If I were to be asked, which of my travel experiences had made most impact on my life, without hesitation I would have said that it was my realisation that there are many caminos (paths) that lead to Santiago de Compostela. From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Bayonne, Seville and Porto, I have walked the paths and there are so many more to discover: from Alicante, Valencia, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Geneva and further afield. To exhaust the possibilities, I will need the longevity of the Le Juif Errant (The Wandering Jew).
I have copious memories of my various walks over the past few years, occasionally supported by notes and photos, but it is the seemingly insignificant events that stand out for me, such as the vulture hovering above me, the first time that I descended through the foothills of the Pyrenees. Having previously had a serious stroke, at that time I was still not confident about being alone in remote country. And yet I clearly remember starting to feel that I was not alone and that I was being watched over. It is a feeling I have never since lost.
Then there was the long straight dirt road from Carrión de los Condes to Calzadilla de la Cueza. I had started out quite early that morning and I could see no pilgrims on the path. I was lost in my thoughts, when a little bird plopped onto the path, a few metres ahead of me. I stopped and we looked at each other, neither of us moving. It then flew a little further and stopped, as if waiting for me. I followed and also stopped. We soon developed a rhythm – I walked and the little bird kept ahead, always watching me, as if leading and encouraging me. Suddenly there was the whoosh of a large phalanx of cyclists, arrogantly racing by, pedalling furiously and shouting to each other, as if they were on the Tour de France. By the time the dust had settled, the little bird had disappeared. The magic spell was broken.
One of my favourite memories was that of the little blue butterfly that landed on the end of Lotta’s stick and refused to leave it. When Lotta held out her finger, the butterfly popped onto it.
It happened between Hornillos de Camino and Hontanas, in an area where there were a lot of intense-blue cornflowers by the path. At one point, Lotta succeeded on depositing the little butterfly on a clump of cornflowers, but soon as she tried to leave, it flew back onto her stick. Perhaps it thought that she was a giant cornflower, for she was wearing a blue shirt that day.
The little butterfly hitched a ride for about twenty minutes and then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it flew off into the field and disappeared.
It was another of those magic camino moments that will stay with me for ever.
Until the early 1900s, when tourism became an increasing source of income, Mundaka lived off fishing, maritime trade and some subsistence farming. Vasco was the language and still is, although most locals are now bilingual in Castellano. The street signs and menus in restaurants are in Vasco, also a section in the local newspaper.
Even today the town is small, but the original part is obvious with its network of narrow streets and alleyways. Beside the harbour is a large building with striking wooden beams and columns, bound with steel bands. Today the ground floor is a bar and restaurant and the owner told me the building was about 220 years old. He said that in Mundaka there were not many (if any) older buildings still intact, apart from the church.
I had gone to Mundaka to see if I could find any trace of the Lázaga family, ancestors of my sons’ maternal grandmother, Norma Lázaga Navarro (1930-2017). She once told me that her grandfather, José Ignacio Lázaga, was born in 1865 on a ship in the harbour of San José, Puerto Rico, the family eventually settling in Habana, Cuba. Her grandfather was captured during Cuba’s war of independence from Spain and was held prisoner in Ceuta. He was sentenced to death, but was reprieved at the last minute. He rose through the ranks of Cuba’s navy and when he died in 1941, he was given a full military funeral.
I don’t know when José Ignacio’s father, José Ramón Lázaga, returned to Mundaka, but he died there in 1890. It was the grave of José Ramón that I was hoping to find, and perhaps those of other family members.
The receptionist at the hotel was curious as to what had brought a Spanish-speaking Irishman to Mundaka. I explained that I was looking for any evidence of the Lázaga family, of which at least one branch had moved to Cuba in the 1860s. I was particularly interested in anyone of the Lázaga name still resident in Mundaka. The girl immediately called one of her friends in the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) to find out what she could. She was told that there were no residents of that name still living in the commune. Of course, there could be married female descendants of the Lázaga family living there, but due to the data protection laws, she was not empowered to reveal that information. But she was able to give the name of the last Lázaga buried in the town cemetery, a Mercedes Lázaga Goyenechea, who died in 2002, aged 75.
I headed out of the town to find the graveyard, which was on top of a hill about twenty minutes along the coast. It was a beautiful walk with glorious views of the river estuary and over the town.
The cemetery was isolated and very peaceful. There was not a soul around. The receptionist in the hotel had drawn a sketch of the approximate location of the grave of Mercedes Lázaga and I had no problem in finding it.
The plaque was pinned to an older grave, the stone of which was so weather-worn that it was impossible to make out other than a few isolated words. I took pictures from several angles and later on my pc I tried to decipher the words, but to no avail.
I spent some time searching the graveyard for any evidence of the Lázaga name, but without success. It seemed as if Mercedes Lázaga was the only Lázaga buried there. But the graveyard did not seem to be very old and apart from the worn stone on the grave of Mercedes, the stones were relatively new and easily legible, with the oldest being from the early 1900s.
So where were the older graves? Was there another graveyard somewhere that could have contained gravestones of the Lázagas? When I got back to the hotel, the owner explained that there had been a graveyard beside the church, but it had been removed when the new graveyard was created, and the area was now private residential property. I suspect that the eroded stone on the Mercedes Lázaga grave was from the church graveyard.
The next day I woke to a clear blue sky, warm sun and no wind. I had an excellent breakfast in the almost deserted dining room – there were only two others staying in the hotel. After breakfast, I decided to head out of the town for a long walk along the coast and perhaps up the hill into the countryside. Just outside the town I passed a pristine and secluded beach, completely deserted. It was perhaps too early for sunbathers.
From the top of the first hill I had an excellent view of the church, prominent on the headland. There was already a church on the site in the 11th century, as a document from 1071 noted its existence and recorded a donation that it made. The original church was destroyed during factional wars, being rebuilt and enlarged in the XVI century.
I eventually came across an unpaved road off the coastal road and decided to follow it to see where it led. For perhaps thirty minutes the road steadily climbed up a narrow valley until it finally stopped at a dilapidated farmhouse. A dog started barking when it spotted me and an old man came to the door. He was exceedingly wizened and frail. I spoke to him but he did not seem to understand me. He replied in Vasco. But sign language can be universal and I indicated that I wanted to walk further and was it possible. He indicated that the farm was the end of the road, so I reluctantly returned back the way I had come. It was a pity that I could not have asked him if he could remember of any Lázagas.
Once back to the coast road, I stopped in a bar and had a beer, a light lunch and read the newspapers, before returning to explore Mundaka.
The Hermitage of St. Catherine sits on a peninsula and is isolated from the rest of the town. It was built in the 19th century on the ancient remains of a fortress. It was often used as a meeting place and as a place for quarantining victims of epidemic.
The view across that bay to the next headland was spectacular. The day was peaceful and the water calm, but on the exposed headland one could imagine that the winds from the Bay of Biscay could be quite fierce during a storm.
Today Mundaka is renowned for its surfing and even on a relatively calm sea, there were several surfers patiently waiting for a suitable wave. The waves rise in the shape of a tube and can grow to four meters high and extend for 400 meters. In the village there are constant reminders of surfing in posters, photographs, rental shops and groups of young people, bronzed and athletic.
The sea was remarkably calm that day and there was no activity in the harbour to shatter the glass-like surface of the water. There were a few men fishing from the wall. There was no evidence of the fishing fleet and maritime trade that used to exist, just pleasure craft.
Before I came to Mundaka, I had ambitions of accessing the church records and proving the veracity of what I had been told of the family history. But I had read several accounts of how difficult it was to get access. The records are not centralized as they are in many countries and one is quite dependent on the willingness to help of the parish priest. When I saw the locked gate and the iron bars around the church, my thought was that the priest has bigger and more pressing problems that helping amateur genealogists. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future the Spanish church records will be centralized and available on the internet, as they are in many other countries.
When I returned home, I documented what I had found in Mundaka and sent the photographs and a local tourist brochure to Miami, to my sons’ grandmother. I am glad that I made the effort to go to Mundaka when I did, for she sadly died suddenly, earlier this year.
I had intended to spend the weekend in San Sebastián and continue walking on Monday. I wanted to watch some of the rugby matches involving the Irish clubs – it was nearing the climax of the season, but there was no wifi in the pension. Moreover the room was uncomfortable and rather expensive, at least by my standards, so I decided to return by Euskotren to the comfortable and inexpensive hotel in Irun for the weekend.
Despite the forecast of heavy rain over the weekend, I woke to blue skies. I passed the morning wandering around and spent some time in a tiny café, with a coffee and reading the newspapers. Every bar and café in Spain (and most of Europe) has the local and national papers readily available to read, and I usually took advantage of them.
Early afternoon I caught the Euskotren back to Irun, arriving in time to watch the first game.
Monday 15 April 2013
San Sebastián to Zaraútz – 20 km
I left the hotel early and shortly after 08h00 I was back in San Sebastián, on my way to the beach and the promenade along Bahia de la Concha. The pavements and benches were still wet from the overnight rains, but the sky was clear and the early morning sun felt warm and reassuring.
From the end of the promenade the path climbed to the top of the headland and from there it undulated, parallel to the coast, finally descending abruptly to the little fishing port of Orio.
I stopped in the little square by the river and had my typical lunch – una caña y una ración de tortilla con pan. I sat outside, in the shade, as the sun was strong, even if it was still early in the year. On one side of the square were several examples of apartments with dark wooden balconies and façades. They looked so solid, and reminded me of similar buildings in the old quarter of Lima.
From the square the route crossed the river, and then followed the riverbank toward the sea. Just before the headland, the path turned up a steep valley, and ahead of me I could see a rather frail old man, moving very slowly. He had a large pack and sticks in both hands. When I caught up with him he turned out to be an old Frenchman walking to Santiago de Compostela from somewhere near Bordeaux. He spoke no English nor Spanish and he seemed to be more than a little bewildered. We chatted for some time about nothing and everything – he reminded me very much of my old friend Roy Bishop. Eventually I wished him ‘Buen Camino’ and moved on. The old man had about another 700 km to walk to Santiago. I suspect that he either made it, or died on the way. He neither looked like nor sounded like a man who would ever give up. One day that may be me.
Once at the top of the valley there was a short walk along an escarpment followed by a steady descent to the main road into Zaraútz.
I had no problem in finding an inexpensive room, but it turned out to very cold and damp. It felt like a room that had not been inhabited since the previous summer. But once showered and dressed and seated in a nearby bar with a beer and a newspaper, I was quite revived. I had a walk around the town, but there was a cold wind from the sea, so I returned to the bar and snacked on tapas, washed down with a delicious red wine.
Being a Monday evening, the bar was quiet and the barmaid had time to chat. I asked her about the walk next day to Deba and she said that it was similar to the walk from Zaraútz. But she said that the next two days after Deba were quite challenging. Apart from the small village of Markina-Xemein there was nothing for about 50 km, not even a farm. And there were some steep sections. She advised me not to tackle it alone, especially as there had been a lot of rain and me with a noticeable limp.
When I went to bed it was once more raining heavily. I was not quite sure as to what I was going to do the next day.
Tuesday 16 April 2017
Zaraútz to Mundaka
Next morning, when I saw how wet everything was outside from the overnight rain and with more heavy rain forecast for the next few days, I decided to call a halt to the walking and leave it for another time and warmer weather. The camino and the mountains will still be there.
So after a leisurely breakfast, I headed to the station and caught the train to Lemoa, where I would have to change to another train to Mundaka. The train progressed slowly, going on a long loop to avoid the mountainous area that I had intended in crossing on foot. It took over two hours to get to Lemoa, where the train to Mundaka left just as I was crossing the bridge to the other platform. I had to wait for an hour on the deserted platform of the unstaffed station for the next train.
The train to Mundaka consisted of two small carriages, more like two joined-up buses on rails. Progress was slow and there were frequent stops, including two in the town of Gernika-Lumo, better known as Guernica. It was the scene of the first major aerial bombing by the German Nazi Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War. They had been ‘invited’ by Franco to practice their tactics on a real target. The town was razed and official reports claimed that 1654 people were killed. It inspired the famous anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso. I don’t imagine that many Mercedes, BMWs or Volkswagens are ever sold in Guernica.
The station at Mundaka is on the hill at the edge of the town and from there I walked down through the narrow streets to the open square in front of the church. There I found a room in a very comfortable hotel.
I was about to start my search for the Lázaga family (see here).
I set out in high spirits soon after breakfast – the sun shone and the air felt warm. The road climbed out of the town and into the country, past beautiful Basque farms with their traditional houses of white walls and red roofs, doors and shutters. The road climbed and descended without cease.
The way was well marked, or at least it was, until I realised that I had not seen a sign for some time. I could see the sea in the far distance, and rather than retrace my steps, I decided to continue and follow the coast to Hendaye.
Eventually I came to a sign for Hendaye Plage. It was soon after that the wind picked up and I could see a huge pile of black clouds over the mountain, heading directly towards me. The rain started slowly and then suddenly with full force. I was drenched before I could react and get out my poncho. There is not a lot one can do with no shelter, except press on and hope it soon passes.
But it did not pass and I eventually reached the centre of Hendaye Plage only to find out that I should have gone to Hendaye Ville, for which I never saw a sign. The guy who gave me the bad news that it was a further three kilometres, offered to drive me there, for the storm was getting worse. He was a surfer complete with board and I squeezed into the back seat. He did not seem to mind that I was rather wet. He said that he had once hiked around England and had received so much help from local people, often going well out of their way to help him find accommodation. He said that it was now his turn to be the Good Samaritan. He dropped me outside the train station at the Spanish border.
I caught the local Euskotren for four short stops to a hotel in Irun and checked in, still dripping wet.
Friday 12 April, 2013
Irun to San Sebastián – 25 km
I had a schematic map of each stage of the route across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, and from my hotel room I could see what was almost certainly the path cutting across the mountain that stood between where I was and the sea. As the day was going to be somewhat more challenging than the days since Bayonne, I had an early breakfast and set off before 08h00.
I caught the Euskotren two short stops back to Irun, asked in a bar for directions and I was soon on the path, following the familiar yellow arrows indicating the Camino del Norte. The arrows are painted on walls, rocks, trees, posts, pavement etc. all the way to Santiago. The Spanish are rightly proud of their many well-marked caminos and whether one is a genuine religious pilgrim or just a casual hiker, the local people make one feel genuinely welcome. At least that had been my experience over many weeks of hiking in Spain in the previous two years. In contrast, my recent short walk in France did not leave me with such a positive impression.
For the first hour, the going was easy – a flat walk through marshlands, and then a steady climb to a path that followed the contours of the mountain, the same path that I could see from the hotel earlier that morning.
For the next ten kilometres, the going was gently up, gently down, until finally a sharp descent down to an inlet of the sea, at Pasai Donibane. I ended up on a quay, with no sight of the bridge that I had expected to cross to the other side. I spotted a man fishing and I asked him how I could cross the water. He laughed and said that I could walk across, but he did not recommend it. But just around the corner there was a boat that I could take. I did not mention my expected bridge, but I felt rather foolish nevertheless.
Once on the other side, the yellow arrows resumed and led me seawards. Eventually, they pointed towards a steep stair cut out of the rock of the cliff face. The steps were steep with only a low wall and I soon felt my heart thumping. I ascended slowly. The steps seemed to be interminable and I was glad that the rocks were dry; with rain, a strong wind and my bad leg, I would have found it quite challenging.
Once up and away from the cliff, the going was straightforward, with several short climbs and descents. Finally, there was San Sebastián below with its beautiful concave beaches. It reminded me of Acapulco in Mexico.
But I had not noticed the gathering clouds and before I got off the mountain, the rain started. I sheltered under some trees until it passed. It was obvious by the dark clouds that more rain was on the way, so I continued on my way down and to the centre of the town, to find a hotel for the night.
Finding a hotel did not prove to be very easy. Normally I would look for hotel signs, but where I expected there to be hotels, there were none. All I could find were pensiones and sleeping in somebody’s spare bedroom was not my scene. I asked some locals and they did not seem to know of any hotels and recommended that I find a pension. By now the rain had started falling heavily. I tried several pensiones, but all were full. In the end, I found one that had a room available, but the old lady that answered the door would only let me have it, if I paid for double occupancy. By then I was getting tired and quite wet, so I reluctantly agreed to an exorbitant rate for a room with a little bed, no table, no chair and the only socket contained the plug of the only lamp. And of course, no wifi.
But after I had showered and put on dry clothes, I felt better. It was still raining heavily, but I found a McDonalds close by, with wifi, and I caught up on my mail and the sports results.
And despite the crap bed, I slept the night through, without once wakening. The fresh air and the exercise always seem to have that effect on me.
It was still early morning when I started out from Pontevedra. The sun was barely up and there was still a distinct chill in the air. The attendants of the early mass were filing out of the church in the main square, and one of them, an attractive girl with gorgeous eyes and long jet black hair, grabbed me and insisted on telling me the names and history of all the buildings around me. For a fleeting second I felt as if I was once more thirty something and attractive to younger women, but of course she just wanted to make sure that a passing pilgrim left her town with a favourable impression of its architecture and history. I could hear my mother say – ‘There’s no greater fool than an old fool’. Still, there was a spring to my limp as I headed down to the river and across the bridge. And I felt at least forty years younger.
For the last three days, I have been on a high; the sun has shone from a cloudless sky; what little wind there has been, has been a balmy breeze; everywhere one looked, spring was rampant; old people, some quite ancient, were slowly digging, spreading manure and planting; the birds were singing their heads off; it felt so good to be alive and back in Galicia.
The landscape never ceased to be undulating; long stretches of uphill, a short top and then steeply down, only to start uphill again. It repeated itself quite hypnotically. It is not a flat part of Spain.
From Pontevedra, my nights were spent in Caldas de Reis and Padrón, the latter being where the two followers of Saint James brought his body to bury it somewhere a little inland. Legend has it that the two followers were eventually also buried with Saint James and the tombs became overgrown through neglect, and their origin forgotten, until their chance discovery by a local peasant some 800 years later. The remains may have been moved to Santiago and the rest is the history of the camino.
Of course, the cynics say that it is all bullshit and that it was just a cunning fabrication by the local church hierarchy to gain power and induce the faithful to travel to Santiago. We will probably never know the truth, but the romantic in me loves the legend.
So, some 70 km from Pontevedra, I struggled up the last long hill and into the city. The walk through the suburbs and city proper seemed endless, but suddenly I was alongside a familiar park and a few more blocks bought me to my usual hotel.
I felt as if I was home once more.
And the sun warmed my shoulders and blessed my third visit to Santiago de Compostela.
Step by step, I have been slowly moving north across the map of northern Portugal and into Galicia. It has been six days since I left Balugües, covering 127 km, spending nights in Ponte de Lima and Parades de Coura, before leaving Portugal and crossing into Spain, and staying in Tui, O Porriño, Arcade and tonight in the attractive city of Pontevedra.
Until the last couple of days the weather has been challenging – cold, wet and windy, with occasional downpours. The torrential rain always waits until I am in the open countryside and far from possible shelter.
When we stayed in Montevideo, there were several sets of outdoor exercise machines, also in our current base of Green Point in Cape Town. They always seem to be heavily used, and if broken, it would almost certainly be the result of overuse, rather than vandalism. And now, I have walked through two small villages in Portugal, with their own set of machines, right on the camino. I admit that I did not feel tempted to have a workout.
The camino in Portugal is so well marked with the yellow flechas, that even I could not get lost. This rather spoiled my normal excuse for talking to people in the street, but I soon found other reasons. In Portugal language was a complication for me, as my Portuguese, so far, does not exist. I found that some Portuguese are comfortable in English, others in French or Spanish, but the majority are mono-lingual. Before I go back to Portugal, and I surely will, I must master the basics of their language.
I was always aware that the Portuguese camino was mostly on paved surfaces, but I understood ‘paved’ to mean asphalt. Big mistake! For much of the Portuguese camino, paved means cobblestones of all sizes and shapes, whether roads and pavements through villages, roads between villages, country lanes etc. The stones are unforgiving, and by the end of the day, my feet, knees and hips feet were quite beaten up.
I would describe the Portuguese route as being undulating. It is certainly not flat and in one case, between Ponte de Lima and Paredes de Coura, there is a steep climb of 400 m, largely on smooth rocks. I had to be very careful not to sprain my ankle for the fourth time in three years.
I have never before seen tame sheep wandering around a village with lambs. One of the lambs was walking along the top of a wall and jumped down on the other side. That set off a furious baaing by the mother, especially when its lamb could not get back onto the wall after several attempts. I was about to set off to find the owner of the sheep, when the lamp cleared the wall in one leap. The motherly scolding ceased and all went back to eating.
Coming across a Roman mile-stone is a vivid reminder that the path had been used for more than two thousand years. The mile-stone dated from c200 BC, probably from the reign of Trajan, and was a on a road that linked Braga with Astorga, via Lugo.
The bridge from Arcade to the north was the scene of a decisive battle in the Peninsular War, when the Spanish forces defeated the French. During the battle, one of the central arches of the bridge was destroyed to halt the French advance.
The Ponte Romano de Pontesampaio across the river Vergugo at Arcade
It is now late Saturday afternoon in the beautiful city of Pontevedra, and I have just arrived. The sun is shining, spring seems to have arrived and the plazas, streets and bars are packed, and everywhere there are children playing football.
And in three more days I hope to once more walk into Santiago de Compostela.
It was late evening when I checked into my hotel in Madrid. I had flown in from London Heathrow and was staying near the Nuevos Ministerios metro station. It was my first visit to Madrid. I had recently been given the additional responsibility of my company’s international business, which included a minority shareholding in a small Spanish recruitment company, and I was looking forward to once more having the opportunity of operating in a Spanish environment.
I had two meetings arranged for the next day, the first not until lunchtime, so I settled down in my hotel room, wine glass in hand, to watch some television and attempt to tune my ear to the Castellano of Madrid. Flicking through the channels, I stumbled on a concert, that seemed to have just begun, and the music of many guitars, the raucous singing, the rhythms, the relentless beat, held my attention for the next more than an hour. It was like a mix of flamenco and salsa. It was a group known as The Gypsy Kings..
I had never heard of them before then, despite my enthusiasm for most things Latin. The next morning I called in at a nearby Corte Inglés, to see if they had a copy of a Gypsy Kings recording, and I was not disappointed. The salesman told me that they were the current rage in Spain, but that they were not from Spain,but from the French south-west. There were two brothers and several other cousins and that their parents were gypsies who had fled Catalonia during the 1930s Spanish Civil War. They sang flamenco and salsa with an Andalusian accent. I still have my original purchase.
My lunch appointment was most interesting. My host was a consultant, who wanted to be considered as a junior partner in international projects that we undertook from time to time, and where we might have need of Spanish market expertise. He was not comfortable in English, but we managed to converse in Spanish, with no obvious problems.
The owner of the restaurant was a friend of my host, and when he was taking the order, he suggested that I try his speciality. ‘Por qué no’ is a response that has got me into trouble many times, and this was to be no exception. The dish came in a wooden bowl with a top, and when I removed the latter, the contents heaved and wriggled. They were baby eels from Bilbao. I was assured that they were well cooked and it was the cooler air that caused them to contract and move when not alive, just like the huge rattlesnake that I once killed in California, that roamed around the yard for at least half- an-hour after I had chopped it in half. But that is another story for another day.
After the lunch – by then it was nearly five o’clock, I walked over to the nearby office of our recruitment consultancy, to meet with Antonio ‘Tony’ Ares de Paz, the main shareholder. Tony proved to be a most charming man, aristocratic, and with faultless English, albeit with a heavy Spanish underlay. During the Spanish Civil War, his father had moved his family to the relative safety of Mexico City. I could not swear to it, but I believe that he said that after their exile, he did not see his father again.
Later in the evening, Tony and his wife picked me up at my hotel and took to his club on Gran Via, or Broadway as Tony called it, and from there to an intimate restaurant near the Royal Palace, and my introduction to Pata Negra, the revered ham of the free range black pigs, mostly reared in the western Spanish provinces of Extremadura and Cáceres. and fed on acorns and olives.
After the meal, the owner offered to show me the tunnel in the basement, that the randy royal males used to use in order to slip out of the palace for a night of debauchery. Of course, the tunnel was blocked with a locked door. I never did get a straight answer as to if the then-royal-family still used the tunnel.
I felt quite tired when I finally got back to my hotel room. Two large meals, a lot of wine, and stimulating conversation; my mind was in a whirl.
And the music of The Gypsy Kings and Volare was still throbbing in my head.
It was the end of the first of very many visits to Spain to come.