We never knew when we set out in the morning where we’d be sleeping that night and albergues varied enormously in terms of the facilities and comfort they offered. Some had washing machines, some had kitchens, others provided a meal on the premises, some even had separate loos for men and women! The prices ranged from 6-10 euros so you didn’t complain and readily accepted whatever was available. “The Camino provides” was the philosophy.
Grañón stands out though. It was basic, not just because you slept on the floor, but washing facilities were limited and cramped. And I’ll never forget hanging my laundry alongside rags on crowded lines up in the ancient bell tower, avoiding the piles of guano and the barely guarded drop to the ground far below. But it had an atmosphere that was unique and steeped in history.
We prepared the food communally – dozens of people along a table chopping vegetables and preparing apples for baking with cinnamon – then went to the mass downstairs. The lady sitting beside me led the singing with a strong beautiful voice then pilgrims were invited to go forward for a blessing.
The meal was cooked in big ovens at the village bakery and we all went and watched in the street as those who could sing performed for our supper, with the villagers and tiny children all watching the daily spectacle. We shared the delicious food, the washing-up was made light by many hands, and I fell exhausted into my sleeping bag on the floor.
There was no fixed charge here, just an honesty box for a donation if you could afford it. And if you couldn’t, there was an invitation to take what you needed from the money left by others.
In the few minutes before sleep came that night I felt this was the closest I had come to finding the original spirit of the pilgrimage. There was a history, a simplicity and humility to this place that couldn’t be captured in the modern albergues we enjoyed elsewhere. I was resting my head on the same floor as thousands of others over the ages: I was becoming a pilgrim.
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.
“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.