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LIVE from the Camino Live from the Norte

Aurigny

Active Member
Time of past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
I had not planned on my journey from Geneva to SdC, to be completed in sections, taking any more than two calendar years, but the coronavirus disrupted a lot of people's plans, including mine. It's now clear that a trip that started in October 2022 has a better than even chance of earning a third candle on its birthday cake. So I thought it advisable to follow up my completion of the Voie Nive Bidassoa with a few days spent in making inroads on the Norte. I have to be back at work soon, but if I can get anywhere west of Bilbao on this occasion, I'll regard it as a positive contribution.

I'm not sure where's the official start of the trail, but the cathedral in Irun seemed a logical jumping-off point. I arrived in time for part of morning Mass, and was intrigued to find that they were still singing Christmas carols. At the end, the organist played us out with a rendition of O Holy Night that, although displaying considerable technical virtuosity, was delivered at such a tempo that one might have supposed he was trying to catch a train. Afterwards I tracked down the celebrant in the sacristy to ask him for a stamp. After we determined that German was our best common language, he told me that from his perspective, pilgrim numbers have collapsed since the pandemic and show little sign of recovering. Indeed, he had to hunt through his bureau for a sello, eventually coming up with two different ones. He offered me my choice; I told him to pick the one he liked best. So he did; it's taken up about half a page of my credencial.

That mission accomplished, I turned to the matter of finding my way out of town. I'm no longer surprised when this transpires to be a challenge, and so it was on this occasion. Irun opts for an eclectic mixture of markers set into paving stones, mojónes, yellow arrows painted on lamp-posts and kerbstones, and sometimes nothing at all. It wasn't until I passed the threshold of runway 04 at what is comically misnamed San Sebastián International Airport that the waymarking picked up in earnest as the route took a left-hand turn inland.

It's a steady but easy climb from there to the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadelupe, a surprisingly modest edifice for something that has generated such an extensive cult in so many places of the world. After that, though, the pilgrim is offered a choice between the low- and high-level route for the day's run. The weather being glorious--no cloud, no wind, unlimited visibility--I opted for the high-level one. About halfway up the muddy and extraordinarily steep slope that immediately follows, I began to wonder whether I'd made the right choice. I was having to use hands as well as feet to scramble up this endless earthen bank, with a gradient I'd estimate of anything between one in five and one in four. If I'd fallen, I wouldn't have risked injury; it was too soft and boggy for that. But by the same token, I don't think anything could have stopped me from rolling all the way to the bottom, a couple of hundred feet below.

At least I had the advantage of going uphill. Soon I was being passed not only by people making their way down, but by one thrill-seeker who was trying to do it on a mountain-bike. Fortunately better sense prevailed when, after a wild skid that nearly precipitated him head-first over his handlebars and had my heart in my mouth, he managed to pull up and dismount. After that he descended the rest of the hill largely on his rear end, hanging on to one handlebar as the bicycle, now on its side, preceded him.

That, though, was not the limit of the fun and games I was to encounter. At the very top of the hill, where the first of six stone watchtowers is to be found, I came across a young couple in their late teens who had brought with them an iPhone and a set of Bluetooth speakers. I found that I had stumbled into a photo-shoot, in which the young woman stood on an outcrop of rock performing over and over some ten seconds of a complicated dance of which her parents will hardly have approved to the accompaniment of what sounded like a Spanish version of Katy Perry enunciating through an endlessly long cardboard tube. Her boyfriend was there as cameraman and, it appeared, was giving considerably less than satisfaction in that capacity to the actor-director, who stopped continually to tell him all the things he was doing wrong. Michael Cimino or Francis Ford Coppola cannot have demanded more takes, nor expressed themselves as frankly about the limitations of their cinematographers. When I continued on my way they were still at it, leaving me to reflect that Tik Tok has a great deal to answer for.

Much of the remainder of the day is an enjoyable ramble along the clifftops, with excellent views in both directions. The landscape is undulating but unchallenging, with the coast road, the GI-3440, paralleling the trail below and to the right. After a couple of hours, though, it was time to descend, crossing the paved road and making my way down a precipitous and narrow concrete path replete with hairpin bends. Accustomed as I am to the adventurousness of Iberian drivers, I was still taken aback when I was forced off this thoroughfare by a gentleman driving an enormous camper-van uphill. Apparently feeling that he owed me an explanation for nearly crushing me against the adjacent stone wall, he rolled down his window and told me that he had been following the directions of Google Maps. To which I could only reply with empathy, "Say no more."

At the bottom, the pilgrim takes a tiny ferryboat from Pasai Donibane to its somewhat démodé twin town of Pasajes on the western bank of the estuary. The cost for this hundred-metre trip is EUR 1.10, which actually works out as a good deal for the municipal authorities. If calculated on a cost-per-mile basis, a Transatlantic voyage charged at the same rate would be about EUR 65,000 per passenger each way—steerage class, at that.

After landing, the steepest ascent of the day awaits at the northern end of the headland, a climb up an endless series of stone steps to La Plata lighthouse, trying to weave around people who had brought many bottles with them and were sitting on the steps while consuming the contents. When I reached this point, the light was fading, and I had to finish off the remainder of the journey by night-hiking. The comprehensiveness of the waymarking, though, made this an easy business, as did a magnificently clear sky that turned celestial navigation into child's play. The only complication I ran into was when, as I was making my way across the top of Monte Ulia about ninety minutes after nightfall, I was unexpectedly approached out of the darkness by a strange individual who appeared to have been standing there for some time in the hope of spotting passers-by. He told me that he was a member of what he called a "community" that provided accommodation for pilgrims, and invited me to spend the night with them, gratis. I courteously advised him that I had made other plans, but he continued to follow me down the road for about half a kilometre, quizzing me about my movements and intentions. Eventually he stopped and, to be fair to him, pointed me in the right direction for my destination and bade me a good night.

After doing a little Internet searching, it seems that the gentleman in question is a representative of a religious group calling themselves the Twelve Tribes that have established a presence along major hiking routes in the U.S. like the Appalachian Trail and engage in a form of low-key recruiting with the offer of free accommodation to those who pass by. From what I can gather they're fairly harmless, at any rate to those who seek only a bed for the night and desire no further interaction with them. But it was a distinctly odd encounter, and I couldn't help but wonder how any lone female travellers who were approached by this individual in the Stygian blackness might have responded.

At any rate, soon I was heading downhill into central Donostia (the Basque name of the city) or San Sebastián (the Spanish one). The town has no pilgrim hostels and the albergue del juventud was unexpectedly closed, but at this time of year, economical private-sector alternatives readily present themselves. This is one of the most attractive urban districts in Iberia, and it would be hard not to spend a pleasant night there.
 
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How to avoid failure "be prepared"
3rd Edition. More content, training & pack guides avoid common mistakes, bed bugs etc
Camino Way Markers
Original Camino Way markers made in bronze. Two models, one from Castilla & Leon and the other from Galicia.

Aurigny

Active Member
Time of past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
The municipal authorities in Donostia/San Sebastián have done a commendable job in indicating the way out of town to rejoin the Norte. Numerous finger-posts from the city centre not only give the correct direction, but offer an estimate of how long it will take by foot to get there. Because these are invariably on the generous side, the wayfarer can feel righteously smug when he or she arrives at the destination faster than predicted.

Thus I was able speciously to congratulate myself for the first half hour of today's leg on the blistering speed I was making, while being all too well aware that I would soon be setting a much less impressive pace. The run of unnaturally good weather that I had been enjoying since SJPP finally broke this morning, confronting me with a more seasonally typical blustery and showery day. None of this deterred the cityfolk from putting up umbrellas, which which a good nine-tenths of the population seem to be equipped. (One wonders whether a local TV station has the musical Les parapluies de Cherbourg on continuous loop.) The fact that these were being blown inside-out did not faze the numerous walkers along the Playa de la Concha, nor did the elements prevent a surprising number of swimmers from taking the water: some equipped with wet suits, an even larger number not. People on windsurfing boards were also much in evidence. They all had my admiration, but looking at the chilly grey Atlantic, I did not feel inclined to emulate them even to the extent of rolling up my trouser-cuffs and going paddling.

In any event, I had my own physical exertions with which to contend. On the whole, though, less was required of me than yesterday. The only serious climb confronting me came early in the programme, with an ascent up Monte Igueldo through a public park, followed by a series of country lanes along which farmers' fields alternated with some very upscale real estate indeed: the kind with remote-controlled gates and twenty-four-hour security. Before long, though, I was beyond even the McMansion belt, and out into the countryside proper.

I hadn't expected to encounter any commercial establishments before reaching Orio, so I was surprised to chance across a tavern-restaurant named after a Russian tsar (I shall say no more to identify it, to protect the guilty) whose enormous car park seemed disproportionate to the modest size of the building it served. But a chill having entered my bones, I thought it an appropriate moment to drop in for my second café con leche of the day. I won't say it was the worst or most expensive thing in such a line ever presented to me, but it did conform strongly to the general rule that in Spain the quality, and even the quantity, of the coffee tends to be in inverse proportion to the price one is asked to pay for it. At all events, what was slopped down in front of me put few temptations in my way to procrastinate heading back out into what was now a solid downpour and continuing my journey toward Orio.

And in fact, the number of open bars in that village, after a long and extremely steep descent, indicated to me that I would have done better to wait until I had reached there. As it was, I made no further stops, but continued up the western side of the harbour. There I observed a dozen or so people engaged in what I gather is the modern version of fishing. This consists of setting up two rods in holders affixed solidly in the ground; attaching small bells, reminiscent of what is sometimes hung around the necks of domestic cats, to the tips thereof; and then retreating to one's parked car so that one can spend the afternoon looking at the sport on one's mobile 'phone while keeping the window cracked and one ear alert for the tinkling that will indicate a bite. Speaking as a lifelong fisherman, this procedure seemed only one step up from going to the fishmonger's, and it made me think kindlier thoughts of yesterday's Tik Tokers above the Guadelupe sanctuary, who were at least engaged in some kind of physical activity in the course of their leisure pursuits.

Having breasted the rise above the village, I found myself in rolling countryside with occasional glimpses of the slate-grey sea from the upper elevations. As has been typical of the Norte to this point, most of the going was along asphalt with occasional diversions onto the kind of rough-hewn stones that one associates with Roman roads, but in this instance was probably a good deal more recent than that. These were slippery, but navigable. Probably on account of the inclement weather, I seemed to be the only one on the road as late afternoon faded into evening darkness, but I was making good time just the same. One thing that intrigued me, about 3 km from my final destination of Zarauz, was a rest area for pilgrims set up by a local enthusiast in his or her front garden. I've encountered quite a few of these in my travels; what made this one different was a medical box cunningly disguised as a model bungalow. Inside was almost everything needed to carry out running repairs on injured feet: sterile medical pads, disposable surgical gloves, a pair of sharp scissors, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, and another of sterile alcohol solution. Fortunately, I had no need of the contents, but I made a modest contribution to the adjacent cash-box just the same, for the benefit of those that do.

Zarauz (or Zarautz) turned out to be a much more substantial town that I had expected. Although the rain was now coming down in sheets, a vibrant town centre was doing good business even after dark. At this time of year nothing in the way of open albergues is to be expected, but a local pensión, the Txiki Polit, served me every bit as well at remarkably modest cost. After thawing out under a hot shower, I was ready for the dinner that the town was no less well-equipped to provide.
 
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Camino Way Markers
Original Camino Way markers made in bronze. Two models, one from Castilla & Leon and the other from Galicia.

Aurigny

Active Member
Time of past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
Stretches of level terrain along the Norte have not been so very rife in my limited experience of it. I found it a pleasant change, then, when the first 5 km of today's leg from Zarauz to Deba turned out to be a coastal promenade as far as the port town of Getaira. The weather, having disimproved from yesterday and now blowing a half-gale, created an impressive spectacle for walkers, generating enormous Atlantic rollers that smashed themselves dramatically on the rocks below, sending spray forty and fifty feet into the air. Given the conditions, I didn't come across many other pedestrians travelling in either direction, but one fresh-air enthusiast marching purposefully along gave me my first ¡Buen camino! of the trip. I don't carry a shell or bear any other indication of what I'm doing, but reasonably enough, I suppose, he must have concluded that even given the time of year I couldn't have been anything other than a peregrino.

As picturesque a place as Getaira is, it was too close to my point of departure for me to contemplate it as a destination for my second coffee of the day. Its little tourist office was, however, open, and I nowadays have no compunction in pouncing on these things for my daily sello whenever I see them, even if they're only a kilometre down the road. One never knows when another opportunity will present itself. The person in charge took me for a German, something that happens to me surprisingly often. I'd put it down to the amount of time I've spent in Switzerland over the years, but most of that has been living in the Suisse romande, so I don't think that that can be the explanation. Nor would I say that my spoken Spanish, such as it is, carries a particularly Teutonic inflection. But perhaps I'm not the most accurate judge of these things.

Stamp in hand, I climbed out of town along another of these old stone roads, or the remnants thereof. Once again, I'm not sure it's nearly as ancient as local lore suggests, yet at various points I was able to make out ruts in the stone made by heavy iron-wheeled vehicles. I've seen identical marks on the Appian Way in Rome; they're quite distinctive. So, however long it's been around, it was clearly getting plenty of traffic. I'm sure the roadbuilders would be gratified to know that it's still in use today.

It was good to know, furthermore, that I wasn't the only one to have difficulty with the increasingly inclement weather. A little past the church of St Martin of Tours, an information-board tells the story of some of the earliest pilgrims from this area, one being a mariner who, two years after Columbus' voyage to the Americas, tried to get from Getaria to SdC by sea. After sixty-eight days of being beaten away from the coast by extraordinary gales, he finally succeeded in making landfall at Finisterre. As he remarked afterwards, only God knows just where he had been in the interim. Recalling some of my own inadvertent excursions from the correct route and my struggles to find my way back over the years, I can guess how at times he must have felt.

After around 8 km, the trail descends sharply into the well-kept port town of Zumaia. This is quite a busy place; like Getaira, it features a superbly protected harbour, now almost entirely occupied by small vessels. It seems as though there's some kind of repair station on the eastern docks, though, which is capable of handling decent-sized cargo ships. One was moored and having work done on her as I passed. There are also a couple of nice cafés, to one of which I duly gave my custom. Zumaia too has a well-staffed tourist office, so I would have been able to pick up my stamp here if I had not already done so.

As is the pattern on the Norte, all the elevation given away by the descent into Zumaia must immediately be regained on the climb to the much smaller village of Elorriaga. Whereas previously I had been walking through vine country with good sea views, this stretch consists of managed forest. With all the rain this area has been getting recently and the amount of vehicular traffic the trail evidently gets from forestry workers, picking my way along without having to wade through enormous puddles covering the entire breadth of the trail was becoming an increasing challenge. In fact, to put the matter bluntly, by mid-afternoon torrents of rain were beginning to cascade down the mountainside, slowing my rate of progress to painfully slow levels. As the day wore on, it was less a matter of keeping one's feet dry and much more one of keeping one's balance.

In this context, having completed the last strenuous climb of the day, the approach to Deba is worthy of mention. I have scrambled up and down many dodgy inclines on these pilgrimage routes, but I have never seen anything as lethal as the Deba descent on a wet day. The gradient is terrifyingly steep, and the surface a mixture of highly polished stones, hewn rocks, and the occasional granite sett wedged in for good luck. I can't say for how long it went on—it seemed to me more than a kilometre—but at times on that nightmare descent I was thinking it was inconceivable that I was going to reach the bottom without having fallen. And the consequences of wiping out on that surface don't bear thinking about. This is one of those sections where hiking poles are of little use, because there's nowhere in which to dig them that isn't as treacherous as anywhere else. Toward the bottom, granted, a handrail is provided, but even that is no guarantee of safety given the continued verticality of the path. The orthopaedic surgeons of Deba must be making an absolute fortune.

A compensating factor is that Deba has one of the few year-round albergues on the Norte. Prior notification is required: one must e-mail either the tourist office or the local police. They, in turn, will supply a door code to enable one to access the building. Later in the day, a volunteer hospitalero will drop by to assign visitors a bunk and collect the money. Bearing in mind that the Norte is not a cheap route, being able to obtain a clean and relatively comfortable pied-à-terre for EUR 8 in these inflationary days is not to be sneezed at.
 

BabzHikes

New Member
Time of past OR future Camino
October 2023
Your account of the trail is mesmerizing. It's truly a beautiful way to start my day. I'm anxious to walk the Norte, but have faith all will be what it will be. So far, I have a deeper understanding of the terrain, the weather, and the towns along the way. A sincere, THANK YOU! Please keep writing. Buen Camino.
 
Time of past OR future Camino
Portuguese 2017, Primitivo 2018
Norte May 2023
WOW! I’m heading to Irun in May to begin the Camino del Norte … your stories bring me excitement and great comfort, visualizing this amazing Camino! Thank you so much. Sending strength from Chicago! Buen Camino 🙏
 

Aurigny

Active Member
Time of past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
Going on pilgrimage has many benefits beyond the strictly penitential elements that are its original raison d'être. One of them is that it serves as a reminder of how very difficult ordinary life was for the overwhelming majority of people during almost the whole of human history. Travelling even a short distance, and to a still greater degree moving heavy items from one place to another; keeping one's person and clothes clean; obtaining food, water, and shelter; coping with the elements: all of this was a massive struggle that can have left the ordinary person with almost no time, and less energy, to do anything else.

These philosophical reflections were borne in upon me as I heaved every item of clothing I possessed, now indescribably filthy, into the Deba albergue's highly efficient lavadora that in forty minutes, for a mere EUR 4, restored them to me, now sweet-smelling and clean as a whistle. (That machine, though, has but a single setting, so you and your clothes had better like the 40C fast-colour cycle.) Spartan though that establishment may appear, with its absence of heating, lack of anywhere to prepare or consume food, and curious internal furnishing consisting entirely of airline seats recycled from some decommissioned Boeing ca. 1975, it nonetheless supports a standard of well-being that even the wealthiest couldn't have enjoyed a couple of hundred years ago. It's very easy to feel sorry for oneself out on the trail as one wallows in slop and tries to divert the cold rain from trickling down the back of one's neck, but in relative terms we're living large.

After a couple of wet and miserable days, the reappearance of the sun also put me in a cheerful mood as I departed town. Even the smallest Iberian conurbations seem to enjoy keeping the location of the way out a mystery, and Deba is no exception. It's very simple if you know it, hard to guess if you don't. Briefly, one doesn't leave the railway station at all, but merely steps over to the far side of the line at the crossing-point provided; turns left (north); and walks a short distance to the nineteenth-century pedestrian bridge that collapsed abruptly in 2015 and whose restoration appears to be a source of considerable municipal pride. The yellow arrows will reappear on the far side of the bridge, sending the departing pilgrim—no prizes for guessing this one—uphill.

I had been warned by the hospitalero last night to stock up on both food and water, because none of either was available until I reached my destination of Markina-Xemein. It's true that shops were not to be seen, but my host's information was definitely outdated as regards water. I must have passed half a dozen places to tank up, most notably at the micro-village of Olatz, eight kilometres into the day's leg, which also offers a place to sit down and enjoy a late-morning sandwich.

Visually, this etapa is not the most arresting along the Norte. There are plenty of wooded hilltops and steep grassy slopes—so sharply angled that one wonders how the horses and sheep grazing them manage to keep their feet, or hooves—but in general it's managed forest, interspersed with sections of scrub-land. I believe this was the first day when I didn't catch even a glimpse of the sea.

What is likely to impress the traveller most of all is the climb from Olatz to the top of the hill at Arnoate. The elevation gain is not immense—about a thousand feet, spread out over four kilometres of mostly paved road—but it doesn't let up even for a moment. I took it at a sensible and energy-conserving pace, so that it was a bit more than an hour before I reached the top. The nice thing about the forestry activities is that there are abundant tree stumps up there, looking as though they had been cut down deliberately (as, for all I know, they may have been) so as to leave a comfortable perch at just the right height for the sweaty pilgrim to be able to flop down and obtain a drink of water.

I was engaged in that very exercise when I was passed by a countrydweller with a sextet of dogs of various sizes, ranging in size from the kind of animal that one sometimes sees in women's handbags on the Upper East Side of Manhattan all the way to a Great Dane-like creature that I probably outweighed only by twenty kilograms or so. It was obvious that, in addition to exercising them, the owner was engaged in training them to come to heel and otherwise answer his commands. Some, it was obvious, were faster learners than others. A couple came up and sniffed me curiously as I sat on my stump before trotting after their master; two more lingered but eventually responded to his piercing whistles; but the last two were less tractable. The chief difficulty was with the Great Dane, if indeed that is what it was. He had seen me coming from a long way off and stopped dead in the middle of the track, barking furiously. His owner, by now almost over the horizon, could not persuade him to move by any combination of shouts and whistles; a smaller black dog was remaining by his side, seemingly out of solidarity. Occasional whimpers in the midst of the barking revealed to me that the big dog was actually terrified of me, and the return of his owner wasn't helping in the slightest. In the end I had to leave the trail altogether and descend the slope for a hundred metres or so before the canine in question would scamper past, reassured that I was unlikely to be able to catch him up.

Several times I've tried to read The Wizard of Oz, only to find my eyes rolling backward in my head from sheer boredom after page three. I understand, though, that there is a character in that book called the Cowardly Lion. He has a counterpart in northeastern Spain.

Beyond that, there wasn't much excitement on the 16 km stretch between Olatz and Markina. The last twelve kilometres or so proceed in a steady northwesterly direction, before turning sharply south in preparation for the usual death-dive off the slopes into the town proper. One will probably hear Markina before one sees it. A large limestone quarry, the main industry of the locality, is off to the right, and work continues under artificial lighting well after normal business hours. A well-paved little river-walk leads into the town centre, so it's hardly possible to go off track as long as one proceeds in a straight line.
 
How to avoid failure "be prepared"
3rd Edition. More content, training & pack guides avoid common mistakes, bed bugs etc

Aurigny

Active Member
Time of past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
Even in the midst of pilgimages, my employer sometimes has need of my services, and does not hesitate to call upon them when circumstances arise. For that reason, I had a much later start today, the morning being spent doing work at the Café Vega and making use of its rapid internet connection. I also had the opportunity to scan the local newspaper, and was interested to see a story about the number of pilgrims on the Norte, based on a survey of hospitaleros from the region. This has fallen off by 20% since before the coronavirus—I was surprised the drop was so small—the explanation for which is a reduction in Spanish patronage. The foreigners continue to show up in their traditional numbers. One thing that hasn't changed is the age-profile: the great majority of those doing the Norte, apparently, are in their fifties.

On account of the albergue being closed, getting a stamp was a little trickier than usual. The enormous Nuestra Señora del Carmen church has no such thing. Markina also doesn't have a tourist office as such; some relevant brochures are available for pick-up in the municipal building. However, the local library seems quite accustomed to such requests, and was happy to take care of my needs.

It wasn't until about one in the afternoon, then, that I was in a position to start on the trail. The elevation profile of today's 26-km leg to Gernika (Guernica) bears a strong resemblance to an electrocardiogram trace of somebody with an acute case of atrial fibrillation, so I wasn't expecting to make great time. My hope was to reduce the number of kilometres remaining to single figures before I was obliged to resort to artificial light sources, and I thought I had a decent chance of accomplishing that.

The weather had been gloomy and intermittently showery all morning. Leaving town by the river-walk, I was able to get as far as Iruzubieta before it started coming down like machine-gun bullets, sending me scurrying into the bus shelter to get into my raingear. What I wear may not be flattering, but it keeps me and my backpack dry in even the heaviest downpours—everything, that is, except the feet.

Despite the rain, I was making better time than I'd expected through the little town of Bolibar, the home of a distant ancestor of Simón Bolivar and the location of a museum dedicated to his memory—closed, predictably, at this time of year. The presence of shell-marker wrought-iron fencing on the way in also indicates that the pilgrimage identity is appreciated by the locals. But my optimism was diminished between there and the road up to Ziortza when a man in a red van stopped beside me and said, in excellent English, "About forty minutes to go." Puzzled, I asked him what he meant. He explained that he assumed I was headed for the albergue at the Monastery of Zenarruza. When I told him that my intention was to press on for Gernika, he shook his head dubiously. "You're very late." I reassured him that I had much experience in, and good equipment for, night-hiking, which I don't think allayed his anxieties.

The monastery does in fact look like a good night-stop. The trail runs right through it, and the premises are neat and well-kept. However, there's only a ninety-minute window each day for check-in, and I didn't want to stop just seven kilometres out of Markina in any event. So I continued squelching uphill.

Before long, I was beginning to realise that the chief problem would not be the daylight so much as the going underfoot. After several wet days, parts of the trail were now completely flooded, and even those hopscotch stone bridges over which one leaps from one rock to another were now submerged by fast-flowing water. There being nothing for it than to make one's way through, a couple of times I was forced to remove my trousers, relying on the fact that there was nobody to see me and my poncho was preserving my modesty in any event, and wade across. As I was later to discover, this was an exercise in futility, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

As I continued, I was surprised to find that the waymarked route is now different from the one shown on the Gronze website, on which I often rely for my navigational information. There's no divergence as far as Munitibar. But the marked trail now goes through Zarra and Elexalde, the latter of which is shown as being south of the route on the Gronze map and the former not even depicted thereon. It's possible that I was walking a variant, but I'm pretty sure this wasn't the case. Regardless, on reaching Olabe there were no longer any further disagreements.

I was walking down the main street of Zarra, by my estimate about 8.7 km from my destination, before I had to reach for my torch for the first time, so I was pleased to have met my target for sunset. In the ordinary course, I quite like night-hiking, having the forests or the hills to myself with the exception of an occasional owl looking for friends. It definitely slows one down, as every possible junction must be carefully scrutinised to find the next yellow arrow, and a degree of ingenuity is required if, for some reason, that arrow isn't there. Having to scan where one is putting one's feet also makes inroads on the average speed one can expect to gain. I reckon on making at least 1 km/h less than usual after dark, and sometimes it's a lot slower than that.

Where I met my Waterloo tonight—pun intended—was, however, the woodland section, about 5 km long, between Marmiz and Gernika. Not only is this steep, in both directions, but the trail is extensively trafficked by heavy logging vehicles whose enormous balloon tyres had completely devastated the surface. I'm familiar with the area of Flanders that used to be known as the Ypres Salient during the Great War, where records of muddiness were set for four years between 1914 and 1918. While I wouldn't want to put what I was now experiencing in the same category, the difference was in degree rather than kind. It was quite impossible to tell, when setting one's foot down, how far one was going to sink. Sometimes it was ankle-level, occasionally it was knee-level, and at one point it was deeper than that. After a while I could only giggle at the absurdity of it all. On the way down into Gernika, moreover, the gradient was such that I was slithering several metres at a time, and although by some miracle I never fell, more than once I must have resembled an elephant on roller-skates in my wild efforts to keep my footing.

It is as well that I had a spare pair of trousers in my backpack when I reached a hard surface once again, because I can't imagine any self-respecting pensión allowing me across the threshold in the state that I was when reaching the town. My shoes were past praying for: all I could do in that respect was to stop at a fountain and pour bottle after bottle of cold water over them in the hope that I could somehow pass muster at the reception desk. And because they seem a forgiving crowd in that town, in fact I did, for which I was more grateful than they will ever know.
 
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How to Successfully Prepare for Your Camino
The focus is on reducing the risk of failure through being well prepared. 2nd ed.
Time of past OR future Camino
2020
I can really empathize. The first time I walked past La Iglesia de Santo Tomas I remember going up in the hills and through woods to Gernika. It was really pleasant. The next year at the Iglesia a local man strongly advised me not to take that route because it was filled with deep mud. There had already been a lot of mud and puddles since San Sebastián and my shoes were constantly wet and covered with mud, so I walked along the roads to Gernika.

Thank for writing these posts. They are brilliant!
 

cronnik

Member
Time of past OR future Camino
Frances 11/21
Pamplona - Burgos
Sarria - SdC
I had not planned on my journey from Geneva to SdC, to be completed in sections, taking any more than two calendar years, but the coronavirus disrupted a lot of people's plans, including mine. It's now clear that a trip that started in October 2022 has a better than even chance of earning a third candle on its birthday cake. So I thought it advisable to follow up my completion of the Voie Nive Bidassoa with a few days spent in making inroads on the Norte. I have to be back at work soon, but if I can get anywhere west of Bilbao on this occasion, I'll regard it as a positive contribution.

I'm not sure where's the official start of the trail, but the cathedral in Irun seemed a logical jumping-off point. I arrived in time for part of morning Mass, and was intrigued to find that they were still singing Christmas carols. At the end, the organist played us out with a rendition of O Holy Night that, although displaying considerable technical virtuosity, was delivered at such a tempo that one might have supposed he was trying to catch a train. Afterwards I tracked down the celebrant in the sacristy to ask him for a stamp. After we determined that German was our best common language, he told me that from his perspective, pilgrim numbers have collapsed since the pandemic and show little sign of recovering. Indeed, he had to hunt through his bureau for a sello, eventually coming up with two different ones. He offered me my choice; I told him to pick the one he liked best. So he did; it's taken up about half a page of my credencial.

That mission accomplished, I turned to the matter of finding my way out of town. I'm no longer surprised when this transpires to be a challenge, and so it was on this occasion. Irun opts for an eclectic mixture of markers set into paving stones, mojónes, yellow arrows painted on lamp-posts and kerbstones, and sometimes nothing at all. It wasn't until I passed the threshold of runway 04 at what is comically misnamed San Sebastián International Airport that the waymarking picked up in earnest as the route took a left-hand turn inland.

It's a steady but easy climb from there to the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadelupe, a surprisingly modest edifice for something that has generated such an extensive cult in so many places of the world. After that, though, the pilgrim is offered a choice between the low- and high-level route for the day's run. The weather being glorious--no cloud, no wind, unlimited visibility--I opted for the high-level one. About halfway up the muddy and extraordinarily steep slope that immediately follows, I began to wonder whether I'd made the right choice. I was having to use hands as well as feet to scramble up this endless earthen bank, with a gradient I'd estimate of anything between one in five and one in four. If I'd fallen, I wouldn't have risked injury; it was too soft and boggy for that. But by the same token, I don't think anything could have stopped me from rolling all the way to the bottom, a couple of hundred feet below.

At least I had the advantage of going uphill. Soon I was being passed not only by people making their way down, but by one thrill-seeker who was trying to do it on a mountain-bike. Fortunately better sense prevailed when, after a wild skid that nearly precipitated him head-first over his handlebars and had my heart in my mouth, he managed to pull up and dismount. After that he descended the rest of the hill largely on his rear end, hanging on to one handlebar as the bicycle, now on its side, preceded him.

That, though, was not the limit of the fun and games I was to encounter. At the very top of the hill, where the first of six stone watchtowers is to be found, I came across a young couple in their late teens who had brought with them an iPhone and a set of Bluetooth speakers. I found that I had stumbled into a photo-shoot, in which the young woman stood on an outcrop of rock performing over and over some ten seconds of a complicated dance of which her parents will hardly have approved to the accompaniment of what sounded like a Spanish version of Katy Perry enunciating through an endlessly long cardboard tube. Her boyfriend was there as cameraman and, it appeared, was giving considerably less than satisfaction in that capacity to the actor-director, who stopped continually to tell him all the things he was doing wrong. Michael Cimino or Francis Ford Coppola cannot have demanded more takes, nor expressed themselves as frankly about the limitations of their cinematographers. When I continued on my way they were still at it, leaving me to reflect that Tik Tok has a great deal to answer for.

Much of the remainder of the day is an enjoyable ramble along the clifftops, with excellent views in both directions. The landscape is undulating but unchallenging, with the coast road, the GI-3440, paralleling the trail below and to the right. After a couple of hours, though, it was time to descend, crossing the paved road and making my way down a precipitous and narrow concrete path replete with hairpin bends. Accustomed as I am to the adventurousness of Iberian drivers, I was still taken aback when I was forced off this thoroughfare by a gentleman driving an enormous camper-van uphill. Apparently feeling that he owed me an explanation for nearly crushing me against the adjacent stone wall, he rolled down his window and told me that he had been following the directions of Google Maps. To which I could only reply with empathy, "Say no more."

At the bottom, the pilgrim takes a tiny ferryboat from Pasai Donibane to its somewhat démodé twin town of Pasajes on the western bank of the estuary. The cost for this hundred-metre trip is EUR 1.10, which actually works out as a good deal for the municipal authorities. If calculated on a cost-per-mile basis, a Transatlantic voyage charged at the same rate would be about EUR 65,000 per passenger each way—steerage class, at that.

After landing, the steepest ascent of the day awaits at the northern end of the headland, a climb up an endless series of stone steps to La Plata lighthouse, trying to weave around people who had brought many bottles with them and were sitting on the steps while consuming the contents. When I reached this point, the light was fading, and I had to finish off the remainder of the journey by night-hiking. The comprehensiveness of the waymarking, though, made this an easy business, as did a magnificently clear sky that turned celestial navigation into child's play. The only complication I ran into was when, as I was making my way across the top of Monte Ulia about ninety minutes after nightfall, I was unexpectedly approached out of the darkness by a strange individual who appeared to have been standing there for some time in the hope of spotting passers-by. He told me that he was a member of what he called a "community" that provided accommodation for pilgrims, and invited me to spend the night with them, gratis. I courteously advised him that I had made other plans, but he continued to follow me down the road for about half a kilometre, quizzing me about my movements and intentions. Eventually he stopped and, to be fair to him, pointed me in the right direction for my destination and bade me a good night.

After doing a little Internet searching, it seems that the gentleman in question is a representative of a religious group calling themselves the Twelve Tribes that have established a presence along major hiking routes in the U.S. like the Appalachian Trail and engage in a form of low-key recruiting with the offer of free accommodation to those who pass by. From what I can gather they're fairly harmless, at any rate to those who seek only a bed for the night and desire no further interaction with them. But it was a distinctly odd encounter, and I couldn't help but wonder how any lone female travellers who were approached by this individual in the Stygian blackness might have responded.

At any rate, soon I was heading downhill into central Donostia (the Basque name of the city) or San Sebastián (the Spanish one). The town has no pilgrim hostels and the albergue del juventud was unexpectedly closed, but at this time of year, economical private-sector alternatives readily present themselves. This is one of the most attractive urban districts in Iberia, and it would be hard not to spend a pleasant night there.
Mark Twain and his “Innocents Abroad” would be blushing at the wonderful stylistic similarities you all share.
 

BabzHikes

New Member
Time of past OR future Camino
October 2023
Each morning for this Maine girl, I reach for my phone after getting my coffee to read your journey.
As I giggled at your description of yourself, I cheered you on for "embracing the suck." (A term my 85 year old mother claims she would like to wash my mouth out with soap when I say it 😂)
Buen Camino!!!
 

Aurigny

Active Member
Time of past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
"embracing the suck."

That's an interesting and evocative expression, B. And in fact it underlines what separates a pilgrimage from a tourist experience. With the former, "the suck," and learning how to handle it, is largely the point.
 

Aurigny

Active Member
Time of past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
My average time this trip has not been stellar: I haven't put in a single 30+ km day since leaving Espelette on the VNB. Partly that's been a function of the topography and climatic conditions, and partly because on the Norte in wintertime one's selection of potential night-stops is considerably smaller than during high season. But the latter wouldn't be a limiting factor with a big city in front of me. For my last walking day on this particular part of the journey to SdC, then, I decided to collapse two stages into one and go for a straight run from Gernika to Bilbao. Just how far that is seems to be a matter of considerable disagreement, but about 31 km would be a reasonable estimate.

Before departure, I took the opportunity to do a little local sightseeing. Even today, nearly a century later, the bombing of Guernica remains more prominent in the consciousness of the town than anything else—at least if the number of monuments, information-boards and other symbols of public commemoration are any indication. It's something of a historical accident that it should be so, because the attack was neither the first nor the worst air raid of its kind during the Civil War. A month previously, for example, the neighbouring town to the south, Durango, was bombed even more heavily, resulting in what was in all likelihood a greater death toll. But a journalist from the Times of London was there to record the effects of the later operation, not the earlier one. So Guernica is world-famous, whereas nobody has ever heard of Durango. Of such coincidences is history made.

Finding my way out of town was the usual flip-a-coin process. Plenty of yellow arrows show the way in; a brass shell-marker is set into the paving-stone outside the tourist office; but from that point on the pilgrim is on his or her own. As a general rule, I've found that following the road-traffic signs is likely to result in my coming across the trail sooner or later, so I headed westward along Calle Calzada, following the cars on their way to Bilbao. The law of averages held good on this occasion too. After about a kilometre, just abeam the Lurgorri commuter-rail station, a large roundabout appeared at which, sure enough, a yellow arrow pointed the way to the right. Out of curiosity, I took a few moments to reconnoitre for a hundred metres along all the other roads leading to the roundabout to see if any of them bore similar arrows. But none did. Seemingly, for those leaving Gernika, this is where the waymarking starts.

Once past a small public park, the trail turned uphill and into the woods. With memories fresh of last night's débâcle, I was gloomily contemplating another day of frolicking in a quagmire. Although I was now facing nothing worse than a light drizzle, not much drying could have taken place overnight. But in fact I was to find the conditions underfoot no worse than one might encounter on any other day at this time of year. Lots of soft and soggy areas, to be sure, with some large and deep puddles that required circumnavigating by going up into the banks. This wasn’t always a painless process; there are times when it seems that nothing grows in Spain that doesn't have thorns protruding from it. Compared to yesterday, though, what I was experiencing was a proverbial cakewalk.

It was also, for me at any rate, a relatively featureless one. The clouds were hanging low over the hills, and it wasn't long into the ascent before I found myself enveloped in them. Instantly the temperature dropped, as did the visibility. Within the limits of my ability to see around me, I was passing through woodland very like what I had come across on the way to Gernika, except that on this section there were as many eucalyptus trees as pines, their bark and leaves scattered untidily across the path. For a country as prone to forest fires as Spain, eucalyptus has always seemed to me an odd non-native species to import, but I soon ran into something stranger yet: a private house close to Eskerika whose owner had used the garden to cultivate enormous palms and other exotic growths, each of them sprouting up within a corona of tractor tyres laid on their sides. I'm not sure whether this has some botanical purpose—keeping the local fauna from nibbling on the young plants, perhaps—or was simply an aesthetic choice, but it's one of the more curious things I've come across on this trip.

Other than that, my impression was that I wasn't missing much in the way of arresting vistas along the fifteen-kilometre stretch to Larrabetzu. Of that village's two tabernas, one is decorated by enormous Basque and Camino flags, so I made my way there for a quick coffee and to see if I could pick up my sello. Both tasks completed, I was back on the road for the last leg of the day. And for the first part of this section, "road" is the mot juste. Even before Larrabetzu, one is on a broad, paved pedestrian footpath, and it continues that way as far as Zamudio. In fact, as soon as one comes over the rise above Lezama, much of Bilbao is spread out in front, even if the view consists largely of industrial estates and the smoke-plume rising from the SIMAL chemical plant. Waymarking along this part of the route is profuse, and largely superfluous. This is also the road, appropriately bearing the number 737, that leads to the Bilbao airport. If they're landing on runway 30, as they nearly always are, one has only to glance upwards at the arriving traffic to be shown the way to go.

Darkness was setting in as I passed the church at Zamudio for what various information-placards had warned me would be the "last effort" of the day: crossing the Monte Avril ridge, which requires a climb of about 300m. According to a finger-post in the church grounds, I had 7.8 km remaining before arriving in the centre of Bilbao. The approach is made through an industrial estate, and then passing directly over the southeastern end of a dual carriageway leading into the city. From there it's a climb along the main forest path running through the Avril recreational area, and then down over the other side.

Or so it is in normal times. At first nothing was out of the ordinary. It was a fairly challenging uphill haul at the end of a long day, but not at all exceptional. After a couple of kilometres the path gave onto a small asphalted road where a light shone in the distance. I had several guesses as I approached at what this might be—a park-services station? an aeronautical beacon?—but I would have long exhausted my quota before hitting on the right answer: a fizzy-drinks vending machine. What it was doing out in the middle of nowhere I couldn't imagine, and for a moment I considered buying a can of Kas Limón as a way of encouraging whatever demented entrepreneurialship was responsible for this carbonated oasis. When I found out how much they wanted for one, however, I decided I could wait until I reached the city itself.

Just where that was turned out to be slightly problematical. The most recent finger-post I'd seen had given the remaining distance as 5.3 km, which tallied with my expectations. My mood wasn't improved when, forty-five minutes later, and never having deviated from the marked trail, the next one said "Bilbao 5 km." When that was followed by a placard bearing a shell-marker and announcing a "temporary deviation" through the woods, I began to apprehend that I might be in for a long evening. As closely as I scanned the surrounding trees with my torch, no further arrows, or any kind of directional indication, was to be found.

This was one of those times when having a magnetic compass, without which I now never travel, came in handy. The trees, which by now were mostly silver birches, were widely enough separated that it was quite easy to follow a straight, or straightish, line, and I was reasonably confident of being able to retrace my steps to where the deviation had begun if that proved necessary. In the event, it didn't. Five minutes later I saw a lighted area to my right, hacked my way across to it, and found that I was back on the regular trail, just above the picnic-bench-strewn viewing area at the top of Monte Avril. From there it was an uncomplicated if uninteresting road-walk downhill, past the Nuestra Señora de Begoña basilica, and southwest through La Cruz barrio into the Casco Viejo, my final destination.

To this point, according to Gronze, I've done a little less than a fifth of the Norte in total. A small sample, to be sure, but perhaps adequate to justify some initial impressions. From what I've seen thus far, this is a route best suited to those who already have at least one other behind them. In a way we've nearly all been spoiled by doing the Francés first: it raises expectations of standards of waymarking and infrastructure that almost no other, with the possible exception of the Portugues Central, can possibly meet. But I think that this one would be a particularly mentally and physically challenging experience for the neophyte pilgrim. It starts out with hard physical work on the first day, as of course does the haul up to Roncesvalles. The difference with the latter, though, is that there's only one of those to be dealt with, whereas several similarly arduous hikes must be surmounted on the Norte during the first week. At times the waymarking is very good indeed; elsewhere it's confusing at best, and it would not be difficult at various points for the tyro to get off track. Much longer hauls without amenities—even a place to sit down, if the ground is wet—are a feature as well. And the albergue network is considerably less developed than it is on the more popular routes, which will raise anxieties among people who won't know what to do if there should turn out to be no room at the inn.

For the more seasoned traveller, however, the Norte has a lot going for it. Pilgrims are rarer here, and more appreciated as a result. (I lost count of the number of times I was told by locals that I was muy valiante for doing this, especially at the present time of year, though that may just be a polite version of "Man, you're an idiot…"). For those who appreciate solitude, this part of the country provides a contrast to the hordes who descend upon the more heavily visited areas. And as long as one is willing to improvise, it's surprisingly manageable logistically even in the depths of winter. The mud, granted, is infuriating, but I'm sure that in high summer I'd be grousing just as much about the heat or the flies.

All that said, I haven't really formed an opinion about this one. If the Norte has a distinct identity, whatever that may be hasn't yet impressed itself upon me. I'll have to reserve judgment until I have more of it under my belt—perhaps, if all goes well, this summer.
 
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