Back to the Camino

Debbie Apostolides returns to the Camino – a 500 mile ancient journey through the Pyrenees, into Spain and ending up at Santiago de Compostella

Four months after leaving the Camino in April we arrived back in Pamplona to do another six days’ walking. Within about 5 minutes of leaving the bus station we were back on ‘the way,’ with the route clearly marked through the city. We were so excited to be back on the path that we walked for about 20 minutes before we saw a sign to Santiago 442 miles – in the other direction. It felt good to be walking again but the 7: 30 am flight to Bilbao actually put us in Pamplona at about 3 pm. It was roasting! We bumped into very few walkers on that first short hike out of the city and we were both very surprised – where was everyone in this high season? Would we find a bed? The city landscape became increasingly rural and we walked through the Navarra university campus which was completely empty. We had to get out of the sun, so even though it was only 4 pm and we had only walked 5 km we stopped at the first Albergue (pilgrim hostel) just below Cizur Menor. The owner was incredibly welcoming and the hostel was very spacious with a lovely big tranquil garden. It was good to meet other pilgrims again and begin sharing stories. We had a beer in the garden as the sun went down then realised that everyone else had gone to bed. And there was a reason for that…

Debbie 1

The next day we were woken by other people’s phone alarms. It was about 6 am, chilly and dark! Today we were walking 19 km to a place called Puente La Reina (bridge of the queen) via Cizur Menor. On the way is an ancient spring called Gambellacos. It is believed that a medieval pilgrim arrived at the spring dying of thirst and the devil appeared and offered him water in return for renouncing God. The pilgrim refused and then the story says that St James himself then appeared and offered the pilgrim water from a scallop shell. I didn’t even notice the spring as I was too busy looking back at the magnificent views of Pamplona that were revealed as we climbed higher and higher. My husband did – he sat on a bench there for a few minutes and felt that is was a special place. We only read about its significance later.

Above us was a long line of wind turbines that sat on the summit of the hill; a place called Alto del Perdon sitting at 790 metres above sea level. It was wonderfully sunny and warm at the top with life- sized wrought iron statues of medieval pilgrims en route to Santiago. We stayed at the Alto for quite a while – there were lots of pilgrims there and we met people who told us there was an Albergue with a pool at Puente La Reina. The bridge there crosses the river Agra that was a small stream in Zubiri – but at Puente La Reina the river was wide and fast. The bridge was built to help pilgrims reach Sanitago safely. It was beautiful. The Albergue was big and efficient and the pool was fantastic in the hot afternoon sun but the dormitory was lightless and crowded. I think there were a hundred of us in that large windowless room. We had such a hot and airless night there – some pilgrims dragged their mattresses out into the garden. When our alarm went off at 5 am I was glad to get going.

The flat long paths at Ventosa

Once outside though we realised that we were pretty much the first pilgrims out – there was no one else around and the Albergue was just outside of the town so it was very very dark. We had forgotten to pack torches so used the torchlights on our phones to find the way. It wasn’t scary – just eerie. It was hard to find the scallop signs and underfoot the terrain was always changing. We had to really concentrate – looking down to check our footing and then up to check the route. Left or right was just an unknown blackness. Plus it was very quiet. We walked for about an hour and a half before the orange sun emerged behind us. I thanked God for the sunrise and for another beautiful day – for the end to the darkness and the revelation of the beautiful countryside in the growing light. With the sun rising in the sky behind us we walked into the tiny walled hilltop village of Cirauqui for a delicious breakfast of pastries and café con leche. We knew that the route would always take us past the church and there would always be an Albergue or a café next to it. The church in Cirauqui was open – you just had to pay one Euro to turn on the lights – it was nice to sit in there in the cool silence and think of all the thousands of pilgrims who had sat there before us. The whole village was linked with the Knights Templar and the Order of St John. Our next stop was in a small town called Estella.

Our pilgrim passport full of stamps

This Albergue was called Anfas and was run by a charity which worked with and for people with various disabilities. We got such a big welcome when we arrived – it was lovely. We started to get into a daily routine too. As soon as we arrived in each town – no later than 1:30 pm at this time of year the first thing to be done was to find a bed in a hostel we liked that had space – then shower, wash clothes and have a siesta. Then explore the town and eat before getting a very early night. We explored Estella in a little open air tourist bus in the afternoon and ate from a surprisingly good pilgrim menu.

The next day we set off very early again heading for Los Arcos. The scenery changed so much from hilly mountain tracks to flat long paths. We were on the outskirts of La Rioja region and the first vineyard that we came to had a wine fountain where you could fill your own bottles for free. We came across it at about 6 am so not surprisingly it was just water that we kept in our bottles. That night I attended pilgrim mass in the beautiful church of Santa Maria in Los Arcos. It was at 8 pm and they managed to race through the whole communion service in about 19 minutes. It did not feel right to go up for Communion and I wasn’t invited to but at the end of the service the priest spoke in a number of languages and invited all the pilgrims up for a special blessing. It was nice.

With the Camino statues at Cizur Menor

Viana is a small walled town with gates, a population of 4000, its own bull ring and links with Cesare Borgia. He was killed here defending the town from attack in 1507. En route to Viana we came across a beautiful 12th Century church in a small village called Torres Del Rio called Iglesio de Santo Sepulcro- it had eight sides and was based on the octagonal church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was tiny inside and absolutely stunning. I attended pilgrim mass again in Viana – similar to the night before but on that day when the priest invited all the pilgrims up he blessed us individually placing his hands on our heads. He spoke to me in perfect English and told me about his time living in Crouch End after he was first ordained as priest.

santo sepulcro

From Viana onwards we were always walking through vineyards – the grapes hung heavy on the vines, row upon row for as far as the eye could see. It became quite hilly again. It was beautiful. The sun was always behind us and we could almost tell what time it was by the length of our shadows. We met some very nice fellow pilgrims that we began to meet up with all the time. Sometimes they would go ahead, sometimes we would. Sometimes we all walked together. We all ended up in the same coffee shops and the same Albergues. We had supper together and made good ‘Camino friends.’ We met a very special woman who my husband called our ’stray.’

The grapes of La Rioja

Until we met Martha I was having some difficulty with the number of people who were overtaking us. My natural inclination is to go everywhere as fast as possible and I wanted to complete each leg of the journey quickly. I was cross with myself that even on the Camino I was being competitive and also frustrated with our own slow progress. Martha* is 76, has seven children, about 20 grandchildren and at least five great grandchildren. She is from California and was walking on her own. Her 80 year old husband was due to join her for the last 100 km and he arrived with her on September 25th. She was a great walking partner for us and helped me to remember that the journey is the important thing – not the time at which we arrive at our destination. Plus what was one destination to another? We quickly became very good friends. You can follow her journey into Santiago on her blog – which is at www.trailjournakls.com/entry.cfm?id=514412. We said goodbye to Martha in Najera where we shared a lovely impromptu picnic by the river with her and another American couple from Cincinnati. The next morning we caught the local bus back to the city of Logrono. It had taken us two days walking to travel away from Logrono but on the local bus back it took just 30 minutes to drive! We return to Najera in April.

Buen Camino!

Debbie Apostolides

*Martha Jansen

You can read Debbie’s earlier adventures at http://www.stmarysbattersea.org.uk/article/pilgrimage-in-spain/