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.

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).

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!

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.

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.

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.

Peace.