Pamplona to Puente la Reina

Distance walked: 24.1km  25.2km

Waking up in Pamplona, my room was still dark and I could hear the sound of light rain spitting against the window. Surprisingly, I was awake before my alarm sounded, and even more surprisingly, I was ready to go walking. I probably could have stayed in my private “B” until 10-11am but the thought never crossed my mind. Already, I had adapted to the daily routine of Camino – getting up early (without question) and going for a very long walk. It was quite a change from my lifelong habit of clutching the warm bedcovers for another five minutes.

The arrival of rain meant that the morning was a bit chilly but I had only one pair of long hiking pants in my possession and no rain pants to wear over them. If I walked in my hiking pants by day and they got wet, then I would have no dry clothing to change into later that evening. It was a luxury I couldn’t afford, so I put on my shorts – pretending it was a sunny morning – and braced myself for the worst. The goose bumps and shivering motivated me to move quickly 🙂

Outside, the streets were quiet and the sky was heavy with rain as I made my way out of the city. My map from the tourist office clearly directed me across the lanes of traffic, past early-morning coffee shops, and children on their way to school. Occasionally, a yellow arrow would appear, spray-painted onto a random wall or signpost and I knew I was going in the right direction. The footpaths were marked with scallop shell symbols and again, I knew I was on the route towards Santiago, and not towards the nearest IKEA store!

Many people think that walking the Camino means spending endless hours in the countryside on gravel trails, with big horizons, and blue skies. Walking Camino also means walking through towns and cities with concrete footpaths, loud traffic, graffiti, and general pedestrians going about their ‘real life’ business. Many people told me had gotten lost in Pamplona, and spent up to two hours going around in circles, trying to find the way out. In the early morning light, they found it frustrating and disheartening, and they felt the passing of time without the passing of kilometres. I understand how it can happen. Even after only a couple of days walking, we had become familiar with the country setting and having just one path ahead. In a city, there are countless roadways, footpaths, and alleyways to navigate – it’s easy to get disorientated and spend time cursing the map. That morning, I was thankful to find my way out of town easily and was even more delighted when it stopped raining.

A year later, I have to admit that I don’t remember all of the sights between Pamplona and Puente la Reina. I wish I did, but honestly, there were long stretches of Camino that I just experienced, without mentally recording them. I walked on my own, I didn’t wear earphones, and I didn’t consult my guidebook, so now, some of the place names are entirely unfamiliar and I have no memory of ever passing through.

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What I do remember though, are these small events because they shaped my day:

Stopping at the side of the trail to look at a tree festooned with ribbons, photos, and holy medals…We weren’t quite sure what we were looking at until we got closer and saw that it was a memorial to someone who had died while walking the Camino. I’m sure that like us, they set off walking full of hope and great intention, and never expected to die on the way to Santiago. I’m no theologian and I don’t know the ‘rules’ of Camino very well, but I still hope that their pilgrimage brought them a sense of peace and joy before they died. And maybe some bonus points in getting into heaven.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few of these sites along the way – some of them with small headstones or wooden crosses. Some of them are decades old while others have been there only a few months. They’re a sober reminder that any of us could befall the same fate – sometimes all it takes is some unsteady ground for us to lose our balance, trip, and bang our head.

Mental note to self: take care on downward slopes and loose ground.

I think this is the first memorial I saw on Camino and while we stood there, contemplating the precariousness of our own pilgrimage, a young American guy came along to join us. Is it relevant that he was American? Probably not, but I can’t call him by name so I have to call him something.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked

Oh, we’ve just stopped to have a look at this…

Without coming any closer to take a look at the memorial, he asked:

So, what is it, like a good luck thing or something?

Erm…no…it’s a memorial to someone who died while walking the Camino

Without missing a beat he replied:

Ah okay, I thought it was some special good-luck thing – thought I was ‘doing it wrong’ there for a minute

And without further pause, he was gone.

A year later, I still find this memory stunning. I was simply flabbergasted to witness his insensitivity and disinterest. I was even more rattled with his choice of language in our short exchange – this whole idea of “doing the Camino” (and doing it “right”) resurfaced, and I was quietly horrified. He would have come closer to the tree if we told him that tying a ribbon on its branches was a tradition for safe arrival in Santiago. He had no interest in pausing for a moment to reflect on the person who had died, and even less interest in speaking with us. Alas, this is the difference between “doing the Camino” as a physical challenge, and going on pilgrimage. I hate to say it but there is a distinction between those who treat it like one long-distance hike with cheap wine, and those who open themselves up to human connection and vulnerability.

How depressing.

I also remember sitting on a bench, eating a pack of chocolate biscuits, and watching the world go by. Two men approached, and though I’d never seen either of them before, one of them took a look at my hiking sandals and socks (a fashion disaster, I readily admit) and exclaimed:

‘You’re Ger!’

I am, but who are you and how do you know my name?

I’ve met Kevin and Liz – you know them, right? Great guys! They told me all about this girl who’s out here walking in hiking sandals instead of boots. They hadn’t seen you in a few days and they were hoping you were okay and that your feet were holding up. How are your feet holding up?

And so, we spent the next twenty minutes eating chocolate, catching up on people we knew, and talking about our feet – a beautifully normal day on Camino.

A bit of background:

Kevin and Liz are a couple I met on my first night at Orisson. We shared dinner and laughter, and the next morning we walked together up into the grassy Pyrenees full of horses and sheep. They were open, generous, and great fun, and I liked them a lot. I’d known them only a couple of hours but it felt like months’ worth of time in the ‘real world’.

The thing is, I met other great people on my first day of walking, shared a great connection with laughter and heart, and then never saw them again. Ever. Not once, in 6 weeks. I enjoyed Kevin & Liz immensely but wasn’t sure I’d ever see them again either, so to meet one of their new friends was a sweet surprise. I was thrilled to know that they were still holding up, and were somewhere within 1-2 days of walking from where I stood.

Walking the Camino is like one big high school reunion. The disadvantage is that sometimes you run into people you would happily never see again. They’re the ones who like to remind you of all the ways in which their life/pilgrimage is far more exciting/successful than yours. They’re a pain in the neck and you need to keep a wide berth from them. However, the great advantage of the high school reunion is bumping into people you haven’t seen in ages, sharing genuine warmth and kindness, catching up on the state of your feet/heart/spirit, and sharing a meal together. That stuff is wholegrain magic!

The second man also knew Kevin & Liz so we walked together to the top of Alto del Perdón (Hill of Forgiveness), through the windmills, and through the men who were out hunting wild boar. I’m not kidding when I say the wind carried the sound of gunshot and excited hunting dogs, and we reasoned it was best to move quickly and get out of there as soon as possible. This guy ran marathons (plural) for fun, so he was strong, fast, and fit. I walked as quickly as my little legs could carry me but I felt I was holding him back all the way to the top of the 790m hill. Still, he never once indicated that I was cramping his style and I appreciated that enormously.

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Alto del Perdón, featuring a wronght iron represntation of midieval pilgrims, heading westwards

He walked the Camino to raise funds for an Irish charity called Pieta House, and was averaging more than 40km each day with enough time to spend his afternoons drinking beer in the sunshine. When we got to the top of the hill, he bought me a coffee from another “banana man in a van” and within minutes, was gone. I needed to rest, he needed to walk, and we parted ways with a wave and a smile. I assumed I would see him again and wanted to sponsor him for his fundraising but I never saw him after that day.

While I rested at the top of the hill and took in the landscape below me, Kevin and Liz appeared from around the corner.

Yay!

What a great surprise, and what a sweet delight to be reunited.

Photos for everyone, and some great company for the remaining walk to Puente la Reina 🙂

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The Lovely Liz

Pamplona

In Pamplona, the staff at the main tourist office helped me find private accommodation for the night. I had just done my 4th day of walking and it had been a short one, at only 10km. If I kept up that pace, I’d never reach Santiago. But I hoped that taking some time out to rest and reconfigure would help me start again with renewed strength.

In looking for a bed, I wanted something central and cheap. Nothing was going to be quite as cheap as the main albergue but I didn’t fancy sharing with 113 other pilgrims. The woman behind the desk pointed out a few options from a list and after a little bit of sweet-talking, agreed to phone the establishment and book the room for me.

When would I like to check in?

Oh…in about ten minutes!

I followed the map and walked around the corner, down the street, and found myself at the front door of a non-descript building with the name of the pensión over the door. I’m guessing the building also held private apartments because my sort-of B&B was on the third floor (though, given they didn’t serve breakfast I really should just call it a “B”). Outside, the sun was bright and white hot but the inside of my “B” was dark. The wooden hallway was narrow, and the space inside the door was barely large enough for me to stand there with my backpack on my shoulders. I had to squint my eyes to adjust to the artificial lighting. Without any major welcome or ceremony, the woman took my cash and handed me a bunch of keys. My room was the last one down the hall. And she went back to watching TV.

Initially, I was relieved to have found a private room – especially with such ease. The place was quiet, and after the daily scramble and hustle of the albergues, I was glad. Getting a private room in a busy city for such a price was great, and I was delighted to keep the costs down. But when I turned the key the lock and opened the door to my room, my heart sank: the space was tiny. I had never thought to view the room before committing to pay. Had I done so, I might have seen the chipped paint, the exposed wiring, and the metal bars on the windows. The single bed was backed into a corner. There was maybe 30cm of floor space at end and maybe a metre of floor space to the side, which somehow included a wardrobe, a small table, and a beside locker. There was enough room to turn around, but there was nothing to spare. Thinking back on it now, I’m inclined to think it was fine – I mean, how much space did I really need? At the time, however, I took it personally.

There’s a saying that goes something like this: The way you do anything is the way you do everything. I don’t think that’s the exact quotation but I first learned this saying nearly 20 years ago and it’s been churning away in the back of my mind ever since. I’ve spent the years analysing it and trying to establish whether it is really true. The moment I walked into my private box room, I had an immediate thought:

Is this what I have amounted to?

After all the ups and downs of my life, is this the best I can do?

And if I were to die here, is this a reflection of my life, my achievements, and my worth?

The thought had slipped in so quickly that I might have missed it. I felt I had failed again and looking around, I was rather miserable. I guess I had expected a bit more space, a bit more modernity, and something that looked more like a hotel, as I know it. This room was rough around the edges and oppressively small, and I suddenly felt lonely. Surprisingly, I found myself missing my fellow pilgrims and imagined they were all back in the albergue, chatting, laughing, and making plans to explore the city together. I thought: I’ve made a huge mistake, coming here. I missed the sense of community that I’d come to know. I still remember feeling hugely conflicted about how to proceed, and how best to take care of myself on Camino. Being in loud hostels and being around so many people had reduced me to tears, but removing myself from the crowd and taking time to rest also reduced me to tears. I wasn’t usually so teary-eyed and I was really unsure about how to mind myself. What should I do?

Thankfully, I remembered another saying.

‘HALT’ stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and it’s an acronym for a sort of emotional stock-take. When life is busy or intense, it can be easy to get swept along and lose track of how we’re feeling. Being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired can make us vulnerable and extra-sensitive, and lead to further problems. So taking a minute to stop and check whether we’re feeling any of these things gives us information to make informed, supportive decisions. The man who taught me this has a lovely way of explaining it and encourages us to, “Take it easy. Don’t make any big decisions. Stay in out of the cold and mind yourself.” Simple advice, but a revelation for the likes of me, who spends a lot of life living in my head.

On quick reflection, I seemed to be:

somewhat hungry

not at all angry

quite lonely

and very tired

So, instead of looking for another room or regretting that I wasn’t in the main albergue, I decided to make the best of what I had. Yes, the room was cramped and a bit dingy but it was mine. It allowed me more personal space than I’d known in the previous five days. It was quiet, it was central, and from what I could tell, the sheets on the bed were clean. Heck, there’d been no sheets at all the previous few days and sheets were a luxury! The bathroom down the hall was spacious and clean, and I had the comfort of washing both my clothes and myself without a line of people waiting outside the door. There were certain benefits to the place, and I had to remind myself that this was one day and one night in my life – it wasn’t a reflection of my entire experience.

However, the attitude I applied to myself was an accurate reflection of my everyday experience. I’d walked for only four days but I’d spent a good chunk of that time comparing myself to others and deciding I was a failure. I was too slow, too emotional, and too sensitive. They’re rather damning judgements, really. I don’t know whether I had a great realisation then, or if it came later, but somewhere over the course of Camino I realised that being really harsh with myself wasn’t going to give me the desired results. Somehow, I had to befriend myself and support myself a bit better. Otherwise, I’d end up crying myself all the way home. So, the room was a dump and my friends would be horrified if they saw it – so what? It would give me a chance to rest and to wash my clothing. That’s what I needed, and once I was asleep, I wouldn’t have to look at the bad décor. I made a decision to stay and my Ego just had to suck it up.

Out on the street, I enjoyed the buzz and the colour of downtown Pamplona. The winding streets were busy with tapas bars and tourist shops, and I felt that there were possibilities there – things to see, things to do, things to buy. I could feel the hive of activity. Pilgrims were easily recognisable with their hiking gear and backpacks, and just seeing them on the streets helped me to relax. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t entirely isolated and that if I wanted to join them, I could. I was still part of the community.

At the post office, I decided to send a few of my belongings home in the mail. My bag was too heavy, so I cleared it out and waved goodbye to my long-sleeved thermal top, some pages from my guidebook (paper is heavy to carry), and my waterproof rain pants. All week, the weather had been hot and sunny, with cloudless skies at night. I felt confident about not needing raingear for the next phase of walking, and gladly sent the pants away in the post.

That afternoon, I bumped into some pilgrims I’d met on my first night in St. Jean, before we’d started walking at all. One of the German women had injured her knee rather badly in descending the Pyrenees and was hobbling along the street. Frustrated, she told me that it had been very steep and she’d twisted it somehow, and now the doctor wanted her to rest it for a couple of days before going on. She was pragmatic and sensible about her predicament, but grumpy and unhappy. She’d taken time off work to walk the Camino and couldn’t afford any time delays – the knee injury messed with her plans and she didn’t like it. On top of that, her new friends had decided to walk on ahead so she was facing an extra day in Pamplona, alone. This didn’t sit well, either.

Another German, a student we’d both met in St. Jean had also injured himself crossing over the mountains. He’d decided to walk the long stretch from St. Jean to Roncesvalles, up, over, and down the far side of the Pyrenees, all in one day. He was feeling healthy and strong, and was up for the challenge but by the time he’d arrived in Pamplona, he’d injured his feet so badly that he couldn’t walk at all. I never learned the details here but she told me that he was grounded: he would have to stay in Pamplona all weekend and see the doctor again on Monday, but already it was looking like his Camino was over. The doctor already wanted to send him home.

Together, we were disappointed for him–he was excited and hopeful, just like us, but had pushed himself too hard. After just 3 days, it seemed his Camino was cut short. What a loss. That’s among the worst news we could have heard and in the afternoon sunlight we hoped he was ok. Any of us could sustain the same injuries at any time: any of us could be sent home early. All we could do was to take it one day at a time. To this day, I’ve no idea what happened to him next. We didn’t meet in Pamplona and I never saw him again. It’s part of Camino–connecting with people and somehow never seeing them again, but wondering months later how they are getting on in life. I may never know but I still hope he is ok.

That evening, I ate a picnic of chorizo, cheese, and grilled asparagus on the grassy grounds of the citadel (La Ciudadela). Above me, a leafy tree provided shade and sent dappled light dancing across the grass. The wasps wanted my pineapple juice and I wouldn’t give it up, but I sat for an hour quietly content. It was the space and alone-time I needed, and I could feel my batteries recharge. That night, I relished the clean sheets and privacy of my own room, and closed my eyes to the world.

The rain fell heavily and unexpectedly, with loud claps of thunder and bright flashes of lightening. It sounded wild outside and I could think of only one thing: my rain pants are in the post office, waiting to go home.

Camino Challenge: Go forwards or go backwards?

Waking up in Zabaldika, I had a few decisions to make for the day ahead.

Even though I’d walked on my own a lot of the time, keeping company with dozens of people and following their schedule wasn’t working for me. I needed to minimise the pressure I felt in the race for beds. I’d started pretty well but if I were to continue, I needed to recalibrate. I needed to find a new way of being on Camino and to follow my own rhythm.

At the same time, I kept thinking of the 10-12km that the taxi had covered the previous evening: should I get a taxi back to Zubiri and pick up where I left off? Was I “cheating” if I didn’t walk every inch of the trail on my own two feet? I really didn’t know. I was surprised to feel so sore after the steep descent from the Pyrenees and knew that if I insisted on walking 22-23km that day, I was going to be slow. That was going to put me in the same position I’d known the previous day, and I’d be right back to square one.

It was clear that my fellow pilgrims had no intention of getting a taxi back to Zubiri to pick up those missing kilometres. They were delighted to be closer to Pamplona, and were excited about arriving into town early enough to secure a bed and enjoy some tapas. They relished the thought of extra time in such a colourful city.

Chatting to them, I realised I had all sorts of conflicts about how I wanted to walk the Camino. I didn’t feel a need for self-flagellation but I wasn’t sure that taking a taxi to cover some of the trip was entirely wholesome. Were we lesser pilgrims if we availed of transport and creature comforts? Weren’t we missing out on some greater, metaphysical learning experience if we took the “easy option” instead of walking on foot? I wasn’t sure.

For thousands of years, people walked the Camino without access to the comforts we know today –no taxis, no private B&Bs, and no minibus service to carry the bags. Many people think that these modern services pollute the very essence of Camino. They think that people who avail of these conveniences are (negatively) interfering with the ethos or the true way to “do the Camino”. (I deeply object to that very phrase, but I’ll go into that at some other time!). So, I met lots of people who had strong opinions about the pilgrims availing of taxis and buses, and who didn’t carry their bags on their own backs. Personally, I felt it was important to walk on my own merit and carry my own bag, and in an ideal scenario everyone else would do the same. I liked the idea of a level playing field (so to speak) and that we would all be equally humbled in our journey across Spain. That said, I wanted to be diplomatic and restrict my judgement of others because I realised this:

Pilgrims from medieval days didn’t have taxis and minibuses, but they also didn’t have daily hot showers or café con leches. I didn’t hear anyone complaining about these comforts. I also didn’t hear anyone propose that these modern conveniences were interfering with the ethos of Camino. It’s funny, that!

It’s easy to judge the person who’s having their bag carried on a bus but for all we know, that person could have cancer in their upper spine and be physically incapable of shouldering the weight. I met a woman who was in that very situation. So what would we propose – that she shouldn’t have had a bag, and be denied a change of clothing and toiletries? Or would we propose she shouldn’t be on Camino at all, but instead sit at home and let cancer eat her insides until she died? I knew nothing of her life but thought she was entirely generous to walk 800km when she was so unwell. That was a Camino within a Camino. There was nothing about her choice to have her bag carried that was “wrong” or “less than” my choice: it was just different and it was appropriate for her circumstances.

Judging her would have made it impossible for us to become friends. Judging her would have kept us apart, feeling defensive and self-righteous about our respective lives and experiences. Judging her would have created a very anti-Christian sentiment while we both walked the same route towards the same destination.

I don’t know what “true Camino” is but I’m pretty sure that’s not it.

So, for all my idealism about levelling the playing field, I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about the people around me, the lives they lived, the struggles they’d known, or the reasons they were walking. Personally, I was glad of the hot showers and the hot coffees along the way, and I was equally glad of the taxi that had saved me in Zubiri the previous evening. Had it interfered with the ethos of Camino? Not really, because it had brought me to a place of kindness and support that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. It had also enabled me to feel vulnerable, humble, and deeply grateful. I imagine those feelings are part of the Camino spirit.

So, I made a conscious decision that morning: Accept the help I’d been offered and use it to keep going forward, not back.

The walk to Pamplona was only 8-10km and I did it slowly, with definite plans for when I arrived. I would use the city’s services to my benefit, and I would take some space to take better care of myself. I wanted to find a post office so I could post home some of the things in my backpack that were weighing me down. I wanted a private room so I could sleep in peace. I wanted a private bathroom so I could take my time without feeling the impatience of 50 people outside the door, waiting for their turn. The city offered me all of these possibilities and I was delighted to have access to it so soon. I arrived into town at the unprecedented hour of 11am and followed street signs to the central tourist office, where the staff kindly helped me find a cheap, single room in a B&B.

The previous day had been tough but this one was going to be better: I decided to Make it So.