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

 

 

Roncesvalles

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.

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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.

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Roncesvalles

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.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bayonne to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

The first day of the ‘The Way of Saint James’ is reputed to be the most arduous – 27km and 1100 m of ascent to the pass, with 500 m of descent to Roncesvalles.  And apart from a refugio after 10 km, there is nothing until one reaches Roncesvalles.  Given that I had not done anything approaching that in the six years since my illness, it is not surprising that I started feeling some flutters of apprehension.  And of course I was not accustomed to carrying all my worldly goods on my back.

There were four trains each day from Bayonne to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and I decided to take that of late morning.  It turned out to be a local train that stopped at every station. In the names of the little villages, it was obvious that we were in Basque country – Vasco in Spanish, the language being shared across the border with Spain.  En route I spotted many Basque names such as Ustaritz, Jatxou and Itxassou.

The train trundled along a narrow wooded valley, alongside the rapidly flowing river Nive until it arrived at the end of the line, outside Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.  From the station it was about a kilometer to the centre of the town.  I arrived to crowded streets and packed restaurants – it was Monday and the weekly market day.

The first hotel I tried was closed for the winter, the second was much too grand for me, in the third the door was locked and the reception closed for lunch and then I stumbled upon a bar with rooms above and it was perfect for my needs and inexpensive.  I checked in, left my backpack in the room and went off to explore the town.

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The steep main street with the foothills of the Pyrenees in the background

The name of the town means ‘Saint John at the foot of the pass’ and it has a permanent population of about 2000.  It is a well preserved walled town with one narrow cobbled street rising steeply to a citadel.  The view from the walls was impressive and everywhere there seemed to be flower boxes in full bloom.  From the bridge over the river one could see that the water was sparkling clean and thick with trout.

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The bridge crossed by pilgrims as they set off on the path over the Pyrenees

The original town was razed in 1177 by Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, the English King.  It was rebuilt on the present site by the Kings of Navarre.

I found the pilgrim’s office at the top of the steep main street and obtained my pilgrim passport – it is needed to stay at any of the official refugios.

Later I went into the old church by the pilgrims’ gate.  It was empty except for an old lady, on her knees with head down, and seemingly deep in prayer. It was cool and serene.  Periodically someone would enter, have a quick look around and leave.

I stayed there for a long time.  I was not praying like the old lady, but I have no clear recollection of my thoughts at that time.  I imagine that I was very focused on the physical struggle I anticipated having the next day and hoping that my crap leg would get me over the mountain and down to Roncesvalles without having to seek help.

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Looking back at the church and Pilgrim’s Gate

Eventually I left the church to find a restaurant.  When I looked back, the old lady was still there.

Bayonne

Bayonne, Friday, September 23, 2011

At the end of September 1968, Biarritz was paradise, at least it was for me; the sky was blue, the air was warm, the water was temperate, the sand was clean, the surf was friendly and the town was quiet, almost devoid of visitors. I had a comfortable room one block from the beach.  I was young and I felt as if I was in heaven; I had never experienced anywhere like it before.

And on Thursday when my flight from Stansted passed low over the town on its final descent, memories of that long past era came flooding back. Above all I recalled the light and the vivid colours of the houses and the landscape, so much appreciated by artists.

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Biaritz with its red roofs and red walls

The little modern airport is located between Biarritz and Bayonne. Once the two towns were quite separate, but today it is not obvious where the suburbs of one ends and the other begins.

From the airport a thirty minute ride costing one euro on a suburban bus delivered me to the Bayonne railway station. And from there most pilgrims, and there were several on my flight, make the ninety minute rail journey to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the last French town before the Spanish border, and the recognized start of the ‘Camino Francés’.

But I did not set off straight away; I checked in at a nearby hotel, to ensure that I could see the several games of the Rugby World Cup that I knew were being carried on the French networks that weekend.  I felt it unlikely that they would be shown on Spanish television.  So my pilgrimage would not start until the following Monday.

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Aerial view of Bayonne

Bayonnne is situated at the SW corner of the French hexagon and is centred on the confluence of the rivers Nive and Adour. It originated in a Roman settlement, Lapurdum. In 842 the Vikings invaded the area and eventually settled. From 1152 to 1452, until the end of the 100 year war, it was ruled by England. Today it is a relatively sleepy backwater town.  It is also the birthplace of Didier Deschamps of the World cup winning French football team, and Imanol Harimdorquy, the highly-rated French international rugby union star.

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France’s wildest party – the Bayonne festival in August

So for the next three days I lazed around; late breakfast of café au lait and croissant each day in the same little hole-in-the-wall bistro, reading the papers from cover to cover and chatting rugby to the friendly proprietor; wandering around the town exploring the battlements and the picturesque narrow streets of the old town; browsing in the bookshops and reading a new book in the sun in the square, accompanied by a beer or glass of wine; eating dinner outside by the river; and of course all  interspersed with returning to my hotel room in time to watch the next game.

Life was feeling pretty good to me.

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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?