Camino de Santiago: 1 – from Saint Jean to Burgos

Apr 14, 2014

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Albergue is the Spanish word for hostel. Some are owned by the municipality or the local parish, and have cheap prices, or even work by donations. Some will have private owners and can be, from the basics to sort of “boutique hostels”. Planning distances is crucial, both on high season (when most will be full, after a certain hour) and on low (when some will be closed).

It all started during a lunch in Santo Domingo de La Calzada. I was coming from an Agro Exhibition in Zaragoza with some friends, it was winter, 10 degree cold, and we parked our car outside the city, walking to the centre in search of a restaurant to eat.

There was a “pilgrim menu” and I wondered if it was some sort of marketing strategy, special comfort food, or if there were actually pilgrims who went there to eat it. My doubts dissipated after lunch, when we were back to the track and I payed attention to one or two lonely men slowly walking along the main road. Yes, there were pilgrims! Even under such a weather! I remembered San Tiago de Compostela, as a famous pilgrimage site, but had no idea that people still went there on foot.

Made a little research and found out it was quite popular – even Paulo Coelho, the renowned Brazilian writer, made a book on the topic. Later I discovered that its Korean translation got so famous that they built a small replica, so they could “sort of” experience it.

I always hated walking – it was a waste of time, and not so beneficial, comparing to other sports. After all, people invented cars and motorbikes, for a reason! The idea of leaving in isolation and doing some sport, for a whole month was, nonetheless, appealing. At the time I was sharing home with a girlfriend who was, indeed, sweet, but whose vacuity often drove me to despair. That was a good excuse to get some holidays from her, and I could invoke a “spiritual reason”.

Some months before, a friend had invited me to accompany her on a shorter Pilgrimage to Fátima, as she made a vow and needed to pay for it. At the time it wasn’t much fun. The stages were too long, I had no preparation, whatsoever, no proper shoes, no motivation… The promise she made ended up working, but for me it wasn’t much more than useless pain.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the departing point from the French Route.

I’d do it differently, this time: buy myself a pair of nice hiking shoes, start training a few kilometres each day… From the local parish I got a pilgrim passport – a way to stamp all stages along the way. Dusted my teenager backpack, bought a train ticket, got my camera and a few lenses, and off I went: from Lisbon on the night train, first to Hendaye and then to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Arrived early afternoon, booked a bed on a hostel, got my passport stamped and the itinerary. From the train station, to the city centre I had already realised my backpack was too heavy. Or maybe it was just me, not used to carry such a thing. Anyway, there was nothing to do about it, but to carry on.

The afternoon was spent on sightseeing and degustation. The night wasn’t so restful as there were a few snorers in the dorm.  I woke up before sunrise with the intention to break the rules: from  Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles (a Benedictine monastery on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees) there was two ways: Napoleon crossing the high mountains, in an allusion to the French invaders who chose it, and Valcarlos, longer, but contouring the highest peaks.

Some more images from Napoleon way, until Roncesvalles:

Napoleon way was officially closed due to snow, so there were no restaurants, no hostels, no nothing, along the way, but there were no police, no roadblocks to prevent people from going. If you do something once in your life, you must do it properly and enjoy the scenery. No way I was missing the snowy mountains!

That was the reason I wanted to start so early: in the dark, less people would see me and try to prevent me from going. It happened I was not the only one!

Crossroad on mid Pyrenees, on Napoleon way, descending towards Roncesvalles.

The loneliness, at least for the majority of the way, was inspiring. The views, breath-taking. I arrived to Roncesvalles soaking wet, as many kilometres were done with snow up to the knees and sometimes I just sat and let myself slide down. I got lucky with weather. Mostly sunny and not windy at all. Still, my shoulders and legs were totally worn out.

Below: Roncesvalles monastery and one of the dorms:

On the following day I felt fine. Despite starting a bit later, meaning, around 7, I arrived to Zubiri way before lunch time. Walked around the village and most hostels were closed, and so did the restaurants. The only open Hostel didn’t seem to clean, so I chose to carry on until next city. That would have been fine, if there was one in the next 5 or 6 km, but I ended stopping at Arre, which is 15 km ahead, totalising 36, instead of the planned 21! I got swollen ankles and knees, blisters on my feet and a strong back pain, in reward for the foolishness.

From Roncesvalles to Zubiri.

The hostel, however, was a charming old monastery, the monks were super kind. I was placed in a room along with a middle-aged super polite Mexican guy (Roberto, his name.) who gave me a pair of earplugs, as he snored heavily. He was quite agile and a good dining fellow.

Below: a small church along the way, and Arre village, with the monastery beside the bridge:

The third day was, probably, my worst. The pain was nearly unbearable, I had to walk extremely slowly, stop along the way. As I reached Pamplona I wanted to walk alone the streets where I’d previously ran along with the wild bulls, but I wasn’t able to. Just went to the altar of San Fermin, and re-read the prayer as so many times before. It felt weird and lonely to be there without all the other runners. After all, that was the first time I went to Pamplona without the San Fermines.

Below: San Fermin altar and prayer.

I was stubborn enough to push myself further and not stay in Pamplona. Those were another 28 km, which might have been ok if the backpack was lighter or my preparation stronger. Neither of those were true.

Below: From Pamplona to Puente de la Reina

The last mistake I made was to push myself on the next stage, doing nearly 29 Km, from Puente de la Reina to Ayegui for the sake of the fountain of wine.

Puente de la Reina, shortly after sunrise – the beginning of another stage.

Ideally, I would had stopped in Estella, which had more to see and to enjoy. But that would mean I’d arrive to Bodegas Irache during morning, and that wouldn’t be a good time to start drinking. So I stretched it to Ayegui, where I arrived past 3:00 pm and left my backpack. From there, it was 800 metres more to the wine fountain, and to the cellars and monastery itself. It ended up being a nice visit. Out of curiosity, the wine was free, but the glass, if you’re not bringing your own, was 1 euro, through an automatic dispenser. There was a video camera on top, so feel free to drink, but not to bring home! The wine was far better than I expected. Quite drinkable, even without food.

Below: Irache monastery and cellars, seen from my dorm window. / The fountain of wine.

From that day on, I got in a vicious circle of pain and struggle, where beauty and images were no longer important. What mattered was to accomplish my self-imposed schedule. I was no longer enjoying the energy of places, the beauty or the nice people I found on the way. The important thing was not to stop, not to admit defeat. Weariness, both mental and physical, was accumulating and the night sleep simply wasn’t enough to recover.

Ruins of San Pedro, church in Viana, Navarra.

Vineyards, in Navarra. A presence for many kilometres, along the way.

Some days later, I ran across a Dutch nurse, Ingrid her name, on the same homestay. At that time my knees and ankles were visibly swollen and she helped to drain the liquid back into circulation, something that allowed me to carry on. Funny as it seems, I had already seen Ingrid while walking and didn’t sympathise with her. That was a great lesson.

The pilgrimage got new colours after Los Arcos. That’s when I stayed at the same hostel as a cheerful drinking / partying group – there was people from England, Portugal, Holland, Ireland, Belarus… I hope I’m not forgetting anyone. We started to drink mid afternoon, and ended around midnight, having an abundant dinner in between. At that dinner, if I’m not mistaken, two Englishman found out that they had taken Napoleon way by mistake, believing that was Valcarlos.

Shoes at the entrance of a hostel. Another typical view from the Camino meaning that either resting resting time, or another stage was on the way.

Like me, they went trough the snow, until Roncesvalles – however they were wondering how much harder “Napoleon way” would have been! Hilarious! Those two guys were consistently getting drunk every night, but were also consistently walking next morning. I’m still wondering how they were able to keep the pace.

Strangely, I was not hung-over on the following day. In fact, the pain was becoming more bearable. …and that kept happening: we planned in which hostel to stop, and as people kept arriving, the party started. The routine was roughly: wake up after 6, have a quick breakfast, walk until 10, have a second breakfast, walk until 1 (or shortly past that). Check in at the hostel, shower and eat heartily. The “menu del pelegrino” started to be a daily reality and so did the go-along bottles of wine.

After that, came the “siesta”, from, maybe 3 to 5, and then more drinking and dinner. Bed time would be in between ten and midnight.

Not all days were the same, despite the schedule not changing much. That depended on the available dining and sleeping options. Some hostels allowed or even encouraged the party mood. Two scenes are worth relating:

One of many dinners. Group was still comparably small.

One, I believe was somewhere between Castilla and Léon. After dinner at the hostel, and old man came and sang with loud and powerful voice a traditional Spanish tune which left everyone impressed. People tried to take turns on performing something related to their home country until an Englishman turned to the Koreans and say: Sing Gangnam Style! They didn’t find it too funny, but everyone laughed for looong time.

Other was a quemada in Galicia. That’s a traditional drink made with a local spirit (orujo), flavoured with special herbs or coffee, plus sugar, lemon peel, coffee beans and cinnamon. That is set on fire to reduce the alcoholic strength, but it still remains quite powerful. As it’s prepared, a spell is recited, supposedly to keep bad spirits at distance.

After around two weeks doing over 25km per day on average, the miracle really happens. For no apparent reason, I stopped feeling the muscle and joint pains, and, though I’d get tired or cold, hiking was something like hovering over the ground. It not only happened to me, but to other in the group who struggled to continue. There is something spiritual that allows the pilgrim to overcome what he believes to be his limits; even despite drinking, sometimes, over two bottles of wine in one day. As I mentioned before, that never caused me a hang-over, though I’m pretty sure I’d have a bad week if I tried it on a single day.

Below: landscapes from Atapuerca.

Pilgrimage was more that eating and drinking. There were days we were sheltered by monasteries, bigger and smaller. Volunteers shared their own experiences. We got visits to cathedrals ruins, towers, museums, cloisters. On many occasions we attended catholic services, masses and prayers – some with a really deep spiritual energy.

Below: Burgos views and good times.


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