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.
“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.