“Pain, Torture or Hell?”

Day 3 – Castro Urdiales to Laredo At the start of the day, in his unique and lovable way, Sebastian perfectly summarized the options ahead: “Pain, torture or hell?” Three options, and each is brutal.

We left the albergue at Castro Urdiales (just next to the bullfighting ring) at 7:00 and headed backwards 500 meters on the camino to a bar cafe that advertised early breakfast. After a meal of croissants, jam, orange juice and coffee we headed out to look for yellow arrows that would mark our way for 32 km to the next beachside city — Laredo.

We debated whether to follow the German guidebook up the hill to the left of the albergue or to follow the Spanish guidebook to walk along the road. Julie and Tony of Sacramento were within shouting distance and told us to follow them. We soon found arrows along the omnipresent N-634 and walked on its shoulder for several km with the ocean cliffs 100 meters below us on the right. Near the tiny town of Cedigo the locals directed us under the freeway bridge and to the right where we could see across the freeway to Julie and Tony who were still walking the former way. Our little road followed the freeway for a few more km until we crossed back under the freeway to a large campground full of tents and camper vans. At the far end of the campground we came to a nice cafe/bar where we enjoyed a conversation with two older Danish women. After they left we had a second breakfast and rested for a hour before the next stage.

From here the camino followed the road again, then returned under a tall bridge to the freeway before climbing a small hill through scattered houses and farms where we briefly met Malco of Switzerland, a dredlocked and lanky young man wearing flip flops. At the small village of La Magdelena we encountered a local who informed us in rapid Spanish that we would soon climb a large hill as he pointed out a mountain nearby with a distant TV tower at its top. We had been joined a few minutes earlier by John, a young pilgrim from Calgary, and the three of us began our ascent on a narrow, steep, gravel path. In a few, hot minutes I began to wonder why I had chosen a vacation of walking 700 km over mountainous terrain to get to a town I’d already walked to three times in the recent past. Another thought ached in my mind: could we get there quicker if we’d just stayed on the road?

When I shared my misgivings with Sebastian he responded with his memorable line: “Pain, torture, or Hell?” It was his way of pointing out that since all the options were tough, what difference does it make which one we take? So why whine about it?

With that frustratingly rational thought we continued up 10km of steep, wooded hills, sweating more with each step. Finally we arrived at the summit and began our equally difficult descent. In a shady spot where I insisted we stop and rest, Sebastian, John and I shared a nectarine and two oranges. Soon Malco and Daniel, a Scottish musician, stopped to talk.

By the time we reached the bottom of the hill it was nearly 3:00. In Llanes we found a restaurant and ordered our well earned lunch. Afterward we left John at the Llanes albergue and we walked the remaining 7 km through small farms over hill terrain to Laredo with Daniel. In Laredo we saw the two young Englishmen from last night, Sean and Tobey, and walked with them to the Buen Pastor albergue.

Though the day was long, steep and hot we were rewarded by many conversations between Sebastian and me, as well as new friendships with several pilgrims from around the world.

At the end of the day I counted to total cost of today’s ordeal: 2 blisters and a sunburn on my arms and neck.

20120531-223416.jpgMagnificent vistas after Castro Urdiales, but look out for those mountains reaching down to the water.

20120531-223439.jpgAnd the road starts to climb, up to a distant TV tower on the mountain beyond.

20120531-223501.jpgI think this might be Llanes.

20120531-223516.jpgThe gorgeous beachside town of Loredo where we walked into town with Daniel the Scotsman.

And We Meet Pilgrims From Around the World

Day Two: Portugalete to Castro Urdiales — Yesterday in our riverside walk we saw almost no pilgrims. Today we met many, and the albergue here at Castro Urdiales is full of noisy, fun, and friendly pilgrims from around the world.

Sebastian and I left our pension at 7:00, stopping at a nearby bar/cafe for coffee, croissants and fresh orange juice. We asked directions to Avenida Carlos VII and found it and our first yellow arrows. Carlos VII turned into a paved cycle/pedestrian path, which we followed a full 12km to our first views of the ocean at Las Arenas beach.

We wound our way a couple km farther to the tiny beach village of Pobena. There we found the albergue’s hospitalero cleaning up. We asked him to stamp our credentials and suggest a restaurant for second breakfast, a custom we happily resurrected from last year’s walk. He pointed us to a nearby bar/cafe, which fulfilled his promise of having great tortillas. While we enjoyed our tortilla we watched as a couple of pilgrims approached. Soon we met Julie and Tony of Sacramento, California, and enjoyed their company for a laughter-filled half hour. We then put bocadillos from the kitchen into our packs for the next stage.

We walked up a long stairway to the top of the hill and saw magnificent vistas of the bay and ocean. We congratulated ourselves for our cleverness in choosing the Camino del Norte for our walk. After a long and beautiful promenade along a onetime railway bed with constant views of the ocean we went through a small, hand-hewn tunnel to a parking lot and finally to a series of small roads taking us toward the old coastal highway, now called the N-634.

We walked up two steep km on the narrow shoulder, then down one km to a bus shelter across from the Saltacaballo Restaurant where we enjoyed the shade as we shared our lunch with a red, neighbor dog. Martin, a pilgrim from Switzerland, stopped to introduce himself and visit. From here we continued on the asphalt until a yellow arrow pointed us onto a gravel road.

This road took us to a path that followed the coastline through hay farms with even more spectacular views of Castro Urdiales followed by a quick descent to the suburbs of this seaside tourist town. With Martin we made our way along the oceanside promenade to Calle Santander for another 2 km through town to the albergue, our refuge for the night. There we met John of England, Petri of Finland, Theo and Theo of Belgium, and our new old friends, Julie and Tony of Sacramento.

After choosing a bed we headed back to the center city for a tour of the basilica and a cervesa or two. The church was beautiful, but the beers made me sleepy, so we took a quick nap on the beach in the sunshine. Martin found us and offered us to join him for a homemade dinner at the albergue, so we picked up some wine and headed back “home” for laundry, showers, and a delicious dinner.

Today we felt like pilgrims. We found ourselves in a community of friendly travelers, united by adventure, blisters, and the shared goal of Santiago de Compostela after many days. The life of a pilgrim is much walking and much joy.


Other Than Getting Lost, a Great Day

Day 1: Bilbao to Portugalete — After a long trip yesterday it was no surprise that I’d be sleepy, but even so I didn’t expect to sleep until 9:00. That’s 3-4 hours after good pilgrims are already on the road. Sebastian was patiently and quietly waiting in the next bed for me to awake, and once I did it was off to the showers and out the door for our first day of walking.

The weather was cloudless and warm as we made our way to breakfast, then to the Cathedral of Santiago (Bilbao’s small but elegant medieval cathedral) for our first pilgrim stamps. We found an elderly priest in the sacristy, and the neat, South American nun with him stamped and dated our credentials. Then we headed out the massive cathedral doors for the day’s walking adventure.

Our plan for the day was simple: walk along the River Nervion to Portugalete, stopping for photos at the famous Guggenheim Museum. This would be a simple 14 km walk, with little need for directions. We would just walk the east bank of the river, then arrive in Portugalete by crossing the unusual and famous transport bridge.

If we’d looked carefully at a map we would have seen our folly and changed our plan. After walking about 8 km through first pleasant then progressively industrial walkways a man stopped us and asked us in Spanish if we were pilgrims heading to Santiago. We told him “yes” at which point he explained that we had walked nearly to the end of a long peninsula in the river, missing the right bank which was now across a wide canal. There was no bridge ahead to take us to our road. We would need to retrace our steps about 3 km to pick up the correct path. We consulted my phone map and realized he was exactly correct. That meant an extra 6 km added to our day. We tested several roads until, with the help of locals, we found the right way back to the right bank of the river.

Now it was a straight shot along narrow sidewalks and ultimately no sidewalks to Las Arenas, the town just across the transporter bridge from Portugalete. As we walked, a man in a bike shouted, “Buenos Dias, peregrinos! Buen camino!” Even with no signs all day of pilgrims or yellow arrows or scallop shell markers, at this point we knew we were pilgrims again.

Sebastian and I agreed that the man who shouted his greetings to us, like the people who gave us directions today, was an angel. All these angels had helped us hapless pilgrims to find our way when there were no markers and no other pilgrims to ask or follow.

After crossing the transport bridge into Portugalete we stopped for a beer at a sidewalk bar/cafe. The owner was anxious to close for siesta, so he left us outside with our beers and, rather than rushing us to finish, he told us they were free — just leave the glasses. Another of God’s angels.

Sebastian’s guidebook suggested Pension La Guia, so we settled in there for the night at a price of 20€ each including free laundry by another angel. At 6:00 with no laundry to do it was nap time, with dinner later and time to plan tomorrow’s walk to Castro Urdiales.


Arrival in Bilbao — First Day of Camino #4

Well, the travel yesterday seemed endless. Flight to Iceland 7 hrs, wait in Iceland 1hr, flight to London 3 hrs, wait for the bus 1/2 hour, ride on the bus 2 hrs, wait in the airport 3 hrs, fly to Bilbao 2 hrs. Little sleep, babies crying, , etc., etc. Wait at passport check in Bilbao while the solitary passport agent inspected all EU passports first — perhaps 200 — then decided to check non-EU people when all EU folk were through.

All was well, though, when I saw a beaming Sebastian at the arrivals hall! For newcomers, Sebastian is a fireman from Cologne, Germany with whom I walked last year. We hit it off big, then, and I was delighted in his decision to join me for a week’s walk this year. After a big, manly hug (his words) we taxied into central Bilbao, looked for camino markings, had a slice of pizza, then back to the room to talk until 12:30am.

It’s 5:30 am here now. Our plan was to sleep in (yeah right), get breakfast, head to the cathedral for a stamp, pick up the trail, walk to Portogalete at least (13k) and hopefully then onto Pobena (another 13k). Definitely heading to the Guggenheim for a photo, too, to prove we are here.

And so, the fun begins!

One Day to Go — Time to Pack

Here’s what I’m bringing this year (plus my backpack)

Even after three caminos I’m finding myself debating exactly what gear to bring on this year’s walk. I leave tomorrow — just 25 hours from now — so decision time is at hand.

There are a few things I know are handy, but they add extra weight — and weight is the bane of pilgrims and long-distance trekkers. Some items I know I can buy if and when I need them.

Here what I’ve settled on for my Camino del Norte (2012):

  1. Hiking towel — lightweight, dries very quickly. I’ve used this one on pilgrimages for years.
  2. Liquids — these will ultimately go in my toiletry bag, but for airport purposes they’re in a transparent, plastic sack. They include liquid soap, toothpaste, eye drops and sun block lotion
  3. Toiletry bag and toiletries — this has my dry toiletries, and ultimately my liquid ones once I arrive. Toothbrush, nail clipper, dental floss.
  4. Airline tickets, directions, other papers — these stay in an outer compartment in my pack for each access.
  5. Guidebook — also in an outer compartment.
  6. Camelbak water bladder — 2 liter size. Dry until I arrive, then I fill it with trustworthy tap or bottled water
  7. Gloves — Sometimes I only need these once or twice, but when I do, they’re nice to have. Super lightweight.
  8. Toilet paper — goes in an outer compartment in the pack for when nature calls and no indoor plumbing is available.
  9. Rain cover for backpack — into an outer compartment.
  10. Rain jacket — I find it easier to use a Gore-Tex style rain jacket than to have a bulky poncho that is hard to get over my pack and catches the wind.
  11. Warm fleece — I’ll wear this onto the airplane. For cool days and mornings.
  12. Hiking boots — my trusty Treksta Assault GTX boots
  13. Passport and credential — these two important items stay in a waterproof bag in an external pocket for easy access.
  14. Sleeping bag liner — treated with Permethrin. Keeps the random bed bug away.
  15. Camp shoes — super lightweight North Face shoes with comfy, padded soles. For a break from boots after hours.
  16. Blister kit — includes small scissors, needles, thread, band-aids, Compeed, moleskins
  17. Sleeping bag and inflatable pillow in stuff sack — very lightweight, down bag good to 40F and super lightweight inflatable pillow. I also have a tiny LED flashlight attached to the zipper of my sleeping bag in case I need it.
  18. Clothes bag — Having a light “cube” bag allows my clothes to stay together in my pack. Clothes include 3 pair hiking socks, 3 pair sock liners, 2 hiking shorts, 3 technical t-shirts
  19. Airline clothes — my long, lightweight hiking pants, collar shirt, 1 pair undershorts, belt. These items ultimately go into the pack, but the long pants (along with my fleece) help me stay warm in cool airplanes and airports.
  20. Tech bag — charger, plug adaptor, charging cord for phone, charging cord for camera, extra camera battery, telephone, waterproof bag for telephone.
  21. Mylar foil emergency blanket — won’t ever hike without this. A survival blanket that I can use if weather requires or in case of injury where help might not arrive for hours.
  22. Sleeping pad — this is a luxury item. I take it out for when I’m enjoying my afternoon siesta. Also there for the odd time in which I might need to sleep outdoors — it happened once.
  23. Not shown: writing pad and pen, magazines for on the plane (thrown away when done), credit card, debit card (for ATMs), baseball cap, sun hat.

Total weight: 16.2 pounds. Well within the 20 lbs (or 10% of bodyweight) recommended. Ooops, almost forgot my scallop shell.

OK. I think I’m ready!

Blogging the Camino del Norte by iPhone

The screen is tiny. The keyboard is even tinier. Plus, I need my glasses in order to type. So why am I planning to blog my upcoming camino on my iPhone?
The answer is that it’s easier than the alternatives. Coin op computers in Spain usually don’t allow for uploading photos. I don’t want the weight of an iPad. And I want my blog to be as contemporaneous with my walking as possible.
Who knows, maybe Siri can help me find the best tapas each evening?


Ten days out, chomping at the bit

The Guggenheim in Bilbao, with titanium exterior (a style copied from First Church Seattle?????)

Hardly an hour goes by when I don’t think about my impending camino. I’ve taken a gamble and ordered new boots, which hopefully will arrive this weekend for their first break-in walk. If they don’t work, I’m back to my old boots which have at least another camino left in them. I’m also getting ready for the start of tomorrow’s big sale at REI, where I’m planning to buy some new technical t-shirts and hiking shorts. I’ll check my Camelbak bladder to make sure it’s fit for duty, and I’ll lay out my gear in the bedroom and probably back and re-pack my backpack over and over in the next few days.

The best part of this year’s camino will be meeting friends from last year. My German firefighter buddy, Sebastian, will join me for the first few days outbound from Bilbao. Then at the end, my buddy Martin, who teaches English in Logroño, will join me for up to two weeks. Both guys are super companions, each a lot of fun in their own way.

As I make plans for the walk it’s clear just how different the Camino del Norte is than the much more popular Camino Frances. The first stop out of Bilbao generally is the town of Portugalete. Problem there is that the only albergue is open only in July and August since it’s an adult school. So, Sebastian and I will make a long day and do two stages in one, heading to the albergue at Pobeña. This gives us a 32 km day, but we can shave off some miles by walking the industrial route along the river in Bilbao to Portugalete. Sebastian’s a good walker and the added advantage of this plan is that we’ll walk along the seashore part of the way to Pobeña.