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.