Bayonne to Saint-Jean-de-Luz

6-7 April 2013

Uppsala to Bayonne

I had not intended on returning to Uppsala until the end of April, but the heavy rains, flooding and unseasonal cold weather in Extremadura caused me to abandon my walking north from Seville to Astorga, and I reluctantly returned to Uppsala to conserve my funds.

But April in Uppsala is not great either. Even though the snow may have largely gone and the hour changed to summer time, the ground can still be frozen, the northern winds quite bitter and the paths thickly coated with grit, that will not be completely cleaned up until well into May.

It did not take me long to come up with ‘Plan B’ – to go to Mundaka to see if there remained any evidence of the Lázaga family, a family history research task that I have had in mind for several years.  I have traced my sons’ ancestry through their mother’s ancestors to José Ramón Lázaga, who was born in Mundaka in 1838, but prior to that date I have not been able to verify the information that was passed to me, regarding three further generations dating back to 1736.

I reasoned that gravestones from the mid-1800s could still be legible and that it was possible that evidence of the prior existence of the Lázaga family may still exist.  It was also possible that there were descendants of that name still living in the village and perhaps the village priest (if they still had one) would let me look at the church records.

And where is Mundaka? It is a small fishing port in the province of Bizkaia, about 40 km to the north-east of Bilbao.  The closest airport to Mundaka from Sweden was Biarritz, so I decided to fly to there and walk from nearby Bayonne, following the pilgrim path (El Camino del Norte), which passes near to Mundaka, at Gernika-Lumo.

So, on 6 April I set off to the airport at Skavsta, about 90 minutes south of Stockholm, stayed overnight at an airport hotel, and arrived mid-morning in Biarritz, to a clear blue sky and a warm spring day.

Another camino was about to begin.

 

Monday 8 April 2013

Bayonne to Bidart – 14 km

As I sat there in the little plaza of Bidart, with its white-walled houses and red roofs, I could see the Pyrenees, as they descended to the precipitous Basque coast with its cliffs, inlets and beaches. The sky was still blue and the early evening sun felt warm and comforting.

But when I left Bayonne cathedral that morning, the western sky was dark and ominous, and the forecast was calling for afternoon storms.  I was tempted to just take a bus to Bidart and avoid another soaking, but as the bus station was close to the cathedral, I decided to check if they really did have a pilgrim desk as stated on their website, staffed between 10:00 and 11:00 during the week.   And sure enough, there was a desk and a very helpful girl, who gave me a rather tiny map, assuring me that the path was well-marked.  So off I set off down the hill from the cathedral to the river, having overcome the temptation to take the bus and oblivious of the impending storms.

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Three different paths to Santiago, with my little back-pack ready to go

For the first hour, the path followed the river until it came to an intersection.  I took the right fork, which led to the Coastal Camino, while the left fork continued alongside the river, eventually splitting into two routes over the mountains to Pamplona, one via Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the other via the Baztan valley.

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Looking back to Bayonne from the path by the River Nive

On my little map, the route was indicated with a broad-tipped yellow marker and it seemed to twist and turn and meander across Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz, like a drunken Irishman returning home from the pub on a Saturday night. There were some signs, but they were often not obvious, and at some intersections they seemed to be missing completely.  It was not long before I was lost and asking directions of people, most of whom seemed to have never heard of the Chemin de Santiago, a situation that was to repeat at too frequent intervals.

And when the signage eventually did improve, the first storm suddenly hit, with hail like marbles, followed by torrential rain and strong winds. It did not last long, but long enough to turn the road into a raging river. Thanks to my recent frequent practice in Spain, I managed to quickly don my poncho, covering myself and backpack in record time. I looked like a large green turtle.   I huddled under some trees until the worst was past.  An hour later a second storm hit, but without hail. When it finally cleared, the clouds disappeared, and the sun shone for the first time that day.

The route skirted the airport and later passed by the Biarritz railway station. The first time I was at that station was in 1968, and it was in Biarritz that I bought my first bottle of cheap wine, in a small grocery store.  Later in the hotel room I had to prise the cork out with a pair of scissors; I had no corkscrew.  It was the start of my lifelong love affair with cheap wine.

After the station, the path led to a large lake, and followed the shore to the other end, before climbing to the main coastal road. From there a thirty-minute walk along a busy road took me to Bidart, my stop for the night.

There only seemed to be one hotel open – it was still very much off-season, and I seemed to be the first guest that day.  The rate seemed very reasonable for France, and the room was surprisingly luxurious, with a beautiful view across fields to the mountains.

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The excellent little hotel in Bidart

But finding a hotel with an available room was only part of the challenge; I now had to find my way from my room out of the hotel.  The building contained a maze of corridors and stairs leading up and down. I now understood why the friendly barman insisted in taking me to the room and I should have paid more attention as to the route. For what seemed like an eternity, I went around and around, up flights of stairs and down, ending in store rooms, exits with the door locked, a boiler room. There were no windows and I was completely disoriented. Not once did I even end up at my room from where I had started out.  Finally, I went through an unmarked door to what seemed like a large deserted restaurant in semi-darkness. At the other end were stairs which led to the bar and my friendly barman.

The staff had a good laugh at my getting lost.

 

Tuesday 9 April

Bidart to Saint-Jean-de-Luz – 10 km

As I did not intend to walk very far that day, I went to bed not setting my alarm, and woke up at first light to the dawn chorus. I had a leisurely breakfast of café au lait and croissant and set off in the morning sun, following the path down the hill from the church, as indicated by the Santiago sign. When I arrived at the edge of the village and an intersection with several roads merging, I could not see any further signs, and it was not obvious to me which way I should go. There was nobody around, so I decided to return to the village and get a map.

By that time the tourist office had opened, but no, they did not have any maps. A rather snooty woman said that there was no need for maps, as the paths were clearly marked.  Anyway, I was told, most walkers follow the coastal path, as it is much more scenic and interesting. Turn left, then right and follow the path down to the beach, I was told and she started talking to the postman who had just come in the door. I was obviously dismissed, so I left.  It seemed that the concept of customer service had not yet arrived in Bidart, but come to think of it, Paris was little different.

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Looking back to Bidart

For the next couple of hours my progress was repetitive – a steep descent to the beach, a short walk along the sea, followed by a steep climb back up, sometimes to not far from where I started.  The steps were made with log retainers holding back the earth, and all was wet, muddy and rather slippery, due to the heavy rain of the day before.  And the wind, at times, was quite fierce.  I regretted not having persisted with the ‘less interesting’ inland walk along country lanes.

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Saint-Jean-de-Luz was somewhere in the distance, behind one of the headlands

When I eventually came to a new road development, the signs stopped, or at least I did not see them.  I had enough of the coastal walk and did not feel like going back to find the sign, if indeed it existed. I decided to just follow the road into Saint-Jean-de-Luz, despite the horrendous traffic jam that seemed to have been created by the road works.  It was further than I thought and for the next hour I walked alongside stationary or barely moving traffic.  Not very enjoyable.

But what a delightful little town Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be.  With its Basque architecture, narrow streets, wide beach and peaceful harbour, it was most appealing. I crossed the bridge to my hotel and extended my stay for an extra night, to allow me to explore the town the next day.

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The tranquil harbour of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, sheltered from the wind

 

Wednesday 10 April

Saint-Jean-de-Luz

It turned out to be a beautiful day, and with only a slight breeze, the sea was calm.  I walked along the seafront, but there was not one person on the beach.  Obviously, there were no sun-starved Scandinavians in the vicinity and it was too early in the year for French tourists, at least for those who lie on beaches.

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As evidenced by signs on many buildings and streets, the town’s main claim to fame was the royal wedding on 9 June 1660 between Louis XIV of France and María Theresa (the ‘Infanta‘), the daughter of Felipe IV of Spain.  Louis XIV is best remembered as the ‘Sun King’, who built Versailles and ruled France for 75 years.  The marriage was a result of the treaty ending 30 years of war between France and Spain.

I went to the church where the wedding had taken place, but I found it locked.  It was quite a small church – it was probably a small town in 1660.  I guess that only a few of the court could have witnessed the ceremony.  Interestingly, after it was over, the main door of the church was bricked up. I have no idea why.

According one notice that I read, Anne of Austria – the mother of Louis XIV arrived in the town about a month before the ceremony and stayed until a week after.  She was joined by the Infanta two days before the wedding.  The building where they stayed is quite striking, with pink stonework.  It belonged to a rich merchant.

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The house used by the Infanta of Spain

In the past few years I have read several French historical novels set in the era of Versailles and the Sun King. I was not aware of the wedding in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and being there somehow seemed significant to me.  Perhaps it reminded me of many evenings during my years in Paris, reading Alexandre Dumas novels over dinner and a carafe of wine in a restaurant, and later walking around the old city to see if a building or street I had read of still existed.

In a nostalgic mood, I went to the little central square, found a comfortable table in the sun, and ordered a cold glass of rosé.

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The main square with trees still bare of leaves

 

 

Burgos

Pamplona to Burgos

7-20 October 2016

This was the third time that I have walked from Pamplona to Burgos, so I will try not to repeat myself.  If you want to read my original accounts from 2012, then click on https://irishrover2016.wordpress.com/2016/08/07/29 (Pamplona to Logroño) and https://irishrover2016.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/34 Logroño to Burgos.

From Pamplona, I once more walked to Puente de La Reina, over the Alto del Perdón, to Estella, Los Arcos, Viana, where Cesare Borgia is buried, and Logroño, with its multitude of wine bars.

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Leaving Puente de La Reina in the early morning sun, on the eleventh century bridge over the river Arga

From Logroño I went on to Navarette, Nájera, and Santo Domingo, where I once more stayed with the nuns, as we had done in 2014.  Then Belorado, and Villafranca Montes de Oca, in the beautiful grand old mansion, where the owner and his son remembered me and treated me royally.

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One of numerous huge stacks of straw
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Part of the road between Villafranca Montes de Oca and Monasterio de San Juan de Ortega

Finally, to Atapuerca and the long gruelling walk into Burgos, around the airport and the 10 km of concrete pavement through the industrial area, until finally reaching the jewelled heart of the city.

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The ornate entrance to the cathedral plaza in Burgos
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Burgos cathedral

In Burgos, I stayed in a beautiful little apartment, opposite and managed by the Pancho Bar, where we had spent a riotous evening in 2014. When I made the booking, I did not realise the connection.  The owner, his two brothers and sister are the core of the staff, and their tapas are excellent.

And it was in that bar that I spent another great evening.

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Pancho Bar in Calle San Lorenzo

Burgos was to be the end of my Camino for 2016.  The weather was turning distinctly colder, especially overnight, and it was time for this little bird to spread his wings and head south to a warmer climate.

But God willing, I will be back next year to walk another path across the glorious landscape of Spain.

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Villava into Pamplona

Wednesday, 5 October, 2016

That previous evening in Villava, it struck me that I had not seen one single pilgrim in six days of walking on the Camino de Baztan, from Bayonne.  Considering how difficult it is to find solitude in this crowded world, I over-achieved.

The next day I set off to stroll the remaining six kilometres into Pamplona, and true to recent form, I got rather lost. I was standing at an intersection, probably looking bemused, when a man came up to me and, without any questions on his part, said that if I was a pilgrim looking for the path, he would show me the way.

We walked together for more than an hour.  He said that he was taking food to his daughter and grandchild.  He noticed my limp and I told him of my stroke ten years previously.

It turned out that he had had an identical stroke to mine, a cerebral haemorrhage.  His was in August 2005, mine in November of that year.

He lost memory and speech, as did I, and his sight was affected, as was mine.  At the time he had his stroke he was still quite fit, running marathons and cycling.  My story is similar.

The big difference between his experience and mine was that he was operated on twice to remove the blood clot, and he subsequently made a full recovery.

While we walked, we talked about a wide range of subjects – children, love, religion, nature, food, wine and many more.  It was like talking to a twin brother.

And he even has a small vegetable plot in Asturias, similar to mine in Uppsala.

When we arrived at the Magdalena bridge, the ancient bridge over the river into historic Pamplona, he shook my hand and left me without a further word, apart from ‘buen camino’.

I wanted to  stop him.

But he did not look back.

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Puente de La Magdalena

 

Pamplona to Logroño

Pamplona

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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One of the common pruning methods in La Rioja

On that 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.

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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.

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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.

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The bridge over the river Ebro

 

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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…

Pamplona

Thursday, 29 September, 2011

Zubiri to Villava (15km)

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

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

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

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

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

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Magnesias Navarras

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

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Magnesias Navarras

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

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The bridge over the Río Ulzama, leading into Villava

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 9, 2011

Villava to Pamplona (6km)

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

‘Beans, beans are good for your heart

The more you eat, the more you f—t

And I had eaten an awful lot…

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

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Puente Magdelana

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

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Plaza Castillo

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.