The scorching heat of Les Landes and Gascony in France has now been exchanged for the notoriously fickle weather patterns of the north coast of Spain. While people in the UK are crying out for rain, the Basque country is currently awash. When I checked into the pilgrim bunkhouse in Zumaia last night, everyone was talking about how wet they had got, and the drying room was full of steaming clothes.
Hondarribia to Zumaia 42m
Mileages will now be moderated by a combination of weather and terrain (very hilly), and my
eagerness to take in a lot of places on the way. Now that I’m on one of the Caminos in Spain, meeting other pilgrims is a regular happening, and they come from the four corners of the world. Tonight I’ve just met my first Singaporeans, a couple who had heard about the Camino from a friend in Spain. They are loving the experience, something completely outside the realms of anything they’ve experienced in the past.
Today saw some big climbs, the biggest up to nearly 500 metres. The promised views were completely obliterated by the rain and mist. Once I’d recovered from that, I made my way along the coast to a little fishing village, Getaria, that claims a former inhabitant, Juan Sebastian Elcano, was the first man to circumnavigate the world in 1522 (I wonder how many other places in the world can claim the same?). But as I went to visit Getaria’s stunning church, I met Albino (a Lithuanian) in the church porch, all his worldly goods strapped to
a bike, begging for his next meal. We chatted for 15 mins, I put my loose change in his cup, and he offered to look after my bike while I entered the church. He was obviously a known face in the community, and people entering the church for a service rapidly filled his cup with change. He told me the sad story of his friend who had died recently, having literally drunk himself to death (5 litres of wine a day). Albino looked as if he had a grip on life, and my heart warmed to him.
Pilgrim bunkhouses. In Spain these are normally called refugios or albergues. They are usually converted old buildings, offering bunk accommodation (frequently in mixed rooms) with sanitary facilities of variable quality, but always adequate. The charge can vary from free (donation welcomed) to 10 euros, and breakfast may be provided for a few euros more. The great thing about these places (and I am a staunch fan) is that they bring like minded people together who will qualify to stay by producing a pilgrim credential. Sitting around a table sharing a meal with others on the Camino is both entertaining and instructive. But……….if you are not used to bunkhouse sharing, you need to know that these places may have bedbugs, and you will be sleeping midst the snoring, burping and other ‘leaded emissions’ of fellow pilgrims, whether you like it or not!
To be a pilgrim (part 2). When I met Michael (from Germany) this morning, I told him he
was the true image of a modern pilgrim. His reply was interesting: ‘And I’m not even a Christian’. This led to a short but interesting exchange of thoughts. The term ‘pilgrim’ is an ancient pre~Christian term meaning ‘traveller or wanderer’, a person who travelled in quest of something. The major religions have ‘adopted’ many ancient practices, and converted them to fulfil important religious functions. The Camino I am following at the moment was a pre~Christian Celtic route following the Via Lactea to Finisterra. The spiritual attraction of reaching the ‘end of the world’ was to get as near as they could to where the sun set, where they believed there was a land of perfection.
Since childhood, our lives have been surrounded by myths and legends. If you were to take away the power of these, our lives would be much the poorer. The truth about the legend of St James is not really that important. There is no historic evidence that he really is buried in Santiago, but for hundreds of years people have journeyed in the hope that the legend is true. Doing, in fact, what the ancient Celts had done for centuries……….journeyed in hope. That, for me, is the power of the Camino, and the power of pilgrimage in general……..to journey in hope. We owe a lot to our pre~Christian ancestors.
Zumaia to Bilbao 67m
Bolibar. This small village lay on my route, and I suspected it might have some connection with Simon de Bolivar, the
famous liberator of Latin America. And I was right. Although he had not been born there, his family had emigrated to Venezuela (where he was born) and his family carried the name of the village as their family name. His life has been honoured by the villagers by mounting a museum of stunning quality, that kept me from my journey for at least an hour.
Serendipity again! As I entered Guernica (the village blitzed by the Germans during the
Spanish Civil War) I spied a cyclist and correctly assumed he was on the Camino. We greeted each other and within a few seconds had agreed to sit on a terrace and have some lunch together. Enrique was gallego, from Galicia, and basically he was cycling in a homewards direction. On our way to the said terrace, we got distracted by pinchos(tapas) and wines on a pair of tables. At the sight of free food and wine, we went over to check them out, and it was the campaign table of a
local politician (elections are taking place in the Basque country) and we were invited to join them. We were literally plied with food and drink………..(yes, I know it’s against my principles to drink wine during the day!) and we didn’t even have a vote to pay them back! So that took care of our lunch, then it was time for a coffee on the terrace (not food).
Enrique and I shared conversation easily. We must have recognised something in each other immediately, because the sense of rapport was instant. And we both agreed that one of the wonders of the Camino were the chance encounters, and (in this case) the food and wine that entered our lives as if by magic. Not only did we spend time chatting to the local politician, but he was happy to be photographed with us (he probably didn’t realize how much he was being eclipsed by my yellow!). I learned afterwards that his party is the descendent of the formerly banned Herri Batasuna (political arm of ETA). If I had known that before the pinchos and wine………………..? And the wine, by the way, was a good quality Rioja. They were certainly out to buy votes!
Excuse for a fiesta. No other country can compete with Spain in the field of finding motives for downing tools and
having a party. As I passed through Orio, I noticed everyone was wearing a fiesta outfit, and people were standing around in groups laughing and drinking. So I stopped and enquired………………. One of the lads slapped me on the back and said ‘It’s the Day of the Whale’ (El dia de la Ballena). He must have detected the trace of a mocking smile on my face, so he explained. ‘Every five years, we celebrate the killing of the last whale 110 years ago, because that year the village was blessed with a long period of plentiful food as a result of the catch’. When he’d finished his explanation, all his drinking pals raised glasses and shouted ‘A la ballena’!