More surprises… The Camino provides…

After several short days near Burgos, we are back to walking all day – today we walked 30km. We are walking through the Maseta, which is high desert and flat, but a completely different terrain than a week ago.

Today, while walking the Camino de Santiago, we crossed another ancient pilgrimage route, called El Camino Lebaniego – a pilgrimage to the monestary which holds the largest relic of the “true cross” of Christ’s crucifixion. While the Camino continues west to Santiago, this route diverges south, and again it is a reminder of the countless people who have walked this way before me. The crossroads is a lovely spot along a canal where we walk across a lock.

The sign describing the pilgrimage to the cross was my favorite part of the day. At the bottom of the English portion it reads: “If you walk for religious reasons, or you walk for cultural reasons, you are welcome. Whatever intention you bring is good.” I think this means whatever reason brought you to the Camino today is the right one – it is where you are meant to be right now.

After a very long day, when we bypassed lovely hotels and beautiful gardens and even swimming pools…

We finally arrived in Población de Campo. The albergue at La Finca is lovely, with each pilgrim having her own little private space of bed, and shelves, and light, and locker – all for 10€ pp. I joked with Mike that the little privacy curtain has super powers, and would even block out snoring.

But when we walked across the garden to the restaurant, we learned that, for the first time in our Camino, they had absolutely nothing gluten free than we could eat. We were pretty much ok if the pilgrims’meal contained pasta – we were prepared to order off the regular menu and to spend more money. But the woman at the bar clicked her tongue and said “muy dificile, muy dificile” repeatedly, and didn’t offer us a single gluten free thing we could eat. So I was ready to have peanuts for dinner, but we decided to put our tired feet in shoes and walk into town to see what we could see.

We stopped at a small hotel and asked if they had a Pilgrim’s menu. The response was an absolute torrent of Spanish (I have GOT to become fluent in Spanish) but the gist of it was, “we don’t have any pilgrims starting here tonight, so we aren’t doing the pilgrims menu. You’re staying at La Finca, right?” So Mike and I said yes, and proceeded to look very sad, and senior spoke to senora and soon decided that if we came back at 7:00, we could have dinner. So we walked down the street and killed an hour in a local bar where my elbow literally stuck to the table and we had to pull the barkeep away from his telenovelas. But after we ordered wine and peanuts, he warmed up to us. He asked where were were from, and showed us his collection of currency from pilgrims who have visited from all over the world: USA, South Africa, Thailand, Indonesia, Bulgaria… He gave us each a shell (the symbol of St James), and wished us a Buen Camino!

So we made it back to the hotel right at 7:00, and seriously had one of the best meals of our entire Camino. The whole dining room was set, with a table just for us. A bottle of water, a bottle of wine… Senior brought a tureen of the best soup I’ve ever had – white beans and clams, still in the shell. Then a plate of tomato salad. Then pork ribs that just fell off the bone. Then dessert – but the cream dessert had a cookie crust, so in distress, senior gave it away to the front desk clerk instead and replaced it with the most delicious ripe melon. And, to go with the melon, he brought us two shot glasses of house-made after dinner liquor, that tasted like sunshine and honey. After all this, he only charged us 9€ each. We did leave an appropriate tip (trying not to be stupid Americans) and a glowing Google review, but their hospitality to these two starving pilgrims will be one of my best memories of the Camino.

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…)

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.