Day 14 Camino – Azqueta to Sansol

I just ran into Han in Sansol. He doesn’t speak much English but I speak no Korean. I’ve booked into an auberge here tonight. “What’s it like?” he asks. “Not like last night,” I respond despondently. We both have a moment. “Ahhhh last night” he says eventually. A little hostel off the beaten track. Five of us. The best food we’ve had all trail. La Perla Negra.

Elena in Azqueta has thrown her house open to pilgrims, and in the process she’s met Pete. He’s Californian, and he’s helping her run the hostel as an act of service. He is a “care full” human. I like him but part of me is shouting at him. With his arms folded, he’s worrying out loud if there’s enough milk or if the food is hot enough, or are we comfortable or do we need more or can we reach the hummus or have we had enough? His help means she can paint again, and he is totally activating and vitalising her business. But he puts no value in himself, frames his past as failure and won’t take up his space. It detracts from his magnetism.

He vanishes into reverie after Han misreads their relationship. “I have no wife. No children. No wife. No children…” On repeat out loud to himself, lost in it. “But HEY you make a mean cup of coffee,” I interject eventually and he leaps as if stung, and spits my words back into the world like a mouthful of ants. He would lose nothing by taking up more space, this good man, by having more pride in who he is now. By leaving the past in the past. I take careful notes. I remember my mum had boyfriends like that. They never interested her as much as the fuckers, even if objectively they made her existence much better.

The road to Sansol has been long, exposed and straight.

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There has been plenty of time for reflection. I’ve been thinking about the capacity in me to mirror Pete. To take up less than my allocated space. To devalue my contribution. I left before dawn today. Han said “But it’s still dark!” Pete said “He doesn’t care. He’s an adventurer.” I smiled as I left. Yes motherfuckers. I’m an adventurer. I don’t care.

I adventure up the predawn hill, breaking all the spiderwebs across the path with my face. I hit the top and there is sunrise laid out behind me in glorious technicolour. The Sun Also Rises. It really does around here, Ernest.

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Han is one of many South Koreans on this trail. Catholicism is a minority religion in Korea, so the Korean Catholics are devout and careful. They care about the teachings of their faith, and try to live a life that reflects them. They walk this trail for their soul and their improvement. Some of them find it very odd seeing me with my gong and my beads by the path in the morning. Buddhism is the unthought ascendant faith in their country. I haven’t seen anyone else yet round here who practices – not that we wear a flashing helmet. I’ve seen evidence of one or two Hindus. No Muslims. We are in Catholic country here. But the South Koreans are doing Catholicism so well. It’s a lesson. As soon as a religion is primary in a country it loses some of its meaning and potency. It is the thing that has always been. The establishment thing. I’m sure I was drawn to Nichiren Buddhism because it wasn’t rammed down my throat when I was a kid. It was new to me when I came across it as an adult. I kept it because it works for me, but that was the draw. Like Han with his sexy new Catholicism. It works for him. In the end faith is and has to be about what works for you. Otherwise immediately it’s someone trying to sell an idea. On which subject there are two guys talking about Billy Graham on the next table. They don’t know I’m English yet…

Day 13 Camino – Puenta la Reina to Azqueta

Dawn brought cockerels and bells and birds. The scent of spice on the wind.

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I’m in the Mediterranean now. Over the hill and into a different climate. Vineyards and olive trees. Ciccadas chirring in the evening. A slower pace in the heat.

The devil nearly had me in Lorca. I’d been distracted. “Dolmen” said the battered sign, with no indication of distance. It was almost time to chant. I figured I’d go to a place of power. But it was bloody miles uphill and involved breaking through a fence and fighting through a thornbush. I eventually sat sweating on the edge of a valley chanting down to a dolmen in the punishing sunshine.

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Then a long squabble with more thorns to get back on the trail. All the while the devil had been closing on me. I stopped at a vending machine to get an ice tea in Lorca and “Tchack”. Fucker was right on me. I jolted forward, almost down the wrong path but an old lady waved to protect me and pointed to the right one. “Tathanakyou” I attempted in my ItalianoSpanish mess and ran from the devil. Or the confused monk. Your call.

I didn’t stop going after that. I didn’t stop for lunch. I kept on pushing on. The Fitbit zinged my fifteen miles way early and I was out the other end of Estella, where everyone will sleep tonight, limping up a hill. Estrella is a huge stone town, preserving and enforcing reverence in the way you can with stone. Monasteries and churches galore.

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Impenetrable vast dark buildings. “You are in darkness. The light is above you.”

There’s character there. It’s irreverent too. At the base of one of the pompous raised stone edifices a little shop called “Namaste” offers tarot readings.

I had it in my head I was going to stay in a village called Ayegui. Why there? Well, it’s a little bit after Estella, which will be like Kings Cross in the morning. And Ayegui has a WINE FOUNTAIN. Which would be closed in the morning if I was leaving from Estella. And anyway, evening is the time for free wine from a magical wine fountain. There’s a webcam. It’s on a 12 second time delay. So I did a little silent comedy routine for a few persistent friends on the WhatsApp group. Then I had some free wine. It’s laid on by the monks. It’s just a delightful idea. It’s so completely silly and so completely right for this walk and this region. Free wine from a tap in the wall. I had a fair few glugs. It was good. Sticky hands and beard.

Then I discovered that the monastery was not an albergue. And the next town was a good 5km off. And my feet were already in shutdown. Back to the wine fountain. Glug glug and fill my flask with water. And off staggering slightly pished into the mountains.

All you have to do is walk through the pain. I was already halfway through the next recommended day stage, clomping vastfooted like Scott of the Antarctic through the tiny village of Azqueta when I spot “La Perla Negra.” And they spot me. “Come stay!” shouts the proprietor to this shuffling mangled human. And she’s right. I want to and I will. Normally I’m the opposite of a mark. But she was selling what I wanted.

It’s peaceful here. I’m sitting out front now, winding down, and I’ve got half a day ahead of the devil with no extra blisters. Onwards.

Day 12 Camino – Pamplona to Puenta la Reina

“Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.”

As a kid I was a great fan of early Coleridge. The big plans ambitiously conceived and then abandoned but with the smash and colour of someone who didn’t give a fuck how it was supposed to be done. Wordsworth was plodding and Sam was fizzing and Willy largely won in the end – The Prelude is incontrovertibly brilliant – but I have always loved the above image from Sam’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The whole poem is great but there’s something in that idea that we all prickle with. Something hideous following you. Don’t look back. And the use of the word “knows.” There’s no “think” about it. You “know” it’s there. What did you see first time you turned? Something? Nothing? Sam lets us answer that one. We know when we don’t want to turn round.

I’m being chased by the devil. I’ve told you that already. I know it. He got his credencial 3 after me at Lourdes. Stopping early at Pamplona was great. I got to play in a city. There are 200,000 people there and it’s lively. But he caught up.

There’s a man walking the trail that I haven’t seen before. He’s often been close behind me today. He dresses in old fashioned monk’s robes and his wooden pole makes a hard and distinctly resonant sound as it hits the loose stones of the way. Sometimes he is right behind me, at my left heel. Sometimes he vanishes for a while and then, when I’m distracted or slow, I hear the “tchack” of his pole, closing in on me. One time his stick hit a stone just behind my left foot when I was dawdling googling translations of obscure Basque words. He almost got to me. I tripled my speed immediately, dumped the phone for the rest of the day. When I looked back he had completely vanished. Half an hour later he was back there, but distant.

He is not the devil, of course. He’s just a monk wondering why this guy is avoiding him. He went to the side of the path for a pee. That’s why he vanished. He can move with supernatural speed when I’m distracted, but it’s probably just because I’m distracted. I know he’s not the devil because he shows up in photographs.

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Or is that just vampires? Anyway, he’s not going to catch me. I went further than recommended today, but still not as far as I’d like to. I walked until the back of my knees were hurting with each step. My feet, my bum, my hips – they all go early. The back of the knees go and I’m reduced to old man walking. Then it’s rest time.

I was staggering over the bridge after Puente de la Reina. There was a sign for an albergue and I’d just met two American newbies. 5 kilometres to the next sleep, a thunderstorm coming and two people relying on my experience to get a good sleep. Rain in the air already and the wind today has been threshing, merciless and constant – catching my pack and trying to roll me. I booked the albergue. I’ve showered now. I’m relaxing. The devil is behind me somewhere. I’m way beyond the recommended stop. And I know what he sounds like now. Tchack.

Another long day tomorrow to put more ground between me and *tchack” until the time comes to turn and hunt, like Ged and his shadow. Don’t worry, I won’t be punching any monks.

Day 11 – Larrasoaña to Pamplona

Almost as if they were never there, the huge pile of tourgrims has mysteriously vanished – for now. Perhaps I got far enough ahead of them, or maybe they all got a coach to Pamplona.

The morning was spent walking down a river. I found a waterfall to rest and chant at, and they didn’t all come tramping by behind me.

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There has been a lot of beauty and a lot of peace today. Time to arrange my head. I’ll be ready next time I’m in a herd of people.

This region is still clearly in dispute. Graffiti everywhere says “This is not Spain,” and frequently the “not” has been obscured, crossed out or painted over with a Spanish flag.

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Clearly both sides in this dispute are passionate and active. It won’t go down quietly. I was in a conversation only a few months ago. “How come we never hear about the Spanish Civil War?” “Because it’s still going on” was the reply.

I’ve stopped in Pamplona, the Basque capital of Navarre. The walls have been rebuilt since Charlemagne rashly destroyed them, and you enter the city through a portcullis.

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I knew the moment I arrived that I couldn’t pass through this city and sleep in some distant hilltop auberge. I need to see the place properly. It’s the only proper city on this route. Stopping here means I’ll have a long day tomorrow and it likely also means I’ll have to get ahead of the running of the cows in the morning as I’ve a suspicion they’ve been bussed here to see the sights before starting walking tomorrow again. I’m savvy to it now though. It’s about working out where they all sleep and then sleeping about two hours further ahead of them. I can get that done tomorrow.

It’s crowded down there on the street. I’m staying at The Hemingway Hostel, and I’m letting my feet rest after an arnica massage. I finally bit the bullet and bought a little Rosicrucian pin badge – a baroque red cross that’s now pinned to my chest. It was easy to get the price of my room discounted. I don’t know if those two things are connected but I fear they might be.

There are some practicalities to think about such as laundry, and preparing my clothes for tomorrow. I’ll leave in the dark, so need to be able to leave efficiently and stealthily. It’s a seven bed dorm. There are actual sheets though so I’ll sleep well. Often they make you sleep on plastic sheets with foul plastic pillows, usually still damp where they’ve been sluiced with insecticide and disinfectant. Here they’re cotton which almost certainly means little fuckers living somewhere, but I’ll still sleep better than on that repugnant sticky crap, and they only eat one person a week. In medieval times I’m told people would pay to have a pig sleep in their bed all day. Then they could change the sheets and head to sleep happy in the knowledge that the bedbugs ate the pig already. Unfortunately, it being the off season, most of the time, I’m the pig. Unless I can BUY a pig and take it with me?

Day 10 – Burguete to Larrasoaña

I’ve got my misanthropist on again. I’m starting to regret leaving St Jean on a Monday when the week starts. Today has been a little bit like being on an elevator at Euston Station. If this was August I’d consider getting a flight to London to get away from all the people. At 11am I refilled my water at a roadside café and I counted 22 pilgrims sitting around probably eating butter. There’s a pod of Australians, a coach load of South Koreans, a Peloton of French and a huge pile of fat retired Spaniards. A lot of them don’t have packs. The coach drives their pack to the lunch spot for them. Then they all sit around with lardbutter gateaux talking about how hard it is, before putting the pack back in the coach, getting their snack bag and lumpfrolicking off. They can always sit in the coach and get a lift if it gets too tough on their tootsies. “I went to Santiago di Compostela and all I got was this stupid T-Shirt.” And gout.

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I think part of the reason why I’ve been arse to mouth constantly with these tour groups has been because I left bit later than usual this morning. I was struggling to upload that fucking self tape. Half an hour to shoot. A lifetime to upload. I left an hour later than I like to, and it was when I sat down to chant for half an hour at ten that I heard them all filing past behind me in the mist, moaning and chattering like the army of the dead.

At one point I got so fed up “Have you had cannabis I’ve had cannabis cannabis is good how do you like taking cannabis” that I decided I’d get a bus a day ahead to Pamplona so I wouldn’t have to walk alongside these vacuous tits anymore. Then I realised there was no bus so I ordered a €30 taxi because I had it in my head I’d escape them. Then I thought better of it. They’re going to be part of the furniture. I went into the bar to try to cancel the cab.

“Hello. Need cancel taxi.” “Words words words taxi not cancel words words words.” “Ok. Good. No problem. Waitwait me.” She’s watching me. She knows me no waitwait. She goes looking for her manager who’s a big lad and hasn’t been walking all day. He’ll makemake me waitwait, because she knows damn well what’s about to happen. I smile at her beatifically, resist a thumbs up wink, and lift my half full drink to demonstrate it’s still half full. She turns her back. I knew she would. I sprint. I didn’t think I could still run. I’m laughing as I go because there’s something intensely childish about this. I’m round the corner and across the Rabies Bridge before anyone can stop me, and I’m back on the trail. Can’t cancel it but you can still run away like a twelve year old.

Everyone seems to have stopped to sleep in Zubera. I can’t now because some burly Spaniard will insist I pay them €30 for a cab to Pamplona. Just as well.

Back on the trail late I get the peace I’ve wanted. I walk to Larrasoaña. There’s virtually nobody walking at the same time as me. I take in the huge great magnesite quarry, then go walking down a river. DON’T WALK ON QUARRY LAND BAD PILGRIM BAD.

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It’s a bit underwhelming so far compared to The Piémont Route, this Route France. I’m hoping to find more beauty as I get further in because after the mountain it’s not been much. Motivation was harder to find today. Also there are signs everywhere telling us that we aren’t allowed to do things. I feel funneled, conveyor belted and managed. We are close to Pamplona now which is the biggest metropolis on the route, so maybe it’s just a bad bit. I’m gonna have to push hard for a few days to get out of sync with these tourgrims plodding around scattering litter as the butter leaks down their pasty jowls. And then I’ll see how it changes. “Welcome to Basque Country” (BIG RED SIGN. NOT ALLOWED. BAD.)

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Ps yes. There is a Rabies Bridge. The extremely dangerous superstition is that if your animal has rabies you just drag it across the bridge three times and it’s cured because of some dead Saint… Don’t try it, kids.

 

Day 9 – St Jean-Pied-de-Porte to Burguete (via Roncesvalles)

Charlemagne only suffered one military defeat. It was in 778. I walked through the site today. The man was an extraordinary genius but he rashly decided almost offhand to raze the walls of Pamplona after a successful campaign elsewhere helping allies. Pamplona was the Basque capital and he thought they were in bed with the Moors. Perhaps it would save him some time later.

As he was returning through the passes I passed through today, the Basques fell on him. They isolated his rearguard and baggage train. Commander of the rearguard was Roland of the Breton Marches. He and his men must have fought extremely hard and well before they were massacred to a man. They lasted long enough for the king to get himself and the rest of the army out before they were chased. Nobody knows how Roland died or what happened exactly as there are no Basque records surviving. There aren’t even any records to tell us exactly who commanded them but we can speculate.

Roland and his doomed Paladins eventually became extremely potent romantic models of mortal heroism – the blueprint for the round table and all that shit. Angry Roland. Orlando Furioso. Dying to protect his king.

Walking up this morning it was almost entirely fog.

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If I walked past a good bit for an ambush I didn’t see it. They would’ve made mincemeat of me, those angry Basques. Apparently there was a statue of Mary and a spectacular view and all sorts. Probably some more crosses. They like crosses. Wet fog. That’s what I saw. I was soaked to the skin by hiking pretty much entirely inside a cloud all day.

I left super early as all the internet people were making noise about how hard it would be on the mountain. It was miserable and wet and reminded me of The Isle of Man. But it was basically just a mountain pass. And we were inhaling drinking water. We walked up it. Lots of us walked up it. Lots of people walk up it every day. Especially in midsummer. People run up it. It’s a steep day’s walk with a load of exaggerating self aggrandising pimps writing about it afterwards. “Look at me I did a thing.” I was glad of the two cold Spaniards selling 2 euro instant coffee out of the back of a van. I was glad of the fact the clouds finally broke on the Spanish side and I met a horse.

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I was glad to get over it. And myself in the process.

Now I’m in Spain. And I’m in a ridiculously expensive hotel room. The only option in Roncesvalles was a huge hostel, and I got an email from my agent when I was in that cloud. I had to record a self-tape audition. So all my plans of rest went out the window and I walked a bit further to Burguetz looking for a room. But I don’t speak the language. I can’t be an ally. They can charge what they want by just repeating a number. So pow, there goes €60 for bed and breakfast. That wasn’t the cheapest offer I had but the other woman was such a bitch I paid €9 not to stay at hers. It’ll be another €10 for a meal here too. That can’t continue. I’ll be home in a week broke. Still, worth it if I land the job. The eternal mantra. It’s a pretty village though, Burguetz. A river runs through it. It is contained down the Main Street on both sides of the road, in front of the houses, flowing swift.

Now almost 6 hours after I stopped walking, I’m still waiting for the fucking videos to upload. It’s nice that I can audition from Spain. But God it’s still so time consuming, and in this case (and often) it’s expensive. I had to buy a peaceful room of my own, record the other parts with gaps and then play the audio track and film myself. No way I could do that satisfactorily in a hostel where all the Americans are shouting at each other and there’s nowhere to sit and chill without someone asking you if they can put something somewhere.

I’m glad I’m in Spain. I can blitz some duolingo now to make myself a bit less shit at Spanish. I’d forgotten how much people dislike you if you can’t express basic things. And I hate being the guy who has to drag people into another language to do simple stuff. I can’t even count in Spanish today. My head is full of French, ordering and locking in the huge colloquial learns of the last week, en effet.

That and watching the upload bar on fucking WeTransfer. I’ll never get to bed at this rate. But I’m glad I’m in Spain. I’ve crossed the border. I’ve done the hardest day of walking on this trail and thought it easy, and I’ve immediately turned my focus to my craft and banged out a good self-tape (if not clean shaven – no razor. No shops.) All in all, that’s a good day.

Day 8 – Recuperation at St Jean

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From St-Jean-Pied-de-Porte, realistically speaking, it is 34 days hard march to Santiago di Compostela. The hardest walk by far will be tomorrow when I ascend to Roncesvalles. The weather, to an extent, is on my side though. It’s colder than it has been. The rain has blown in. Treacherous footing, but less sweat.

This is my only day off. I’m spending it in Pilgrim Central. Literally St Jean at the Foot of the Pass. It’s been strategically important enough over the years to have been contested frequently, and razed to the ground at least once by Richard I on his crusades. The economy revolves around pilgrims. €10 blister plasters compete with €70 silk sleeping bag liners for the “Seriously?” prize. If you’re going on a pilgrimage, stock up beforehand or they will take you for everything you’re worth. A lot of people here have a stick and a bag, although there’s also loads of pink around today for a breast cancer run with only women running. I’m wearing my pink shirt in solidarity.

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I’m finding it hard to have a day off. Everything in me wants to walk. I’m learning to do what I need though, and to take care of myself. Today I will rest despite not wanting to. I can spend the time obsessing about the contents of my pack.

I’ve only done a week, but I’ve got a pretty good handle on equipment now. I’ve chucked loads and this is what’s left. I’ll put it here for people considering doing this madness.

I walk in a trail hat borrowed from my cousin. It keeps the sun off my head and out of my eyes. I adore my trousers that convert to shorts. I’ve got a spare pair that don’t convert and I only wear them when the others are filthy. One stick so I have the other hand free for arse scratching, orange peeling, compass bothering etc. 4 pairs of socks, 4 pairs of pants. Arnica cream and compeed and padded bandages and some other basic first aid (antiseptic wipes, sting wipes). Vitamin pills. Lighter. A pocket knife. Two T-Shirts, two sleeved shirts. A light towel. A small container of laundry detergent. A hankie for the early morning drip. Sleeping bag and liner – haven’t used the liner yet. Also haven’t used thermals and kagoule and rain poncho but I don’t regret it as I reckon I will. Mobile phone with a battery charging case so you can plug in both phone and charger to the same socket. Plug adaptor. Thai fisherman trousers, sarong and espadrilles to make it perfectly clear I’m a hippy in the evenings (actually chosen for lack of weight). An amethyst. To give the lie to the last comment. Also a gong, incense, a liturgy of Nichiren Buddhism and some beads. And my tarot cards. Fight me. Soap. Sudocrem for the chafing. Tiger Balm so I can forget to wash my hands and go to the loo – (never again, especially before bed.) Sunblock – factor 50 – a thing I rarely if ever use but I’m needing it up here. WATER FLASK or I’d be dead. Compass for those “Where the fuck am I?” moments when GPS goes whoopsie and decides you’re in Germany (aka all the time). Super light fleecy top – ( I’m wearing it now. Love it.) Big light scarf – (tablecloth/neck warmer). Fitbit. It’s a brilliant luxury. It wakes me with a silent alarm in the crowded auberges. It vibrates happily when I hit fifteen miles, to tell me I’m doing well as that’s around when it starts to hurt now. It monitors heart rate and sleep patterns. It tells the time. It’s a small light.

Toothbrush and toothpaste. A drybag you can attach to the outside of your rucksack with your lunch. Ziplock freezer bags so the six day old reblochon doesn’t get all over the inside of the dry bag. Lunch is usually a mixture of moisture carriers, proteins and bread. I think a great deal about how much things weigh. I always have an orange though for emergencies. And of course a gargantuan tin vessel of holy water collected by my teenage mother that everyone looks at strangely because I can’t close my pack around it. And my uncle’s tarnished rosary. They’re the catholics here.

I’ve been on the road less traveled and I’ve found adequate laundry facilities to keep my clothes fresh. I’ve never had to re-wear socks or pants. From here on it’ll get more crowded but there’s an economy and an infrastructure coming into play. There’ll be launderettes. Expensive but in existence.

I’ve been planning my route extremely carefully to make sure I stop at the cheap auberges. That’s the best way. Ideally the gîtes paroissales run by the church, even if I write “NMHRK” in all the guest books. If I wasn’t doing that I’d be spending a minimum of €30 per night which would murder me. After Asson I now phone ahead in the morning, or the night before. Usually it’s not necessary but I don’t want to get stuck on the porch again.

Accommodation cost has varied from €6 to €30. So has what is offered for the price. You take what you get. The Curé and his cat wanted 6 for a bed and two meals  The farmhouse with double bed to me alone was 30 for the same. My ideal is 10 per night plus 10 for evening meal (If I’m not just stuffing cheese and ham again.) That’s what I get in the gîte paroissale here in St Jean, with all I can eat dinner, red wine and robust breakfast in an extremely clean environment. No bed bugs here for sure. I’ve got their bites on my stomach and my wrist from L’Hôpital Sainte-Blaise.

With 34 nights left we’re looking at a minimum €680 not counting coffee/lunch/luxuries. It’s not cheap being a pilgrim. But I’d pay a lot more for a life coach, a therapist, a personal trainer and a grief counselor. So it’s probably worth it.