Benandonner’s stone

I have vivid memories of some incidences in my early childhood: falling into the stream at uncle Bill’s farm in Glenmanus; aunt Tisha making butter in a wooden churn; Maurice Elliott crashing into the bushes on his sled on Loquestown hill on a bitterly icy winter morning; my father telling me at breakfast that a fox had got into one of his hen houses during the night.

I have no memory of my mother in that era.  For part of the time she was in the sanatorium in Derry, diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and I was cared for by our next door neighbour, Louise Wilson.

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One of only two pictures I have of me as a baby

For my first five years, we lived in a little wooden house in Glenmanus, on the edge of Portrush, one of many basic dwellings around a field, most occupied by destitute families with no work and few prospects.  In Ireland, the years immediately after the war were not easy years.  By day, my father worked on his fledging poultry farm raising a few chickens, and by night he was pianist and leader of a Portrush dance band.

But my mother’s uncle Bill believed in my father’s farming vision and leased him some of his land at Islandflackey, at a nominal rent, a mile from the village, and helped him to obtain a mortgage to build a new house. It cost just over £1,000.

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The original house at Islandflackey circa 1954

And so the poultry farm of ‘Greenacres’ was born.

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The house and farm buildings circa 1960

There was already a ruined Irish cottage on the site, close to the road.  It had been burned down at some time in the past. It was demolished and a new ‘bungalow’ built a little further back, on a freshly levelled site.

Initially there was no electricity, no running water, and only an outside toilet.  At night we used a paraffin lamp, drinking water came from a neighbouring well, washing water from the constant supply from the roof, and the toilet was a tin can in an outhouse, that my father periodically emptied on the midden.  And the sole heat was from the coal fireplace in the kitchen, and on special occasions, a fireplace in the living room.

Although one could tolerate the inconveniences, with livestock, the lack of running water was a major problem.

My father employed a water diviner to see if he could find a source.  I remember the man walking back and forth over the fields, with a forked sapling in his hands, but the only possibility he came up with was just behind the house.

So they started digging a well about 1.50 m in diameter.  When they were about 2 m deep, with no evidence of water, the attempt was abandoned.

I don’t remember how long it took, but finally we were connected to the water and electricity services.  The indoor bathroom took much longer.  I suspect that my father could not afford the expense.  But eventually a cess pool was built, pipes laid and the storeroom was converted into a bathroom.

The other ‘luxuries’ took a little longer; the first television rented when I was perhaps 11, a little second-hand car bought when I was about eighteen, and a rudimentary shower and central heating many years later, long after I had migrated.

My mother never did have a fridge, washing machine or drier.  Her life was never an easy one.

Behind the house, just above where the failed well was abandoned, there was a huge boulder, at least as a child I remember it as being very big.  It was circular and smooth all over, like a massive pebble.  I did not know where it came from, but it must have been in the vicinity when the new house was built.

I used to imagine that it had been thrown by the Scottish giant, Benandonner, missing Finn McCool, the Irish giant, at the Giant’s Causeway, during one of their fights, and ending up on our land.  The Giant’s Causeway is connected to Scotland, and as a child,  I believed that there must have been some basis to the legend. The Giant’s Causeway was not  far from our farm.

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The Giant´s Causeway, looking inland
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And looking across the sea to Scotland

When I was still young, I clearly remember a passing visit from Sam Wilson.  It was his wife who looked me when I was very young.  According to my mother he was a remote relation, but to this day I have never discovered the link.  When he saw the stone, he asked my father to fetch his heaviest hammer and he would break it up for him.

Now Sam was a powerfully built man and the heavy hammer was but a toy in his hands.  He swung and struck the rock with all his power, but the hammer just bounced off it.  He winged and whanged and the sparks flew, but to no avail.  Not even a small chip of the rock yielded.

Sweating profusely and red in the face, Sam eventually capitulated.

Not so long later, when I had just turned 11, Sam dropped dead of coronary thrombosis at the age of 47.

And somewhere on the former ‘Greenacres’, I suspect that Benandonner’s stone still stands intact.

Volcán Agua

Antigua, Guatemala

April, 1976

In the early hours of a morning in early February, 1976, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake flattened much of Guatemala City, killing 23,000 people, seriously injuring over 70,000, and leaving over one million others homeless.  When I arrived on a bus from El Salvador two months later, evidence of the devastation was everywhere to be seen.  And countless numbers of people living in the open, many with a shelter made of little more than cardboard, covered with scraps of plastic.

I found a room in a small hostel, run by a charming elderly Swiss woman.  She told me that she had converted her house to take in guests, after her husband died.  The rooms were arranged around a beautiful internal courtyard.  It was an oasis of tranquillity, compared to the chaos outside.

But the electricity supply was intermittent and there was water for only one hour every morning.  One does not have to have much imagination to envisage what the toilets were like after twenty-three hours.  I stayed for two nights and then caught a bus to Antigua, about 40 km to the west of Guatemala City.

The original city was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistadores, and was called Ciudad de los Caballeros de Santiago de Guatemala, but it was destroyed in 1541 by a mudflow from nearby Volcán Agua, possibly caused by an eruption.  The survivors relocated to the current location.

Antigua is surrounded by four volcanos and in the intervening years has been once devastated and many times damaged by earthquakes.  These days it is known as one of the best surviving examples of colonial Spanish architecture.  It was there that I found a comfortable room in a remote wing of an old mansion, owned by a building contractor.

At 3760 m, Volcán Agua towers some 2100 m over Antigua, and the base at Santa María de Jesús is about 10 km south of the city.  From my first sight of the volcano, I wanted to climb it.  Locals told me that one needed two days, spending the night in the crater.  But I had neither suitable equipment nor clothes to spend the night at altitude.  I decided to do it in one day.

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The Arco de Santa Catarina, with Volcán Agua in the background (photo from internet)

So one morning I woke up long before dawn, carefully closing the heavy front door, across the courtyard, and through the outer door to the silent street outside.  No cars, no dogs, not even the crow of roosters, still asleep in their coops.  Nothing stirred in Antigua.

Walking in the middle of the cobblestoned streets, without a car in sight, one could have been transformed in time to the Middle Ages.  Past the church of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, many times destroyed by earthquakes since 1541 and rebuilt.  Under the Arco de Santa Catarina, past the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral and the church of San José and out into the countryside.  And once out of the city and away from the polluting neon lights, I could see, towering in the distance, the bulk of Volcán Agua.

After some time, the sounds of my own breathing and plodding footsteps were interrupted by voices, first faint and then becoming more distinct.  I hesitated, not sure whether those that approached would prove friendly or a threat.  Then out of the half-light appeared a large group of people; some men, some women and a horde of children of all ages from teenagers to quite young.  All carried massive bundles on their backs and heads.  One carried chickens trussed together, one had cages containing wild birds, others carried bundles of various vegetables.  Even the youngest, probably no more than four or five years old, had her burden.  They were heading to the market.  ‘Buenos días señor, buenos días, bueños días…  One by one the greeted me, as they passed.   There would be no school for those children that day, perhaps not any day.  For them earning a living and surviving may have had a priority to learning.

It was almost sunrise when I arrived at the village of Santa María de Jesús.  I continued through the village, up a long steep street, until I arrived at the last of the houses and a police post.  I had to produce my identification (passport) and sign a logbook.  I could see that not many people had passed that way in recent weeks.

From the police post the path climbed on long loops, back and forth across the slopes of the volcano, steadily ascending.  It was already a warm day in the sun, but still cool in the shade of the trees. I continued at a steady pace for the first couple of hours, until I was well above the tree line.  A bank of clouds moved in and I was soon walking through a thick fog.  It was noticeably cooler.

When I finally emerged above the clouds, the view was stunning.  Below me was an ocean of white with several volcanos dotted about, like upturned ice cream cones.  And the most impressive of them was nearby, Volcán Fuego, spouting towering clouds of smoke and ashes, and bleeding the vivid red of the streams of lava.  It was a magnificent spectacle.

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Volcan Fuego in early evening (photo from internet)

But by now, my progress had very much slowed.  My breathing was very heavy and my heart was beating so much, that I could feel the rapid thumping in my forehead.  In the last thirty minutes trudging steeply up on loose rocks and dust of the old lava flows, I found myself taking ten steps, resting for ten seconds, in repetition, until I finally reached the highest point on the mountain.

Down below, on the bed of the crater, I could see a partially completed building. I found out later that it was intended to be a religious retreat.  I was tempted to try to find a path down into the crater, but decided against it.  If I wanted to descend before dark, I needed to soon start back.  I then understood why most people did the climb over two days.

Although relatively easy at first, descending brings into play a different set of muscles.  It is not until the descent does one realize how far one has ascended on a mountain.  After two hours I realized that I was not much more than half-way down, and the sun was visibly lower in the sky.

It was not long after I was back in the trees, that I heard a crashing and thudding coming in my direction.  I did not have time to even imagine what it could have been, when a group of Indians burst out of the trees, across the road in front of me, laughing, shouting waving, and noisily disappearing headlong down a non-existent path.  I guessed that they were workers from the building work in the crater, and for them, straight down the mountain was preferable to the tourist path that I was on.

I was not tempted to follow them.

I reached the police post at just after 17:00, signed the logbook, and headed back along the road to Antigua.  It was already dark when I passed under the Arco de Santa Catarina.

Pamplona

Thursday, 29 September, 2011

Zubiri to Villava (15km)

When I awoke, my left buttock was very tight and sore, and it felt as if it would tear at the slightest exertion.  Descending the stairs was a challenge.  I decided to have a leisurely breakfast and walk only as far as I felt comfortable, even if that meant just to the next village.

In the center of the small lobby there was a huge pile of luggage. It turned out that the bags belonged to the Belgian women from the restaurant the previous evening. Their agency had booked all their accommodation in advance and each day a local taxi would transport their bags to their next accommodation. That explained how they had managed to look so fresh and well-dressed at dinner, after a day of hiking.

Before I left, the owner told me that there was no hotel accommodation before Villava, about fifteen kilometers from Zubiri and six kilometers from Pamplona.  He assured me that it was an easy walk, with just a few short climbs in the last section.

So off I set, back across the stone bridge and up a quite steep hill.  After fifteen minutes I recalled that the hotel owner had made no mention of the hill, and I also realised that I had seen no signs.  I had taken a wrong turn somewhere.  So back down to the bridge where an old man, sitting on a bench, put me on the right path.

After ten minutes I came upon a sight that I had not expected to see in the sparsely populated and scenic foothills of the Pyrenees – a massive mining and refining complex.  It is owned by Magnesites Navarras, mining magnesite and refining it into products for the steel and agricultural fertilizer industries.  It stretched alongside the path for nearly two kilometers.

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Magnesias Navarras

By the time I arrived at the bridge over the river to Larrasoaña, my injury was starting to ache and throb, and I was feeling some discomfort.  I decided to cross the bridge and see if I could find somewhere where I could stay for a couple of days and rest my butt, before continuing.  But alas, the village seemed deserted. The only possibility was the public albergue, but it was closed until 15:00. Besides I did not fancy sleeping in a dormitory with a lot of snoring, farting pilgrims, flushing toilets in the middle of the night, and switching on lights at some unearthly hour, to get an early start .

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Magnesias Navarras

So step by step, village by village, through beautiful countryside, I slowly made my way for the next four hours, until I finally arrived at the bridge over the Río Ulzama, and crossed over into Villava.

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The bridge over the Río Ulzama, leading into Villava

I stopped at the first decent accommodation that I could find.  It turned out to be a very comfortable modern hotel, and remarkably quite inexpensive.  After a shower and a couple of cold beers, I felt much better, although sitting proved to be rather uncomfortable.

By the time the restaurant opened at 20:00, I was ravenous, for I had eaten nothing since breakfast.  And once again, the 3-course pilgrim menu was a bargain at nine euros.  And to my delight, the first course was one of my favourite dishes – garbanzos con chorizo, chick peas with spicy sausage, followed by lamb cutlets and a desert.

The service was rapid, and in no time my waitress placed a huge container of garbanzos on my table, together with enough bread to feed a family of four and a bottle of red wine. I asked her if I was to help myself and she said that it was all for me.

I had several bowls of garbanzos before I remembered that that was only the first course.  I struggled through the lamb and I skipped the desert.  I was satiated.

While I was eating, the four friendly Guatemaltecos joined me at the next table.  What delightful people they proved to be, and such excellent company.  It was the first time in years that I had been able to speak Spanish socially and I was relieved to find that I had not lost the ability.

I went to bed that night feeling quite content, if sore.  And I slept soundly, without once waking.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Villava to Pamplona (6km)

But next morning I could barely move.  My buttock was painful and inflexible and of course, predictably, the garbanzos had worked their magic.  I was reminded of the children’s rhyme:

‘Beans, beans are good for your heart

The more you eat, the more you f—t

And I had eaten an awful lot…

After a late breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and slowly made my way through the suburbs into Pamplona, over the Puente Magdalena, up through the castle grounds and finally to the central Plaza del Castillo.  Just off the plaza I found a room in a beautiful little hotel, with a small balcony that overlooked the street through which the bulls run during the Festival de Fermín.

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Puente Magdelana

I reserved the room for three days, hoping that my injury would heal enough to allow me to continue.  So for three days I hobbled around the plaza and in the side streets as far as the cathedral, eating tapas, drinking beer and wine, reading newspapers, chatting to waiters, and sitting in the sun.  A nice life, if you can find it.

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Plaza Castillo

Ernest Hemingway seems to have been  well respected in Pamplona.  There are several reminders in plaques, for he always stayed in one of the hotels on the Plaza, ate and drank and fought in the bars and bistros, and frequented the bullring.  There is a street named after him and his statue stands outside the bullring.

After three days my injury was no better, and knowing that the next stage in the camino, after Pamplona, involved a long climb to the Alto del Perdón, followed by a steep rock-strewn descent on the other side, I decided that ‘discretion was the better part of valour’ and made arrangements to return home.

So a bus to San Sebastián, a suburban train to Irun, an SNCF to Bayonne and a couple of days later, a flight back to Sweden.

Naturally I was very disappointed to have to abandon the hike, but as I have often said after having to turn back on a climb, due to bad weather or injury, ‘the mountain will still be there for another day’.

Zubiri

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Roncesvalles to Zubiri (21 km)

From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port there are two routes into Spain – the road via the Roncesvalles Pass or the pilgrim path across the mountain, via the Col de Lepoeder, at 1410 m. Either way one ends up at Roncesvalles about 8km from the French border and at an altitude of 952 m.

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Roncesvalles Pass

Apart from the Augustinian abbey, built in 1130 by the King of Navarra for the use of pilgrims, the church built in about 1230, and a couple of restaurants, Roncesvalles consisted of little else.

Roncesvalles is reputed to have been the site of the battle in which the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army was decimated by Basque tribes in 778. Charlemagne was King of the Franks and had been waging war against the Muslem Saracens in the Iberian Peninsula, when he was forced to return to his homeland, due to news of an uprising on the Rhine. The event was later recorded in the epic poem ‘Song of Roland’, written some three centuries later. Although loosely based on oral tradition, with the attacking force being changed to the Saracens, the poem probably served as propaganda to justify the Crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Muslems.

In 1813 another notable battle was fought in the same pass. During the Peninsular War between Napoleon and the combined forces of the English and Portuguese, Napoleon had retreated out of Spain, leaving Pamplona and San Sebastian under siege to the English commander, the Duke of Wellington. From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port Napoleon launched a counter attack over the Roncesvalles Pass, with 40000 men against an inferior force of 11000. Outnumbered the English were forced to retreat with 450 casualties versus 200 for the French. They retreated to Sorauren and with the timely arrival of reinforcements, the French advance was halted and eventually forced to withdraw from Spain.  In the battle of Sorauren alone, there were a total of more than 7000 casualties.

Over the centuries a lot of blood has been shed in the pass.

When compared to the first day of my camino, the second promised to be more leisurely – some ascents, but with each descent ending lower than the previous one. My bad foot felt very numb from the day before and I started out walking quite slowly and tentatively.

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A reminder of the distance to go to Santiago

After less than an hour I arrived in Burguete, the village made famous by Ernest Hemmingway in his novel – Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, first published in 1926.  The novel was based on real characters and events that took place in July 1924 and 1925.

Hemmingway wrote of a fishing holiday in Burguete, prior to Pamplona’s San Fermín festival, with the running of the bulls and the bullfights. He also wrote of the heavy drinking, fighting and debauchery involving him and his friends, that took place during the week-long festival.

Perhaps it is still like that.

The river Irati, where the fishing account took place, is about four kilometres to the south-east of Burgete.  The hotel where Hemingway stayed still exists, although no longer owned by the family that he knew.  And more than 80 years later, fans of Hemmingway still visit the area to walk in his steps.

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The hotel in Burguete where Hemmingway used to stay
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And the Hostal Burguete today

Outside Burgete, at the ford across a small river, I met two very friendly and charming old couples, who were seated on the bank. They were from Guatemala and they were walking to Logroño. One of the ladies was over 80. I was to see them several times again prior to arriving in Pamplona.

The ascents proved to be much steeper than I had expected and with my numb foot I found the going quite hard on the rocks and loose stones. By late morning it was quite hot and when I came to the next river crossing, there were several pilgrims lying on the bank and some paddling in the water. As I was crossing on the concrete causeway I was distracted by the antics in the water and did not notice the slippery moss underfoot. In a flash my feet went from under me and I crashed face down in the water, whacking both elbows on the concrete bottom. One of the guys on the bank rushed into the water and helped me to my feet. Apart from being soaking wet, I seemed fine. I thanked my rescuer and somewhat embarrassed, continued on my way.

But I had not gone more than a few steps when I felt a sharp pain in my left buttock, the recurring injury that had plagued me ever since I slipped on the ice in Sweden some two years previously. Both my elbows ached, but I kept going, albeit with a lot of discomfort.

At one point I sat on a grass bank on top of a hill.  I could not see any sign of habitation or hear any people, just birds singing and grasshoppers sawing, or whatever it is they do.  The sky was totally clear and there was no breeze; it was quite hot.

Above me I could see a very large bird.  It was circling as if it was watching me.  It occurred to me that it might be thinking that I was a dying animal and was waiting until it could feed off my flesh?  I had no idea of how much further I had to go that day, but I decided to keep moving on.

So down one slope and then up another I limped, and each time I looked up, the bird was above me and seemed to be lower than the last time I had looked.

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A Griffon vulture

Eventually the path entered a thick wood and I was quite relieved to be in the shade, for the day was unseasonly hot.  The wood continued for quite a way and when I finally emerged, there was no sign of the bird.  Perhaps I was safely out of its territory, or maybe it had lost me in the trees.

Not long after I reached Zubiri, where I decided to make a premature halt for the day; I did not think I could walk any further without doing permanent damage to my buttock.  I crossed an ancient medieval bridge, up a short street lined with stone-walled buildings and filled my water bottle at the fountain and drank the refreshing cold water.  I felt quite dehydrated.

Just up the street was a small hotel and thankfully they still had vacancies.  It turned out to be an excellent choice, and with a little bar, wi-fi and a ‘gourmet’ restaurant. I found myself very comfortable.

When the restaurant opened at eight, it quickly filled with the few residents of the hotel. All were pilgrims – six Dutch speaking Belgian women, two attractive Italian women, two older French men, and yours truly. The Belgians were loud, the Italians were beautiful, but I was totally distracted from either, discussing rugby and the World Cup with the French guys.  They turned out to be retired Perpignan players, now coaching teenage teams. They were very depressed with the poor performance to date of the French team in the World Cup and were quite incredulous at my view that the French would go all the way to the final.  As it turned out, I should have put a bet on it, for I would have received good odds.  France eventually ended up losing by a single point to New Zealand in the final.

And as a bonus to the good conversation, I found the food and wine to be out of this world.  I would never have anticipated such quality in a tiny hotel in a remote village in Navarre.  For a while I forgot about my wounded bum, at least until I stood up, when I had a sharp and painful stabbing reminder.  And then I had to negotiate two flights of stairs to my room.

But despite that, it had been a pleasurable end to an eventful day.

Roncesvalles

Tuesday September 27, 2011

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles (27 km)

I had breakfast soon after the hotel opened and was on the road by shortly before 08:00. There was no traffic in the town and there were no clouds in the sky. It was already quite warm.

Apart from the first 100 m, the road climbed quite steeply. Within fifteen minutes I caught up with a couple moving very slowly; much slower and they would have been going backwards. He was a big robust man a bit younger than me, carrying the largest backpack I have ever seen, with camping gear strapped on top and a large sleeping bag below. It was no wonder he was already sweating profusely. In contrast she was young, very attractive and carrying nothing.  Was she his daughter?  I didn’t think so.

The road wound steadily upward, occasionally passing farm houses, and then branched off onto a steeper dirt path. Ahead and above me, I could see a very extremely large obese man in very tight shorts, with inflated and unhealthy looking legs. He was very pale, like Nordic people are after a long winter.  When I caught up with him, he asked in a very strong native Irish accent ‘how much f——g further do we have to go to Roncesvalles’. When I said that we had covered about a quarter of the distance, he swore in apparent frustration, using expletives that would have an army sergeant-major blush.  He said that he would never make it and that he had not realized how hard it was going to be. I suggested that it was not much further to accommodation and that if they had room, he could stay there and carry on the next day.

I hoped that they had a vacancy and that he took my advice, for he was not in good shape.

When I reached the crest of the current climb, I could see the Auberge d’Orrison quite a way below at the foot of a valley and the road climbing steeply up the opposite side. My total estimated ascent for the day had just increased by another 100 m.

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Auberge d’Orrison

I stopped at the auberge and had a beer in the welcome shade of the patio. There were quite a few guests and they all seemed to be staying there for the night. The view down the valley was sublime and on a clear night with no light pollution the stars would have been spectacular.

The road out of the valley initially climbed steeply, but soon became more gradual, and for the next three hours it gently crawled up to the highest point, the Col Lepoeder. Everywhere there were huge flocks of sheep. I had never seen such clean sheep; they all looked as if they had just had a shampoo and blow job. There were herds of equally pristine tan-coloured cattle and now and then a band of horses would gallop across the slopes. There were no obvious fences; they all seemed to be free to go wherever they wished.

At some point on this stage of the walk I became conscious of my heart missing beats. It has happened before but not in recent times.  Even without taking my pulse,  I could feel the missing beats in my forehead. At times it was one in eight or ten beats and sometimes in every three or four. I felt well in myself, so there was nothing I could do except to relax and take it slowly.

Finally I reached the Col Lepoeder, and from there, there were two routes down to Roncesvalles; by road or straight down on a steep path through the trees, the ground strewn with early autumn leaves. I chose the latter and descended slowly and very carefully.  Ninety minutes later I was in my room in the albergue.

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Roncesvalles

After a shower I felt somewhat revived, although my legs throbbed as if they had been beaten with a club. On the stairs I passed a Canadian woman, walking down backwards.  I was not the only one feeling a bit sore.

A short stroll did not help much, so I went to dinner. And what a bargain that that was – a fixed menu with three generous courses and as much wine as one desired, all for nine Euros.

Afterwards I sat in the bar with a glass of Rioja. As I was about to leave to go to bed, in walked the guy that I had seen earlier that morning, complete with his enormous burden. The walk had taken them fourteen hours and he was drenched in sweat and looked totally exhausted. In contrast his partner/daughter looked quite fresh and relaxed.

I bumped into them again in the morning, as I was leaving.  They told me that they were from Barcelona and that they were heading home from a camping holiday in France. The walk from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port had been a last minute decision that they had almost regretted, especially when they had to make the steep descent through the woods in the dark.  They caught the morning bus to Pamplona.

But all’s well that ends well, and happily my heart was beating normally once more.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bayonne to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

The first day of the ‘The Way of Saint James’ is reputed to be the most arduous – 27km and 1100 m of ascent to the pass, with 500 m of descent to Roncesvalles.  And apart from a refugio after 10 km, there is nothing until one reaches Roncesvalles.  Given that I had not done anything approaching that in the six years since my illness, it is not surprising that I started feeling some flutters of apprehension.  And of course I was not accustomed to carrying all my worldly goods on my back.

There were four trains each day from Bayonne to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and I decided to take that of late morning.  It turned out to be a local train that stopped at every station. In the names of the little villages, it was obvious that we were in Basque country – Vasco in Spanish, the language being shared across the border with Spain.  En route I spotted many Basque names such as Ustaritz, Jatxou and Itxassou.

The train trundled along a narrow wooded valley, alongside the rapidly flowing river Nive until it arrived at the end of the line, outside Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.  From the station it was about a kilometer to the centre of the town.  I arrived to crowded streets and packed restaurants – it was Monday and the weekly market day.

The first hotel I tried was closed for the winter, the second was much too grand for me, in the third the door was locked and the reception closed for lunch and then I stumbled upon a bar with rooms above and it was perfect for my needs and inexpensive.  I checked in, left my backpack in the room and went off to explore the town.

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The steep main street with the foothills of the Pyrenees in the background

The name of the town means ‘Saint John at the foot of the pass’ and it has a permanent population of about 2000.  It is a well preserved walled town with one narrow cobbled street rising steeply to a citadel.  The view from the walls was impressive and everywhere there seemed to be flower boxes in full bloom.  From the bridge over the river one could see that the water was sparkling clean and thick with trout.

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The bridge crossed by pilgrims as they set off on the path over the Pyrenees

The original town was razed in 1177 by Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, the English King.  It was rebuilt on the present site by the Kings of Navarre.

I found the pilgrim’s office at the top of the steep main street and obtained my pilgrim passport – it is needed to stay at any of the official refugios.

Later I went into the old church by the pilgrims’ gate.  It was empty except for an old lady, on her knees with head down, and seemingly deep in prayer. It was cool and serene.  Periodically someone would enter, have a quick look around and leave.

I stayed there for a long time.  I was not praying like the old lady, but I have no clear recollection of my thoughts at that time.  I imagine that I was very focused on the physical struggle I anticipated having the next day and hoping that my crap leg would get me over the mountain and down to Roncesvalles without having to seek help.

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Looking back at the church and Pilgrim’s Gate

Eventually I left the church to find a restaurant.  When I looked back, the old lady was still there.

Bayonne

Bayonne, Friday, September 23, 2011

At the end of September 1968, Biarritz was paradise, at least it was for me; the sky was blue, the air was warm, the water was temperate, the sand was clean, the surf was friendly and the town was quiet, almost devoid of visitors. I had a comfortable room one block from the beach.  I was young and I felt as if I was in heaven; I had never experienced anywhere like it before.

And on Thursday when my flight from Stansted passed low over the town on its final descent, memories of that long past era came flooding back. Above all I recalled the light and the vivid colours of the houses and the landscape, so much appreciated by artists.

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Biaritz with its red roofs and red walls

The little modern airport is located between Biarritz and Bayonne. Once the two towns were quite separate, but today it is not obvious where the suburbs of one ends and the other begins.

From the airport a thirty minute ride costing one euro on a suburban bus delivered me to the Bayonne railway station. And from there most pilgrims, and there were several on my flight, make the ninety minute rail journey to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the last French town before the Spanish border, and the recognized start of the ‘Camino Francés’.

But I did not set off straight away; I checked in at a nearby hotel, to ensure that I could see the several games of the Rugby World Cup that I knew were being carried on the French networks that weekend.  I felt it unlikely that they would be shown on Spanish television.  So my pilgrimage would not start until the following Monday.

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Aerial view of Bayonne

Bayonnne is situated at the SW corner of the French hexagon and is centred on the confluence of the rivers Nive and Adour. It originated in a Roman settlement, Lapurdum. In 842 the Vikings invaded the area and eventually settled. From 1152 to 1452, until the end of the 100 year war, it was ruled by England. Today it is a relatively sleepy backwater town.  It is also the birthplace of Didier Deschamps of the World cup winning French football team, and Imanol Harimdorquy, the highly-rated French international rugby union star.

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France’s wildest party – the Bayonne festival in August

So for the next three days I lazed around; late breakfast of café au lait and croissant each day in the same little hole-in-the-wall bistro, reading the papers from cover to cover and chatting rugby to the friendly proprietor; wandering around the town exploring the battlements and the picturesque narrow streets of the old town; browsing in the bookshops and reading a new book in the sun in the square, accompanied by a beer or glass of wine; eating dinner outside by the river; and of course all  interspersed with returning to my hotel room in time to watch the next game.

Life was feeling pretty good to me.