Settling into a pilgrim’s routine

After the first challenging day on the Napoleon Route, I had a couple of really good days on the Camino.

No blisters, no unexpected soreness. I learned to carry less water and less food and to drink more espresso. I learned how often to stop for a break, and when it’s better to just keep moving. I felt really strong and able to enjoy the scenery and the amazingly picturesque towns and villages.

I even chatted with other English speaking pilgrims while walking (I almost never hike and talk – that’s Mike’s department!) Carly, from Hong Kong, and her nine-year-old daughter were a fountain of fun and positive energy. It’s ironic that I was secretly pack-shaming an American who carried a huge squeeky pack, and then Carly cheerfully pack-shamed me. “Are you carrying a sleeping bag in there? How heavy is your raincoat?”

Unfortunately, Mike hasn’t been having quite the same positive experience. He is having some serious knee problems. He walks along just fine for a hundred meters. Then suddenly something happens and his knee cap gets out of alignment and he limps for the next kilometer.

Sometimes this is accompanied by shooting pains. We don’t think anything is broken or torn. But perhaps his IT band is tight, or he has a touch of tendonitis or inflammation. Who knows – but something has to change or his Camino may be at risk.

We may have pushed things a little too far today. We reached the recommended stopping point in Zubiri early and still felt good! So we decided to press on (after walking across the Rabies Bridge just in case – no rabies on this trip!)

Although it was only 6km to the next town of Larrasoaña, they were tough miles; completely exposed to the hot afternoon sun, and the path seemed to go on forever. We’d left it all in the trail by the time we crossed the Arga River once more and checked into the municipal albergue.

If all municipal albergues are like this, I’m not impressed. Only 8€, but you get what you pay for. The bunks and pillows had rubber covers, like in a prison, and the electricity kept cutting out. There was no meal and no restaurant in town, so the only dinner option was to buy provisions at a small shop and cook at the albergue. With 36 guests all cooking on one 3-burner electric stove (when the electricity was available) it was a frenzy. Have you ever been in the ski lift line at Vail when the line is full of European tourists? Everyone jostling to be at the head of the queue, poles and elbows flying? The albergue kitchen was just like that. Mike put our pot of water for pasta on to boil, and someone else would move it of and put their own pot in it’s place. Repeatedly. We ended up with very al dente pasta, even “al dente-er” veggies (aka raw) and canned meatballs. And with a very cranky disposition. Maybe in the future we’ll pay a few Euros more and have a more pleasant experience.

It was a short day to Pamplona, of only 15.4km, and on the way I formed a plan. We would splurge on a private room in a pension (45€ with shared bathroom) Mike would rest his knee all afternoon – only leaving the pension for a meal and maybe to visit the pharmacy. We would buy him: a knee brace, the European equivalent of Ben Gay, and any high-powered anti-inflammatory that they sell in Pamplona, and we’d light a candle for him in the cathedral. And then we agreed to part ways -Mike would take the low road and I’d take the high road and we’d meet in Pamona. I climbed a steep dirt track to the Iglesia de San Esteban built in the 12th century with one of the oldest bells in Spain (1377) and truly felt like a pilgrim for the first time. This hidden church had a stunning alter and the nice nun at the door let me climb to the bell tower and ring the bell.

After soaking in the spirit, I continued and had a coffee at a trail-side stand in the middle of nowhere, and visited yet another stunning church. Each offered a stamp for the Pilgrim’s creditial. The long walk through the suburbs was tough on the feet (sidewalks hurt), but Mike and I crossed paths again right at the gate to the old City of Pamplona, and found our place for the night together. After lunch, I put him to bed with an iPad and a movie and went out in search of historic churchs and first aid.

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!