Good Times in Grañón

** Updated this post a little **

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Grañón, Spain

I was delighted to stay a night in the donation-based hostel in Granon. At very least it meant my day’s walking was done after 22.4km. On a deeper level, it meant I was in a good place for the evening – both literally and figuratively.

The donation-based hostels tend to attract a certain crowd – either the pilgrims who are holding very tight to their purse strings, or the pilgrims who want to connect in some deeper way. It’s easy to get caught up into the frenzy of clocking distances and times on Camino. God knows, there are enough people treating it like a race. Staying in donation-based and church-based hostels is a nice way to side-step that madness, and spend time with like-minded people.

We ate dinner together as a group that evening in the hostel. The intimate setting created an opportunity to make new friends and spend time with familiar ones. It also encouraged/allowed pilgrims to be of service and help out with the logistics of preparing and serving a meal to 40+ people.

When you eat in privately owned restaurants you don’t have to, or get to, assist in the logistics. Instead, you simply arrive in the door, have your meal served to you, and pay when you’re finished. You get to walk away without thinking about the washing-up!

I’m not alone in saying the Camino has become more popular in recent years. I was, and am, part of that popularity by virtue of the fact that I was there in 2013. That’s not a million years ago, so I am sensitive about commenting on the politics. But, it’s attracting some people who treat it as a cheap walking holiday instead of a revered pilgrimage route. I’m not even referring to the Catholic pilgrimage specifically because the route pre-dates Christian tradition.

So, it’s more than 2,000 years old.

I think that deserves a bit of credit and a bit of respect.

And I think the volunteers and staff deserve credit and respect, too. They peel all those potatoes, they chop all those onions. They clean beds and bathrooms after us. They sweep floors and converse with us in half a dozen languages because many of us (myself included) don’t have enough Spanish. They do everything to make the process easier and kinder.

When you’re consumed by blisters and sore feet, it’s far too easy to overlook the people who keep the show on the road. We shouldn’t be so consumed by our own drama that we overlook the people around us. We shouldn’t be so fixated on what we can get out of a situation that we forget to ask what we can contribute to a situation, too.

Rightly or wrongly, an increasing number of people treat Camino as a cheap walking holiday and sometimes assume an air of entitlement as a result. I saw it in Navarette when four women argued over the assignment of beds. Their attitude was more prevalent than I ever expected.

Of course, not all the people walking Camino are on pilgrimage – religious or otherwise.

Equally, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a cheap walking holiday, and even the people who avail of its low-cost location can be decent and generous.

I’m not trying to imply that unless you walk 800km or more (in your bare feet and wearing a thorny, woollen vest on your back!) that you’re an egotistical brat.

It wouldn’t be fair or right for me to say that.

But Camino isn’t like a cheap package holiday or regular walking holiday. The influx of people expecting (and demanding) particular treatment can be difficult to manage.

I can’t blame the pilgrims (or holiday-goers) entirely for this break-down in attitude because more and more, Camino is marketed as a cheap walking holiday. I’ve seen it in my own national press recently – a series of articles and videos giving people advice.

Need a New Year’s resolution? Maybe walk the Camino in Spain. Buy tomorrow’s edition for all the tips and tricks!

I get it: Camino is big business and everyone wants a bit of the action. It’s become a profitable topic, something to be consumed, and a bandwagon to jump on. And that, in turn, changes the energy dynamic on the ground.

The reason I’m harping on about all of this here is because in Grañón, we were expected to help out with serving dinner. We rearranged tables so they all joined together. We laid out the plates and cutlery, and served each other food. We were active participants instead of passive consumers.

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Inside my hostel…

That evening, I met a French man who walked Camino for the 10th year (and I think it was his 10th time), and his entire attitude was one of service and support. He did more work in the preparation than most of us, combined. On top of that, he was a sort of emotional temperature check for the whole building. I observed him in action and he was the kind of guy who sensed when someone was about to cry, laugh, or collapse from pain. Even in the middle of carrying pots of food and finding extra chairs, he was giving hugs of consolation and congratulations to those on the edge. He observed everyone, and gently rearranged the mood in a subtle and beautiful way.

He was our “Maître d” that evening, though most didn’t quite realise that.

The same man also organised a surprise treat for a Danish woman, who celebrated her birthday that very day. He happened to hear about it only minutes beforehand but by the time she sat down beside me for dinner, he had it all organised. When our meal was finished, he gently signalled for someone to turn down the lights, and a volunteer brought out a small baked pastry with a candle on top. The woman had just turned 19 and we sang Happy Birthday to her in a chorus of languages and laughter, while she made a wish and blew out the candle.  She even got two servings of rice pudding desert for the day that was in it. 🙂

He made that happen.

Later, I happily solved a sartorial dilemma. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but let me explain:

Days earlier in Villatuerta, I accidentally destroyed one of my 3 t-shirts. It’s a long story but the end result was that my once white, quick-drying, wick-away garment looked like it was covered in

grease,

baby sick,

or both.

The stains wouldn’t come out and I was too embarrassed to wear the shirt afterwards. I was down to using 1 t-shirt by day as I walked, and a 2nd t-shirt by night while I slept. The 2nd one needed to be washed but the 1st one was always either dirty from wear, or drying on a clothes line somewhere. My options were limited:

I needed a 3rd t-shirt, at least temporarily, while I laundered the 2nd shirt.

Otherwise, I’d have to go topless.

And whatever I may say about the changing attitudes on Camino, it’s (thankfully) not a place for topless pilgrims!

The hostel had a chest full of donated clothes, all left behind by other pilgrims. I rooted around in the wooden trunk till I found a t-shirt that fit me – a baby pink, Tommy Hilfiger tshirt with sequens along the front! It was the most unlikely garment anyone would wear on Camino but I was delighted to have it. Finally, I could wash my clothes in peace, without having to hide behind a bush while waiting for them to dry!

Hours later, my American friend, Fred, approached me with something in his hands. He had listened to my tale about accidentally destroying one of my precious t-shirts and wanted to offer me one of his. (Between you and me, I might have hammed up my tale a bit for entertainment, implying that the loss was far more serious than it really was. So, I felt bad for unintentionally provoking his offer.)

He said to me:

I’ve got 3 of them but I wear only one: would you like to take this spare one?

I was delighted with his offer as I knew it would get me out of my predicament. On top of that, the t-shirt was a wick-away one, which would be perfect for walking long days in the 30-something degree heat, where I worked up *quite* the daily sweat. I was happy to accept it either way, but its wick-away qualities were an extra bonus. And this t-shirt had no sparkling sequens on it, either!

Fred’s friend beside him cheekily offered:

I don’t suppose you want any socks, do ya? I brought 6 pairs with me but I don’t wear half of them. I want to get rid of them and lighten my pack: wanna take some?

I gently declined on the socks but gladly accepted the t-shirt, and hugged them both for their generosity. I had walked for days needing a new t-shirt and in Grañón, I received two! 🙂

Some Weary Walking: Villatuerta to Los Arcos

Distance walked: 24.8km

My longest day’s walking so far.

The stretch from Villatuerta to Los Arcos was a sort of “make or break” day of walking.

The first half of the day was rather delightful. I stopped in Estella to buy new sunglasses and replace the pair I’d already broken. Helpful Husband will tell you this is a relatively common occurrence in life. I also bought some sort of anti-inflammatory cream for my aching feet. In my rudimentary Spanish, the pharmacy staff were endlessly patient and obliging. No doubt, they see thousands of limping, hobbling, sunburnt pilgrims like me passing through town every year, with little or no Spanish, but with immediate medical needs. This sunny morning, all I could do was point at my feet and say “Owwww” a lot. The three women stood behind the counter in their white coats, looking a little dubious.

Here we go, another pilgrim with sore feet and no Spanish.

Of course my feet hurt: that was to be expected. But specifically where, and how badly, and why?

Had I pulled something?

Had I stepped on something?

Had I fallen, strained, twisted, or sprained?

Oh, those were questions I couldn’t even begin to answer!

Already, I’d met people who were rubbing ibuprofen creams and gels into their legs, and popping ibuprofen pills to keep inflammation at bay. I didn’t like the idea of medicating myself to the point of numbness, but I looked at their pill-popping with a sort of starry-eyed fascination: the drugs looked good. And lots of people were able to walk faster than me, and go farther than me, so maybe if I drugged up I too would start making some headway. I thought the drugs could give me a speedy Camino.

So, when I was handed a tube of arnica cream I admit, I was a bit doubtful. I think I am in more pain than this. I’m really not sure this stuff is strong enough. But I was too shy to say “Ibuprofen” and instead, accepted the arnica cream with gratitude. I decided I’d give it a go. If it didn’t work, there’d be another pharmacy somewhere else within a couple of days walk.

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Lovely Estella

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For those who don’t know, about 3km outside of Estella, the Bodegas Irache has a famous wine fountain for pilgrims.

I didn’t know it was there, either.

My friends who’d walked Camino before me had mentioned something about free wine on tap, but I’d never thought to ask them where it was. A week into the trip, I’d stopped reading the text in my Brierley guidebook and only looked at the maps – mostly to confirm how far I’d have to walk for a coffee, a sandwich, and a bed. The rest of the details, I reasoned, would unfurl along the way.

So, what a delight then to find myself walking through vineyards at 9:30 in the morning, and to bump into Barb and Dave outside the gates of this famous fountain. I didn’t know to expect it that particular day, and certainly not at that hour of the morning. If anything, I probably expected a medieval, wooden wine barrel with a simple tap on the end, but what we found was altogether more commercial, with its stainless steel tap and a large museum next door. It’s a self-serve operation and the wine wasn’t that bad. While pilgrims are encouraged to drink in moderation, I could have easily poured out my bottle of water and replaced it with a bottle of wine. Imagine the hangover though, walking around in 30-something degree heat, and drinking wine along the way?! It would have certainly taken my mind off my aching feet 🙂

Looking at the website now, I’m informed there’s “a web cam pointing at the fountain where you can see pilgrims in real time.” I wonder if anyone spotted us that particular morning, huddled around, giggling and fidgeting as we lined up for our free vino. It felt like we were back at school again, skipping class, smoking behind the sheds, and doing something wonderfully bold. What a sweet novelty, and a very welcome break from talking about beds, feet, and kilometres covered.

Just over 6km later, I reached the small village of Villamayor de Monjardín. If you look at the map, you’ll see it has a population of 150, and 2 albergues – one with space enough for 22 people, the other with space enough for 25. You’ll also see that to walk from there to Los Arcos is another 10+ kilometres and there is nothing along the way – nowhere to stop for coffee, a bed, or a get-out clause.

When you plan your walking for the day, this kind of thing becomes very relevant.

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By the time I reached the village, the sun had really started to swelter and I was beginning to flag. I had walked only 13.3km but the heat made those kilometres seem like more than they were. On top of that, my feet were getting the better of me. I thought I couldn’t really do much about them. Walking in hiking sandals had been great in many ways – the sandals gave my feet the space they needed to swell, without restriction. The sandals also helped regulate the temperature so they didn’t get too hot or sweaty, and I hadn’t developed any blisters.

So far, so good.

The problem was, they didn’t offer my feet a huge amount of support. Every step took a lot of flexing and gripping. I had an image of someone playing the piano, with their fingers stretching wide across the keyboard, flexing and reaching for the keys. My feet were doing something similar. On uneven ground, my feet had to flex to stay secure within the sandal, and then flex again to keep the sandal secure on the earth. I couldn’t afford to slip around, fall over, or lose my grip, especially on steep descents. So, apart from the fact that I’d scaled the Pyrenees and covered over 100km already (in their own right, those were great achievements for my poor paws), my feet were working extremely hard to stay secure in my choice of footwear. A pair of boots or hiking shoes would have done the work for me. But in my case, my feet were having to do all the work.

All the muscles in my feet were crying out for a break. I had pain:

across the tops of my feet

across my toes

up the backs of my heels

along my arches

and

on the undersides of both feet

Every step hurt, and the wise choice would have been to stop walking for the day, get a bed, and rest up for the afternoon.

I didn’t really consider it.

I stopped in the village and happily had a picnic with Barb and Dave, who generously shared fat, ripe tomatoes and crusty, fresh baguette with me. I bought a tin of tuna, swimming in olive oil, and dropped the whole tin onto the fresh bread. The combination of salty fish, juicy tomatoes, crusty bread, dripping in oil makes me salivate even now – that was probably one of the most delicious sandwiches I ate on all of Camino. We sat in the shade of the church, chatting and musing about life, relationships, and the road ahead. They’d booked into a private B&B for the night so had an afternoon of leisure awaiting them. I could have joined them and stopped walking for the day. At that hour, there were still available beds in one of the albergues, and I could have taken the afternoon to wash my clothes, have a nap, enjoy the cool shade, and join my friends for a beer.

I did consider it, but I didn’t give it enough consideration.

Instead, I decided to push ahead. I thought:

“Another 10km to Los Arcos is fine. It’s not that far. I’ll be there in 2-3 hours.”

And I strapped on my backpack, waved goodbye to Dave and Barb, and headed west.

This is what awaited me:

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The day was searing hot. Unbearably so.

About  half an hour outside the village I looked at the path ahead and couldn’t see a single person. I turned to look at the path behind me and it looked the very same. In every direction, I was alone and exposed to the relentless heat. Everyone else had already stopped walking for the day, or had stopped in the shade for a beer. They had done the right thing, while I felt like I was crossing the Sahara. There were no animals, there were no houses, and there was very little shade. I had a belly full of high-carb, high-protein food, and plenty of water, but I thought about turning back to the village.

Something in me said: This is madness.

Some other part of me said: No, there’s no going back. If you’re going to spend time walking, at least walk forwards.

So I kept going.

Damn Ego!

The minutes turned into hours as I trudged along in the heat, with increasingly sore feet, and making very slow progress. Fool, fool, fool, I should have turned back.

Eventually, three women caught up with me and it turned out, we knew each other from our night in Zabaldika. I was delighted to bump into them again and they kept me company on the long walk in the heat. By the time they’d passed through the previous village, the albergues were full and there was (seemingly) nowhere to stay. That’s how they’d decided to walk the remaining 10km to Los Arcos. Days later, I met a woman who came to the village even later that afternoon after walking 40-something kilometres, only to be told the same story. For her, walking the 10km to Los Arcos was unfeasible so she asked the locals for their advice.

Someone said: I have a spare garage: you can sleep there, if you like.

Someone else said: I can give you some cardboard and old sacks to put on the ground.

Some pilgrims who’d secured beds in the hostel said: We have camping mats and I don’t need them tonight: you’re welcome to use them.

And so, this woman joined 14 other pilgrims who’d made it as far as Villamayor de Monjardín, but couldn’t go any further, and slept on the ground in someone’s open garage. She admitted it wasn’t very comfortable and it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but they were safe and dry. She said it beat trying to walk the remaining 10km to Los Arcos.

I hadn’t walked even half the distance she’d walked that day but I could only agree: those 10km nearly broke me.

Mental note to self: Buy hiking shoes at the next available opportunity.

Arriving into town, I was beyond weary. Bumping into Kevin and Liz was a nice surprise but they confirmed what we already feared: all the albergues were full.

I bumped into a sprightly 70-year old from Australia whom I hadn’t seen in days and all she said was, “You’re late!

I didn’t realise it was a race.

I didn’t realise there was a timer on my every move.

I’d just spent 9 hours trying to walk some 25km and my feet were beyond repair – I didn’t appreciate her throwaway comment.

Still, we had bigger matters to tend to. The four of us walked from one albergue to the next, only to find that all of them were full. They’d even put down mats on the floors to accommodate extra pilgrims. There wasn’t space to budge.

Again, there was no room at any of the inns.

What would we do?

(And are my blog posts too long?)

Camino Continues: Puente la Reina to Villatuerta

Distance to Santiago: 678.5km

Calf muscles finally beginning to feel normal after the Pyrenees 🙂

The walk out of Puente la Reina the next morning was grey. The clouds hung low and just as it had done in Pamplona, the sky spat irregular, cold blobs of rain. My shorts were still damp from the previous evening, as were the socks I’d worn. I might have dried them in the albergue except that there were 99 other pilgrims trying to do the same thing at the same time, so the tumble dryers were fully occupied for hours on end. I left my shorts to hang indoors overnight and hoped for the best. The narrating Swede tossed and turned all night, shaking the frame of the bunk bed violently. The only image that came to mind was that of a dog, shaking himself off after getting wet. It felt like the Swede was shaking himself with the same force and when he did, he shook me awake too. Still, the mattress was dry and thankfully free from someone else’s foot skin, so I couldn’t complain!

This was one of the few albergues to offer breakfast, so for €3.50 I was given a hot coffee, an orange juice, and a crusty baguette with butter and jam. It was already becoming the standard fare and it would become a staple in the 5+ weeks to follow. Baguette, baguette, and would you like some baguette with your baguette?!

Stepping out the front door of the albergue that morning I looked at the sky with trepidation. The rain was heavy enough to soak my shorts and socks a second time, and I thought about walking a shorter day if the rain persisted. I had only three pairs of socks with me and I tried to keep a dry pair in reserve, especially for the evening time.

One pair were already wet from the previous day and were packed away in my bag.

The second pair were on my feet, in the process of getting wet.

Walking in wet socks can lead to blisters.

The third pair were still dry but I was reluctant to put them on because then all three pairs would be wet.

So I wondered:

Am I better off walking in wet socks all day, possibly getting blisters, and keeping a dry pair in reserve?

or

Should I walk in the second pair until they become really soaked, and then change into the dry pair? Would doing that prevent me from getting blisters? And if all three pairs are wet, will I be able to dry out any of them before I start walking again tomorrow morning?

When you’re hoping to walk 800km and keep going for a few weeks, foot care becomes a high priority. I reckoned getting blisters was inevitable but I wanted to avoid them for as long as possible. Walking around in wet socks didn’t really help my case, but I’d chosen to walk in hiking sandals so this was one of the downsides. (In retrospect, the hiking sandals posed very little threat for blisters because they gave my toes plenty of space to move about – unlike boots and shoes. So I probably didn’t need to ruminate on the socks quite so much – I’ll know for next time!)

I decided to figure it out as I went along and made a mental note to self:

Must investigate a pair of hiking shoes soon, especially if the rain keeps up.

There was no point hanging around Puente la Reina. After watching the rain for 10 minutes with a group of other pilgrims I realised it wasn’t going to ease up. I’d either have to stay put for the day or get walking.

I chose to walk.

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The morning was damp and heavy for hours, and we spent the day passing through farms, vineyards, and olive groves. This section of the Camino includes one of the best examples of Roman road (yes, that’s some 2,000 years old), which is impressive, but a killer on the feet. I walked with a 22-year old Italian who, like me, had resigned from her job just before walking Camino. She was petite, with perfect olive skin and cropped pixie hair, and told me she spent about €500 a month on clothing and make-up. It wasn’t by choice – she was a manager in her company and her manager had pulled her aside and ordered her to wear more make-up, dress smartly, and make more of an effort. She admitted she earned good money but €500 a month was a lot to spend. There was an endless pressure to have the latest gadgets, the most stylish clothing, the designer handbags. True, it was a cultural thing, but even she could tell that at the age of 22 the pressure was only going one direction: up. So, she packed in her job, decided to walk Camino, and her mother joined her for the first week of walking. The two of them beamed from ear to ear, clearly relishing the freedom, the time together, and the whole endeavour (and not a scrap of make-up in sight).

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When I stopped in Lorca that afternoon for a break, I was unsure which coffee shop to stop in. There were only two, and they sat on opposite sides of the small street, facing each other. The menu outside the first one included paella but the place was packed and there was nowhere to sit. I dropped my bag on the footpath and walked into the second café. The menu consisted largely of Spanish omelette, bocadillo jámon (cured ham on baguette), or bocadillo tortilla (Spanish omelette on baguette). There wasn’t much else on offer but there was free space, so I ordered a coffee and a bocadillo jámon, and sat to gather my thoughts. The rain had cleared up and I looked at my map for the day, trying to decide how far to go. The Brierley Brigade would no doubt walk the 21.9km to Estella. I decided to stop at the previous village in the hope there’d be a bed for me in the 42-bed private hostel. If so, I’d stay there for the night. If not, I would walk on to Estella as my backup plan.

After coffee, I walked back across the street to reclaim my backpack and bumped into:

  • Canadians, Barb and Dave, whom I’d first met in Orisson, who had saved my socks from blowing away on the grassy Pyrenees, and whom I hadn’t seen in days!
  • 2 other Canadian ladies whom I’d met in Zabaldika, and who’d lost their friend – the one who sat on my legs while I was asleep in bed!
  • Kevin and Liz, who’d been lucky to get the last hotel room in rainy Puente la Reina, and wondered where I would stay that night
  • The delightful Champagne Camino ladies, whom I hadn’t seen since Zubiri, when the town had no free beds (ahem!)
  • Along with others

The coffee shop held maybe 30 seats and I knew half of the people sitting in them – talk about high school reunion!

Celebrations all round.

Though I’d already had my coffee and lunch, I sat for a second serving and reasoned that I’d have the calories burned off by bedtime. Bumping into the Champagne ladies was an absolute joy, and a timely one too. They’d planned to walk for only a week and as it happened, they were on their last day of walking that very afternoon. If I hadn’t met them in Lorca – in that very coffee shop –  we might have missed each other forever, and I would never have had the opportunity to say hello again, and goodbye. I didn’t even know their last names and wouldn’t have known how to track them down in the real world.

Last time we’d seen each other, Amanda had generously carried my backpack and they’d all buoyed my heavy heart as I trudged towards Zubiri. But of course, we’d lost track of each other in the intervening days – I’d been with the nuns in Zabaldika, a private pensión in Pamplona, and a rather industrial hostel in Puente la Reina. Those had been three rather full days and nights, and we had lots to catch up on. I still remember introducing them to someone else I knew in the café and accidently saying, “I met them a few years ago…” Of course, I had to catch myself and think: no, I met them only a few days ago. But a few days on Camino translated to a few years in the ‘real world’ and already, they felt like familiar friends.

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The Champagne Camino: Beverley, Marian, Amanda, and Jenny

We spent another hour together over lunch, this time swapping contact details, and we later walked the 4.7km to Villatuerta together. Swapping contact details, for me at least, was a good sign of friendship and intention. By the time I’d reached Lorca, I’d already met hundreds of new people on Camino. I chatted with some of them for only minutes, and others for hours, sometimes spanning across several days. I’d made great connections with people while still in St. Jean Pied de Port but had never seen them again. So too for every single day since. So, I’d already come to realise that everyone on Camino was transient and there was no telling where we’d all end up. If I wasn’t that interested in spending time with someone, I could wave them off and there were no hard feelings. Similarily, if someone wanted to shake me off, they could stop to take a break and we might never see each other again. I’d begun to realise that friendships needed more than just a spark of connection or shared interests – they needed time together. In such a transient experience, bumping into each other over and over was our equivalent of amassing time — time that, in the ‘real world’ would be spent growing up in the same neighbourhood, working together as colleagues, or spent partying in pubs and clubs. So, though I knew most of these people only a few days, we swapped contact details because we wanted to, and have stayed in touch – that’s why I’m allowed call them by name 🙂

These women had taken me under their wing on my very first evening in Orisson, as we all sat looking across the mountains. In Roncesvalles, we’d shared bottles of wine in the warm evening sunlight, and on the way to Zubiri they’d literally shared my loaded backpack. We’d only known each other a few days but they had seen me through some of my (literally) highest points and (figuratively) lowest points in all of Camino, and I was thrilled to bump into them again. Our last hour walking together was bittersweet, knowing we were coming towards the end.

In Villatuerta, they waited on the street while I ran in to the private albergue to ask if they had any habitación. The building smelled of incense, and large hammocks hung from the ceilings. This was like no albergue I’d ever seen and I thought: I have arrived! This is my kind of place. To my surprised delight, the lady told me that Kevin and Liz had booked in earlier and asked her to save a bed for me too. So yes indeed, they did have habitación for me.

Cheers Kevin & Liz!

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Out on the street, I hugged the ladies goodbye. We were all glad to know I had a great albergue for the night but disappointed that I wouldn’t be walking on to Estella with them. Thinking on it now, we could have had dinner and drinks together. Why didn’t I go the extra distance? I have no idea, but it was probably to do with the time of day and the likelihood of getting a bed later on down the road. Fingers crossed we’ll have dinner and drinks another time.

That evening, our albergue hosts cooked dinner for us – paella in a special pan that was about 1m in diameter – I’m not kidding. We scooped huge spoonfuls of the flavoured rice, peppers, onion, and chicken, onto our plates, and poured heavy-handed glasses of wine. Buen Camino, indeed!

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Stairway to Heaven(ly) Bed

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The albergue’s stamp on my pilgrim passport