These were the essentials for a carefree camino.
By the time we reached Nájera we’d covered around 90 miles and the daily pounding in the heat was starting to show on our feet. Many pilgrims were really suffering with horrendous blisters and while my own feet were holding out pretty well in their well-worn boots, I’d started to copy some companions who were plastering their toes with Vaseline every morning. You can never take too many precautions when reaching your destination every day depends entirely on your feet!
So I remember Nájera less for its illustrious history as the one-time capital of the Navarre Kingdom and more for stocking up with a huge tub of vaseline at a farmacia, buying coffee and chocolate and, oh joy of joys, officially the most delicious apple pastry I have ever eaten – anywhere! I munched it as we crossed the bridge over the río Nájerilla, making for Azofra 6km away through the vineyards of Rioja grapes.
The unlabelled vino at our communal dinner in the albergue garden that night (cooked by Ramon and shared with Norwegians Trudi and Tomas, Bill from New Mexico, Suzanne, Donald and other friends) cost only 2 euros a bottle. And when our stocks ran out we walked back barefoot to the
village shop for more of their local brew and met an old man on the return journey who was thrilled that we were drinking (and clearly enjoying) his co-operative’s produce. I remember repeating “Esta muy bien” a lot and his laughing face as he waved his stick and wished us a Buen Camino.
We cooled our feet in the garden fountain after the bottles were empty and slept in the most comfortable albergue so far. Two to a room. An open window. Peace.
We often found ourselves on early morning detours following the “undiscovered” camino. In other words we couldn’t find the yellow arrows or scallop shells and were lost in the dark.
So it was that we got another tour of Torres before heading across the fields and woods to Logroño and a barefoot lunch in a bar in the financial district of this University City. Many pilgrims were taking a day’s rest but, fortified by ice-lollies, we headed on along the main road, over the río Ebro for another 12.5km to the town of Navarette.
We had numerous stops for melted Toblerone or oranges so by the time we arrived, hot
and exhausted, the Municipal albergue only had attic rooms left. I lounged in the square drinking cervesas and laughing with Swedish Helen, Chris, Pedro and Nina and others then spent the night in a discounted single room in a B&B. Oh, the luxury! A bed, my own bathroom with as much hot water as I wanted, fluffy towels and no call for earplugs. The candles and pot pourri on the table were totally superfluous!
It was blissful. But I missed the cameraderie of my new pals.
Drinking fountains were well spaced along the way but the one fuente everyone talked about was on the outskirts of Estella at the Benedictine Monasterio de Irache. A sign on the outside of the building promises that a glug of wine from the “fountain” will help pilgrims on their way to Santiago and bring them luck.
It was still early when we reached it, only 6.36am according to my camera record, but it was a right of passage so, one by one, we queued to stick our heads below the tap, turn it on and sink at least a couple of mouthfuls.
Thank you monks.
We bought bread, cheese and ham for lunch then I stormed on alone for the next two hours across acre after acre of harvested wheat fields to find spaces for Irish John, Yvon, Donald and myself at the Casa Mari albergue in Torres del Rio. Communication with the fag-puffing hospitalera proved troublesome and highly amusing when she just upped the volume in her bid to make me understand.
It turned out she wasn’t keen for me to hold on to so many places as more and more pilgrims turned up looking for beds. She was also unsure about me sharing a room with three men! To be honest I wasn’t so sure myself when John threw down his pack and warned us about his snoring.
The oversubscribed showers and loos were outside and noisy Germans prevented a late afternoon nap but the day ended with a fabulous dinner with old friends – Ramon and Suzanne, Doug and Pam, Massimo the Irish priest had all turned up – in an old stone inn.
We took a detour back to the albergue in the late evening heat and took time to admire the beautifully lit Iglesia de Santo Sepulchro.
And John DID snore!
Vineyards, rolling farmland and woodland were our constant companions on the 22km walk to Estella. Not far along the track I met a Spaniard from the west called Juan who shared his knowledge of the plants and fruits we passed as well as his hoard of dried fruit and nuts every time we stopped to rest.
He spoke no English and my Spanish was limited so we resorted to French and foraged for almonds, figs and grapes from the fields . Lunch was in Villatuerta where I gobbled painkillers for aching hips and was forced to borrow Irish John’s walking pole to help me hobble the last 4km to the municipal hostel in Estella.
It’s amazing what a foot rub can do though! Irish John and I were soon out exploring the architecture of the medieval town with Juan and watching him hit exploding plants called Devil’s Cucumbers with his stick.
Then finally (just for exercise) after supper with French-Canadian Yvon and French former peacekeeper Michelle, we took a last stroll to the church and listened at the huge door to the faint strains of the classical concert taking place inside.
Day five started with a long steady climb to the summit of Alto del Perdón at 790m where it became obvious why the top was covered in turbines. We had to hold on to our hats as we posed for photos alongside the battered wrought iron statue representing medieval pilgrims struggling against the wind.
But what a view: behind us were the Pyrenees and new friendships already forged and ahead, stretching out across Spain, the rest of the long journey to Santiago.
We shared an orange before the steep descent then figured we deserved another café con leche at Uterga and as I opened the bar door I heard the familiar strains of “The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen”. The language barrier meant I failed to understand why anyone in a bar in the blazing heat of a remote Spanish hill village was missing the attractions of the Granite City. I certainly wasn’t.
More haunting Scottish melodies sent us on our way via a detour to the 12th century Knights Templar church at Eunate. It was a quiet, pilgrim-free 3km, the path lined on either side with sunflowers, corn, blueberries and a feathery herb I didn’t recognize then as we walked through the village of Óbanos, the weekend’s fiesta was in full swing, people were drinking and eating at stalls in the square and impatient black calves were being lined up for the “bull ring”.
My hips were aching by the time we stopped that night on the far side of the bridge over the río Arga at Puenta la Reina. A young lad had handed us a leaflet for Santiago Apostol, an albergue forever thereafter referred to as “The Resort” so impressive were its facilities! Warm showers, clothes-washing sinks, spacious bunks and a long washing line with PEGS: my definition of luxury accommodation was changing forever.
“Cafe con leche, zumo de naranja y tostada, por favor”.
The breakfast order never changed and after an hour or two of walking we had earned it. Occasionally there would be a chocolate croissant and in one region the first meal of the day comprised blocks of sponge cake: take it or leave it.
It was early too; bag packing and general rustling would kick off around 5am and most of us were on the road by 6.30am in order to beat the heat of the afternoon.
But the morning we walked towards the city of Pamplona there was a stall with a pizza oven situated about an hour out from the albergue. It was like a mirage at the edge of the track and we fell upon it, fuelling up for the miles ahead. Pamplona, a few hours later, offered my first taste of Spanish tortilla, the delicious thick potato and onion omelette served hot with bread. Mmmmm!
We daundered through the bull-running streets and the cathedral but having spent a few days walking along quiet tracks and through woods the city felt noisy and busy so we pressed on, past the university and out to Cizur Menor, finding bunks in the Albergue Sanjuanista run by hospitallero Ambrosio who later morphed into a musician, playing his guitar in the neighbouring church.
Austalian Doug played a couple of Scottish songs too and the stone acoustics made familiar melodies hauntingly beautiful.
Which is more than could be said for the horrendous racket from the band playing at the local “fiesta” which boomed and echoed until 4.30am and exceeded the capabilities of my earplugs. It was a relief to rise at 6.30, have a cup of tea and an angel cake in Ambrosio’s kitchen and get back on the road.
Only two days on the road and already comfortable in the company of my first camino “family”, I faced a dilemna: I could stay overnight with them once they caught up with me in Zubiri or carry on walking another 8km to Larrasoaña, the next town. I wasn’t ready to stop for the day but I didn’t want to walk on alone either.
I paused in the square to consider and check my feet for blisters. Then around the corner came a lone pilgrim intent on another two hours walking. Would I go with him?
I strapped a plaster on a potential blister and we set off at a brisk pace, talking all the way. The outskirts of the village were industrial and ugly and we had to circle a magma plant and quarry but the conversation was good, the time flew by and I forgot all about my feet.
By that evening Donald and I were firm friends, along with Australians Doug and Pam (who’d already heard a Scottish Renga was on the road), Suzanne from Colorado, Irish John and Ramon from California. These were the folk who would form the core of my extended family for the rest of the camino, and beyond.
I don’t remember what we ate that evening but there was constant laughter and it was one of the best nights of the month. The reserve “overflow’ albergue was probably the most basic we’d ever stay in and the view of the spider-strewn skylight above my bunk will haunt my dreams forever.
But Donald left chocolate on my pillow and Ramon charged my camera with his cable. I fell asleep feeling I was already amongst friends and knowing I’d made a great decision back in Zubiri.