Sunday, May 31, 2015

Epilogue: if I lived in Santander

If I lived in Santander, I would probably drink martini at breakfast;

Spend my mornings on the beach;

My afternoons watching the view across the bay;

And in the evening I'd take my dog out for frozen yoghurt.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Day 12: to Comillas (25k)

Lovely sunny last day, albeit a bit off piste due to poor map-reading on the way out of town this morning. It was beautiful though, detouring through forest tracks and, later, once we'd hot back on track, lovely old villages. This part of Spain is so varied - on a map you simply have no idea whether a habitation will turn out to be an ancient picturesque town or a completely empty, new, dormitory development. 

After the early detour we had top notch bocadillos in a jamon shop and then shortcutted via a road a few times to cut back the distance. The last few k into Comillas were just lovely and I felt (and feel) somewhat sad that this is the end of the road for my northern Camino.

For the sake of a last night on the town with the group of survivors (oh god) I joined them in taking the train back to Santander where I now have 36 hours till my flight early Monday morning. 

Trip summary: 
330k plus or minus a few percent; 
many blisters but all toenails intact; 
reinvigoration of my love of walking and northern Spain in general;
no thoughts at all of work;
not much spiritual enlightenment;
but most of all just wonderful to catch up with the lovely boys - Niall, who remains one of the most entertaining chaps I know, and Gary who remains a totally unflappable gentleman and just general hero. 

Who knows if we shall meet again but I am hugely grateful to have met them twice.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Day 11: to Santillana del Mar (35k)

35 slightly painful km today on a long hot day of long winding tarmac. Not unpleasant, and notable for 1) a big scary Alsatian behind a wire fence who ran alongside us menacingly... before poking his stick through the fence for us to throw; 2) men herding a group of young flighty cows down the main road using four pieces of baler cord to hold them in a square as they trotted along; 3) someone saying, as we walked hopelessly up a hot road in the middle of nowhere 'oh I'd love an ice cream...' two seconds before an ice cream sign appeared round the corner.

The goal of the long hot walk is a truly spectacular ancient medieval town. By arriving late we got ourselves a night in a beautiful old house instead of the (full) albergue, and hopefully by the time we make it back out the tourists will have mainly dispersed...

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Day 10: to Santander (31k)

This has been the iconic camino day. Yet it did not start as such. Way too much was drunk by all last night, leading to, among other shenanigans, me getting into a huge row about hurling, not something I know or care anything about, and an unlikely topic for my drunken belligerence. Lessons learnt (for now). 

Having spent much of the night awake and hungover I was relieved when day dawned, even though the first act of the day was sending Niall off on the bus to Bilbao (so hungover he nearly missed his flight and had to run across the airport after delaying the flight). Actually the first act of the day was dropping my towel out of the window and having to use walking sticks to pick it up off the roof of the restaurant below... Patrick also decided he was not getting up at all and will meet us in a day or two. So just four set off into the morning which was dawning bright and hot...

The first 20k or so was fast, on flat back roads that looked a lot like Camino Frances territory.  Absolutely lovely. The afternoon was the complete treat however. For a very slow but perfect 10k we walked the most glorious coast path with turquoise sea, white sand beaches, and dramatic cliffs all around, surf schools below and also stopped for an enormous and enormously delicious ice cream. Finally Santander arose across the bay and we walked a couple of k of stunning beach to Somo, had a quick swim etc and then took the ferry across to the city. Where we are -finally - back in a real albergue with all the feet, crampedness, falling down shower curtains and kindly geriatric hospitaleros that that implies.

It's late and I'm tired and can't do full justice to how spectacular it all was. But in summary, a gorgeous invigorating day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Day 9: to Noja (15k)

Today started with a 5k walk along a perfect white sand beach. After a short ferry ride and breakfast, we trudged through a lovely old town and along the side of a prison complete with many attractive young male runners - we assume prison guards. Up over a beautiful but of cliff and a few more k along the next perfect beach.... And then we get stuck. My feet hurt, Niall can't go any further without missing his plane home tomorrow, others are happily swimming and don't want to get out. And this amazing beachfront bar that we're sitting in is attached to a 3 star hotel that has rooms for 50 euros...

We are bad pilgrims. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Day 8: to Laredo (35k)

A very happy day with a very lovely walk. But jeez my feet are really suffering now.

I set off ahead of the rest and walked the first two hours alone through gorgeous coastal countryside and small villages. Shortly after a coffee stop the group split to take a longer inland route vs walk the main road - somewhere around 5k shorter. I went long and the scenery was worth it, including a steep stony path up through beautiful eucalyptus forest and then a descent through Dales-like limestone canyons. The final stretch was also stunning, along a very steep coastline with limestone mountains, white sand beaches, rollers coming in, vultures circling, and gorgeous views all around.

We were met in Laredo by the boys who had booked us into an 18-Euro clean, quiet hotel with a bath. A bath! Good job as the compeed levels are reaching critical mass and some, ugh, removal and renewal is required if I am ever to walk again.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Day 7: to Castro Urdiales (28k)

Bilbao was a funny old place. Like many Spanish cities, the touristic / historic centre had beautiful architecture and largely seemed thriving, but still a little blighted by what one could charitably call counter-culture, or alternatively just faintly threatening young men with excessive piercings and drinking problems. We had a very nice hostel but it was opposite a falling down building that was definitely either a brothel or a crack house. And there were fights (and dog fights) happening all night. 

Come the morning we took the executive decision to take the underground instead of walk 10k out of Bilbao through the suburbs. This was very smooth and landed us in in Portugalete, a medium-sized commuter town. Our first walk was then 10k largely on bike track out of town, swooping over an enormous motorway system and down to the small beach town of Puerto de la Arena, where the major event was the very long queue at the bank, we assume to draw the dole or similar. 

The next bit of walking was fantastic: 7k along a beautiful coastline that I would (did) say reminded me of Cornwall. My feet were less nostalgic however and several compeed were applied, all this road walking taking a real toll (when I took my shoes off tonight there were large red raw bits, despite compeed... I may have screamed like a girl when the shower hit them...)

There was a lot of roadwork this afternoon and I had tired legs and feet but all was redeemed by the lovely coast. At a small cove just before Castro Urdiales we each stopped for 2 out of 3 of, beer, ice cream, swim  (you can guess that I didn't get wet). The last stomp in over the headland and along the seafront was gorgeous. CU is an astonishing old seaside town, fronted by beautiful houses and with a wonderfully buttressed-church and lighthouse out on the breakwater.

We are staying in a lovely central hotel (hurrah!) and looking forward to an earplug-less sleep that will somewhat miraculously heal my heels. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Day 6: to Bilbao (25k)

Today was largely a road slog, and my feet which have been amazingly fine up until now, really felt it.

Arriving into Sunday lunchtime in Bilbao old town was a bit horrifying. I am always shocked by a return to urban centres after days in the hills. In part because you realise how sweaty and mud-caked you are, in part because I don't actually like the increased number of people involved. And apparently Sunday lunchtime is the time when Bilbao's inhabitants come out to promenade, eat and drink, play with the kids etc. I was heartened to see some small girls playing basketball; as always in rural Spain it's been noticeable that it's only ever men you see sitting around the town squares, in the cafes, and even cycling (and there is a lot of cycling around here). Women are apparently home cooking the dinners, the lucky things.

Other than cyclists, the Basque Country has been full of: fig and eucalyptus trees, goats, donkeys, ponies, dog of every conceivable shape and size. And mud, lots and a lots of creamy beige mud. 

Our group dynamic changes today - after a few days of being four we are back up to six from tonight. 

Breakfast - one kettle of boiled milk, one of boiled coffee

Niall shows camino style

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Day 5: to Eskerika (33km)

Very satisfying day. After the (ahem) early start we didn't wait for (ahem) breakfast but instead headed off into the (gasp) dry morning. It was a lovely if slippery wander down through forest to the first town. With a somewhat empty belly after last night I was really praying that a bar would be open. Happy day - the town was buzzing (literally, with a motocross race on), the bar was open and the pinxchos were still warm from the oven, and among the most wonderful things I had ever eaten.

The main stint of the morning was a long haul up hill and down dale through warm moist countryside. We took a proper break - with 3 course pilgrim lunch - in Guernica. Famous historic town, razed by the Germans with Franco's blessing, seat of Basque independence etc for centuries.

I was feeling a bit achy and tired this morning but two glasses of red wine and a super-strength Spanish ibuprofen saw me right and the last two hours were steep - as always - but pleasant.

This camino is so different from last year. It's basically just really tough, gradient-wise, the whole way. The few minutes of flat come as a huge surprise, and a 20 or 30 minute slog uphill seems par for the course. It is gorgeous countryside though and the view from every hilltop is glorious, even if it is generally accompanied by a feeling of 'oh bugger I bet we're about to walk down there... And then up there...'

Tonight, a lovely private hostel albeit with all the craziest snorers etc from last night. And still no dinner...

Tomorrow: to Bilbao.

Day 4: to Zenarruza (27k)

A proper pilgrim night last night. Meaning, much too much to drink and a wonderful dinner of misunderstanding and, sometimes, too much understanding. At the end of which the hostess correctly picked out two troublesome snorers and escorted them off to a 'garage' so that the rest of us would be undisturbed. Unfortunately not Mr 'I am sleeping with my daughter, in the women's dorm, yah? I have special German certification for this!'.

For me the walk today was very enjoyable but tough enough. Partly because the whole morning was in drizzle so it was the usual choice between damp with sweat or damp with rain. Huge elevation changes and streaming wet tracks, we were mostly in high forest with what must have been stunning views, if you weren't in cloud.

The lunch stop was in the apparently super separatist Basque town of Markina-Xemein. We had previously seen a bunch of elderly gentlemen standing under umbrellas discussing something serious in the absolute middle of nowhere, and concluded they were debating which slope to throw the bodies off. In this town we met an Irish chap who'd been here for 25 years, was sketchy on the details as to why, and said he couldn't really go back to Ireland now... Go figure. 

After lunch we had better weather but the trails were often muddy streams and the going was very hard because of that. We passed through some lovely small villages including Bolivar, from where began the family of some chap Simon who went on to liberate lots of South America. 

Our destination for tonight is a monastery, very old and beautiful, with a tiny packed dorm that also serves as common and dining room for us. I am sceptical much sleep will be had but it's a beautiful spot and, having just about recovered from the cold shower I am looking forward to a spot of vespers. And a proper pilgrim night of a very different kind.

--later, since there is no wifi--

Vespers was lovely, sung by five monks with an average age of about 85. Dinner, long-awaited, was a lukewarm cabbage soup. Ugh. The night was long and snore-filled and the morning began at 5 with an elderly gentleman who didn't understand how to turn off his mobile phone. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Day 3: Zumaia to Izarbide (16k)

An epic morning. Starting with coffee and pain au choc, we headed out for a 'gentle' 12k which took a turn for the scenic when given the option between short and sharp coastal route or longer softer inland. Niall, Gary and I went coastal and it was a really glorious route along a fairly unused GR (European long distance) path. The coastline was spectacular - huge steep cliffs and fossil-strewn rocks. And incredibly tough walking, shuffling up massive inclines and then trying not to slide face first down the other side.

We were unable to fully explain the epicness of our morning to the others when we met up in a seaside bar in Deba at lunchtime. They just said 'yeah our route was pretty tough too'. Huh.

Anyway, the overall effect was that we reigned in our (massive over)expectations and booked into an  albergue just 5km on (uphill). The local hunters had blacked over the majority of the arrows but we nonetheless made it to the albergue where Patrick - the most competitive member of our crew - had fortunately been sitting for a couple of hours.

Out of the rain showers, showered, and booked into a full-on pilgrim hostel with integral single-sex dorms (which the German man next to me seems immune to), 5 beers for 8 Euro and a sunny seat all is well for the evening. 

Our plan is off course and I've no idea where we will find 6 beds for the next few nights, but it's a lovely spot and further proof that when you need it most, the camino provides.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Day 2: : San Sebastián to Zumaia (32k)

Four martini rossos plus earplugs provided a surprisingly good night's sleep and the back pain is almost entirely gone. Entirely proving my physio's point that sitting is the enemy, not overuse. 

We set out from San Sebastián on a terrible weather forecast but actually had a couple of dry hours before the first shower and while the showers were heavy when they arrived, it was generally warm and sometimes even sunny in between. 

The terrain was very mixed, rural farms plus bits of forest and endless hills... I got to the point that even downhill was not good (and normally I love downhill and can't understand why people complain about having gravity working with you...). 

The only major barrier, apart from altitude came in the form of an extremely well-horned cow who was blocking the narrow footpath at one point. Having had the misfortune to watch a young matador getting somewhat gored on TV two nights ago we all edged past her rather warily as she waved her horns around in a mostly-friendly manner.

Coffee and bacon sandwiches arrived mid morning in the busy fishing and boat building town of Orio. We met a young German guy who having walked from Bordeaux, had just decided it was too slow so had swapped his full backpack for a tiny running bag and was now going to run the rest of the way to Santiago. Zeez crazee Germans..

The rest of the day was split into hour-long stretches between villages and small towns, my perfect walking to refreshment ratio. Zarautz was a fairly big town set along a spectacular beach with huge messy waves rolling in. We managed to miss the signposting up over the hill out of town, so instead had a lovely hour along the waterfront as increasingly huge waves crashed in and fishing boats struggled to make headway against them. In Getaria I recognised that I had been there before, again on the Laurie trip when I randomly parked up for a lunch stop and got caught up in some kind of village festival. In Askizu we took one last stop with only a few k to go but as a result got caught in a blinder of a shower as we came down over the last headland.

In Zumaia, the official albergue isn't yet open for the season and the private albergue recently closed. Luckily we found this out while patronising an old man's bar, whose friendly owner then called the lady who owns the rooms above. As chief negotiator I was able to secure a blessed single room for myself for 20E, and enough combinations of beds to fit the whole crew. Happy days.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Day 1: Irun to San Sebastián (26k).

For some reason I didn't think it would be particularly hard to get back on the road. In truth it was plenty hard enough and I am plenty tired enough (and one, no two, Martini Rossos down) as I write this.

As we left this morning the cheery hostel keeper said 'the sun is coming today!'. (Turns out we met him walking last year on the Camino Frances - when I asked him if he had indeed walked it last year he said 'of course, I do it every year').

The sun did come out, but not until we had been properly tipped on on the top of the pass. I was slightly peer pressured into taking the high route, 'for alpinist pilgrims', as the sign said. It must have been very beautiful on a sunny day as it seemed there was rivers or sea on all sides and a 360 view back across to France in one direction, and onward to Spain in the other.

Plenty of ups and downs and once we were lower and our breath had stopped smoking and everything was beginning to dry, it was a lovely walk. 

Full marks to the voluminous lime green poncho (thanks Dad) which somewhat hampered my ability to get through narrow gaps but definitely made the downpour less troublesome.

Late morning with the worst of the walk cracked we walked into a tiny ancient port village that I had visited I think 5 years ago with Laurie, my Boston friend. Two coffees, pinxos (bar snacks) a plenty, we were ready to tale the ferry across the river and face the last 10k along the beautiful and now mostly dry coast path to San Sebastian.

...which is a really cracking town. Two beautiful sweeps of beach, a lovely old town, and a typically odd youth hostel managed by a grumpy lady who shouted at me for skipping the queue, and was disgusted by my choice to stay with the group ie in a mixed sex dorm. ('There won't just be these men. There will be other men too!').

Monday, May 18, 2015

Camino del Norte, Prologue

On my way to the airport to start a two week walk along the northern Spanish coast, the first section of the Camino del Norte. 

Leaving England seems like a great idea this rainy morning, and it's all thanks to the initiative of the lovely Gary, the Irish friend I ended up walking the whole of last year's camino with. Testament to his charm, Gary a couple of months ago spontaneously booked himself on flights into and out of Spain, and subsequently persuaded 7 people to come along for various parts. Me plus seven, eek.

A different route, a very different time in my life, and a different weight of expectations for what the experience will bring. On the plus side, I am reasonably fit and I know I will enjoy the walking and the coastal terrain. On the minus, I have an acute lower back problem which I'm not sure will enjoy the walking or the bunks, and the forecast, as ever on the northern Spanish coast, is looking decidedly mixed. One joy already: I have turned my work email off for the duration.

Today's itinerary is a train to Stansted, a flight to Biarritz, a taxi to Irun (just inside the Spanish border), and hopefully a back-soothing night's sleep in the first pilgrim's hostel. Earplugs and anti-inflammatories at the ready!