Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wed. June 1, Bilboao - Camino del Norte

Physically we may have left our Albergue San Miguel in Estella but mentally and emotionally we are still marking time by what we would be doing if we were still there or what we think Maria, our replacement is doing: 8:45am while we are now enjoying cafe and churros, Maria should be finishing up the cleaning and mopping; 3pm. while we are heading back to the hotel for a nap after a comida of crepes and wine, Maria would be signing in the pilgrims; 8:45pm while we are having pintxos and wine in a Basque taberna Maria would be finishing up the dinner chores and setting up for breakfast. And we're happy.

This Wednesday we walked along the river to the Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim definitely lives up to its reputation as an architectural marvel. All luminescent, massive and futuristically modern, it upstages the modern art exhibited inside. Dayton and I also definitely lived up to our technological reputation as we didn't figure out the audio headsets until the last exhibit. Typical.

We continued our walking tour to the Bilbao Museum of Fine Art and then got down to the business of savouring the famous Basque pintxos, the little 'toothpick' tapas featured in every taberna. Unfortunately, the pintxos are exclusively non-vegetarian but I enjoyed helping Dayton select the most creative and exotic selections. It is common here to just bar hop tasting the offerings of one bar after the other which suits our style perfectly. Prices are so reasonable; usually less than 2.50€ for a pintxo and less than 2€ for a wine.

After a much needed and much appreciated nap, we went out in search of the Camino del Norte that comes through Bilbao. We headed for the Iglesia Santiago and then followed the arrows through the old town into the new and up 310 steps to the Iglesia of the Virgin of something or other. This is probably as much of the Camino del Norte as we want to handle. We think the terrain and the weather would not be that appealing.

So now we have one more day with nothing to do and all day to do it. I'm sure it will involve some walking and lots of food.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tuesday, May 31 - Albergue San Miguel and Food Bank

Emilio, Dayton & Karen

Karen & Maria

Better busy than bored. No worries living up to this old adage; it's the working mantra for a hospitalero. Our last day as hospitaleros was as full of surprise and furious activity as our first. Motivated to turn over the cleanest and best organized albergue on the Camino, we were cleaning with determined intent.

Our first surprise yesterday, Monday, was being interrupted in our cleaning frenzy by our eager replacement, Maria, who arrived early in the morning after taking an overnight train from Madrid, fresh from completing a weekend hospitalero cursillo. And she arrived alone! Her Spanish hospitalera cohort decided to delay her arrival one week so that she could celebrate her son's birthday. Apparently a little difference in committment there. I'm sure we overwhelmed Maria with our detailed orientation: the laundry basin in the ladies' washroom leaks and needs to be bailed out every afternoon; the washing machine takes 90 minutes a cycle; you have to wash all the bed covers each day; the juice and jam are under the hospitalero's bed; the tuna fish and lentils are under the reception desk; the short fat cans without labels are all corn and the small tall cans without labels are all baby peas; the propane cooker is brought into the kitchen to cook the evening 4 kilos of pasta (maybe 5 kilos); the best bread is at the first shop on the right on the Calle Mayor and these are the tiendas open on Domingo. Oh and there is an overflow room for another dozen pilgrims at the church so you can really serve about 45 a night for dinner - or more. We just went on and on.

Our second wonderful surprise of the morning was the arrival of Emilio Peña, a Spanish friend from our first Camino. Emilio had just completed the Chemin le Puy route and had planned to meet up with us in Bilbao but instead had rushed to finish in time to come to our albergue. With a mischievious gleam in his eye, he was eager to entice Dayton to join him for a comida of pulpo (octopus) and limoncello. After the first 90 minute rush of pilgrims, Maria and I started chopping the zucchini, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms for the evening meal and making the salads while Dayton took his first break since May 14th and went off to the Plaza del Fuertes for pulpo and beer. Emilio is an influence.

Our biggest and most dubious surprise was from Father David. The albergue was spotless and organized, the dinner pre-preparations complete and the albergue completo when Father David pulled up from his Monday shopping expedition in Pamplona. I quickly realized that these trips were not really to the Spanish version of a Costco as we had thought but to some 'waste product' distribution centre. Okay I may be a little harsh here but wait! The surprise he had in store for us was definitely a mixed blessing. Father David started unloading crate after crate and box after box of supplies and produce - almost all past their 'best before date'. Before long every table, bench, square foot of flooring, hall, and patio was stacked high with over-ripe vegetables and fruit: lettuce, strawberries, bananas, pears, oranges and one avocado. We had enough browned mushy bananas to make banana bread for a year - if we had an oven. We even had enough outdated eggs to add to the recipe. There were boxes of questionable yogurt and chocolate puddings, just one day to go prepackaged potato tortillas and the largest box of dried garbanzo beans every seen. My heart sank as our spotless, so welcoming albergue became a Food Bank centre for the local needy. Now that may be a rather selfish and uncharitable thought but the food was not really edible.

For the next two hours, we sorted out the dates on the products, refrigerating what we could and giving away everything else while one helpful Spanish pilgrim couple salvaged as many strawberries as possible. Finally, everything was stored, order restored and dinner was ready as planned right after the evening Mass. Whew! Salads, pasta, breads and bowls of 'have to be eaten right now' strawberries graced the table, late comers were treated to huge potato tortillas, and, I forgot to mention, several bottles of wine which Father David had brought in too. Thank goodness it doesn't have a 'best before' date.Whew. What an introduction for Maria and a send off for us!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Monday, May 30 Albergue San Miguel

Our Room / Pantry

It's touch and go but chances are we'll run out of time before we run out of 'nice'. Just one more day and evening to go. Our replacement hospitalera, Maria, arrived early this morning so we have all day to show her our routine and then she can develop and refine her own way of doing things. I'm a little anxious for her as she will be on her own for the first week. This is a big job for two people. I can't imagine one person doing it all. Hopefully she will be able to rely on the kindness and assistance of the pilgrims.

It's amazing how our neatly packed backpacks have managed to spew their contents all over our small hospitalero room. Now we have to re-organize and squeeze all that stuff back into our packs. Tomorrow we'll leave after breakfast for the bus station. We'll take a bus to Pamplona and then another to Bilbao. I am so ready for the convenience of a hotel with real towels, sleeping in past 5am and an order of French Fries.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saturday, May 28 Albergue San Miguel

Our stint as hospitaleros, with only four more days to go, may be winding down but there is certainly no winding down on the job. That is an observation not a complaint. Each day's pilgrims have the same needs as those before and some may be have even more. Although the routine and pattern of the day is same old, same old, it never gets old. This albergue is a new experience for each pilgrims and each pilgrim is a new experience for us and too, there are always a few incidences that highlight each day.

Friday I had to, very unwillingly, play paramedic to a lovely lady whose first and only language is German and who was adamant that I should 'pop' all the blisters on her suffering feet. I do not have one iota of Florence flipping Nightingale in me but there I was boiling a needle and piercing it through each and every blisters. And there were a lot of them. An elderly Spanish camino veteran insisted that I needed to enlarge each of the holes in the blisters so that iodine could be put directly into the blister. He insisted, I desisted and so he took over. Between the German lady and the Spanish man, they had a complete surgical kit but not one common language phrase. Tomas set to work enlarging the blister holes. How? I don't know but there were needles, scissors and a small plastic syringe lined up on the table. He used the syringe to inject iodine into each blister hole. He injected. She grimaced. I hid away shaking my head and thinking thoughts of liability and lawsuist and wondering if I could cover my trail after our departure so that I couldn't be tracked down to be supoenaed (sp?).

We also had a group of cyclists who arrived very late. Cyclists usually bike about 90-120kms so they tend to arrive late and then want to sleep in and leave late - not happening at our albergue. Up and out and enjoy your ride! Our late arrivers had only time to get ready for dinner but no time to go to a tienda to buy wine for their Dayton and I went to our private wine stash and donated some of our 'vintage' wine (2.45€ a bottle) to the cause. The Italians were suitably surprised and pleased. We also had a Chilean cyclist arrive just as we were about to clean up the dishes. We were able to set him up with salad, pasta, bread and wine. No problemo.

We also had a delightful Canadian contingent Friday, family and friends from Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton: mom and two of her daughters, a cousin and two other close friends. It was fun to speak Canadian for a change, eh?

Thursday, May 26

Yesterday was a real roller coaster of emotions: lively satisfaction as the young kids left and, I'm embarrassed to say, a tinge of frustration and irritations signing in a few frustrating, irritating and picky pilgrims as well as a swell of empathy and sympathy for the heat exhausted, dehydrated walkers. With so many pilgrims we notice a 180 turn around in their attitude from the time they sign in to the time they leave. Some arrive a little pushy, demanding and judgemental but they all leave behind smiles, hugs and kisses in the morning.

We had a Brazilian contingent yesterday and one tall elegant lady spent the late afternoon offering and administering foot massages to her fellow pilgrims. Needless to say, she was a very popular lady. One late middle age, sturdy Portuguese lady was injured and combatative at first, insistent that she could carry her own pack to her bed, didn't need water or a drink or help of any kind. Her knee was really bad and she was using her walking sticks as crutches all evening. Her determination was more powerful than her body and she insisted on setting out at 6:30 the next morning. At least she was having her heavy pack sent ahead.

One Polish lady came in in the heat of the afternoon and was immediately in tears from heat, exhaustion, relief and our attention. We gave her water, chocolate, a cool cloth for her face and lots of time to recoup.

The kindness and generosity of one pilgrim to another is wonderful too. A young South Korean girl returned to us in the morning after realizing that she had forgotten the crucifix that she slept with at night. It was no where to be found. An elderly French man then dug into his first aid kit and pulled out a small leather pouch. Inside was a beautiful crucifix attached to a delicate beaded bracelet. I'm sure it had sentimental value to him but he generously gave it to the oh so grateful Korean girl. Camino magic at work again!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wednesday, May 25 San Miguel Alberque and Youth Hostel

Intn'l Youth Contingent Helping Karen With The "Pilgrim's Blessing"

Two years ago today we finished our first Camino de Santiago de Compostella. It is memorable in that it was the culmination of 31 days of walking and alberques, bocadillos and cafe con leches, pilgrim meals and wonderful new international friendships, and of the realization that we had actually walked the 792kms we had dreamed about for two years. It was also such a wet and dreary day. We were exhausted and injured and as we dragged our wet and weary selves towards the catedral, it felt anticlimatic. The square was overcast and deserted. Oh that it were a day like today! We are experiencing the best sunny weather here in Estella and, as we say our morning farewells and buen caminos to our pilgrims, there is a tinge of envy of all the camino experiences that they have ahead of them, although there are some camino experiences that are evoke less envy - the blisters, shin splints and tendinitis, and Redicilla.

As hospitaleros we are over the hump. We have only one more week to go. If all passes are wonderfully as the past two nights, it will be clear sailing. We have had the best two groups. We've been 'completo' but not overbooked. Last night we had an amazing group of young pilgrims from Portugal, Italy, Isreal, Belgium, Spain/Russia, Canada, Greece and France. They all met in St. Jean Pied de Port and have been travelling somewhat together. It was our treat to have them staying at our alberque. Their facility with the languages was amazing and had me so embarrassed by my tedious efforts to learn French, German and Spain. ( I don't even try Italian.) Most of these kids spoke at least three languages and one really nice young guy spoke seven languages fluently and just flipped back and forth without hesitation. What a wonder! We did spend some extra time at breakfast putting our last supply of Mefix, Compeed and tape on a mass of blisters and hot spots. Blisters hold no age restrictions.

Today is the Feast of the Virgin of Le Puy so it's a major holiday in Estella. The only people working are the hospitaleros and two shops are open - the internet cafe and one tienda to get our daily ration of bread - 12 huge baquettes.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Monday, May 23 San Miguel Alberque and Rehab Centre

"Peregrino Princess"

Same old, same old. Nothing new to report. We have our routine set. By the time we've cleaned up and gotten back from our 'bread run' (We go through about 6-8 huge baquettes a meal; apparently no one over here worries about carbs.), the pilgrims are lined up and waiting. We still have the 'peregrino princess' enjoying her extended stay with us: coffee and cigarettes at 7:30am, then wine and cigarettes all afternoon and night. You'd think she'd get tired of a bucket load of pasta for dinner every night. She did tell me yesterday, as we were trying to accommodate another overflow day, that I should ask her to help us - tomorrow! We do get lots of help though and most pilgrims are effusive with their thanks and appreciation.

The dynamics of every group is interesting and so different. Last night we had a huge party group - over 45 pilgrims for dinner. Breakfast time is a bit of an unknown dynamic though. Dayton and I were up at 5am yesterday for the breakfast crew and didn't see a soul until after 6 am and then today the place was hopping and bopping before 5:30am. If only there was a siesta for the hospitaleros.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Saturday May 21 San Miguel Alberque and Rehab Centre

Aussie Chef

I think it's been said that stress doesn't build character but that it reveals character. Either way we are character building every day. Once again we had an 11am line-up and the alberque was 'completo' by 3pm but the pilgrims just kept coming. We had to direct the late comers to the overflow dorms at the parish and then bulk up our menu to serve close to 40. One of our overflow guests was an Australian chef so he came up with a couple of good suggestions to enhance our 'creative' recipes. More olive oil!

Our wonderfully efficient cleaning, shopping and food preparation schedule has been thrown for a loop as we are now the rehabilation centre for a German lady who has tendinitis and wants to stay with us and rest her foot for FIVE days. The work here is fast and furious and we are busy all day long and that is all good. However......... there is a little niggling irritation when you have someone with her foot wrapped in ice resting it on the bench, drinking her fourth cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette while we clean and mop around her and the laundry line she has hanging from her bunk. Obviously my tendinitis treatment (work and wine) needs some refinement.

And then..........some of the pilgrims from the parish overflow rooms, which apparently are a lot quieter in the morning than the main alberque, showed up at 8:30am looking for breakfast, coffee and a chat. These are the things that help us prove how flexible and friendly we really are.

I did find 30 minutes last night to hobble down to the municipal alberque to watch an outdoor street performance by a group of very young South Korean kids who are walking the camino carrying not only their regular clothing and supplies but their costumes and drums too! And they are really young, probably nine to maybe fourteen or fifteen years old and really talented. The passers-by were treated to a wonderful concert of dance and drumming. Awesome.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday, May 20 Alberque San Miguel

Every day is the same and every day is totally different.

We have established a pretty efficient system and each day the schedule is the same but, because we never know whether we will have 10 guests or 43, every day is so different.

We've been moving at warp speed the past few days and so were stunned today that by 6pm we had registered in only 13 pilgrims. Yesterday we had more than that waiting at 11am. We took advantage of the Thursday morning Farmer's Market in the plaze and it was what a Farmer's Market should be. We got huge heads of lettuce - 5 for 2€, 2 kilos of fresh strawberries for 2€ as well. What other alberque greets their pilgrims with fresh cherries and cookies at registration and then serves fresh strawberries (on their canned fruit) for dessert? The fresh fruit was our treat to our pilgrims.

Just as we were about to serve dinner, an Austrian man drove up in his van, hopped out and we worked out in German and hand gestures that he needed beds for himself and 4 Austrian cyclists. They had set out from St. Jean Pied de Port that morning (about 130kms away) and would be arriving momentarily. I asked if they would like to eat with us. He couldn´t understand so I asked another German lady to translate "Would you like to eat with us?" The lady turned to the Austrian and said in perfect ENGLISH "Would you like to eat with us?" Then we all burst out laughing as she realize how ridiculous this was. She's been so used to flipping back and forth from English to German that she repeated verbatim what I'd said. Anyway we got it all straighten out and she was still redfaced and laughing as she went back to dinner.

The Austrians showed up just after we had served the salad. We had to hurriedly set out more seats and plates, more bread, some wine we donated as this alberque does not provide the wine, and added more pasta to the pot. We once again enlisted the pilgrims to do the clean up while we grabbed a moment to sit. You know a man does not help around the house very much when he asks "Which side of this sponge do I use to wash the dishes?" Seriously, like there's a different side for dishes and the other for cutlery?

So far we're not out of wonderful yet so all is good. I'm now going to hustle back to the alberque to attempt my first potato tortilla. Hmmm

Thursday, May 19 Alberque San Miguel

Jill, Viv, Marti & the 'Boys'

Karin & friend Silvi

'It's a small world after all.'

The world may be vast and expansive numbering billions in population but with the community of the Camino it becomes a small, small, small world. Wednesday, to borrow a phrase from my daughter's waitressing days, we got slammed. We had 15 pilgrims lined up before 11am and we open at 1pm. We decided to open early and let them get settled and soon we were 'completo' - all 32 beds filled. Returning from my first and very quick visit to the Igesia San Miguel, I spied a couple of pilgrims heavy and heaving with their packs and the exhausted desperation for a place to stop was evident in their stance and sun-reddened faces. I approached them and introduced myself as a hospitalero and asked if I could help them. One lady gave me a very quizzical look, asked my name and when I said Karen Hypes, tears started streaming down her cheeks. She was just emotional stunned to realize that I was the Karen whose blog she's been following and on which she's been posting very encouraging comment and now we meet - in Estella in Spain!
Now I have no illusions that my blog is anything other than a practical record of the 5 W's of reporting, not wonderously descriptive or insightful as many other blogs, but it was nice to know that it has been helpful to someone else.

We put Karin, my blog follower, and her walking companion, in the overflow room at the church and encouraged them to eat and relax back at the alberque with us. An amazing wonder of serendipity echoed this encounter moments later as I was chatting about journals and blogs with two fo our other guests, Jill and Vivienne. Inquiring about their occupations, I learned that they were travel writers and had their own travel website. Lo and unbelievable behold, Jill and Vivienne are the creative force and talent of, a website that Dayton and I have subscribed to and followed for the past year. Dayton discovered when he was researching the Chemin le Puy route and, in answer to his email for more information, Vivienne put together a detailed personalized game plan for Le Chemin le Puy for us. (Yes we do have a plan on our pilgrimage. It's a guideline not a schedule as we do allow for flexibility but we are not totally 'whatever may be, will be' spirits.) Not only a valuable travel resource but also personalized service. Perfect.

Viv and Jill were travelling with an elegant South African lady, Marti and two octogenarians gentlemen from New York City. They were all marking the 10th year anniversary of meeting and walking the camino together. I asked the two men to share the evening pilgrim blessing with me and then, with these lively five and all our other guests we had a wonderful evening eating and sharing stories at our patio 'restaurant'.

We have our evening clean up organized so efficiently that our pilgrims can get all the dishes and pots done and put away before Dayton and I have even finished our wine.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tuesday, May 17 Alberque San Miguel - again

"Have you got your teeth?"

We have come to realize that our morning farewell needs to be refined. Buen camino, bon route, bonne courage are just not helpful enough. Today we had so many pilgrims return to collect things they had left behind or thought they left behind. Now we need to say that "If you can't see that first yellow arrow, check! Do you have your contacts in, do you have your glasses?" Or better still "Do you have your teeth?" Seriously we had one dear confused gentleman who had to bicycle back to us and said he had forgotten his teeth!

We also have to give some cautionary reminders to pay attention to their body and health along the trail. Many pilgrims who arrived were quite shaken after witnessing a fallen pilgrim receiving CPR from the EMT medics. Sadly their rescue attempts were unsuccessful. He was a 76 year old Danish pilgrim.

We had a great treat this Tuesday as one of our Wainwright Coast to Coast hiking buddies, who is now walking the Camino, came and stayed with us. We greeted Joan and her walking companions with a chilled glass of Rose. We also had 'the priesthood' stay with us. This was a group of young novitiates who were walking the Camino with their mentor, Father Carlos. At first their intention was to do their own thing but then we encouraged them to join us all for dinner and we think they really enjoyed interacting with everyone. I had them share saying the pilgrim's blessing with me - I'd say the verse in English and then one would repeat it in Spanish. The other night I had done the same thing with a young Korean girl translating the blessing to Korean.

We are meeting pilgrims from many countries, South Korea, Slovenia and Slovakia, Italy, Hungary, Finland, Latvia, France, Spain, US, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Brazil - well you get the idea. My Spanish and French is just basic enough to get us through what we need.

Sunday, May 15 Alberque San Miguel

Father David

We were up at 5:50am making coffee and cutting up bread. The coffee pot is a small one so coffe had to be made six times and we ran out of bread but everyone was very kind and no complaints. They understood our situation and generously accepted what we offered. Father David, parish priest was a little less enthused with our effort. He had an evangelical when he saw how much we had spent on vegetables and fruit. He let us know that we were to give him a list and he drives into Pamplona on Mondays to do the Spanish version of a Costco run. He's really nice but always in a hurry. We've nicknamed him 'the stealth priest' because he's in and out in a flash. He clears out the donativo box and he's gone. Grabs the grocery list but has no time to go over it and he's gone. I hear he says Mass with the same urgency. Pilgrims who attend the 7pm Mass are back and waiting for their dinner at 7:25pm. The other night Father David dropped in and I was eager to meet and chat with him but he just threw a package of 3minute popcorn in the microwave and three minutes later he was gone.

We are getting our schedule and efficiency down to a science. Up at 5am to make the coffee and lay out the breakfast: cereal and milk, bread and small cakes, juice and coffee, and lots of jams and jellies. This is quite a substantial breakfast on the Camino. Pilgrims are usually gone by 7:30am and we start the cleaning. First clean up the breakfast dishes and then wash all the plastic coverings on the beds and pillowcases, sweep the floors and mop. While we're doing this, we throw in a laundry of all the towels and cleaning cloths. Bathrooms are last and we make sure they are clean and well-stock with toilet paper. Yes! Then, with apologies to Father David, we go grocery shopping and get back in time to open the doors to meet and greet the pilgrims by 1pm.
Dinner preparation happens throughout the afternoon and we serve dinner outdoors on the patio at 8pm. Cleanup and a glass of wine and it's 10:30pm and time to get some sleep before starting again at 5am the next morning.

We have not had one unhappy pilgrim. They have all said this was their best dinner, breakfast and best stay. Yay.

Saturday, May 14 Cirauqui to Estella

"Blessing pilgrims on your journey. May your hearts be open to surprise."

Well quite a surprise greeted us when we reached the Alberque San Miquel in Estella which was to be our home and work station for the rest of the month. We showed up two days early with the intention of offering our help and learning the ropes of running an alberque only to learn that the previous hospitaleros had run for the hills the week before. Within 10 minutes we were handed the keys to this little pilgrim kingdom and on our own with less than an hour before we were to open the doors to the pilgrims.

We quickly scouted out some small grocery tiendas (stores), stocked up on salad fixings, pasta and wine and raced back to the alberque to get organized to check in the hot and exhausted pilgrims. This alberque is donativo, pilgrims pay what they can and want to pay for the bed, the dinner and the breakfast. Wine is not offered by the alberque and that's one of those 'good to know' things or 'really need know' in my case. There is an evening scramble to the tiendas to get one's nightly vino.

We wisely and unashamedly enlisted the help of pilgrims to help us make the salad and clean up. This night we were done by 11:15pm. Tired and well initiated into the hospitalero life, we went to bed exhausted but feeling quite positive.

Friday May 13 Uterga to Cirauqui

Puente La Reina

We took our time getting ready as the dormitory was very quiet until after 6am which is pretty unusual at this time of year. We walked to Muruzabal and then to Obanos and on to Puente la Reina where we stopped for at 10:00am for breakfast. I´m sure the climb out of Puente la Reina was steeper than the last time we walked it.

Along the road leading into Cirauqui (which is one of the most picture postcared perfect scenes ever), an elderly couple in their old van drove up behind us, stopped and honked the
horn at us and then started gesticulating towards the trunk of the car. Dayton assured him that,although we might have looked like we needed a ride, we were still good. Patiently he showed us that the trunk of his vehicle was full of freshly picked cherries and he filled us up with handfuls and shirtfulls of them. Wonderful.

We got into Cirauqui at about 11:30 and feasted on some bread, chorizo (Dayton) and cheese sold to us by the slowest moving most expressionless soulless shop owner, and waited for our alberque to open. When our hostess, Inoa, learned that we were about to be volunteer hospitaleros she was generous with advice, everything from scheduling sign-ins and lockup times to shopping and menus and ways to save money - definitely go vegetarian.

The 7pm mass was like the Readers Digest or Coles notes version, quick and easy. The congregation at Mass was mostly the middle-aged female population of this Spanish village and some pilgrims. At communion we lined up across the altar and Dayton said he was very confused trying to find me in the line up - apparently he couldn´t recognize me because I was the one half a head taller than anyone else. Ha!

Dinner was in the renovated wine caves below the alberque. Soup was a rather bland insipid spinach soup and the pasta was accompanied by what all the meat eaters said were the best meatballs ever ever.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thur. May 12, San Sebastian to Pamplona to Uterga

Alto del Perdon

Sometimes you're the pigeon and sometimes you're the statue. Today I was the statue and the Camino dumped all over me. But now we are in Uterga and all is well.

We took a 9am bus from San Sebastian to Pamplona and walked out of the bus station, through the park by the Citadel and out of Pamplona by 10:30am. Surprisingly, after a wonderful two day rest, every step was tough. Go figure. Dayton was continually pointing out how the path was the same as two years ago and how it had been improved and I just put my head down, looked at my boots and just made like the 'little engine that could'.

We climbed to the Alto del Perdon where there is the metal sculpture of pilgrims crossing the mountain and then walked down into Uterga. We are now staying at the alberque in Uterga where John, Dayton and I enjoyed our first real Camino stop two years ago. It was as welcomed and welcoming as then and we were happy to meet Stefanie, the German lady we walked up to Orisson with. She and her Camino friend, Hadie, had taken a two day break in Pamplona at a five star hotel over looking the Playa Mayor. Stefanie said that if she had had to carry that heavy card with its magnetic stripe, she might as well use it . So she booked and charged her luxury hotel and enjoyed every minute of it.

Here in Uterga we've enjoyed a wonderful three course meal with gigantic portions and fantastic friendly service. Once again on the Camino we are reminded of and appreciate the smallest pleasures in life. At home, we tend to live an instant gratification live - "if I want it or I need it, I'll buy it - now". If the grocery stores are closed one day for a holiday, everyone thinks they have to lay in for a seige and the line ups at the stores are unbelievable. Here, we get so excited when we find a store open and we can buy one apple and a banana to share or even better cafe stop. Hot water for the showers or an internet to contact home is a bonus. It is good to recognize that pleasures don't have to be big or expensive.

We have two very short days ahead of us. Tomorrow only about 15 kms into Ciraqui and then the next day to Estella. Perfect.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wed. May 11 San Sebastian

I started this morning with a bubble bath and a hot tea, definitely not a Camino experience but such a welcomed one. Today we started off at the wonderfully decadent hour of 10:00am and walked along the boardwalk to the Puerto (Port) and the Parte Viejo (the old town). Every few steps there was a tapas taberna with an amazing array of Pintxo (Basque tapas) and every few steps we stopped at one of them and Dayton indulged. By early afternoon we had visited five different restaurants for the tapas, ice cream and drinks and then settled down for a lovely long rest at one of the boardwalk restaurants. We may have been on a Camino break but we still walked for four or five hours although this time it was oh so slowly and without packs.

After our two hour lunch break, we walked to the west end of the beach and took the Funicular up to the lookouts on a castle-topped cliff. The views of the beaches, the city and the ocean were as incredible as promised and we could get a perfect sense of the ruggedness of this northern coast and we immediately resolved to never put the Camino del Norte on our bucket list. It is way too difficult and from what we've heard the weather on the Camino del Norte is very inclement, not at all the sunny skies we've been enjoying.

Tomorrow moring it's a bus back to Pamplona and an 18km walk to Uterga. I'm offering prayers to Sainte Rita, the patron saint of hopeless and desperate causes to alleviate my planatar fasciitis/tendinitis/pain in the foot/whatever. There might be a cab in my near future.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tue. May 10 Larrasoaña to Pamplona to San Sebastian

Entering Pamplona Via Drawbridge

The Italian fearsome foursome woke us up at 5am this morning. After the noisy commotion of getting their gear together, they donned their headlamps and went into the garden area just outside our door and started a comical pre-dawn warm-up. One guy was doing small alternate side lunges, another was working on a tricep stretch, the third had a little hip roll rotation action going on and then the last little roly poly guy was vigorously trying to do forward bends with little dynamic bounces helping him to almost reach his knees. This was all done with a non-stop chatter of overlapping advice and instruction. Then they all came into our bed area to teach the roly-poly guy how to work out the kinks in his back - down on all fours doing Yoga cat/cow poses. And for all their 5am wake up, we were out and gone before them.

It was into an early morning fog that we started out, again with Domique and Rene. We didn't manage a break until 10am atTrinidad de Arre just on the outskirts of Pamplona but it was another great meet and greet with all the pilgrims. Annoyingly that vulnerable left foot is acting up again. Aaaaaaaargh. We got into Pamplona around 11am and sadly bid adieu to our little camino troop and especially to Domique and Rene who have quickly become very dear friends. We see a trip to Sherbrooke Quebec and Quebec City in our near future. We headed off to the Oficina de Tourismo to look into transportation to San Sebastian. On our way to the bus depot, we made a random stop at a travel agency and booked a hotel room near the water for the next two nights.

We were torn between continuing to walk until Saturday and then bussing it back to Estella to begin our hospitalero gig but, in the end because of Dayton's great planning, my not so great left foot or because the alberque experience in Larrasoaña, we decided on a two day break from the Camino. After touristing at the north coastal city/resort of San Sebastian, we will return to Pamplona and walk two or three slow days to Estella.

We did absolutely no research into San Sebastian and just hoped that we had booked into a neat hotel. It is near the beach but it was over an hour's walk from the bus stop to find it. On our long hotel hunt we did get a good sense of this city, with its massive magnificent catedral, shopping boutiques, lovely beachside parks, the beaches themselves and the old city. Now it's time to try and make ourselves presentable in our cleanest dirty Camino clothes and go to the old town for food and drinks.

Mon. May 9 Roncevalles to Larrasoaña

No More Mud !!!

Another spectacularly beautiful hot sunny day of walking and, no it doesn´t get old. This morning brought shades of the Camino bed race as at 5am everyone was up and rustling about preparing to walk. We walked all day with Dominque and Rene who, we think, appreciated our experience helping them get off to a good start on their Camino - or they could just be patiently indulging us. Dayton is a fountain of good advice and has an incredible memory or every sign, turn, cafe stop and path. We had a our first Camino cafe con leche stop in Viscarret which our two French Canadians say will be one of the easiest things to adjust to on the Camino. We had fun exchanging 'buen caminos' with a couple of young Spaniards who were biking and stopping to treat the other young folk to beers at their Zubiri lunch break, and again in Larrasoaña. Their game plan was basically - bike, bar, beer - bike, bar, beer - bike, bar beer. And they were such a light-hearted delight to meet.

My memory is never as good or clear as Dayton's but it was clear about how steep and muddy our first walk into Larrasoaña was but no more; it is now a long cement-pressed paved boardwalk. What took us an hour of treacherous mindful stepping last time was now a quick ten minute breeze. The other thing I remembered well was the alberque in Larrasoaña, which hadn't changed at all. It was just as charming and comfortable as last time and by that I mean not at all. One couple paid for their beds, had a look at the dormitory, then sold their bed tickets to other naive pilgrims still waiting in line and decided to keep walking. Like last time too was no toilet paper. Honestly, in our alberque in Estella "there will be toilet paper"! We did have a good night though as the four of us choose the only four bunk beds on the main floor foyer - right in the path of the bathrooms but while we had to deal with the nightly flip-flopping and flashlights of those making a midnight trip to the bathroom, we didn´t have to deal with the cacophony of snores and snorts resounding in the crowded upper dorm.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

May 8 Orisson to Roncesvalles

Alicia's Stone

This was a day for superlatives: magnificent, spectacular, awesome, glorious and amazing. Under bright clear sunny skies and with a cool, cool wind, we walked over the Pyrenees. I was positively euphoric. We probably climbed more elevation than on our way to Orisson but it was at a much more gradual grade and the views were so wonderful and expansive that it was just awe-inspiring and I was literally crying tears of joy.

There were a few more tears when, at the top of one section of the French Pyrenees there is a cross and we took time to place the stone we had carried from home for our friend Alicia. We wish her love and good health.

All day, we walked with two French Canadians, Rene and Dominque and couldn't help but bore them with how different this crossing was from the blizzard that we faced two years ago. If I could have skipped in my hiking boots, I'm sure I would have. After a couple of hours we crossed the cattleguard that signals the border between France and Spain: "au revoir" and now "hola"!
We enjoyed a few little rest stops and too many to count photo shoots and were in Roncevalles early afternoon. Again the contrast between this time and last was incredible. The place was packed with people as there was a big festival being held. It was almost impossible to move through the crowds. We managed to squeeze our way through to the new pilgrim's office and to the new alberque! No more 120 beds squeezed into a cold, dark, ancient monastery. Now it was a brand new, well appointed IKEA modern facility. Some things haven't changed though, there is still a pilgrim's mass at 6pm and we got reservations at the same restaurant as last time for the early dinner - still can't manage to wait to 8:30 to eat.

So all in all Dayton and I agree that this was one of the best walking days we have ever experienced.

May 7 St. Jean Pied de Port to Orisson

The climb to Orisson was just as tough this year as two years ago but this time the skies were clear and the views were spectacular, as breathtaking as this cardio-intense climb itself. The start of the Camino Frances is baptism by elevation - just straight up. But every time my steps started to flag I just thought of Alicia and reminded myself that she's climbing a much tougher medical mountain every single day right now and is doing it with grace and courage.

We passed several groups of pilgrims having picnics on the side of the path overlooking the steep drops; always a good time to pick up your step and try to look like you're not struggling too hard. Image is everything. Orisson appeared much sooner than expected and we were greeted by a friendly Basque welcome "ongli etorri" from our host Jean-Jacques. Being second time pilgrims staying at his gite, we scored a private room with a double bed. We spent a long afternoon meeting and visiting with all the other pilgrims who decided to enjoy this respite half way up the mountain. One of the highlights of the afternoon was a huge herd of Shetland ponies clomping down the mountain road. Not a sight one sees everyday.

We were also lucky that our clothes were washed and dried before the rains came. It rained all afternoon and evening and the winds were so intense. I was sure we were in for a wet walk over the Pyrenees tomorrow but, in the middle of the night, when I left our little private room and had to go outdoors to get into the main albergue to use the washroom, the midnight sky was ablaze with millions and millions of stars which usually forecasts a clear day.

Friday, May 6, 2011

May 6 Uhart-Mixe to St. Jean Pied de Port 30km

Anne-Marie (Auberge de Pelerins)

Our good natured host guided us to the start of our walk and with a friendly wave and "un bon route" we were off. A warm breeze and a steep climb was our 7am warm-up for this our last day on Le Chemin Le Puy. As usual I was the trail tortoise, as all the other pelerins kept busting past us but I just keep reminding myself that although I may be slow, at least I'm always going forward.

Before long that warm breeze became quite a strong wind which actually made the day quite comfortable. Well except for the hills that is. Our elevation guide was quite deceptive as it showed that we had a very flat day. This was not the case as we went up and down all day. Granted the hills weren't that high but a hill is a hill is a hill. We walked about six hours and then took a great rest and snack at St. Jean de Vieux which left us about an hour to go.

Coming into St. Jean Pied de Port was so different this time but no less exciting. Two years ago when John, Dayton and I got off the train from Bayonne we were anxious excited pilgrims wondering what was in store for us. It was early morning and almost everything except the pilgrim's office was closed. This time we walked in from the opposite direction through the ancient portal and right away we were on the same street as the pilgrim's office; a street that was bustling with bright-eyed, eager pilgrims and lots of charming shops and gites. St. Jean Pied de Port is over-whelmed with pilgrims this weekend and most of the gites were 'competo' (full). Luckily we had reservations at the Auberge de Pelerins and the first person who enthusiastically greeted us was Ann Marie, one of our friends from the first part of our Chemin Le Puy last October. It was so great to see her. Ann Marie arrived in St. Jean at the end of October last year and has stayed ever since. With an amazing instance of serendipity, she is working at the gite where we are staying.

Dayton just went out and bought the new Miam Miam Dodo Dodo book for Spain and looked up where we will be volunteering in Estella. Our albergue is the first one listed for that town and advertises full dinner and breakfast donativo for 32 pilgrims. Time to put our cooking to the test.

Now tomorrow and Saturday we face the Pyrenees. We are dedicating our climb over the Pyrenees to our friend Alicia who is facing a personal medical mountain to climb. We will dedicate every single huffing-puffing, breathtaking step to her and know that our climb is, in the grand scheme of things, so minor. A toi, Alicia.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 5 Navarrenx to Uhart-Mixe

Welcome To Basque Country - Fries !!!

On a clear day you can see forever. Today was a clear day and forever in the distance were the Pyrenees; so impressive and massive. They completely dominated the entire horizon.

Our Sports Bar gite last night may not have offered an evening meal but it sure offered generous hospitality. Dayton and I waited until the socially acceptable hour of 7:30pm before going out for dinner. We decided to just pick up a pizza and eat it at the tables on the patio of the Sports Bar. Not wanting to appear cheap or take advantage, I went in to order a couple of red wines. The host brought them to our table and said they were gratis from him. After devouring our vegetarian pizza, Dayton went into the bar again, ordered another wine and tipped very gratefully. Ten minutes later our delightfully friendly proprietor brought us out two delicious creme caramel with some liquer drizzled through it. Wonderful and tasty.

We got started fairly early this morning, no petit dejeuner, and left went out under the arch of the huge bastion. After a couple of hours a sign welcomed us to Basque country and not long afterwards we arrive at an Accueil Pelerins - a welcome rest stop for pilgrims. Lo and happy behold, drinks and fries were available. Although it was just before 11am, we had already walked four hours and I figured that a plate of fries was well deserved despite the early hour. They were great and carried me through the next several hours. It was a long confusing way into Uhart Mixe but once again we have scored a great place. It's connected to a restaurant/bar so we can have a glass of rosé (Yes, rosé - my new afternoon delight). Our laundry is done and we just have to rest until our evening meal.

The evening meal, Basque cuisine, was unbelievably sumptuous and wonderful. Catering to the vegetarian was a wonderful vegetable soup, then a platter of salad just for me featuring beets, grated carrots, rice, tomatoes and I was also served a huge, huge bowl of a Basque tomato and peppers stew. My salad should have served six people. The carnivores had the tomato and pepper stew but with sausage in it and it was covered in huge slabs of a country ham. From the groans of culinary ecstasy that were being invoked, I think it was very good. Dessert was fresh fruit, cheese and a chocolate custard pudding served with some sort of liquer. I couldn't identify or translate the name of this after dinner drink but it was watermelon pink, on ice and demanded two extra-strength Advil to deal with its aftermath. Had to have it as we didn't want to insult our lovely hostess Antoinette who I think hired on the entire Uhart-Mixe community to prepare this bon repas. The chance of losing weight walking thirty kilometres a day is getting slim to absolutely none. It's more likely that we won't be able to get our pants done up.

Tomorrow we go to St. Jean Pied de Port - well over 30kms and so far we have been unable to make reservations there. Apparently this upcoming weekend has a huge holiday so everything is booked. We have faith that poor pilgrims will not be left homeless. And then this weekend we tackle the Pyrenees!

BTW - Antoinette got us a reservation at Auberge de Pelerins for tomorrow. Yeah

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May 4 Arthez to Navarrenz 32km

Abbaye de Sauverlade

Time flies when you're having fun and it stands still when your feet hurt. I feel like I've spent a straight month is spiked heels. Today was a long hot day but we were able to get an early start as we could get our own petit dejeuner at 6am. It took us almost 40 minutes to get out of town as Arthez is just one street stretching about three kilometres long, as the town is situated along a high ridge. The sun and the heat took over very early and there were lots of climbs to challenge us.

Just before midday, we got to an ancient well preserved abbey. There was a very sacred small chapel gracing one end of the abbey and an Amstel Biere sign at the other end which we took as a sign from above and heeded its call. We stopped to enjoy a snack and soda and to re-meet some of the other pilgrims; a couple of German guys, Marcel and Rolf (the latter whom we'd met at our gite in Moissac the first night.

The heat and the hills took their toll on everyone but none more so than one poor pilgrim who collapsed half way up the last steep climb. Fortunately, there were other pilgrims nearby to offer assistance. When we came across the group, the fallen pilgrim was covered by an emergency blanket and an ambulance was on its way. Once the EMTs arrived and the pilgrim was in expert hands, everyone wordlessly pulled out their water bottles, took several refreshing gulps and continued on their way. An important reminder to stay hydrated even before you realize you're thirsty.

Two more hours and we were in Navarrenz in a chambre d'hote over a sports bar. It is actually better than it sounds as we have our own room and bathroom which is an indulgent luxury on a camino. It does have it's drawbacks as it separates us from the other pilgrims who bravely stay in the communal gites sharing 6 to 8 to a room and often only one bath and shower for all. Guess we'll just deal with the joyful guilt of being on our own.

Arzacq to Arthez de Bearn

Venison Cassoulet

This was a fairly unremarkable day other than the fact that my feet did not feel so tortured. The rain that has been teasing us all week showed up just long enough for us to deal with the hassle of digging out and putting on our ponchos. Dayton and I stopped into a little epicerie with a pilgrim welcome centre to have our lunch and, it turned out, to sit out the rain.

By blind good luck the variant route that Dayton had mapped out for the afternoon took us right by our gite ( which we never would have found if we'd taken the regular route). Our gite was an apartment at the back of a house and dinner was another superlative experience. Our host keeps five adorable sad-eyed hound dogs which he uses for hunting. The bounty of his hunting was offered for dinner - an amazing rich deer stew or cassoulet. Of course, it was not amazing to this vegetarian, nor was the fresh homemade smelly pate, but all the others devoured it. The repas also had plates and plates of fresh crudities, potatoes, celeriac salad, tabouleh and the de rigeur bread and wine. Oh, and all of this was preceded by our hosts version of an aperitif - whiskey neat or some anise tasting liquor. Bon appetit and bon nuit!