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