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

Day 2

I figured I had to stay at least one extra night in San Sebastian to do the city justice. Well, it probably deserves much longer than that but I don’t have the time nor the budget. I spent most of my day wandering around the beach and its parks, grazing on cafe con leche and pintxos.

The calm beach on a cloudy day

What I found liberating about San Sebastian was that, despite well-dressed Spaniards, the pintxos had zero pomp or pretense – in fact, they were designed to be casual. It’s a very laid-back dining style, hopping from bar to bar, having a drink and a bite to eat at each. I didn’t ever get a second glance, despite wearing thongs the entire night (where locals were wearing boat shoes).

Accidentally ordered toast for breakfast at 2pm, was still tasty

Sitting in a square, sipping a cafe con leche, I thought that San Sebastian wouldn’t be a half-bad place to live. Or, more appropriately, to retire to at 60 and grow wildly obese and happy. But it still has that seaside European feel, with a huge amount of tourist traffic – not quite suffocating the locals, but definitely creating a second world. I suppose the resort town feeling is so ingrained because of years of holidaymaking by Spanish royalty. Any would-be retirements by a foreigner would be hampered, I think, by the fiercely independent Basque culture. With their own language, lifestyle and customs, it would be almost impenetrable to outsiders. Sure, you would survive, and make a few friends – probably have a good time, too – but, short of marrying into the culture, living here would be quite isolating. Or maybe I just haven’t spent enough time in Spain yet.

This enormous steel chain is drilled into the rock at the end of La Concha, an impressive art installation linking the sea, sky and wind. It symbolises the ruggedness of the terrain and, I guess, the way the Basque culture and people seem to be chiselled out of the rock. The scale of it is quite dramatic, with enormous waves breaking through the gaps in the rock and chain. For reference of San Sebastian’s relationship with the ocean, it’s famous for its surf – and gigantic breaking waves:

These sorts of waves will reach up to 30 meters high (image credit: Pinterest)

A few more pintxos, an hour or two reading and suddenly the day is over. Time flies when you’re having fun (i.e. a rest day! (not that I’ve earned it…)).

‘Til next time,

Alex

Camino Del Norte day 1

Welcome to my new blog series! Here I’ll be regularly writing about my travels over the next few months. Post frequency will be dictated by Wi-Fi/power availability, but I’m aiming to write – if not post – at least a little every day.

The rough plan is this: I’ve just finished university and have about 4-5 more months free before I start a job, so I’m doing the sensible thing and spending all my savings (from about a year of part-time work) travelling. I figure there are limited opportunities for an extended period of freedom so I want to make the most of this time. I’m going to walk the Camino Del Norte, an 800km-ish walk through the north of Spain, then head down south through Portugal until I reach Gibraltar. From there, I will – fingers crossed – hitchhike a boat across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, where I’ll stay until I run out of time or money. I would love to make it to Cuba or Mexico, but we’ll see. Backup plan is to explore Morocco and North or West Africa.

[It’s currently day 6 of my camino and I’m in a small town 14km out of Bilbao – but I wrote these next few days’ posts each day as I walked. I’ll post a couple per day until I’m caught up]

After a busy three weeks in Scandinavia and northern Europe visiting friends and family, I caught a flight from Copenhagen to San Sebastian via Madrid. Flying into Spain for the first time, I was struck by the Spanish ‘frying pan’ that surrounds Madrid: endless parched plains and low-lying houses to mitigate the sweltering heat. At a glance it could be Arizona or rural South Australia. Flying north towards the Bay of Biscay, however, clouds appear and the land becomes gradually greener. Loath as I am to fly – I find overland travel much more fun – it does provide some spectacular views. In the east, an amber full moon rose over a carpet of clouds while the last rays of sun faded in the west.

The twin prop from Madrid to San Sebastian

Arid Spanish terrain

The San Sebastian airport is actually in Irun, the town in which the Camino Del Norte begins, so it was an easy 2km walk through the seaside humidity to reach the pilgrim hostel (‘albergue’), accommodation specifically set up for people walking the Camino. Passing a saltwater river, I didn’t get the usual scent of decaying seaweed, but instead of fresh oysters and brine – considering the industry along the coast, these waters seem impressively pristine. Arriving at the albergue at 9:50pm, I wasn’t sure it would be open, but was welcomed by a perpetually-flustered-looking owner (‘hospitalero’) who found a mattress for me despite all the bunks being full. It was a humid night in a noisy room – but at least I had a bed for the night.

The view from the albergue’s window

I’m sitting now in a hostel in San Sebastian, having walked the 27-ish km of the first stage of the Camino from Irun yesterday. San Sebastian is famous for its food and drink, so I decided it would be an injustice not to spend at least one extra night here. It’s so far lived up to its reputation – a legendary food city with the most Michelin stars per capita of any in the world.

A few km into the first day’s walk we came upon this monastery – there was a service, and we could hear the monks chanting all the way down the valley

I spent most of my first day walking in mizzle (mist + drizzle) with Sean, an easy-going Irishman, and Maria, a Russian woman who worked for a German metallurgy company in St Petersburg. Maria said that it’s good luck to begin the Camino in rain – I’ll take her word for it. Walking out of Irun, following the spray-painted yellow arrows, we soon found ourselves in hillside chestnut and pine forests. The damp earth and pine needles smelt alive in the light rain.

There’s a surprising number of these enormous slugs on the camino – called ‘babosa’ in Spanish. This one’s relatively small; the largest I’ve seen so far is maybe 15cm

The first of many bays we were to pass on the mountainside walk to San Sebastian

Mountainous Basque terrain

After about five hours walking we were finally greeted by the beautiful bay of San Sebastian

San Sebastian is a city of about 200,000 nestled between the mountains and the ocean. A small mountain attached to a spit of land creates two large bays. Each of these beaches has a different feel: the first has large breaking waves and is filled with wetsuited surfers, the second is much gentler, with scores of sunbathers, recreational swimmers and small children playing in the sand. The wide streets of the town are flanked by uniformly tall apartment blocks, creating great corridors for air to breeze through. And yet, there’s still the feel of a planned city, with a well-positioned old town nestled at the base of the mountain at the end of the spit. This used to be the resort destination of Spanish kings and queens – and, judging by the number of well-dressed retired Spaniards, probably still is a resort town. We tramped into town with sore legs and aching feet. Maria, the Russian, had booked a hostel in advance. Sean and I agreed to see her to it before moving on to the pilgrim albergue a little out of town. As it turned out, the hostel had two extra dorm beds going cheap… it would have been such a shame to let them go to waste… and the hostel was in the very centre of town. We decided to stay in a regular hostel.

Pintxos are the tapas of northern Spain, small plates of food that go very well with beer and wine

A quick shower and we were straight out for a late lunch of pintxos. Pintxos, also known as the ‘tapas of northern Spain’ (but don’t say that to a Basque, he’d probably punch you), include a great dining style and are a good way to showcase all the best regional produce. The name ‘pintxos’ (pronounced ‘pinchos’, the ‘x’ is a ‘ch’ in Basque) apparently comes from the verb ‘to pierce’ – hence, many pintxos are served with a toothpick to affix something tasty to a piece of bread. Generally, the locals will enter the bar and have a drink and one or two dishes, then move on to the next place. This grazing style of dining, often standing up, means you get a lot of tastes of a lot of excellent food – and plenty of drink. The local tipple is txakoli, or ‘white gold’, a white wine unique to the region. There’s also less-sweet ‘sidra’ (cider) and a variety of beers. I can happily say I’m a fan of all of them.

Anchovy, a prawn/mayonnaise/egg yolk combo thing and… something – it was vegetable-y and very tasty

More pintxos – this bar featured many more deep-fried, golden brown dishes – something I am entirely okay with

Despite having just gorged on pintxos, the city still tempts with a fantastic selection of pastries and sweets

The swimming beach – not too shabby

Fish at the supermarket – an impressive selection

The rest of the day was spent running errands, getting our camino passports stamped at the church and buying supplies for tomorrow’s walking (for the other two, at least – I had decided to stay in San Sebastian an extra day to make the most of the food and explore a little). I was stunned by the sheer amount of jamon and and local cheese and fresh bread and seafood at just the local supermarket. Good produce and good food are absolutely ingrained into the Basque mentality and lifestyle [I can also confirm this is still true, six days later]. We headed out at dinner for round two, had probably too many drinks with the pintxos and rolled back into bed at about midnight – but, hey, when in Rome…

‘Til next time,

Alex