Day 4 – Pamploma to Uterga

I had heard that the walk from Pamploma to Puerta de la Reina would be difficult, especially in bad weather, so I was worried. The hike wasn’t too bad in the beginning, though, and when I asked a shopkeeper if she thought I should continue to the other side of the mountain or call it a day there (it was about 11a.m.), she said I should continue. 

I am glad that I did. I hadn’t realized that at the top of this mountain stood the famous bronze statue of the peregrinos making their windy way along the Camino. I had not recognized the long line of wind turbines along the ridge.

 About 500 meters from the top, I caught a glimpse of the bronzes and realized where I was. This was one of the first true landmarks along the Camino that is well known and recognized, and I felt happy and energized.

At the top, the first person who greeted me was a vendor who was selling drinks and food. Usually I would have bought something but I had just had a drink from the village below. 

There were some “touregrinos” there also taking pictures of each other at the top.

What is a “touregrino”?

This is the name given to people who do the Camino the easy way. They usually send their suitcases  (yes, some have the wheeled kind) ahead with a tour company to the hotel or albergue they have reserved ahead of them. They travel with day packs. My friend from the train from Paris to St. Jean, Antoine, told me of the saying, “The smaller the pack, the larger the shell.”

The scallop shell is the traditional symbol of the pilgrim and many people buy one and put it on their packs at the start of their trip. The saying Antoine shared about the size of the pack means that people who travel the easy way, not carrying their full packs, moving uphill with lively steps, clearly in good health, seem to buy the biggest, gaudiest shells to put on their tiny day packs. 

Typical tourist style.

No one on the Camino resents the use of transports for those who are old, infirm, injured, etc.  but if you are fit, well, you must understand if you don’t get a cheerful “Buen Camino” from someone wearily lugging their 2-4-6 weeks worth of worldy goods steeply uphill, someone who knows that no comfortable bus waits to take them along smooth roads to the next hotel and a good meal.

And the touregrinos travel in groups. Tour groups.

However, this group was so happy about making it to the top that I couldn’t help but feel happy for them. I took their pictures for them, they did the same for me, and then they were off, gliding down to the foothills.

I stopped at the first albergue I found, a nice one with an outdoor patio, although it was too cold for being outside, and free wifi.

I Skyped my DD and checked my email.

Juan Carlos showed up and I was surprised, since he had left Pamploma quite a bit before me. He was limping a little because he had gotten tendonitis. He declined an offer to stay at that albergue because he had given his sleeping bag to someone else to carry and he had to go on to the next town so he could sleep.

Kerstin and Honey, two of the German women i had been traveling with, showed up and stayed. They ate the Pilgrim meal and said it was great. But, at 12 euros, I felt uncomfortable spending that much money and had not reserved a spot. I felt badly afterwords because 1) they had waited for me at dinner and 2) they said it was really good, with lots of wine. 

I had a good sleep on a bottom bunk.


Day 3 – Zubiri to Pamploma

Another rainy, cold day.

The route to  Pamploma was along country roads through mountain passes. The little stream that we crossed on the final bridge to Zubiri has changed into a strong river because of the rain. There were several men fishing off bridges on this river, which is well stocked although they hadn’t caught anything yet.

People had written about being overwhelmed by the slow approach of city life as you get close to Pamploma. However, I found it invigorating. I liked walking through towns where people were standing outside, talking about the approaching day, the weather, sports. I liked seeing people bustling along to work, some focused on their travel, some happy to make eye contact and offer a morning “Buen Camino,” which is more appreciated than they can imagine.

The markers along the Camino vary from place to place. Often it is no more than a yellow arrow painted on a wall. But cities take more care and have tiles which appear on the sidewalk or on the walls of buildings, all inevitably pointing me on my way.

A man motions to me from across the street to go to him. He tells me the direction of the Camino, not wanting me to get lost. Although I am heading in the right direction, I am grateful for his concern and helpfulness. Perhaps he has seen his fair share of pelegrinos wandering aimlessly around his town and knows that it is better to keep people on track than to have to help them get back on track once lost.

Hmmm. Is that a life lesson?

The approach to Pamploma goes around huge stone walls formerly protecting the castle. Some women with strollers and who are playing with their dogs assure me that the way to the albergue I want is easy. I laugh, telling them that I need something easy today.

The albergue, Jesus & Maria, is wonderful. Run by Jesuits, it is modern with all the facilities one could ask for. I am assigned a bottom bunk. This place is especially good because they allow you to wash the mud off your boots. Fancy me, washing my clothes and my boots by hand in the sink!

My system for arriving at the albergue is developing into this:

Unpack sleeping bag and take out bag with all I will need for the night

Take shower and change into the clothes which I keep clean for hanging around the albergues and city

Find laundry and wash clothes

Write (usually no wifi) or walk around

Skype if there is wifi

Find dinner

Go to Mass if available

Go to sleep

While I shower, a pilgrim who brought his guitar plays music in the courtyard outside of the albergue and I can easily hear his singing. It is nice and puts me in a good mood, almost making me forget that I have to do something about the blisters which have magically blown up on my feet.

My friends from the first day are a few beds down from me. Shawn, a businessman who lives in London, takes several of us out to dinner because he and his wife, Iris, will end their journey in Pamploma. But their daughter, Somin, will continue onto Santiago so tonight is their farewell dinner. We celebrate with several more coming along and have a wonderful time.

On the way back from dinner, I split off from their family to give them time to say farewell. I walk with Juan Carlos and Evelyn, who hop into a tiny bar with a guitar player, a microphone, and a crowd packed into the tiny space. I know this could lead to a long night so I excuse myself after about 20 minutes and go back to the albergue. I need to see if my clothes are dry yet.

They are not.

We settle in for the night but there is a ruckus down the row of beds. Shawn, our gracious host for the evening’s dinner, has stumbled out of the top bunk and hit his head.  The hospitaleros of the albergues decide on caution and an ambulance comes. I feel very badly for his wife and daughter – I know this is not how they planned to spend their last night together. 

The next day, my clothes are still not dry so I spend one euro to get 40 minutes in the dryer while I pack and prep for the day. I ask Iris how Shawn is doing. She says he is alright but spent the night in the hospital. I am glad he will be o.k.

By the way, don’t let the sunlight fool you. It is wet and cold. I take photos during those few moments of sun. The mountain pass which was closed to me the first day had snow today. 

Day 2 – Roncevalles to Zubiri

Another rainy, muddy, cold day.

The albergue in Roncevalles was wonderful and so welcome after such a difficult day. Clean and modern, it is a converted monastery and holds more than 100 pilgrims. No bunk beds this time, and lockers for your stuff. 

Wisely, they have a well used room where pilgrims put their boots rather than stomping all through their beautiful albergue (hostel).

A few people are becoming my Camino family. The are the German ladies, Honey (American spelling of a German name) and Casidy (ditto). There is Juan Carlos from Honduras. There is SoMin and her mother and father. And many more people whom I recognize from either their faces or their backpacks.

Still rainy and slick, especially in the mountains. Some who blasted past me yesterday have been brought low by their own exuberance.

Within one kilometer of the start of the day, a pilgrim fell face first on the trail avoiding mud. He got up, laughing, and his friends good-naturedly joked with him, but I decided that I would take it very carefully.

I had packed some medication for tendonitis in my first aid kit. Like an umbrella, I figured that if I had it with me, I wouldn’t need it. On this day, I was right. Along the trail, a group of walkers gathered around a young Italian who had hurt his Achilles and was in much pain. I was able to share some of the gel before the others created a temporary bandage for him. He continued on his way but was very slow and in much pain.

The Camino continues to be a different kind of spiritual experience. I thought I’d be thinking about My relationship with God and with the universe. Instead. I find myself thinking about how cold it is, how there is no place dry enough to sit and rest, and about how to not fall on my ass in the mud.

The rain has turned all the minor streams into rushing rivers. But I’m almost tempted to walk through them in order to get the mud off my boots.

The last part of the trail leading into Zubiri was one of the most treacherous paths I’ve ever been on. It was steeply downhill and mud and rock covered. Very slow and dangerous.

Finally arriving in Zubiri before the town ran out of available beds, I tried to find a place to buy a comb (which I had already lost after one day), some food and some magic blister repair lotion.

I ended up buying a loaf of bread, some ham, some cheese, and a bottle of wine for dinner.  

I joined the others at the hostel in the community eating room. I found myself in a United Nations of new friends with one thing in common – the Camino. 

German, Italian, French, Spanish, no English, conversations all around.

Day 1 – St Jean to Roncevalles

Truly one of the most difficult days of my life.

It is the end of May and you would think it was the end of January.

I left St Jean with high hopes. My pack was as light as I could make it. I knew my route. I had decided long ago to follow the advice of the Pilgrim Office and if they said the Napolean Route was too treacherous due to the weather, I would follow their advice. The hospitalieros (hostel hosts) said that the conditions so bad that even the locals, who are familiar with the route, could easily get turned around. 

The way was cold and foggy, rainy with icy droplets hanging in the air. Since it was my first time on the Camino, I was especially alert for way-markers.

At one corner the road seemed to disappear.  I went ahead to confirm the direction. Slowly, coming up the hill, was a man leading a donkey! Following him was a woman walking, and two more donkeys carrying young people, apparently his family.  How often in this day and age do you find families transporting themselves by donkey?

The weather became very cold and stormy. But, after a short coffee and toilet break, I cheerfully headed out. It was the last time I would be cheerful for a while.

The trail began to rise through beautiful country. I decided to take an alternate route which went off the beaten path for a kilo or two, away from the road. It was nice except the the last 500 meters which went straight up before returning to the main route.

Up, up, through rain and chilly wind, along a highway, through wet paths. Not exactly what I had in mind. I had been walking, on and off, with several women from Germany. When I finally caught up with them again, they had lost one. She had decided that the route was too much and had gotten a ride to the town we were heading for. I could understand why she had decided to take the easy way out. This Camino was not what I had expected. 

I had thought it would be a time for reflecting on God, religion, my life, where I was heading in the large sense, a time for prayer and meditioan.

Instead, I found myself fighting to keep one step in front of the other for one, then ten, then twenty more steps. The weather got worse and worse. The path became muddier and more frigid.

This Camino was the one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

The wind and rain was strong and non-stop. It was cold, cold, cold. Dangerously hypothermia-cold.

And seriously uphill. Non-stop uphill.  I was in the middle of the Pyrenees climbing straight to the top. There were no beautiful views of anything because the fog was too dense. And my fingers were almost too frozen to press the shutter of my camera.

If you have ever seen a video of people climbing the Himilayas and stopping every two steps to catch their breath (because the air is thin) you can visualize my trek up the mountain. Except I was my own Sherpa.

Did I mention that this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done?