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Day Four on the Camino – Pamplona to Puenta la Reina (26 kilometers, roughly 8 hours) 

The ancient church where we spend the night in Pamplona is devoid of pews and lined with bunkbeds. It has vast vaulted ceilings perfect for sermons and choirs but not so great for a good night’s sleep.

Every toss and turn, snore, fart, mumble among those bunked out for the night is amplified. Combine that with some less-than-polite pilgrims who plod about in their hiking boots and rifle through their backpacks at dark o’clock, and the night – or whatever is left of it – is a complete wash.

As soon as the lights blink on at 6:30 a.m., I lean over my top bunk, and make a signal to Jay.  “Outta here.” We lace up our boots, toss on our packs, and head out the door into the dawn and a glistening, rain-washed Pamplona.

Off-Snow Skiing 

A rainbow greets us at the edge of town and a cup of café con leche (remember – we’re in Spain now) fortifies us as the way grows ever steeper.

And that’s where the fun begins.  The wind begins to build, which makes sense, given that we’re headed to a windmill-topped hill with a famous sculpture devoted to pilgrims. I start to play a game in which I plant my hiking poles and pretend they’re ski poles. Plant, push off, step – all the way up.

At the top, the wind is howling full force and the windmills spin with an otherworldly hum. Below, Pamplona glows like Oz in the distance and the landscape spread out before us reveals how far we’ve come. What was green and then gold is now a tawny shade of brown. Instead of walking through leafy forests, we wind our way down through groves of almond and olive trees. We’ve walked from France to Spain, and to be honest, we’re feeling every step of the way.

We’re nearly four days in, seven hours into today’s trek, and while I’d like to say that we’ve got this hiking thing down, the truth is that we’re both feeling pretty ragged – especially our feet.

The Town of the Queen’s Bridge

By the time we hobble into Puenta la Reina it’s nearly five o’clock in the afternoon. Jay is definitely listing and I’m doing no better. It’s clear that neither of us has much energy left and it’s time to stop.

Fortunately for us, Puenta la Reina won’t be our last stop on the Camino– as it was for the early pilgrims, oh say prior to the 14th century. At that time, there was no bridge in the town and the only way to get across the river was by ferry. Pilgrims would pay the fee and the ferrymen would toss them overboard midway across the Argo River.

Queen Doña Mayor, wife of King Sancho III of Spain, got word of this and seizing a good P.R. opportunity, she built the bridge, scored major points in heaven, and is forevermore the namesake of this important town along the Camino.

And it is a gorgeous bridge – a true historic landmark – but at this point in the day we’re feeling like history ourselves. We run into a couple of fellow pilgrims who report that the municipal auberge doesn’t look promising and after our night in Pamplona, we decide to give it a pass.

We pick our way among the cobblestoned streets and come upon a hotel with an outdoor café and a line up of tapas that call to us like sirens. “I don’t know,” I say to Jay. “I do,” he says and before you know it the credit card is out.

Our room is simple but it’s a castle as far as we’re concerned. We fill the bath with the coldest water we can coax out of the tap, bust open our water bottles of wine, pour a couple of cups and then stand there – soaking our feet, sipping red wine, and building up strength to cross the queen’s bridge in the morning.

Day’s Wish List 

What we wish we had: 

Better shoes – I bought my hiking shoes at the REI used gear sale. Stupid, I know. Anyway, at $29.99 they seemed like a great bargain, gently used (read lightly broken in) and in good shape. Unfortunately, they’re about as flexible as bricks which can really hurt as the miles increase. Look for shoes that support and move with your feet. Sturdiness is great but stiffness equals big ouch.

What we’re glad we have:

Flip flops – sturdy ones. Nothing feels better after a long day than abandoning your blasted hiking shoes and putting on flip-flops. If you have sandals you can wear with socks, all the better. Forget the fashion statements. No one really cares on the Camino.

  • Rachel Weill - October 24, 2011 - 9:38 am

    Oh I really needed a laugh this morning and that shower shot did it for me!! You guys are amazing and the photos are BEAUTIFUL! Wow!

  • Jay Graham - October 24, 2011 - 10:53 am

    That shower shot was a necessity ….. at least standing in the cold water with a glass of wine was!

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Day Three – Larrasoana to Pamplona (18 kilometers, about six hours with lunch stop)

When we checked into Roncevaux our first night on the Camino, they asked to fill out a card with our name, address, and check the box that most resonated with our reason for doing the Camino.  Among the choices were “spiritual,” “religious,” and “sports-related.”

Everyone has his or her own reason for taking this on. Ours, as Jay explained in his first post, was to celebrate life and come to terms with a tough year (cancer, the loss of my mom). Others we’ve talked to along the way have their own reasons. We’ve met 24-year-olds figuring out what to do next in life, a 55-year-old from Detroit who left the auto industry and embarked on a journey to make sense of himself and come to grips with an illness. We’ve encountered a woman from Holland who began her pilgrimage by walking out her front door and continuing – all the way through France and now Spain – because as she put it, “Well, I’m a little bit crazy and I wanted a long walk.”

Everyone comes to the Camino with a personal cause. But here’s the irony: The Camino isn’t just a personal pilgrimage.

From the beginning, we’re thrown on this path like fish in a stream. Some ride the currents, finding the fastest path to the finish. Others hang in the shallows and then rejoin. Our paths cross, intertwine, and remind us we’re all in this together.

I can’t think of any travels we’ve taken where we’ve met such a diverse group of people and felt so connected. It’s as though judgments fall away and conversations – however brief – are cordial. “Bon Camino!” are the common parting words. Smiles, sometimes weary, always accompany them.

Today Jay and I hiked with an eclectic group – a German man and his 18-year-old daughter, Nick and his newfound friend Katya. We talked through the miles and delighted at the find of a random coffee machine at the outskirts of a town. We laughed as Nick climbed down the banks of a stream to pick three flowers for the ladies in the group and we walked together through the rain to Pamplona.

We’re learning that even though a pilgrimage might begin as an inner journey, it’s never a solitary pursuit.

Today’s Wish List 

What we wish we would’ve brought:

Lighter-weight, well-ventilated raincoats. Being prepared for every kind of weather is key on the Camino. My raincoat served well but I was wishing that it had more ventilation so I could hike comfortably and can keep dry.

What we’re glad we have:

Rain covers for our backpacks. If you buy a backpack for the Camino make sure it has a rain fly that tucks away easily and can be pulled out just as easily.

  • Gloria Matuszewski - October 16, 2011 - 5:18 pm

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Jay Graham - October 17, 2011 - 5:36 am

    It’s our pleasure Gloria – there’s more to come.

  • Sallie McConnell - October 18, 2011 - 7:45 pm

    Oh My Gosh…this is amazing. I anxiously wait to read about this great adventure. I feel like I am right there with you…except that my feet are not sore!
    Safe travels and Love, Sallie

  • Jay Graham - October 20, 2011 - 3:33 pm

    Thanks Sallie – it was a great trip and we plan on going back to hike to the end.

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Day Two on the Camino – Roncevaux to Larrasoana (25k, roughly seven hours with picnic)

We’re awakened – or should I say I’m awakened – by the lights flickering at 6:30 a.m. and some classical music wafting in the background. Jay, as well as many others, has been awake for hours thanks to some world-class snorers among our lot. I make a mental note to thank my friend Lori for the tip on earplugs and nearly fall out of my upper bunk as I try to climb down the ladder.

My legs are in full whinge. Every muscle tight and screaming. It takes me a moment to loosen up and walk like a human but as I look around I realize I’m not alone. The Camino draws all ages and all levels of fitness. I’m really sore and I’m sure there are people who are really, really sore but we all stumble on.

A quick breakfast of our leftover baguette bought in St. Jean yesterday, a pear, and – joy of joys – a café au lait made by a handy vending machine I happily discovered in the auberge’s communal kitchen, and we’re off.

Keeping it Civilized

The volunteers who run the auberge point us in the right direction. “There are many ways,” the man says to me with a smile. “But this is ‘the way’.” And we begin a gentle descent down a rocky trail, leaving the Pyrenees behind as the landscape unfurls into pastures filled with golden light and the sound of cowbells.

The weather is perfect – warm but not too hot, an Indian summer teetering on autumn. Compared to yesterday, this hike is easy, or at least, easy enough. After about three hours, we stop for a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, and wine (Pilgrim tip: buy a bottle of wine, pour it into two water bottles, and voila! It’s easy to carry and makes lunch on the trail highly civilized.).

Keeping Our Cool

We walk through Burguete, a Swiss-like mountain village and favorite getaway of Ernest Hemingway’s in the 1920s, and on to the town of Zubiri. We could stop for the night but a quick look at the pilgrim auberge (dirty bathrooms, rickety metal bunkbeds, caged windows, and a surly woman at the desk –only 4 Euros for the night but hardly the charm of Roncevaux) convinces us to move on.

We run into Nick, our British friend from the day before, who is soaking his feet in a stream. He suggests we check out a small family-owned inn in the town of Larrasoana about an hour’s walk away. When we get there we learn that a double room will cost us the princely sum of 40 Euros for the night. I look at Jay – this is not what we planned. He looks at me like I’m crazy. He’s right and he wins.

It’s the best night sleep we’ve had in days. Quiet, comfortable, and a hot shower that feels like heaven. Between that and the pilgrim meal we enjoyed at a local restaurant (again, three courses – soup, stew, dessert, wine – and great company), we’re doing all right and looking forward to strolling (ha!) into Pamplona tomorrow.

Day’s Wish List:

What we wish we’d brought:

Less stuff. Common wisdom is that your pack should weigh no more than 10% of your body weight. Last I checked I wasn’t tipping the scale at 200 pounds. It’s ridiculous what I’m schlepping (computer, work papers, silly stuff) and by day two, I’m more than just a little angry at myself.

At the inn, I rip my towel in half and I empty out bottles of unneeded toiletries. I’m starting to understand arctic explorers who shave down their toothbrushes to reduce weight in their packs.

Word to the wise: You need less than you think and remember – you have to carry it all.

What we’re glad we have:

A knife and a wine opener – both purchased in St. Jean since these things can’t be brought on board a plane and both extremely handy to have for civilized picnic lunches.

 

 

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Day One on the Camino – St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncevaux

After a day of recovery and people watching in Paris (land of the chic), Jay and I fly to Biarritz, take a short bus ride to Bayonne, and then a scenic train ride to St. Jean, starting point for our Camino quest. The village is storybook perfect. Cobbled streets, shuttered chalet-style houses with window boxes dripping with flowers, a medieval fortress above it on a hill. We’ve arrived at the magic hour when everyone is home, napping or lunching with family. It seems that the only people on the street look a little like us – sensibly-shod hiker types wearing quick-drying, wrinkle-free clothes (read: decidedly not chic).

Jay and I find our way to the “Pilgrim’s office”  to get our official Pilgrim passports – the papers that will enable us to stay at the Pilgrims’ auberges (cheap, dorm-style lodging) along the way. The lady who checks us in gives us some information about the next day’s hike (the majority of which we don’t understand) and then asks us to pick out our shells.

The Way of the Shells

These scalloped shells are the symbol of the Camino de Santiago and will identify us as pilgrims. Why the shells? Some say it’s a symbol of St James, the patron saint of the Camino. Legend has it that when he died and his body was transported to Santiago, his corpse went overboard during a storm at sea. When it washed ashore, it was perfectly intact and covered in scalloped shells. Another story, possibly more believable, is that the shell served as a tool for early pilgrims – a dipper for water, an eating utensil, a way to forage and dig out edible plants. Who knows what is true. All I know is that the shell is an instant identifier, an entre into a club of hikers along “the way.” We tie our shells to our backpacks and head back to our hotel to rest up for the next day.

Into the Fog

We wake early. It’s still dark but word is that you need to start the hike – a grueling 27-kilometer climb through the Pyrenees – by 9:00 a.m. at the very latest. It’s at least a seven-hour hike with a 3,500 ft. gain  We head out of the village and into the fog – a good metaphor for what we’re doing. We’ve come relatively unprepared. No guide book. No expectations.

Within the first 50 meters, the climb begins and doesn’t stop. Fortunately, neither does the scenery. Soft light filters through the mist, casting an impressionistic glow to everything – pastoral hills dotted with sheep, honey-colored cows, and the occasional wild Pyrenees pony. Roosters crow and we walk to the clang of cowbells. It’s idyllic, as though someone has dropped a fake backdrop in front  of us – and then plopped us on a non-stop treadmill set at the highest grade.

Suddenly the backpack that seemed so manageable, isn’t so anymore. The straps dig into my shoulders, my hips ache, and my legs are starting to whine. “Crosses,” I say to Jay. It’s our signal to each other to suck it up and keep going. The ancient pilgrims carried heavy crosses on their backs. And, as Jay likes to point out, those crosses weren’t made of balsa wood.

Cafe au Lait and Climbing

Nearly 10 kilometers into the hike, we come across the first auberge at Orisson and have what will may possibly be the best cafe au laits of our lives. What’s so good about it? It’s there. That’s all. Doesn’t take much. We meet a lovely Danish woman in her 60s. She tells us that this is her fourth Camino. “It calls to me every year,” she says. She did her first when she realized, after being sick in bed, that it was on her bucket list and she’d better do it now. “And I come this time of year always,” she says as she lifts a lock of her silvery hair. “There are more people this time of the year like me.” She’s staying at the auberge that night. “I have no reason to rush this,” she says. It’s a shame as we both would’ve liked to talk with her more. We bid her goodbye and continue on our way.

For the most part Jay and I walk alone, taking in the scenery, pausing to catch our breath, and then Nick, a young 24-year-old from London, falls into step with us. He’s endlessly entertaining and we fall into a miles-long discussion. In fact, we all become so caught up with the talk and the scenery that suddenly we’re lost. It’s easy to do on this part of the way. There are sheep trails and hidden turns that easily confound and it doesn’t help that there seems to be a strange way of marking the trail that has a logic all its own. Luckily, we come upon two German pilgrims, hardy types, one smoking a pipe and the very picture of Bavarian mountain macho, and they point us to right way.

A short side trip and we’re back on the Camino, winding our way over wind-whipped hills and through a forest with dappled light, and then down a painfully steep descent to Roncevaux, a 17th-century monastery turned pilgrim auberge and our home for the night. Recently renovated, the auberge is, as one pilgrim puts it, it’s a wonderful mix of Ikea meets Goth. Clean, simple, beautiful. This is pilgrim life? Not so bad.

A quick shower, a beer (best beer ever – nothing tastes so good after a long day’s hike), and our first pilgrim meal (three courses, simple fare, wine, and worth every one of the 10 euros we paid per meal). After dinner, I go to mass in the chapel where the priest blesses all the pilgrims. By nine o’ clock, we’re both out, snoozing away in our bunks amidst the snores and shuffling of 60 or so pilgrims. Our legs are still aching, our feet are tender, and we sleep like rocks. Until the next morning…

Day’s wish list:

What we wish we’d brought:

Arnica gel – tired feet, aching shins could use it.

What we’d leave behind:

Any electronics. Not needed and not something you really want to pull out in a dormitory setting. The auberges seem quite safe but the Camino is more about tuning in rather than being plugged in.

  • JD Schaefer - October 16, 2011 - 2:03 pm

    Do you have a gear list (not including the portable cappuccino machine)? Have you figured your total itinerary or just the first week? Ah, to peregrinate to Finisterre! Buen Camino!

  • Jay Graham - October 17, 2011 - 5:33 am

    Hi JD – We’ll be posting a gear list with our last posting. We only had a week to walk the Camino so we chose a beginning point and an end point that seemed reasonable and walked as much as we needed to to make our flight home.

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Details Tell the Story

Details from Glendaloch

A wide angle or panorama can show you the scale of a place or scene but it’s often the details that add the flavor. Because of my background in architectural photography I’m often going for an overall or inclusive view to show off a subject. Watching Eileen capture the details with her iPhone has brought me back to the essence of the shot on more than one occasion. Don’t forget to get in close and capture the nuances that are the spice of the location. By doing this, you’ll become aware of details you’ve seen before but not registered.

  • www.photographers.com.au - September 22, 2011 - 1:28 am

    Very nice photos. If you are ever in Australia look us up 🙂

  • Jay Graham - September 30, 2011 - 11:01 am

    Thanks – Australia is a place I’d love to visit.

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