Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Pilgrim's Progress - Part 1

Logrono to Santo Domingo de la Calzada

Day 1 – Around Logrono: 3.69km / Ascent 87m / Descent 46m

In May 2013, we spent a week walking the first part of the Camino de Santiago (or Way of St. James) – an 800km pilgrimage route from St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The route, which has been walked by pilgrims for over 1,000 years, links villages, towns and cities along the way, and takes around 5 weeks or so to complete. We had enjoyed our one week experience so much that we decided to carry on and complete the route in sections – one each year for three years – and, like millions before us, make pilgrimage to Santiago.

Central Logrono

Now we were starting out on our second chunk – a fortnight’s walking between Logrono (where we left off last time) and the great Spanish city of Leon. With the sort of good fortune that augured well for the immediate future, our flight arrived early into Bilbao airport. The upshot of this was that we were able to catch the earlier of the two buses we had penciled in for our onward journey, so spent the afternoon wandering round the streets of Logrono instead of sweltering at Bilbao bus station.

Bridge over the Rio Ebro that marked the end of our previous Camino

Camino route through the city

After catching up on some sleep and re-packing our bags ready for the walk, we completed a short cross-town section of the Camino before dinner. As we had a long day in prospect the next day and time on our hands now, it seemed the sensible thing to do. We spent the remainder of the evening eating Pinchos and drinking Rioja – a nice way to slip back into Spanish culture, even though we were dining a bit early by local standards.

Day 2 – Logrono to Najera: 30.42km / Ascent 566m / Descent 438m

And so to our first day back on the Camino – something we had been planning and looking forward to since we finished our first week some 15 months ago. 

Outside our hotel: early morning pilgrims

By 8.15am, we had packed, breakfasted, checked out and set off – pilgrims once again. Although we had made what seems like a fairly prompt start, we had, in fact, been hearing walkers pass the hotel almost since we woke – indeed, while it was still dark. Many walkers like to get away in the morning, with the queue for beds at refugios and high afternoon temperatures encouraging early starts.

Leaving Logrono


However, we didn't face the same rush for beds - one of the nice things about pre-arranging our accommodation. Others obviously felt the same as there were plenty of walkers about. The first couple of kilometers took us to the edge of town, through streets and industrial estates, until we picked up an asphalt track leading through pleasant parkland. Being a Sunday morning, it was busy with joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers out enjoying the early cool and getting in each other’s way.

Lake in Parque de la Grajera, with mountains behind

After about 5k or so, we reached the park, lake and picnic area of the Parque de la Grajera. We skirted the lake and passed the Ermita de Peregrino Pasante, where a grandly be-whiskered but not very convincing Hermit sat regaling passers-by - think a cross between ZZ Top and Jerry Garcia and you'll not be far off. There was definitely an air of “performance” about the set-up, though, so we continued on our way.

Black bull sculpture with discretely placed fig leaf

Moving on, we climbed through vineyards towards the low pass of Alto de la Grajera, with good views back to Logrono and the surrounding mountains. Descending from the pass, we passed a large black bull sculpture on the top of a nearby hill. A little further on, we crossed a narrow road beside the ruins of the Hospital de Peregrinos San Juan de Acre, topped up with water at the fountain, then passed the Don Jacobo Bodega with its unsubtle advertising.

Just the one bottle of wine between us every night .....

Hippy hermits; black bulls; oversized wine bottles: the Camino is full of such oddities, which helps keep the interest up, even if the scenery as such is nothing special.

Approaching Navarette

Navarette is a small but attractive village a little under half way through the day’s walking. We stopped for coffee and bananas. It was good to rest, and we had completed the first 13k with no problem, but I took the opportunity to tape up my feet as they were beginning to feel a bit sore in one or two places – a slight concern given the distances yet to be walked.

Coffee on the terrace

Moving on, we were beginning to feel the first signs that the day was warming up, and the gravel tracks we were following through vineyards offered little or no shade. Crossing the road below the village of Sotes, we carried on along similar paths, paralleling the main A12 road for a time before heading up to the hilltop village of Ventosa.

Grapes ripening in the sun: the Rioja wine of the future

Ventosa is described in our guide book as "a very nice and quiet spot". That may be true for much of the time, but not today - it was very busy, especially round the church where some event was obviously taking place. However, we found a shaded spot at the foot of a high wall, ate our lunch (stolen cheese, ham, salami and rolls from breakfast) and sat watching the world go by. The Hermit we had seen earlier rolled up in a large, new, sign-written van for the parade – not, we thought, a particularly hermity way to travel.

Path between Ventosa and Santo Domingo

Leaving Ventosa, we picked up the track once more, gradually rising to a pass offering our first brief view of Najera. Despite being in sight, there was still work to do - crossing roads, passing factories and wandering through industrial estates to get there. It makes it sound like an unpleasant walk - it wasn't, but the Camino definitely shows Spain “warts and all”.

Poem on factory wall near Alto de San Anton

After a few more kilometers, we reached a mobile shop selling drinks and offering seats in the shade. As it was already over 30˚C in the shade, we obliged: a cold orange juice and a rest, plus a chat with a Danish woman called Rita. We had already met a few people on the way - soon we will get to recognise more in the way of names and faces.

Crossing the Rio Najerilla beneath the cliffs,
Najera takes its name from the Arabic for "place between rocks"

Eventually we entered the outskirts of Najera, following the Camino through streets residential and commercial, until we crossed the Rio Najerilla and reached our hotel. To be honest we were quite glad, feeling quite tired after a long day and a hot afternoon. We had a rest, a wash and brush up before dinner in a nearby restaurant. We had potatoes Rioja style, stuffed peppers with chips and ice cream/cream caramel, plus water and a bottle of wine between us - the pilgrims menu, and good value at just €9 per person! Then after a little walk round the busy town, bed.

Monastery of Santa Maria la Real

Day 3 – Najera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada: 22.23km / Ascent 507m / Descent 342m

According to the weather forecast, today promised to be a hot one, but it was still relatively cool as we left Najera around 8.15am.

Setting off for the day

A steady climb took us out of the town on a quiet road, soon levelling out before passing through a mixed landscape of dry grasslands and vineyards. 

Pilgrim: just head west

Grasslands, vineyards and distant mountains

The going was pretty easy, and in a little over 90 minutes we were sitting at a bar on Azofra’s long main street, drinking coffee and buying sandwiches for later. We caught up again with Rita and a few other semi-familiar faces en route as well, and there was also a group of three Spaniards, two of which – dressed only in skimpy tops and shorts – were letting it all hang out, and who were probably a bit underdressed for the occasion.

The One Tree: the only real shade for miles

The next section was an 8 kilometer stretch through open countryside. Apart from a single small tree that passed as an impromptu cafe, there was virtually no shade for the entire distance, and almost everyone stopped to grab a few minutes in the cool.

Carrying on, we made the short climb to the village of Ciruena - more of a golf-resort than a village, in truth, but with a welcoming bar serving Coke and cold beer. We stopped.


The last few kilometers into Santo Domingo were under the full heat of the sun. In Logrono it was up to 33 degrees in the shade, so goodness knows what it was out in the open. We walked much of the way in conversation with a couple of young American girls, one of whom was going to be studying in London after finishing the Camino, which helped pass the time and forget the heat.

We had a brief stop in the shade as we entered town, then made our way to our hotel - more a hostel really, but quiet and beautifully done out, with lovely tiles on the floor and walls. After getting ourselves organised, we headed out into town to get some tape for my feet and new insoles for my boots – with 24k to do tomorrow, they need to be as comfortable as possible.

Cathedral of San Salvador

The cathedral in Santo Domingo is worth a visit in its own right, but is additionally famous for having a couple of unusual occupants – a cockerel and a hen. It’s a long story, but legend has it that a pair were miraculously brought back to life on the dinner table, so live birds are kept there at all times to remember the marvel.

Live cockerel, caged, in the catherdral 

We had a lovely dinner; one which didn't require reanimation to bring it to life - chorizo and salami aperitif (which we nicked for tomorrow's lunch) a hot veg salad for starter, battered fish and salad main, caramel flan and yoghurt for desert – then a final walk out before retiring for the night.

It had been a good couple of days – great to be out on the Camino once more, and we were gradually getting back into the swing of it. Sore feet aside, we were doing well: we’d had wine and Pinchos, seen odd things like hermits, bulls, bottles and chickens, and started to recognize fellow pilgrims along the way. 

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