Day 2 Rain and downpour

Thursday Sept 29, Pasajes de San Juan to San Sebastián, 10-11km (longer if taking the coastal option).

We had an excellent breakfast at Donibenea, where we stayed the night. Freshly squeezed orange juice, yogurt plus granola, baguette plus meats and cheese, fruits. We didn’t realize it but we needed it for the walk ahead.

Night view from the promenade outside our hotel

We took a small ferry boat to cross the port to the other side, otherwise it’s several kilometers to go around. The costs had gone up from 70 cents to Euro 1.10. Our hotel was about a minute walk away from the ferry point.

The rain started in earnest as we disembarked. It started pouring as we walked along the promenade to the lighthouse and the coastal route. Climbing the steps was walking up river. Water gushed downs and my boys were soaked. I needed wellies to get through this.

There were yellow arrows as well as a red and white bars. Latter denotes GR routes where there are downloadable GPX files to use with trail apps.

Coastal route from Irun to San Sebastián (left to right)

About 30 minutes into our walk, we mis-communicated and got separated. Both of us were wondering where the other was.

I walked faster thinking she had gone in front of me as I had dallied behind her for several minutes. As I navigated difficult stretches, I began to doubt she was in front of me. I flip flopped between walking fast and waiting. Finally I waited at a spot and twin sisters came up. They had not seen my wife nor passed her. I rushed ahead, and a couple from the other direction approached me. They too had not seen her and they had been walking towards me for past 30 minutes. There was no way she could have been walking 30 mins faster than me. This couple promised to let her know as they continued.

I waited a couple of minutes and decided that it would be better to walk backwards. At least, I would be walking towards her if she was walking towards me.

I caught up with the couple and we walked together as I updated them on the full story. Shortly afterwards, we saw an old man and his dog approaching us. Her only spoke Spanish and the young man translated for us. It seems the old man had seen and spoken with my wife. He recognized her picture on my phone. He had confirmed with her the direction to San Sebastián on a more direct non-coastal route. She was on a different route than me. What a relief!

Here are the views along the coastal route.

Coastal route
Coastal route
San Sebastián

When I was finally able to connect and talk to my wife, she was already in San Sebastián. She had spoken with a young man to confirm the route into San Sebastián. She never spoke with an old man and a dog!

Today is the feast day of the archangels. Gabriel is one of the three mentioned. Gabriel delivers messages. Did I meet Gabriel today?

Day 1 Rain, Wind & Sheep

Wed Sept 28. Irun to Pasajes de San Juan; 15km; 550 meters up & down.

It was a rainy start. Some lessons need to learnt again as I neglected to put on my rain gear before leaving the hotel. Putting rain pants and other gear on the street is a chore that takes more time.

We had figured out from Internet searches and guide book where the Camino trail started. We used Google Maps to get there and off we were. Seeing the first yellow arrow was very re-assuring.

Leaving any city is typically alongside a major artery, and this was no different. We had to tolerate the carbon emissions for about 15 mins.

We were crossing this bridge over the river when a flock of white birds caught our eye. We stopped, enjoyed the spectacle and took in the picturesque scene. The crossing of the major arterial road to the beginning of the natural trails was about 50 meters ahead.

The flying white birds caught our eye

The rain was on and off. It was not the heavy monsoon rain, but with strong winds can be a bear. Parts of the trail were muddy. With pools of water. That’s when you know if your boots/shoes are waterproof. And that’s why we do not wear trainers.

The number of pilgrims on Norte were much fewer. The first pilgrim to engage in a chat with us turned out to be from Washington State, just like us! What a coincidence. His name was Jay, from Tacoma.

After 4km, we reached the Santuario de Guadalupe. There were great views of the Bidasoa Valley. We spent some prayer time in gratitude for God’s providence in our son’s major accident exactly four months ago.

Bidasoa Valley
Altar at Santuario de Guadalupe

Shortly after the Santuario, a decision to be made between the low level variant or high climb. We opted for latter as the views were much better given we are climbing 374 meters (vs 157 meters). It was a steep ascent, and poles are a great aid. We counted our blessings too that it did not rain during this stretch, and there were no flows of water streaming down.

About half way up this first steep ascent

Here are the views that makes this alternative route worth it. Do note that one is more exposed to the gale winds, and wearing a poncho makes things more challenging in such winds.

View of Irun
Descending from the summit, 1730 feet

Our second son had messaged us his reflections on Psalm 23 yesterday. So, when we came on this herd of sheep, my thoughts naturally gravitated to Psalm 23. I wondered internally whether there was a black sheep among the herd. Joon pondered about the 99 sheep and the lost sheep. But when we did spot the black sheep in the herd, I loved what Joon said, “He belongs in the herd.”

The black sheep who belongs

We knew beforehand that for this first stage, we would not have any cafes nor villages. So we had prepared the day before, carrying enough water, protein bars, etc. One thing that seemed to make a significant difference was the electrolytes in the water!

Pasajes de San Juan is a lovely town by the water. Many locals visit. We noticed that even Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame & Les Miserables, had lived here!

Pasajes de San Juan

Tomorrow, we take a water boat across the port to walk to San Sebastián.

The day before

Tue, Sept 27 – Irun. This should be and is a short post. As we start preparing our minds and hearts for the Camino,.

We had acquired our Compostela credential in the cathedral in Bilbao. We opted not to stamp there as our start is in Irun. After checking into our Irun accommodation, Joon rested while I decided to start booking rooms a bit further out. It was fortuitous as sometimes it was the last available room in the lodging that I preferred at that town.

When the Parroquial de Santa María del Juncal opened late afternoon, we walked there. Massive altar piece with a number of statues of Mary (and baby Jesus). We found the office to get our first stamp in our passport.

The second important thing today is to find where the Camino path starts. Scouting the day before helps especially when one’s lodging is away from the route. In Irun, most refer to the start at the railway station. So, we make our way there in the morning (1km).

Dinner menu is typically available from 7pm. So, we are having some drinks in a quaint cafe that had good reviews.

When in Rome, eat as the Romans do!

Pimientos pardon (peppers) & pulpo (octopus)
Baby squids!

Two days before

Today (Mon Sept 26) we flew into Bilbao from London where we had attended our nephew’s wedding. We left a bag behind with Joon’s sister, which we will collect when we return to USA via London.

Preparing for a two month trip means it’s highly likely we will forget some stuff. My count is 5 so far. Fortunately, I was able to substitute or replace. Important thing is to keep oneself on an even keel.

Even though our Camino walking doesn’t start till Wednesday, it seems God has already signaled to us. A Scottish couple was in front of us in the Immigration line when the wife inquired if we were doing the Camino. When we responded affirmatively, she handed over a small memento which is not to be kept but passed onto the next pilgrim! See picture. It’s a tiny plastic green hand, with fingers spread apart as if waving at one.

We then took the bus from the airport into downtown (3 Euro per person). Our stop was the third stop which was beer our hotel. The 4th and final stop was in the bus depot. Well, because the bus had stopped on the 1st and 2nd stops, I assumed it would do so for the 3rd. Problem was that I never heard the bell being rung for the 1st and 2nd, and we were the only ones who wanted to get off at the 3rd. So, we ended up at the bus depot.

Part of the Camino mind set is to accept things as there might be “Easter eggs” in such events. So, we decided that perhaps this unplanned stop could benefit us as we now knew where the bus depot was (as we would likely catch the bus to airing from the depot). We then pop into a cafe to have a bite. Lo and behold, the same Scottish turned up and we were able to chat a bit as the table next to ours opened up.

One more sign. It’s very unusual in a Spanish cafe to hear songs in English. But this cafe was playing Bee Gees “How deep is your love?”

Here are some of the lyrics that was so full of Camino significance.

I believe in you
You know the door to my very soul
You’re the light in my deepest, darkest hour
You’re my savior when I fall
And you may not think I care for you
When you know down inside that I really do
And it’s me you need to show

How deep is your love?

Camino del Norte

This will be our third Camino. This route begins in Irun, northern Spain, and ends in Santiago de Compostela. It boasts amazing scenic views as it follows the coast for the better part of 620km (372 miles). There’s a possibility at Villaciosa to divert to the Camino Primitivo, but right now, the intent is to keep to the Norte. The total length of Camino del Norte is in the range of 825km, we will have ascended a total of 16,784 meters and descended 17,207 meters. To put latter’s total elevation gains/losses (33,991 meters) of Norte into perspective, a round trip to Mt Everest Summit from Base Camp is 6,972 meters! Of course, the thin air at Mt Everest is much more demanding on the human body!

We had not expected to undertake a third Camino after completing the Frances in 2019. But there were un-mistakeable signs, three of them actually, to consider another Camino. And so we did, and here we are.

We will be in London for a nephew’s wedding prior to this Camino (fattening up before the walk?). From London, we fly into Bilbao, after which we will catch local transport to Irun. Buses or trains are very convenient and cheap transportation modes within a country. The fact that the USD has strengthened significantly against the Euro over the past couple of months has helped (I did purchase some Euros earlier in the year, but given we will be on the Continent for two months, it will all be used!).

The preparation drill is per our other Camino blogs (Portugues and Frances). Hiking various trails and mountains, breaking in new shoes, getting some new gear, losing some pounds! One new preparatory element for this Camino is using GPX files which is read by Wikiloc on both my iPhone and Apple Watch. This allows us to divert from the yellow-arrowed routes into more coastline paths. Thus, it’s likely that we will end up walking more than the published mileage.

One thing we did learn from our preparatory hikes is the need to get some electrolytes. Joon had the misfortune to get heat stroke during a hike on the Skyline Ridge Trail in Mt Rainier National Park. Drinking water only in a dry environment just increases the amount of salt loss from the body!

Picture from a fellow pilgrim who walked the Norte, showcasing the beauty of the coastline

We begin our walk on Wednesday Sept 28, 2022. There are guidebooks and Internet resources. One such plan for the Norte breaks this route up into 32 stages, with the idea that one can walk one stage per day. Stages generally run from 25km to 32km, with the highest stage being 38km (latter would have smaller elevation changes). Pilgrims do plan rest days in between, to rest the body and soul, and benefit from that particular stop’s attractions.

We find it best to begin the Camino with shorter distances to get into a walking mindset and condition the body. Thus, we will take 2 days to cover the first stage. This works well too as the end of stage 1 is San Sebastian, a town that has much to explore. Thus, by spending the night at Pasajes de San Juan at the end of Day 1, we will only need to walk three hours the next morning to reach San Sebastian on Day 2. This leaves most of Day 2 free in San Sebastian. Contrast walking from Irun to San Sebastian in one day, and arriving in the evening. That hardly leaves anytime in San Sebastian (unless one opts to spend two nights) before departing the following morning for Stage 2.

Of course, some pilgrims have a different strategy to have their stage towns different from what’s commonly published. The benefit is there is less competition for lodgings in those in-between stage towns/villages.

If you tend to plan every vacation to the detail, it can be worrisome to not have reserved your lodging every night. But many pilgrims do just that, they walk with their backpacks, and go as far as they are ‘moved to’ that day. And then search for lodgings. There’s a common saying among pilgrims, “The Camino Provides.” And in 99% of the times, it does. When all fails, pilgrims either walk on or take a cab to the nearest available lodging. In latter case, they then cab back the next morning, and resume their walk.

Finally, we are really looking forward to the simplicity and spirituality of the Camino life. To leave our worldly concerns behind and be immersed in the One who has blessed us so mightily.