WEDNESDAY 24 JUNE
Our last night in France was spent in St Jean de Luz. The balcony of our hotel room gave us an uninterrupted panorama of the bay and harbour. As the sun went down it lit the waves washing gently onto the beach, it highlighted the houses clinging to the hillsides and it spotlighted the peaks of the Pyrennees behind them. A beautiful goodbye to over two months of walking from the very north of the country all the way to the farthest Southwest corner.
France has given us many memories, some beautiful countryside, some extraordinary buildings, some lovely food, some wonderful people, and some extremes of weather. Now three countries down only Spain remains and less than six weeks to Santiago. The massive adventure is speeding along to its conclusion.
Spain highlighted its difference almost from the start. Although both sides of the border are Basque the two sides could hardly be more different. Hendaye on the French side makes the most of its sandy beaches to welcome surfers and sun worshipers, but the season has hardly started for them. Although some of the campsites are open, many are not and most of the hotels and beach side shops and bars appear to be closed awaiting the season’s start. This area of France, from Dax, south and west, does not appear to have been as affected by the “crisis” as the rest of France has. In the north and east every town and village we walked through told the same story of decline. Everywhere there were closed shops, closed businesses and closed hotels. “A Vendre” signs were everywhere, many showing that they had been there for a few years due to their having faded, or weather damage. Rural France has suffered massively from the crisis. Down here in the southwest the damage to the economy is not as apparent, or perhaps not as severe. However on our last night in St Jean De Luz the town was quiet, there were a few tourists in the restaurants but few locals were around.
A short ferry ride across the river from Hendaye to Hondarribia showed a massive difference in attitude. Spain has suffered badly and this region has not escaped, but the national attitude was apparent when we went out to eat last night. Whereas in France many cafes and restaurants were closed permanently and many just closed for no apparent reason and people were staying home, here the centre of the town was buzzing at 8pm. when we got there and still buzzing when we left at 10pm. Whereas an open restaurant was hard to find in France here there were over twenty along a couple of streets and around a square. The street was pedestrianised and was crowded with all ages and types: business people, families with young children, pensioners, teenagers. All milling around , talking, walking, and sharing tapas (called Pinchoes here) or plates of food inside, or on pavement tables and old wine barrels. The place was alive and it was a joy to be here. This is what I like about this country.
What I also liked was the fresh young squid stuffed with Frois Gras and served on a bed of rice cooked in the squid ink. Sublime! But this was not a starred famous restaurant, it was just a cafe/bar on the main drag where the chef was putting a new twist onto Tapas, in an area of Spain famous for its innovative chefs. I like this place and it is a shame we shall be moving on so fast as the old town is a delight of old balconied buildings set within the massive walls of a fort. Our hotel is situated right in the middle of the old town and our balcony has views out over the town to the cloud topped Pyrennees.
France had one last surprise for me. As walkers we know that there is a potential problem with ticks when walking, especially when going through areas of high grass or bracken where you brush against the foliage, so I keep a look out just in case. We had passed through areas of high vegetation growth and brushed through bracken and high grasses with not a hint of a tick. However whilst walking out of Biarritz through the concrete and mowed grass of expensive housing I somehow picked one up. It would be as surprising picking one up whilst walking on the pavements of the Duchy! Fortunately I saw it and removed it easily before it had got well attached.
I know that the highlight of these updates for many people is the photo of Renna drinking wine. So as not to disappoint our many readers here is a photo of Renna sampling the local Basque grape “Txakoli” (there are other spellings), which we have both enjoyed.
Two thirds of the way, less than 800km left. And the hardest parts from Hondarrabia to Bilbao about to start. Wish us luck!
THURSDAY 2 JULY 2015
Cow Bells and Cliff Tops, Getting to Bilbao, an update from The Way
They tell you the the best bit of the Camino del Norte (this is the name of the Way of St James that follows the northern coast of Spain) is the week from the French border to Bilbao. They also say it is the toughest stretch as well.
Having now completed it we can confirm it to be a most beautiful walk and also that it is tough!
Over 7 days of walking we walked over 150km (95 miles) and climbed up and then down over 4,060m (13,300ft), or on an average daily basis: nearly 22km (13.5ml) with 580m (1900ft) of climbing and descent every day and that often on rocky uneven paths and carrying a big heavy backpack! The weather favoured us with glorious sunny days, sometimes just very warm but some very hot days as well (we did sweat an awful lot!). This meant slow progress with many stops which in turn made for long days and late arrivals, leaving little time for any exploring or keeping notes up to date. Each day we would take over 4 litres of water with us (that is nearly a gallon and it weighs 4kg about 9lbs) and take every opportunity to stop for a soft drink at bars.
We were glad that we had not started our walk at the French border as we could never have made it. Only ten weeks of walking with heavy back packs, firstly on the flat and then through rolling hills and with ever increasing distances has brought our level of fitness (in our legs at least) up to the level necessary to successfully tackle these hills.
But the scenery was worth it! We walked up hills, along cliffs and ridges and through woods and pasturelands. . Beneath us the gentle Atlantic swells broke Daz white onto rocks and headlands and washed gently onto empty beaches. To the east the peaks of the Pyrenees loomed and glowered above us, whilst around us fudge coloured cattle, their coats glowing in the sunshine, chewed verdant green grass from knee-high herb-rich meadows whilst their little calves stared at the sweating straining strangers with big brown eyes and curling eyelashes. Every time they moved the dull “clonk” of the cow bells around their necks echoed around.
After over a thousand miles both our clothing and us are looking a little worn. Note the water bottle and also the little blue bag on the shoulder strap, it contains a little towel useful for wiping the sweat from your eyes!
The hillsides were dotted with farmhouses that looked like Alpine chalets, on their fences and hedges roses and jasmine grew and flowered with gay abandon. We wandered through forests and woods of oak, sweet chestnut, pine and eucalyptus. No need for airfreshners here, the air was alternatively scented by the sea, the roses and jasmine, the pines or the eucalyptus trees. Fair reward for our efforts.
The area isn’t all beautiful as this was also the main centre for heavy industry in Spain which has left many scars on the landscape and many ugly constructions. However in between the ugly bits and the hills we came across small ports and fishing villages. At one, Pasai Donibane, we were surprised to hear a number of young fit men with educated English accents, only to then find that they and others had gathered there to practise rowing in traditional boats that look rather like Norse longships.
In San Sebastián we met up with friends, Sian and Tony, who helped us sample the extraordinary range of Tapas (pichoes) and wines readily available in dozens of little bars. Here the beaches were filled with Spanish holidaymakers and the sands of La Concha resounded to the sounds of kids having fun by and in the sea. We took a day off walking here on what was the hottest day with temperatures in the high 30’s and just relaxed.
This stretch is through Basque Country and their nationalistic fervour is evident in flags and banners which hang from many buildings and from the celebrations and events that are occurring all the time. We came across processions and groups playing traditional music as well as much graffiti. We also had the additional challenge of directions and town names in an unpronounceable mixture of consonants – it was like being in Wales. This stretch also includes the village of Guernica (Gernika), arriving late and leaving early meant we had no time to explore the place but what happened here is still strongly remembered by the Basques.
The Way is indicated by a mixture of yellow arrows and shell signs and we have to keep a keen eye open for them and then it is just a matter of following them up and down the hills, all the way to Santiago.
We have also broadened our drinking habits, here is Renna gallantly attempting to finish off a massive Gin and Tonic in an attempt to replenish lost fluids!
FRIDAY 24 JULY
Today is our first day off for three weeks and it is really lovely not to have to walk but to just laze around. We have reached a small town called Vilalba and we have only 5 days walking left until we reach Santiago and we can then relax.
The journey through northern Spain has been a real joy. The scenery is wonderful and the people friendly.
The coast was always interesting with views of cliffs alternating with those of beaches.
One day we were overjoyed to see appearing ghostly above the low lying clouds the grey misty peaks of the Picos De Europa (they rise to over 10,000ft) still with snow on their high peaks.
Although most days the views are of mountains only half that height but still stunning.
The paths have led us through forests, fields, high alpine meadows and rocky heather covered slopes. Often our hotels have offered stunning views such as here at St. Vincente de la Barquera.
Or at Ribadesella.
Now we have left the sea and have had a few hard days climbing up into the hills. So the views have changed. The architecture has also changed, in the Asturias a typical feature is the Horneos, which is a large grain drying and storage building raised up high to catch the wind and to keep the contents safe from mice and other dangers.
Many are well looked after and used for all sorts of things,
others are falling into disrepair as their original purpose is no longer needed.
Antoni Gaudi , most famous for his buildings in his native Barcelona such as the Sagrada Familia, was also active here. Comillas is an attractive town on the coast, if a bit of a tourist hot spot, not really surprising as it has excellent beaches, good walking in the hills behind the coast, within a few miles of the Picos for those wanting more challenging walking/climbing and a town full of beautiful old “palaces” built on the money made from the town’s involvement in the slave trade. One local slaver bought with his profits a title “Marquis de Comillas” and an expensive wife who then commissioned Gaudi to build them a new home. It is massive and sits on a hillside overlooking Comillas town, harbour and beach. Unfortunately it is currently undergoing repairs and photos are spoilt by the cranes so here is a photo of one of the other buildings whose design was influenced by Gaudi.
Further along the coast near the town of Celorio is the picture perfect church of Nuestra Señora Des Los Dolores.
Our paths vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. Often its on lovely paths through greenery,
Whilst once we had a whole motorway viaduct all to ourselves,
We now encounter more and more pilgrims every day often meeting up with those we met a day or so ago, sharing tales and advice. So far we have only met with one British pilgrim in France and more recently a group of two students studying at York. Most are German, Dutch or French Canadian and most of those we meet now are only walking for two, or three, or four weeks although we did meet with a German who had walked from his home and has walked as far as we have. They come in all ages and for all reasons and all are glad they are walking the Way.
Here is Tony explaining the benefits of drinking red wine to a group of beer drinking Americans and Germans.
Food and wine are close to our hearts. Readers will be familiar with Renna’s successful attempts to try the local liquid produce from some of the photos already sent. Some of you may be concerned that I leave the stressful work of trying the local beverages solely on Renna’s shoulders. This is not the case and couple of weeks ago we were joined for a very enjoyable evening by friends from the UK, David and Tricia, on their way to Portugal. They took a photo of both of us as we sampled the local produce.
This area is famous for its cider, spelt Sidra here. We overheard a German pilgrim describe it as being like cider vinegar! a comment that the locals chose to ignore. It does have a high acidity and to enhance its freshness it has to be drunk well aerated and quickly after being poured. To facilitate this the waiter, or barman, will pour a small amount into your glass. But he, or she, does this from a great height in order to get the aeration. I will not be so crass as to say what it looks like but the fact that the result is a small amount of amber liquid being caught at crotch level in a glass and a fair amount being splashed across everyone’s shoes should leave little to your imagination.
To be fair I have to say that I found it very drinkable and we were introduced to drinking it with tapas of Cabrales cheese (this is a very strong blue ewe’s milk cheese made in the Picos) and that is a match made in heaven. Truly wonderful!
The pilgrim trade is very important in this largely rural area and many establishments offer special menus at a very attractive price.
Sometimes we will eat the set meal (three courses with wine and usually for only 10Euros – about £7.50) but often that is just too much and we settle for just one course, or a mixture of tapas and raciones, such as this half finished racione of local cheeses married with a glass of Ribeiro Del Duero wine. Of course our love of wine has led us to try many wines of all quality levels. It is sometimes surprising what wines are available and where. Such as a small rural restaurant that sold Aalto, a high quality Ribera del Duero wine that we sampled on our trip there a year ago, to small bars which sell Martin Codax wines.
This brings us to the end of this update. Provided things continue to go well the next update will be to say we have finished our pilgrimage. It will be a huge mix of emotions that we will feel, but whatever our feelings will be we already have had nearly four months of amazing memories and experiences. So for the moment it is goodbye from two tired but happy pilgrims.
WEDNESDAY 29 JULY
Santiago at last!
WEDESDAY 5 AUGUST
As you all now know we made it to Santiago last week, 4 months, or 122 days, after we set off one Monday morning in March from a gale blown dock in Europoort (Rotterdam).
Our arrival day into Santiago was cloudy and our emotions, as expected, mixed and impossible to describe. We got our Compostelles (certificates to prove you did the Pilgrimage) including ones that detailed we had walked a total of 2,650km from Knaresborough, had our photos taken in front of the cathedral and a celebratory glass of good Cava at the ancient pilgrim hospital, now The Parador “Los Reyes Catholicos”.
Our last week of walking had brought new experiences as well as sadness at leaving new friends, activities and memories behind. We had our last views of the coast, which had been our stunning companion for 5 weeks and headed on into the mountains for a number of strenuous days.
But the hills brought their rewards with stunning views and beautiful architecture like the old town and mini Cathedral at Vilanova.
Unusual foods such as octopus being boiled up in the street to feed the people coming to the market in Sobrado Dos Monxes.
It brought many more pilgrims, when we joined up with the main Camino routes from France and Madrid at Arzua the numbers increased more than ten fold. No longer had we the paths to ourselves and our own thoughts, but the atmosphere was buzzing and lively as everyone sensed the nearness of their goal, and many were youthful and full of enthusiasm.
The route signs now often included the number of kilometers left to Santiago and the countdown measured our remaining days.
That is 136 kilometers, or about six days walking to go.
Pilgrims had left their own message such as the crosses woven into wire fences around the airport, along with items of clothing and other momentoes.
The monument at Monte de Gozo celebrating the visit to Santiago of two Popes broke our last morning and acted as the final stop in the country walking. From there the path is downhill through the suburbs of Santiago then about 3 miles on and up into Santiago, through the tourist thronged streets of the old town and into the Plaza del Obradoiro and the Cathedral itself.
The cathedral is currently having a good clean.
At the Pilgrim service in the Cathedral the next day we listened intently as they announced that : “two English pilgrims had arrived from Knaresborough”. Every day they read out how many people arrived the day before and where they started from. Only we were interested in us, but hearing it said in the middle of the service in the cathedral itself was very moving.
We were lucky in the service to once again witness the swinging of the botafumeiro. This is a censor (incense burner) whose original purpose was to sweeten the air when the cathedral was full of many unwashed smelly pilgrims. It is solid silver and stands about 4 ft high and weighs 80 kg (12.5 st). It takes a team of six to pull it up and swing it across the church apse leaving a trail of smoke behind it. It is truly impressive and I will try to send, separately, a motion clip of it.
They say the end of one pilgrimage is but the start of another. That there is no end just another beginning. We did not start the journey to get to Santiago, we started it for the journey, the experience, the ability to live in the here and now without the noise of everyday life. It was an experience well worth every cost and sacrifice. A journey to be recommended for all. They say that you start planning your next pilgrimage before you finish the current one. This is not the end, this is the beginning of the Way, time to start following the arrows once again.