May 29, 2008 Nájera to Santo Domingo

It was clear to me now that Santo Domingo de la Calzada would be as far as I would get before leaving for the weekend’s trip to see Gail in Copenhagen. I set out from Nájera at first light, walking up the pathway through the red cliffs of this lovely, relaxed town.

After Nájera the terrain begins to stretch out into vast fields of grain. In the spring these fields are vibrant in their hues of green and as I walked I soaked in the breathtaking beauty of this amazing region. After Cirueña, one particular stretch captured my imagination. It is a  small valley in which the camino follows a farm road down a hill, then turns to the right and gradually goes up the opposite hill. This gives one of the few vistas on the Camino Frances of perhaps a full mile of the camino itself. On this particular sunny, spring day the colors were amazing and I was thankful for the opportunity to walk in this picturesque land.

Over the last few days I’d come to know a Frenchman named Luc. He spoke only French and was patient with my attempts to communicate with him using my high school Français. I walked some distance with him over the previous days, and when I arrived at the big church at Santo Domingo de la Calzada I was surprised to see Luc with bandages on his face holding out his hat, hoping for donations from visitors to the cathedral. He told me he’d fallen at a nearby creek and hurt himself and in the confusion had lost all his money. I gave him some Euros and wished him the best, knowing the Camino and other pilgrims would also help.

I checked in at the Parador Hotel just across from the church and enjoyed this stay at what would be one of my favorite camino hotels. I arranged with the desk to get a taxi to Burgos early the next morning for my long trip to Copenhagen. For dinner I walked out to the new section of town along the main road, got some cash at an ATM, and began to look ahead to the many miles I’d cover off the camino in the next few days.

May 28, 2008 Logroño to Nájera

I believed I could make it over the next two days as far as Santo Domingo de la Calzada, before having to catch a bus or taxi to Burgos for my detour to Copenhagen. So with this goal in mind and all my English-speaking pilgrim friends ahead of me I set my sights on covering the distance.

Just after Logroño vineyards dominate the countryside. It’s clear to see how Logroño is the capital of the famous La Rioja region of Spain, known world-wide for its Tempranillo wines. Entranced by the vineyards I walked right through Navarette, not stopping even for a croissant. After Navarette the town of Ventosa seems best to embody this region. Set on a hill with its church tower dominating the countryside, Ventosa is what you imagine a Riojan town to be like.

After Ventosa I came to the eastern suburbs of Nájera, looking for the 100-bed albergue — quite a transition from the plush hotel of the night before. The albergue is located adjacent to the river park, very near the historic church built over a cave. I dropped my bag at an upper bunk in a large room with 99 other beds and headed to lunch and a tour of the grand church which is located just a couple of blocks away.

The church was not a disappointment. Its Gothic nave is surely one of the most beautiful in Spain, and its crypts contain sarcophagi of many of the kings and queens of La Rioja and Navarre who’d made their capital here in Nájera.

That evening I sat with a crew of English speakers in the albergue’s kitchen and recounted pilgrim stories, particularly how each had survived the hailstorm of the day before. One pilgrim woman had been caught in a freeway underpass as the swirling waters became nearly a foot deep. Though it was a great conversation I held back some, knowing that my detour would cause me to lose connection with yet another group of pilgrims. I began to look forward to my flight to Copenhagen in part to see Gail, but also so I could settle back into what was becoming the best part of pilgrim life — making friends over the course of many days and kilometers with other pilgrims from all around the world.

May 27, 2008 Viana to Logroño

As I left Viana I took stock of my condition and realized I was hurting badly because of blisters. After several days of rain and mud my hiking shoes were still wet and my feet showed the resulting damage. I’d learned to push through the pain each day, knowing that the pain would go away after the first half hour or so. But the pain returned after breakfast or lunch or a break for another half hour at a time whenever I started anew.

So rather than plan a long walk I decided instead to walk only the 8 km between Viana and Logroño. This short day would give me a rest, and a hotel stay would give me a comfy bed, a good shower, and hopefully an Internet kiosk where I could make my plans for surprising Gail in Copehagen.

I left Viana and trudged my way toward Logroño. As I came down the last hill into town I followed the directions of the Brierley guidebook and stopped at the delightful home of Feliza. This wonderful woman has hosted pilgrims for many years, offering toast and jam and cafe to all who come by, giving a kind word and a sello (credential stamp) from the cool confines of her living room. In spite of blisters I felt cheerful as I left her house and I walked through old Logroño with its charming buildings and found a comfy, modern hotel in the newer section of town.

After my shower I looked out the window to see that a massive storm of rain and hail was happening outside. I was stunned to see the gutters filling with hailstones, thick as snow, and I was thankful not to be walking outside in this weather.

I laid out my grimy pilgrim possessions on the floor of my spotless hotel room. After one week my hiking shoes were a mess, my socks were stained with red mud, everything was damp.  I looked at my feet and they were a mess. Some of my blisters now had blisters on them. Even so, I was proud that I’d now covered 136 of the 800 km of this walk, and I knew I would make it all the way.

After the storm I headed out of the hotel to find a barber shop and get my hair cut. The hailstones had piled up to one foot depth in the lower portions of the main plaza of the old city. Nearby I found a hair salon and, while he cut m hair, I had a great conversation with a Spaniard who’d lived in America.

Before dinner in the hotel dining room I made reservations on the train from Burgos to Bilbao and flight reservations from Bilbao to Copenhagen and back. My plan now was to walk as far as I could over the next couple of days then catch a bus or taxi to Burgos, from which I’d connect to Copenhagen to surprise Gail. I went to bed, warm and comfortable with visions of seeing Gail in Copenhagen and feeling a little guilty about all those other pilgrims who’d had to weather the storms of the day and try their best to dry out in their cramped and crowded albergues.

May 26, 2008 Villamayor de Monjardin to Viana

That night at Villamayor I announced to Stefan and Trevor my plan: my wife would be in Copenhagen to give a speech on the upcoming weekend and I would surprise her there. That meant I’d need to leave the camino for 3-4 days and make my way to Copenhagen. I determined that I’d make reservations at my next big-city stop, but as I described the plan to other pilgrims I began to understand the true cost of it. Yes, all the pilgrim women agreed it was very romantic to surprise my wife. But others realized that the detour would put me 3-4 days behind the friends I’d made. I’d already said goodbye to the faster American girls. Soon I would be saying good bye to my current crop of friends, Stefan and Trevor being at the top of the list.

After Villamayor I walked on and off with the two South Africans, coming to Los Arcos on my own. And who should be sitting at a cafe near the church but Stefan and Trevor? Along with them were other friends from Villamayor — a Spanish woman, two Scottish women, and Daniel of Ireland. We shared a long, early lunch together as I heard the sad news that Trevor’s tendonitis was making his walking very difficult. It was unclear whether or not he’d be able to continue and Stefan asked me privately what I thought he should do. As I said good bye to Trevor and continued on I wasn’t sure I’d ever see him again. Ultimately Trevor shadowed Stefan by bus, but then after several days flew back to South Africa.

I arrived at Torres del Rio on my own as Stefan held back to care for Trevor. Just after Torres I heard an odd sound ahead and soon was nearly overwhelmed by a vast flock of sheep and, amid them, a small sprinkling of goats. A solitary shepherd kept the sheep together and they all seemed content as they moved from one pasture, across the camino trail, to another one somewhere nearby.

I stayed briefly to write in my journal at a lookout high above the town of Viana, then picked my way downhill, found the municipal albergue with its 3-high bunks, and looked for a place for dinner. I dined with a man from the Canary Islands whom I’d met a few days before. Then I headed back to the albergue for a night’s sleep in the top level of the triple-level bunks.

May 25, 2008 Cirauqui to Villamayor de Monjardin

I was beginning to learn that blisters are worst just after you begin walking on them. After a half hour or so, they move from being excruciatingly painful to only painful. I knew I’d need to get new boots, but more importantly, to get off my feet in order to get them healed. As I left Cirauqui I stepped gingerly on my tender, blistered feet.

I hadn’t seen Stefan or Trevor for a full day now, and I wasn’t quite sure where they’d spent the night last night. The American girls were long gone, so I left Cirauqui feeling a little lonely. I thought, too, that if I walked quickly enough I might be able to catch up to Trevor and Stefan. I also decided to email the American girls to see where there were, with the slim chance that perhaps we’d meet along the way.

The miles after Cirauqui began to fade together, with the first goal being to find the town of Estella. It’s a reasonably large town, and by the time I arrived at its outskirts my main need was to get water and a restroom. I found both at a convenience store across a busy street from the camino. Since the trail doesn’t go through the heart of the city, I wouldn’t learn until my next camino that Estella is a very charming town with a lovely plaza and a nice retail center full of interesting shops. My goal was simply to get as far as I could that day, and I set my sights after Estella on the town of Villamayor de Monjardin.

Outside Estella I stopped at the famous Irache Monastery/Winery with its wine fountain, free to pilgrims. As a late starter once again I found that other pilgrims were ahead of me and I was by myself at this popular pilgrim stop. Unfortunately that meant there was no one from whom to borrow a cup, so I skipped the wine.

After Estella the path went through a stand of forest and I must have missed the yellow arrows to Villamayor because I found myself on an optional track to a destination some 6 km out of the way. Villamayor is surrounded by vineyards, so it is easy to see — a conical mountain with a castle at the top and a village at the base. I realized, though, that it was a mile or two across the vineyards from the route I was taking, so I cut across country and then across the highway to get to the town.

Exhausted as I climbed up toward the albergue I heard the welcome accents of South Africans and saw Trevor and Stefan sitting at a cafe just outside the private albergue. After a long day of solitude I was happy to see my friends. They helped me into the albergue, found me an empty bunk, and then we sat together for dinner at this albergue run by a Dutch evangelical group.

The group invited us to a chapel service after dinner and about half of the pilgrims there that night joined them in the dining room for a time of singing and devotions. I was impressed by the earnestness of the hospitalera who shared her testimony and I enjoyed singing songs as a young man led with his guitar. Best of all was knowing my two buds were here and feeling the joy of camaraderie and fellowship in this place so far from home.

May 24, 2008 Cizur Menor to Cirauqui

My blisters were quite obnoxious yesterday and it was clear to me now that my best solution would be to purchase hiking boots at the next available town. Stepping onto my feet was an act of will, with each step coming with excruciating pain.

I set out in the morning on my own, but as I made my way uphill to the Alto del Perdon, the heights above Pamplona, I came across Stefan and Trevor, my new South African friends. Trevor was suffering some tendonitis, though he’s obviously a very athletic fellow, and he was slowed down by the constant pain in his leg. We walked together up the steep hill, with Stefan providing some great ideas to make the most of my camino. Since this was his second time on this pilgrimage he suggested upcoming sites that I should be certain not to miss.

At the top of Alto del Perdon we looked out across the vast valley that lay before us, seemingly able to see as far as the next large town of Logroño. Fog rolled in from the north and at times the valley was completely hidden in the mist. At the top of the hill, as on many Spanish hills, were large wind generators. These, too, were often obscured in the clouds. The fog covered the trail and hid us from each other and the vast views.

After walking through the towns of Uterga and Obanos we were at the valley floor, walking among small farms through the towns at the outskirts of Navarre, getting ready to welcome the next province of La Rioja. As we came to the town of Punte la Reina, with its historic medieval bridge, we stepped aside as a Corpus Christi procession came by. Women wearing red and men dressed in formal clothes escorted a statue of the Virgin Mary down the street, accompanied by a marching band. What a great introduction to Spanish religious and cultural life!

Among the vineyard a couple of hours after Puente la Reina a beautiful hilltop city came into view — Cirauqui, my goal for the night. The path into town had turned to sticky, red mud and I nearly lost my shoes several times as I slogged my way through the mud. Heading up to the top of the city I came upon the private albergue, just across the plaza from the hilltop church. After laundry and conversation with other pilgrims, followed by de-mucking my shoes in the fountain by the church, I shared a delightful dinner in the restaurant downstairs. Before bed that night in a room with 5-6 other pilgrims in double bunks, I admired the view to the south over the green hills of La Rioja.

May 23, 2008 Larrasoaña to Cizur Menor

Today I determined I’d walk as much as possible with the American girls, Kristen, Cassie, Ginnie and Stacy, enjoying their company as long as possible. The only problem: their plan was to walk 35 km/day — much more than I thought was wise (or that I could actually do).

We set off from Larrasoaña on more forest trails and beside more pasturelands, just as the day before. The only difference today was that it had rained in the night and the path was quite muddy. In many places mud puddles covered the entire width of the track, meaning the only way through was to walk in the mud. The result: blisters.

One rule for hikers that I would learn over and again: keep your feet dry. Moisture softens the skin and any irritation then raises a blister. As my feet got increasingly wet I could feel “hot spots” developing on my heels and ankles and between my toes. There really was little choice other than to continue, but as I walked farther I began more and more to doubt the wisdom of the REI salesman in Seattle who’d said I only needed “walking shoes,” not actual hiking boots. With waterproof hiking boots my feet would only have to deal with perspiration. With low-cut walking shoes there was no way I could keep water off my feet.

We continued to walk and to visit together, with me taking turns with each of the American girls to learn about their lives and find out what had brought them on the camino. They shared about their boyfriends and their future vocations and I came to enjoy and respect these determined and intelligent young women.

The walk took us up hills, by a highway rest stop, down hills, and finally across a bridge into the Basque town of Pamplona. By the time we reached the heart of downtown Pamplona the sun had come out, so we all decided to shop for food and have a picnic right on the busy sidewalk at the top of town. We laid out our meal and enjoyed watching the locals look quizzically at this group of ragged pilgrims eating lunch on a busy downtown sidewalk.

After lunch the girl were determined to dry out their clothes. They’d heard about a shower/laundry facility in town, so we asked directions to a modern facility that offered us showers and laundry. Before long our clothes were dry and we were all ready to head on to the next goal. For the girls it was Cirauqui. For me, tired as it was, it would be an albergue outside Pamplona at the suburb of Cizur Menor. I joked that the translation of Cizur Menor was “Little Caesar’s” and I would buy them each a pizza when we arrived. We made our way past the University of Navarre (for a stamp on our credenciales), up the hill to Cizur Menor, and we sad our sad good byes, recognizing we might not ever see each other again.

I made my way into the albergue, certain I’d spend the night alone, and immediately saw the two South Africans. After treating my blisters I walked with Stefan and Trevor to a local restaurant and had my first of many dinners with these two, soon-to-be-dear friends.

May 22, 2008 Roncesvalles to Larrasoaña

Waking up on Day Two of the camino I laid in bed and slowly came to the realization that I would be walking just as far today as I had yesterday. True, I had no mountain passes to conquer, but I was now looking at not just another 25 km day, but another monthof 25 km days. My tired muscles hadn’t recovered from yesterday’s hike. How could they recover from 30 days’ hikes? I showered, dressed, and headed downstairs for breakfast.

When I arrived downstairs I realized I’d made my first mistake of this camino: I’d dutifully handed my American passport to the person at the hotel desk/cafe bar, who promised I could have it back in the morning. Well, here was morning — all 07:00 of it — and the desk/bar clerk was nowhere to be seen. In fact, there was a sign at the bar that said it would be closed until 09:00. This meant that I’d be on the trail late and would miss by a couple of hours the pilgrims I’d befriended the day before. The thought of a solitary day didn’t sound that enticing, and I watched the minutes tick away off the clock, anxious to get my passport and go on to Larrasoaña, my next stop. At just before 09:00 the clerk showed up, gave me my passport, and I was on my way.

As I walked out of the hotel and toward the daunting distance sign, “Santiago 790,” I found myself completely alone, surrounded by the forests and green pastures of the Basque countryside. At the first stop in Burguete I had a quick cafe con leche and met a wave of pilgrims enjoying their morning coffee. As I’d learn time and again on the camino, the people who start earliest don’t necessarily get there first. I continued to walk along farm roads and forest paths to Zubiri, where I enjoyed a relaxing lunch. Then it was across the river bridget to Larrasoaña.

As I came into town I heard two large men talking in accented English. The one looked at the other and said, “I get the blonde. I think her name is Cassie.” “Why do you get the blonde? I get the blonde,” said the other. “You should get the brunette, the one name Ginny. She’s funny and nice looking.” I quickly realized they were talking about the American girls. Judging by the size of these two athletic and strong looking men, and judging by the small size and relative youth of the American girls I immediately turned into Father Protector, vowing I would let the girls know they were targeted by these two rather unwholesome men.

The main street of Larrasoaña was completely torn apart, right down to its foundations, for repairs, so it took some time to make my way through construction debris to the municipal albergue. I finally found my way to a building that has the City Hall on one side and the municipal albergue on the other.

I took a top bunk (the curse of late arrivers) in a room of three double bunk beds and headed to the shower, which was in the solitary bathroom of this 20-30 person hostel. The shower was dripping wet, with a small shower curtain that couldn’t keep the water into the shower and clung to the body as I tried to wash myself. No mere shower curtain could inhibit my joy at finally having a shower after a long day of walking. I mopped up as best I could afterward and headed to the back yard to wash out my clothes.

By the time I was done with washing and laundry I headed out the front door and there was delighted to find the American girls waiting for me. They’d heard I had checked in here (thanks to the Pilgrim Grapevine) and wanted to invite me to dinner with Stefan and Trevor — the two South African men I’d overheard that afternoon. We visited for a time and then agreed to meet for dinner at the local restaurant.

The dinner that night was an introduction to pilgrim fare. I learned quickly that pilgrims were expected or encouraged to purchase the Menú del Peregrino, which in this and most cases consists of a starter course, an entree with french fries, and a simple dessert. Along with the meal comes the choice of water or wine — same price for either. This last feature was a startling and joyful discovery! I had a delightful trout dinner (a local specialty) and enjoyed watching Stefan and Trevor as they did their best first to seduce then to tease then to befriend the American girls. As it turned out, each of the girls was completely able to handle herself. They put the strapping young South Africans in their places after toying with them a bit. As the night wore on the guys’ hormonal levels began to moderate and we all had a pleasant and cheerful evening.

As it turned out, the South Africans and Americans had all been placed in the albergue annex, a small building with only one bathroom and a shower with no curtains at all. While they all slept together in an atmosphere of lust, friendship, exhaustion and annoyance I had a peaceful sleep in the second floor of the main albergue with my only concern the window which the French lady kept closing, while I knew it should be open to keep the air fresh.

I’d walked over 50 kilometers now, and as night fell in this quiet Basque village I began to think I could do this pilgrimage thing.

May 21, 2008 St. Jean to Roncesvalles

I slept well at Mdm Camino’s habitation and awoke in the morning to the sounds of boots walking down the creaky wooden stairs of the pension. After a shower I headed to the kitchen where a sleepy but nervous group of pilgrims had gathered for a breakfast of toast and jam. Mdm Camino was obviously having fun entertaining her guests, who I still found annoying — “Why were they intruding on ‘my’ camino?” I thought. As people started to head for the entryway to put their packs on I asked Mdm Camino if she would tie on the sparkled scallop shell Gail had given me for my pack. She agreed and found some twine on top of her refrigerator. Before I left she asked me to be certain I prayed for her when I arrived in Santiago.

It was about 07:30 when I hit the street, which was deserted except for 2-3 other pilgrims ahead or behind me. I found a boulangerie and bought two chocolate croissants — which would be a camino breakfast tradition for the next many years. After putting them in my pack I headed downhill on Rue de la Citadelle and then began the long climb uphill toward my first day’s goal: the monastery at Roncesvalles.

The first stretch of camino from St. Jean’s old city is on a narrow, paved road through the tiny town’s suburbs of large vacation homes. In good weather I’m sure the vacation homes have beautiful views of the surrounding scenery, and of St. Jean itself. Today, though, the clouds and fog obscure much of the view. Walking further, the vacation homes thin out into small farms, or more precisely, sheep ranches. The sounds of grazing sheep — baaaahs and the occasional clanging bell — would be the soundtrack for the day’s walk.

Soon I passed a Frenchman named Marcel who was walking his first camino. We talked first in French and then, when we discovered his English was better than my French we continued in English. Marcel already seemed to know several other pilgrims, and he pointed out an athletic 40-ish Italian couple that was zeroing in on us from behind. As they passed I realized they spoke no English whatsoever, though they were clearly very friendly. Marcel asked me if I’d met the American girls yet. I hadn’t and he said he’d look for them and try to introduce me.

After an hour or so a dirt path veered off to the left an a long thread of pilgrims was making its way up this track. Here the way became much steeper. There was no mud, but the steepness became similar to walking a stairway, ever onward. Many people had warned about the steepness — up and down — of the Route Napoleon. Although it is steep, this way had been taken by invaders from France like Charlemagne and Napoleon over the centuries because of its relatively low altitude, making it free of snow for more months during the year.

Uncertain of whether or not I could complete the entire climb I’d asked the pilgrim office at St. Jean to make me a reservation at Orisson, the modern but cozy albergue about 10 km outside of St. Jean. At about 10:00, back now on the asphalt road, I rounded a corner and discovered the albergue just right of the road. I realized I had plenty of strength and quite a bit of time left in the day, so I ordered a sandwich at the albergue, asked for a refill of my water bladder, and stepped out of the albergue to begin the last phase of the day’s walk. As I came in to the light I saw four young women — the American Girls, they’d be called by many — and I introduced myself. We talked briefly, decided to walk some together, and headed up the asphalt road toward the summits, known as Col Orisson and Col Lepoeder.

As we walked I discovered much about the women. They were recent graduates (Stacy was a soon-to-be-graduate) of St. Louis University and were deeply religious. Ginny, Cassie and Kristen were part of a close circle of friends and the group was funny, talkative, curious, and ambitious. Their plan was to walk 35 km/day to make it to Santiago in a little over 3 weeks. This is about 10 km more per day that I’d planned and I both wondered whether I wasn’t being ambitious enough and whether they were biting off more than they could chew.

We walked up and up through the low clouds, marveling at the occasional vista of hills below and beyond. To the left we saw large vultures, sitting among the rocks, grounded by the thick clouds above us, I’m sure. After a fit we came to a statue of the Virgin Mary with small trinkets and flowers around it, shared as signs of devotion. Finally, one of the girls shouted from ahead, “We’re at the top.” It was true, after several hours we’d trudged all the way to the top and saw, stretched out before us, what must certainly be Spain.

We moved on ahead to the Fuente de Roland, the fountain traditionally ascribed as the water source for Roland, Charlemagne’s friend (more later), but not until after we’d crossed the cattle guard that is the official border between Spain and France.

We’d arrived here, at the top, at about 1:00 in the afternoon and were convinced that we’d be at Roncesvalles by 15:00 or so. The girls decided to take the steep route down and I followed the more gradual route recommended in my guidebook, arriving after a surprisingly long walk at the grey, monumental walls of the Roncesvalles monastery at about 17:00. The American girls were outside the albergue, sunning themselves, but I chose to find a room at the Posada Hotel in order to get a very good night’s sleep after a long and difficult climb. We agreed to meet at the 20:00 pilgrim mass and then shared dinner in the dining room of the Posada Hotel. I went to my room utterly exhausted, but satisfied I’d made it over what is reputed to be the biggest single-day physical challenge of the camino — the Route Napoleon.

May 20, 2008 St. Jean Pied de Port

I arrived on the train from Bayonne in the late afternoon, after flying from Seattle to London, then London to Bordeaux. At Bordeaux I had caught a train to Bayonne and then the St. Jean train. At the train station there seemed to be a mad dash for the old city of St. Jean, where the albergues are located, and I realized soon each person was hoping to get a bed at an albergue before they were all gone. As I made my way through the gate to the city walls I decided to find a room, rather than stay at an albergue. I happened on the pension of Mdm Camino and took a single room with a bath at the top floor of her ancient home. The room had west-facing windows, giving a views of the homes and hills surrounding St. Jean.

After settling in I headed to the pilgrim office to get a weather report for the next day and to get a stamp on my credential. A helpful French woman with long black hair stamped my passport, gave me a list of upcoming albergues, and asked me whether I felt I could make the walk all the way to Roncesvalles the next day. I said I wasn’t sure, so she made a reservation for me at the albergue at Orisson, about 10 km up the hill from St. Jean. After finishing at the pilgrim office I headed out to enjoy this delightful, Basque village along with many other tourists who’d obviously arrived at St. Jean for its charm rather than to use it as their camino launching pad. I had a generous dinner at a restaurant outside the city walls, then headed to bed at Mdm Camino’s.