“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.