A longer Camino Frances

The idea of a second Camino crept up slowly and suddenly. One day, I floated the idea of doing the Camino Frances, starting from St Jean Pied de Port. This Camino will be 800 km, and with rest days, will take 42 days (including going to Finisterre and Muxia). This route is the most popular among peregrinos.

Based on last year’s experience of Camino Portugues, we decided to make some changes:

  1. We will walk with day packs, and leverage the luggage transfer services for our backpacks from one point to another. We wanted to be able to absorb more, to contemplate more and to lose more of ourselves in the moments. Not having a backpack will help.
  2. We searched for more monastery-oriented lodging and experiences. Thus, during one of our rest periods, we are making a side visit to Santo Domingo de Silos (outside Burgos).
  3. We opted not to walk the route from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela (SDC). Rather, we will bus to Lugo, meet a couple of friends, and continue via the Camino Primitivo. The primary reason is that Sarria to SDC is one of the most crowded routes as many take this route which is the minimum to earn the Compostela (certificate).

As we will be walking in late March to early May, we will require more warm apparel. Reservations have all been made, and we look forward to celebrating Easter during our Camino.

With any undertaking, beyond the preparation, the other side of the coin, is where will we be stretching ourselves? Is it the ordeal of 42 days? Perhaps, if we don’t take care of our feet. Truthfully, I think the stretch is in our spiritual development. Building on what we have learned and gained from the first Camino.


Second Time Around

It’s three days before our departure flight. We are using London as our hub, as we travel to the Holy Land and later, to Madrid for our Camino Frances. It just seems like yesterday when we first toyed with the idea of a second Camino.

How does our preparations compare with our first? Not as diligent as the first time. Perhaps it’s because we know from experience what is involved. Or perhaps preparing with grace, and being comfortably un-prepared might be the fruits from the first Camino?

Deciding to use the luggage transfer services for our backpacks was a relative easy decision. We had ‘let go’ of any preconceived notions of how we should walk, how we should prepare, how we would be perceived by others. The priority was how could we put ourselves in a space, that allowed us to be open to the spiritual promptings from God.

We trained less all round – less work outs at the fitness center, a handful of 3+ hour walks. We didn’t get back to the Yoga stretching work. But there’s no sense of worry or panic, just a serendipitous calm since we booked our first air tickets 5 ½ months ago.

This Camino Frances (CF) will be four times the duration and four times the distance of our first Camino Portugues (CP).

Gear wise, we will wear the ankle high hiking boots that was not used for the CP. We will leave our trekking poles behind, and look into acquiring a used set in Spain. The change is because we will only carry backpacks on the flight into Madrid without any checked luggage. As we are walking in spring, we will pack down jackets/vests, gloves, scarves and beanies. Each of us will have a day pack, while our backpacks are transported. We are taking a Kindle and an iPad mini this time round as we wish to read  some spiritual and cultural books for further contemplation.

We learnt (painfully from CP) to ease into the Camino by breaking the first stage from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalle (22km) into two, sleeping over night mid way at Valcaros.  In addition, we planned rest days every 7 days or so. It’s not a race to Santiago de Compostela, but a journey to renew our spiritual selves. I anticipate we will have more time available as we reach our destinations earlier than on the CP. Time is fodder for the spirit and soul.

I (Ben) was nearly side tracked by technology for this CF. A Facebook friend had video-blogged, and that started me down a path to learn video editing, buying and testing a camera stabilizer, and planning to bring a laptop for daily editing. Fortunately, the stabilizer did not work, which caused me to take a step back. I was on the verge of turning my pilgrimage into a travelogue. Sometimes a crazed frenzy can come over one. Stay focused on what one is seeking and valuing from the Camino.

Do you recall bringing your children to Disneyland for the first time? The wide eyes, the happiness and excitement just oozing out. Yup, that’s the essential ingredient we all need when we start our Camino.

Travel to Madrid and Pamplona

Mar 25. Day -1.

We flew into MAD(rid) via Gatwick, London. Latter was our hub for our Holy Land pilgrimage and Camino Frances.

LGW – MAD is a 2 hours flight. When we touch down in MAD at 1335 hours, we have 1.5 hours to catch the train to Pamplona. We will overnight there before catching a bus the next morning to St Jean Pied de Port (SJPP) It would have been too taxing to attempt to get to SJPP all in one day. That’s why this is Day -1.

TIP from my niece in London: Turn off the air vents above one’s airplane seats so that one doesn’t catch any virus circulating through the air ducts.

Our streak of not catching anything on air travel ended with our return from Tel Aviv 3 days ago. A passenger on the TLV-LTN flight in front of us was coughing, and we both caught it. Joon had it worse. Hopefully, we will recover fast and fortunately, the first two days walk from SJPP is half of the usual distances that we typically walk.

Our backpacks are packed to the maximum. We left several items in London as temperatures are higher than expected (e.g. gloves). We also bought several items at the Decathelon store in London (e.g. men’s rain pants for less than Pounds 9). But given it’s a longer Camino than our CP, and that we are using more albergues, we brought some new items, such as liners for sleeping bags, day packs, Kindle and iPad Mini. The liners and our backpacks were treated with Permithin. My backpack weighed 20 pounds, Joon’s 16 pounds. As mentioned previously, we will utilize the luggage transfer services to ferry our backpacks to the next town/village. The max packed bags limits what we can buy unless we wish to ship something back to London. Our Parish Priest had commented during the Holy Land pilgrimage, that he was trying to get us to transform from Consumers into Disciples! We didn’t buy much on the CP, so, this should be fairly easy for us.

The plane left 35 mins later than scheduled as we waited on the tarmac for a slot. The pilot made up time and it appears our arrival in Madrid will be about 6 mins later than scheduled. The de-plane-ing, being bused to the terminal and immigration control left us an hour to get to the train station. Taking the bus which comes every 15 mins and makes stops would be impractical. Taking a taxi was the best option. Along the way, we came across an accident that probably occurred minutes before we reach the spot. Two ambulances drew alongside our taxi as we changed lanes. Divine Providence that we were not further behind and faced getting stuck in a massive traffic jam.

One of the scourges and risks in traveling is coming across unscruplous vendors who prey on tourists. We met our first one in our taxi driver. The information desk staff had informed us the taxi ride from airport to the train station was a fixed rate of Euro 30, which was collaborated by the taxi meter reading. Our driver said the fare was Euro 42 due to supplemental charges. When I objected, he switched to Spanish and raised his voice, a tactic that most recognize as a way to intimidate one (they speak acceptable English when they first try to secure your services). Perhaps to avoid being a helpless victim and prevent such unscruplous people from preying on others with impunity, one should find out a Complaint Helpline and take a picture of the situation. Oops…. searched the Internet on the train and one needs a receipt with the relevant details. No wonder our taxi driver was in a hurry to get out bags and depart the crime scene. Whatever you decide, keep your inner calm. It’s only money and perhaps one less meal.

TIP: Ask for a receipt with details of the particular driver/vehicle. Consider pulling out your smartphone and start video taping these unscrupulous taxi drivers and their ilk. They might just back off.

Figuring out the train platforms in Madrid (upper and lower) required one to note minor details, such as the two platform names on the sign board. Not being tunnel focused on just the Platform Number. Some other passengers were traveling on the same train, and we were advised by a train staff who was traveling to follow these other passengers.

I missed taking a photograph of the central train station as I wanted to get to the platform asap (had 30 mins to spare). It had a lush green in the center, with trees, bushes, etc. A reminder from the Camino to start slowing down.

The Renfe train is smooth and relatively quiet. TIP – bring your own headphones with standard jacks to take advantage of the video (or music). You could improve your Spanish during the train ride.

Fortunately, I decided to book the train tickets while I was in London over the weekend. The good seats (facing forward) were all taken up (there was a handful of two front facing seats available when I had booked).

Train seat cushions were thicker and better than on our EasyJet flight to Tel Aviv

We arrived as scheduled at 6.26pm. As it was chilly and both of us were under the weather, we opted for a taxi. This driver was great, taking some inner roads and dropping us at the closest point to the hostel (latter was located in a pedestrian only area). Euro 6.50.

Restaurants in Spain only offer their dinner menu from 8pm. Given our preference to rest/sleep early after a flight and train ride, we opted for a simple meal (tortang patatas with ham) plus hot chocolate.

The beds called to us at 8.40pm.

Travel to St Jean Pied de Port

Mar 26. Day 0.

Our bus from Pamplona to SJPP leaves at 1430 hours. Prior to falling sick, I had thought the free morning would have been a great opportunity to see Pamplona’s sights. Our hotel is located in the historical quarter which is very central.

Our respective health did not seem to improve over night. My cold has worsened and Joon’s cough is stubbornly holding on with multiple greeny hands.

My sleep last night was the most interrupted since I flew out from Seattle.

It struck me that this illness is perhaps a way for us to empathize with those who begin their Camino in less than optimal health. I had been reading and praying about ‘humility’ as we travelled (having the right e-books on the Kindle has been a boon to me). Could this be a response to my prayers?

We took a leisurely walk outside from 9-11am. It was 10C/50F. Definitely needed my fleece sweater.

Pamplona was founded by Roman general Pompey in 75 BC! This is seriously old.

Our first stop was City Council, as its facade is world-famous Baroque. Would you agree?

Pamplona’s City Hall

Several blocks away was the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Real. A Spanish Mass service was just beginning. It was lovely hearing the chanting as we decided to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet in the Divine Mercy chapel.

Facade of the Cathedral. This tower has a large bell, 12 tons.

Interesting main altar with its iron gates

Divine Mercy chapel

As we walked these old streets, there are interesting facades and shops.

Someone taking pictures of this facade caught my attention.

Mouth watering jamon ham sandwiches

These were priced at Euro 3.95. Packaged for eating on the go, no?

Fishy display!! Love it

Close up of the fishes in the display window fronting the street.

We returned to the hostel and relaxed before checking out at 12pm. This Hostal Arriazu is highly recommended – black out curtains, comfortable beds, quiet, modern bathroom, self serve and locking luggage cabinets if you need to leave them behind for a while, a great map of the area, coffee machine (1 Euro), microwave (latter two in reception lobby). Euro 44 for the night.

We decided to take a slow walk, restaurants only open for lunch at 1pm. The bus station was underground with shops and a cafeteria. Latter is passable, one of those diners along American freeways that is a forgettable experience.

A number of backpackers started coming into the cafeteria at 2pm. This bus is un-numbered (i.e. no designated seats on the tickets). Hopefully, it’s not full. The bus had about 11 passengers, and about 8 of us dis-embarked at SJPP. The ride was only 2 hours, but a long two hours via mountain roads, with many twists and turns. The bus did lurched from side to side many times.

Our bus driver went up to the front of the bus prior to driving off, speaking in Spanish and holding a blue plastic bag. I told Joon it was probably about discarding trash. Half way through, we figured it was barf bags, which Joon unfortunately had to use.

TIP: If you are the type who takes Dramamine when traveling, do skip lunch prior to boarding this 1430 hours bus.

Our routine on the Camino is quite straightforward. Once we check in, it’s unpacking the essentials and doing a quick hand wash of our clothes.

Joon rested while I strolled about SJPP. Went up some walled walkways, stopped in a church and a grocery store (for some fresh oranges). The storekeeper’s ‘Au voir and Merci’ reminded me that I was now in France. I was still using my limited Spanish of ‘gracias’. This also explains the fashion stores I saw during my walk about.

During my walk, I realised our accommodation didn’t have a staffed reception area (they had previously provided instructions on how to get my room key from a locked box). Net, I contacted them to inquire about luggage transfer. Fortunately, someone responded in French (the staff who speaks/writes English had probably left) and I could guess the core essence of the message. I then called the luggage transfer services and was able to arrange this before they closed at 7pm. The Pilgrims Office was several doors away, so we got the extra credential/passport that we needed (one in Spanish because I had ordered a book, the other in French). We got some additional info, they close at 8pm.

TIP: If you are planning to use luggage transfer services, arrange it while offices are open. Express Bourricot handles luggage transfer from SJPP up to Roncesvalles, after which Jacobtrans takes over. E/B can be reached at +33 661 960 476.

E/B mentioned that they had 60 customers today. During the peak season (May thereabouts), they can average 500 a day!

Symbols of St James the Pilgrims

Evening view across the streets of SJPP

Joon preferred not to eat dinner, fortunately I had bought some oranges during my walk about , and I had a protein bar.

We will be waking up tomorrow to the morning sun as our room lacks any curtains or shutters. An unexpected experience to relish.

Our Camino Frances begins tomorrow!

Post script: I brought and used a soap bought when we visited the Dead Sea. A way to connect these two pilgrimages!

Valcarlos to Roncesvalle**

Mar 28 Day 2. 11.4 km. Elevation gain.

The caretaker had come early in the morning and left the self serve breakfast. We left our Euro 20 on the table with our registration forms as we never got the opportunity to meet her/him. A great business set up and labor utilization, when human nature can be trusted, as on the Camino.The route out of town followed the main roads until about 20-30 mins my when a side road/trail to the left appears. This led us to a trail by the river, through valleys. It was very tranquil. The route was such that once we veered away from the main roads, we could no longer hear any traffic noise. This is a section where you do not want to rush through.For a larger part, we were either just above the river or near it.There’s a tangible therapeutic effect of the river’s rushing. The intangible is the positive ion charged air in the vicinity. Birds love it too as they are merrily chirping away.The water is very clear. Due to the rocky bedrock, one can see a cascade of micro-falls, akin to a string of pearls.At one stage, the river cascading down crossed our paths. Thus, we had a stereo-like experience, hearing the river’s serenade with our right and left ears at the right points. Quite amazing.Babbling brooks are real too! Their gurgling sounds are soft on the senses.

One part of gushing river

I was struck by the green vegetation on both sides of this river

Joon had an interesting experience with her uphill and down hill walks. Her left knee troubled her on the former but her right knee was the culprit on the latter.

All of us who had observed Tai Chi practitioners are appreciative of the grace that underpins the movements. I had applied a part of my Tai Chi learnings to my uphill walk. In Tai Chi, the forward leg touches the ground as heel – ball of foot – toe. Doing this intentionally, while slowly breathing in and out, allows one to utilize the slope for contemplative movement! The mind is no longer occupied with thinking when one will reach the top/summit point, but I’d enjoying the graceful change in weight transfer and forward movement.

We arrived at Roncesvalles at 1pm. Our room at the Hotel Roncesvalles was very nice for Euro 67. There was no restaurant open, so we resorted to our back up provisions. We dined later in the hotel restaurant at 7pm on their Pilgrims Menu – potato soup, pan fried trout and red wine. The fish was very good, crispy skin, tasty flesh. All that was left on my plate was the fish skeleton. And they did not put fries, but baked slices of potatoes!We then proceeded for the 8 pm Mass at the Church of Santa Maria. A beautiful Church. We had the Eucharist, and the oldest. Pastor called all of us pilgrims to the front, for the Pilgrims blessing. He said that in about 10 languages, including Korean! I know understand why there was a form seeking our nationality and reasons for the Camino when we sought the passport stamp (sello).

The main altar of the Real Colegiata, Roncesvalles

Close up of the Virgin of Roncesvalles, a wood statue brought in the 13th century from Toulouse. It was officially crowned as Navarra’s patroness in 1960. The 1945 silver baldachin canopy is an exact copy of the baldachin in the Cathedral of Gerona.

Rose window over entrance

Side chapel of St James

Joon by a picturesque part of the river.

Off to bed, recharged by the pilgrims blessing in the battle against cough and cold.It was a wonderful day.PostScript: A thrown away small pate type can triggered me to pick up trash after that. It seems an appropriate way to give back to the Camino.

PostScript: Am using a 3 Star for various sections. This day was a 2 Star (3 Star calibration is the Meseta section).

SJPP to Valcarlos

Mar 27. Day 1.

It looks like my body cannot sleep beyond 9 hours. Which is a good sign as I am not sleep deprived. But it does imply that if I go to bed early, I will wake up early. Poor Joon!

It has been two straight nights since we haven’t had ‘proper’ dinner portions. Guess what – there are no hunger pangs nor stomach rumblings. Our daily buffet breakfast and buffet dinner during the Holy Land Pilgrimage had probably built some reservoirs!!The Palestinian Christine family who hosted us one night in Bethlehem did share that their main meal of the day was lunch, when both husband and wife are able to turn home for the joint lunch. Dinner was a very simple affair of fruits and light snacks. This seems like a great practice. Let’s see.

We had brought a Lenten booklet that our Parish head distributed. The daily readings are helpful to frame a spiritual context to our Holy Land Pilgrimage and Camino Frances. We read this in the mornings.I took a look around the town from 6.30 am as I was interested in some morning photography. There was only a man waking his dog.

(All picture uploads have failed for now. So, placeholder names for now while I try to resolve).

The Golden Arches in SJPP

This bridge which we walk over to start our Camino was lighted up with colors, creating that purplish hue

The Citadel was a French military garrision in the 16th century. Part of it is now used as a school.

View of SJPP

As the sun rose higher, the upper parts of mountains took in this coloration

We left SJPP just about 8am. The morning was cool, Joon had her down jacket and I, my down vest plus fleece sweater. The 11.4 km uphill today to Valcarlos took us 4 hours 20 mins, with morning stops accounting for 30 mins or so. The illness continues to plague us, especially when we are sleeping together and thus, perhaps creating contagious cycle between us. I felt much worse in the afternoon, when I showered and rested, experiencing some chills for the first time. Joon had chills some previous nights and her cough sounds bass-ominous.

The colored guide sheets from the Pilgrims Office was very helpful. It’s important to get this, so you know when the river is on the left or the right of your hiking paths. Was it a happenstance that the luggage transfer staff mentioned that I could get this, in addition said office being very near it?

I had downloaded maps.me app plus the local databases as this App works on GPS (i.e. you can use it even if you don’t have cellular or data service). This worked very well till a critical point.

TIP: Consider Maps.me but use with the brain engaged.

Leaving SJPP for Valcarlos was along some inner residential roads. Traffic was light. We came to a turn off, which took us past farms and pasture lands. It was refreshing to be back hiking surrounded by nature.

Within the first hour, it dawned on us that we may not come across any cafes. That turned out to be the case until just after the 2nd hour of our walking. Fortunately, we had some bars in our packs.

Idyllic countryside

We saw many farm animals, chickens, sheep, cows and horses. Even got close to a pig whose sty was by the trail. And this is the Year of the Pig!

We settled into a routine, the stages were not that steep. One could say, this day was getting our walking legs in/despite our current physical condition.

Eventually, we came across a built up area with supermarkets, cafe, etc. We stopped for a delayed breakfast. ‘Signs’ can come in all sizes and shapes. Using the Maps.me App, it suggested that we should start walking on the main roads, where big trucks and buses run. Our internal alarms went off, so we stop on the road after about 20-30 meters, to consult the hand out guide from the Pilgrims office. A old French gentleman came up (he was sitting in his motor home by the parking area), and through some French deduction, we figured there was a safer trail to take. The Camino signs were not as clear, and Maps.me totally mislead us. As we walked this trail that paralleled the busy road, we could see a couple of backpackers/pilgrims walking on the road. I trust they are safe but the experience will be daunting.

Near the end, there was a moment when we wondered how we were going to cross the River as we could see Valcarlos in front of us across the river, but the path seemed to going on this side of the river. The paper guide showed the way, but in our haste to get there, we mis-read the picture. Fortunately, that dead ended quickly, so we’re able to retrace and find the proper way.

Never did a bridge look good as this one. The right perspective can add a glow to any perceived circumstance.

We made our way to the designated restaurant, Benta Ardandegia, to have our lunch and pick up our bags, and a map plus a Pin Code to enter the municipal albergue. Despite a sign saying the albergue was closed from 0800 to 1200, the caretaker didn’t show up til late evening. Two pilgrims didn’t know the Pin Code, so, we let them in. They were fortunate we were there, due to our luggage transfer! Somehow, the Camino used us to help them!

This municipal albergue probably set the standard for alberques. There were only 4 of us in a 10 bed dorm. There was another wing of 14 beds, not opened yet. There were lockers. And they offered self serve breakfast, instant coffee or tea and wrapped mini muffins. We had bought yogurt.

The veal at lunch was not tender and tasted fairly bland (it could be my cold is a contributing factor). The dinner paella with chicken was much better at Bento Arkenza.

Since my condition was not improving, a trip to the pharmacy was made. It’s extremely difficult to use a CPAP machine with a stuffed nose and scratchy throat. The nasal decongestant worked and I slept for 10.5 hours!!

Thus, our day ended. It’s going to be a war of attrition with the cough and cold besetting us. But we have this figured out.

PostScript: The Napoleon route over the Pyrenees officially opens on April 1, but due to the mild winter, quite a number of pilgrims are taking that.

Roncesvalles to Zubiri

Mar 29. Day 3. 22km, departed at 0747 hours, arrived 1358 hours.

It seems other hotel guests had tickets for breakfast. After trying another place without success, we headed out as the staff indicated there was a cafe in 2km. So, do not lose heart nor stomach.

The immediate route out was through a forested trail. At the end, we saw a ‘white cross’ (so called based on the design, not the color). It seems there was a witches coven in the area, which was the reason for the erection of said cross.

The cafe was open (which is unusual so early in the morning unless it caters to pilgrims), and there were a handful of other pilgrims. We had our yogurt, cafe con leche (i.e. latte) and shared a pastry.

The walk was through farms, open grounds and forested trails. There were rocky stretches, with loose stones, jutting rocks and rocky ridges. When latter was pointed downwards with the slope, that would have been tricky to navigate. Do take note if you had harbored the thought of wearing open sandals. Some hikers prefer lightness of footwear to the sturdiness. I can assure you one of my ankles was feeling a bit stressed from today’s walk.

We passed a farm shed where cows were.

The trail out into the countryside

The Re-Use part of the 3Rs

A mobile shop. Makes sense for a store to come out to all the remote village residents, than the other way round.

The story to this picture. Note how sparse the tree branches are. How little green undergrowth there is. Yet, there were many birds chirping away.

Mother and colt were drinking from the water trough until I got too close!

We came across a herd of goats. Not a handful that we usually see grazing on a slope, but a whole herd. The shepherd must be somewhere!

They had horns!

Joon happily striding across.

We thought we would stop for lunch before reaching Zubiri to avoid the siesta hour. But the smaller villages before Zubiri are not set up for pilgrims. Once we checked into our Zubiri albergue, we thought it would be a good idea to have lunch. We let the other couple who checked in a few minutes later have use of the bathrooms, thinking it’s no big deal.

Our pilgrims lunch at the Cafe El Camino consisted of chicken pea soup, fish fillets with vegetables, water bottle and a surprising Nestle chocolate covered vanilla bar. Each was Euro 12. Great cafe.

We returned to the albergue to a massive crowd in the dormitory! Yikes! The loud chatter prompted me to quickly check to see if any double rooms were still available. Our luck was not in. We were the first to check into this albergue too.

That’s life, isn’t it? Sometimes, opportunities knock, and we think we have the time to respond. Sometimes, we don’t look far enough down the road. But holding the regrets is basically tearing the band aid from the wounds repeatedly. Perhaps this is a teachable moment for a bigger opportunity knock in the future.

So, the afternoon is carefree. To catch up on silent time. On reflection time. On journalling. On figuring the list of “Let-Go’s”.

We will have a simple meal tonight and turn in.

PostScript: As I needed access to power for my travel CPAP, we decided to choose two lower bunk beds. I swapped the lower bunk bed with Joon, as the pilgrim who was resting in her upper bunk bed in the afternoon, seems to dream a lot of action movies. That premonition was correct during the night. That gentleman has vivid dreams, where it’s not just turning over on his side, but violent arms and legs movements that shakes the bunk beds. I have the ability to get back to sleep almost immediately. In future, we will share one upper/lower bunk bed.

Zubiri to Pamplona

Mar 30. Day 4. 20.9 km. Left at 0717 hours, arrived 1445 hours.

The Zubiri albergue, relative to the going lodging rate, had charged us an extra Euro 5 each for breakfast. Since our usual breakfast for the two of us typically comes up to Euro 6 or so, we thought we may get better than the Valcarlos municipal albergue (which had breakfast as part of the accommodation rate). Sadly, no. Our breakfast was a sliced baguette bread of about 8 inches, 2 slabs of butter and 2 jam pods. Plus coffee. Helping local businesses is always great, abetting profit mongering is a different matter. Perhaps our contributions is helping with the capital costs of the renovated bathrooms?

TIP: If nearby cafes open early, just book accommodation at albergues, and get/pay for a more substantial breakfast to power your walk!

Let’s chat about the albergue dormitory experience. Our two so far has been 10 beds though there are larger ones. The pluses are:

1. Accommodation costs is very low, about Euro 10 per person. It’s difficult to stay more than one night unless there’s health reasons. The cheapest option is camping (we saw two tents as we walked out this morning).

2. Most albergues are centrally located, to any historical center and the Camino route.

3. Albergues that offer a pilgrims dinner offers a great opportunity to meet other pilgrims.

4. They have kitchens that facilitate those who prefer to cook their own meals, for nutritional or special dietary reasons. One can strike up friendships based on time in the kitchen!

There are minuses, when there are 8-9 strangers in the same dorm.

5. The odds of a bad sleeper, who snores or sleeps badly is high. Ear plugs are recommended. This doesn’t help if your bunk bed companion is a terrible sleeper who moves a lot during the night.

6. Depending on the season, the risks of colds or coughs spreading is also high.

7. Your waking time is influenced by the earliest riser in the group.

8. The ratio of sinks/WC to guests is generally 1:5.

We opted for a mix of lodgings for this Camino. Do note that some albergues do have double rooms for couples (but bathrooms are probably shared).

The walk out of Zubiri passed a magnesium mine, after which we were in the countryside. However, unlike previous days, the traffic noise from the main road was still discernible.

We passed by a number of small villages, some seemed to have beds for pilgrims who cannot find lodging during the peak season in Zubiri. We didn’t find any cafe open except for a make shift one (more later, as this was about 6 km away from Pamplona).

Your Camino should start seeping into you around now. A routine is beginning to form. You have disconnected from cable news. Your mind is getting used to not being innundated for long stretches of hours. Cutting mental-stuff out, ala Marie Kondo, is very liberating.

Hopefully, your internal clock is slowing down too. If you are rushing to secure the best available bed, perhaps book ahead and see if that doesn’t change how you journey that day.

You start noticing things.

Eagle-Eye Joon strikes again. I missed seeing this as I passed by. This is the first time in my life seeing this!

We both are getting better physically as the days progress.

As we reached Zuriain, we noticed many road cyclists. In fact, one cyclist was going up an uphill stretch twice as we walked down! Spain’s most famous cyclist, Miguel Indurain trained here to win his five Tour de France titles.

Here is a group of 4 cyclists going up an inclined slope of 40-45 degrees!

Our welcome into the Basque country!

We came across a make shift cafe. A man had set up some offerings in the ruins of some structure. We had wanted some real coffee since leaving the albergue in the morning, so, his offering met our needs. There were fruits, bars, souvenirs etc. The prices were up to us as he was raising money for charity! His name is Daniel, and he was a guide for Martin Sheen during the movie, The Way. Martin walked only a fraction.

Joon with Daniel, who is pictured with Martin Sheen in the poster, as part of the making of The Way.

The bridge into Villava, very beautiful setting (color temp set wrongly, to be fixed post Camino! You do not need to make an appointment with your optician).

We found a hole-in-wall eatery for lunch in Burlada, outskirts of Pamplona. I had a kebab sandwich, Joon had an ensalada. All for Euro 7.50.

Lots of stuff in a pita bread. I had to eat some of it with my fork before I could attempt to eat like a sandwich!

How the hole-in-wall looked from the entrance door.

Some good things in life require one to go where the crowds do not!

The oldest and most important bridge into Pamplona center, Puente de la Magdalena, built in the 11th century.

Restaurants offer their dinner menu from 8pm. So, we had a tapas type meal as we wanted to sleep early at an apartment booked via Airbnb.

Pamplona to Puente La Reina***

Mar 31. Day 5. 24.5 km. Depart 0820 hours, arrived 1600 hours.

No, we didn’t sleep in. Spain brought all the clocks forward on the last Sunday of March. Our bio-clock would say we started earlier than previous days!

Note the elevation change for today’s walk. This uphill walk is a gain of 296m, to the Sierras del Perdon (highest point for next 170 km). Yikes…that means another major uphill walk in less than a week’s time!

Today was an AWESOME Camino day.

We encountered three kind souls this morning. The first was a policewoman who had just completed her overnight shift and saw us in the apartment complex lobby trying to figure out how to get to a specific albergue to have our backpacks transported. After giving some directions, she went up to her apartment. We were still trying to get that albergue on my smartphone navigation, when the same woman re-appeared with her dog. She offered to walk to the end of the street to point out the route towards the cathedral. The second kind soul was an old man jogging near the cathedral. I approached him, and he led me to a parallel side street where the albergue was located! The third kind soul was a old gentleman walking his dog as we reached the outskirts of Pamplona. He didn’t just greet us ‘Buen Camino’ but he wanted to shake our hands and shoulders, and gave us a strong vocal exclamation in Spanish, which we took as a hearty send off. We reciprocated by offering a prayer for his health and his family.

Once we passed the University grounds, we could see the summit that we were aiming for. There was a host of wind turbines generating electricity from the easterly winds. Being a Sunday, there were lots of people, groups of friends, families with kids, couples, high school/college kids, bicyclists, joggers, dogs. This was open country, no forested trails.Having internalized the Tortoise and the Hare fable story meant we were not concerned when people passed us. We walk according to our drum beats.

Question: Are today’s children read the old classic fable stories of olde?

At the beginning. The summit is where we are walking to!

A panoramic view of the open countryside.

There was no vehicular traffic noise. There were no farm animals. It was just perfect. There were fields of yellow rapeseed plants, with fields of green grass, brown tilled earth, rolling hills. It was literally a feast for the eyes.

Stretches of yellow, green and rolling hills.

Pamplona in the distance, where we started off this morning!

A mountaintop experience powered by one’s legs is extra sweet.

About mid way up the mountain is a town called Zariquiegui. It took us about 3 hours to reach here. There’s a water tap to replenish one’s water bottle. There’s a cafe with a WC for customers. Their coffee and ham/cheese torta is great.

Pilgrim oriented statues at the Alto del Perdon, 756mSelfie at summit.

It wasn’t as cold and windy as it may look.

Heading down the other side of the mountain. This is probably harder for those with joint challenges due to the loose stones and sometimes, 10 inch height of steps!

If you carry trekking poles, today would be a great return on investment. The downhill stretch had much more loose stones and rocks.

We had a special stretch of time on the downhill stretch where we were the only two pilgrims in sight. It’s an amazing sense of wonderment to be the only two souls in that lovely landscape.

As we approached Uterga, there was a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary and this inscription.

It was a hard day on our legs and bodies. Fortunately, our albergue was the first one as we approached Puente la Reina.We treated ourselves to a buffet dinner and breakfast at this albergue + hotel.

Dinner was really good at the hotel restaurant. Unlikely to get the same quality and price point outside.

Spiritual reflection of the day – Steady and persistent efforts over hours can yield incredible mountaintop experiences. What will steady and persistent efforts over weeks, months and years yield in one’s life?

Puente la Reina to Estella**

Apr 1. Day 6. 22.2 km. Departed 0753 hours, arrived 1530 hours.

This morning almost turned into a desert experience. We had taken the buffet breakfast but it appeared this was just a fare of a glass of orange juice, coffee and a pastry. Not buffet by any stretch of imagination or creative advertising copy! We had accepted this fare in good faith, like most of the early ones.

A trio of ladies turned up after us, and insisted their buffet breakfast should be more than this. After a while, they were served additional yogurt, plates of cheese and meats, and eggs being scrambled for them. One of them came to inform us of this. Hmm…. we thought if we could get some scrambled eggs, that would be good protein for the walk. So, I stood there at the counter trying to get the attention the single staff member. It was so infuriating as that staff member ignored me. I let out a cuss when I went back to sit with Joon.

One of the three ladies, Sam, noted our predicament. She then offered to share something from her table (they were served so much). We took only a yogurt each. Later, when we met on the trail, I had deduced that their buffet breakfast was tied to their hotel rate, while our’s was tied to our albergue rate. This was confirmed, and thus, there wasn’t a double standard in play.

I realized there was a learning opportunity in this event. Unfortunately, each of us have the ability to cuss. It may lie inches or fractions of, beneath our skin. It may be easily triggered or not. Our emotions are elephant-sized and will usually overwhelm the rational man-sized rider. It seems the key is never taking it personal, plus some deep breaths.

There seemed to have been a light drizzle over night as the roads and pavements were drenched. We brought our rain jackets as a precaution.

We walked our slow leisurely pace across town. We passed and entered the Iglesia Crucifigo, where there was a lovely modern interpretation of the crucification.

Modernistic interpretation

The Old Bridge out of Puente la Reina.

The Camino turns left immediately after the bridge, but Joon’s comment about the bridge, prompted me to go to the right after the bridge. Which resulted in this very beautiful picture.

There was also a home that fronted this river with some lovely gardens.

The whole day turned out to be overcast. We took off our rain jackets and enjoyed the cool walk throughout the day. It was blissful.

The open countryside. Quiet. Peaceful.

I enjoyed the various color layers in this scene.

We passed both olive trees and young vineyards. The green layers are wheat fields, shorter than usual due to the poor rainfalls.

Lingering rain drops! Joon on trail path.

Loved how the midst came down the mountains.

The valley is so beautiful, the cultivated blending so artfully with the wild.

More than a handful of homes in the town Cirauqui proudly displayed their family crests on their front walls.

Here’s a sampling.

This is an ancient Roman road that persists to this day! Much easier and gentler on the knees to walk on the modern path next to it.

A rest area with benches, books, eyc to rest a bit. We rang a bell as we entered this section.

Here is the man who set it up, Ivan. He runs a small free willing stall to raise enough money to continue expanding his property and cultivating the olive trees!

Coming to the boundary of the town, Villatuerta.

Joon had suggested framing this picture with the tunnel arch!

As we neared Villatuerta, I noticed this small olive tree orchard had branches being pruned.

Gardeners prune trees so that the nutrients and energy goes to the remaining branches for a more fruitful harvest.

Perhaps pruning ourselves of ‘bad’ attitudes, mindsets and behaviors will also lead to more fruitful lives, no?

This was an old fortress.

Statue of St James

Eagle Eye Joon spotted this weather vane in one of the earlier towns.

We checked into our B&B lodgings, and we’ll have a rest day tomorrow. Let our joints recover. Let our hearts and spirits soak and marinate.

There is much to gain if we can empty more of ourselves.