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!

Whoa — The Camino del Norte is Sounding Hard

Una's boots on the Camino del Norte

I knew the Camino del Norte would be difficult, but in her blog my Internet Forum friend, Una, describes shares a cautionary tale that gives me pause.

I wonder who thinks that a pilgrimage walk is a great way to get away from home and enjoy a few weeks walking in Spain. Well, I don´t blame you. But the only words I can think of to call this post and message is Muddy. Forest mud, river mud, sandy mud, wet mud, red mud, yellow mud, mud that sucks the very soul from your body and makes you wonder why you thought a Camino in April in Northern Spain is a good idea.

So it has been raining. We walked to San Sebastian and stayed in a Youth Hostel there. We took a high track through a muddy forest into Orio. The path was quite beautiful and the views over the sea were amazing. I thought I might get a swim but the waves on this coast are for surfers. In Deba we stayed in a little room beside the beach, the facilities were very basic, and the Walrus, the Carpenter and the little puppy were sleeping there too, all men who snored! I will have nick names for most of the peregrinos by the time I finish in Santiago. I walk with an Irish woman, a Spanish woman from Valencia and a young Portugese fireman who is deeply religous. We four are now in Gernika in a room with a French couple in a very dear youth hostel.

Today the guide book said take the road if possible as there might be mud but the yellow arrows kept leading us into the river, mud, forest and we couldn´t seem to stay on the road. It was very scenic and it was not raining this morning, but is now.

Last night we slept in Ziorta Monastery, what a treat, a Japanese man was the only other person there, we were given a good supper of soup and bread, attended Vespers and got our first pilgrims blessing. We did get Mass in Deba on Saturday night. Mass in the Basque language is hard for the Spanish to understand, let alone the Portugese or Irish but we enjoyed the Misa as it was our first. Unlike the Camino Frances there is not the same opportunity to attend local mass at night as the alberques are on the outskirts of towns.

Just four weeks and three days away from my own Camino del Norte. I’ll certainly be watching Una’s blog to see how the trail goes. Meantime, today’s weather report in Bilbao, where I’ll be starting, shows almost exactly the same temps and conditions as Seattle: 60 degrees and cloudy/rainy.

Planning my Camino del Norte for this Spring

Map of the Camino del Norte. I'll begin in Bilbao

After flirting for a time with a month long walk on the Via Francigena I decided what I really wanted was another Camino de Santiago. The primary benefits are: more pilgrims to have for company and more albergues and other services along the way. So, Camino del Norte it is, and I’ll arrive in Bilbao to begin there on May 28. Wish me a buen camino!

May 30 – June 2, 2008 Santo Domingo to Copenhagen and back

May 30: I left Santo Domingo at dawn in a white taxi and watched out the window as future camino miles whizzed past. I saw several pilgrims braving the wind and light rain of this day, and once again I was amazed at the colors of the springtime grain fields.

I arrived at Burgos in plenty of time for my train and waited at a cafe as one of the oddest sights of the camino unfolded before my eyes. A group of young Spaniards escorted one of their friends into the train station. He was blindfolded and wearing a bright wig and ballet tutu. He had some kind of sock around his male appendage and it became clear he was getting married this weekend and his friends were giving him a pre-nuptial hazing. He took it “like a man” and the whole episode evinced chuckles from the assembled train goers.

I boarded the train to Burgos, looking ahead to a five-hour journey and enjoyed every moment of this trip to Bilbao. Through fields and forests and across rivers — this was an introduction to the beauty of Northern Spain and I was glad for the opportunity to see this beautiful region. I arrived at the train station in Bilbao and spotted the gorgeous stained glass window above the train gates. Then I caught a taxi for Bilbao’s airport and my flight to Copenhagen.

My wife, Gail, an anesthesiologist and professor of bio-medical ethics, was to speak to the European Society of Anesthesiologists that weekend. It was a big event and her first European speech. When I arrived in Denmark I soon realized there were two Sheraton Hotels and I wasn’t certain at which one Gail was staying. I guessed which one and when I arrived at the lobby I asked the desk to call her room. Gail answered the phone and asked the odd question, “Where are you?” I told her, “I’m down in the lobby,” and she was ecstatic. Her friend, Pam, had joined her for her Copenhagen visit and for a couple of weeks of sightseeing between there and Rome, so the three of us spent the next days enjoying this amazing city and listening as Gail shared his outstanding speech with the European Society.

Since Gail is a doctor I asked if she’d be willing to take a look at the blisters on my feet. “No!” she said, “They’d be too gross!” Even without the support of My Own Private Physician the days away from the camino brought healing to my feet and by the time of my return to Spain I felt much better. My only regret was that I’d left my favorite baseball cap back at the hotel in Santo Domingo and I expected I’d never see it again.

June 2: After a great weekend in Copenhagen I said goodbye to Gail and Pam and headed back via plane to Bilbao. My friend Stefan had suggested that I needed a cell phone so he could send me SMS texts, so I obliged and purchased a cheap cell phone and some minutes as I waited at the Bilbao train station. I boarded the train back to Burgos and caught a taxi to Santo Domingo. As I checked in at the Parador I asked about my hat and, sure enough, they’d kept it safe for me. From then on I’d have a fondness for this hotel and the great Parador chain.