Day 3 – Bizkaretta to Zabaldika

[unedited]

At breakfast, we meet an old French woman who has walked already 5 weeks, from  Le Puy-en-Velay, and she complains about the dinner at the casa rural. She paid 11 euro for a small meal with no wine, and for vegetables, it was just lettuce from the garden outside. We’re glad to have skipped it.  She complains about the breakfast too, but it’s too late to do anything about that.  Its 4 euro, which seems high given that its basically bread and coffee.

On the road, we pass the Americans who beat us to Pura Corazon, an older mother and son from Pennsylvania, along with two Jans (Janet and Janice) and a woman from Australia.

In Zubiri, where a medieval pilgrim named Domenico Laffi was robbed*, and which Jack Hitt called a “wretched hamlet,” we met a man who, on this his third Camino, began by simply walking out of his front door in Sweden. With more than 3,000 km already under his belt, the 700 to go seems like a short ways.

“When people ask what I was thinking, I said ‘not much’, because that’s the only way. The mind cannot hold it all in.”

Viktor’s first Camino was in April 2014, the Camino Frances, and his second was the Camino del Norte. He has a website, Every Step Counts, where he raises money and updates followers on his progress.

The road from Zubiri to Larrasoana is more like I’d expected, hot, sunny, and dusty, walking between two roads, between two tall columns of dry grass. The Pyrenees and just around them were full of woodlands, cool, shady, misty. I already missed the green mossy forests seen yesterday and earlier in the day.

Before Larrasoana, pilgrims gather in the shade by the fountain. We see a blond woman who smiled at us at Zubiri bridge, (we later learn she’s Belgian/Russian – but for now I mostly note, with surprise, that she’s walking in skinny jeans).  Other pilgrims stop and rest, or refill their bottles and pass on. Ours is a silent communion. We speak quietly to our traveling companions, but not really to pilgrims from other groups. There is a Spansh couple and an older American man, besides the woman from Zubiri. A sign across the street informs us that we should not poop in the yard.

We walk on, but my feet are killing me. I took some wrong steps on the mountain, and feel pain in my right knee, my right ankle, and up near my right hip. Our goal is to walk 22.5 km to a convent run my nuns of the Sacred Heart. Dorcinda would like to press on another 9km to Pamplona, which would catch us up to the pace in our guidebook, but I refuse.

We make many stops to ease my cranky ankles, and linger too long each time over beer or coffee or orange juice.

On the way to Zabaldika I try to stop at an earlier hostel, but they’re full up. There are two women on the road ahead, a French mother and daughter.  The mother keeps looking back, as if suspicious. My legs hurt, and I doubt my ability to make it to the nunnery, which seems far away and poorly marked. It is very hot.

In the last town before the convent, we finally catch up with the French women, and they are getting directions from a cheerful old Spanish man. He at first seems to be offering them a place to stay, but is actually encouraging them on to the convent. He points to a patch of trees in the distance. “See, you can just make out a bell tower,” he says. We see nothing of the sort.

I realize that the French women actually don’t speak Spanish at all, and are thoroughly confused and growing frustrated. They both speak English, the daughter better than the mother, and so I offer to translate. We realize we’re heading towards the same place, and join forces, with Dorcinda in the lead. The mother is exhausted, grumpy, while the daughter is somewhere between cheerful and sarcastic, with more energy to spare. They meant to stop at Larrasoana but missed the turnoff at the bridge and walked right on by. It was a long way to go for the mistake.

We arrive around 6pm, and again I translate. The hospitalera at Zabaldika is fussy, repeats herself several times, and consults with the nuns on what to do, since there are four of us and only three beds. After asking the nuns, she decides we can stay, as long as one of us sleeps downstairs on a couch. The younger french woman (something like Mariposa? Marisol?) volunteers. I offer three times, but she insists more strongly. Dorcinda and French mom end up in a room together, while I end up in the common room. (It later turns out that I’ve gotten the better end of the deal – the French mother is a champion snorer. That may also explain the younger Frenchwoman’s eagerness to sleep on the couch).

I help set out plates for dinner, then the younger French woman and I are pressed into service gathering more laundry so that the nuns can do a full load.  “Mas ropa! Buscame mas ropa!”

We meet a Scottish woman, Eileen, who seems nice, but turns out to be a bit of a nutcase.  She tells Dorcinda all about a religious experience she had on her last Camino – something about walking with a woman  who was a real pill – she had an evil spirit about her – and through the grace of God she was able to walk with her all the way. Seems like an underwhelming sort of awakening, but I can’t bring myself to pay attention enough to be sure. She’s not pushy though, and seems relieved and eager when Dorcinda asks about her experience, as though she’s been dying to tell someone but is cognizant of the fact that it will appear a little kooky to nonreligious listeners. She is kind enough to give up her bed and sleep downstairs when a final guest, a Hungarian woman, arrives at 6:30. The woman who greeted us frets further, saying “que horror!” when she realizes that not one but TWO guests will be sleeping downstairs. At dinner, we talk more with the French women, the daughter says she is about to start her masters degree in sustainability and something else, and she plans to leave her mother in Burgos. Her brother intends to take her place and will walk with mom after that. The nuns invite us to an after dinner prayer, and we agree. The French girl pretends to be very interested in a neighborhood cat, but her mom sees right through the ruse and insists that she come. She had the right idea, though, and we all soon regret our decision to attend.

The service, simple enough, takes forever since we end up translating everything into Spanish, English, French and Russian.  I see on the program that they intend to ask us about why we’re walking and our experience so far. My heart sinks. That can’t be right. An older Spanish woman reaches the same conclusion, and, bravely, walks out during the nun’s introduction. Eileen snorts in disgust and goes to close the door behind her. We are trapped. The younger french woman, despite her reluctance, is tapped to read the sections in French, an even younger (18-20 yo?) blond Russian woman named Masha reads in Russian, from her own Bible, an overeager Englishman named Tom is picked to read in English (he loudly volunteers to read in Spanish, happy for an opportunity to show off his facility with the language, and entirely missing the point of the nun’s request). Meanwhile two old nuns switch off reading and translating in Spanish.

Tom’s attitude is increasingly annoying. He reads his section of the prayer dramatically, like a priest on his first day on the job, or a student in an acting class.  When he tells of his experience walking the Camino, he says, first in Spanish, some baloney about Jesus interceding on our behalf, not like a lawyer who’s nitpicking around the definitions of the crime/sin, but as someone who says simply, ‘Tom did wrong, but I love him, he’s mine.’ That’s what the Camino taught him. He’s walked for only a few days and leaves tomorrow – I guess he’s just here to show off his Spanish and pal around with religious folks from other countries. Although we’re going to see a very different Iago, I’m reminded of the words of the villain from Othello – one may smile and smile and be a villain (Edit – OOPS that’s from Hamlet!). I want to slap that smug sonofabitch.

Masha is also incredibly annoying – she talks about how the Camino has taught her to let go of her plans, just walk and trust in God, and good things happen. That night, she harshly reprimands an old Spanish woman for not turning the light out fast enough at bedtime. Other than Masha and Tom, no one seems too eager to speak, especially after the additional lag of translation. The nun calls on a man from Valencia, essentially saying “Hey Valencia, what have you got?” He is shy and demurs, but the nun compliments his singing voice from the hymn we sang at the start – you sing so well, why don’t you express yourself with a song, she cajoles. No luck. She moves on to New York, and I reluctantly speak up, rushing through some thing about how my job had become my life, and I was spending all my time working for another man’s desires, another man’s pocketbook, and I was walking to take a break from those responsibilities and explore what else I could be dedicating myself to. I choose not to attempt to translate my story into Spanish, leaving the job to one of the old nuns, who takes her sweet time with it. There is the dutiful nodding of heads, as though I’ve said something wise. We repeat this show of mute appreciation after every speaker has his or her turn, no matter what they actually say. At the final prayer, there’s something in Latin which repeats again, and again, and again. And again. Eventually, me and the younger french woman start giggling whenever a new round starts up, as if to say “This again?? We just did this one!” The whole thing takes just over an hour but feels like far longer. I’m too worn out to write by the end of it.

At bedtime, Tom makes some loud jokes about how creaky and noisy his bed is, and a Spanish family laughs. For maximum comic effect, he tosses himself around some more, making yet more unbearable creaking noises.  I am glad I don’t have to see his punchable face.  Sharply at 10, the young Russian insists on lights out, annoying an older Spanish woman who’s fussing with her bag. I again rely on my trusty earplugs.

* The Camino de Santiago: A Cultural Handbook quotes Laffi as writing: “The bridge is guarded by soldiers, better described as thieves and murderers. As it is a deserted spot, they will strip passers-by of their belongings. Persons of high rank are made to pay, that is, made to give them a ‘tip.’ Anyone who refuses gets brutally treated. They will break open our head with their sticks and wil sometimes get rid of people by makng the river their grave.”

Day 2 – Orison to Bizkarreta

[unedited]

We leave a few minutes before 8 a.m., after breakfast, and I get up early enough to take a morning shower, which will prove to be a rarity. Its still overcast, but not actively raining. We get some of the views we’d hoped for the day before. At 9:30 we pass a guy with a van selling fruit, eggs, coffee, tea, hot chocolate. He also offersv the last stamp in France. We each get an egg and a hot chocolate. Pilgrims gather in droves, and we see a few familiar faces from the night before, like the Australian who sat with us at dinner.

We pass the “Fountain of Roland,” which doesn’t work, and I consider leaving my Song of Roland book there, but decide its more likely to be ruined by rain than picked up by a curious traveler.

In Roncesvalles, (the valley of thorns) we pass the monastery hostel and get a stamp. Many of our Orison compadres are staying here, which, in all likelihood, means we’ll never see them again. So long, Louis Robert!

The town is tiny! I knew the name from the legend, but had no idea it was so small – basically a monastery with a few houses and cafes around it. Our guidebook says the population is only 30, and the monastery albergue has beds for 183 pilgrims.

I’ve finished the Song of Roland, and despite my enjoyment of tales about medieval knights and their exploits, I did not enjoy it. So repetitive! Some Saracen champion kills a Frank chevalier, then Roland/Oliver/Bishop Turpin gets mad and kills the infidel, slicing through shield and held and body, and horse to boot! Rise and repeat, three times, and them the fourth Saracen champion, perhaps as bored with the proceedings as the readers, kills five chevaliers in on paragraph before Roland takes his revenge. Everyone has a bit of land, a fast horse, and a cool shield. There are some rather gruesome descriptions of people getting chopped up, but even those are repetitive and boring after a while.

Here’s a somewhat typical passage, to give you an idea:

“Grandonie was both proof and valiant,
And virtuous, a vassal combatant.
Upon the way there, he has met Rollant;
He’d never seen, yet knew him at a glance,
By the proud face and those fine limbs he had,
By his regard, and by his contenance;
He could not help but he grew faint thereat,
He would escape, nothing avail he can.
Struck him the count, with so great virtue, that
To the nose-plate he’s all the helmet cracked,
Sliced through the nose and mouth and teeth he has,
Hauberk close-mailed, and all the whole carcass,
Saddle of gold, with plates of silver flanked,
And of his horse has deeply scarred the back;
He’s slain them both, they’ll make no more attack”

I’m a bit confused when Roland blows his horn so hard  his temples burst – it seems to be literal, with brains actually streaming out of his head, but he staggers on for quite a while after that. Who needs brains, anyway?

We arrive in town a bit before 2 pm, which is when things close for siesta. We race through one chapel, with a tomb of Sancho Fuerte, a king who was reportedly 7 foot four. We don’t get to see the graveyard where pilgrims and the supposed peers of France are buried. Nor Roland’s horn, but, hey, we saw that in Toulouse anyway.

I consider leaving my Song of Roland near the cemetery where the peer of France, and unnumbered pilgrims, are supposed to be buried, but Dorcinda decides she wants to read it. I take a picture instead and hand it to her, swapping it for Jack Hitt’s Off the Road, which she’s finished. I had read it before, but I hope for a refresher, a way to tie our journey closer to the stories we read before coming here. As part of this process, I realize that I’m missing the Camino de Santiago: A Cultural Handbook that was one of the two guidebooks we’d brought to share between us. It’s a relatively thick book, and we had planned to lighten the load by ripping out irrelevant pages about the areas we bypassed as we continued our journey. In fact, we had just the night before taken some measure of sacrilegious joy in ripping out a whole section of the book that deals with an alternate road from France that leads in to Puente La Reina, bypassing Roncesvalles entirely. We debate going back, but we’ve already lost a lot of time with our early end to the first day. We’re stuck with just John Brierly’s guide, and whatever else we manage to glean from fellow pilgrims and the occasional town where we can access the internet.

We pass Burguete, where the hospitalero in St. Jean recommended us to stay, and ask to see a piano signed by Hemingway. It’s there, the barman tells us, but we can’t see it because that part of the bar is closed until evening. We shrug and move on.

We stay in Bizkarreta, but  the Pension Pura Corazon, where we’d hoped to stay, and three casas rurales are totally booked. It is about 6pm, long after the typical pilgrim arrivals around 1 or 2. The last casa rural, however, it almost empty, and we stay there in a double room with a private bath- the shower, with good temperature and water pressure, is a true luxury. We ask a woman on the street where to eat, and she points out the two bars in town but seems flustered by the question of which is better.

We end up choosing the one atop the hill at the start of town and eat a lot for not a lot of money. We drink a whole bottle of wine. The barman knows we are American, talks to us about the Olympics, which are ending. An old man comes into the bar, and the barman, on his way over to serve him, breaks a wine glass so loudly and dramatically, that I assume it was a prank, meant to startle a friend/customer. But it was an honest mistake, and anyway, the old man barely seemed to notice.

The barman is grateful for the not-great tip we leave (10% or so).

Camino Day 1: St Jean Pied-de-Port to Orisson

[Unedited]

At breakfast we meet a retired Canadian diplomat named Louis Robert, who’s traveling with his wife.  He is proud of the fact that he’s gotten his pack down to 6kg. (Mine is 7.5 kg with an empty water bottle, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten something). He eagerly plays the role of the wise old man, and he says two things that stick with me. First, he found that giving up books was the hardest part of packing and prepping for the trip. One book he wanted to bring weighed 1kg. “The weight of words,” he said sagely. The other thing, he said, is that he had to learn to give up things that he would carry “just in case.”

“When you carry things ‘just in case,’ you carry your fear with you,” he said. “And that can be a heavy thing indeed.”

Leaving St Jean, our hostel host warns us to take the low road, the Valcarlos Road, not the Napoleon Road. That’s the way that real pilgrims walked, the route used by Charlemagne during his wars of Christian reconquest in Spain, and besides, the rainy weather will make the high road dangerous. He also suggests moving a little further past Roncesvalles, which is where most people stop on their first day. He suggested Burguete, and said we should find a bar behind the church, where the priests drink, and ask around until someone finds us a casa rural.

After seeing the nickel and diming prices going on on the website, we shouldn’t be surprised, but breakfast, at 5 euro, is a big disappointment, basically bread and jam and coffee.

On the way out of town, we meet a grump from Kansas City – Dorcinda had tried to start a conversation with him over the fact that we both had the same book. “Everyone has the same book,” he said yesterday. Today she tries again, asking him if he knows a song from the musical “Oklahoma” about Kansas City. “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City,” he says. He knows it.

We walk out of town and along a roadside, single file and on the left, against traffic. The road is littered with dead frogs and, especially, dead slugs. And living slugs. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.” Especially if you’re a slug. Many slugs have martyred themselves to the feet of unwitting pilgrims, on the road to St. James.

There’s some confusion right away about which road to take – most of us want to take the high road but its not that clear to us.

We stop at Orisson, less than 8km from our starting point in St Jean. It is raining, but not too terribly. We meet a young guy from Sydney and he says he’s pressing on. We decide to stay, hoping for better weather and better views in the Pyrenees. It is a decision we will come to regret for several days as we try to bust our butts to match our planned pace. We stop at 10:15am, and have lots of time to write, read, and reflect.  We are hesitant to give up on the rest of the day, but the forecast is 80 percent rain. We look hopefully outside at a break in the clouds while drinking coffee, but end up staying.

It rains very little and we feel foolish for deciding to stop so soon. All the younger pilgrims move on and we’re left with a room full of retirees, splitting time between a bedroom with six beds and the common area of the bar. We go out for a brief walk up the road and back, but there’s not much to see – everything is covered in cloud and drizzly mist.

We end up sharing a room with Louis Robert and his wife. Louis Robert looks on in horror as he sees us pull books, notebooks, and a laptop from our bag. I’ve got two notebooks, three books, a computer, and a goal of writing at least 1,000 words a day. The weight of words, indeed.

At dinner we sit by an overweight young American, Rachel, an older Australian man who’s been separated from his wife by the chaotic seating, and Kansas City, who actually turns out to be a pretty nice guy, but was probably uncomfortable and self conscious when we first met him. After soup and wine is served and conversation begins to flow, a waiter whistles for attention and ostentatiously shushes us. When everyone is quiet, attentive, and even chagrined, he simply says, Bon Apetit, and everyone laughed as the tension broke. They gave us so much soup that we wonder whether that will be the whole meal or whether we should save room for later. Dorcinda asks, and the waiter points out that we have plates under the bowls, knives and forks, and even dessert spoons.

You must be like Sherlock Holmes, he tells her. These are clues.

In fact, they are very generous, bringing more wine and more of the main course (chicken).

After dinner, they tell us there is a tradition in this hostel, and make us stand up, say our names, where we’re from, where we’re going, and who we’re traveling with, We switch between English, French, Spanish. A little bit in Italian – one man spoke for a long time and I didn’t understand until the end, when he said, in English, “My wife, she push me.” People are mostly from Spain, France, Italy, Canada, Australia and the U.S., but Brazil, Japan, Korean are also represented. One American does his bit in Spanish – the Australians and Americans near us are impressed by his accent, but I am appalled by it.

I went to bed soon after dinner because there wasn’t much else to do. I was glad for my earplugs, because Louis Robert, on the bunk below me, was quite an accomplished snorer. He discoursed at length, asleep or awake.