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The Way To Santiago Compostella - Part 1

The Way To Santiago Compostella - My Pilgrimage (Part 1)

In the month of May this year my wife Wendy and I went on a pilgrimage across Northern Spain, walking 810kms from the village of St Jean Pied de Port (France) to the city of Santiago Compostella (Spain) - the legendary final resting place of St James. According to legend St James - the beloved disciple of Jesus of Nazareth and brother of the apostle John - traveled to Santiago, possibly with with Mary mother of Jesus, in the 1st century CE and evangelised the natives of Galicia.

James the apostle returned to Jerusalem and was martyred by Agrippa. According to the legend his remains were returned to Santiago Compostella in a stone boat. They were later found by a Shepherd who saw a bright light in a field of stars (Compostella) and are now thought to be buried in the crypt beneath the Santiago Cathedral which is the end point of the pilgrimage. The following is a series of emails sent to our families during the course of our 32 day walk. It is accompanied by images taken on the Camino - which translates as "the way".

- Alastair Thompson (Scoop co-editor)



The pilgrim's passport - which records where we stayed on the pilgrimage

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Day 1

Hi all,

We have started the Camino. Walked 29kms today climbing 1300 meters and then down 400. Was a great view from the top - called the Cive pass - and is the pass that Napoleon and Charlemagne used to invade Spain. We are staying tonight in a giant dormitory with 70+ other pellerin (pilgrims). Later tonight we will be blessed in a special mass for pellerin (French for pilgrims) leaving Roncevalles which is the main starting place for the Camino as only the keen ones tackle the Cive pass.


Image: Wendy and an Italian pilgrim on top of the Cive pass


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Image: Roncevalles as seen from the Cive Pass

That said it was truly beautiful and I feel great for having not injured myself in the process, aside from a slightly sore knee.

Tomorrow it is all downhill which should make a pleasant change.

Before setting out from Jean Pied-de-Porte we stayed the night in Biarritz which is really nice. And before that we visited Wendy´s cousin in Kettering in the middle of England. And before that St Albans cathedral which is completely chaotic and delightfully un-anglican (it is Anglican).

Unfortunately my phone batteries are flat and I have not found a place to charge them yet therefore I suspect this is the best email to reach me on till further notice - knowing me I will not let that be for long.

Love

Alastair

************

Day 2

Hello again,

After a torrid night´s dreaming I was in a room full of pilgrims I awoke at 6am to the sound of Gregorian chanting and the lights above the beds being suddenly turned on while a cheery chap wandered about saying good morning in many languages.

Overnight it had snowed and a cold cold wind was blowing from the north across the Pyrenees as we set out for Zubiri (where we now are.) Today was only 21kms but with the weariness of yesterday in the bones was still fairly hard going.

The first half of the walk we meandered through fields of cows and sheep and small woodlands and passed through four Basque villages all of which consist of huge white and red stone three story houses built like bomb shelters, and to last. I finally discovered that yes they do stick the date of construction over the lintel when they build these houses when we saw a brand new one dated 1992. I had been wondering whether the dates got added later once the houses got really old.

The cold wind continued to blow and the icebreakers did their bit underneath the Gore-Tex parkas. At around 11am we finally found a coffee shop which was open and restocked our supply of baguettes cheese and sliced meat (plus some batteries for my camera).

The second half of the day was spent wandering through a never ending forest. We now know how Frodo felt on his trip to Rivendell. According to some wit here in Zubri it is the largest forest in all of Spain (I think she exaggerates). One of the younger pilgrims who powered past us up a steep climb earlier in the day was resting his sore knees beside the track in one of the deeper darker spots. Wendy tried to get him to wear her knee brace but he wasn´t taking. Definitely a case of the tortoise vs the hare I thought.


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Image: The Zubiri Pilgrims' Refuge

Feeling increasingly tortoise like we finally made our way into Zubiri about an hour ago to find the pilgrims refuge deserted of custodians but chock full of resting pilgrims.

Much love and more tomorrow from the trial.

Alastair (& Wendy watching over my shoulder)

************

Day 3

Hi everybody,

Day three involved a great deal of pilgrimy hardship. It being May 1st meant that the Spanish - who enjoy shutting their shops on normal days - had a field day and did not open all day. This meant no coffee, no hot chocolate and sad pilgrims throughout northern Spain.

We had the foresight to have bought some food, but ended up sharing some of it with a Canadian lady who snored a lot.

As we left town without coffee I became increasingly annoyed that although we were walking down a flat valley the pilgrims passage seemed to randomly take trips up and down adjacent hills for no apparent reason at all. Wendy wisely advised me that accepting things like this was part of what being a pilgrim was about.


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Image: A May Day party in streets of Pamplona

Eventually we got to the next town only to discover all the cafes shut. A fellow pilgrim asked at the pilgrims refuge to use the toilet only to be told, no, it is shut for the day.

We then toiled on, randomly climbing up and down the hillside before eventually coming to a nice stroll down a river at which point we discovered what the Basques do on May day, fish for trout and have bbqs by the river.

As the sun bore down on us we got increasingly fed up, hungry and hot and decided to take a siesta under a tree and then promptly fell asleep. Awaking at 2pm feeling much better we wandered up and down a few more ridges and arrived in the outskirts of Pamplona.

This is a remarkably tidy and beautiful city. Every 100 yards there are recycling bins and they clearly take much more attention than is normal with their paving. Obviously they have managed to solve the problem of getting services under their streets without having utility companies come and dig them up in a random fashion.


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Image: Inside the Pamplona Refuge

Pamplona also has the distinction of having the most delightful (and cheapest) pilgrims refuge we have come across so far. It features beds which do not have flourescent lights directly above them which are on till 10pm, a laundry with washing machines and dryers, lots of hot showers and a kitchen.

Having now had a lovely meal of omelet and bread - and with a plan to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast - we are about to go to sleep with full stomachs and will doubtless dream many complex and vivid dreams again as we both seem to have done since this voyage began.

With much love to you all

Alastair and Wendy

************

Hello again,

The number of pilgrims seemed to suddenly multiply on Wednesday and as a result the internet room in La Puenta la Reina got commandeered as a place for cycle pilgrims to sleep and I could not send you an update.

Day 4

Day 4 began with bacon and eggs (which in Spain is something of an oddity) and a spectacular blue sky as we walked out of Pamplona towards a range of hills to the south west topped with windmills. We quickly caught up with a couple of new Irish friends Finn and Peter and had a coffee before setting off again for the hills as part of a longish procession of pilgrims.


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Image: The Camino trail out of Pamplona (which can be seen in the background)

The day was special for a number of reasons not least the fact that this day we could see where we were going all day. First up the hill and then down it. The other drama occurred when Finn completely disappeared, and after a couple of hours Peter began to get worried. Wendy and I were dispatched to the next town to see if we could find her while Peter waited atop the hill. In the end we found her sitting in a bar so all's well that ends well.

The rest of the walk, 23km in all, took us to Puenta de la Reina where the hostels were packed with the suddenly swollen number of pilgrims. We ended up in a room full of very devout snorers one of whom made loud snorting noises continuously in the middle of the night and woke up all the other snorers. It is my plan to record an mp3 of the noise because it is something to behold.

The pilgrims in this hostel are of a group we are now calling the racers on account of the fact that they get up at 5am and race to the next town in order to secure lower bunks all the better to snore in.

************

Day 5

Day 5 began with bacon and eggs again, this time shared with a Northern Irish actor named Pepe who was ever so grateful. It was grand he said. And it was.

We have now decided that good protein meals make all the difference to achieving the necessary stamina for these long walks. It is rather extraordinary how tired we are becoming used to feeling now.

From Puenta de la Reina we set off south west again past endless fields of barley and then up a steep hill. We then passed through three smallish hill villages through the heat of the day, the second was called something which translates as "nest of vipers" and was followed by a Roman road which wasn´t at all straight.


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Image: The town they called "nest of vipers"

As we approached the next village first Wendy and then I saw snakes which I must say scared me a little and made me less inclined to take a siesta under a tree in future. The guide book tells us to make sure after we get bitten by the snake to catch it and kill it so we can take it to hospital with us. Which is useful advice indeed.

We had a cup of coffee in Lorca the next village before taking a break under a tree for lunch of bread, sardines, pate and chorizo sausage. Several of our pilgrim friends dropped by as we ate which was very pleasant and we then had a rest before heading onwards towards our ultimate goal Estella.


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Pilgrims rest from the sun in a tunnel under a road

As expected the racers had beaten us there by a few hours and filled up the main hostel´s 114 beds and the 2 other overflow hostels by 3pm. We consequently had to walk on up the hill a further 1.5km to a indoor soccer stadium which is doubling up as pilgrim accommodation.

We get to shower between soccer matches and the women have to be careful as one of the teams uses their showers. The passionate sounds of soccer supporters are expected to continue till 8.30pm at which time we will hopefully be able to begin listening to the melodic sounds of snoring in 19 part harmony for the rest of the night.


Image: The Estella overflow overflow refuge, in a soccer stadium.

Oddly its not as bad as it sounds.

Love to you all

Alastair and Wendy (who is sitting in the bar with Finn and Peter but who will read this later I expect)

************

Day 6

Hi,

Almost a week and we are now old hands at this Camino business. Arriving in Los Arcos today at 1.30pm we are now 140kms from where we started. Today was an unusually effortless 20kms possibly because we are for one thing getting used to walking long distances carrying packs and also because there were kind gradients and good walking surfaces. You start to notice these things rather intently.


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Image: The altarpiece in the Los Arcos parish church

This afternoon at 3.30pm a couple of hours after we arrived here, and after we had a lovely lunch, some thunder clouds gathered overhead and it started to rain. No thunder or lightning yet but it can be expected.

According to the forecast we have another four days of kind weather before a front from the Atlantic finally comes across Northern Spain bringing some cool air and real (i.e. not the sort you get from thunder clouds) rain.

At the beginning of the week one of the more experienced pilgrims (from Belgium) told us that after 4 to 5 days things would start to get easier and this is certainly the case. The pack feels lighter and the legs have turned into a serious means of transportation.

There is something rather amazing at looking into the distance from the top of hills and seeing mountain ranges a long way off, and then passing through them, all by the power of your feet.

Meanwhile the pilgrim path remains crowded today and I hope that the slower pilgrims who arrived after us today have found a place to stay. So far we have been lucky, but it is luck that comes to the swift of feet and so I expect that we will soon become the racers that I criticised yesterday.

Till tomorrow.

Love Alastair and Wendy

************

Day 7

Hi,

Seven days down 24 at least to go!!!

We are starting to feel the strain a bit and last night stayed in the luxury of a pension rather than in the pilgrims' refuge. We had a bath and a good night's sleep which made a very pleasant change.

I have now managed to finally find a charger for the phone and so that will be on a bit more than it has been.

Day 7 was long - 28kms - the last 10 of which were in the heat of the day walking into the city of Logrono.

The day started with a beautiful walk through fields to the town of San Sol. We started at dawn and the light was beautiful. The path was wet from showers the previous day and our feet became clogged with mud. Along the way there were poppies red and purple among the Barley fields.


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Image: Poppies

We had coffee in Torres which was just after San Sol and then walked another 9kms to Viana which is on the outer outskirts of Logrono which is a fairly large city.

According to the books Logrono has a population of 135,000 which would make it about the size of Wellington, however with everything 6 stories high for at least 12 blocks in every direction from the center it seemed much larger than that.


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Image: The Viana parish church portico

Wendy´s feet had been troubling her on the way into Viana and were pretty painful and so the rest and bath afforded by a stay in some proper accommodation was much appreciated.

We will send another email about day 8 (today) later today. It remains very hot today and hopefully we will not expire.

Love
Alastair and Wendy

************

Hi everybody,

Four days of Camino later we have come a very long way. We are now in the city of Burgos having travelled 310kms by foot so far - approximately as far as Waiouru from Wellington - and are having our first rest day. Partly as a result of over doing it and partly due to the fact it is freezing cold and raining.

Day 8

Day 8 took found us waking up in the lovely city of Logrono somewhat later than usual and leaving our hotel at around 8am by which time pilgrims from the previous town had already caught up with us.

We walked out of town and by 11 it was heating up we rounded a nice lake, went up and over a hill and then into the town of Navarette where a large group of peligrinos was forming around the entrance to the pelegrino refuge massaging their feet and generally discussing how hot it was.


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Image: Navarette

The next town (according to most guides) was 16 kms away with no water stops in between and so most were reluctant to chance it in the heat of the day. However our instructions told us there was a town about 4 kms out with water.

In fact it was closer to 6.5kms out and had not only water but a lovely refuge - one of the nicest we had found to date. We had a pleasant evening in Ventosa and tolerably good sleep and departed the next morning planning on a fairly long trip to catch up with some friends in the town of Santa Domingo some 30 kms away.

************

Day 9

Spanish rain - which means rainclouds without rain - greeted the morning as we set out accompanied by a wind at our backs over a small pass and then across cereal fields and past a hill with a giant stick on top of it which marks the spot where the knight Roland slayed the giant nine-foot-tall Moor of Najerra by stabbing him in his belly button.

The cool weather was perfect for a long trip and we stopped briefly in Najerra to have some breakfast and purchase some medicine for cold sores (I had a couple on my lips) before heading up past some high cliffs out of town. The cliffs were home to a large number of Iberian storks which are really cool birds and you can easily see why the myth of them delivering babies came to life. You see them gliding into town with large bunches of twigs in their beaks.


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Image: Iberian Storks on the cliffs above Najerra

Once out of Najerra we headed for Santa Domingo via a couple of smaller towns the first of which, Azofra, had the distinction of a refuge with double rooms - on a trail where the average size of dormitories is closer to 40 beds.

The next town Ciruena was very odd in that the village seemed to be completely dead but there was a brand new subdivision with about 80 huge flash houses each with at least 4 habitations in it but seemingly without any residents at all. No cars no people, nothing.


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Image: The ghost town of Ciruena

Another 6kms remained to take us as to Santa Domingo and we arrived there at around 4pm with fairly sore feet and tired legs. Only problem there was no room in the refuges and our friends Peter and Finn had moved on to the next town Granon.

Granon has a great reputation as a place to stay however, and so we decided we were up for another 6kms and walked on to Grannon arriving at around 6.30pm after a 11 hour day and 36kms (by our book - others said 38).

Granon was wonderful. The entire village turned up for a mass with choir and incense at 7pm. Alastair nearly fainted waiting for the pilgrims blessing. A collective meal of soup and salad followed at 8pm then a prayer service in the church where we then slept - moving a few of the pews over to make room on the floor.


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Image: The Virgin of Granon

It was truly wonderful and made the 36-38 km work seem very worthwhile.

************

Day 10

Another cool day this time in the mist and a relatively late start at around 8.30am followed by a fairly longish trek slightly uphill. We went over wavy hills through a few villages to the town of Belorado and had lunch. We had decided we would go on beyond here so long as it didn´t rain too much until we found a nice place to stay.

We were walking with Peter and Finn and Pepe the actor - all Irish - and sung songs and had a pleasant day. The mist came down around us and we eventually decided to go further than we had anticipated stopping at around 6pm in the town of Villafranca which was about 28kms along the trail at the foot of a mountain range.

Alastair annoyed the refuge manager by tramping in in his wet shoes to view the dormitories which were large and full of peligrinos in various states of wetness. We decided to see if we could find somewhere nicer to stay and found a three bedroom apartment with a bath for 90 euros for the night which was perfect and meant we had a good nights sleep - much needed for Alastair as he had a tough night with his sore face.

Ambitious achievements in walking were followed by ambitious plans and we plotted to set out for Burgos the following day 40kms away with the intention of then having a rest day.


(continues… days 11 - 22 tomorrow)


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