Camino de Santiago – León to Sarria

I  did my first section of the Camino Francés in September 2013 – from Sarria to Santiago. Like so many others who have dipped their toes into the Camino, the bug bit and the following year I walked from Burgos to León. This was followed in May 2015 – St Jean Pied de Port to Logroño – and in May 2016 I did the Logroño to Burgos leg. (I have written blogposts on them all – search “camino” if interested.) All that remained was the section from León to Sarria and I walked that over eight days this May. All done! Not as pure a Camino experience, no doubt, as doing it in one go over 33 or so days but I enjoyed my annual trips as well as the planning and the preparation and the always pleasant re-acquaintance with the wonderful country of Spain.

Day1 1

Statue of a weary pilgrim in León

Day1 2

Looking back at the Camino between León and Villar de Mazarife. My advice is not to stay at Villar de Mazarife – it’s a small town devoid of charm or interest. Go on to Villavante – or Hospital de Órbigo – instead.

My first day out of León was not auspicious – it was bitterly and unseasonably cold. I hoped this would not continue by the time I reached the Galician mountains in a few days as I did not have suitable warm clothing in my backpack. Thankfully, the weather improved dramatically the following day and, apart from an hour’s light rain outside Ponferrada, it remained calm, dry and warm for the rest of the time. Other than walking through a storm when traversing the Pyrennees on the St Jean to Logroño section I have been very lucky with the weather. People have spent a week and more walking in constant rain and it is an ever present possibility in Galicia given the province’s proximity to the Atlantic which, as we know in Ireland, can result in very variable weather.

Day2 1

Between Villar de Mazarife and Villavante. The long straight stretches are typical of the Meseta, the flat upland of Spain, and continue as far as Hospital del Orbigo when the landscape becomes more varied.

Day2 2

The bridge at Hospital De Órbigo.  The original was destroyed by the town’s inhabitants in the 19th century to slow the advance of Napoleon’s army into Spain. It was restored in more recent times.

Day2 3

Part of the gentle hill country beyond Hospital de Órbigo.

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Self and “friend” between Hospital de Órbigo and Astorga.

Day2 4

One is rarely out of sight of other walkers on the Camino.

Day2 5

The Cruceiro de Santo Toribio near Astorga.

I stayed in albergues – inexpensive dormitory bunk-bed accommodation – twice but in private rooms (hostals – similar to our B&Bs – and hotels) otherwise. I don’t like albergues for the simple reason that I am a very light sleeper and if there is a snorer in the room I find it difficult if not impossible to sleep. I bring ear-plugs but they are no match for a loud snorer and on each occasion this year I was unfortunate to be in a room with one. The first night I snatched some fitful sleep but on the second night – in O Cebreiro, after a very long, hard walk/climb – I got none at all as the snorer was as loud as a tractor. That municipal albergue cost me only €6 but it was a bad deal – I would gladly have paid ten times as much for a comfortable hotel room and a good night’s rest. The average cost of the private accommodation was €45 per night. Good value, in my view if you are a light sleeper. Otherwise, you can’t beat the value that albergues provide – private ones charge about €10 per night and municipal ones €5 or €6. Just be prepared to put up with noisy neighbours and be sure to pack good ear-plugs. An Australian woman told me she spent A$50 on a special industrial grade set and they were the only ones she found effective.

Day3 2

A colourful rest stop west of Astorga.

Day3 1

A stork in its nest atop a church steeple, a common sight.

The landscape varied from the flat Meseta upland as far as Astorga to the Galician highlands and valleys from thence to Sarria. Like any Camino section, parts of it were monotonous – especially where road walking was concerned (as in the 8 kilometre section through the industrial outskirts of Leon) – but it was mostly through beautiful verdant countryside accompanied by the sounds of birdsong (especially cuckoos – there was an abundance of cuckoos!).

Day4 1

The ancient village of Foncebadón. It thrived as a stop-off for pilgrims in the Middle Ages but by the 1990s there were only two people, a mother and son, living among the ruins.  Slowly, there are signs of a revival but most of the buildings are still shattered and derelict.

Day4 2

The Cruz de Ferro between Foncebadón and Manjarin. It is traditional to bring a stone from one’s place of origin and place it on the mound.

Day4 3

Items  in memory of loved ones at the Cruz de Ferro.

The highest point of the journey – and the highest point of the entire Camino Francés – was between Rabanal and Molinaseca at an altitude of 1,505 metres (the Col de Lepoeder on the Pyrennees is 1,300 metres). The climb up to O Cebreiro (1,300 metres) was the toughest day of the lot but it more than made up for the effort with the magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.

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The highest part of the entire Camino Francés.

Day4 9

The descent to Molinaseca requires great care. I’m glad I didn’t have to negotiate it in wet eather.

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The view from my bedroom window in Molinaseca. The bridge over the River Meruelo dates from Roman times.

Day5 1 Villafranco del Bierzo

Approaching Villafranco del Bierzo. Some stretches of the Camino are on public roads but they are generally not very busy as the motorways have taken most of the traffic.

I had been looking forward to O Cebreiro for more than the views. Here is buried a man without whom we probably wouldn’t have the Camino as we know it today and I was anxious to pay my respects at his grave in the little village church. Elías Valiña Sampedro, originally from Sarria, was the Parish Priest of O Cebreiro. He had an abiding interest in the history of the Camino and in 1965 he did his doctoral thesis on the history of the pilgrimage in the University of Salamanca. When the authorities in post-Franco Spain decided to promote the route for historical/cultural reasons Elías Valiña was at the forefront of the campaign. It was he who came up with the idea of the iconic yellow directional arrows which every walker depends upon. In the late 70s he loaded up his battered old Citroen with cans of yellow paint and set about painting arrows to mark the way. He was once stopped near the French border by two suspicious Guardia Civil and asked what he was doing; he answered that he was preparing for a French invasion! Alas, he died in 1989 at the age of 60, too soon to see the enormous increase in pilgrimage numbers in subsequent years. In 1989, 5,760 people received their Compostela (a certificate of completion) in Santiago; in 2016, it was 277, 915. He was a great man and all of us who have walked any part of the Camino owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

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The bust of Elías Valiña at the church of O Cebreiro.

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The bust surrunded by various commemorative plaques.

Day6 3

His grave in the church. It reads (my rough translation of the Latin):  “Dr Elías Valiña Sampedro, Parish Priest of this place and famous restorer of the Way of St James and friend and brother to all pilgrims”.

Day6 4

One of the many plaques commemorating him. “Thanks and Peace to Don Elías Valiña who preceded us all in the love of the Camino”.

Day4 8

The yellow arrow, symbol and indispensable navigational aid of the Camino, brainchild of Elías Valiña.

There is a bust of him on a plinth outside the church but it seems few people pay it any attention. I sat on the wall opposite it for 30 minutes and in that time not a single person stopped to examine it. Anyone who did give it a passing glance probably thought it was a memorial to a local politician or something. Nor is this lack of awareness of the man unusual in my experience – I have spoken to Camino veterans who have never heard of him. Which is a pity given the importance of his research and scholarship to the revival of the Camino in modern times and the fact that his genius idea, the ubiquitous yellow arrow, is not only a symbol of the pilgrimage but an essential aid for everyone on the trek. Anyhow, visiting his final resting place was something I had long looked forward to and was the highlight of my 2017 Camino.

Day6 8

The view from O Cebreiro looking back towards the province of Castilla Y León.

As I mentioned, I got no sleep that night in O Cebreiro and I was out the door and on my way the next morning at 5:45. It was still dark – sunrise wasn’t until 7:16 – and I had to use my head-torch to find my way for the fist 30 minutes or so. I had 22 kilometres to go to my next destination, Triacastela, and I wasn’t sure if tiredness would prevent me from walking all the way. My plan B was to call a taxi if necessary. In the event, I got there without any problems and the fact that the day was one of glorious sunshine and the countryside was so picturesque buoyed my spirits and helped my forward momentum. I need hardly add that I did not stay in an albergue that night in Triacastela nor on any night thereafter. And never again, I hope!

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A statue of a pilgrim at the Alto do San Roque (1,270 metres) between O Cebreiro and Triacastela.

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En route to Triacastela.

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Verdant Galician countryside.

The walk from Triacastela to Sarria via Samos was mostly though beautiful woodland along the banks of the River Oribio. This was the Camino in idyllic pastoral mode. Approaching Samos I heard the sound of a church bell and then, through a gap in the trees, there was the famous Benedictine monastery below me. I stopped off there for a guided tour and afterwards in a nearby café, had lunch with Brendan from Cork and Jim from California whom I kept meeting along the way.

Day8 1

The Benedictine Monastery at Samos.

Day8 2

The Monastery.

Day8 3

Between Samos and Sarria.

Day8 4

Journey’s end – Sarria.

And then it was on to Sarria, my final destination, and the town from which I did my first Camino. I stayed in the same place as I did back then, conveniently located on the Camino just on the entrance to the town.

I had closed the loop.

Which of the five sections – St Jean Pied de Port to Logroño; Logroño to Burgos; Burgos to León; León to Sarria; Sarria to Santiago – would I do again?

Each has its attractions but the one I’d go back to, I think, is Burgos to León. That is the section that a lot of people avoid because it is across the Meseta and is regarded as being too flat and monotonous. I loved it. I loved its wide open expanses and its big skies. I loved setting forth very early a couple of mornings and walking by the light of the moon. Standing alone in the vastness of the Meseta, in a place where millions of pilgrims had trod before me, and staring up at the heavens was a numinous experience that I shall long remember.

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The road goes ever on … across the Meseta.

Why do it at all?

Why indeed. A thousand years ago and for hundreds of years afterwards people did it for religious reasons, to gain an Indulgence in order to minimise their time in Purgatory. They set forth from all over Europe and spent months – sometimes years – walking all the way to Santiago and back again. We may smile at their simple credulity but the pilgrimage was, in my view, one of the great civilising enterprises of medieval Europe. People from across the continent would have met each other en route and exchanged knowledge with one another. When they returned to their towns and villages they would have seeded their communities with new techniques and insights.

And consider how brave it was back then for people to undertake such a hazardous journey- people who, for the most part, would never have previously traveled more than 10 miles or so of their homesteads. They set out into unknown territory and all its attendant hazards – bandits, wild animals, dangerous terrain. All in the service of a compelling religious imperative, one that even the most devout modern believer would find it difficult to comprehend.

I don’t think too many people nowadays do it for overtly traditional religious reasons (and certainly not me) but it is impossible for even the most secular of us not to contemplate the motivations of those who went before us and to imagine what difficulties – and joys! – they experienced.  There is a awareness of being part of an ancient tradition and one that may well  last for another thousand years.

Why do it? It’s a retreat, of sorts. A retreat in the Christian tradition is time spent away from normal, everyday  life for the purpose of reconnecting with God. Define God, if you like, as one’s Higher Self, or The Cosmos, or whichever Post Christian or New Age notion that you find fitting. The time away from normal life is a powerful incentive. You leave your family and friends and disappear into the fastness of Northern Spain for a time and forget (as much as one can in this age of connectivity) about the world of everyday routines and concerns. A County Longford woman I met had her phone with her but carried it just in case her family needed to contact her urgently. She did not connect to the internet and other than hearing other walkers talk about news items she was blissfully and deliberately unaware of what was happening in “the real world”.

It is a pilgrimage, of course,  and in all religious traditions a pilgrimage consists of a journey to a holy place for the purpose of gaining spiritual knowledge and renewal. The physical journey is a metaphor for the human one and like every human life is beset with disappointments, sacrifices, torments (snorers! blisters!) and the like as well as bountiful joys.

The medieval pilgrims believed that the bones of St James the Apostle lay in the sarcophagus in Santiago; there is no modern historian who gives that legend any credence – it was devastatingly demolished by the French historian (and Roman Catholic cleric) Louis Duschesne in his 1900 paper “Saint Jacques en Galice” (St James in Galicia).  There is in fact a better case to be made for the bones to be those of Priscillian, a 4th century bishop of Ávila who was put to death for heresy.

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Louis Duschesne – he brought modern historical methods to bear on the Saint James in Galicia legend.  He was a Monsignor of the Catholic Church.

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The tomb in the Cathedral of Santiago purportedly containing the bones of Saint James.  It is highly improbable that it does.

One can simply regard it as a good physical and mental work-out in pleasant countryside and with the opportunity to meet agreeable and interesting people. It’s no walk in the park though – you need to be fit and willing to undertake physically and mentally challenging walks day after day. It will be the hardest walking that most people will ever do.  Day three is often the day of reckoning for the unprepared – exhaustion, blisters, tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and other ailments can manifest themselves by then and can result in the end of the Camino for the unfortunate sufferers.  Forget about any romantic notions of having epiphanies around every corner or life changing encounters in albergues: think more of grindingly long trudges in weather that can vary from days of torrential rain to oven-like temperatures in high summer followed by spartan accommodation and basic food. There were times when I looked up at the jets heading south to the Costas and envied those aboard who would be sipping Margaritas by the pool in a couple of hours. And yet despite the hardships, the Camino casts a seductive spell. Walking it has been one of the best things I have done in my life.

Some Practical Advice

Blisters – How I Avoid Them 

There are numerous suggestions for avoiding blisters. This is mine. Make sure you prepare for the Camino several months in advance by regular walking. Get your feet used to pounding the pavement.

Wear a pair of 1000 Mile (trademark) walking socks – they have a dual layer construction which, they claim, guarantees against blisters.

Have a right sock and a left sock and – advice given to me by a Camino veteran – wear the same socks on the trail for three to four days at a time before washing them.

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Use Gehwol foot balm before and after each day’s walk. Some people use Vaseline – Gehwol (available only from Amazon) is far better.

Travel to León

I flew from Dublin to Madrid with Aer Lingus and got the 14:40 Ave train (300 kph!) to León. When you arrive in Madrid Terminal 2 get the free airport bus to Terminal 4. From there get the train (not the Metro) to Chamartín train station. It costs €2.60 at the automatic ticket machine.  It’s best to book the Madrid to León train online at Renfe.es. The two-hour trip cost me just €16.55.

Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. 

(I flew back to Dublin from Santiago.)

There is a regular bus service from Sarria to Lugo.  It takes about 30 minutes. It’s not possible to book it online. Check out Monbus.es for the schedule. The Lugo to Santiago coach leaves at 10:45 and takes the motorway via A Coruña. It arrives in Santiago around 1:15 pm.  Book it online at Alsa.es. It cost me €9.00.

Camino Francés – Logroño to Burgos

I was waiting outside the Bilbao Airport terminal for the bus into the city after my flight from Dublin when I was approached by a young Irish woman who asked me if I had been at that airport in September 2014.

I had indeed, en route to and from the Camino Francés section I had done that year – from Burgos to Léon. Helena – that was her name – had recognised me from that time. She and her friend Gabrielle had also done a section then and like me were now returning in May 2016 to walk from Logroño to Burgos

Many Irish people like Helena, Gabrielle, and myself opt to do the Camino in sections – a week or two at a time – rather than the full route which typically takes about 30 days. The airfare is cheap and not everyone has either the time or the desire to do the whole thing in one go.

People outside of Europe  generally commit to the entire Camino. In most cases it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the airfares from the States, Australia, South America or wherever are too expensive to warrant doing it in stages. Plus there’s the more authentic experience that walking it without interruption for a full month or more provides.

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Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum 

I stayed overnight in Bilbao and had an early night as the following day I was catching the 6:30 a.m. train to Logroño, the endpoint of my stage last year, and then a long 30km walk to Nájera.

The journey to Logroño from Bilbao’s Abando station took 2.5 hours. A walk of 30 minutes from the station got me to the Camino which is marked by directional signs all along its length. It was now 9:30 a.m. which was a little late to be setting out from the city – most peregrinos  (pilgrims)  would have left before 8 a.m. Still, there were people – singles, couples, groups – ahead of me and behind me. One is rarely if ever alone on the Camino – if you don’t see anyone up ahead or to the rear you may possibly have taken a wrong turn.

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I joined the Camino at this point

There was now a long 30km walk to Nájera. My 2016 Camino had begun.

Which prompts the question – why do it?

The Camino is no walk in the park. It requires stamina, strength and determination to withstand daily walks of between 20 and 30 kilometres. You have to be physically and mentally prepared. It’s often bloody hard work which will leave you exhausted at the end of the day. Physical issues – especially with your feet – that you may not be aware of if you haven’t been doing long training walks will very quickly manifest themselves. The food is just adequate and the accommodation – especially if you stay in the albergues (hostels with mixed-sex, bunk-bed dormitories) – can be spartan, not to mention uncomfortable and noisy. Plus there’s the Northern Spanish weather to contend with – days of torrential rain are not uncommon in the Spring and Autumn, the best times to do it as the heat of Summer can be too intense.

Some people, I think, have unreal expectations of the Camino. There was a thread on the Camino Francés internet forum originated by an American woman who asked: “where is the ecstasy?” She had heard so much hype about it being a blissful life-changing experience that she was disappointed by the reality. It was “just a series of very long walks”.

I met an Australian woman near Belorado who likewise was regretting her journey. She had been attracted to the idea of the Camino but had not appreciated the difficulties involved. Her feet hurt, she had blisters, she found her body didn’t really loosen up until the afternoons but, because of the need to get to an albergue early in order to have a bed for the night, she had to continue setting out early in the day. She “had no idea what it was I was thinking” when she committed to doing it and she regretted her decision.

So why do I do it?

Because I can, is one answer. I am of an age where I am very conscious that the time may soon come when I may no longer be able to do it. Carpe diem and all that.

Then there’s the experience of walking through the often very beautiful Spanish countryside not knowing what’s around the next corner or over the next hill.

And there’s the wide variety of people that one meets, people who are often interesting and/or funny. I think one of the biggest attractions of the Camino historically has been the meeting of minds that it lends itself to. When medieval pilgrims set out for Santiago – in most cases probably the only long-distance journey they would take in their lives – and met others from different countries or provinces the resultant exchanges of views and knowledge must have had a positive seeding effect when they returned to their respective communities. That was a time when travel really did broaden the mind.

The Camino is well serviced by accommodation – everything from the basic albergues to (for an occasional treat perhaps) Parador hotels in the major cities. Nor is there any rip-off. The prices are very reasonable and there is free WiFi in practically every place you stay.

The food is OK if not exactly haute cuisine. A typical pilgrim’s meal available in alburgues and restaurants along the way consists of a starter (e.g. a mixed salad), a main course (e.g. chicken and chips – *very* common) and a dessert (e.g. ice cream – often a choc ice in its wrapper).  To drink you’ll usually have either water or wine and the wine is served by the bottle. All that for about €10. Very good value.

Finally, there is the getting-away-from-it-all feeling, leaving the real world of bills, politics, responsibilities and all that stuff behind, opting out of the normal routine for a while, focusing instead on the day’s stage, how long it’s going it take, where to stop for refreshments, getting into a walking rhythm and generally feeling better every day as the physical exertion releases all those happy endorphins. And at the end there is the sense of achievement of once more having finished it successfully.

That’s why I do it.

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This interesting looking man was selling fruit and cakes at a stall nor far from Logrono. He had no set prices – people were free to donate what they wished. A wise strategy , I think – he probably got a lot more than he would have had he charged normal prices.

 

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Vineyards abound in the Rioja region 

Navarette

Approaching Navarette

Navarette Old Pilgrims Hosp

The remains of an old pilgrim hospital at Navarette

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Approaching Nájera – the first day’s destination   

Najera River

The River Nájerilla as I passed over it the next day leaving Nájera

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Looking back in the direction of Nájera

Near Santo Domingo

Between Ciruenda and Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The vineyards of Rioja are mostly behind us and we are now in cereal growing country – from wine to bread. 

Near Ciruena

Looking back from near Ciruena

A word of caution in respect of accommodation: the Camino is in a sense becoming a victim of its own success. I have heard and read many stories this year of alburgues becoming full up relatively early in the day. People are setting out often well before dawn in order to be sure of getting a bed for the night at their destination. This can be very stressful and it can rob people of the enjoyment they should be experiencing.

I have always booked my accommodation a few months before travelling and this year I was very glad I did so. I had no worries about where I would stay any night as I had reservations in every place I stayed. (I use Booking.com – an excellent accommodation booking service.)

One way over the problem is not to do Brierleys. John Brierley has written the definitive guide to the Camino Francés and he recommends daily stages – Brierleys – that people (including me) tend to blindly follow. So, for example, stage 9 of the Brierley guide is from Nájera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, 21 kms. The result is an influx of pilgrims into Santo Domingo and if the numbers are excessive there may not be enough beds to go around. What people should do instead is either stop 6kms before Santo Domingo at Ciruena  or continue walking another  6kms as far as Granon. Don’t slavishly follow Brierley; do your own stages and you should have no problems if you haven’t booked ahead.

Alburgue

Alburgue beds. This is the albergue I stayed in at Agés. It was very cold and I did not have a sleeping bag, just a light sleeping bag liner. Brrrrrr!

I also tend to use hostals rather than alburgues. Hostals (not to be confused with hostels) give you your own room and bathroom and so are very conducive to a good night’s sleep. Alburgues on the other hand are mixed dormitory bunk-bed establishments and you can be very unlucky if you are (like me) a very light sleeper and one or more of the other residents are snorers. Or if someone gets up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and make a racket in the process. Or if they decide to set out at an unearthly hour and wake everyone else up while they noisily make preparations. On the plus side, albergues are cheap and the communal evening meal is a great way of getting to know people.

There are travel companies that will pre-book all the accommodation for you and will also transfer your bag from one location to the next. Go for it if such convenience appeals to you but be prepared to pay through the nose. It is much cheaper to do it yourself. Nor is it a problem carrying your stuff on your back. I actually think it’s beneficial to walk with a backpack as it keeps your back straight. Several people who suffer back problems have remarked on how it has helped them. The trick is in choosing a good backpack and carrying only the minimum. Aim for a combined backpack/contents weight of about 7 kgs.

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My backpack and its contents; total weight 7kgs.

Santo Domingo

Approaching Santo Domingo de la Calzada

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A view from the bell-tower of the church of Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

In Santo Domingo de la Calzada I stayed in the Hospideria Cisterciense, a hostal run by Cistercian nuns. And very nice it was too. A notice at reception stated that a daily Mass for pilgrims would be held at 7 pm and I decided to go. I had been expecting a large group of pilgrims to be present at the small church but there was only myself and a French woman – the other dozen or so attendees were elderly locals, mostly women. The priest was very elderly and frail and the poor man was on crutches and had to be assisted to the altar by a nun. He sat down behind the altar to say Mass. Communion was distributed by the nun. At the end the priest gave the usual blessing and, as this was a Mass for peregrinos, bade all walkers a Buen Camino! –  the traditional Camino greeting and farewell that everyone uses.

Santo Domingo Rio Oja

The River Oja at Santo Domingo  

Santo Dom to Belorado N120

Some sections of the Camino are adjacent to busy main roads as at here outside Santo Domingo. This third day from Santo Domingo to Belorado was my least favourite part because of the nearness and the noise of the highway.

Near St Juan De Ortega

Day 4 between Belorado and Agés – a lot of today’s section was through forest.

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Myself at a stop in the forest a few miles before St Juan de Ortega. A girl had made these artworks and was selling fruit and juices. It was very cold during this stage but then again the elevation was around 1,000 metres.

San Juan Forest

The path through the forest before St Juan. 

Ages

Agés

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The Camino at Agés 

My last day – day 5 – was from Agés into Burgos. There was torrential rain and it didn’t let up until I was well into the city. I finished about 1 p.m., stayed overnight in Burgos, got the 10:30 a.m. train to Bilbao the next day and flew back to Dublin the following day, Saturday.

Everything had gone according to plan and, once again, it was a most enjoyable Camino.

Next year my plan is to do the stage from Léon to Sarria and that will complete my Camino Francés.

After that, who knows? I may repeat a section, or I may do one of the other Caminos such as the Portugués or the Del Norte. Or perhaps walk from Santiago to Finisterre.

So many options, so little time!

 

Details of my previous Camino trips can be found on this blog at:

https://carrigmanblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/camino-de-santiago-sarria-to-santiago/

https://carrigmanblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/camino-de-santiago-burgos-to-leon/

https://carrigmanblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/camino-de-santiago-st-jean-pied-de-port-to-logrono/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago – St Jean Pied de Port to Logroño

This is an account of my Camino trip from 1st May to 7th May, 2015.  I have previously walked from Sarria to Santiago and from Burgos to Leon and I have written about those trips also on this blog (search under “Camino” if you’re interested). Click on the photos for full size.

 

I closed the door gently behind me and stepped into the chill night air. 4:55 am. Two hours before sunrise. The Camino path was just around the corner and the way was lit by the streetlights of Los Arcos. In a hundred yards or so I was into the dark countryside. As bright as the moon was, I needed my head-torch to see the way – it would be very easy to miss one of the Camino markers. The night was still. As soon as I was well away from the lights of the town I stopped and turned off the torch so as to savour the sounds and sights of this part of rural Navarra. A dog was barking somewhere in the distance. A few birds were singing in the fields – which surprised me given this early hour. A car passed on a nearby road. The contours of the land were easily discernible thanks to the nearly full moon. Flashing lights on the horizon marked a line of wind turbines. The lights of Sansol, the next town 7kms away, were due west of where I was. Of humans, fellow Peregrinos, there was no trace. I was alone.

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Dawn on the Camino

Looking at the night sky and seeing the land by the light of the moon is something I like to experience at least once during my Camino treks. I like to get out early when few others or none are about and then walk into the light. The symbolism of doing so on this ancient pilgrimage route is obvious but I just enjoy the sense of wonder and awe that it produces. But enough. I had to press on. This was my last day of walking and I had 30 kilometres to go to get to my final destination – the city of Logroño.

Six days previously I had set out from St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. The morning had been overcast but visibility was good as I made my way up the paved road towards the hostel at Orisson where I would stop for breakfast. Even though the highest point of the Route Napoleon over the mountains – the Col de Lepoeder – is 1,450m there is a gentle enough ascent: the steepest part, such as it is, is between the Huntto and Orisson hostels. It really is no big deal and it is on a paved road for most of the way. Forget any images you may have of scrambling up a steep mountain.

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St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees – the traditional starting point for the Camino Francés

However, about 30 minutes beyond Orisson the weather turned bad: a gale force headwind began to blow and rain became torrential. As we ascended it became colder – there were traces of snow in places – and the walking conditions were miserable. All one could do was struggle on at an angle of 45 degrees into the wind and rain and grit one’s teeth with determination to get the hell over the mountain as quickly as possible and down the other side to Roncesvalles. Again, to emphasise the point, these were conditions that would have seen a mountain climb at home abandoned for fear of falling or getting lost but there was no such danger here (the way was well marked at all times) – it was just very uncomfortable.

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On the ascent out of St Jean Pied de Port

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Near Orisson

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Looking back just before the bad weather struck. 

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Fog, rain and wind

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A clump of snow on the summit

I was glad I had brought my walking poles this time. They provided much needed support on the descent down the muddy woodland path on the Spanish side. I had been hoping for a hot meal at one of the restaurants in the town but everywhere was full up so I continued on to Espinal, 6kms away, where I had booked a bed for the night. I was glad I had. The large albergue at Roncesvalles, I heard later, was packed out and people were even put up in converted shipping containers such was the demand for spaces. The hostel at Espinal, by contrast, had plenty of beds to spare. It may have lacked the camaraderie and sense of achievement that would have been in evidence in Roncesvalles but it made up for it in comfort and quiet. It had taken me 8 hours to walk the 32kms from St Jean Pied de Port which was pretty good going in the circumstances.

Happily, the weather cleared and the rest of the trip was calm and rain free. The next two sections – as far as Pamplona – were mostly through woodland with the path still sticky in places after the rain. The woods were beautiful with the trees wearing their fresh green leaves and the birds in full song. Near Zubiri a cyclist who had just passed me fell on an exposed bare rock section of the path as it descended towards the town and broke his leg. He had to be lifted out by helicopter.

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Brighter, drier conditions on the second day. Note the snow on the mountain in the middle distance

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A cyclist on the ascent of the Alto de Perdón with Pamplona in the background 

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One of the iconic structures of the Camino, the Monumento Peregrino on the Alto del Pedrón – a series of natural sized iron figures representing pilgrims of a former age who would have done it on horseback or riding donkeys as well as on foot.

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A  peregrino with donkey (the donkey is on the left)

After Pamplona the countryside opened out and from there on each day brought us through some of the most scenic parts of the Camino. Walking conditions were ideal – a cool breeze and mostly overcast with occasional sunshine. And, of course, as ever on the Camino – good company: as well as the scenery, the opportunity to meet interesting and amusing people from all over the world is one of the great attractions of the walk. I was astonished to find, in a hotel in Puente La Reina, an old schoolmate of mine whom I hadn’t seen for over 40 years. He was walking with his wife as far as Estella, had heard about me from other Irish people whom I had met on previous days, and approached several men in the hotel asking them if they were me – I have changed over the years after all  – until he found me. It is indeed a small world.

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One of the most remarkable women I met – Texan woman Leigh Ann Peters who lives in Colorado has taken a year out to backpack around the world and has been travelling since last November. After doing the Camino she intends to travel around Europe and then on to South America before returning home for her son’s wedding in October  

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San José, California man Greg with a fellow American girl cooling their feet in the river at Estella 

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Walking towards Maneru

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Remnants of the old Roman road, 2000 years old, outside Puente La Reina 

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An elaborate map of the world in a field 

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A handy reminder in Uterga as to how far Puente La Reina is

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Free wine at Irache – just put a container under the tap and pour

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Journey’s end – Logroño

But now, here I was, alone in the pre-dawn heading towards Logroño. The towns of Sansol and Torres del Rio were asleep as I passed through and in the absence of any open restaurants I breakfasted, on the hoof, on my energy bars and orange juice. By the time I got to Viana people were up and about and I had coffee and a tortilla in a little café in that picturesque place. Then it was time for the final push towards Logroño and just before the city I passed from Navarra into La Rioja with vineyards producing that excellent wine in abundance all around. As I sat in one of the city’s plazas I contemplated the finish of another Camino section, the people I had met, the beautiful country I had passed through and I looked forward to doing another one next year.