Camino Summary

It’s been a while since I last posted. Entirely my fault; I should have known better than to try and post daily when I was spending most of the day walking, eating, sleeping or otherwise recovering from walking. Not to mention socialising and intermittent internet. The multi-day post format worked better on my Noma trip (www.allroadsleadtonoma.com) as I was able to take notes over the days and compile a more concise post – rather than ‘Dear diary, X, Y and Z happened today’ repeated daily. Trying to post daily inevitably leads to expounding on mundane events (‘Saw a donkey today.’) that would otherwise be reserved for greater occurrences. Not that mundane events are inherently bad, but they need to have some connection and relevance. I’ve seen the daily post format work well, but it needs to be seriously brief and minimalist. No photos, composed on phone, et cetera. Probably a more sensible choice for the Camino. Oh well. I still have plenty of material from the Camino days; I’ll wrap up the last nine days in this post and then try and continue as ‘normal’.

So, a brief update: I made it as far as Oviedo, in the Asturian heartland – just over 400km into the northern route, and about 400km from Santiago – before being forced to return home by circumstances outside of my control. I walked for 19 days – more or less on-schedule, with a rest day or two included to make the most of the country I was passing through.

I flew back in to Lisbon one week later with my brother, Miles. We had considered finishing the Camino together, but decided instead on a more varied trip. Neither of us felt like slogging through mountains for three weeks. Writing this now, a month-and-a-half after coming back to Europe, I think that was the right choice. We travelled from Lisbon down to Lagos and Sagres in the sun-baked Algarve, before heading east into southern Spain. We passed through Seville, Cordoba, Ronda and Malaga before arriving in La Linea de Conception, just a few hundred metres from the border with Gibraltar. From there I found a ride on a Norwegian catamaran headed to the Canaries, and spent six days at sea under the stars and sun. I lingered too long in Gran Canaria – almost two weeks – and now find myself in the foothills of southern Morocco, in a tiny mountain town called Tafraout. From here, I’ll summarise the last two months over the next few posts…

The rest of the Camino passed in a slow-motion blur, in that all the daily events that seemed so significant at the time now meld together into one big lump of time. Time during which the routine reigns supreme: the early starts, café con leches, walking ten kilometres before breakfast, enormous dinners, endless hills and beautiful scenery. With the exception of some unique events, though, it’s startling how much it all just blends together. Looking back over photographs I took, I can still reconstruct individual days, but they’re all inevitably variants of scenery, walking and food.

Dawn leaving Noja, the day after being soaked

It’s worth mentioning the best albergue I stayed at: La Cabana de Abuelo Peuto in Guemes. It was on about day 12, and I almost didn’t stop there. During a particularly sunny stretch I came across an old church which had been repurposed for an ‘exhibition of the Camino’. It showcased the last 18 years of one albergue’s guestbook; the highlights in terms of drawings and heartfelt messages. And impressive it was, with messages from all over the world – ranging from deep and meaningful quotes with pictures of sunsets to one-liner jokes and New-Yorker-style cartoons.

Coming to the end of another picturesque green inhabited valley – I’d compare it to the endless landscapes of South Germany – I heard the clanging of sheep bells and caught a faint whiff of frying onion. Other than being a nice change from the general farmyard aromas of the day thus far, it *was* around lunchtime. I topped a small hill, and was greeted by an enormous white farmhouse with a scalloped red brick roof. It was the albergue from the earlier exhibition, looking awfully inviting in the rare midday sunshine. I had only walked 20km so far today and was feeling good – I could make it to Santander by 3:30pm or so. A German woman came out and spoke to me in Spanish, offered me a glass of water while I decided. As I sipped, an enormous dalmatian bounded up to me and started licking my hand… My resolve was swaying. I poked my head inside and saw an old farmhouse interior with great big roof beams. In one corner, a group of Spaniards were peeling pears in front of a crackling brass fireplace – no, oven. I had made up my mind: I was staying. This place ended up being one of the most unique – and by far the best. It’s an entire community, a way of life – mostly volunteer run, and donation-only. There’s a beautiful old farmhouse with well-made triple-tier bunkbeds (I had an excellent night’s sleep on the top bunk), a chapel, a library. There are overflow tents out the back, and they cook and serve communal dinner and breakfast each day. It was amazing, arriving at 12:30 as the first of the day, to watch the pilgrims swell to about 60 by nighttime. By this point you start to recognise people, having seen them night after night. There were reunions all around, from people who hadn’t seen one another in days. I saw the young couple with their baby again – once more, the subject of much affection. The dinner was excellent: a mutton stew, an incredibly simple-yet-delicious garlic and bread soup (much thicker and tastier than it sounds) and pears poached in vanilla. There’s a whole philosophy connected with this place, and every night they deliver a speech about ‘Abuelo Peuto’, the place’s namesake, and his work for the nearby communities as a rural doctor. Really, a special experience. I recall many longing glances back as the building shrank behind us, and later, many fond mentions from other pilgrims.

The couple with their baby

Being spoken to about the albergue’s ‘mission’

Me with Fentan, an Irish man I walked with for several days. I’m not sure why I had corn.

Spanish engineering

An infamous railway bridge – technically illegal to cross, but it shaved 7km off the day’s walk. Naturally, we obeyed the law. Definitely. I would never do otherwise.

The picturesque seaside town of Santillana Del Mar at dawn

Going back through these pictures and my notebooks now, I still can distinguish the days from one another. Things always stand out – a particularly good pilgrim’s menu with roasted pork ribs, or an interesting discussion with a person, a friendly animal or an uncommonly picturesque view. I suppose that’s what makes it unique – everybody walks the same path, to the same goal, but always for different reasons. And everybody has a different experience, different highlights. I met some people who just wanted to rack up kilometres and push themselves physically, others who had their bags carted ahead.

People often talk about their ‘Camino family’, a group of people they fall in with for days or weeks at a time, developing stronger relationships through time spent walking together. By about day 10 you start to recognise people time after time, and as people fall behind or catch up with one another you see them at more erratic – and proportionally more surprising – times. Despite not actually going all the way to Santiago, I spent my last five or six days with a small group. A young German nurse, a retired Texan oilman (that seems funnier now, in retrospect), a fitness instructor from Idaho and an Irish man. It’s welcome to have people you know relatively well to share the long days and mealtimes with.

Glassy water in a nature reserve

Now firmly in the green hills of Asturias

A heart-cloggingly, blood-sugar-skyrocketingly large chocolate-covered palmier. We all contributed a euro to this group mood-uplifter.

The albergue at Colombres

Naturally, just down the road from the Colombres albergue there was an authentic Mexican restaurant, complete with mezcal. Pay no attention to the crayons. They were fully utilised.

On a hill overlooking our destination – the cluster of buildings on the coast. This was to be my last full day of walking. As if to somehow give that meaning, we spent the night in Poo. Yes, that’s really what it was called.

Fentan bravely upholding Irish stereotypes

I wasn’t joking

From Poo, I caught a local bus – the Asturian coast is surprisngly well-connected – into the hub of Oviedo. It’s a large, sprawling city which manages, like most mountainous Spanish cities, to fill up its alotted valley with mid-rise apartment buildings. I farewelled the people I’d spent the last week with at a local market – but not before making the most of said market.

A welcome sense of humour. Part of me wishes Jon Snow did have a ridiculous curly purple moustache.

If you’re ever in Oviedo, do yourself a favour and visit Jamon Jamon. It’s a bar centered around – you guessed it – Jamon. I arrived with a new friend from the hostel at 6pm; we were lucky to be the first ones allowed into the dining room. It was fully booked out for the rest of the night. We both had the jamon jamon, a ‘pizza’ of jamon, cheese, mushrooms and truffles on a very thin fried base. I’d say it’s worth the flight – or walk! – to Oviedo.

My last activity in northern Spain was stumbling across a local sports event on a Sunday morning. Apparently it’s quite the Asturian tradition for kids of all ages to dress up in protective gear, don roller blades, wield ski poles and hurl themselves down a tarmac hill, zigzagging between poles in the style of slalom skiers. A curious and entertaining sport to watch.

As I rose up out of Oviedo, bound for a convoluted series of flight connections that would take me to Australia, my Camino came to an end. I didn’t – and still don’t – see it as a failure that I didn’t reach Santiago. At some point in my life I will, but for now I’m perfectly fine with leaving it where I did. Below are some further thoughts and brief reflections on the Camino, given the months I’ve had to think about it.

Reflections on a Camino

My time on the Camino was memorable, not only for the walking itself and the realities of day-to-day life but for the tapestry of people you meet along the way.  But I did not find it as enjoyable or fulfilling as I had expected. Perhaps I was not ready or properly prepared. I certainly felt like I lacked a serious enough reason for walking. Many people I met seemed to be walking in reflection of a marriage or working life. I felt eager to be done with the Camino so I could go and live the life and have the adventures these people were reflecting upon. Certainly, there were enjoyable moments: the satisfaction of a day’s walk completed, the ridiculous volume of delicious food we were able to eat, the coffee breaks and pastries, the cross-section of interesting people. But I lacked an overall satisfaction. Instead, paradoxically, I felt restless, like I wanted to go off and travel ‘properly’ instead of being chained to the routine of following yellow arrows day in and day out. I may go back to properly ‘finish’ the Camino. But not before I know I’m ready; that I actually want to.

Enough people before me have waxed lyrical about the life of a pilgrim, carrying one’s house on one’s back, the quiet determination on the road to Santiago – so I will not. Perhaps my words are invalidated by my not reaching Santiago, but I found that the whole thing was, at its core, just a long walk. You get up early, you eat local food and hot coffee, you put one foot in front of the other day after day and you inch closer to your destination. There’s nothing inherently right or wrong with that, it just is. A lot of it is enjoyable, some of it not. Many of the people I met were on a spiritual journey – of self-discovery, of penance, of healing, of reflection. But when all seated in a circle at the end of the day, invariably asking one another, ‘So, why are you doing the Camino?’, I found myself saying – depending on the company – ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Because I’m an idiot’. It’s not a sane thing to do, to subject oneself to walking, day after day, with all your possessions on your back. And yet, just shy of 300,000 people will walk the Camino this year.

‘Til next time,

Alex

Day 10 – The Best One Yet

Today was a massive day. I was mostly alone on the road for about 10 or 11 hours over about 40km. It was also the day I crossed from Basque country into Cantabria – the neighbouring, comparatively placid province. I was woken up by a Swedish strobe light from the bed below mine. A man from southern Sweden seemed hell-bent on turning the once-dark dorm into a rave, swinging his headlight around at 6am. One light became two, two became four, and before long the only point to staying in your sleeping bag was spiteful protest.
I managed to get everything repacked into my bag and out of the hostel by about 7:15 – still well before dawn. The dark-blue night sky glimmered overhead as I made my way towards to coast, following the dim yellow arrows. After a few minutes’ walk I came to a seemingly-endless staircase. Flight after flight it continued, straight up through dense seaside forest canopy before finally levelling out into a tunnel of foliage. A glint of light at the end turned into a golf ball, which in turn became a gate and fencepost and horizon. I pushed past the gate, leaving the foliage altogether, and was greeted by a stunning sight.

The dawn sky

Along the horizon were monolithic cumulonimbus illuminated by the rising sun, illuminated pink and gold and orange. Round a corner there was a row of wind turbines rotating with the gusts. I thought they looked more like the vertebrae in a dragon’s spine. The path wound its way along the coast, chiselled into the hillside, passing through crumbling ruins and little towns. Large white brush plants all but obscured the coastal view at times. The ever-present crashing of the heaving sea on jagged rocks below gave the occasional showering of salt spray. Nowhere deserves to be this pretty, I thought. Clearly, the Cantabrians enjoy a dramatic welcome into their province, famed for mountain stew and practically still-wriggling seafood. The endless skyscape of clouds and distant deluges provided a magnificent backdrop as pilgrims filtered into Castro-Urdiales, the first large Cantabrian town.

Remnants of the British mining industry, where they perfected supply-chain management back in the 19th Century. They would ship metals back to Britain across the Bay of Biscay. From old tunnels like this to seaside furnaces and little strip mines, the scars could be seen everywhere.

The view to our backs after a highway hill climb

Castro-Urdiales

Locals at brunch

Neighbourhood dog

On the walk into Castro I struck up a conversation with a socks-and-sandaled Dane whose daughter was on the Danish Brexit negotiation team. He himself was an architect of Danish social housing, ostensibly doing the Camino as ‘research’ for how Spaniards maintain such good social cohesion. I bit my tongue instead of mentioning Spanish economic performance. It was true that there was a unique style of drab apartment building all along these coasts, and people seemed to congregate around pubs, cafes and eating houses.
I left the Dane and went to explore the town. A lovely little place with a dramatic bay and a lighthouse. After getting lost on a cliffside looking for the hostel and finding some kindly Scots who redirected me, I finally found the albergue. It looked reasonable, though there was already quite a crowd outside and reportedly only 16 beds. It was 1:30pm, and the Dane had said the next albergue was just 4km away. I decided to press on. Seven kilometers later, after some more stunning coast, blackberry-lined lanes and a gnarled coastal wood, it turned out the next albergue was ‘temporarily closed’. Some Italians I met soon after said the next albergue – three more kilometers – was, according to reviews, the ‘worst of the Norte’, with bedbugs and all. We inevitably ended up in a pub at 3pm and the barman confirmed this. There was a bus to Laredo, otherwise 27km away, at 6pm. We decided to wait. There was apparently a nunnery/church/albergue that was very nice.
 Before long some Germans wandered into the bar. The six of them were doing an ‘easy’ Camino together, in that they had their bags ferried to the next stop and a taxi to pick them up wherever they wanted. They were very curious why an Australian could speak German decently, if at all. After chatting with them for a few minutes and watching them down several beers in succession – as only Germans on holiday do – they bought the whole pub a round of schnapps. They wished me luck and, in a whirlwind of booze, were on their way again.
I felt no shame in catching a bus with the Italians; no moral obligation to walk every step. In fact, the luxury of zooming over terrain that would have taken hours otherwise was not lost on us. We came to the nunnery in Laredo in a drizzle, where we were welcomed into an ancient church and shown to simple dorms. Before long a circle was formed, lyric booklets were handed out, and little Spanish nuns started leading the groups in such classics as ‘Oh, Jesus’ and ‘Hallelujah’ – yes, the Leonard Cohen version. There were even lyrics for ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Let it Be’. They used a Spanish guitar and drum surprisingly well. Afterwards, introducing ourselves in Spanish and French, my brain got quite a workout.
 Afterwards, we all sat on long tables in a whitewashed hall filled with images of Jesus for a communal meal of bread and pasta. Simple, hearty fare with good conversation and plenty of wine. I got the feeling that this was what the Camino was all about – and, in hindsight, it’s one of the highlights. I had a conversation with an elderly Frenchman in very poor French; I think he told me to join a choir. I translated German into – again, broken – Spanish with middling success.
Looking back, this was an enormous, satisfying day. I quickly fell asleep to the sound of light rain and a dripping drainpipe.
‘Til next time,
Alex

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