Day 9 – Taking it easy into Pobeña

Various sources say that today’s stage is a depressing 20km walk towards the coast through Bilbao’s industrial past. I wasn’t too keen on spending the day walking past abandoned warehouses and half-hearted graffiti, so I decided to take the train to the coast with an injured American. Together, we walked about 5km to the albergue at Pobeña, on the beach. What’s more, it was forecast to be a reasonable-ish day by the afternoon.
We had a relaxed hostel breakfast and were out by 10:30 – practically dinosaur-speed by camino standards. Sitting on the train during the 30-minute ride, looking out at ramshackle car dealerships and unweeded concrete, we agreed we had made the right choice. We would later find out that people who actually walk this stretch are in the minority, the hardcore pilgrims – or those whose guides aren’t up to scratch. If you offered a 12th-century devotee a train ride, cutting out a hard day’s walking, I doubt he’d have turned it down.

Stained glass windows in the train station

First glimpse of the beach in several days

Everyone around here has their own little farm plot

We checked into the albergue after a couple of hours waiting around outside. The walk from the train station had been short, just 5km. An appropriate amount to rest the legs. The place was decent, with places to wash clothes and reasonably non-creaky beds. We met a young German woman and a ukelele-wielding Belgian guy who had kept the waiting pilgrims entertained with ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’. Together, we explored the town and the nearby beach.

Back up the valley: industry

A probably-grumpy lifeguard

Fairy ring in the nearby park

I spotted a strange bunker/house structure cast into the cliff and went over to investigate

Inside was a tidal pool with a cave receding into the earth. We all stripped down to bathers and waded in – but soon realised the darkness was bolder than our willingness to carry phones (and therefore torches)

The rhythm of the day continued, with lewd ad-libbed ukelele songs, the odd bottle of wine and a particularly bad Pilgrim menu at the local joint (the Roquefort sauce tasted like ants). We returned to the albergue after dark, where some late arrivals had improvised with a couple of chairs and some clothespegs. When a hostel fills up, you can always walk on to the next one – but it’s usually already late in the day, and your feet are usually already hurting. Most will accommodate alternative arrangements:

Pilgrim fort for late arrivals – space for two if you squeeze

This was a good day. Plenty of wine, decent weather and good people.

‘Til next time,

Alex

[Apologies for the infrequent posting, it’s been harder than I expected to get the internet, energy and free time to post as regularly as I’d like. I’ll get all the posts out eventually though, and I have been keeping notes. – Alex, day 17]

Day 8 – A rare sunny day

As usually happens when I have a spare day in a hostel and blog posts to write, I didn’t get out until about 2pm. Somewhat of a shame, because it was an excellent day [The likes of which I was not to see again for the next four days… – Me, day 11].

Blue skies!

The title of ‘Single Largest Rejuvenator of Bilbao’, were it to exist, should probably go to the Guggenheim museum here. Completed in 1997 – so this is its 20th year – it symbolised the end of Bilbao’s industrial era and ‘rebirth’ as a European cultural city. A sunny stroll along a cafe-lined riverbank brings you to the art precinct. The most immediately noticeable feature, other than a large and colourful bridge, is a huge bronze spider. It’s by Louise Bourgeious and symbolises her mother, who mended tapestries (the sculpture is called Maman).

One of the largest sculptures of a spider in the world (thanks Wikipedia, I guess)

Next to it, unmissable, is the Guggenheim proper. The building itself is the largest attraction, fully plated in 0.5cm thick titanium plates. It dominates the space around it like a futuristic spaceship.

The architecture is an exhibit in itself

 

 

Sipping a cafe con leche overlooking the museum, listening to a jazz band play, it’s hard to imagine what Bilbao was like twenty years ago. This used to be such a heavily industrialised area – there was a photography exhibit showing the riverbank before and after the museum’s construction. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were two different places. Stacked girders and gantry cranes have been replaced by a paved boulevard with leafy trees, a grungy dock transformed into a plaza.

A cat/dog made of blooming flowers

Strolling back through the city centre to the hostel, the new Bilbao becomes apparent. I see young men in suits walking purposefully between banks and 15 euro sushi packages – definitely the financial heart. One industry is always replaced by another, I guess.

Later, I headed out with a couple of people from the hostel. Yet another assault of pintxos, vino tinto and sidra followed. Fried seafood croquette, iberico puree, jamon bocadillo, tortilla with cheese – it’s very easy to eat and drink and drink and eat and then wonder why you’re so full – and where all your small bills went.

Wandering back through the streets, I spotted a golden beacon – ‘Las Fritas’, some ‘famous’ chips I’d read about online. The shutter was half-down, and slowly descending. I crouched down and looked inside, calling out “hola!”. The budget Antonio Banderas manning the counter grinned and pressed a button – the shutter started rolling up. He tossed a batch of chips in the fryer, saying he wouldn’t usually close this early (it was 10:30pm; the hours on his door were ’til midnight) – but that in Spain, you close when you feel like it. As we waited, four or five more people were drawn to the smell of frying potatoes. Antonio greeted them with a smile. I can confirm that the chips are fantastic, a must-try if you find yourself in Bilbao. Get the aioli, too.

Chip jesus

I’m done for today. Time for sleep.

‘Til next time,

Alex

Day 7 – Bilbao-bound

We woke up, as usual, to lights being flicked on at 7am. The beds last night lived up to expectations, and the supplied blankets meant no screwing around with sleeping bags. Watch this space for bed bugs, though – that’d be a hoot.
Aggressive drizzle sat over the town of Larrabetzu, so Peter and I joined three retirees at a café 50m from the albergue. “Kurz laufen!” (Short walk!), one of them exclaimed. Over a breakfast bocadillo (jamon and egg) they explained that they were taking the bus to avoid another day arriving at the albergue soaked. I have to admit, I was very tempted… But something in me (probably idiocy) won out; I decided to walk. I figured I’d allow myself to take a bus if the bad weather persisted for days after Bilbao. I was, after all, allowing myself an extra day to see Bilbao. On the plus side of my choices for the day, the blister had finally started to harden and my strained tendon seemed to be mending itself. No more hobbling up and down the hills!

Breakfast

Clearly, someone got a little overexcited on approach to Bilbao

Ascending the final hill before Bilbao, glistening chestnuts studded the path like topaz, polished by the recent rain. The local plants were changing, albeit slowly. The rest of the day’s walking was uneventful, bar a peach stop on the hill overlooking Bilbao and a sharp descent down into the city proper. An old industrial center and the capital of the Basque heartland, Bilbao reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Bogota in Colombia or Santiago in Chile. It’s mostly mid-rise apartment blocks carpeting a dense valley and the surrounding hills. The odd skyscraper or cathedral spire are the only things, other than the mountains, that poke above the skyline. A Thames-coloured, jaundiced river snakes through the center. Locals give it the unattractive nickname of ‘hole’ based on the city’s geography, and I can see why.

Competing graffiti

An upwards-sloping cathedral

The path down to the old town

But the city is not inherently ugly. Despite its industrial past (and to some extent, present), Bilbao has become known as an arts and culture capital – not least because of its Guggenheim museum and architecturally-daring subway stations. The medieval old town is beautiful, with crooked alleyways and chiselled façades. But I’m still not used to the atmosphere of these northern Spanish cities – people are at once ultra-friendly and very reserved. Maybe it’s just that I don’t speak enough Spanish to fit in immediately, or that there’s that extra layer of ‘peregrino’ separating me… or maybe it’s entirely self-imposed (in that I’m even doing this damn walk).

A reproduction of the ‘Codex Calixtinus’, a 12th-Century guide to the Camino. It’s amazing to consider how old this route is

An impressive organ

Peter had booked an Airbnb for Bilbao, citing an urgent need to take a ‘proper bath’ (an excellent reason, if you ask me). I decided to find a ‘regular’ hostel in the old town, somewhere that would definitely have Wi-Fi (it tends to be an uncommon bonus in albergues).

The view from the hostel window

As I like to do whenever possible, I headed out with some folks from the hostel for pintxos. Once again, the night grows a little fuzzy here… but not before some excellent pintxos.

As good as – if not better than – it sounds

‘Til next time,

Alex

Day 6 – Short and damp

Today was pendulum-like, both in that there was no shortage of hills and in that I found my mood swinging dramatically with the weather. Despite leaving in dreadful constant rain – Peter the Englishman and I were soon soaked to the bone – I was pleased that my DIY field triage on my ankle seemed to be working. It was nowhere near as sore as the previous few days. After a couple of hours in the rain, though, we started to get a little chilly and morale dropped.

Abandoned car being reclaimed by nature

Misty vista

Initial plans to walk the entire 30km to Bilbao were abruptly altered by constant rain, dropping morale and a particularly convenient albergue about 15km in. What’s more, it was opened in 2016 and looked invitingly clean and dry. The interior lived up to expectations, with a good, hot shower and comfy beds. Peter and I ran into two Australians from Noosa, Ian and Bronwyn, who we’d met a few days earlier, and so decided to get the menu del dia together.

‘Secreto de iberico con queso’ – always a good choice

Ian and Brownwyn were ‘properly’ on holiday – in that they were staying in three- and four-star places, usually with ‘Chalet’ in the name, and taxiing to and from their daily route. Whatever floats your boat. [And the more I walk, the more I envy them, to be honest… – Me on day 11]

I’ve noticed that despite being constantly damp and seemingly always walking in the rain, I end almost every day slightly sunburnt. There’s hardly even enough sun to dry us off, and yet I still turn pink… no wonder most people mistake me for English.

Albergue engineering

Speaking of albergue characters, there was one trio walking who attracted everyone’s attention: a German couple with a six-month-old baby. Quite a lovely sight, but mind-boggling to think about doing all those hills with a baby strapped to your chest – as was the mode of transport. Just a short one today, both post- and walk-wise. We spent the rest of the day hanging around the albergue, napping, drinking the odd beer. We headed out one last time at 9:30pm for a quick dinner pintxo, then went straight to sleep.

‘Til next time,

Alex

Day 5 – forests, hills and forested hills

Everything hurts.
The hospitalero came barrelling down the corridor at 7am on the dot with Ride of the Valkyries blasting on his phone. He flicked on the harsh fluorescent lights to a chorus of groans – “Out by eight!” he exclaimed. And out by eight we were. This was a comparatively late start, not least because of my small blister and ankle injury that sleep has yet to fix. As usual, we started to climb the endless hills in the morning drizzle.

Early morning path through a lovely pine forest

As we entered a particularly misty stretch of dense pine, dogs started howling some distance away. First one, then five.. Then what sounded like twenty. I half expected Frodo and Sam to sprint past us and hide in the undergrowth. By the time we reached the town, the howling had stopped and we were greeted by a number of sullen-looking, chastised dogs.

Said foggy forest

Courtyard of a church

About halfway through a thick, humid jungle-y section, the Portuguese pocket rocket and I heard light footfalls and panting behind us. We looked and there was, of all people, the hospitalero from the albergue bounding down the muddy path. Dressed in short shorts only acceptable in Europe and a singlet, he didn’t seem to mind any of the weather. He just passed us with a “Hola, chicos!” and, when my friend asked how far he was running, panted back “twenty-two kilometers!”
Breaking for lunch, alone this time (my Portuguese friend had powered ahead), I enviously eyed a Spaniard’s wineskin. It seemed like an excellent idea; why hadn’t I thought of that when I saw them for sale in San Sebastian? The perfect antidote to mid-walk blues …though you risk arriving at the albergue with a hangover. That wasn’t to say my lunch was lacking, though – I had a chicken and onion pastry from yesterday’s supermarket, the other half of a yogurt drink and the remains of the tomato, cheese and bread from the supermarket in San Sebastian. The sheep milk cheese had held up excellently, retaining its shape and pecorino-like flavour.

A friendly donkey

Features today were endless walnut and oak trees, and occasional stands of eucalypt bringing back waves of memories from home. The last 5km today crossed yet another mountain, and, as usual, the last stretch is the most trying. Feet ache and wills falter, but, like everything else, this too shall pass. For all my commentary on the trials of the walk, the scenery has also been stunning. It’s easy to take it for granted, even after this short a time – you’re spending all day in these incredible mountains or on rugged coastline and you become desensitised. Perversely, the things you tend to notice most at the end of the day while writing or relaxing are the blisters and aches from the day’s walking.
Only a youth hostel in Gernika was open, the regular albergue only being open for July and August. It was a little more expensive than usual, at 18 euros, but included free breakfast and fast Wi-Fi. Gernika was a strange town. Most famous for the Spanish Civil War bombings of 1937, when the Luftwaffe conducted the first bombing of a civilian town, simultaneously testing new cluster bombs that proved devastatingly effective. The exact death toll is not known, but ranges from 250-1000. I’m not sure if it was just the cloudy day or the aftereffects of a mountainous day’s walk, but there seemed to be a residual undercurrent of sadness in the town.

A reproduction of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, based on the town’s bombing. Still quite disturbing

I met Bruce the Australian again and recognised an Englishman from the previous hostel. Peter had just retired from the British civil service – industrial relations – and decided to walk the Camino as a sort of delayed gap year. In pleasant contrast to my first impressions of Gernika, the menu del dia I had with Peter and Bruce was the best I’ve had in Spain so far. For €12 you got the obligatory bottle of wine and basket of bread, plus a choice of one starter and one main – I chose a main-sized starter of grilled langoustines with an enormous salad and roast lamb. We all wondered how the place could afford to stay open – they were busy even for a Sunday, lots of locals, too – but they were serving practically racks of lamb. We figured a similar dinner in Australia would run you $50-70.

Langoustines/monster prawns

Now I am, very gladly, going to sleep.
Til next time,
Alex

Day 4 – Up, down, up, down…

Day 4 – 36km, 1,854m climbed and the same again down, ~9 hours walking

The mood in the albergue was grim as we woke up to the sound of heavy rain on the roof. Reluctantly, people pulled on still-wet clothes from washing the day before and headed slowly out the door, farewelling the kindly hospitalero and – more practically – the excellent beds.

I had woken up slightly sick – not from the vino tinto the night before (I think) but just from travelling. I ended up forgetting about it after a few kilometers. Passing through more rolling hills and gentle-ish slopes, I soon overtook the two others I’d seen leave the hostel before me – a senior French Canadian man and a French woman. It was quite an empty road for a while – I’d expected many more considering the amount in the hostel. The landscape still looked like ‘petit Switzerland’, albeit with smaller mountains. Green grass carpeted the hills and white mountain houses were perched next to farm plots and horses with bells around their necks. Concerningly idyllic, really.

Another early start

Vineyards of white grapes for txakoli

One of many churches – Portugese guy in the foreground

They have pintxos for breakfast, too!

I eventually met an excitable Portuguese man sheltering from the rain and we walked together for most of the day. This was his 9th Camino, he was a nurse, an alpinist and walked 45km yesterday. He also wrapped his shoes in cling wrap or, as he called it, “cheap gore-tex”. He subsisted mostly on bottles of sugared yoghurt which he would sip mid-walk… We made good time as he set a ripping pace – but about 6km from the end I let him power onward while I stopped for food. The food stops and cafe con leche breaks were one thing I couldn’t give up. The last stretch I walked with Bruce, a recently-retired Australian who used to be a builder. Apparently he did well for himself, and was quite candid about his adventures in everything from dodgy builders to surfing to the stock market to giving Will and Jayden Smith snowmobile lessons in Aspen.
Other highlights of the day included a lunch pepper and bacon bocadillo (a sandwich-y thing) and white figs off a nearby tree. As usual, the blackberries were abundant too. Not exactly a highlight per se, but there were a couple of thigh-burning climbs that really made me think “why am I doing this?!” – a question which is, of course, answered when you reach the top of the hill or have yet another excellent meal.

Local pet pigs

Pastures

A surprising number of eucalypt forests populate the hillsides around here – smells like home

A brief moment of clear sky

Heavily pregnant

Life finds a way

The final cruel stretch, was used to move livestock. Bruce the Australian almost lost his thongs (yes, he was walking the whole way in them…)

Boots pre-mud-caking

Every hour or so an enormous grey cloud would pass over us and empty itself, driving us to shelter under a tree or some eaves. This was the ‘constant rain’ the forecast had warned about. But within a few minutes, much like South-east Asia, the rain would be replaced by blue skies and sun. I suppose the rain is technically ‘constant’ if you look at an entire region, but as a walker it just meant brief deluges. Although talk in the albergue had been depressive about the next few days’ weather, I found it surprisingly nice to walk in. Things are always damp so you get those lovely forest smells, and there’s just enough sun to dry your clothes before the next downpour. [I wrote this before walking into the albergue soaked]

Bouquet of jamon

Looking at the albergue check-in sheet, my new Portuguese friend and I were the only ones to come from Zumaia to Markina. Everyone else had come from Deba, 12km closer. I’m still not sure if I should feel proud or stupid, because my feet hurt like hell and I have a small blister on the ball of my right foot (from the day before last, a function of walking with damp feet – but it still hurts some). Oh well, it’s a shorter day tomorrow to Gernika, just 24km and 700m elevation. Then 30km straight into Bilbao.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have the pilgrim set menu from the local restaurant (€10 for what sounds like a *lot* of food), a glass of red wine, and fall asleep.
‘Til next time,
Alex

Day 3

After a relatively relaxed day in San Sebastian yesterday (only 8km walked around the city) I thought it would be appropriate to push myself and combine two stages into one 44km day. As it turned out, though, this ‘relatively relaxed’ day included a pintxos tour of the old city – run by the hostel – which turned into a lot of food and many, many drinks. So, it was at 6am on Friday morning that my alarm went off, having been in bed at 2am after that most shameful of drinks – tequila shots. I ended up walking about 32km today, so less than my original goal, but I think there’s still something masochistically amusing about four hours’ sleep, hard liquor and long-distance walking. Who said youth was wasted on the young?

Leaving San Sebastian at dawn

More rugged Basque coastline

Helpful reminders of how far we’ve left to go…

‘The road to Santiago is paved with wine’

After setting off in the dark and climbing into the hills past San Sebastian, I met Eduardo, a Spaniard from the Canaries who owned a bar on the main island, Gran Canaria. He proudly showed me live video of his bar at 8am: a surprisingly high-resolution feed of a waiter cleaning the dining room. I thought it was comically Orwellian, to have your boss watching you on the CCTV from a religious pilgrimage 2,000km away. Much like the first day, we walked through chestnut forests and pine groves, the occasional water spring with ‘agua, muy bien!’ scrawled in yellow paint. Cloud persisted in valleys here and there, lending a definite Swiss-mountain-chalet feel to the area. The green hills, livestock and farmsteads dotting the landscape could have been anywhere in Europe, really – if not for the harsh Basque script (‘ch’ becomes ‘x’ and there’s an overabundance of ‘k’s) and semi-frequent nationalist graffiti (‘Basque independence or death!’ etc).

On these first few stages, I found it easy to forget the stunning landscapes you’re walking through. Instead, you’re occupied by the burning in your thighs, the unfamiliar weight of a pack on your shoulders, the pounding of your feet on the pavement, the question of both ‘where will I end up sleeping tonight?’ and, more importantly, ‘when’s lunch?’. But, truly, the endless postcard vistas are amazing. They give you a tangible sense of the ruggedness of the Basque people and identify – if the coastline, swell and food of San Sebastian weren’t enough proof already.

My three Canary friends, muy divertido

We strolled past vineyards heavy with fruit – in particular, row after row of green grapes for the local white wine, txakoli. The odd fig tree and blackberry bush beckoned. And, of course, the odd cafe con leche and bocadillo stop:

Bacon, queso y pimento – a hearty breakfast

Perfectly ripe, plump little wild figs. Clinging to a hillside next to a highway, of all places

Canine companions would occasionally trot alongside us for a few hundred meters before turning back to better prospects of scratches and treats

One of the many Basque beaches along the northern coastline… this one in Zarautz quite famous for surf

A tidal dry dock; evidence of rough seas and a wild coastline

Petit Switzerland

Arriving in Zumaia after 32 mountainous kilometers, with throbbing feet and sweat running down our faces after a climb through the seaside village, was not a gracious event. Our albergue for the night was a donativo, run by volunteers and located in an old convent. We weren’t sure what to expect but were very impressed by the ancient wooden rafters, still solid as the day they were built. I think the building dates back to the 1300s or so. Huffing and puffing up a hill, it’s easy to forget that the cobblestones you’re walking over are at least seven centuries old. It’s a little mind-boggling, the scale of the age of the whole Camino. You’ll pass barns older than Australia.

Just three to a room! And no bunks, either.

A late lunch at the albergue. In San Sebastian I picked up a hunk of iberico and some excellent local sheep cheese, paying about 30% more than the bargain-basement reconstituted ham/cheese. It was definitely worth it – the cheese was somewhere between pecorino and parmesan with a fantastic sharpness. The iberico was neither large enough to cut properly, nor did I have a sharp enough knife – but the flavour was still there.

The local church

Welcome to Spain – a civilised country, where you can buy sensible portions of jamon in your local supermarket

Later on in the albergue, people gathered in the small garden to share cider and vino tinto and beers and snacks – and tales of the day’s walk. I recognised a few of the pilgrims from the Irun, though I had accidentally lost Esteban and the Canaries.

Discussion turned to walking techniques and gear, and I acquired a pair of nylon inner socks (literally just cut-off stockings) which supposedly completely prevented blisters when worn inside regular socks. I had heard they were excellent but hadn’t got around to finding any. More vino tinto and supermarket Spanish omelette was consumed, and before long friendly chatting had turned into field surgery. Those unlucky enough to have already developed blisters were instructed to hold still while someone fetched the betadine – another held an iPhone in one hand and a cigarette in the other, gleefully taking pictures of the quasi-surgery.

Definitely-not-sober blister management

The night gets a little blurry after that. Well, at least until the elderly volunteers came and shut it all down at 10pm on the dot. Good thing, too, lest we start gleefully amputating one another’s limbs. And this is just day two of walking…

‘Til next time,

Alex