So we walk into a little town and a bull fight breaks out…

In the middle of a Europe-wide heat wave, Mike and I set the alarm for 5am, and started walking by 5:30 to beat the afternoon heat of 100°F or higher. Our earliest start yet, we found our way out of the town of Los Arcos in full darkness, and covered almost 7km before sunrise.

By the time we reached Torres del Rio, we were jonesing for some tortilla and coffee. This was one of those stops where we could not find tortilla without bread to save our lives, so Mike worked some magic, and talked a bar owner into scrambling up some eggs special. I asked for four (two eggs each), but Mike raised me and ordered six.

With such an early start, we were doing great and reached out halfway point for the day at Viana by 11:00. We entered the ancient walled city through a gate topped with a warrior right out of Game of Thrones, and started to look for a good spot to take a break and rest our feet.

But less than 100 yards down the narrow, cobbled street we found ourselves in the middle of a party! Lots of little kids, all dressed identically in white with red neck kerchiefs, racing around a square, being chased by a costumed man with a huge paper maché head and a whip.

Well I’m not sure what that was all about, but it was certainly intriguing. We continued about a block further, and found ourselves in the middle of a parade! Absolutely everybody was wearing white and red, a band playing, and four giant king and queen puppets dancing and spinning in the middle of it all.

So we joined in! We followed the festivities right into the middle of town where the parade dissolved into the town square, and everyone pulled up seats at tables that filled the square and the surrounding streets from curb to curb, drinking wine and eating pinxtos. I saw a table of pilgrims we knew and Stefan from Switzerland said, “It’s the town’s feast day. And there will be a running of the bulls at 2:00!” What?!?!? Mike and I plopped down our bags, ordered a glass of wine of our own, and discussed the situation. The beauty of not booking anything in advance is that we really don’t have to stick to a schedule, right? And even though we got up early, and have only made it halfway, nothing says we HAVE to keep walking, right? And there’s going to be a running of the bulls… RIGHT DOWN THIS STREET, right? It was an easy decision. If we could find a place to spend the night, we’d stay.

All of the private hotels were full due to the fiesta, but not the pilgrims’ albergue! We were in line when they opened at noon, and had paid 8€ each for our bunks and taken showers and headed back out into the streets by 1:00. We joined the locals at a small table lining the main street through the old walled city and ordered a couple of pinxtos to sustain ourselves until the main event. My restaurant Spanish is getting better: Dos pulpo (octopus) por favor, and uno atún con cebolla (tuna and onions).

Suddenly, the excitement level kicked up a notch, and all of the tables and chairs were getting whisked away. It was pretty intimidating watching these big metal grills get dragged in to cover the doors and windows of the shops to protect them from angry bulls. We lurked at a cross street, waiting until city workers started pulling a big wooden gate closed across the intersection, then we climbed up on the gate for a front row seat!

I’ve learned a few things from my one and only running of the bulls. First, they don’t just run once, at least in a small town like Viana. They run back and forth through town several times. And…

The first time – the bull is fast! No one runs with a fresh bull. At most, the macho guys wait for the bull to run past, and then stick out a leg, or a water bottle to poke at him as he runs by.

As a spectator, you’re more at risk of getting clobbered by a man leaping the fence to escape the bull, than you are from the bull himself. Fair enough!Eventually the bull gets tired. Then men start to run with him. Only the youngest and fastest at this point…

Eventually the bull gets angry. After a few passes through town, he’s hot. And tired. And big plumes of snot are hanging from his nose. He’s not very fast anymore, but he’s willing to get distracted and ram into the crowd. Or a gate. Or a wall. Or pretty much anything.

  • This is when it gets interesting. Young men run with the bull, and jump out of the way. Old men hold sheets of plywood and cardboard across the street and dare the bull to break them. Spectators leap out of the way when a distracted bull charges the fence for no good reason. (this actually happened, but I don’t have pictures. Self preservation) At this point, Mike was happy he decided not to run with the bulls.
  • Finally, the clock strikes 2:30, and the poor tired bulls get to return to their pens. The town’s people grab another round of drinks to celebrate that they are still alive, and then… Siesta….

You’ve got a lot of huevos, my friend…

My Camino is pretty much powered by eggs! Mike and I are both gluten-free for medical reasons so we can’t eat bread, pizza, sandwiches, or pasta. It can make things kind of tricky in Spain. Breakfast here is usually bread or croissant with butter or jam and coffee and juice. The easiest snack to grab during the day’s hike or when the day’s walk is over but there’s hours until dinner is a boccidillo, or ham and cheese sandwich. Since we can’t do bread, we eat tons of eggs instead.

We are becoming connoisseurs of the Spanish tortilla. At it’s most basic, it’s a big omelette of eggs and potatoes. It’s usually sitting in the counter of a bar, ready to be sliced and served alone or as a sandwich.

Now mind you, we’re eating this at least twice a day, so we get really excited when we find something different -maybe tortilla with olives and peppers, or one that’s extra thick or particularly crispy on top.

Of course, Mike is thrilled when they give him a slice that’s extra big – when they don’t, he’s taken to ordering two slices right off the bat. I, on the other hand, order two coffees ’cause there are no venti-sized cups here!

Occasionally, the tortilla is already premade into sandwiches, so we have to negotiate using our very limited Spanish to see if they’ll make us a fresh one “sin pan.” Sometimes these turn out to be the freshest, yummiest tortillas of all!

We recently spent the night in the small village of Atapuerca, which is organised to support tourists visiting the archaeological site and not really supportive to pilgrims. The only place serving food before 8pm was a bar. And the only option besides sandwiches was fried eggs. Go figure!

Add that to the hard-boiled eggs we often make when we stay in an albergue with a kitchen and, as Mike says “I think I’m on my eighth egg of the day.”

More Camino Surprises – Where wine flows like water

Ok, so this one wasn’t a real surprise. The Irache wine fountain is famous on the Camino. The plaque on the wall next to the fountain reads, “Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and make a toast to happiness.” So we did! Even at 9:00 in the morning. We arrived at the same time as for women from England and Australia so we all toasted and mugged for the cameras and got a little bit giddy together.

Mike started up the trail, and I was still busy adjusting my pack when Antone, an older gentleman dressed all in black, walked up and asked me why I was walking the Camino. He said he was walking to help people and to provide healing. So he pulled out a crystal and let it swing above his palm. He told me that my soul is very advanced, that I am in my last life before reaching enlightenment, and that I am close to working through all the karma from my past lives. So I’ve got that going for me!

The next village of Villamayor de Monjardin is one of those stone cities high of a hill that you can see for miles as you walk toward it. We found a shady oasis just below the church tower for a picnic of chorizo, hummus, pate and olives, before heading to our final stop of the day in Los Arcos.

The wave of brutally hot weather was well underway by now, and when we arrive in a town at mid-afternoon during siesta, it feels like arriving in a ghost town. Los Arcos was no different, but we found a bunk at Casa de la Abuela (Grandma’s house), cleaned up, and moved as little as possible until it was time for the communal dinner of lentils and sausage and salad. This was one of many nights on the Camino when Mike and I were the only English speaking pilgrims at the table and the conversation just sweapt around us. The church at Los Arcos is surprisingly beautiful, with much of the stone walls and arches still painted in brilliant colors, rather than faded to one of the many colors of J Crew chinos (stone…ivory…khaki…vanilla…eggshell…)

Pilgrim Hack – How to Beat the Heat

If you read the headlines at all, you’ve realized that Mike and I are walking across Spain… In July… In a record-breaking European heat wave. Just our luck! It’s been over 100°F for the past five days.

We’ve had to make a few changes to our routine to make things tolerable. We started setting the alarm for 5:00am, packing and setting off in the dark, so that we can get in at least 5km before sunrise. We try to get wherever we are going for the day by 2:00pm – not that we’re staying in air conditioned accommodations, but at least we can sit in the shade and have access to as much drinking water as we want, instead of continuing across open plains in the worst hear of the day.

But besides that, Mike and I have very different approaches to managing the heat. I keep it simple with a big floppy sun hat I bought on Sierra Trading Post. It’s by Chaos hats and I love it! Chaos hats. It has a foam brim, lots of ventilation, comes in a size small to fit my teeny head, has a string for windy days -everything you need!

Mike instead bought a $50 ultralight backpacking umbrella, in silver to reflect the sun. And then, with the help of our friend Nathan in Denver, he designed a feat of engineering genius – a mixture of PVC tubing, parachute cord, and bungees that is intended to keep the umbrella upright and hands-free while hiking.

When I showed Mike this photo, he said, “So that’s what I look like? That explains why everyone has been smiling and waving and honking at me. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn a red bandana.” Mike sweetie, I have to break it to you… They aren’t honking at your red bandana 😜 But he’s really happy with his sun solution, especially when he gets it set up exactly right. And (since it IS in fact an umbrella) it even works in the rain!

So we’re both very happy with our solutions for dealing with the heat. Which do you prefer?

The Camino provides lovely surprises…

Since Pamplona, Mike’s knees have been doing much better. He’s wearing a knee brace (I hate to say “I told you so”, but….) and stretching every night and taking anti-inflammatories, so no more shooting pains. He’s also settled into a slow-but-steady hiking pace that he can maintain for hours at a time, and we’ve nicknamed him The Tortoise. It’s a great relief that our Camino dreams are still very much alive!

We even enjoyed the climb from Pamplona through fields of sunflowers to the top of Alto de Perdón. The ridge is crowned with wind turbines and the electrical company has installed a really lovely sculpture at the top depicting mideval pilgrims walking into the wind with cloaks a-flapping. The inscription reads, “Where the way of the wind meets the way of the stars”

We spent the night in a private albergue in Uterga that housed 24 beds in a single long, skinny bunkroom. Three guesses how we slept that night – especially with a group of snoring Croatians sharing the space!

The next day, while Mike was doing his tortoise thing, I decided to take a 3km side trip to Santa Maria de Eunate – a mysterious octagonal church surrounded by a ring of intricately carved arches. So I waved goodbye to Mike in Muruzábel where an arrow pointed left for Eunate and set off as our guidebook described, down a paved road to the outskirts of town then onto a dirt road through farmers’ fields. But apparently there are lots of paved roads and lots of dirt roads and I didn’t pick the right one. I hiked briskly along for a couple of kilometers until I found myself exactly nowhere. Then I turned around and walked back to town and tried again. Of course, once I found the right road it was obvious and well marked. And the church, when I finally found it, was lovely. (although closed and locked)

I circled the lovely old church and enjoyed the beautiful morning before admitting that I had many more kilometers to walk today, and continued on. Just outside Obanos, two runners I’d seen at the church fell into step beside me and we chatted the rest of the way. They were from San Sebastian on a family vacation in Obanos and seemed tickled to meet a real live pilgrim from the United States. In town, they invited me back to their home for coffee and to meet the rest of the family- Mama and Papa who only spoke Spanish and Basque, two brothers, sisters-in-law, and five adorable kids. Meeting this family and sharing coffee and stories made this day in the Camino really special.

Unfortunately, it also made me really far behind. Mike planned to walk as far as Lorca and see how his knee held out. If he felt good, and it was early enough, he’d continue on to Villatuerta. At Lorca, he texted me saying he planned to continue and asked if it was ok. I said “sure”. I o still had to visit the churches in Puente la Reina, and I had to eat something besides coffee, and I had to catch up.

But… This was the first day in our Camino that the temps approached 100°F. And I had spent so much of the day getting lost, taking side trips, and making new friends, that I was hours behind Mike. While he arrived at the final stopping point by 3:00, I didn’t even make it to Lorca until after 4:00. If spent the last 3 hours hiking in full sun in 99+° and I’d had it.

I stopped at a picnic table next to a vending machine, bought two cold waters and chugged them both and texted, “Is it too late to vote to spend the night in Lorca?” Mike said the Casa Magica Albergue really was magical, so I gritted my teeth and pressed on. I talked to myself, sang to myself, and really picked up the pace just to get out over with. (Wild you like to guess how many rounds of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” it takes to get from Lorca to Villatuerta? Exactly 3.5). I arrived completely spent, with empty water bottles and nothing else in the tank. But it was worth it. The host, Richard, runs the best albergue of our trip so far. For 14€ each, Mike and I had a five-person room to ourselves in a beautiful restored historic home. Richard’s wife cooked a gourmet pilgrim’s menu for another 14€. Delicious salad with homemade dressing, fresh peas soup served with a swirl of herb oil and a crisp garnish, and massive pan of the best paella I’ve ever tasted.

For once, most of the guests spoke English, so we lingered over bottomless glasses of wine and told stories. I might not have planned to walk 21 miles and stagger into the albergue at 5:20pm in a heat wave, but the Camino does throw a few surprises your way. Most of today’s surprises were positive though, so if I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing.