Saturday, April 30, 2022

Day 7 - 29 April - Estella to Los Arcos

As UB40 famously sang:

Red, red wine, goes to my head                  

Makes me forget it’s usually five quid a glass.    

But here at the fountain it’s free. Free my arse. 

There ain’t any here                                              

I’ll stick to the beer

Back to Casa Carmen for breakfast this morning and thereafter we hit the road at just after eight o’clock. A forecast clear, crisp blue sky greeted us which meant shorts on, raincoat packed tightly away in the rucksack and a liberal sprinkling of factor fifty slapped all over the bonce. We strode out of Estella in the knowledge that one of the Camino’s iconic experiences awaited us; the wine fountain at the vineyards belonging to Bodegas Irache. Yes, can you believe it, adjacent to one of the plentiful drinking water fountains along The Way, there is a wine fountain, dispensing free red wine to thirsty travellers. Okay, they lock up access to the fountain at night but from 08.00 a.m. in the morning - free red wine. Wine. Free. Red wine. Good red wine. Mrs C likes her red wine. Tempranillo especially. Bodegas Irache make a good Tempranillo. Oh the anticipation. Mrs C approaches the tap, tentatively turns the tap and ……….. nothing. Bloody nothing. It’s quarter to nine in the morning and bloody nothing. Nada. Zilch. Some bugger’s had the bloody lot. Not a good start to the day.

Disappointed just doesn’t cut it. But we had no option other than to take it on the chin. On the bright side, at least it wasn’t beer.  

We had a thirteen mile walk ahead of us today with Los Arcos our destination and we opted for the scenic route option along the fringes of the Montejurra mountain. What a good decision. Wow! And a bit more wow. The scenery was spectacular. The most spectacular of the adventure so far. We ascended three hundred metres via gentle forest paths and mountain trails for two miles or so before descending gradually, over the next seven or eight miles, towards Los Arcos. We took provisions with which to sustain us before we reached our first re-fuelling stop in the tiny village of Luquin and thereafter to allow three rest stops en route, chosen mainly with spectacular outlooks in mind.

The final three miles or so into Los Arcos was via a wide, comfortable path through fields of vines, wheat and canola (rapeseed). All this oneness with nature could possibly turn me into a hippy. If only I had long hair. If only I had hair! I have however treated myself to a necklace which probably also counts?

We arrived in Los Arcos at around two o’clock. To make up for the wine fountain disappointment, we found a bar in a small square outside a church and sat in the sunshine drinking beer. After a brief lapse during which we departed said bar, we quickly rectified this mistake and returned for more beer and then food. Thereafter, we retired to our accommodation at a ridiculously early hour and my calculations suggest that we are hitting the sack approximately half an hour earlier each night. At this rate, we will be going to bed before we wake up by the time we get to Santiago.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Day 6 - 28 April - Puente la Reina to Estella

As Dionne Warwick famously sang: 

If you see me walking down the street               

And I start to cry, it’s probably my feet             

Walk on by....

We set off from Puente la Reina at around half past seven in the morning, exiting the town over the stone bridge from which the town derives its name. As was forecast, we had a light drizzle to contend with but not sufficient to warrant a fashion disaster poncho. Just as well because Mrs C’s poncho is already beginning to disintegrate. In any event the rain gave up mid morning and whilst the sun never did quite burst through, it made for nice walking weather.

An early coffee stop in the village of MaƱeru provided a suitable fillip for the fourteen mile day ahead of us. Aside from a lung busting, steep but mercifully short ascent two miles in, today’s walk has been a nice long stroll alongside farmland and rolling countryside providing a patchwork of spring colours.

I have to admit though that Dionne is not the only one whose feet are hurting a bit. Fortunately, I have my Crocs with me. A fashion crime they may be but, once on, they transform my feet into sophisticated tracking devices which deliver me, pain free, to a suitable drinking establishment. Tonight, in the town of Estella, they delivered us to Casa Carmen and who should be holding court there but our New York ex-fire fighter buddies Albert and Joe. Albert seemed particularly keen to brush up on his rude-words-in-an-english-accent repertoire so I was pleased to help him out in that respect. Joe? I have to confess I don’t understand a word he says, with the exception of “cawffee”, such is his NY drawl. He was pointing to his foot at one stage and I think he might have been saying it was a bit hurty but I don’t think even Dionne Warwick could have been certain. Either way, great guys and never a dull moment and all that.

Six days in already. Irrespective of hurty feet, we’re loving it. Tomorrow, we get to visit a wine fountain. Rest assured, we will not walk on by.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Day 5 - 27 April - Pamplona to Puente la Reina

As Lynn Anderson famously sang:

Alto del perdon                                                        

I never promised you a snog in the garden

Up and at it this morning at half past seven, breakfasting at a cafe in the heart of Pamplona before hitting the road at just after eight. Still feeling a little bit sore about that kiss last night but what can a bloke do?

The early morning light rain worked its way up to heavier rain throughout the morning and we weren’t much out of the city before the ponchos were called for. 

Today we were to pass one of the Camino’s most iconic landmarks, the Alto del Perdon - the hill/ height of forgiveness. Located at an altitude of 770 metres and providing fantastic panoramic views, it is best known for a sheet metal monument representing pilgrims from various eras. This of course meant a long, uphill trek which took the whole morning, in the rain, and with but one refreshment stop from which I was ejected! Or at least I thought I had been. There I was, stood in the queue for takeaway coffees and donuts, when the guy running the place started gesticulating at me. Remember, it was raining heavily outside and there I was with my poncho dripping wet in his establishment. Michael (from Australia, not Michael from Switzerland of whom I have my man crush) said “I think he wants you to get out mate” so I sheepishly backed out of the door wondering why he had picked on me and not any of the other similarly poncho’d-up punters. Turned out my poncho-covered rucksack, as I backed up against the wall, kept turning the shop light switch off and on. The guy was simply trying to get me to move away from the switch. The coffee and donuts were very nice by the way.

The hill of forgiveness. Yes, I need to put last night behind me so Mrs C has promised not to snog Ernest Hemingway again and I will knock this would-be Michael bromance on the head (that's Michael from Switzerland not Michael from Australia who I still haven’t forgiven for ejecting me from the takeaway).

What goes up must come down and after the Alto del Perdon it was largely downhill on the walking front and uphill on the weather front as the rain stopped and we even saw a bit of sunshine late afternoon. We enjoyed a very nice refreshment break in the small town of Uterga and later took a detour off the main route to go see a church which, it transpired, only opens on Saturdays. Fortunately, the bar in Obanos had more appealing opening hours and that’s where we had the first beer of the day a while later.

Then it was down into Puente la Reina, a beautiful little town, where we had booked a room for the night in a private albergue. Our subsequent bar crawl ended up being just the one bar; it was so nice we stayed for more drinks and then our meal of forgiveness. The Alto del Perdon had worked its magic. Sorry Michael.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Day 4 - 26 April - Urdaniz to Pamplona

As Herman’s Hermits famously sang:

Woke up this morning feelin’ fine                        

Got the Camino on my mind                              

Last night I took my girl down Pamplona way   

Next thing I know she’s snogging Ernest Hemingway

After a communal breakfast with the lovely crew at Urdaniz, we were the last to leave the hostal following a serious bout of fannying around by yours truly. Sometimes you just have to take time with your rucksack strap adjustments. We hit the road at just after half past eight. It was cold but not for too long. Once again, my knees were on display and looking extremely attractive. 

Today’s walk into Pamplona was always going to be the least painful day thus far. Eleven miles of relatively gentle descent, pretty much following the River Arga into Pamplona through woodland paths and trails. Mrs C and I have been to Pamplona before and we were looking forward to re-acquainting ourselves with the numerous pintxos (tapas) bars in and around the city centre.

We deserved a treat so we had a hotel room booked right in the city centre. Having checked in at 2.00 p.m. we caught up with the necessary washing of grundies etc and then hit (okay, meekly brushed?) the town at around 4.30 p.m. First to Bar Goucho for a couple of beers and pintxos then on to a second bar where we sat on stools at a high table, looking out onto the street, when who should see and join us but Michael, our Swiss doctor friend who we met last night. I think I’m beginning to develop a man crush on Michael so it was no surprise when I invited him to join us on a quick reccy of the Cathedral before we located another bar where we were joined by Gwendolyn and Danny who we had been bumping into regularly since Orisson. However, before too long respective needs must and Michael needed a proper dinner, I needed a beer and Gwendolyn and Danny probably needed to escape so Mrs C and I headed back in the general direction of our hotel. And then it nearly all went horribly wrong.

Our next venue saw us bump into Swiss couple Charles and Trudi who were at Orisson with us, not that we had opportunity to properly meet at the time. Anyway, they were very excited having earlier visited Cafe Iruna where writer and serial womaniser Ernest Hemingway hangs out so, after we finished our beers and another modest round of pintxos, they took us to said cafe. Being the ever considerate bloke that I am, I’m busy getting the beers in whilst Mrs C is powdering her nose. So, halfway through my beer and I’m thinking “that girl of mine’s been a long time” so off I go to try find her. Imagine my surprise when I happen upon this;

It was a relief when Mrs C subsequently explained that, minus her reading glasses she had inadvertently mistaken Mr Hemingway for me. Oh how we laughed at my paranoid jumping to ridiculous assumptions.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Day 3 - 25 April - Burguete to Urdaniz

As the infamous Black Lace song goes: 

Arga doo doo doo                                             

Drop your rucksack in the stream                     

Arga doo doo doo                                               

But only if you’re Martin Sheen

So, if yesterday was our first day proper on the Camino, then today was our first proper day. And by that I mean the sun was shining, there were plenty of rest stop opportunities and I had my shorts on. Scenery was seen, regular refreshment was taken and my knobbly knees were unleashed. Lovely.

We awoke to an early morning mist which was already losing out to the sunshine. After brekky at the hotel, we hit the road at half past eight and it was all rather lovely, passing through countryside more rolling than mountainous. We walked for a couple of hours with Albert and Joe, two wise-cracking retired fire fighters from New York. Great company and as New York as a Brit would hope New Yorkers would be. After our first re-fuelling stop, the two of us bade adios to Albert and Joe and set off once more. We hope we will see them again.

The next stage of the day involved more up and down than we had been expecting, through forest and woodland paths, although nothing to rival yesterday’s experience. However the combination of rocky and muddy equalled slippy so it warranted due respect. And another beer once completed. 

The third stage of today’s near fourteen miles was a long descent into Zubiri with the rocky, muddy path getting rockier and muddier and consequently slippier. A stone bridge over the River Arga marks the entrance to Zubiri, recognisable to those who have seen the film The Way as the bridge over which the actor Martin Sheen accidentally drops his rucksack into the fast flowing waters below. It could have been my Stars in Their Eyes moment. “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be……(walks into the dry ice mist, then seconds later re-emerges as)…Martin Sheen”. But honestly, you’d have to be an idiot to accidentally drop your rucksack over the side of this bridge. Now, whilst I accept that I do have form in terms of being an idiot, this level of idiocy was beyond me. Thus, my moment of fame was denied me so we made do with two large beers and a couple of large bocadillos (big baguete sandwiches).

Thereafter we proceded the final couple of miles to Urdaniz where we had booked a private hostal for the night. Delightful. We sat in the late afternoon sunshine in the hostal garden drinking beer and chatting with some of the other guests. There were ten of us in total and Mrs C and I shared a small dorm with Michael from Switzerland, the type of bloke who makes you wish you were more European. Michael is a doctor with his own practice, speaks five languages fluently (including Spanish which he learnt three years ago for “something to do”) and was knowledgable and interesting on just about any topic you could throw at him. A real gentleman. I couldn’t stand him. Only joking.

The ten of us enjoyed our three course pilgrim menu evening meal together, drinking red wine and generally talking rubbish. It was a lovely evening, made all the more interesting as one of our number was the erstwhile DJ Simon Mayo who must now have time on his hands having been relieved of his Radio 2 drive time slot a couple of years back. Presumably, the Radio 2 bigwigs must have got fed up with his cheesy music choices. All together now, agar doo doo doo….

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Day 2 - 24 April - Orisson to Burguete

As the famous Tina Turner song goes: 

I can’t stand the rain, on my poncho…..

It’s now 8.30 pm in Spain as I gaze out of our hotel bedroom window to admire a clear blue sky framing the lush fields and mountains of the Pyrenees. Earlier today, we walked a hard twelve miles along the Ruta Napoleon, a stretch of the Camino many believe to be the most picturesque of the entire five hundred mile route. But you’ll have to take their word for it because we saw next to nothing of it. To be fair, the wet mist that enveloped us throughout was better than the forecast of day-long rain but we did eventually have to resort to ponchos. No one looks good in a poncho (with the possible exception of Quasimodo), not even the nice young German ladies who powered past us, presumably on zer veigh to anuzzer feefty five kilometers in vun day. They did look very nice though when I bade them guten morgen in the communal washroom facilities, first thing this morning.

Anyway, after breakfast at the refuge we set off at 8.00 a.m. heading slowly but surely to the 1,450m high point of the Ruta Napoleon before dropping down fairly steeply towards Roncesvalles and then a welcome level stretch of path in to our destination for the day at Burguete. “Dropping down” is a good description for the descent because the steep, uneven path works your knees hard, leaving them feeling very wibbly wobbly and increasing the likelihood of taking a stumble. It was only four days since this stretch was covered in snow but that had now dissipated leaving soggy, boggy conditions underfoot. But we made it.

The writer Ernest Hemingway was apparently a regular visitor to Burguete. I know that's not desperately exciting and neither is this picture but it’s the most scenic thing we saw today.

I can’t tell you anything about the wonderful scenery for obvious reasons but, after yesterday’s poor showing on the beer front, I can tell you that today’s first beer was taken at La Posada de Roncesvalles with three more at the hotel in Burguete prior to dinner. 

A nice bit of privacy tonight for Mrs C and I, plus a warm room in which to dry out our ponchos and plan for tomorrow’s adventure. And the blue sky I can see out of the window bodes very nicely for tomorrow, thank you very much.

Day 1 - 23 April - Burnley to Orisson

As the famous Irving Berlin song goes;

If you’re so intent to go on the Camino             

Why don’t you pack up all your bits                     

And fly to Biarritz... 

Go on, sing it to yourself. It works. Honest.

So anyway, that’s what we’ve done today, followed by a shared taxi to our Camino start point at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees, a quick visit to the Pilgrim Office to get our Credencial (pilgrim passport) its first official stamp and then off into the hills for a five mile walk to refuge Orisson where we will be resting our weary heads. I say “five mile walk” but it would be more accurate to describe it as a “five mile climb”. It certainly got the old heart pounding.

We had been tracking the weather forecast for St-Jean over the last few days and it hadn’t been looking good. The best the forecast had been able to offer, for any part of the day, was a ninety percent chance of rain. But that does of course leave open a ten percent chance of no rain and so it proved as we arrived at Orisson somewhat windswept but mercifully dry. En route we had been treated to some fabulous vistas. In a future life, if I ever come back as a cow I could do a lot worse than come back as a cow in the Pyrenees.

The three course pilgrim meal at the refuge may not have been a la carte but it was tasty and there was plenty of it, washed down with a not unacceptable several glasses of red wine. There were twenty eight pilgrims at the meal, probably half of whom were American and the rest a mix of German, Austrian, Dutch, Brazilian, Korean, an Italian and four Brits including the two of us.  As per Orisson tradition, after the meal everyone introduced themselves. All very nice and lovely. Almost, almost a bit too nice and lovely for my liking. Everyone was nicer than me, that’s for sure. 

Having arrived later than everyone else, we were shown to a table already consisting three Germans and one Italian, all rather disconcertingly communicating with each other in English. Lovely, nice and multi-lingual. Almost too much to bear. The two young German ladies were positively bursting to impress with their linguistic capability;

How much duz yor ruksak veigh in kilograms pleez? Eh? Vee hef valked fiftee five kilometres in vun day. What? Coming from zee Inglund I sink you vill be yoosed to zee rain yah? Try living in Burnley mate.

We were shown to our dorm after dinner. Just the two of us in the dorm plus Stefano the Italian guy. He seemed a decent chap so, having sorted ourselves out, we invited him to come have a beer with us at the refuge bar only to find out, having got there, that it was closed. At 9.30 in the evening. The French eh? Still, we’ll be in Spain tomorrow and they don’t even start going out of an evening until 9.30 at night so there's every chance we’ll see Stefano to buy him a drink some time soon as, like us, he is hoping to make it all the way to Santiago.

So, but for the minor setback of bar closed early (probably did us a favour), today has gone well and this part of (Basque country) France is stunning. Looks like we have a wet day tomorrow but we’ll worry about that tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Road to Santiago de Compostela

It is March 2020 and with the very recently concluded sale of our business and a newly acquired no-longer-working status, Mrs C and I have turfed up at our apartment in Spain. Something called SARS-CoV-2 is beginning to make a nuisance of itself around the globe and our intended four week stay turns into five months as we decide to spend the resultant lockdown enjoying the double-digit temperatures and sunshine of Mar de Cristal as opposed to the UK alternative. Effectively sentenced to house-arrest for what turned out to be the first ten weeks of the Spanish lockdown, there is only so much painting of the apartment walls and ceilings you can do without compromising both the internal square meterage of the apartment and your own mental health. Despite never having previously been a great reader, I had considered that my new found status might allow me to rectify this personal shortcoming and as a result of which I had brought a Kindle with me. With both time and confinement now on my hands, I set upon searching for a suitable Spanish-flavour read and came upon My Reign in Spain: A Spanish Adventure by Rich Bradwell. In brief, Rich went to Spain for three months in order to attain sufficient competence in the language to be able to deliver a best man speech at his mate’s upcoming Spanish wedding. Rich went from linguistic zero to hero in three months and I was intrigued to find out quite how he did it. Having read and enjoyed Rich’s book, my Kindle imparted the information that he had written another book. Footsteps: A Journey of Redemption on the Camino de Santiago. Apparently, there’s a well-known five hundred mile pilgrimage route across the North of Spain which is known as El Camino. 

Oooh, that sounds interesting.

I have long held a romantic view of life on the road, walking from town to town and place to place, carrying life’s essentials in a rucksack on your back, stopping to eat and drink whenever and wherever you fancy and regaling the inhabitants of said bar or cafe with tales of adventure and derring-do. Always being savvy enough though never to outstay my welcome. Leave ‘em wanting more and all that.

Clearly, at the age of sixty three such fantasy demands a location where the weather is warm, rain is against the law and all overnight accommodation has en-suite facilities.

This romantic view however does not appear to be on offer. After finishing Rich’s book and then reading several more El Camino books by other writers, it was beginning to dawn on me that walking fifteen miles a day, every day, over the course of five to six weeks was not the proverbial stroll and my walking experience amounted to pretty much just that - the (occasional and) proverbial stroll. Yet this whole El Camino thing was beginning to draw me in. 

I am not religious. The nearest thing I have to religion is football and whilst that may sound like a glib comment, it is not meant to be. The Christian version of religion (and probably most other religions) appears to me to be much about community. Football too - the People’s Game - is about community mixed with tribalism, both being fundamental drivers of human need and behaviour. In my opinion of course. So maybe the appeal to me of this particular pilgrimage is the community aspect, described in pretty much all the books I had read as the “Camino Family”. That and the fact that it occurs in Spain, a country I love and in which I am lucky enough to spend much of my time and of course where it tends to be warm even though they haven’t gotten round to banning rain yet.

But I suspect that the real reason is as a consequence of what I can best describe as my later-midlife-crisis. I have never been good at birthdays that have a zero on the end of them. Every ten years, my latest “big” birthday takes even more getting over than the previous big one. Whilst I readily accept that growing older is better than the alternative, the six and the zero combined to hit me right where it hurt and forced me to start contemplating my personal mortality whereas previously I was invincible. Funnily enough, ages sixty one and sixty two have been fine as that is early sixties but going from having a five at the start of my age to suddenly seeing that usurped by a six took me a good few months to get to grips with.

All blokes have a mid-life crisis but I had already had mine at the age of forty one when I jacked in a twenty-three year career with a major UK high street bank having realised that I didn’t actually like banking. That decision led indirectly to starting the business which we had now only recently sold, the sale proceeds from which would be funding retirement. Retirement, that’s a funny word isn’t it. And similar to having a zero in my age, I discovered that retirement is a word I am not comfortable with, certainly insofar as it applies to me, with all its implications of infirmity etc. Bloody hell, I appear to have gone from respected, successful entrepreneur (my description, nobody else’s) to not-quite-dead-yet in one fell swoop. There really ought to be a better adjective than “retired” to differentiate erstwhile respected, successful entrepreneurs from the time-served recipients of a retirement clock but I couldn’t find one and it bugged me. 

In the months leading up to the sale of our business, Mrs C and I had had plenty of opportunity to discuss what life after work might entail for us and much of this discussion centred around Spain where, post-Brexit arrangements permitting, we were intending to spend a lot of our time. We wanted to explore the country, away from tourist Spain, and the prospect of searching out real beer and real football as an excuse to do so sounded like a pretty damn good plan to me. But whilst we had made it out to Spain as planned, SARS-CoV-2 was now messing us about and our mission to explore Spain on this noble quest was being denied us. Blimey, we weren’t even allowed out of the front door. Painting, reading, watching TV and doing jigsaws just wasn’t cutting it for me. 

Twenty years earlier having walked away from a job I really wasn’t enjoying, I was lucky enough to embark upon a completely different journey, starting up and building my own business, and I enjoyed pretty much every minute of it. But it was always a means to an end and that end had now been successfully reached and I needed a new journey. How about a five hundred mile journey? 

So I confessed to Mrs C my romantic view of life on the road, told her about the El Camino books I had been reading and how I thought this could be a great adventure for us, even if rain might be involved and en-suites might not. She is a wonderful woman Mrs C, the love of my life, and she knows me well enough not to take as read that every idea, plan, scheme, proposal or similar that I might come up with is either brilliantly conceived or foolproof. Generally speaking though, I don’t have too bad a track record in the new ideas department but this one was the first I had ever come up with that involved walking five hundred miles. She loved it.

Over the ensuing weeks and months, we discussed logistics and timings and determined that Spring 2022 would be a great time to undertake this adventure. And now, here we are. It's Spring 2022 and in just over a week, we fly out to Biarritz airport on our way to our Camino start point at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees. We have accommodation booked for the first night. And that's it. Thereafter, we play it by ear. Can we really walk five hundred miles or are we just kidding ourselves?

Only one way to find out!