We Begin Our Camino

After a week of vacation in Biarritz and San Sebastian, it’s time to get to the point of this European adventure! For about 30€ per person, we took a four-hour bus ride to Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, the official starting town of the Camino Frances. I say I don’t get seasick, but riding those windy mountain roads on a big bus did make me a little bit queasy!

Saint Jean is surprising scenic, placed on a river, built around an ancient citadel. We got all of our chores done quickly: visiting the Pilgrim’s Office to register for our Credential, or Pilgrim’s passport, mailing a few items ahead to Santiago, and getting a final fresh meal of steak and salad at a terrace by the river.

The next morning started much too early with the door of the inn slamming shut at 6:00 am as the earliest pilgrims hit the trail. Mike and I, on the other hand, took showers, packed our bags, bought coffee at the bakery across the street, and finally walked through the gate to Spain at 8:00.

The folks at the Pilgrim’s office said the first seven kilometers would be the hardest, and they weren’t joking. On too little sleep, too little coffee, and too much backpack, I was definitely suffering. The trail climbed straight up, without any switchbacks or grading for pack animals. Many pilgrims pay to have their luggage shuttled forward, especially for this mountainous leg. But you know us! We like to do things the hard way 😁 The views from the Refuge Orisson were definitely worth the effort. We fortified ourselves with coffee and tortilla jamon there for the rest of the long, mountainous day.

The rest of the hike across the Napoleon Route over the Pyranees was a delight! Perfect weather, no rain, gorgeous views as far as the eye could see! We took a side trip to admire the Basque Virgin – a statue of the Virgin Mary imported from Lordes and positioned to watch over the shepherds in the valley below.

As the sun rose high and brutal, Mike had the opportunity to try out his fancy shade umbrella.

And just before we climbed the path to the border with Spain, we came upon a farmer’s food truck. No tacos or hotdogs here! The French gentleman offered a basket of fresh hard-boiled eggs, homemade sheep’s milk cheese, and hot coffee or chocolate.

At long, long last (18 miles, and about 1500 metres of climbing) and about 5km of step decent, we finally sighted the priory and albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) of Roncesvalles. The old albergue, featured in the movie “The Way” was replaced in 2011 by a modern feat of pilgrim accommodation engineering.

When a pilgrim walks in the front door, a hospitality volunteer in a red vest greets her, figures out which language to use, and explains the drill:

  • Put your backpack here.
  • Fill out this form (Where are you from? What religion? Why are you doing a pilgrimage?)
  • Do you want a bed? 11€. Here’s a ticket with your bunk number.
  • Do you want the pilgrim meal? 10€. Here’s a ticket with the name of the restaurant and time of your sitting.
  • Put your boots on this shelf (no boots allowed upstairs)
  • Wash clothing here. Wash bodies there.

Well there you go! No further questions here! Except how do I drag myself up three flights of stairs right now?

The bunks are clean and functional – think Orange is the New Black with more wood paneling and better natural light.

I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to find anything gluten free at the pilgrim’s meal, but we gave it a try. A short walk up the hill to Casa Sabrina restaurant and the brusque servers funneled us into a crowded room at exactly 7:00. “Tickets please! Boleto por favor!” We were seated with two Italian women, one of whom was walking her 6th Camino! We had vegetable soup, a whole fish with potatoes, and a glass of red wine. Not bad for 10€.

A second glass of wine on the terrace with new friends Michael from Belgium and Stefan from Switzerland, and we were more than ready for bed. Back at the albergue, church music started playing over the loudspeakers just before 10:00 pm and a volunteer walked down the center aisle of the bunk room saying, “Buenas Noches, Buenas Noches!” And the lights went out with a click promptly at 10:00. That was just fine. After our first long day as pilgrims, and after crossing the Pyranees, Mike and I were ready for bed.

A Pinxtos Tour of San Sebastian

San Sebastian is known as a foodie city. It possesses 18 Michelin stars. Eight percent of it’s population belong to gastronomic societies. And eating is entertainment! But you don’t have to be on a Michelin star budget to enjoy great food – you just have to indulge in some pinxtos.

Look at all that deliciousness!

Pinxtos are the Basque version of the Spanish tapas. It’s a snack, usually eaten standing up at the bar or outside the restaurant with a glass of wine, to tide you over between the end of the work day and the late Spanish dinner. But here in San Sebastian they’ve elevated pintxos to a culinary art and it’s easy to make a meal of these tasty morsels. After four days of pinxtos tasting, here’s what I’ve learned….

Where to go?

When restaurants brag about being on the “100 best pinxtos bars” list you know there’s no shortage of hot spots. My method is to follow the crowds – if it’s busy, there’s probably a good reason. And you don’t have to stick to Old Town’s “Pinxto-landia” theme park vibe and tourist crowds. The trendy Gros neighborhood is also amazing.

Constitution Plaza at Sunset

Because you only order one or two small plates at each establishment, the crowds ebb and flow quickly – just loiter outside and people watch for a few minutes until there’s room at the bar. And if they ask you to pay each time you order something, it’s a tourist trap! Traditional places will let you order a round, maybe two, and when you’re ready to leave they’ll have magically remembered what you ordered and present a perfect tally.

I’m told this was always Anthony Bourdain’s first stop when ever he returned to San Sebastian

How to Order?

It can be kind of intimidating, especially if there’s a crowd and if the bartender’s speaking Basque! But stay cool. Just kind of wander through and check out the crowd, the platters of deliciousness displayed on the bar, and the chalkboard of “plates of the minute” hot pinxtos specials. Unless you see something amazing and creative, stay resolute and don’t be tempted by the cold pinxtos that have sat out all day. And DEFINITELY don’t ask for a dinner plate. A local told me “it breaks his heart” every time he sees a tourist with a huge plate of stale, bad pinxtos. Instead, order a “txach” of Basque cider, poured from a great height. Or a “gintonic” served in an oversized wine glass with bruised citrus rind, a few juniper berries, and lots of ice. Or keep it simple and go with a vino blanco – the house white is probably perfectly adequate and will only set you back about 1.20€ Now that you’re fortified with a cold beverage, order a hot pinxto from the chalk board. You might have even had a chance to check out what everyone else is eating to discover the specialty of the house. Don’t worry if you can’t translate exactly. It will probably be delicious, and if it’s not quite your thing, well there’s always the next bar down the street! Don’t forget to say thanks a lot, or “Eskerrik Asko” if you remember “Scary Costco” you’ll be close enough.

Grilled fois gras with apples cooked in cider

When I copied the description of the “rice of the day” at Atari into Google Translate I got back “Sailor rice with seaweed ali-oli and salicornia”. While that doesn’t sound very appetizing, it was actually the most delicious clam risotto served with two tiny clams on top and some sort of frothy green emulsion, topped with a few strands of a crisp, salty sea vegetable – easily one of the best things I’ve eaten in years.

“Sailor rice” and “Huevo cooked at low temps” at Atari

While you’re waiting for the kitchen to prepare your hot pinxto, ok – go ahead and help yourself to a cold one from the bar. You’re only human after all!

Some of the best pinxtos from our tour

Other highlights from our pinxtos exploring?

We stumbled upon the wonderful La Cuchara de San Telmo because a) it was crowded and b) several men wearing shirts from the local rowing club were drinking beer outside the entrance, and when we peered inside and hesitated one said “very delicious” in a strong Basque accent.

We treated ourselves to seafood pinxtos from the special 20th anniversary menu and they were some of the best of our trip. Grilled octopus with homemade tzaki and chimichuri sauces, and sea scallops wrapped in Serrano ham and served with a fresh corn emulsion and crunchy granules of toasted corn. OMG!

The name of the bar is fun too. Back when San Sebastian was being built, the church of San Telmo was considered the “poor people’s church.” In fact, they ran out of money and never completed the wall which still shows the rough unfinished sea rock known as cucha today. The rich merchants started using the name “cucharas” as an insult for the working class folks who couldn’t even afford to finish their church. Today, many San Sebastian natives have taken back the name, and embraced it with pride as their own nickname.

We really enjoyed the grilled pequillo peppers at Bar Tamboril because, except for olives, they were the only green vegetable we’d eaten since we arrived.

done we’ve done some long hikes but over a long long ago we did the Appalachian Trail 20 years ago the east coast of the United States and some it’s 2000 miles up the east coast of the United States but that was 20 years ago relationtrip

Wherever you go, and whatever you order, don’t forget to introduce yourself to the person next to you, relax and enjoy the setting sun reflecting off the stone walls, and to laugh and tell stories! You can’t go wrong!

A hike to the castle (aka, All roads lead to Jesus)

From any spot along the coast of San Sebastian you can see the huge white statue of Jesus gracing the peak of Mount Urgull. He stands at the top of an ancient castle that protected the Old City of San Sebastian from French armies. So we motivated to get our butts off the beach and onto the trail to climb the mountain and see what we could see. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find the path, so I did a lot of research and read several blog posts and squinted at city maps. Little did I know that there are dozens of entrances to the network of paths that climb the mountain. As long as you walk uphill, you can’t help but end up at the castle!

The path is mostly paved and not very difficult, which is a good thing because I saw many high heeled sandals on the way. Lovely and shady, even in the heat of the day, the walk itself is a pleasant change from the crowds in Old Town and on La Concha beach. As you climb, you pass a series of milliary batteries and lookout points – the higher you climb, the better the views!

Finally at the top, you’re rewarded with the castle itself and a small museum dedicated to the military history of the city.

None of the museum exhibits are in English, so it didn’t take us long to have our fill and join the queue for the main attraction – the chance to climb out on a small viewing platform right at the base of the Jesus statue. Here, the views of the city are first rate and I was thrilled that we’d made the effort!

Stunning San Sebastian

After a full day in Biarritz, these global nomads had to move on! We took a bus about an hour and a half down the coast to San Sebastian, Spain for 13€ per person. Which was kind of sad, ’cause I was enjoying speaking French and now we’re back to Spanish. Or worse yet – Basque! The Basque language is not a romance language so nothing on the signs or menus looks the slightest bit familiar to me. And almost every word has an ‘X’ in it. This would be a great language for Scrabble!

Just in case I’ve given you the impression that traveling full time is easy, let me tell you a story … I booked every night of our first week in Europe at least twice 😥 At first I was thrown off by the red-eye flight and booked an Airbnb in Biarritz on the night we were actually flying to France. (for the record, Capt. Mike reviewed my reservation before I hit the “Book” button and said it looked good) So I went back to the drawing board. Then I learned that in a crazy coincidence, some of our dearest friends from Virginia planned to be in Spain on a family vacation at the EXACT SAME TIME we would be there! So I changed the reservation again to match their tour itinerary. Just before the trip I got a text “so did we send you our updated itinerary?” Oops. They wouldn’t make it to Biarritz after all. So I shortened our stay in Biarritz and added a day at a different hostel in Spain. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it sure keeps me on my toes!

And then there’s the new city blues of getting off a bus in a strange underground bus station and trying to find your way to your temporary home for the night. If you’re still a teeny bit jetlagged the sights and sounds can be overwhelming, and it’s all I can do not to walk straight into traffic! Google maps is a godsend, but not perfect. Eventually we found our hostel in the Gros district which was everything I expected a hostel to be – slightly dirty, slightly stinky, with one bathroom for the entire floor, but in a great location! We were right above a popular pinxtos bar and restaurant which set us up for a wonderful breakfast the next morning!

In the interest of research, we checked out the beach so we could compare the Spanish coast to the French coast, and then met our friends at a cider bar for dinner. As someone who needs to be gluten free for health reasons, a cidery is heaven. Especially when I find natural, cask-conditioned, unfiltered, dry cider! The best cider I’ve had since living in England! And the best part… The bartender pours it from a great height – part aeration, and part theater. Yep, that’s his “I’m sexy and I know it” look, lol.

Did I mention the crazy coincidence that allowed us to meet up with Marybeth and Trent and their kids in Spain? What a cool experience for middle schoolers to travel to another country, play soccer with kids from around the world, and experience new cultures and new foods. (the 10-year-old boys were particularly impressed with topless sunbathers.) It was amazing to have the opportunity to spend time with them 💕

I was thrilled about the cider, but Capt. Mike’s heaven was finding an artisan ice cream shop that really does gluten free right. For 3.50€, you get 2 scoops of deliciousness in a gluten free cone. AND, when you say “soy celiac” they wash their hands, grab a clean ice cream scoop, lift up the top container of ice cream and dig into the new one underneath so there’s no cross-contamination. If that’s not enough, Capt. Mike confirms it’s the best chocolate ice cream he’s had since he visited Greece ten years ago. Heck, I don’t even like ice cream very much, and I ate some. Something tells me we’ll be visiting at least once a day while we’re in San Sebastian!

And we’re off!

After a wonderful month in Colorado filled with hikes, friends, and margaritas, it’s time to start our real hurricane-season adventure. On July 8th, we became global nomads again, taking the red-eye to Paris, then easyJet to Biarritz, then a bus to the Centreville, to the smallest studio apartment I’ve ever seen.

We only had one full day in Biarritz, but we made the most of it, hiking for miles along the gorgeous coastline, admiring the beautiful architecture surrounded by hydrangeas, and doing lots of people watching!

It was fun to use my high school French again. Thank goodness I can still remember how to order two coffees, and to ask if they have any gluten free bread! What else do you need? That little bit of French came in handy when we loaded up on delicious meats, cheeses, and rillettes for a picnic near the Roche de Vierge – the rock of the Virgin Mary. Her statue high atop this rocky island is intended to protect the fisherman at sea.

I have a feeling this will be the first of many amazing picnics! After lunch, we have in to the call of the sea and got our feet wet. This whole side of the town is simply one beautiful beach after another. Climb up a little hill and down the other side, and another amazing mile of sand appears. We’re trying to beat jetlag by walking it off! Over 20,000 steps today.

That evening, we stumbled into the Wednesday market. (I guess my French isn’t really that good – I translated the signs to mean they were closing the street for a parade. Oops!) So much fun to see the narrow brick streets jammed with people of all ages, and everyone happy, smiling, shopping, and drinking wine. We grabbed wooden platters of sausage and cheese and a couple of glasses of crisp rosé at Least Comptoir du Fois Gras and soaked it all in.

Lest you think we only eat cheese and sausage, never fear! I discovered another food group as a sign posted outside Les Halles market drew me in. A dozen oysters and two very small plastic cups of wine for 10 Euros! That’s the face of a happy Jenn.

I may not believe in jetlag, but apparently it believes in me. We headed back to our teeny tiny little studio apartment before dark, which isn’t quite as pathetic as it sounds because the days are crazy long this time of year. I tried to finish my Duolingo Spanish lessons, but I was falling asleep between questions. So I guess it was time to say bonne nuit to Biarritz.