Day 5 Even the descent can be hard

Sunday Oct 2. Deba to Markina-Xemein. 8 hrs 40 mins. Total ascent 851m; total descent 771m; 25.2km.

We left the Pension at 8.05am as we were outside Deba town. A staff showed us a gravel path down and gave us verbal and sign language directions. It’s amazing how effective sign language can be in communicating an underpass. It took us 35 mins to get into Deba town.

We met an old gentleman on his walk, and again through sign language we got the gist on where to cross the railway tracks, and back track to the bridge over the river. The Yellow Arrows started appearing once we reached the railway station.

We met David back tracking to town (we met him yesterday, he’s an American who lives and works in Berlin, Germany). He realized there was nothing open on the route ahead. He was backtracking to a bakery that was opened in Deba.

As our guidebook listed the locations for where the various water fountains/taps were, I decided that I would just fill one 32 oz/1 liter bottle container for both of us. This worked out well as I was able to strategically replenish. I left the other bottle empty to lessen the load.

Today’s ascent of 851m was similar to yesterday’s 850m. It was a mix of stony trails with muddy pools of water, and paved roads. One stretch that had an elevation gain of 300m was 2/3rds along a paved path that sloped gently upwards. This was much preferably than a steep incline over rocks and stones.

But the final stretch of descent of 200m was murder, involving inclines of 15 to 20 degrees (estimate). We had met a Spanish man, Denis and his Peruvian girlfriend, Celeste. They were carrying more than full backpacks. At this final descent, she had to walk backwards, holding onto his hand. It was that brutal as one’s toes kept coming up against the toe of the shoe to stop the downward momentum.

Hiking down to Deba town from the Pension, about 8.05am
Boats moored at Deba, where we crossed the bridge
Some final views of the coastline before our route swings inland
Where there is plenty of rocks, a rock tower will emerge. We added our two cents. That’s Denis behind Joon.
This same path was used by dirt bikers.
Views of the mountain range
Joon’s eagle eyes caught sight of these ‘fairy hammocks’
Three megalithic stones in the Ermita de San Miguel de Arretxinaga in Markina

Early night at Casa Rural Intxauspe, which is 750m outside Markina. We will have to backtrack.

It was a 3 course dinner. 1st – spaghetti; 2nd pictured -pork with sunny side egg; 3rd – Neapolitan ice cream. Table red wine too! All for Euro 12!

Day 4 Camino Rhythm & Spirituality

Sat Oct 1. Zarautz to Arriola (between Itziar and Deba). 8 hours 40 mins.

Weather forecast is for dry days for the next several days. As a precaution, we had brought our rain gear as we were caught unprepared once in Camino Frances. Fortunately the forecasts were correct and it was a dry and sunny day!

Walking out of Zarautz was along a walkway that skirted the ocean. It wasn’t a promenade like San Sebastian’s but nevertheless it was very popular on a Saturday. We saw 20 or more cycling groups, some large groups numbered in the high teens. Some joggers and walkers too, but they were outnumbered by the cyclists!

A view of Zarautz as we leave the city

What we loved was that the City had provided water taps at various intervals along the walkway. In addition there was a modern restroom facility about a kilometer outside the city! Amazing consideration for those out for a walk, run or cycle.

Most pilgrims will find their walking legs by the third day. They also find their rhythm and pace, be it fast with rest stops, or slow without rest stops unless needed. On this Camino, we are drinking water with electrolytes. That seems to have a huge impact on our ability to walk for long stretches.

Adapting to a Camino rhythm settles in sooner or later, due to the daily routine of checking into a new lodging every night (excluding rest nights), and walking most of the day. Thus, the rhythm involves packing/un-packing, deciding on one’s breakfast routine, washing & drying of clothes, reflecting and/or journaling the day’s experiences.

Re breakfast, we opt to get out own breakfast the day before. We typically settle for some yogurt (protein), pastries/muffins (carbs) & juices. A self prepared breakfast doesn’t tie us down to the eatery’s opening hours and hindering an early start for us. But if it’s a short day, we would want to indulge in a breakfast at an eatery. We typically don’t walk well with a full stomach, as it acts as a mini-anchor! Our lunches on the go could be protein bars, nuts, trail mix, fruits, or a simple coffee and tortilla.

Walking daily for many hours seems to create a Zen mind. Issues, irritants, ‘problems’ roll off one like water off a duck’s back.

Thus, when a blister was starting to appear last night due to the wet shoes from Days 1 & 2, I didn’t fuss over it. Walked as usual, though I liberally applied more lubricant on the soles. The blister did not get worse. The Camino Provides once again.

The countryside and mountains can take one’s breath away
No signs of man made structures can be very Stimulating!
Layered scene
Cows on a ridge, sheltering under a cloud

As the mind gets de-cluttered with worldly concerns (that for the most part we are unable to change or impact), and filled with the beauty of Nature (aka God’s creation), the mind becomes more receptive to spiritual insights.

As I was absorbing all the beauty around me, my thoughts turned to the Seven Wonders of the World. Like most, I have desired to visit or see in person some of these wonders. They are not on my bucket list per se, but if an opportunity presents itself, I will likely make an effort.

A question arose within me, unbidden. ‘What is the Greatest Wonder of the World?’

It came to me unbidden – God’s Spirit dwelling within me is the greatest wonder for me, a Christian.

First time I have seen this depiction of the crucified Christ with the other two (Dismas and Gestas)
The Virgin of Itziar

We opted to stay at a ‘rural casa’ which was 1km outside Deba town center. It was the Pension Tixki Polit. We had the best dinner since we started the Camino proper. Fortunately, there was a direct route to Deba from the Pension which saved us backtracking to the Camino route.

Ensalada gumbas y gulas
The most tender veal cheeks
Pears in red wine – wow!
Facade of Pension Txiki Polit

Day 3 Dry! Dry! Dry!

Friday, Sept 30. San Sebastián to Zarautz. 20km but up and down. About 9 hours. This was so welcomed after two days of rain.

Leaving San Sebastián in the morning was a joy. The walk along the promenade at Playa de La Concha ranks as one of the top promenade walks. Golden sand, wide promenade, strong waves with just the right amount of wind blowing at you. Interesting cloud formations on an overcast day, with some sunlight breathing through.

This wise lady knew how to spend her time!

We lapsed into enjoying the walk along the promenade that we didn’t spot the turn off (not the usual Yellow Arrow painted on posts, walls or floors). We walked about a half km on and came to San Sebastian’s singing blow holes. There’s about 6 holes in the promenade floor and when the waves and winds come with the right force, it’s forced through these blow holes as vapor and sound. I took a video but it’s too large to upload here.

One final picture of the awesome clouds and ocean views on this overcast day.

You can just make out the Sagrado Corazón (“Sacred Heart”) statue of Christ (12 meters high) on the second mountain top from the left.

One final farewell from San Sebastián as we left the promenade was this awesome ceramic mural covering this pedestrian tunnel.

San Sebastián attracts many travelers. It has eleven Michelin rated restaurants too!

As expected, the exit out required trekking uphill. Once we got out of the city limits, we were into the countryside. Fresh farm smells, meadows and generally, lack of any traffic noise. Open skies.

Pilar came up upon us, as we walk slowly and leisurely. She’s a Chilean, who has worked and lived in many countries, such as New Zealand, Australia, Spain etc. She shared that this was the first day of her first Camino! She was walking because of a number of life events, and thus, she had left her job, family and friends to just reflect and ponder on life’s next directions. We wish her well.

Pilar walking ahead after spending time with us

Taking extended time for a Camino walk can be very therapeutic and self-healing at many levels. It may seem daunting but one can decide on the route, duration and budget. Dis-connecting from the world once a while helps re-calibrate one’s inner gyroscope. Perhaps it’s a local trip somewhere simple that will also do the trick!

After making it through the countryside, we were headed down when we came across Naomi, who had set up a large tent with some refreshments. We view this as an opportunity to meet people especially those who are being hospitable to pilgrims. She’s very committed to Yeshua (Christ).

The goodwill from Naomi was probably to prepare us for a downhill stretch of about 1.5 km of large irregular boulders and stones. It was laid out like an old road but due to wear and tear, it takes more effort to navigate certain stretches without twisting one’s ankle!

Finally, we came unto this view of Zarautz. A great layout with plenty of beachfront. The golf course was the icing on the cake!

Zarautz!

We stayed at Pension Txiki Polit, in the midst of a square. Plenty of eating options, bearing in mind that generally kitchens open at 8pm. Before then, it’s basically tapas/pincos.

We selected a less busy restaurant where most of the patrons were essentially socializing over beer and wine. There were several large screens but majority were following the soccer match. We were the only ones eating dinner! An early night like most.

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
Panaroma
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.