A Travelogue

Friday, December 07, 2007

Camino de Santiago, (the Way of St James)

There are three great pilgrimages in Europe ending in Jerusalem, Rome and the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. Since the tenth century, pilgrims have made their way to Santiago via a network of trails known as the Camino de Santiago to revere the bones of the apostle St James, which are entombed in a silver casket in the cathedral.

The number of pilgrims peaked in the 11th and 12th centuries when an astonishing half a million people per year are thought to have made the pilgrimage. There was a steady decline in the ensuing centuries and, by the middle of the 20th century, only a few hardy souls made the trip. Since then there has been a renaissance and currently more than 70,000 Compostela, the certificate recognizing the completion of the Camino, are issued annually by the authorities in Santiago. In holy years, a year when St. James day (July 25) falls on a Sunday, this number more than doubles. The last holy year was in 2004 when more than 180,000 pilgrims reached Santiago.

There are a number of standard routes on the Camino. Some pilgrims walk the Via de la Plata from Seville in southern Spain (~1000 km), some walk the Camino Portugueses from Porto (~550 km) but the vast majority of pilgrims join the Camino France at some point between France and Santiago.

Photo 676: From a cairn at O Cebreiro.

This is the story of my Camino.

It started in St Jean-Pied-de-Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains, on August 25, 2007 and ended 26 days and 776 km later in Santiago. Like many pilgrims, I then continued on for a further three days and 90 km to Finisterre, The End of the World, on the Atlantic coast.

“The Camino is really easy apart from walking and carrying your backpack”

August 22/23: Travel by plane from Calgary to Toulouse via London

It started with the usual lengthy and cramped flight to London. The line-up at immigration and passport control was huge. It took almost two hours to go through the process followed by an eight-hour wait until my next flight, so I decided to step out of character and practise patience – one of my objectives of the walk! Later I learned that several international flights had landed almost concurrently and that this was a bank holiday weekend with the corresponding impact on resources.

The flight to Toulouse left an hour late and I was concerned the delay would mean I’d miss the last shuttle to my hotel at 11 PM. Fortunately the flight made up some time and I had all of ten minutes to spare. I found a shuttle but wasn’t sure if it was the right one. The shuttle driver did his best to ignore my feeble attempts to converse in French but a tall and slim black lady in front of me helped me and confirmed it was the right shuttle. She worked in London and was on her way home for the long weekend to visit her family, who lived near Toulouse. She was going to the train station right across the street from my hotel.

Photo 173: Hotel D'Orsay in Toulouse. Nothing fancy, but my first, and only, private room during the trip.

“God bless you”, she said as she walked towards the station.
“And you too”, I replied.

The hotel had a full bathroom. Little did I realize this would be the last time in over nine weeks that I would luxuriate in a bathtub.

August 24: Travel by train from Toulouse to St. Jean Pied-de-Port via Bayonne

This was the first time I had travelled on a train in many years. It’s such a civilized way to travel. However, the civility was interrupted part way to Bayonne when a very belligerent man got on the train. He was extremely loud and proceeded to insult a number of other passengers. I made sure to avoid eye contact as he walked down the aisle. A couple of men spoke to him, to no effect. At one point he insulted the girlfriend of a young man and I thought, “Oh oh. All hell is going to break loose”. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and all the passengers in our compartment were clearly pleased if not relieved when he got off the train at Lourdes.....a blessing! Clearly the spiritual nature of the Camino pilgrimage was already starting to take effect.

The short trip of 1:15 hours from Bayonne to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port was spectacular as the tracks followed the ever-climbing narrow canyon of the River Nive, which was in flood after five days of heavy rain.

Photo 181: River Nive, still in flood, in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.

It was a short walk from the train station to the Camino information office where I registered, had my Pilgrim Credential book stamped,

Photo 176: Camino information office in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port where I got my first stamp. I got my credentials in Canada, but you can also get them here.

and was assigned a bed at the Albergue Municipal (municipal pilgrim hostel). I bought a walking staff for six euros (nine dollars) and found an outdoor restaurant where I had a pizza and a local Basque beer.

Photo 186: Basque beer - the first of many on this journey, and deliciously refreshing!

On the way back to the Albergue it was raining; the weather for my first day of walking was not looking great.

Day 1, August 25: St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles (25 km; 6:35)

I had been warned about roncadores (snorers) in the albergues and my first experience was true to form. Snoring commenced immediately upon going to bed; first solos, then duets and eventually the full orchestra....but not in harmony. I barely slept six hours. Thereafter I always had my earplugs installed or close by!

It’s only a brief walk from the albergue to the point of decision on the first day: Take the easier valley route or go over the much more difficult pass on the Route Napoleon?

Photo 182: The Basque language bears no resemblance to Spanish. For example, Orreaga is the Basque name for Roncevaux.

Although there had already been five days of rain and it remained foggy and drizzly as I started my Camino, I decided to take the pass. My rationale was the fog might lift higher up on the pass. Besides, I’ve always had an interest in Napoleon and I would forever regret not having taken the “high road”. In retrospect I was glad I took the pass but several times during the 20+ kilometres of continuous climbing, I seriously questioned my sanity. After all, it was my first day on the Camino and now I was committed to climbing over 1400 metres (~4600 feet) under severely adverse weather conditions.

Photo 194: The foothills of the Pyrenees.

The drizzle when I started, soon turned into a full-fledged deluge of, well, biblical proportions. In the pouring rain I pulled out my poncho and struggled against the howling wind to fit it properly over my backpack. The effort was futile. Every loose edge flapped wildly as the wind and rain tugged relentlessly at my poncho. With no option but to get help, I waited for a peregrino (pilgrim) whom I had passed earlier to catch up and assist me. Thus I met Janos, from Hungary, with whom I would walk for the next ten days. We would become good friends.

Photo 197: the bright yellow poncho that took two people to manoeuver in the gusting winds

Near the top of the pass, the rain, thunder and lightning stopped revealing a beautiful rainbow.....perhaps a harbinger of the days to come!

Photo 196: ...somewhere, over the rainbow

Photo 200: gorgeous view from the top of the pass

The steep three kilometre downhill to Roncesvalles was as tough as the climb. My knees ached with every step.

Photo 209: Roncesvalles - the nearest stone building on the left is the albergue

After registering at one of the two albergues, as is traditional I attended the mass at the abbey where the nationalities of all the peregrinos were read out. It made you feel as if you were starting out on an important journey. A communal meal followed in the two restaurants. There were so many pilgrims that we had to eat in two shifts.

Day 2, August 26: Roncesvalles to Larrasuana (27 km; 6:45)

It rained heavily overnight and was still drizzling as Janos and I prepared to leave the albergue at twilight. There wasn’t much choice about leaving in the drizzle as the hospitaleros (hostel wardens) had turned the lights on at six and no one was encouraged to linger. As the sun came up, the weather gradually got better and eventually it became quite hot.

The steep 400 metre descent to Zubiri aggravated the pain in my right knee; I was glad I had brought an elastic knee bandage.

Larrasuana is a lovely village with some 200-300 residents. The grand houses that line the main street were built in the 15th and 16th century.

Photo 213: view looking down the main street in Larrasuana

The mayor and his wife run the albergue.

Photo 214: the albergue is located inside City Hall, making it really easy for the Mayor and his wife to keep an eye on the peregrinos

Close by the albergue was the local fronton, (a two-sided building with a roof where the Basque sport of pelota (similar to jai lai) is played. These large concrete courts can be found in almost every village in the Basque provinces of Spain.

Photo 216: The incredibly huge Fronton in Larrasuana, site of the annoying loud, and long, concert that evening

Photo 217: setting up for the aforementioned concert.

Little did we realize that the frontons can also be used for other events, but our ignorance was soon remedied. Shortly after 9:30 pm, when most of us were getting ready to go to sleep, all hell broke loose: the fronton was being used for a rock concert. As usual, the sound system was on the loudest setting. There was no sleep to be had until the concert ended at 11:30 in the evening. Obviously there was no consideration for the peregrinos.

Day 3, August 27: Larrasuana to Cizur Menor (22 km; 5:15)

Janos and I decided that we would continue walking together. I’m not sure what drove this decision - he hardly knew any English and I don’t speak a word of Hungarian. But we had “talked” using a bit of English, sign language, and pen and paper, and genuinely enjoyed being together. Best of all, neither one of us was too interested in talking while walking.

The scenery from Larrasuana to Pamplona is spectacular. Mountain views, pine forests, dramatic trails following the river Arga, graceful manor houses, and typical three-story houses where the ground floors are for livestock, the first floor for people, and the top storey reserved for pigeons, abound.

Photo 218: The tiny town in the distance is Trinidad de Arre.

Photo 221: Rio Arga at Trinidad de Arre.

We stopped for lunch of pan (bread) and chorizo (spicy sausage) that we had bought at a mercado (grocery store) in Trinidad de Arre.

Photo 222: enjoying a hearty and well-deserved footlong ‘baguette’ stuffed with meats, similar to our Subways.

In recent history, this small city is best known as the birthplace of Spain’s cycling hero, Miguel Indurain.

It’s a pleasant five kilometre walk mostly along the river Arga to the 14th century bridge, Puente de Magdalena,

Photo 223: The bridge Puente de Magdalena crossing the Rio Arga at Pamplona dates back to the 14th century.

that marks the entrance to Pamplona, famous for its annual running of the bulls. We decided to digress from the Camino to view the Plaza de Toros, made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, “The Sun Also Rises”. His statue graces the main entrance to the bullfighting ring.

Photo 224: statue of Papa Hemingway at Plaza de Toros. That's him on the right.

It’s a further five kilometres to Cizur Menor. This was a pleasant walk - except for the long, gradual uphill in searing 35 degree heat. We decided to stop at the first of the two albergues, where a lovely young lady was waiting for the albergue to open.

“What’s your name and where do you come from?” I asked.

“Krisztina from Hungary”, she replied in English.

I ran to meet Janos who was just arriving. “There has been a miracle! I have just met a girl from Hungary.” I’m not sure that he understood what I was trying to say but as soon as I introduced them I knew that finally I would understand what Janos had been trying to say for the last two days!

It turned out that it was her 31st birthday, so we promptly hustled her to the nearest bar where we celebrated with a bottle of wine (or perhaps more).

Photo 231: Janos and Krisztina at our impromptu celebration of her 31st birthday.

For dinner we had the menu de peregrino (pilgrim’s menu) at a local restaurant. Unfortunately for the primer plato, (first course), I selected a noodle soup where they had either forgotten to use stock or it was a pasta where they had forgotten to use a colander. The segundo plato, was meat balls. Both the meat and sauce were incredibly salty to the point where it was almost inedible. Only hunger drove me to eat it. Fortunately, the dessert, a homemade cake in plum sauce, was great. In retrospect this turned out to be the only bad meal that I had throughout the Camino. While dessert was being served I got all of the peregrinos (there were about 30 of us) to sing "Happy Birthday” to Krisztina. She was very touched.

Photo 235: And yet another birthday toast. There can never be too many, right?

Later in the evening, we returned to the church associated with the albergue (the order of Malta) where we joined the hospitalero in singing some old folk standards. I thought to myself, "I wonder if we are going to sing Kumbaya".

Photo 236: Enjoying a relaxing evening of gentle folk music led by our hospitalero.

Now we were three!

Photo 242: Krisztina with her ever-ready bright smile.

Day 4, August 28: Cizur Menor to Cirauqui (26 km; 6:25)

From Cizur Menor it was a long, two-hour, almost-continuous climb to the modern windmills of Alto de Perdon. The top of the ridge was decorated with a cast iron pilgrim silhouette statue.

Photo 244: The ridge and pilgrim silhouette at Alta de Peron. In the distance you can see white windmills.

The view from the ridge was stunning in both directions. To the west we could see the steep loose rock descent into the more arid wine growing region of La Rioja: to the east we could see Pamplona and the Pyrenees Mountains.

Photo 243:Pyrenees Mountains to the east.

Photo 245: The trail and view to the west.

During the rest of the day we walked past groves of almond and olive trees and fields of asparagus, corn and grape vines.

At Muruzabal we decide to take the alternate (but longer) route to Puente la Reina (Queen’s Bridge), so we could view the stunning church at Eunate attributed to the Knights Templar. Its octagonal shape is typical of the Knights Templar who often built churches in this style. More uniquely it is thought to be the only church in the world where the orientation of the entrance and the altar is on a north-south axis rather than the traditional east-west. No-one knows why. It was worth the few extra kilometres of walking.

Photo 248: The ceiling of the octagonal church at Eunate.

Photo 250: Exterior of the church.

The town of Puente la Reina exists like so many others solely because of the Camino. Initially there was no easy way to cross the river Arga and high prices were charged to ferry peregrinos across it. Ultimately a Spanish queen commissioned the six-arched bridge, hence the name.

Photo 260: The bridge at Puenta La Reina.

From Puente la Reina we followed the banks of the river Arga, but none of us were prepared for the brutally steep climb from the river valley to Maneru, in temperatures we were later told were in excess of 40 C. The fountain at the entrance to Maneru was a godsend as we had run out of water. I immersed my head under the faucet and I downed a half litre of water in one gulp.

From there it was an easier three kilometres to the beautiful mediaeval village of Cirauqui.

Photo 262: Cirauqui in the distance.

The private albergue, Maralotx, was the best yet: modern with good facilities and comfortable bunk beds.

Photo 264: The communal bedroom in one of the more modern albergues.

Photo 266: Albergue Maralotx. Note the steep climb to the entrance.

Later in the evening we had a wonderful communal dinner in the restaurant below the albergue.

Photo 270: Communal dinner.

Photo271: Same dinner, different people.

Great salad, followed by spaghetti and meatballs and all the red wine we could drink. We, of course, took full advantage of the bounty! Afterward we entered the church across from the albergue and were enchanted by the 15-member male choir that was practising. They were fabulous!

Unfortunately we got limited sleep because of the heat and the church bells that rang without fail every 15 minutes throughout the night.

Photo 265: The offending bells that rang every 15 minutes.

Because of the heat we left the windows to the albergue open. An enterprising cat saw this as an invitation during the night and snuck into the room, making off with the ring of extra-spicy chorizo that was to be our lunch the following day. I hope that cat got kaka picante (I’ll leave the translation to the reader).

Janos looks a bit like Simon Cowell.

Photo 269: "Simon Cowell," aka Janos.

We were going to start a rumour that Simon was walking the Camino a la Shirley MacLaine. Nah! (MacLaine walked the Camino in the mid-90s and was hounded by the paparazzi. Incidentally, her book, “The Camino, a Journey of the Spirit” isn’t worth reading).

Day 5, August 29: Ciraqui to Villamajor de Monjardin (23 km; 5:50)

Early the next morning the full moon lit our way as we walked on the best-preserved Roman road in Spain. A short distance from where the Camino enters Estella we reached the memorial to a Canadian pilgrim, Mary Kimpton, who was tragically killed in 2002 when she was struck by a car that veered off the highway. Click on her name for more details.

Photo 275: Memorial to Mary Kimpton.

This was the fourth modern pilgrim memorial that I had passed since starting the Camino. Unfortunately there would be more.

At Irache we enjoyed the free wine for peregrinos that flows from a tap built into the wall of a “bodega” (winery). There are two taps, one that delivers red wine and the other, water. We had our share but, in a rare display of self-discipline, decided not to fill our water bottles with wine as we still had a long way to walk.

Photo 279: Decisions, decisions! Wine or water?

The path to Villamayor de Monjardin is scenic and as usual, it’s a long uphill slog to this little town located at the base of a large hill.

Photo 282: Typical Camino marker. This one is on the road to Villamayor de Monjardin.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to climb up to the castle at the top of the hill that dominates the valley, which played a strategic role during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s.

Photo 284: Yet another steep ascent to the albergue. The entrance to this one is at the top of the stairs.

We decided to stay at the Dutch-run Albergue Hogar de Monjardin. The Dutch hospitaleros prepared a great communal dinner for about 25 of us. Before dessert, the lady in charge gave a little speech during which she educated us about their organization and handed out a pamphlet which we were asked to take with us. Since all of us are obsessed about the weight that we are carrying, I jokingly asked, “How much does it weigh?” to the amusement of all.

Day 6, August 30: Villamajor de Monjardin to Viana (30 km; 6:35)

This is a beautiful part of Spain. Throughout the day there were numerous small climbs and descents interspersed with small towns and villages (Los Arcos, Sansol, Torres del Rio) where we could stop to rest or have a meal.

Photo 290: Iglesia de Santa Maria at Los Arcos.

We saw more and more vineyards as we gradually transitioned from the Basque region of Navarra to the famous wine-growing region of Rioja.

Photo 296: Looking west to Rioja, the premiere wine region in Spain. This is near the heights at Torres de Rio and you can see the vinyards spreading through the valley.

The weather was perfect for walking - a cool morning which gradually turned comfortably warmer under cloudy conditions.

Viana had a lovely albergue with a kitchen and dining area, but we chose to have dinner a local restaurant where they served an excellent menu de peregrino, including a good Rioja wine.

Day 7, August 31: Viana to Ventosa (29 km; 6:35)

It was still dark when we left Viana at 6:35 am, walking into a brisk headwind and arriving in Logrono within a couple of hours. We toured the baroque, Iglesia de Santa Maria la Redonda, which is filled with images of the saint. As we left Logrono we bought cheese, chorizo and still-warm croissants, and then found a park in which to enjoy our breakfast.

We had planned to tour the church in Navarette, but instead I ended up chasing after a couple of British men, one of whom had forgotten his staff outside the church. It took me a couple of kilometres to catch them. They were grateful and I felt like a good Samaritan.

There were some interesting and original directional markers on this section of the Camino.

Photo 307: Camino marker on the outskirts of Logrono.

Photo 310: First city (Logrono) where the markers were embedded in the street.

Photo 311: Logrono sculpture.

We arrived in Ventosa in the early afternoon and found a great private albergue.

Photo 317: Albergue at Ventosa.

This was the first albergue with triple bunks! We all managed to get a lower bunk as we were amongst the first to arrive. Once again we had the menu de peregrino at the only restaurant in town....eight euros for an excellent three-course meal, including all the Rioja red wine that we could drink.

Photo 316: Two of the basic items I needed on my trip: wine and guidebook.

Photo 320: A delicious paella.