Starting Out | Days 1 to 6

Our original idea was to stick to the guidebook but split the first two days of the traditional journey into four days while we found our rhythm. Well that was the intent anyway! We found that we were far more out of shape than we realized, but determination set in and we ignored blistered toes, aching limbs and muscles and very sore feet and just kept going, crossing the western edge of the Pyrenees and into Spain. This part of the trip through Basque Country was undeniably gorgeous.

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August 26 | Day 1

St. Jean Pied-du-Port to Valcarlos along the Charlemagne Route

StatsHiked: 11.8 kilometers; Weather: misty and cool; People Met: 0; Time on Trail: 4h/15m

Route: We took the alternative route through the Spanish Gate to Valcarlos – crossed the Puente (bridge) out of St. Jean Pied-du-Port, followed the highway to the western edge of the Pyrenees Mountains, crossing into Spain, and Basque Country, just before the optional route through Arneguy, which we took. Then we climbed up into Valcarlos to the municipal albergue for the night. Stopping for a beer at the one and only restaurant in the town!

There were far more hills than we expected, but with lots of rest stops we made the climb, even had lunch on the trail. We were the only ones headed to Valcarlos, so we had the trail all to ourselves.

The albergue didn’t have an attendant so Tracy waited to see if anyone showed up while Alan headed back up the hill to the small grocery store to pick up supplies for the next day’s lunch. He checked the tourist office – which was closed, the post office – which had a cranky old guy who said he wasn’t the tourist office; then at the restaurant next to the grocery store.

Our waitress from earlier knew the key pad code and gave it to Alan and let him know that the hospitaliero would be by later in the evening. The hospitaliero stopped by around 9 pm to stamp our credentials and take care of the fee.

Since we were the only ones there we took advantage with a long, hot shower. Then relaxed with hot coffee and tea while we did laundry.

We were surprised to find that they speak French in Valcarlos, but being so close to the border we assumed that the border had changed often throughout history. So, our first night in Spain, we were still getting directions in French!

Sites Visited: Porte D’Espagne (Spanish Gate) — stopped again on our way out of St. Jean Pied-du-Port this morning.

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August 27 | Day 2

Valcarlos to Roncesvalles along the Charlemagne route

Stats: Hiked: 12.2 kilometers; Weather: cool and overcast; People Met: 5; Time on Trail: 5h/45m

Route: Heading out of Valcarlos, we hiked along the N-135 highway, which would be our companion for most of the day. We took the optional green path that passed through Gañecoleta not realizing that we would go downhill only to climb back out of the ravine in a couple of kilometers. Since we climbed all but the last 15 minutes of today’s hike, on reflection it would have been easier to stay on the N-135, the grade is gentler than the climb out of the ravine. It was a beautiful side trip and we enjoyed it despite the huffing and puffing that was ruined the quiet solitude. Once again on the N-135 we climbed even higher and, upon finding a turnout, took a break for a snack and rest. A litter further along we again left the N-135 to drop into Camino, which wasn’t really a town as much as a place. Continuing our climb up Puerto Ibañeta to Ibañeta pass – 1,055 m [gasp!] – before gently descending into Roncesvalles. The last 15 minutes decending into Roncesvalles was the most beautiful scenery to date. It was like walking through a forest designed by Walt Disney.

Our home for the night was the beautiful convent, which has been serving pilgrims of the Camino since the 12th century. It is the most revered pilgrim refuge connecting the Augustinian’s with the care of Santiago pilgrims. Though it now has a modern wing with nice cubicle bunks, pack storage and modern facilities.

We enjoyed our time in Roncesvalles, meeting our bunkmates Antoinette (Ireland) and Mary Jean (Canada). Antoinette joined us at La Posada for drinks as well as her friend Hugh (Ireland), they are part of a walking club in Ireland. Antoinette regaled us with the story of planning her Camino. First asking her husband if he’d mind getting along without her while she took a hike in Spain, then a week before leaving reminding him that there were meals in the freezer. He finally got around to asking how long she thought she’d be gone the night before she left and nearly had a heart attack when she said five to six weeks. We laughed until tears rolled down our face!

We had our first official pilgrims’ menu dinner: soup, bread, wine, fish (with face, tail, and skin), fries and yogurt, it’s a lot of food but we needed it after the days hard climb. Sat at a table for six with Mark (Australia) and his fiancée (UK) – never did get her name – and a French couple who spoke little English. Mark and his fiancée were doing the first week starting in St. Jean, then taking the train to Sarria to do the last week as they only had two weeks of vacation. A nice couple; we saw them a few more times the next day as well.

Sites Visited: Valcarlos: not on any map but a cool garden with scarecrows made with mannequin heads and a chicken coop with blue and white chickens. Ibañeta Pass: site of the church and hospice of San Salvador built in 1127 to serve Santiago pilgrims; Roland’s Monument: said to mark the spot where the sound of his horn (Oliphant) was heard though too late to be rescued by Charlemagne and his army. Roncesvalles: Capilla de Sancti Spiritus (Chapel of the Holy Spirit) 12th century Romanesque (also referred to as Silo de Charlomagno as it is the reputed burial place of the slaughtered rear-guard of Charlemagne’s army) and Capilla de Santiago (Chapel of St. James) 13th century, Gothic

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August 28 | Day 3

Roncesvalles to Biskarreta/Gerendiain/Viskarret

Stats: Hiked: 11.8 kilometers; Weather: cloudy/66°f (19°c); People Met: 2; Time on Trail: 5h

Route: Today our hike was primarily on natural paths, beautiful and quiet under a canopy of leafy trees, but we did cross the N-135 freeway quite a few times – passing through the towns of Burguete, with the beautiful church,  Iglesia de San Nicolás de Barri, and Espinal, where we stopped for café con leche.

[Cafe con leche – an espresso-rich coffee with milk and sugar – the most delicious thing found on the Camino. If you’re a coffee drinker, you’ll love this!]

Hiking through the cool, forested area between Roncesvalles and Alto de Mezquiriz was just lovely, there were lots of other hikers, everyone chatting and having a good time with yesterday’s climb up Ibaneta a distant memory. We were amazed by one young couple, acrobats from Madrid, who had taxied their bags ahead and planned on walking 50 kilometers (31 miles!) to Pamplona.

[There are many types of pilgrim’s on the Camino, on bikes – “pedal-grinos;” on foot – “peregrinos;” not carrying their backpacks – “taxi-grinos;” making reservations – “reserva-grinos” — we were as traditional as we could be with all our high-tech gear, but we carried our own stuff, did not make reservations (at least until Santiago when we celebrated the conclusion of our journey with a hotel) and never, ever taxied our bags ahead. There are many views on all of this and we’ll discuss it again and again throughout our journey and the pages of our blog on the Camino.]

Leaving the cool forest floor we headed up the Alto de Mezquiriz – 955 m – then down the other side, eventually crossing the Rio Erro on stepping stones before descending into Biskarreta-Gerendiain-Viskarret (the town has three names – one Spanish, one Basque, one German – delivering the mail has got to be confusing), we stopped and had lunch on the path at a built in seat along the highway and found our way into Biskarreta before noon, stopping early as we had planned – our original plan had been to split the first two days in the guidebook into 4 days until we got our “Camino legs” – which took us well over 14 days in reality. The day was primarily downhill with the exception of Alto de Mezquiriz, oddly it’s harder on your legs to go downhill.

We stayed at a private albergue, the Corazón Puro Pensión, run by a Hungarian couple – Barbara and Istary – who spent a year in South Africa running a restaurant, before moving to Spain and opening a pensión on the Camino. They have each hiked the Camino twice and once each all the way to Finisterre. They also speak four languages. For 18 Euro we had a bed in a private room, a shared bath, dinner and breakfast – it was a great deal!

Barbara had wonderful suggestions for places to stay that she really enjoyed and thought we’d really enjoy the monastery in Zabaldika, so we decided to head there the following day. In addition to her Camino recommendations Barbara had lots of advice as well from her two treks. Istary made us broccoli soup at dinner, Barbara told us he researched online and found that broccoli is very good for the knees – he had noticed that we were limping a bit, very kind of him.

We had a great chat with them after dinner until bedtime, a really great couple – they apparently thought well of us and agreed with a lot of our views on travel and culture. Barbara asked us to find her on FaceBook when we get back and to send her an e-mail letting her know that we made it to Santiago, so very nice! We highly recommend their pensión, and their company.

Sites Visited: Santiago signpost in Roncesvalles stating the 790 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela; Burguete: Igeslia de San Nicolás de Barri, a saint identified as protector of pilgrims, though apparently not a protector of women, according to the guidebook many women in this little town were burnt at the stake as witches during the 16th century; Biskarreta is also the beginning of stage II of the Codex Calixtinus a 12th century illuminated manuscript detailing the route to Santiago de Compostela, also considered the first travel guidebook.

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August 29 | Day 4

Bizkarreta to Zabaldika 

Stats: Hiked: 21.9 kilometers; Weather: sunny/72°f (22°c); People Met: 11; Time on Trail: 7h

Route: From the pensión in Biskarreta we hiked through Linzoain with it’s ancient pilgrim’s well, then uphill over Alto de Erro – 810 m – and down past the ruins at Venta del Puerto, a former pilgrim inn that is now in ruin and houses cattle, crossed the N-135, where I fell down the hill just before the highway [chagrin and total embarrassment still plays across my face as I write this, but thankfully no real injury was sustained], on the opposite side of the N-135 we stumbled, pun intended, upon some rock art left by other pilgrims and some Camino sign art graffiti that was rather clever, then hiked over the Puente de la Rabia bridge near Zubiri – the medieval bridge is thought to have magical powers for animals with rabies – then on through Larrasoana. We had originally planned to stay in Larrasoana, but thankfully had already changed our plans and were headed to Zabaldika as we found they were closed due to a bedbug infestation. Passing through Larrasoana, we crossed the medieval bridge on the outskirts and traveled uphill to Irotz. Here we stopped for a beer in a cute little beer garden with beer on tap and a brick pizza oven that was part of someone’s backyard. Upon leaving Irotz we crossed a smaller wooden bridge, passed by another medieval font, and then climbed the hill to the monastery in Zabaldika where we found a room for the night.

Once settled, we had the unique experience of using a washboard sink for the first (but not the last) time. To this day I still say that the clothes only get wet, but not really clean with a washboard, but “when in Rome.”

Dinner at the monastery’s Parroquail Albergue was a pitch-in and help kind of family affair that was fun and lively. Got to chat with Klaus (Germany) and two of his companions whose names I don’t remember, Enzo and Elena (Italy) and Jose (Spain) who’s nickname is “Pepe” during dinner and clean up after. A great group of people, we really enjoyed the family style dining and the conversation. Pepe was able to speak with Enzo and Elena and translate their comments and questions for the rest of us. Klaus told the story of how he started his Camino at his front door and using his vacation time each year has hiked over the Alps, through France, into Spain, will make Leon this year and Santiago next year.

After dinner we attended mass in the 13th century church, in Spanish; met with the nuns, Enzo and Elena, and head nun, Sister Marasol for a short, spiritual retreat in the choir loft of the church. Afterwards we climbed the bell tower’s circular staircase to go up and ring the ancient bell for luck on our journey.

It was our first 20+ kilometer day and a great day all around, felt strong from beginning to end and completely enjoyed the monastery, many thanks to Barbara for the recommendation.

Sites Visited: Puente de la Rabia, medieval bridge, it was believed in medieval times that if you walked your animals three times around the tower that they would be cured of rabies, hence the name.

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August 30 | Day 5

Zabaldika to Cizur Menor

Stats: Hiked: 14.6 kilometers; Weather: sunny/72°f (22°c); People Met: 2; Time on Trail: 6h/30m

Route: From the monastery we headed back down to the trail along the N-135, stopping at the Parque fuente for a break around sun up, then skirting Monte Nerval before climbing up the smaller Monte Miravalles, and then dropping down to cross the beautiful medieval bridge to Trinidad de Arre or Arre. Here we stopped for breakfast at a small café and had some of the best café con leche of the Camino. Arre, on the outskirts of Pamplona, is a beautiful city and well worth a visit. We continued past several small towns/suburbs until we reached the Puente Magdelena, next crossing into a park-like area near the medieval city walls of Pamplona. We followed the route past the old walls and up to the drawbridge entrance of Portal de Zumalacarregi (Portal de France).

Following the yellow arrows and street markers we found the cathedral – and took some photos in the plaza of the baby head statues – then leaving the traditional Camino trail and the tiny, narrow streets where they run the bulls, worked our way over to the bull ring, the Plaza del Castillo, then back onto the Camino. We stopped at a small grocery store for supplies and headed out of the city through the large park and uphill into Cizur Menor.

We weren’t sure where to stay but decided to grab a bite to eat at a café (had a wonderful dessert but don’t remember what it was called) which worked out well as our albergue, Albergue Sanjuanista – run by the Knights of Malta – had limited options for dinner in the tiny kitchen, but lunch was so filling that we snacked on chorizo and fruit for dinner.

After our light dinner we attended the Knights of Malta talk in the small chapel – the history of the Knights and their role helping pilgrims to Jerusalem and the Camino de Santiago de Compostela – and visited with Jessica (Denver, CO) she was walking alone and Kirsten (Northern Germany), a medical student who studied in the US while in high school. We enjoyed discussing the differences in the US and European educational systems with Kirsten, she also gave us some blister care advise – an important and often discussed topic on the Camino.

Later that night we realized there was a festival going on and enjoyed the music that continued until 3 am, more so than most of the other pilgrims, but when you’ve raised a houseful of kids, great music isn’t a deterrent to sleep.

Sites Visited: Puente Magdelena a 12th century bridge and traditional symbol of the Camino; Portal de Zumalacarregi – medieval drawbridge and traditional entrance for pilgrims from France; Santa Maria le Real Cathedral (gothic with neoclassical façade) where we took photos of Alan with the weird baby head statues; Pamplona Bull Ring and Hemmingway’s memorial bust; Café Iruna (where Hemmingway based some of his books) and La Perla Hotel (where he stayed in the 1920s – his room is still intact) in Plaza del Castillo; Knights of Malta chapel in Cizur Menor.

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August 31 | Day 6

Cizur Menor to Puenta la Reina

Stats: Hiked: 19 kilometers; Weather: sunny/70°f (21°c); People Met: 6; Time on Trail: 6h/30m

Route: We headed out early, just before sun up and hit the Cruce where Galar was visible at the top of a small hill (this was where Charlemagne’s forces defeated the Muslim army in the 8th century) but rather than climbing another hill we continued on into Zaiquiegui to a large private albergue with an outdoor cafe, where we grabbed some breakfast. Next we headed up a rather steep hill (Alto del Perdon – 790 m). The locals were jogging up this rather steep hill – talk about crushing your spirits! About halfway up the hill was a small medieval fountain with a great story, which we read later in the guidebook.

Upon reaching the summit, after 350 meters that were nearly vertical, at the Hill of Forgiveness we were overjoyed to find there was an enterprising young man running a coffee truck. After feeding Tracy’s caffeine addiction and taking some photos we continued down over some very loose rock – where we watched a young lady from Korea with an enormous pack skipping, yes skipping, down the very rocky ground. We snacked on wild berries, which lined the path, on the way to Uterga, where we stopped for lunch.

We passed through Muruzabal and Obanos without stopping and met Steve (Liverpool), who slowed his pace to chat with us a while on the stretch between the two cities. He had been living in Pamplona for 10 years teaching English, and rather than doing the traditional Camino, liked to walk the part between Pamplona and Puente la Reina on the weekends. After Obanos we followed the quiet road into Puenta La Reina, stopping at the first albergue, the Hotel Jakue.

The Hotel Jakue, while a traditional hotel, also runs an albergue on the ground floor. It had both private and cubicle-style room choices and wonderful showers in the ladies shower room with multiple shower heads and massage action, it was heavenly!

After getting our beds, dropping our packs, taking a shower and getting laundry started (they had a washer and dryer) we were more than happy to sit in the beer garden and relax. We chatted for a while with James (England), our bunkmate, about his decision to go on the Camino, his job in software and his kids, two boys. We also ran into Jennifer again and decided to have dinner together at the hotel dining room. While waiting on laundry, we met Jim and Sheila (Seattle, WA); Michelle and Jeffrey (Hamilton, Canada) – who we became great friends with and are hoping to see in Carcassonne later this year – and had a great time chatting, sympathizing and laughing about our trials to date and the amazingly fit locals jogging up the Hill of Forgiveness.

After dinner we went into town and saw the famous bridge and stopped in to see the interior of Iglesia del Santiago and its gilded statue of St. James.

Sites Visited: Galar (seen from a distance) – the site of Charlemagne’s defeat of the Muslim army in the 8th century; Puente Reniega, medieval fountain – the guide book has a story that a medieval pilgrim reached this spot dying of thirst. The devil, disguised as a pilgrim, offered to show him a spring if he would only renounce God. The pilgrim refused and St. James himself miraculously appeared revealing the spring and quenching his thirst with water in a scallop shell – the guidebook also mentioned that the well is dry, but when we went by it was damp with moisture – hmm, perhaps making a comeback; the Hill of Forgiveness Peregrino Monument; Iglesia del Santiago (Church of St. James); and Puenta la Reina, Romanesque bridge commissioned by the wife of Sancho III and subsequently named after her, the Queen’s Bridge, also the name of the town. It has six arches spanning a very large waterway, the Rio Arga.

See a complete list of our day-to-day Camino experiences.

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