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.