Logroño to Burgos

Logroño to Navarette (13km)

Monday, 2 April, 2012

It was a choice of either an easy day of 13 km to Navarette or 29 km to Nájera.  Now my average pace of about 4 km per hour may seem rather pedestrian to athletic types, but believe me, with boots and backpack, over undulating terrain, on mud, rocks and occasional asphalt, 4-5 km per hour is what most people achieve.

Of course there are the rather irritating exceptions, going as far and as fast as they can each day, taking no time to ‘smell the birds or hear the flowers’. To them contemplation and inner peace are for the wimps.

On the Camino, most villages and every town had hospitals, that treated the sick and the injured pilgrims.  Some of the hospitals still operate, some have been converted to other functions, and many are in ruin.

Ruins of the former pilgrim hospital ‘San Juan de Acre

After a relatively easy day of walking, I arrived in Navarette, and had no problem in finding a room.  The village was not exactly crowded.

Rush hour in Navarette

And I spent a long and laid-back afternoon in the Bar Deportivo, eating tapas, sipping on glasses of local wine, and tapping away at my notebook.  I was blissfully relaxed.

Tapas and wine – the good life

The athletic jocks don’t seem to know what they are missing.

Navarrete to Nájera (16km)

Tuesday, 3 April, 2012

Normally I set my alarm for 07h00 and wake up before it rings, by 06h30 at the latest, to hit the road early. That night I decided that the alarm was no longer required, and consequently slept in and woke up at 08h50, to find rain dripping on the window sill, and little visible, apart from some cars parked in the plaza below.

And all day it rained, never heavy, but with that persistent drizzle that chills, and somehow percolates ones supposedly rain resistant clothing. I arrived in Najera feeling thoroughly miserable: cold, wet, chilled through. And to cap it all, I had some difficulty in finding a vacant room.

But with persistence and asking several people, I was eventually directed to a very comfortable room, with a very reasonable price, in a back street under the cliffs.  The house was owned by two very charming men of rather obvious sexuality.

The cliffs above Nájera

With snow flurries forecast for that day and the next ten, I had to recognise that I was poorly equipped for such conditions. So I went back into the town, and by pure luck I stumbled upon a little shop that had a waterproof jacket with a fleece lining, and at €38 seemed to me a bargain. And the old lady who sold it to me was delightful.  I had fun talking to her.

Nájera To Santo Domingo De La Calzada (20km)

Wednesday, 4 April, 2012

So at 07h45 this morning, complete with my new jacket, my fleece, tracksters and hat, I emerged from the hotel, ready and prepared for whatever nature would throw at me.  Despite the ominous forecast of the night before, to my surprise it was quite mild, and the fog and rain had been replaced by a beautiful spring morning. Weather forecasters can make fortune tellers and economists seem quite professional.

Within ten minutes and partly up the first hill, I was sweating and had to stop to take off my fleece. Another ten minutes and off came the jacket and the pack was noticeably heavier. Before the top of the long incline, off came tracksters, of course requiring removal and replacement of boots.  Now I was comfortable, but cursing the weightier pack.

At the top of the hill, once removed from the shelter of the valley, the wind felt quite cold, and before long back on went the fleece and jacket, but my legs remained bare – it was too much hassle to fiddle with boots.

And for much of the day the dressing and undressing was repeated, depending on the state of the wind and sun. I felt like a male model at a fashion show. If I were ever to master mincing and pouting, I could have a new career as an aging clothes horse.

The cathedral in Santo Domingo de Calzada

Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Beldorado (23km)

Thursday, 5 April, 2012

When walking across Spain, one thing struck me; there were enormous swathes of cultivated land, but no farmhouses to be seen, the reason being that the farmers live in the villages and commute out to their farmland.  This seemed to me as an imminently preferable arrangement, in that it gives much more social opportunities for the farmers’ wives and children, and brings added life to the villages.

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The long and empty road

Until I eventually arrived in Burgos, this region gave me the impression of being rather left behind: remote, overlooked, forgotten. Yet the people were some of the most kind and friendly that I have ever come across. They reminded of Ulster country people: willing, honest, modest, with few pretensions.

Beldorado to San Juan de Ortega (26km)

Friday, 6 April, 2012

Once past Villafranca Montes de Oca, the path climbed to a plateau and for kilometre after kilometre there was nothing to be seen, except forest.  It had rained heavily the night before and one had to trudge through thick clinging mud.

In the Middle Ages the area was quite remote and it had the reputation of being dangerous for pilgrims; they were preyed on by bands of thieves and robbers. The pilgrims had no resource to banks and ATMs; they carried their money on their person and were quite vulnerable, unless escorted by volunteer knights.

At one point the path passed a monument erected by the relatives of the 300 people shot by supporters of General France, soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  It was a grim reminder that not so long ago, the country was very divided.  Some would say that it still is.

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Monte de la Pedraja

Eventually the path descended into a valley and there I spent the night in the tiny village of San Juan de Ortega.


San Juan de Ortega to Villafría (17km)

Saturday, 7 April, 2012

When I set out next morning, the sun was shining, but soon darks clouds moved in and it turned much colder.  Then the rain started and it continued to rain heavily all the remainder of the day.

On the outskirts of Atapuerca, I passed the archaological complex, where some of the oldest remains of man had been discovered, during the excavation of a railway cutting in 1976.  The site contains evidence of continuous human occupation since over one million years.

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After Atapuerca, the path climbed up to the Sierra and the rain turned to snow.


On the descent from the Sierra, the snow turned back to heavy rain, and it continued relentlessly.  The long trudge around Burgos airport on the edge of the asphalt road was quite dispiriting, and I decided to stay at the first hotel I came across, enabling me to change into dry clothes and dry my wet gear.

Villafría to Burgos (8km)

Sunday 8 April, 2014

And finally Burgos; kilometre after kilometre of industrial area, before arriving at the well preserved heart of the old city – a jewel of parks, plazas, churches, overseen by the magnificent cathedral.

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And the narrow streets, with their bars and restaurants, were filled with Easter Sunday celebrants.

Just before I left for Spain in March, I had read a book called La Sombra del Viento, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  It was set in Barcelona and events that took place during the Spanish Civil War were central to the plot.

One of the central characters in the book went by the alias of Laín Caubert.  Now I have a very good friend called Laín Burgos-Lovéce, who is from Santiago de Chile, and our friendship dates back to Caracas in the late 1970s.  In all those years I have never come across another Laín, until that book.  The name is apparently quite rare today.

Fast forward by a month and I was staying in Burgos.  I had just checked into a small hotel and when I left the hotel to explore the surroundings, I noted the street names, in case I got lost.  The street that I was staying on was called Calle de Laín Calvo.  In Spanish ‘calvo‘ means bald, and that would certainly be an accurate description of my friend Laín today.

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The street sign of Calle de Laín Calvo

So were Laín + Burgos + Camino de Santiago just a coincidence?

Perhaps it was a very positive sign that I was on the right path.  I have no idea of where the path might lead, but I suspect that if I keep my mind open, I will come across more signs.

Pamplona to Logroño



Tuesday, 27 March, 2012

I arrived from Uppsala in the mid-afternoon, after an overnight stay in Bayonne, SNCF to Irun, local train to San Sebastian and finally bus to Pamplona.  It felt great to be back in Spain, with the prospect of three weeks of walking from village to village.  After several pictxos (tapas), each accompanied with a glass of local wine, I felt that life could not get much better.

And I slept soundly that night.


Pamplona to Puente de La Reina (23km)

Wednesday, 28 March, 2012

It was quite cool when I set out in the morning. The sun does not reach the narrow streets of Pamplona until much later in the day, and then only briefly. When Pamplona was still a fortress, the inhabitants were not allowed to build outside the city walls.  So they expanded vertically.

The narrow streets of the old city

I started very slowly, as my bad leg did not seem enamoured with the prospect ahead. After some fifteen minutes I emerged into the already strong sun, to realise that I had left my hat in the hotel. So reluctantly I went back and forth once more. I really did not need the extra walk on what was not going to be an easy day.

Once out of Pamplona, the path was undulating, climbing to a col between a multitude of huge wind turbines, strung along the ridge for as far as I could see. The steep descent from the ridge was arduous, on stones that moved with each step. It seemed endless.

But once down from the ridge, the going was easier, passing through several picturesque villages, each with their church, which I imagine pilgrims in the past would have visited. Today the churches are locked, a sign of the times we live in.

Finally I arrived in Puente de la Reina where I would spend the night. This is where two pilgrim routes merge – the northern Roncesvalles route from Paris and the more southern Somport pass route from Toulouse.

Puente de la Reina, looking back to the wind turbines on the skyline


Puente de la Reina to Estella (22km)

Thursday, 29 March, 2012

It was once more quite cold when I set off in the morning, walking though narrow deserted medieval streets. That day there was a general strike in progress, and businesses had not opened.

It was Queen Muniadona, wife of King Sancho III, who built the bridge across the Río Arga, to aid the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.  She died in 1066.

The bridge over the Río Arga

For a more than an hour I walked on a path along the river before climbing steeply into the hills. It was soon very hot and remained that way all day; not a cloud and no shade. I passed through three villages, each on a hill. Nothing was open.


In one of the villages I met two old crones, each with her stout stick. They looked ancient.  I asked them if they wanted to walk the camino with me. They cackled and said they had already done it in 1993, after they had buried both their husbands.


Puente Picudo felt like a steep climb to my tired legs

I was very tired when I arrived in Estella and walked straight into a bunch of heavily armed riot police about to charge a huge group of demonstrators. I made a hasty retreat and after much wandering, I found a hotel.


Estella to Los Arcos (21km)

Friday, 30 March, 2012

I set off at the usual time – shortly before nine, bracing myself for the long undulating trudge to the ridge that separates Estella from the next valley. After 45 minutes I came to Monestario de Irache, a former Benedictine monastery.  The first documented reference to the monastery is from 958, but it is likely to have originated from much earlier. It is an imposing building, with huge doors shut, and all windows barred. Were they barred to keep the public out or to keep the religious in?

Monestario de Irache

Across the street from the monastery was a winery, and in a small courtyard was a wine fountain, for pilgrims only. Pilgrims can drink as much as they wish and also fill any spare bottles. Three old Spanish pilgrims were already there when I arrived, all looking much the worse for wear. I felt sorely tempted to join them, but found a hither unknown common sense, and kept on walking.


Once over the ridge there was no shelter from the unseasonably strong sun, just mile after mile of vineyards and recently germinated crops. The path was stony and dusty and I was relieved when Los Arcos finally came into sight. The spirit was willing, but my body had seen better years.


Los Arcos to Viana (19km)

Saturday, 31 March, 2012

The previous year, when I walked from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Pamplona, I saw several crosses by the path, most with pictures, and even some with quite fresh flowers. They were all of older people and I assume they died while doing El Camino. In the last few days I had seen three more. I cannot but believe that they died as they would have chosen; following their faith, in the open air, and walking in such beautiful country.

One of the common pruning methods in La Rioja

On that day I passed a quite old couple, having a picnic on the side of a hill, with an uninterrupted view across an expanse of vineyards. They were engrossed in their conversation and did not notice me. Later that day, when I was resting against a tree in an area of shade, I saw them again. They were walking along extremely slowly, hand-in-hand, like two young lovers.

If one of them were to die on El Camino, I suspect the survivor would erect a small cross and return each year to place some fresh flowers.

The main street of Viana, with the church of Santa Maria

Inevitably, Viana was on top of yet another hill, with a steep access road.  On the long and narrow main street, I stopped at the church.  Inside one can see the tomb of Cesare Borgia, the most famous of the Borgia clan and greatly admired by Macciavelli.  The Borgias came originally from Spain and Cesare was one of the illegitimate sons of Pope Alexander VI.  He was commanding the Basque army of King John of Navarre when he was killed, on 12 March 1507, in a skirmish outside Viana.

The paving stone commemorating Cesar Borgia


Viana to Logroño (9km)

Sunday, 1 April, 2012

When I emerged from the warren of streets of Viana and first saw the dark and intimidating mountains on the western horizon, I decided to have an easy day, and stay in Logroño on the way to Navarrete. And what a good decision that turned out to be, for Logroño proved to be a lively and prosperous town. It is the capital of La Rioja and very much a centre of the wine trade. Producing great wine is one of the few occupations that has not been outsourced to India or China, at least not yet.

On the way into Logroño, I was passed by a couple on horseback, with a dog, and en route to Santiago, with some 600k to go.

The bridge over the river Ebro


And the bridge at dusk

Later that day the owner of a bar told me that the previous year a pilgrim on horseback had passed through Logroño, having ridden from Switzerland.

I wondered where they stayed…

The Prince

The first method of estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him’    Niccòlo Machiavelli (1469-1527) – ‘The Prince’

When I read The Prince many years ago, that quote reminded me of sage advice that my paternal grandfather once gave me – ‘Judge people by the company they keep’, sound advice that has served me well from time to time.

Machiavelli served under the Borgia family of Florence, the head of which was Pope Alexander VI.  When Pope Alexander suddenly died in 1503 and the Borgia family were eventually defeated by the Medici, Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured and eventually exiled from Florence to his nearby farm.  It was said that from his terrace he could see Florence, but he could not return, and never did.


He wrote ‘The Prince’ as a guide to aspiring rulers, and dedicated it to Lorenzo de Medici, in a forlorn effort to endear himself to the Medici family. It is likely that Machiavelli obtained first-hand experience from observing the strategy and tactics of Pope Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia, as they attempted to conquer and unify several of the Italian city states.

Cesare Borgia was one of the many illegitimate children of Pope Alexander VI. Cesare was born in about 1475 and his father made him Bishop of Pamplona at the age of 15 and archbishop of Valencia and a cardinal while only 17.

Pope Alexander VI

After his brother’s murder he resigned from the Church to take command of his father’s armies.  When Pope Alexander died suddenly in 1503 and was eventually replaced by Pope Julius II, a Medici and enemy of the Borgia, Cesare struggled to maintain his power.  He was eventually arrested and sent to imprisonment in Spain.  He escaped twice, the second time successfully joining his brother-in-law, King John III of Navarre, in Pamplona.

Pope Julius II
Pope Julius II (1452-1513)

Commanding the army of Navarre in 1504, he led them in the siege and eventual capture of Viana, near Logroño.  When some of the besieged knights broke free, Cesare set off after them, but he was ambushed and killed.  He was buried in the church in Viana.

Cesare Borgia (1475-1507)

In the era after 1527, the local bishop decided that it was not appropriate that a ‘degenerate’ such as Borgia should be buried in the church and his remains were removed and buried in the street, so that everyone had to walk over them.

In 1945 they were once more dug up and placed under a marble plaque outside church grounds and finally moved back inside the church in 2007.

Church of Santa Maria in Viana

Outside the door of the church there is a paving stone commemorating Cesar Borgia.


Apparently there used to be an epitaph inscribed on the original tomb:

Aquí yace en poca tierra el que todo le temía

(Here lies in a small piece of earth, he who everyone feared)

Today Viana is a relatively small and peaceful  town on the Camino de Santiago.  It stretches along the crest of a small hill, and is known as the last resting place of a famous Borgia prince.



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.

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 .

Puente Larrasoaña 1 z-p
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.

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.

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.

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’.


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.

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.

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.

The hotel in Burguete where Hemmingway used to stay
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.

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.


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.

ASuberge d'Orrison

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.


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.

The Way of Saint James

Bayonne, September 2011

James was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and together with his brother John, was one of the first disciples of Jesus. Legend states that after the crucifixion of Jesus, he went to Spain to preach and convert. Later he had a vision of the Virgin Mary and subsequently he returned to Judea.  He died there in 44AD, decapitated under the orders of Herod Agrippa, the then King of the Jews.  After his death, his disciples took his body back to Spain, where he was buried at a place somewhere inland.

The legend claims that in 813 his tomb was discovered in the town of Iria Flavia – today known as Padrón. Bishop Theodomira of Iria was informed, and after he told King Alfonso II of the discovery, the remains were moved to Compostela, for ostensibly political and religious reasons.  A basilica was built over the tomb, and over the centuries this building evolved to the current cathedral.

The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

By the Middle Ages Santiago de Compostela had become an important destination for Christians seeking forgiveness for their sins. It ranks equal with the other two important Christian pilgrimage destinations – Jerusalem and Rome.

In the early days of the pilgrimages to Santiago, much of Spain and Portugal was still under the control of the Muslim Moors, who were not finally defeated until 1492.  In that era, the majority of the pilgrims were French.

For pilgrims, their route started from their door.  They would make their way to the nearest town or city and join other pilgrims, for there was safety in numbers.  One of the major staging posts was Paris and the church of Saint Jacques la Boucherie, close to Nôtre-Dame, on the north side of the Seine.  Today only the church tower remains.  And Le Puy-en-Velay was the main gathering point for pilgrims from the south and east.

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The principal European pilgrim routes

As trickles form a stream, before joining to a tributary, and finally flowing into the main river, the pilgrims converged on Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port for what was the most convenient crossing of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in Spain. From there they went on to Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León and finally to Santiago de Compostela.  And along the route hospitals and hostels sprang up, many of which still exist today.

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The main towns on the Camino Francés

With the exception of recent years, undertaking the pilgrimage was not without risk.  Not only were pilgrims liable to be attacked and robbed by bandits, but disease was rife, and many died on the way.  Indeed, even today, though the route is quite safe and secure, there are still casualties, mainly due to physical exertion or from exhaustion in the prevalent heat of the summer months.  One can observe many crosses and memorials by the path.

And one must not forget that in all but modern times, the pilgrimage was only half completed upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela; there were no buses, trains and planes to take one home, and the arduous outward journey had to be repeated in reverse.

During periods of war or plague, the number of pilgrims would have been greatly reduced, although some would have persisted, by taking the more challenging northern route that follows the coast.

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Formerly the pilgrimage was undertaken for purely religious reasons, but for most people today, it has evolved to being a leisure activity.  Modern pilgrims may be participating for the physical challenge, for the exercise, the fresh air, the experience, the opportunity for solitude, to meet other like-minded people, or for a host of other reasons.  Some may complete the journey from end to end in one go, while others, who may have limited time or resources, progress in sections over a period of years.

Although most people complete the pilgrimage on foot, there is an increasing number of cyclists, and I even saw some people running from village to village.  There were several accompanied by a dog and I was even passed by a couple on horseback.

Not everyone carries their possessions on their back.  There are many who contract a specialist tourist agency to reserve accommodation along the route, and arrange for their bags to be transported from place to place. And at the other end of the scale there are the low-cost options of the albergues, with dormitories and the local restaurants with their ‘cheap and cheerful’ three-course pilgrim menu. As one Spanish family told me – ‘It can be a quite inexpensive holiday’.

Are many participating for purely religious reasons?  I suspect that these days they are very much in the minority. And perhaps this is reflected in the fact that, apart from being open during their occasional mass, most churches and chapels in the villages are shuttered and locked.

Does the crypt under the cathedral in Santiago actually contain the remains of Saint James?  Until the tomb is opened or x-rayed to reveal a decapitated skeleton, and I suspect that the Church will remain reluctant to ever give permission, it will have to remain a matter of individual faith.

But does the veracity of the legend really matter?  Every year thousands upon thousands of people of all ages and all nationalities walk for weeks for hundreds of miles across a beautiful landscape in all weathers.  That is surely no bad thing.

And if some of them benefit spiritually, that’s their bonus.


The Nagual

It was on a late Friday afternoon at the end of May 2014, when we arrived in Viana.  We had been walking for seven days since we left Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France.  The weather in that time had been quite ‘interesting’: torrential rain, sleet, snow, gale-force winds, flooded streams to cross, but then after Pamplona, perfect spring.

In my enthusiasm I was careless in the rock-strewn descent from El Alto del Perdón before Puente de la Reina, and ended the day with three nails on my numb foot bleeding and torn from the flesh and obviously going to be eventually shed.  So having a rest day in Viana seemed like a great idea.

We did not wander far from the hotel until the next afternoon, when we explored the narrow little town, built in solid stone along the crest of a hill.  There were a handfull of little bars and restaurants, all crowded.  The streets were deserted and the shops closed for the afternoon break.



On a narrow street, parallel to the main street, and close to the cathedral we came across the bar Nagual.  There was no sign. If it were not for the hint of a bright and verdant interior, one could be excused for having passed by unaware. But once enticed inside, the oak tree, the vine encircling the bar, the ceiling-high scene of a forest path and the bar laden with a wide selection of succulent tapas, alluded to a designer of excellence.



The owner was equally interesting with his black outfit, neatly trimmed black beard and his long salt and pepper hair tightly drawn back in a ponytail. When not serving customers he spoke to us of the interior design of his bar, of vegetarian food and of El Camino, which he had once completed. He showed us a shell tattoo on his wrist.

Later he told us of a bar in Logroño called La Taverna de Baco which had loads of Camino statistics on a wall. He was about to explain the significance of the name Nagual, when the bar filled and he was fully occupied. We left shortly after.

Two days later, when wandering around the narrow streets of the old district of Logroño, we were spoiled for choice for somewhere to have a glass of wine and some tapas; there were several streets of wall-to-wall bars and restaurants, most filled to capacity.  In the end I chose one that was not so busy, but looked very inviting.  It was not until we had sat down at a table and ordered that I noticed on the wall beside us a chart with a multitude of statistics of El Camino from 2009. And on the menu was the name of the bar – La Taverna de Baco.  It was the very bar that we had been told of two days previously.

We probably stayed there for a couple of hours, snacking on various tapas and sipping on Rioja; Logroño is the capital of the Rioja region.  Eventually I paid the bill and we were on our way to the door, when in walked the guy from the bar Nagual in Viana, together with an attractive woman and a young child.  Although he obviously recognized us, he appeared to be not in the least surprised to see us there.  We spoke for a short time and left.

It was not until after that the coincidences became apparent to me.  We had walked into the bar without being aware that it was the one we had been told of.  We had sat down at the only table that was next to the chart of Camino statistics, without initially noticing them.  And to cap it all, as we were leaving, in walked the guy from Viana.

Coincidence?  Perhaps, until recently, when I recalled the name of the bar in Viana, and did a search on the word ‘nagual’:

Nagual:  a human being who has the power to transform spiritually or physically into an animal form.  It originated in Mesoamerican cultures.

Was there something rather mysterious about the guy from Viana or have I just read too many of Paulo Coehlo’s mystic novels?


The Pilgrim Sailor

Belorado is a small village that lies between Logrõno and Burgos in northern Spain, on the pilgrim way to Santiago de Compostela. The location has apparently been inhabited since before Roman times.

On the way into Belorado we came across a sign stating that four hundred casualties of a local battle between local volunteers and the occupying army of Napoleon were buried beneath the ground on which we were standing.

Quite a sobering thought.

Plaque outside Belorado commemorating the 1810 battle

A little further on we came across the Albergue A Santiago and I took a room for the night.

Later, having a beer outside in the warmth of the evening sun, we chatted with two Frenchmen.  They were of early retirement age and were on their fourth pilgrimage to Santiago.  Walking from village to village for days and weeks on end can be quite addictive.

They told us of a sailor that they had recently met who had been involved in a shipwreck off Iceland many years previously. The sailor had sworn to the Virgin Mary that if he survived he would spend the rest of his life walking to Santiago de Compostela. He was subsequently saved and to date he had completed 25 pilgrimages, including one from Saint Petersburg in Russia.

It was not until later that I recalled having taken a photo in Logroño of a huge wall painting of an old man with body tattoos of the stamps of various Camino villages.

Was he the old sailor that the Frenchmen were describing?