Friday 31 May 2013

Camino de Santiago: A Week On The Way – Day 3

Monday 13/5/13 – Roncesvalles to Zubiri

22.88km / 626m Ascent / 1,028m Descent

After an excellent early breakfast, we were back out on the road by 8.15am. It was cool this early, but brighter skies augured well and the temperature soon began to rise.

A reminder, if one were needed .....
A level track set off through woods beside the road towards the next village – Burguete – from where a series of tracks and lanes led across fields and through woods towards Espinal. It was pretty busy on the trail, with a fairly constant stream of people always in sight, but with yesterday’s big day behind us, and better weather today, the mood was noticeably more relaxed.

Sunshine and easy paths
A shorter, easier leg today meant there was no need to rush, and it was nice to be able to take our time and enjoy all the trail had to offer. It was only about seven kilometres to Espinal, but it was a good opportunity for a brief stop so we called at a bar for coffee.

Judging by the posters and the feel of the place, Espinal is a hotbed of Basque culture and reflects their wish for independence. Whatever you feel about that, there’s no doubt it is situated amongst beautiful countryside – some of the best encountered all week – with superb views across to the Pyrenean foothills now that the early cloud had all but burnt off.

Looking back to Espinal and the Pyrenean foothills
Carrying on, we climbed gently out of Espinal into shady woods, and crossed the N135 at the Alto de Mezquiriz. More woodland followed as we descended to reach the Rio Erro, where the waters were cool and the stones slippery. An undulating path then brought us to the village of Viscarret where we were tempted into a lunchtime stop at the bar (sausage baguette and beer/coffee).

It was a pleasant spot, with plenty of walkers milling around and more cats than an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical/T.S.Eliot poem (choose your preferred cultural reference) generally getting in the way. We made it just before the crowds arrived, but as others rolled in there was no problem sharing space – the atmosphere proving very convivial – and we were joined at our table by Emmet from Washington DC, who became a regular companion over the next few days.

Viscarret: loads of mangy, whiskery creatures yowling for food - plus some cats
Lunch over, and another stamp in our Pilgrim Passports collected, we set off again, skirting the small hamlet of Linzoan before climbing through more woods to reach a ridge path that ran high above the surrounding valleys for seven or eight kilometres, with superb views through the trees all the way.

Shady woods near the Alto de Erro
After a while we took a short break, then crossed the N135 once more (at the Alto de Erro) before beginning the steep descent towards Zubiri. Although nowhere near as tough as the previous day, the cumulative effects of the two days gave rise to such familiar walker’s afflictions as downhill knee and late-in-the-day hip, but we arrived in the village mid-afternoon in pretty good nick, all things considered.

Sound advice, or an admonishment?
The same couldn’t be said for everyone, though: Emmet, for one, finding the last downhill section rather uncomfortable on toes given a bit of punishment during yesterday’s long descent from the Col de Lepoeder beneath a heavy load. We dug the Compeed out of our first aid kit and left him to settle into the hotel and patch up his feet, while we went for a look round the village and a well-earned beer.

The River Arga - from the Bridge of Rabies, near the Leprosarium
We all ate dinner at the hotel (J – fried Salami, a regional speciality dish of stewed Cod, local cheeses / C – Rice Sausage, Tagliatelli, Raspberry Sorbet) and chatted the evening away. It was a more relaxed day today, with plenty of time to stop and enjoy the route or talk with people along the way. It was still busy, but the improved weather made a big difference, as did the opportunity to soak up some nice views. A great day, and all in all much more like we imagined the Camino to be.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Camino de Santiago: A Week On The Way – Day 2

Sunday 12/5/13 – St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

25.64km / 1,805m Ascent / 1,037m Descent

Early morning, and we found ourselves on the Rue de la Citadelle, sandwich in hand, with gloomy skies above. Gone were the blue skies and warm sunshine of yesterday, replaced by low cloud shrouding the hilltops and a distinct threat of drizzle.

Setting off along the Rue de la Citadelle, just 800k to go ...
Which is not what we wanted given the day ahead. Not only would we miss all the views as we crossed the mountains, but it would make quite a tough day (16 miles, 6,000ft of accumulated ascent, 3,400ft of descent) that bit more difficult. No matter, we shouldered our packs and set off.

The cobbled street led out through the Porte d'Espagne, and we were on our way. We paused for a few photos, then turned our backs on St Jean and headed for the hills.

Rather unromantically, the beginning of the route is a very ordinary tarmac road, gradually rising into the Pyrenean foothills. Little clusters of walkers could be seen both ahead and behind, whilst overhead the clouds gradually thickened.

Heading for the hills
Rain set in by about 10.00am: steady and persistent. After a quick stop to don waterproofs, we carried on. The gradient became steeper, the rain came down more heavily, and the mist closed in to around 50 metres – and we wouldn’t see anything resembling a view until mid-afternoon. Later, even amongst walkers who hadn’t been there at the time, the day would be referred to as “Foggy Sunday”.

A gap in the clouds
But, with dozens of people about, there was very little chance of feeling alone, and a supportive chit-chat developed amongst the group to help keep spirits up. The hamlet of Honto and the Refuge-Auberge Orisson came and went (the only accommodation options between St Jean and Roncesvalles) and we passed the time with a couple of Scandinavian ladies in Haglofs gear and a young girl from Hereford.

By 12.00 o’clock we had made good progress, with about half the climb and half the distance completed. So we ate half of our lunch. In truth, it was too wet and cold to hang around for long, so we ate quickly and carried on. Soon, we came to a mobile “shop” staffed by an enterprising local – we were still on the road at this stage – where we bought bananas and collected another stamp for our Pilgrim Passports.

By and large, the route was adequately signed

A short while later, the route left the road and climbed steeply on a muddy path to a rocky outcrop, before levelling out to cross the border into Spain.

Entering Spain
We joined an easy path through beech woods, and before long came to the Col de Bentarte at 1,330m, where a large group were picnicking. From here a wide, stony track led steadily upwards towards for a couple of kilometres to the Col de Lepoeder, the high point of the route at 1,450m. Snow patches – some quite extensive – still covered the ground here, but at least the rain had abated and we grabbed a quick stop for the remainder of our lunch.

From the Col de Lepoeder, it was downhill all the way. A steeply descending path wound through the woods for the last few kilometres to Roncesvalles. Conditions improved all the time as we lost altitude, and this stroll through beautiful, mature woodland almost made up for the lack of views on the tops.

Nearing Roncesvalles in almost pleasant weather
Just outside the village, we came across a memorial plaque to a young man who had died on the Camino only two months previously. It is thought he became disoriented in bad, snowy weather, and fell from a cliff – a reminder, if one were needed, of the dangers of walking this route and the notoriously unpredictable Pyrenean weather. In fact we later heard the route had been closed for a while since our crossing (although this is unverified).

For the last half-mile into the village, we walked with Alex the Landscape Gardener and friend, pleased to be nearing the end of the day. Much emphasis is placed on the difficulty of this section, and with good reason: whilst it is a moderately testing day for regular mountain hikers, the fact is that many pilgrims are infrequent walkers, unused to walking in mountain conditions and possibly carrying a much larger load than that to which they are accustomed – something that shouldn’t be underestimated. A lower level alternative follows the N135 road if necessary.

Monastery and Collegiate Church at Roncesvalles
Roncesvalles is a tiny village – little more, in fact, than an extended monastery complex – so it didn’t take long to find our digs in a converted part of the monastery. To our delight, the room was beautiful – rather too good for smelly pilgrims, if the truth be told. After a wash and brush up, we went down for dinner (we had been asked if we wanted dinner at the 7.00pm or 8.30pm sitting: a no-brainer if ever there was one – why would we want to eat after bedtime?). It was good: soup, deep-fried asparagus, trout & fries, chocolate mousse and complimentary wine. We had earned it, and enjoyed it thoroughly!

Foyer of the Casa de Beneficiados - nice!

Monday 27 May 2013

Camino de Santiago: A Week On The Way – Day 1

Saturday 11/5/13 – St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

“Do you want to share a taxi?”

These words, emanating from the row of seats behind us whilst disembarking the plane at Biarritz Airport, were our first interaction with other pilgrims. “You’re doing the Camino, right?”

The irony was not lost on us: here we were at the beginning of a walk – a pilgrimage journey, no less: an undertaking so inextricably linked with the ideal of a simple existence and the eschewing of material comforts – talking from the off about taking the easy option, the modern way more reliant on the wallet and planetary resources than on individual hardship and effort. And this before we’d even begun.

Oh, well: there was time ahead for redemption.

By the time we were standing outside the terminal, customs cleared and bags collected, puddles of fellow pilgrims were coalescing on the forecourt, and it wasn’t long before two taxi-loads were winging their way to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small village in the foothills of the French Pyrenees whose population swells umpteen-fold every weekend between April and September with the influx of several thousand nervously expectant, rucksack-toting pedestrians.

Porte Saint Jacques
Of course, the Camino de Santiago is a route associated with the crossing of northern Spain. And, for the vast majority of its 800-or-so kilometres, it does just that. But in days of yore, pilgrims travelling from all over Europe – France, England, Germany, Switzerland – would make their way to St-Jean, nestled below one of the easier crossing points of the great Pyrenean mountain chain, and rest there before a one-day jaunt took them into Spain. If it’s worked for a thousand years, what gain for the modern pilgrim to change things?

Despite feeling more than a bit fraudulent, we figured the best use of the extra time would be to explore the village. Essentially, there are two main streets: a modern one to allow the traffic through, and an older, narrow one – gated at each end, and now pedestrianised – that leads down from the citadel and forms the Rue de la Citadelle: the beginning of the Camino.

Rue de la Citadelle & the Porte d'Espagne
It was a sunny afternoon, and we ambled gently round town, taking in the sights and bumping into pods of other pilgrims loitering around town, including some of those we shared taxis with such as Berlin Student, Russian Ed and the 3 Israelis. We also had some lunch and got our Pilgrim Passports accredited with an official stamp to record our presence at the beginning of the route.

Bridge over the River Nive
It’s an interesting little place, with more than it’s fair share of walking-related importance. The Camino exits to the south, whilst the Route Saint Jacques (the pilgrim route from Le-Puy-en-Velay in France also known as the GR65) enters from the north. The GR10 – the lengthy traverse of the French side of the Pyrenees – passes through on its east-west journey: a major crossroads of pedestrian activity, not unlike the Basque equivalent of Keld.

View from the old walls
Later we checked and re-packed all our gear, and went out for something to eat (Grilled Lamb with peppers, Saucisses Confit, frites, piperade and salad) before getting an early night. Tomorrow is set to be a big day ………

The Basque Banksy?

Thursday 9 May 2013

Spring Has Sprung ….

Finally, after it was beginning to feel like we’d never see the back of winter, spring appears to have arrived. OK, so there’s been the odd cold, wet back-slip-to-February kind of day here and there, but increasingly the sun has shone and temperatures have been creeping up – first into double figures, then breaking the 20°C barrier.

Along with the obvious signs of spring, May has also heralded the beginning of a busy summer season of walking, and the trips we have been planning throughout the long, dark winter months are getting steadily nearer. Routes have been researched, plans have been made, and gear has been bought: all of which will bear fruit in the months to come.

Besides this, we have stepped up the walking, coped with a draining time at work and been involved in several family-and-friend commitments, the result of which has been a busy few weeks – hence this summary rather than detailed posts on a route-by-route basis.

Since Easter, we have concentrated in topping up our walking fitness in readiness for the treks to come – 8 to 12 miles every other weekend (a typical winter schedule) is not the same as the 15 to 20 miles per day on consecutive days that we will need to be doing. Mostly, this has taken the form of some local circuits to get some miles in our legs, coupled with a few longer ‘training’ walks to add time on our feet and a few hills to the mix.

The good thing is that the effort seems to have paid off. Last weekend we did the second of two jaunts over the Long Mynd and back again (about 13.25 miles each time, and the source of the accompanying photographs) with no discernable difficulty, even though we felt a bit tired and our energy levels seemed low right from the outset.