Cloister in Los Arcos on the Camino de Santiago

Cloister in Los Arcos on the Camino de Santiago

Monday, May 30, 2011

Day Eleven - Au revoir and not adieu to the Camino

Day Eleven – Bye Bye Bilbao – Hello Blighty!
Distance walked – 2km, distance flown - 800km, coffees drunk - 4

The makeshift campsite of the remaining student protestors.

The rain fell softly on the Bilbao pavements as I wandered out of the pension around 7.00am. I strolled down to the Teatro Arriaga where the students had put up their little tents and spent another uncomfortable night in support of their protest. I remember fondly my own generation – the late sixties - and its questioning of authority. I think a generation that does not demonstrate is not worth its salt. There is a lot to be annoyed about. One of my worries through the nineties and noughties was the conservatism of our youth who seemed more interested in 6 figure salaries than changing the world for good or bad.

Statue of Santiago in the Cathdral bearing his name.

I walked back to the hotel to see Fraser off. He took a generous amount of money out of his wallet and offered it for Haven. Considering he was raising money for Pat’s Orphanage this was doubly generous.

This was my camino moment of the day.

I hope every day has a Camino moment from here on out.

The remaining troops assembled and agreed to disperse to find presents for loved ones. We visited the Cathedral which was dedicated to Santiago. The coincidence was not lost on us. We enjoyed a light lunch in a café bar where the locals dropped in and out.

We had started out journey with a bomb scare and finished it with a volcano scare. Fortunately the good Lord smiled on us and we all made it home safe and sound.

Post Script

I opened the post this morning to find a parcel containing four copes of a beautiful book – a collection of water color paintings by Mark Hoare who walked the Camino from le Puy and brought his paints and his talent with him. Fraser had sent us each a copy of this lovely book which will bring joy and happy memories for years to come.

Credencial - will it get finished?

Day Ten - Bilbao - Wow!!

Day 10 Bilbao – what a surprise!

Fraser had booked the pension on his iPhone. He was not exactly sure what he had booked, and neither were we. As it turned out, the location was inch perfect. Our pension was on a pedestrianised street in the Old Quarter – the Casco Viejo - just a minute from the Theatre Arriaga.

The pension was deceptive in every sense. We climbed three sets of stairs in an office building to reach the third floor which extended for nearly the entire block. Amazingly it boasted over 20 rooms. It was basic, cheap and clean. Daniel and I could see the steeple of the nearby cathedral from our bedroom. We looked across at the sitting room of a local who never shut the window day or night.

By and large most people agree that Bilbao is not an oustandingly pretty city. It boasts the Guggenheim Museum and many tourists do not get beyond that. The Old Quarter was a revelation – in many ways quirkier and more engaging than Pamplona. It was a part of town that belonged to the locals and the tourists failed to destroy its fabric or quality.

Barry was entrusted once again with finding us a wonderful restaurant. Perhaps spoiled for choice in the end we followed Pat's recommendation of dining in the restaurant with the nicest table cloths. I am told the wine was lovely. I can report that agua sin gas was wonderful. The meal was not without incident. A huge rubbish truck reversed up the street and had not diners moved out of the way they would have ended up in the municipal dump the following day. One of the endearing things about Spain is that they do not stand on ceremony.

We wondered what we would do to follow this trip. One way or another I think most of us will want to arrive in Santiago some day, some how.

Perhaps we should not leave it too late. Carpe Diem!

Day Ten - the last leg to Viana

Day 10 – May 25th – Los Arcos to Viana
20km – 21km adjusted for climb

Another beautiful day beckoned as we left Hotel Monaco in Los Arcos and walked due West with the morning sun directly behind us. We left at 8.00 on the button, hoping to arrive at Viana before 1.00 pm and before the sun rose too high in the sky. Our lift from Viana to Bilbao was scheduled for 3.30pm so we should have time for lunch. Barry disappeared in a puff of turbo dust, Fraser and I came next and bringing up the rear were Pat and Dan. By some miracle I managed to keep ahead for the whole of the walk and arrived into Viana in good time.

We did not stop to smell the roses in Torres del Rio, which was a pity in retrospect. Such was our commitment to arriving in good time that we just floored the accelerator and made straight for our destination.

Once again it was classic camino landscape – fields of wheat and vines – gentle hills and valleys. I decided to take a small break to eat my orange – my only concession that morning to comfort – and came across a man well into his seventies from Tuscany. He was wearing a rugby shirt – but it turned out he had no knowledge of the game. I stayed with him for a mile or so until he decided to take a rest and he bade me to proceed. I feared I would never see him again such was his fatigue, but sure enough he appeared like the risen lord and perhaps equally battered about an hour after we arrived.

We also walked for a while with a young Spanish lad whose feet were clearly giving him huge problems. We had seen him in previous days and marveled at his tenacity and worried about his health.

We were totally comfortable with our decision to have our rucksacks brought on ahead but marveled at people often twenty years our senior taking their bags and walking greater distances. It is my hope and intention that the camino does not end physically spiritually or artistically with our arrival in Viana but lives on.

A few miles outside Viana I heard the familiar Spanish tones and looked round to find it was my small English class. Together we walked into Viana.

As a whole, Viana is perhaps the prettiest of all the towns we visited and yet has the camino feel to it. I managed to visit the wonderful church – the Iglesia de Santa Maria before it closed for Siesta – a serious siesta that does not finish until 7.00 pm in the evening.

We sat at tables opposite the church and greeted the pilgrims s they arrived. By this stage the rock shandies had become de rigueur and I bought 6 for the thirsty masses. We repaired to the very posh Palacio de Pujadas Hotel for lunch. They had kindly taken in our luggage for free and the concierge declined a tip I was happy to offer. We had just finished lunch when about two hundred middle aged Spanish ladies invaded the dining room. To give credit to the staff all the ladies were wined and fed in jig time.

Our taxi man Manuel arrived at 3.00 and we felt a little unworthy as we clambered into the luxury of a people carrier that swept us along the excellent motorway to Bilbao in just over an hour.

The Church at los Arcos

Day Nine – The Church of Santa Maria – Los Arcos

I wondered how such a small and humble town could boast a church so magnificent that it could be mistaken for cathedral. It turns out that there's a reason and the reason is money – as always. Previously Los Arcos marked the end of the Kingdom of Navarra and taxes were raised for traders entering and leaving the kingdom. The people of Los Arcos prospered and so did the Church. Subsequently the border moved 20km down to road to Viana – tomorrows’ destination – where an equally impressive church (well almost) has been built. It was good to reflect that taxes serve some purpose.

We had several beers and rock shandies in the square beside the Church/Cathedral. We checked into the delightful but bizarrely named Hotel Monaco and reduced the water table a few inches more. Smelling sweetly we visited the Church of Santa Maria where two local Ladies could not have been more helpful. From their little table at the back of the Church they dispensed pamphlets and smiles. They brought to our attention to marvellous gallery housing the organ and cloister. I spent some happy tranquil minutes in clositer facing the setting sun. The reclining sun made lovely patterns on the cloister wall and lit the garden roses with evening sunlight.

The pilgrim meal in the hotel Monaco was first class in terms of quality and price. The friendly waiter gave us the present of five shells which we had to hide in a bed room cupboard the following day. We hoped our biggest tip so far would overcome any disappointment on finding our secret cache of shells in years to come.

Good goods in small parcels - Los Arcos - a little gem

Day Nine - 24th May - Estella to Los Arcos
21km (23km adjusted for climb) – we run out of superlatives

We left the functional hotel El Yerri and made our way back to the centre of Estella before crossing the river and joining the Camino as it climbed out of the substantial town.

It took a good 20 minutes to escape the suburbs but not before I managed to photo the 666km point on the camino supported perhaps appropriately by a local beer company.

The first stop was Irache where pilgrims could avail of water or wine for free. Barry visited the Church at Irache – which we missed, got a seal, which we also missed and declared the free wine to be of a very ordinary grade – so no such thing as a free lunch -even on the camino, I suppose. We met two Dutch cyclists who had cycled from Holland. Fraser was in his element as they discussed gears and spokes.

I managed to stay with Fraser's pace until Villamayor de Monjardin. Here sensible pilgrims had lunch but I was too hot and bothered and so I asked for a rock shandy. The waitress hesitated at the thought of mixing lemon and orange together but eventually overcame her reluctance. This was to be a continuing theme throughout the rest of our trip as we brought to the locals the beneficial effects of a rock shandy. Doubt and disbelief gave away to smiles and laughter.

After lunch I swapped Barry for the Spanish pilots who continued their English classes. Their company certainly shortened a beautiful but uneventful walk into Los Arcos. It is perhaps the least celebrated entrance to any town anywhere. The main street starts as a dingy alleyway. But persistence pays off and at the end of the town there is a delightful square in front of the marvelous church of Santa Maria.

From Puente to Estella - whoof!

DAY EIGHT – May 23rd – Puente La Reina to Estella –hot and sticky
22km (23.5km adjusted for climb) – they must be joking…

A pure blue sky greeted us as we left Puente La Reina – it was a warning – or at least it should have been – that a hot day lay ahead. We reluctantly left Puente La Reina under the arched gate and over the Queen’s Bridge. We then immersed ourselves in the fields of wheat and made our way along a path that brushed with vineyards. The wheat crept right up to the edge of the path. Not a centimeter of arable land was lost. The farmers in the field found the time to wish us a ‘Buen Camino’.

Looking back at Puente la Reina across the river Arga

Within two hours we had reached Cirauqui. We will never know what the seal looks like because it had run out of ink. Bizarrely there the camino seems to go in one side of a building and out the other. Just as well we were not travelling by car. Lorca was a further 6km down the road. We continued our walk through the fields of wheat as the sun rose higher in the sky. Lorca boasted two fine bars. As the bar on the left was full it was there we gravitated.

We had met Alberto and Joaquin on the way. They had trained as pilots together and this was the third time they were doing part of the Camino together. Such was Alberto’s knowledge of technology than within minutes we were Facebook friends.

I shared with them the Irish saying – giorraionn beirt bothar – the thought that two travelers walking and talking together will shorten the road. I am told this gem of wisdom is now somewhere on Facebook. Padraic Colum would have be thrilled – from Connemara to Navarra...

I must have worn down our Spanish friends because they decided to spend the rest of the day in Lorca and to start early the following morning. Considering the heat, it was probably a good idea.

Later we came across a fellow pilgrim – Carol – from California – who had lived in Spain. She was nursing a sore leg and a sore back but insisted on soldiering on.

The sun got hotter and hotter. It came as no surprise that as we entered the significant town of Estella (pop 13,000) the local young ladies were busy sun bathing and applying sun lotion by the bucket. Sadly Pat and I could not dally as we were committed to getting Carol into town before midnight.

Unfortunately our hotel was at the far end of town in a commercial area beside the Bull Ring. Dan, Barry and Fraser were about to call in the fire brigade to look for us when Pat and myself sauntered into the hotel at 6.45pm having left Carol at the tourist office. She thought she might take a day's rest in Estella with all it's facilities and indeed we didn’t see her again but wish her Buen Camino..

That evening Barry excelled in finding a wonderful restaurant – only to learn we had eaten in it five years previously. Management had changed and quality had improved.

Day Seven - Hotel Bidean

DAY SEVEN May 22nd Hotel Bidean

Perhaps the nicest place we stayed. Not hugely roomy but very quirky and very atmospheric. Pat, Daniel and I slowly made our way through the town to the hotel.
There was some confusion, to put it mildly, when we went to get our keys but it all worked out fine in the end. We further depleted the water table in Spain with some showers.
The Bidean Hotel deal was half bed and board. We repaired to the restaurant downstairs where a very efficient and pleasant and ultimately well tipped waitress looked after us.
After supper Daniel Barry and I wandered round a town that was quickly going to bed. We had a drink in a bar beside a driving instructor’s shop and got back at 11.00 just in the nick of time. The long walk that day meant that gentle snores quickly followed while blistered feet enjoyed the refuge of the night.

Breakfast the following morning was a pleasant affair.

Day Seven - Eunate

DAY SEVEN – May 22nd – Eunate – some detour!!

From Alto del Perdon we tumbled down the mountain to Uterga. Barry rang from Maruzabal where he was already enjoying some lunch. We confessed we had just arrived in Uterga and could not bring ourselves to leave the Corrs. We told him of our cunning plan to extend the day by visiting Eunate an eleventh century Church built by the Templers.

Barry takes a well earned rest.

While in Uterga the café played music from the Corrs in our honour. Pat nearly stayed and became a resident on the back of the summer job he got stamping the seal for all the pilgrims that came into town. When no one was looking we put the seal back behind the bad and fled as a group of about 20 pilgrims were seen entering the restaurant.

We stoutly marched along the dusty path between the wheat adorned with poppies. Daniel and Pat spoke cricket, a foreign game of which I have no knowledge. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the Camino.. This had the real feel of the Camino. I had forgotten the beauty of this part of Spain, but no doubt it had subliminally captivated me five years ago and drew me back again.

We arrived at Eunate at 3.20 – 40 minutes ahead of its scheduled afternoon opening. We later learned that Barry had been there an hour earlier and had attended a procession from the local town Obanos and had left only 20 minutes before we arrived. We chatted with a cyclist whom I mistook first for German, then Dutch and finally French Belgian – it turns out he was Flemish – anyway we left on the best of terms. The Church at Eunate is cared for by a French couple who run a little refuge with accommodation for 8.

From Eunate we walked slightly more slowly to Obanos. There we enjoyed a drink and a chat with a Spaniard fascinated with Irish rock music and in particular Rory Gallagher.

We made our way to the outskirts of Puente La Reina – the town with the bridge built by the queen. I wondered why I remembered so little of the town until it dawned on me that I had arrived by taxi the last time. I had missed a lot.

Puente la Reina is one of my favorite towns on the journey. Maybe because of its size – a mere 2,000 people, or its attractive Calle Mayor, but probably because of its exquisite bridge with a length of 110 m and seven arches.

Day Seven - Adios Pamplona

DAY SEVEN May 22nd Adios Pamplona

Pamplona to Puente La Reina – 24km, 26km adjusted for height.

The Murray Pilgrims at the University of Navarra, Pamplona.

Daniel is carrying his rucksack – as usual. I am sporting a red neck tie in honour of San Fermin which I bought as a fashion accessory – later in the week it becomes a savior from the mid-afternoon sun.

It is early on Sunday morning and the burghers of Pamplona are sleeping soundly in their beds when we leave the party city and head for the broad fields of Navarra and the Rioja beyond. Within five minutes the others have disappeared into the distance and Daniel and I are left to bring up the rearguard. We take a detour past the University to get a special seal or stamp. It was here that five years ago Barry and I eventually got our Credencial having waited for half the day at the cathedral for the person responsible to sleep off the effects of too much tea the night before.

Mercifully the day was overcast and we made our way to Cizur Menor where we stopped for the first coffee of the morning, not counting the coffee in the hotel Eslava... Then began the part I had been fearing – the ascent to the Alto del Pardon. Five years ago, much younger, much fitter and much more hung over I had climbed and scrambled up the hill only to admit defeat at the top and take a taxi into Puente La Reina.

Fraser checks his watch, again, at the Alto del Perdon.

We arrived at the top without drama. I was almost disappointed by the lack of drama. I had arrived – no problem. There was an entrepreneur in a white van (in the photo) selling sandwiches and soft drinks for a reasonable 3.00 euro. We had gone to the market in Pamplona the previous day. I had bought two oranges and some cheese. Fraser had bought some chorizo more expensive than truffles and Pat had bought the entire fruit market.

It was so exciting - Pamplona lies behind and rolling ahead of us are the fertile plains and inviting paths of Navarra. It just doesn’t get any better than this!

The stunning view from Alto del Perdon

Rest day in Pamplona - Day Six

Day Six – May 21st – Rest day in Pamplona – some rest!

Distance travelled 5km, Pints consumed, unknown.

Saturday was planned to be our rest day. It also coincided with an important rugby match – the final of the Heineken Cup between Leinster and Northampton in Cardiff.

The first big decision of the day – where to have morning coffee? – was solved by Pat who discovered a favorite haunt of Hemmingway on the Plaza del Castillo. The surroundings were opulent, yet the price was meager. We may all have yet to emigrate to Spain if things get really rough…

The students were in the square outside celebrating their day/week of protest. It was all good humored and typically Spanish. People gave speeches, wrote slogans and most importantly escaped occasionally for food and drink. Even an army of protestors marches on its stomach.

The heat and the absence of alcohol took their toll on me and so I had to spend much of the afternoon and evening close to the hotel for logistical reasons while the others forgot all about me and had the times of their lives. However I did manage to glean some valuable info – see below -

I copied all the Mass Times in Pamplona – so no excuse for being late. In the course of the day I got to attend no less than four Masses (an all time record; perhaps to equal Barcelona/Man U?). First there was a morning High Society wedding in the Cathedral. Normally there is a cover charge but we must have appeared invited but unlikely wedding guests. In the mid afternoon we visited the lovely church of St Nicholas where a first communion ceremony was in full flight and noisy children kept their well dressed but despairing parents busy. Towards the end of the day I attended yet another (evening )wedding in the Church of San Lorenzo beside the hotel and finally a regular Saturday vigil Mass in the Church of Santo Domingo where no more than 7 or 8 parishioners were in attendance – maybe like me they were exhausted.

The other less prayerful pilgrims meanwhile were on an exhaustive trawl of the tapas bars. Daniel briefly escaped to watch the rugby match on some pirate TV channel. Leinster who were out of the match at half time – trailing 22-6 – came back in the second half to win it – due in no small amount to my prayers. I reckon God may have been exhausted too.

Dinner for some of us consisted of a toasted cheese sandwich in the lovely Parque de Talconera across the road from the hotel. Pretending I was still a pilgrim in Orisson I took to bed at 10.00 only to be woken by a text from a well meaning friend at midnight to give me – the news – that Leinster had won. Unable to sleep and unwilling to put the sound on the TV, I watched Ronaldo’s recent record of scoring 40 goals in a season at least 40 times.

View across the suburbs of the city from the Hotel Eslava

Pamplona - a party town

DAY FIVE – May 20th – Pamplona – parties, fiestas, bulls and churches

It did not take us long to discover the best tapas in town. Just off the main square (Plaza del Castillo) there runs a glorious street – Estafeta – with dozens of attractive bars and restaurants. Ten euro bought a round of drinks and tapas. Barry is thinking of introducing a tapas bar bedside Harrys in Dawson Street. The burghers of Pamplona stand while they eat and drink which allows them wander off to the next bar. It’s great on a holiday but I wonder if Irish people would take kindly to all this moving. An Irish man likes to find his way to the bar, establishes a comfortable presence there and proceeds to spend the entire evening on the same spot. I think it’s a weather thing.

The Fruit Market in Pamplona

Day Five - Arrival in Pamplona

Daniel and P at the entrance to Pamplona

We left Zabaldica in the noon day sun. About 4 km short of Pamplona we stopped at the dormitory town of Arre. Across the main square we espied a bar. We moved our table out of the scorching sun to the side of building and enjoyed above average bar food. An hour later we were on the outskirts of Pamplona. The picture above may capture the tired legs and the sweaty tee shirts with which we arrived into the city of bars and pinchos (a local alternative to tapas). Just before leaving home I decided to dump my shaver in order to make the 12kg target weight. More importantly it would save me 10 minutes every day. The stubble is growing and the bearded members of our group now outnumber the clean shaven…We made our way to the far end of the town. For the first and only time on the trip we would enjoy separate bedrooms. The long cold shower was the highlight of the day!

Pamplona offered us the opportunity to contact our sponsors. Pat and Fraser are collecting for an orphanage that Pat visited when in Port au Prince in Haiti and Barry and I are collecting for Haven, an Irish Charity that builds houses for the poor of the same city and equally importantly, teaches the locals how to build their own. The response has been great. Pat is too modest to admit it, but I think he has reached his target. I, on the other hand, have a long way to go.

Zubiri to Pamplona via Zabaldica

DAY FIVE – 20TH May – Zubiri to Pamplona via Zabaldica
21km, adjusted for climb 23km

We were greeted by a cheery sunny blue sky on Friday morning – again. We quickly left behind the industrial side of Zubiri and made our way along gorgeous rustic paths.

Daniel and I came across some horses in a field – Mares with their foals – and unsuccessfully tried to get the foal to come closer for a photo op. The countryside was full of May promise with wild flowers in profusion.

Our journey today took us along the banks of the river Arga which flows all the way into Pamplona. Just after Irotz we were asked to make a decision. This was the first, and last time we were asked to make a decision. It is usually a simple matter of following the ubiquitous arrows and scallop shells. But now – all of a sudden – we had a decision to make. There were two signs and both pointed to Pamplona – both in the official Santiago livery. Within minutes we were joined by many other equally confused pilgrims. The lower path was the favored choice of many whom we met at the junction with furrowed brows, including a Swiss lady who had walked the whole way from outside Geneva. Looking at the map I guessed correctly that the lower path would take us away from Zabaldica and so we took the narrow higher road and were rewarded by a warm welcome in Zabaldica ..

Anyway we decide to take the higher road that brought us to the little village of Zabaldica and its small but welcoming church. We were greeted by two smiling ladies – one a nun from a local convent and the other a lay person who helped for two hours every Friday. They offered advice on the church, water to drink, soap to wash, nuts to eat, the Credencial seal and a visit to the bell tower. The interior of the church was simple but charming, peaceful and prayerful.

Zubiri - an industrial town surrounded by rural heaven

DAY FOUR – May 19thZubiriGau Txori

Zubiri – a victory of convenience over rustic bliss

We arrived in Zubiri hot and thirsty. Our forward brigade – Fraser, Barry and Pat had arranged Pints of lager and Fanta for us in the main bar (only bar?) of the town. Once again we had diced with rain and had won. Shortly after arriving it began to spit rain. As it was approaching 5.00pm I decide to make my way to our accommodation for the night which was a spacious building which reminded us of a US motel with space for big artics and a perfect stopping place for business travelers.

We enjoyed a hearty meal and even more the fact that there was no curfew. We decided to change our plans that evening and to cancel our last night’s accommodation in Logrono. Instead we would travel to Bilboa and spend the last day in the Old Quarter. We learned the following day that such had been the numbers staying in Zubiri that all the accommodation filled up and that about 10 pilgrims ended up sleeping on the floor of a municipal gym. Included were a mother and daughter team from an organic farm in Cornwall, Nicole from Paris and Juanita from Oz of Spanish ancestry. There are pilgrims and then there are pilgrims…

The French Connection

DAY FOUR – May 19th – Lunch in Viskarret

Does this picture remind you of a famous ad for beer? (hint, think Guinness!)

As the journey continued we discovered Barry has an encyclopedic knowledge of wine and Pat has an equally impressive ability to enjoy wine without worrying too much about it..

We were joined for lunch by the charming Nicole from Paris. She was walking the whole way to Santiago with her rucksack on her back. She explained approx half the weight comprised of food. The rucksack got lighter as the Camino progressed. Nicole was one of many women we met on the way who destroyed for once and for all the notion that women were the weaker sex.

Nicole had walked from St Jean to Roncesvalles the previous day in one stage. She also had some interesting thoughts about Orisson which leaves me sorely outnumbered on that subject. We shared our salami and fish; she gave us chocolate and cheese. We had our own proper little common market. Nicole has a very handsome partner who miraculously looks like Fraser. Go figure.

You will notice Daniel’s rucksack in the foreground. Daniel decided after the first day to become a real pilgrim and to carry his own bag. Very impressive. Clearly becoming a ‘real’ pilgrim did not go as far as declining alcohol.

Day Four - Roncesvalles to Zubiri

Day Four – May 19th – Roncesvalles to Zubiri – 22.4km plus accrued ascent 1.3km

The Royal Collegial Church of St. Mary. Roncesvalles.

I was disappointed to find the Church closed before breakfast (7.30am) the following day. I had awoken at 4.20 am and could not get back to sleep. At 5.40am I looked out the window and espied a pilgrim leaving the village of Roncesvalles in the dark with a little red lamp attached to the back of his hood. While I grew to appreciate the value of leaving early, I thought this was simply insane.

I should not be too hard on Roncesvalles. It has a certain brooding beauty. And we did get to visit the Romanesque Chapel of the Holy Spirit and the Silo de Charlemagne. And the guide was very pretty with dark blue eye and dark hair and gave us the names of restaurants in Pamplona which we promptly forgot.

Its a long way to Santiago....

After breakfast, with the help of a German solo cyclist, we took photos of the road sign – 790 km to Santiago. Come to think of it we had already travelled 25km at this stage not allowing for climbing…

We made our way through the lovely forest to Burguete where Fraser and Pat took the decision to follow the camino on the main road. Taking their chances with articulated lorries they proceeded down the N 135. Dan Barry and I took refuge in the safety of the leafy lanes that took us to Espinal where we were rejoined by our dust covered companions.

Pilgrim Menu in Roncesvalles

DAY THREE 18th May - Roncesvalles

Pilgrims’ mealtime in Roncesvalles.

We made our way gingerly down, down, down, to Roncesvalles. On the way I met a pleasant lady Unitarian from Oklahoma who was on a year's Sabbatical. She and her companion had spent a week in Taize. A spell in Taize could be another item for my bucket list. I explained how a school friend now living in the States, a Unitarian, had helped me change my life by getting me to write down on a piece of paper exactly what I believed in. Being me, it took five pieces of paper, six months, four drafts but resulted in where I am now - deriving comfort and strength from a Quaker spirituality and from weekly meeting for worship.

Cool pints of lager awaited the thirsty pilgrims on our arrival into Roncesvalles – or in my case a café con leche – probably far more harmful. Fraser had not only kindly ordered cool pints of lager but had also left his sandwich, perhaps for sale, on the bar terrace with the filling gone, presumably eaten. We got no buyers for his sandwich. Within two hours of arriving in our Hotel/Hostel – Casa Sabina – we heard peals of thunder followed by showers of rain and hail. We sipped our pints and coffees and drew ourselves in a little tighter to the hotel wall beneath the awning that was struggling with the rain. Fraser felt it best to withdraw the sodden sandwich at this point.

We got an interesting guided tour of the cloisters and the Sala Capitular housing the mausoleum of Sancho VII. We visited the imposing Royal Collegial Church of St. Mary. We all agreed that Roncesvalles had a strange atmosphere to it. Perhaps it was the fact that it had only 100 'official' inhabitants (only 30 according to John Brierley, where have the others gone?), many of whom where clerics, or perhaps the fact that the Church owned all the land.

The 'Pilgrims Blessing' at 8.00pm in the Church was a big disappointment for many, myself included. Instead of being a simple blessing, it was a full Mass in Spanish with no concessions to non Spanish speakers or to non Catholics. It just seemed a spiritual and marketing damp squib.
To be fair, the presiding priest managed to give the blessing at the end of Mass in a number of languages including an impressive display of cupla focail in Korean and Japanese (which hugely impressed Pat who did a decent Oriental imitation when called upon, and even when not).

In the photo above we are joined by two Spanish pilgrims and an English pilgrim. He had completed the Appalachian Trail despite being aged around 80 and enjoying poor hearing. The Appalachian Trail can take up to 187 days. You can count me out…

Day Three - Over the Top

DAY THREE – 18th May – Over the top

Pat, dressed suitably in Marian Blue, stands beside the Vierge d’Orisson.

La Vierge d’Orisson stands at the Pic d’Orisson, at the impressive altitude of 1,100m. High enough - considering Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrantuohill is 50m lower at 1,050m or 3,414 feet.

Dan, Pat and I spent some time as this lovely peaceful venue and prayed for those who had asked for our prayers, and even for some who hadn’t. That’s Christianity for you...

We were tempted to have our lunch at Col de Lepoeder – 4km inside the Spanish border and the highest point on the camino at 1,450m. But we manfully pushed on for another 10 minutes. Once inside Spain we were very impressed. There were signs and way marks every hundred metres, or so it seemed. It reminded us of travelling from the 'Republic’ to the North in the good old/bad old days. We remembered the immediate improvement you felt in road surfaces when you left the South for the North. In the sixties the North was full of marvelous temptations including a far wider range of Cadbury’s chocolate and other luxuries denied us in the South.

Hunger eventually won out and we sat down to lunch in a forest clearing just ahead of the descent into Roncesvalles. People dealt with the sandwiches we had received in Orisson in very different ways - as were to subsequently learn.
Day THREE - May 18th – 17.1 km with a climb of 650m (say 2,000 feet) and a descent into Roncesvalles of 500m (say 1,600 feet).

Day Breaks at Orisson

I cannot blame Heinrich for waking me around 5.45. I think I was awake anyway. I threw on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt and wandered down the road we had come up the previous day. Below me lay little pools of clouds like ponds between the hills.

I tried to help a young Korean who was travelling on a bike with tiny wheels – no bigger than 12 inches in diameter. He had developed a puncture within a hundred yards of Orisson. Feeling I was more of a hindrance than a help I abandoned him and went for breakfast which was served sharply at 7.00am. Some of my colleagues who shall remain nameless took a more relaxed attitude to breakfast and clearly when room service did not arrive at 7.20 came down to get breakfast all by themselves. By 7.25 the table was being cleared by a French man with a wild eye. Forgetting that the French actually do understand English – they merely pretend not to – my colleagues had some choice Dublin comments to make about breakfast, French cuisine, French culture, Nicholas Sarcozy and the quarrel over Irish Corporation tax.

Accordingly some felt they were persona not grata. This impression was reinforced by the refusal to hand over the sandwiches we had ordered the night before until all the other pilgrims had long left the hostel.

For some of us, arriving last had become a life style accessory and something to be proud of and nothing at all to be ashamed of…..

Day Two: Speak for your supper at Orisson

DAY TWO – 17th May – At Orisson

P in a reflective mood in the open air restaurant at Orisson.

Nothing quite divided opinion as our stay at Orisson. I thought the location sublime. The photo does not justice to the beauty of the hills and mountains that separate or try to separate France from Spain. On walking these marvellous mountains one can see the logic of the Pyrenees being one Province, or Kingdom (of Navarre/Navarra, as it was) without the artificial national border-lines drawn across its lovely hills.

Supper was served at 6.30pm to the entire community. Vegetable soup, followed by some sort of meat and beans, finished off with the most wonderful almond tart that was freshly baked. After dinner we were invited to say who we were and why we were walking the camino. We felt as if we were back in the boy scouts. Which was odd. I had never been in the boy scouts. We met two pilgrims from Ontario Canada who had married two sisters, the O Connors who hailed from Dun Laoghaire – two of a family of seven girls who emigrated to Canada thirty years past.

The overflow of pilgrims was catered for by a tented village behind the main building. Our roommate was an unfortunate German whose face said it all when we invaded his space while he was enjoying his siesta.

For a second night in a row it was lights out at 10.00 pm despite Barry’s best efforts to get some additional wine and start a party

Day Two - The Pyrenees

DAY TWO - 17th May - In the Pyrenees.

Daniel admiring the view back towards St Jean

We climbed for the next three hours, and climbed, and climbed. Daniel was simply obeying his mother when he chose to look after me – the straggler. Five years older than in 2006 and four daily tablets more, so I was determined to climb the Pyrenees and to walk the Camino – at my pace. Others, some younger and some older arrived a full hour ahead of me.

On our way we met and tried to assist Enrique (was it Enrique?) – Well I am sure he was from Venezuela and he was certainly riding a bicycle until he took the sensible decision to get down off the bike and walk up like everyone else.

We had heard of frightening stories of people getting lost in the list the mists of the Pyrenees; of pilgrims falling to their death when taking the wrong turn. Had we not seen The Way starring Martin Sheen?

But today the mountain was to be a pussycat; clothed in emerald green and looking staggeringly beautiful. A German pilgrim asked me if Ireland was not like that? Yes, Ireland is beautiful, I replied, but the Pyrenees are uber beautiful.

Day Two - St Jean to Orisson

DAY TWO - 17TH May – Early Morning in St Jean Pied to Port

Day two - Stage one of eight - only 8km through pleasant countryside - but rising over 2,000 ft - it may be less when measured in metres but we were walking with our feet...

St. Jean Pied de Port in the early morning. The dawn mist slumbers beyond the river Nive.

I rose early – around 6.00 pm and crept out of the hostel. I needn’t have bothered creeping. There were pilgrims already washing, rolling up sleeping bags and packing rucksacks. I walked down the Rue de la Citadelle to find pilgrims already on the march in the early light. St Jean had a magical, almost mystical feel to it. Full of suspense and pious romance.

We had a modest breakfast of coffee au lait and croissants. We left our ruck sacks in the entrance of the hostel at the tender mercies of Jacotrans, the taxi service that would bring our rucksacks ahead every day to our evening destination.

We spent the morning visiting the charming town of St. Jean. People killed time in different ways. Fraser bought a pair of shorts and others bought other essentials – sun cream and toothpaste.

We tried to spread our custom as wide as possible...

We had a simple lunch in a bar across from the Hotel de Ville. People were getting anxious at this stage to be started so we headed off through the Porte D’Espagne and into the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Porte D'Espagne leading out of town and into the Pyrenees, the real start of the Camino Frances. Left at the top of the street and just keep going straight for 800km.

The Murrays arrive at Orisson - eventually!