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.