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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…