Chapter 5: June 9, 2004
Let me say first off, that we are over the mountains. As with so many mountains, metaphorical or otherwise, they were not half as big as people made them out to be. Part of the problem was that they had printed up these profile charts that showed you on a graph how much each day’s climb would be. There were big days and smaller days, and then there was the stage over the Pyrenees, which involved six times as much climbing as the worst day before that. Without articulating it, we all assumed that would mean six times as much foot pain. But in fact it was not so.
We had reserved an apartment in St. Jean Pied de Port, which is the last French stop on the Camino before the Pyrenees. We took a day off and celebrated Diane’s birthday, which conveniently fell on that day. The apartment was an old place right on the Rue de a la Citadelle in the old town; we had all sorts of space, two kitchens and a balcony, so needless to say, Elena cooked up a storm. A friend came to visit from Spain, and brought a barbeque, four kilos of steak, and a case of Basque cider – so we had a real feast. The apartment balcony was perfect for barbequing and sunsets. From the front (where our bedroom was) we got a fantastic view of the street below. That also meant that when anybody walked down the street we sat bolt upright in bed because it sounded like people were right in the room with us. Not much sleep that night. My knee had been really acting up, so I decided after a fair bit of humming and hawing that I should be prudent and do the easier way up the mountain, via the road. Peter and Diane chose to do the Route Napoleon, which was the scenic but athletic route up over the mountain trails.
Elena wanted to get up very early to beat the heat on the mountain - also, we really did not know how it would go. Everybody had said it was killingly difficult. So we got up at 4:45 and were on the road by 5:30, in the dark.
The gates of the city were lit up by many fairy lights, which seemed a fitting sign for the departure to Compostela – field of stars. Almost right away was the point where we had to take the alternate road route... we were unsure of the markings, and it was pitch dark. At the point where we had to separate from the Camino proper, we saw another pilgrim making his way toward us. As we got closer in the crepuscular light, we realized that we recognized him. He was an older guy, very fastidious, very friendly and absolutely elfin. The elf told us that he had tried walking part of the road route the previous day (he had also taken a rest day) and had decided it was not well enough marked. Well, what the heck, I thought.... it seemed like a sign to meet him like that. And so we set out on the Route Napoleon, following the elf. Then just like that, the dawn was upon us, and we climbed and climbed and climbed.
It was a spectacular morning. We had the world to ourselves – with the elf, of course. Then, as we got higher, the wind began. It got windier and windier. The wind blew the thoughts right out of your head! I remembered reading something about force 9 gales up there during bad weather, and our climb was on a good day! It was probably the mightiest ongoing wind I have ever experienced. It was very much like standing up in a convertible driving about 90km/hr. Mostly, the wind was in our faces, and from the side. It buffeted our packs and knocked us about. I’m sure that anybody watching us would have thought we were drunk. At a certain point, the wind came up from behind. It was so strong, all we had to do was lift our feet – the wind did the rest, pushing us forward. We noticed at one point that Elena had lost her water bottle – the wind had carried it away (it was full). The noise from the wind was such that we didn’t even hear it go! But on we went. We were certainly thankful that we had done so much walking already. Many started the Camino at St. Jean Pied de Port, and I’m sure many of those were hurting, as we would have been if it had been us. We passed many folks on the road. Suddenly, we recognized the hat and dapper striped shirt of Michel, our French doctor friend. He had done part of the walk the night before, and so we caught up with him, and shouted back and forth across the howling wind.
I’m not sure if it was the early hour, or the day of rest we had had, or the fact that it really was not quite as brutal as we had been led to believe, but we just scooted up that mountain. We passed the fountain of Roland, and then there was a big rock sign NAVARRA – and just like that we were in Spain. Some folks had warned us that the border police were searching everybody, but there was not a one in sight. This was the point where the Navarese of old would hold up and rob pilgrims, and then ride them like mules before they killed them. Pretty different story now. Just beautiful fields, hills and trees. And a howling wind. At the point at which the descent began, we saw a little rock on a signpost – it was a hello note from Pascal the Routard. So we know he survived at least into Spain. We did the last stretch down the mountain through the most spectacular pine forest – a veritable Narnia. We walked into Roncesvalles at 1:30 PM, happy, hot, and not the complete wrecks we had expected to be. We signed into the hostel there – eventually other pilgrims we knew pulled into town, and Peter and Diane arrived as well. That evening, I played during a pilgrim’s mass in the church there. I had hoped to also play for myself, a little later, but the friendly but firm priest kicked us out of the church. We realized afterwards he had not yet had his supper!
That evening, just before supper, there was a spectacular cleansing downpour and hailstorm which left the courtyard covered in ice crystals.
Peter told me a couple of tales about their ascent as well.... The Italian guy, obviously green to the Camino, wearing tight hip hugging blue jeans, with his water bottle buried deep in his knapsack. Or the California girl who had read the Shirley MacLaine account of the Camino, and had decided that she was going to walk the Camino in 3 weeks (usually takes 5). She told Peter “All you need is faith.” Well, a little common sense wouldn’t hurt! When Peter and Diane met her, she was wearing flip-flops and smoking. Yup. You guessed it. She had a tough time. She was so late in crossing that she got caught in the hailstorm and eventually showed up looking like a drowned rat.
The next day we walked to a town called Larrasoaña. The red and white signs of the French Camino were starting to be replaced by the yellow Coquille-star symbol on a blue background that marks the way in Spain. Right away, there was a different vibe here in Spain than in France.
Gone is the pristine beauty and the pastoral charm, the idea of having a gite to ourselves, the quiet. First of all, the Camino often goes along large roads if not on the road than on paths not far from the road so you can always hear the traffic. Then there is the fact that MANY people start the Camino from here. So suddenly the trail is packed it began to dawn on us that we were now part of a growing crowd moving toward Santiago it is very much a group experience here, and not an individual kind of thing.
In Larrasoaña we got ourselves space in the refugio, and washed a lot of clothes, which dried almost instantly in the hot Spanish sun. I was thinking it would be great to play in the village church. Turns out the mayor of the town runs the refugio (his name is Santiago), and he knew who had the key, and was very willing to help us get in there. At 3 PM we tried to get the key – “Oh no, the man who has the key is 97, and likes a long siesta!” So we tried again at 4 PM, and then at 6 PM. The old guy was still taking his siesta. We finally decided to go for supper and to play afterwards. When we got back from supper at 8pm, we tried once again to get the key. “Oh no,” Santiago said. “The old guy was up for a while, but now he has gone to bed again!“
You win some, you lose some.
At 8:30(!), it was communal bedtime. The beds are spaced very tightly in the Spanish refugios, so maneuvering around is quite a challenge. Everybody finally got installed, and soon after it started. The symphony of snoring pilgrims. At least 5 people in the room snored a lot some had solo parts and arias, and others had more background chorus parts. It was quite something: I managed to sleep, but I know that many others did not. At about 6 AM everybody woke up together. It is almost impossible for one person to get up without waking the others, so the whole thing becomes very much a group event.
That day, we were only walking 16 km to Pamplona. We shared our walk with the ever-charming Michel, and many of the pilgrims from the night before. The plan was to take a bus or train to Burgos, stay the night, and then again to Leon, to restart the walk for the last 300km. We simply did not have enough time to do it all.
We left luggage at the bus station, got train tickets and did a bit of sightseeing in Pamplona. Then we tried to take a taxi from the bus station to the train station. Well, it was very difficult to say the least to get cabbies at the taxi stand to pick us up. The first one saw the backpacks, and then just took off and picked up another fare. I decided it was time for a more aggressive strategy. When the next taxi pulled up, I climbed into the back seat right away with my pack, and started muttering in a made-up language. Well, I had not anticipated Spanish machismo. The cabby, to put it mildly, freaked out. He started yelling at me to get out of the cab, and then jumped open, pulled open my door, and yelling and gesticulating wildly, made very aggressive motions in my general direction. Elena was trying to calm him down, and Peter was standing by, ready to thrash him with his sturdy cane: I can just see it: FOUR CANADIAN PILGRIMS IN JAIL IN PAMPLONA. I managed to escape the cab, and we thankfully got the next taxi to the train station. In my life thus far, the problem has been generally to dissuade overzealous cabbies that INSIST on picking up a fare. Never have I been aggressively chased from a taxi like that! Different places, different strategies.
Now we are in Leon, having spent the night in beautiful Burgos, and experienced the strange wonder of riding at high speed in a train, covering more ground in half an hour than we would in a day’s walk!
In the morning we went to Burgos cathedral, where they charge admission, and as it turns out, make you check in your knapsack. On the suggestion of the friendly ticket attendant, I took my violin into the church just like that, under my arm without a case, but it turns out they had canned music playing and crowds of camera toting tourists. I think the days of pristine recording in churches are over. I carried the violin around under my arm and marveled at the splendor in this cathedral – so opulent and over the top compared to churches in France. Then we found a chapel off to the back and when I realized that I could not hear the canned music there, I set up my gear quickly and managed to play for 25 minutes until I was busted. Turns out to do that sort of thing, you need a letter of permission from the bishop. Even though a small and appreciative audience had gathered, and was begging the church official to let me play, I wasn’t hurting anyone, etc, he did not relent. Rules are rules! So apparently playing prayerful music is not allowed in Spanish churches, but of course, tour guides can take large groups of rude tourists around the place any time to give guided tours. I guess they don’t make much money from the likes of me, and therein lies the rub. But I can’t complain too loudly this time, for I did get to play, even for a short while. It is strange when a thing you take for granted (playing) is suddenly so difficult to do. You have to make it count. It sure feels good to play, in any case.
Tomorrow we start walking again – hardened Camino veterans at last. But that does not mean it will be easy. There are always hills, and sore feet, and snorers at night. And the brutal sun, which will fry you if you start too late. But this is the home stretch. We should be in Santiago in about two weeks.