. The road followed us, and it gave us an opportunity to remember an earlier event. In my first blog post in this series, I wrote this,

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!

Day 1: St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

The two pilgrims, of course, were Ellena and Carolin. The woodland road we were now walking alongside also had a crash barrier beside it. So, with the Valcarlos Route in mind, we stopped and took photographs of us all resting on the barrier – this time, together.

Carolin and I:

Me and Ellena:

It was a fun moment!

Once the photos were done, we moved on – onwards and upwards through the woods.

There is a scene in the film Inception when Ariadne (Ellen Page) – while in a dream state – makes a Parisian street bend upwards until it is directly above herself and Cobb (Leonardo Decaprio). As we came out of the woods, we saw a road climb so sharply that it too seemed to be intent on curving backwards over us. I was not overjoyed at the prospect of climbing it, but, as Ellena said, when you get closer to roads like this, they never go up as sharply as they appear. Thankfully, this proved to be the case.

We got to the top. Although it hadn’t been as bad as it looked, we – I – still needed a rest and so we dived into a café a bit further on. Here, we were hit by an influx of pilgrims (TPs looking for toilets) for the first time since the Portomarín to Palas de Rei road.

We continued on our way. We passed Santiago airport and tried not to think about the fact that in a week’s time, we would be saying goodbye to each other there. The rain was falling more heavily now. Just past the airport, we dived into a bar as much to escape the rain as for a drink. We were now just 12 kilometres from Santiago.

It was still raining when we left the bar but we pushed on nonetheless. In time, we came out of the woods, left the last village behind and arrived at the Monte del Gozo. Here, we looked out for the statues of the two Arriving Pilgrims.

I had been eager to see the statues ever since I watched Martin Sheen and co walk up to them in The Way. We almost missed them, however, as the road was a little distance away from the statues’ location. Actually, it was so far that we only just spotted them in the near distance.

Something else that didn’t help is the fact that in the film (released in 2010), the statues appear to be on an unkempt hill whereas the Monte del Gozo now is a very well landscaped park.

Our first actual sight of Santiago came while we were still on the road but our first ‘official’ pilgrim view came with the statues. Here’s what we saw.

You can just see the spires of Santiago cathedral in the centre of the photo – our destination! After thirty-six days and so many kilometres, we were almost there.

Almost, but not quite, and not today.

Today, we headed off to the town’s east end where the apartment we had booked was located. There, Ellena and Carolin rested while I went in search of a supermarket for provisions.

17.5.19
The reason we didn’t go to the cathedral yesterday was because it was about four kilometres from our flat. Having walked 25 kilometres yesterday, we were happy to go to the cathedral tomorrow; or rather, today.

After packing our backpacks up, we closed the apartment door and started the final part of the journey. We left early – before nine o’clock to allow plenty of time to get the compostelas before we had to catch the coach to Finisterre, which was scheduled to leave Santiago at midday. As we knew that there might be a queue at the pilgrims’ office for the compostela, we reckoned to get there early – between nine and ten AM – so that we had plenty of time to pick up our compostelas before leaving town.

That was the plan. It didn’t work out like that.

We arrived at the cathedral square. I have to admit, doing so was an underwhelming experience. We were here. We had finished. Well done us? Yes, but now we have to go to the pilgrims’ office. No time to waste – we should have left the apartment earlier; the bus leaves at midday and ten o’clock is already drawing on.

We came, we saw, we left sharpish. So much so that I was only able to take a two or three photographs of the cathedral. I didn’t worry, though; there would be plenty of time to take more when we returned on Monday.

We found the pilgrims’ office and joined the queue in the courtyard outside. It was another cloudy day and soon the weather turned on us. Fortunately, it was only very light rain and within a few minutes we were at the doors to the corridor leading towards the reception where the compostelas were being issued.

We stepped over the threshold into the building and— stopped. Stopped. The minutes passed. No movement. More time passed. Still no movement. I checked my phone. It was somewhere past ten o’clock. We still had time but only if the queue started moving. Steady progress would do. If the queue was going to be like this the rest of the way, though, we would miss the bus.

While we waited, I went onto the Camino Pilgrim Discussion Group on Facebook and asked if it was possible to pick up one’s compostela any time after today. I quickly learnt that it was. When I told Ellena and Carolin this, we agreed to leave the queue and come back on Tuesday – at opening time. I didn’t know if I would receive an answer from the CPDG and was so very grateful when I did – if you are interested in any of the Camino routes and are on Facebook, I thoroughly recommend the Camino Pilgrim Discussion Group to you. The people there are friendly and always ready to offer help and advice to any who ask.

We had intended to walk to the bus station but time was now against us. So, we took a taxi instead. At the bus station, we tried to work out how to buy a ticket for the coach to Finisterre. Very fortuitously, we met Ellena’s American friend Buddy (man not dog) who was was just returning from the coast. He put us on the right track and soon we were on our way.

Just like that, then, we left Santiago. Our Camino was over. Now, we were – what? Recovering former pilgrims? Plain old tourists? Something in-between? If you are thinking about doing the Camino be warned! Once you become a pilgrim, I don’t think you ever stop. I don’t think you can. The spirit of the Camino becomes a part of you; the experience of it is tattooed onto your spirit. This is certainly what I have found since returning home on 23rd May. I am only a former walker. I am still, though, a pilgrim, searching for meaningfulness, for an authentic way to live, for God. I am searching for the Camino in my life at home. I haven’t forgotten the Camino Francés, though. Far from it. How I would love to be back there! I think a part of me still is; walking the Way in the shadow and shade, and always will. I would very much like to walk the French route again. Whether I will or not is in God’s hands. If I do not, I shall try my best to not mind too much – as Newman says, He knows what He is about – but instead, live with gratitude for the Camino that I did undertake, and finished on 17th May 2019.

Camino Postcard 33: Portomarín to Palas de Rei

13.5.19
I ended the last blog post on a happy note, but the 32nd day of our Camino did have a sting in the tail – I had another blister on my thumb. Fortunately, this one healed in just a few days rather than taking two weeks.

On our second misty morning in succession, we made our way down the great stone staircase and out of Portomarín. For a couple of minutes, we walked along the city-side of the Rio Miño before crossing it once more.

This took us back in woodlands. There were quite a few pilgrims in front and behind. And also, a tractor, taking some felled pine trees away. Our path took us up, up, and – no, not away – just up again until we were actually above cloud level!

What a sight. The valley must have its own microclimate.

As we made our way to the heavens, we saw Lillian ahead of us. We called out to her but while we turned the heads of the pilgrims in front of us, she never heard our cries. A forced march followed until we were close enough to again shout LILLIIIAAAAAN! This time, she heard, and we were reunited.

Today was a really tough day. The heat told on us and Ellena’s knee was in a very bad way. The presence of so many pilgrims around us and the possibility that they were TPs was also aggravating. It didn’t help that there were so many of them that, at one point, we had to walk on the side of the road because there was no room on the pavement.

We eventually stopped at Palas de Rei but should have done so much earlier. Indeed, as with yesterday, that was our intention. But again, as with yesterday, we couldn’t find an albergue. We struggled on under the burning sun. Towards the end of our march, I ran out of water. Memories of the Valcarlos route came back to me and I didn’t enjoy them.

Palas de Rei is 25 kilometres from Portomarin. We managed to walk 23 of them. Seeing the clouds beneath us had been the high point – literally and figuratively; the Spanish man who had replied to Ellena’s greeting of Buen Camino with Buen Camino and then And I hope you die in Spanish under his breath had been the low point. Imagine being a pilgrim and saying that to someone. Either he was a complete jerk or, for charity’s sake, let’s just say he was having a very bad day for whatever reason.

Another thing I should say is that the ill willed pilgrim was a low point because by the time we stopped at a roadside restaurant and bar I was thirsty and Ellena very poorly. Even though we were so close to Palas de Rei, she could go no further on foot.

After we had had a drink, I asked the barman if he could call a taxi for us. Thank the Lord for the kindness of Spanish people. However, when he called, none were available. He advised me to ask him again in a little while. So, we sat down, had a bite to eat and hoped for the best.

Eventually, with prayers in my heart, I made my way back into the bar. The barman called… and five minutes later, the taxi arrived. Praise be. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise.

Of course, we got looked at as we put our backpacks into the boot. We ignored them. This was our Camino and it was the right thing to do.

I did wonder, though, what this taxi might mean for our compostelas. Would we not receive one because we had not walked the entire last 100 kilometres?

That was a problem for another day. Today, the taxi took us to a cheap hotel at the far end of town. We checked in and took our rooms.

By the way, when I say checked in, I mean that we did so after booking the room on booking.com. We used this app for all the hotels that we stayed at from Sarria onwards. We didn’t want to run the risk of just turning up and finding that they had no rooms. That would have been demoralising. The app was very easy to use and a great help to us.

The hotel we stayed was called the Hostal Ponterroxan. The hotelier was very polite if a little forgetful in bringing the wine at tea time (or perhaps just busy) but very friendly. If I was passing through Palas de Rei again, I would definitely go back to there.

Once in our room, we each took a shower and settled down.

I mentioned two low points earlier. Let me mention another high point to even the scales. For today we met the Canadian pilgrim whom we had last seen on our way out of León (I mentioned him here). His wife had recovered from her injury and they were now walking together.

Camino Postcard 28: Foncebadón to Acebo

8.5.19
We left Foncebadón on a cool and cloudy morning. A large wooden cross greeted us as we began our climb up the hillside to the Cruz de Ferro.

The clouds were very low; as we walked we passed them shoulder to shoulder. This was the closest I had come to them since the first day when for a few minutes towards the end of the Valcarlos route through the Pyrenees I had wondered if the clouds would engulf me entirely. The fear of them doing so and of getting lost managed to gee me up even though I had been walking for over eight hours and was now very tired.

Fortunately, the clouds today bore us no ill will; so, while they did block our view of the valley below for a short time, they kept their distance and soon drifted by on their own business.

The Cruz de Ferro was one of the places that, before the Camino, I looked forward to seeing. According to tradition (started when?), pilgrims bring a stone from their home country and drop it at the foot of the cross. Doing so symbolises them leaving behind whatever burdens them. For this reason, they say a prayer at the same time. I brought a stone from my garden, dropped it next to the cross and prayed. I must confess, though, I didn’t and don’t feel especially unburdened of anything that weighed on me before.

In a way, I dropped my stone back in January when I quit my last job. I had been with the company as a Temp for nearly four years and in that time worked in three different roles. I had been good at the first two and enjoyed the work. One, however, hadn’t worked out and things had got very stressful. By Christmas last year, I was walking around with what felt like a literal weight on my shoulders.

It was no one person’s fault. For my part, I just wasn’t very good at the job I was doing and for the company’s, it’s training and management was lacking. As a result, things got worse and worse until New Year this year when I decided to walk before I was pushed. When I made the decision to quit, the weight on my shoulders disappeared just like that; it felt amazing. I was walking into the unknown: perhaps into financial hardship, but I didn’t mind, I had left my burden behind. When I left the office for the last time, I fairly bounced down the stairs like Tigger.

To this day, I am disappointed as to how things turned out at the company. It wasn’t my first time working there – I had done so previously for ten years but in the five years since my first departure it had changed so much, and in – I believe – an unhealthy fashion. Once upon a time few people quit their roles there; now, we received e-mails telling us that this temp or that was leaving on a regular basis.

Of course, I’m mixing things up. The stone that one drops at the Cruz de Ferro is a symbol of one’s burdens. The stone that I dropped on 9th January this year was a psychosomatic illness caused by stress. Perhaps that’s why I was able to drop one and not the other: it’s easier to quit a job than an internal burden. Actually, it isn’t easy to quit a job at all – I know this only too well – but when one becomes resolved to do it, it can at least be done just like that. Burdens that one carries around with oneself will not simply be dismissed by a flick of the wrist and the crack of a stone upon the ground.

The truth of that or otherwise is a conversation for another day. For now, at the Cruz de Ferro I said my prayer and came down from the hill of stones. Regarding the latter – before arriving at the Cruz I had expected to see it completely surrounded by stones. As I walked closer to it, however, I saw that underneath the stones was earth – I guess the better to keep the pole on which the iron cross stands upright.

Ellena and Carolin came up behind me and deposited their stones. We met Joey. He was suffering from shin splints but still walking. He eventually made it to Santiago, where I met him in a — let’s keep that a secret until we get there!

We were all grateful to be at the Cruz de Ferro; what we were not grateful for was the woman who told Carolin to get out of the way so that she – the woman – could have her photograph taken. You meet some fine people on the Camino; unfortunately, you also meet some selfish ones as well.

When we left the Cruz, we did so reluctantly. If we could have done so, I think we would all have stayed there longer. Perhaps, though, we were being like Peter on the mountain and wanting to stay too long.

Coming down from the Cruz de Ferro was a long, and though not steep, arduous process. It started well enough with a fairly shallow path and a nice break at an unmanned food and drinks stand (payment by donation). Taking Brierley literally, I had expected the path to Acebo to be downhill, then up, then down again the rest of the way. In reality, it was down, and up, then down, then up, round a corner, several corners, down, up, down, up a hill, and then down and finally, Acebo.

The hardest part of the journey came towards the end when we had to walk down a long path which was covered with loose stones and rocks. It wasn’t as bad as the descent from the Alto de Perdón but lasted for longer. I nearly slipped on a couple of occasions and was scared of falling over and hurting myself. Ellena’s knees began to hurt badly. I wondered at one point if she would even be able to make it to Acebo. What would we do? If we were going to call a taxi, we should have done it at the Cruz; doing so in the middle of nowhere, away from the road, was not an option. Thank goodness I had opted to stop at Foncebadón yesterday – walking this path after a long day of walking would not have been pleasant at all.

We did the only thing that we could do – keep going, carefully, prayerfully, hopefully, fearfully, finally – we came off the loose stones and stepped onto tarmac. Below us was Acebo – another hamlet; at its far end was the albergue that Tony had recommended to us.

When we arrived at its gates – another first – we found them closed. The albergue had not yet opened for the day. They soon opened, however, to let some delivery vehicles in; we followed them through and the receptionist kindly let us sit down in the reception area until they officially opened.

Happily, that didn’t take too long. We checked in and were given a little dorm with six bunk beds.

The albergue we stayed at is called the Albergue La Casa del Peregrino and on the whole I would give it an 8/10. The only place it fell short is in its showers. Normally, you switch a shower on when you are in the shower space. At the Casa, however, you had to step out of the shower and turn a lever on a pillar and then step back into the shower. When I did this, I got scalded. It took several goes to switch the shower on and several more to get it to an acceptable level of heat. Not long after I did, it switched itself off and that was that – I was done trying to work it out. Aside from the shower, the Casa is well worth visiting. The service and the food was good, and all the beds had their own plugs, and if you wanted you could stay for more than one night there. If you do and you figure the showers out – please leave a comment below! All in all the albergue was quite luxurious, and at ten euros very well priced. If only I could have worked the showers out, it would have been 10/10.

At the Casa, we washed our clothes and enjoyed a beer (grande) in the little bar. While there, Joey arrived and joined us. It was a lovely end to a spiritually good, though physically tough, day.

This is my favourite tree photo from the Camino – it reminds me of the cover of Tolkien’s book ‘Leaf by Niggle’

Camino Postcard 27: Santa Catalina de Somoza to Foncebadón

7.5.19
We woke up feeling capable and ready. Today, we would walk to the famous Cruz de Fierro, and then onwards to Acebo – 28 kilometres from start to finish.

Why Acebo? Tony was ahead of us and had sent a text message to say that the new albergue there was worth staying at.

As you might imagine, though, things didn’t quite work out as we had planned; Ellena wasn’t feeling great and my leg and back hurt. When we reached Foncebadón, I was given the choice of whether to continue or stop. My heart really wanted to continue, to walk through the pain and see the Cruz de Fierro and get a serious amount of kilometres under our belts. My head, however, was quite the opposite ‘Dude,’ he said to me, because yes, my head is from California, ‘come on; listen to yourself – literally; specifically, your leg. He needs a rest. And so does your back. Take it. Take it.’

Yes, my head speaks to me in Californian and bold. And a good job, too, because it made me take notice. I listened, and we stopped. And, dear reader, as you will find out tomorrow, it was just as well we did.

But let’s go back to the beginning of the day. We left Santa Catalina bright and early. Happily, a stretch of flat ground lay ahead. To get to the Cruz de Ferro, we would need to climb four hundred metres but that section of the path would not begin until we had passed Ganso, five kilometres down the road. Plenty of time to mentally and physically prepare for it.

I don’t remember much about the weather today, but I know that it was either damp or rained as my backpack is under its bright green waterproof cover in one of the photographs taken of me today. Because putting it on was such a higgledy-piggeldy operation, I only did so if I was absolutely sure that it was going to rain. Or if it had already started doing so.

Speaking of rain, did I tell you about my most awkward – and hence only – experience during the Camino of putting water proof trousers on?

Let me do so here. It was early on the first day, as I trudged along the Valcarlos route through the Pyrenees. The rain had started and was getting heavier so I decided to put the water proofs on. To do so, I stopped in the forecourt of someone’s farm house.

After making sure that no one was around, I pulled my wet proof trousers out of the backpack. At first, I tried to put them on without taking my boots off. Duh. All I managed to do there was make the inside of the water proofs dirty. So, I took each boot off and stood on one leg so that my sock didn’t get wet. The self-recrimination began. Why did I not do this earlier? It’s raining much too heavily now.

After pulling the water proof trousers on, I knelt down to lace my boots up again. I had trodden on one of them but despite that and the rain I had avoided getting my socks too wet, thank goodness. All’s well that ended well – just about.

Do you know this quotation? Let me know!

I was also relieved to be on my way because during the whole operation, I had been worried that the farmer would come out and tell me off for being on his property. Thankfully, though, he never did. Despite that, this had been an anxious and time consuming exercise. It convinced me that it shouldn’t be done again: the water proofs either had to come on at the start of the day if it was or looked like raining or not at all.

In Zubiri, I decided the latter should be the case and left them behind. My regular trousers were made for hiking. They should be able to deal with any rain.

This digression has given Ellena, Carolin and I time to walk through the countryside, past a very angry bull in the field on the opposite side of the road and an equally chilled out bull in the field on our side. It has given us time to arrive at a nice café where we threw off our backpacks and stopped for a break. The sky was still cloudy but now, thank goodness, no rain was forthcoming.

We walked through Rabanal where we saw a pilgrim with a beautiful service dog called Buddy. The buildings here, as so often in Spain, had really beautiful stonework.

Presently, we climbed a hill and came to the one street town of Foncebadón. Here, Ellena let me decide whether we should continue or stop. After I had decided on the latter, we checked in at a rustic albergue named the Monte Irago.

Our first choice of albergue at Foncebadón was a little too rustic even for us

As with one or two albergues before it, the Monte Irago’s dining room was in what would in a hotel be the reception area. There were three or four long-ish tables where the pilgrims could all sit together. I don’t recall seeing a dryer so after showering, I put my clothes out on a stone fence to dry. By now the sun had come out. It was also very breezy but there were plenty of stones lying about to put on top of the clothes. I just hoped that no opportunists would seize the moment.

There were only two down sides to the Monte Irago; one was that the bunk beds were fairly tightly packed together so moving around wasn’t as easy as it could have been. The other is that while the showers were blocked off from the dorm by a door, the door couldn’t be locked. If you stepped out of the shower to dry off, therefore, you were liable to have an unexpected and unwanted visitor. Unfortunately, the showers were not of a size to make drying yourself inside them very easy. With that said, it could be done, and if I was passing through Foncebadón again, I would definitely go back to this albergue.

Another place in Foncebadón that I would go back to is its one pizzeria – L’isola Che Non C’e: Neverland. The pizzas were absolutely mmmm! Delicious! As the pizzeria’s name suggests, the owners were big fans of Peter Pan. His imagery appeared inside:

and out:

The second star to the right

The two guys who ran the place were also very friendly. I highly recommend it to you.

We ate our pizzas just a couple of hours or so before tea time and so were still pretty full up when the hospitalera served tea at the Monte Irago. Carolin skipped the meal altogether and Ellena stayed only for a little while. I remained at table but did not try to eat too much. I did, however, have a lovely conversation with a Frenchman who, if I remember correctly, was walking the Camino in stages having started at a place called Le Puy.

Camino Postcard 20: Moratinos to Calzada del Coto

30.4.19
Day Eight on the Meseta

This morning we walked along the roadside and came across a possibly fake quotation from Socrates (below).

Further on, we met two doggos taking a stroll down the road – literally. It’s a good job it was empty. One was Very Large and the other Moderately So. Very Large Doggo was mum, and Moderately So her son.

If I remember correctly, mum had an injury – unfortunately, I can’t remember if it was a current or past one; hopefully, Ellena will mention it on her blog here.

If you have read the previous entries in this series, you will know that Ellena understands the language of dogs. She was able, therefore, to gain mother dog’s trust and pet her.

After enjoying Ellena’s company for a few minutes the dogs moved on to – who knows where? Hopefully nowhere near the work men that were shooing them on just before they joined us. Spain is a funny country like that: she loves her canines but we saw quite a few strays and injured dogs along the way.

Speaking of the dogs, just as they joined us, we were passed by another pilgrim who had a dog phobia. She used us as a shield before moving swiftly on! If only she had watched Ellena, though, she would have seen that if you treat dogs in the right way, there is really nothing to worry about.

***

Today, we reached the official halfway point of the Camino Francés – Sahagun. We entered the city in the company of another pilgrim who cleared up the question of whether or not river water is safe to drink: in short, no; it may have been polluted by animals. It’s a good job I didn’t give in to temptation on the Valcarlos route. If I had walked the Napoleon route, however, and eaten the snow, that would have been fine.

Statue on the way into Sahagun (there was another like it behind me)

In Sahagun we made our way to the Monasterio y Museo de Santa Cruz where we received our halfway compostelas (below). We had to pay a few euros for these but given the quality of the ink and paper it seemed a fair deal.

What to say about the monasterio y museo? We saw much of the latter but little of the former. The church was entirely given over to the exhibition within; I assumed then, and believe now, that it must have been deconsecrated.

As for the exhibition – it was a real curate’s egg. I imagine there are people who would have been impressed by the indictment of Man’s behaviour in the full-on photographs of people around the world suffering from man made and natural disasters, and the mummified body, and contemporary art but I wasn’t. There were old books on display which were nice to look at but on the whole I was glad to leave the place.

We left Sahagun and made our way down a roadside path out of town. It was another hot day. As a result, we only walked a few more kilometres to Calzada del Coto. Here, we stayed at a donativo albergue. This meant that there was no set price for our beds but just what we could afford to give. I took the opportunity to get rid of all my spare change, which amounted to five or six euros.

Bull fighting mementos in the bar where we ate dinner

There was one dorm, which was stuffed to the rafters with bunk beds. My bed was very stiff, which raised fears in me that it would hurt my back (when I was 18, I visited my relatives in Canada and we had to cut short a visit to a friend’s house there after their stiff bed hurt my back so badly after one night). Fortunately, however, all would be well this time round.

I slept on the bottom bunk, underneath a woman who couldn’t stop moving and then told us to shh later on. I made sure I spoke louder for a few minutes after that.

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.