Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Day 6 - Zubiri to Pamplona

Today began at 5:30 am, just a few short hours after last night's soccer game came to end.  Our chosen albergue offered no breakfast, so we returned to the Cafe del Camino to enjoy a cafe con leche and chocolate croissant before re-crossing the bridge and heading onwards towards Pampalona. We were joined by a fellow pilgrim we met last night as we set out, all of us hoping to cover as many kilometers as possible before the expected heat set in.

At the far edge of Zubiri we learned why the guidebook classified the town as industrial when we passed the Magna facility, around which the landscape was clearly devastated by the mining and forestry industries. 

The narrow footpath cut through shoulder high grass, and then turned to a set stone trail that passed by farms and horse pastures along a river way, and through several beautifully landscaped villages that had public fountains from which we were able to refill out water bottles. 

In Larrosoanna we arrived at a charming pilgrim pub and enjoyed a coffee on the outdoor patio before parting ways with our fellow hikers.


After this point the Camino ran alongside the shoulder of a busy roadway leading to several hours of pavement hiking prior to heading back uphill towards a trail which passed by a series of eerily abandoned military facilities. 

We continued to follow the now common yellow arrows through Zuriain and Zabaldka, and eventually we arrived at a water fountain in Esteribar, where we enjoyed our packed lunch and a bottle of water at one of the public picnic tables. Having enjoyed our short break, we began an uphill climb along a beautiful forested track, which soon began to weave along the rural hillsides, past old Spanish estates, and finally into the suburbs of Villava and Atarrabia on the outskirts of Pampalona. 

On the edges of this large urban centre we found a cafe and some shade, and sat down to enjoy a piece of cake and two large glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice. After having regained our energy we set off to make the final push into the old quarter of the historic city of Pamplona. This is the first large city we have come to on the Camino, and once we got into town we noticed that the yellow arrows had been replaced with silver shells on the ground. 

The hike through Pamplona was hard given the long stretches of paved streets, the steep climb into the old town, the heat of the day, and the noisiness and bustle of city life, which we no longer used to. 

Once we had climbed into the walled old section of town we get lost in the twisting warren of narrow cobbled streets, and after several circuits were unable to find the main pilgrim albergue, Jesus y Maria. Frustrated, exhausted, and hot, we decided to make our way back to the city gates and rent a private room above the Hostel Casa Ibarrola albergue in the hopes of getting a good night's rest. Here we were graciously welcomed and given a drink of cool water while our host checked us in. Somewhat recovered we were taken up three stories of narrow stairs to our semi-private rooms, which in fact were an old apartment whose two private quarters and living room had been converted to three pilgrim bedrooms. We soon stripped off our grimy and sweaty clothes, enjoyed cold showers, unpacked our bags, did our daily laundry and took a long break throughout much of the afternoon. 

By 3 pm we decided it was time to find something to eat, and we set out to explore Pampalona. Unfortunately, as we had been warned, almost all the restaurants, bars, and tapas bars were closed for the siesta - which is a hard reality to face while you are hungry and used to the 24/7 world of North America. As we wandered we were surprised by the number of teenagers sitting in the streets drinking beer and eating sunflower seeds. As the evening progressed the streets actually became quite packed with people, yet despite the amount of alcohol being consumed, we didn't see any fights or disturbances - just people talking and seeming to enjoy the warm summer evening. We found this quite amazing, especially given the prevalent graffiti throughout the city stating "You are not in Spain or France, you are in Basque Country", which hinted at some fairly heated political debates in the region.

Unfortunately, given our exhaustion and the heat, our frustration levels were pretty high today, and this whole idea of walking 800 km seemed pretty overwhelmning. In fact, Sean seems to be fast falling into frustration and despair, and is talking seriously about quitting the Camino and going home. I am far too stubborn to give in and quit, and I don't think that would be a healthy choice for him, so after a long discussion I convinced him (very much against his will) to continue on and see how it goes tomorrow, and if in three days from now he still wants out, then I will help him go home. As we are both learning, sometimes the Camino is far more exhausting mentally than it is physically.

After finding a small, quiet Tapas bar that was open during the afternoon and willing to serve us some delcious tortilla con patate, we felt we had the energy to explore the city some more. Our first stop was at the central church, the Cathedral de Santa Maria, which contained a wondrous collection of statues, beautiful stained glass, and a deliciously cool cloister which we lingered in for some time. (Yes, this might sound sacrilegious, but in the warmth of a Spanish afternoon, cloisters make a wonderful place to find refuge and relaxation). 


Afterwards we wandered until we found the iconic statue of citizens running with the bulls, located the famed Plaza de Toros de Pamplona, and ran across Hemingway's memorial likeness. 

In addition, we stumbled across a bookstore with Spanish Penguin Classics books - Penguin Classico - a highlight for Sean, who is an avid Penguin Classics book collector. 

As the evening began we realized how beautiful Pampalona truly is. There is so much to see and experience in Pampalona - the history, culture, amazing food, and atmosphere. It is truly a shame that we only have a few hours in a single afternoon to experience it, and that we are so exhausted from our intial jet lag, excitement, 3-4 days without much rest, the adjustment of settling into the rhythm of long-distance hiking, and the heat. I think my advise to others would be that if you have the time, take a day to rest here, restore your energy, and enjoy the Spanish culture.

To anyone hiking through here in the future, I would certainly recommend (especially if you are tired) taking a day or two extra here and really enjoying the sites more. You should also take a minute to enjoy some ice cream, not only because it is wonderful but also because it makes you sit down, take a breath, and notice the beauty of your surroundings. Ultimately however our time in Pampalona was hindered by our lack of a good night's sleep in four days, and the strain of long distance hiking in the heat since SJPP. As a result we did not get a chance to enjoy the famed night culture of the city given that we ate a small dinner and went to bed for 9pm in the hopes of catching up on our sleep.

** Post Camino Notes: In retrospect, I think we would have benefitted greatly from taking a rest day, either when we arrived in Europe, or here in Pamplona, and I would definitely recommend doing so to anyone who has the time. When we spoke to other pilgims near the end of our journey, quite a few admitted feeling like they wanted to quit sometime during the first week - often around day 3 or 4. It is impossible not to be excited about starting your Camino, and this, combined with getting used to sleeping in dorms with many other people, as well as walking long distances every day, eventually catches up with everyone. If you haven't been in Europe before, it also takes a while to figure out how to do basic things - like how and what to order in restaurants, and when and where to find snacks in the absence of variety stores, so that you have something to tide yourself over with during Siesta if you miss lunch. Nothing is impossible, it is just different, and figuring it out while adjusting to everything else can be very daunting and exhausting. However, if you find yourself wanting to quit, my advise would be to take a break, get some real sleep, and then continue walking for a few more days. Things will get better, and the benefits of toughing it out are totally worth it!
Practical information:
Distance: 20.9km
Max Temperature: 28°C
Accommodations: Hostel Casa Ibarrola

Day 5 - Roncesvalles to Zubiri

Our third day on the Camino began with the sounds of the volunteers singing and playing music as they walked down the halls of the albergue waking everyone up at 6 am. What a positive way to begin the day! We headed down to a breakfast of coffee, juice, muffins, and two apples at La Posada, and then headed out. As we passed the famous sign, with its humbling reminder of how far we still have to go, it felt like our journey was really beginning in earnest.

While much of the day was pleasant and warm, the morning was foggy and damp as we followed the path along fence lines, past farmer's fields, and through small villages. As the morning progressed, the trail itself shirfted from dirt trail, to farm tract, to gravel pathway, to stamped concrete walkway. 

As the landscape slowly changed and we passed through the villages of Burguete, Espinal, and Viskarretta, we were guided forward by the shell markers, yellow arrows, Camino cairns, historical crosses, and red and white GR65 markers that are starting to feel familiar. We were also greeted by numerous messages scrawled on the backs of signs, as well as skillfully painted murals and pilgrim centered graffiti which made us really like we were part of a community of hikers.

Although quite a bit of today's hike seemed to be uphill, the day passed quickly, and we soon found ourselves crossing the historical bridge into the town of Zubiri, which is where we decided to stop for the night. According to tourism Navarre, the footbridge over the river Arga is called the "bridge of rabies." It is said that Saint Quiteria's relics are contained in one of the bridge's piers, and a long time ago people used to bring their sick animals to the bridge and walk them three times around its main pillar, hoping for a cure.

Although our guidebook warned that Zubiri was a rough, unappealing, industrial town, we found it to be a clean, quiet, and rather charming village. The town itself provides hikers with a full range of amenities, including a backpacking outfitting store, pharmacist, bakery, municipal albergue, additional gites, several bar/restaurants, and a beautiful church at the centre of town. 

Warm, dirty and tired, we stopped at one of the first lodgings we came to after crossing into town, the Albergue Zaldiko. This establishment features much smaller dorms than we have shared the past few nights, with only three bunks in each room, which seems like quite a luxury.


Once we had checked in, showered, done our laundry and hung it out to dry, we decided to head into town to explore. Although the town is quite small, we soon found the bakery and purchased some apple cake, which we took down to the riverside to enjoy which we cooled our feet. 

At the edge of the river, with our shoes off and a nice piece of cake to enjoy, we rediscovered the beautiful simplicity of not moving, not doing anything, not thinking, and above all not carrying a backpack! Sitting there peacefully, it made us wonder why we don't take more time for silence and activities that we know will relax our bodies and fill our souls when we are at home? What is it about our lives - not bad lives or even overly stressful ones - whose routine seems to drain us and distract us? What makes us check our emails or pick up a phone when all we want is a break from the world? Here along the Camino, without cell reception and away from the internet, things that seem like priorities in our everyday lives at home are beginning to seem woefully misplaced. As we are beginning to settle into the rythm of the trail, and our bodies are starting to adjust to the new level of physical activity, I think we are being blessed with a new refreshing perspective.

By the early evening, a number of pilgrims met at a corner bar called the Cafe del Camino where we pushed patio tables together and enjoyed a number of sandwiches, salads, tapas, and several pitchers of Sangria. The result was hours of wonderful, joyous and honest conversation. Tonight we were fortunate enough to be able to listen to people's reasons for hiking the Camino, to hear their hopes, their dreams, and their fears - both in life and on the trail. It was an evening of beautiful honesty and openness. Many were trekking for spiritual reasons, some needed a break from life, some wanted to find direction in life, others had retired and had always wanted to see the world, while some were out actively hoping to find a husband or wife. 

Eventually our exhaustion overcame us and we all headed "home" for the night. Hopeful for a peaceful and quiet evening, we tucked into our sleeping bags, only to discover that around midnight, when the cool mountain air settled over the region, a lively soccer match was to unfold outside our window. The game lasted until 3am, and while it was wonderful to hear families and children together outside enjoying themselves, after three days of poor rest we were left wishing we could turn down the volume a bit. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change" and the strength to get through tomorrow's hike."


Practical information:
Distance: 21.9 km
Max Temperature: 28°C
Accommodations: Albergue Zaldiko

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Day 4 - Orisson to Roncesvalles

Today began with another early morning wake-up at 5 am. Even though many people in the dorm attempted to be considerate of others, the reality is that no group of 20-50 people can pack quietly in the dark. Thankfully we had spent a mostly peaceful night, with the biggest disruption coming from a lady who remained awake all night reading from an iPad that glowed like a supernova while she overcame her jet lag.

The morning's preparations were filled with the sound of a huge rain storm or "tormentas" outside. We soon discovered that leaving our laundry outside for the night had done little to help it dry. Then, when we went in search of our quarantined backpacks, we found that someone had retrieved them from the locked room, only to leave them in an open courtyard, where they had been rained on for several hours. This made for a very sodden and soggy start to the day. 

After ruefully emptying, squeezing out, and repacking our backpacks we headed downstairs for a wonderful breakfast which included bowls of hot coffee, fresh bread, regional jam, and of course more coffee. We also picked up packed lunches which we had ordered the night before for today's hike. Our hunger sated, we put on our rain gear and bravely headed out.

As we set out into a damp and foggy morning, it became clear that at least the first part of our day was to be a continuation of yesterday's steep ascent. This morning's pouring rain and cooling wind did nothing to diminish the beauty of the landscape however, the sounds of wild horses, or the sight of long lines of pilgrims trekking onwards. Given the conditions, we were surprised to come across a vendor in a parked van beside the trail who was serving warm coffee, muffins, fruit, and candy bars. It wasn't difficult to entice us to enjoy a moment's break. 

Soon the pathway levelled out and we reached a stone tablet stating "Saint Jacques de Compostelle: 765km" which was exciting for us as it indicated that we were now truly on our way! Alongside this tablet was also the Fountaine de Roland where we refilled our water bottles and took a moment to enjoy the achievement of reaching this point. Dauntingly, in the midst of this setting was also an emergency transponder or HELPoint which could be activated in case of emergency. It served as a quick reminder that this was no easy trail.


By late morning we had reached a point from which we could see the imposing shape of Roncesvalles below. It was here that the path divided between (quite literally) the hard way (the traditional hike along a dirt path) and the easy way (a newer grassy track). Despite warnings against the traditional pathway, we decided to take the dirt track. While the path was steep in several places, and muddy in others, the forest was wonderful, and we found a nice spot to sit and enjoy a welcome break, and our tasty sandwiches.

Soon after resuming our trek we arrived into Roncesvalles, the site of one of the main historical pilgrim's hospitals on the Camino de Santiago. We navigated our way past the iconic Camino distance sign and enticingly warm looking pubs, past several churches, to the large albergue at the centre of the complex.

Despite the weather and our dallying en route, we arrived with many other pilgrims several hours too early to check in. We sat in the warming sun in the courtyard of the Albergue de Peregrinos Real Colegiata de Roncesvalles and tried to dry out our clothes and backpacks. While I sat with our packs, Sean walked back to the local gift shop to purchase juice, post cards, and chocolate. As we sat in the courtyard drying out we shared the tasty local chocolate with several other pilgrims, including one gentleman from Edmonton,Canada who turned out to be a retired teacher, religious educator, and fellow chocolate lover. We also took the time to call my parents in Vancouver to let them know all was well. Unfortunately we didn't stop to consider that it was 4 am their time.  

At 2 pm the doors to the albergue were opened. While registering we were required to submit our Canadian passports and officially declared that we had entered Spain! The notion of having hiked over a mountain range and into another country was a very exciting prospect! We soon learned that the very modern facility had plenty of showers and hot water, and a laundry downstairs where nuns would wash and dry all our soaking clothes for a small donation. Never have we felt so blessed by such a simple miracle.

It was at this time that we also decided to unload some of our extra clothes and hiking supplies to the pilgrim donation table inside Roncesvalles. While it was hard to leave behind new gear lovingly purchased for the Camino, the realities of the trail were such that after two days of hiking we could no longer justify their weight, and hoped that another pilgrim needed them more than us.

Once showered we headed off to the Plaza del Castillo for a chocolate croissant and cafe con leche. We also arranged to take a tour of the Museo-Tesoro de la Real Colegiata de Roncesvalles which allowed us the opportunity to explore the Museum, church, and historical crypt. 

Afterwards we headed to the first dinner sitting which was at 7 pm in the bar La Posada which many would recognize as the albergue Martin Sheen stayed at in the movie The Way. This situation which gave way to questions and discussion around the table regarding what was different between the movie compared to our hike and experiences so far. Our dinner was wonderful and was comprised of an incredible vegetable soup, pasta and omelettes, red wine, and ice cream for dessert.

Later that evening we attended the pilgrim mass, during which the pilgrims were blessed and a list of the countries where we came from was read out. The exhaustion of two long days, and the late hour, soon had us picking up our clean and WARM laundry and heading to our beds. As such, by 9:30 pm, amid the coughing, snoring, and other ambient noises produced by 200+ pilgrims in a single room we lay down to sleep.


Practical information:
Distance: 17.1 km
Max Temperature: 27°C
Accommodations: Albergue de Peregrinos Real Colegiata de Roncesvalles, 12 Euro per person + dinner + breakfast