Monday, January 31, 2011

Roncesvalles to Larrasoaña -- Over the River and Through the Woods

From left: Alison, Elissa, Lisa, and Bart
in Burguete before breakfast.
As we awoke and rolled out of bed on Day Two a couple of things were clear. First, standing upright on sore legs and feet took a lot of concentration. After yesterday's twenty-eight up and down kilometers most of us had few reserves of strength left. Second, we realized we are in a stunningly beautiful and historic valley.

The name "Roncesvalles" means "valley of thorns," which fits the history (tragic), but not the scenery (gorgeous). This little vale was a setting for the immortal "Song of Roland" that recounts the demise of Charlemagne's beloved friend and lieutenant in 778 who pays the ultimate price for Charlemagne's earlier mistake. 

According to one of the many legends accompanying this event, Charlemagne, the great French king, was marauding with his army in Northern Spain, fighting Moors in alliance with the local Basques of Pamplona. As he returned to France he decided to weaken his Basque allies by destroying the walls of the city of Pamplona. They were understandably miffed and after realizing they disliked the French almost as much as the Moors, the Basques attacked Charlemagne's rearguard, which was led by Charlemagne's pal. Roland sounded his mighty horn to alert Charlemagne of the danger, but in mistaking the meaning, Charlemagne kept on going over the pass (to St. Jean Pied-de-Port no less). Roland's men are brutally killed, lending a bloodthirsty pride to the Basques and a very French sense of tragedy to the epic poem "Chanson de Roland," one of the great works of literature from the Middle Ages.

A sign, rudely placed at the outskirts of Roncesvalles.
Perhaps its subtitle should read "Abandon Hope
All Ye Who Enter Here"
Although we stood in front of the memorial to Roland immediately adjacent to the Chapel of Santiago, few of our pilgrims were focused on Charlemagne or the Battle of Roncesvalles. Instead we were wondering how to walk on tired legs and four-star blisters without even so much as a cuppa Joe. Somehow the two restaurants of this 100-person hamlet are closed in the morning, meaning that the next cafe wouldn't be found until the village of Burguete, about three kilometers down the road. 

We lugged our packs on sore feet across bridges over the rivers, through the deep green woods, and then to Burguete for a cafe. As our travelers noted, I'm a sucker for chocolate croissants and was not disappointed by my reunion with the Basque version which is clearly influenced by the French, who bake their own just a few kms over the hill. We shared cafes con leche with folks we'd met as we climbed the pass yesterday, as well as people that we, well, slept with last night on the bunks at the monastery albergue.

The municipal albergue at Larrasona (left door),
conveniently situated in the same building as City Hall
(right door).
As the morning wore on our stiff muscles began to loosen up, and our blistered feet began to take less of our attention. We walked down through woods crossing the Rio Urrubi to Espinal, then up to Alto Mezquiriz, then crossed the Erro before Vizkarret. At the Alto de Erro we could look down the heights to Zubiri and Larrasoaña. Perhaps it was the effect of the nice lunch at Zubiri or our confidence in all the training we'd done in advance of the Camino that enticed us to trudge another 5 kms to Larrasoaña, nearly matching our 28 kms of yesterday. We unrolled our sleeping bags in the Municipal Albergue (and annex, given the size of our group) and had our first menu del peregrino together at a delightful pilgrim restaurant down the street.

To our astonishment, wine and water cost the same at dinner here. We good Methodists tested much of the stock of this little restaurant, and thanks to the tasty and cheap wine we headed for bed with a little less grumbling than the tough day deserved.

(Today's post is based on a portion of the 153.7 exercise miles logged by our cyber pilgrims as of Jan 31, 2011. Exercise total miles are: Alison, 9; Bart, 21; Dana, 1; Dawn, 5; Elissa, 35; Greta, 5.5; Jackie, 18; John, 3.2; Sandy, 21; Susan, 27. Watch for 4 new pilgrims to join us in Pamplona tomorrow.)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Portrait of a Pilgrim -- Susan Hunt and the Missouri Connection

Susan at the Roncesvalles monastery albergue, doing
some reading before turning in for the night.
Susan Hunt is a Cyber Pilgrim from her home in Blue Springs, Missouri (a suburb of Kansas City). When she can get away from the Great Midwest, about once a month, she visits her husband in Seattle and drops in with him to First Church. Susan is a third grade teacher in Blue Springs and enjoys reading, traveling, and working in her yard. Unfortunately, yard work has taken a back seat to snow shoveling with recent eastern snow storms. Trails around her home are the locale for Susan's exercise miles, which she'll accomplish with the help of her pooch, Emmy. We'll look forward to seeing Susan at church sometime soon. Welcome to the pilgrimage, Susan!

First Day of Camino Sorely Tests Seattle Pilgrim Flock

Dawn, Alison, Jackie and a new friend outside the albergue
at Orisson, about 10 kms up the pass with the only
services between St. Jean and Roncesvalles.
It was about 5:30 in the morning when the first of our beloved fellow pilgrims began to rattle around the albergue. First it was their bathroom trips. Then it was their flashlights. Then it was their crinkly plastic bags. Then it was their hushed voices. Then it was their heavy boots on the wooden floors, then it was their voices outside the windows. By 6:00, after the first wave of pilgrims was out the door, our proud Seattle group showed no signs of stirring.

But by 7:00 it was clear we could lay in bed no longer. Someone turned on the bunk room lights and our sleepy-eyed Seattle group was up and out of bed. To the bathroom for the brushing of teeth, to the packs for the stuffing of clothes and toiletries, to the dining table for the eating of toast and jam, to the entryway for the tying of bootlaces, and out to the cobblestones of the long, medieval, main street of St. Jean Pied-de-Port for the walking of a pilgrimage.

There we were, the Twelve. Alphabetically: Alison, Bart, Catherine, Dana, Dawn, Elissa, Greta, Jackie, John, Lisa, and Susan -- and I. The Twelve Apostles? The Twelve Disciples? The Twelve Horsemen of the Apocalypse? The Dirty Dozen? By whatever name we shall be called we twelve set our faces to the high peaks ahead.

Pilgrims often leave flowers at the statue of Virgin Mary
at Col Lepoeder, near the summit of today's hike across
the Pyrenees from St. Jean to Roncesvalles.
The first day out of St. Jean is well-known as being the hardest of any day on the Camino de Santiago. It's said that if you can survive the first day's ordeal you can survive anything the Camino will throw at you. The way up is 1200 meters -- 3,937 feet -- and the way down is another 500 meters -- 1,640 feet. That's a combined elevation change of nearly 5,500 feet.

Some people will say, "Ah, please, the way down is much easier than the way up." Our group will testify that some people are wrong. Climbing 3900 feet is a cardio exercise. Descending 1640 feet is a musculo-skeletal exercise, an exercise of feet and knees and hips, of quads and calves and hamstrings. The downhill slope is steep enough that caution is important. No running or even quick walking or a skinned knee or bruised tailbone or muscle pull or most anything could happen.

How was the walk? Long. In truth, the way up is not Seattle steep, not like a Dravus Street, just a relentless climb, much of it paved, with some walking on dirt track. To get a sense of the journey, imagine a Mt. Si hike (a 3100 ft elevation gain in 4 miles) with another 20% elevation tacked on, blessedly stretched out over two and a half times the distance. In local terms it's steep, but not scary steep like climbing one of our mountains. I think flat landers don't really understand that in Seattle we know mountains when we see them, and these are very big hills. In fact, I'd have to say that hiking up Mt. Si would be a good training test for anyone who'd want to do the Camino's first day over the Pyrenees. If you can do Mt. Si you've got this one licked.

Try as we might, today did bring its mishaps. Not a bad list, but a list of owies and ailments nevertheless:
  • Alison -- Broken bootlace. A surprisingly unlucky event, with the nearest new lace over 50 kms away;
  • Bart -- Was first up the hill. What's with that? Now he shall suffer our envy;
  • Catherine -- The constant attention of Italian male pilgrims. 'Nuf said;
  • Dana -- Blisters on the balls of the feet;
  • Dawn -- Caught in the quick rain squall without her pack cover, now drying everything on her bunk. Until today I'd never seen pink hiking socks.
  • Elissa -- Second up the hill. All that running really pays off;
  • Greta -- Blisters between each of her toes;
  • Jackie -- Broke a fingernail. Seriously; 
  • John -- Blisters on the ankle;
  • Lisa -- Blisters on the heel;
  • Susan -- Blisters on the hands -- from hiking poles!

After a long, hilly walk it's nice to have a medieval
monastery to sleep in. Here: the Monastery at
Roncesvalles, Spain, our first overnight on the Camino.
In spite of our aches and pains here we are on the other side of the mountain, all Terrific Twelve of us, happy to see the gray stone walls of the monastery at Roncesvalles, Spain and happy to sleep a night in the monastery bedroom with 100 bunks full of people from all over the world. After the 7:00 Mass, in which pilgrims' native countries were read in thickly-Basque-accented Spanish, none of us could even contemplate a nightcap at one of the tiny hamlet's two restaurants. We were early to bed with our 99 bunk mates, wondering how we'd do another 28 kilometers in the morning, with at least 30 more mornings and 750 kilometers to go.

(Today's progress is based on a combined total of 21 exercise miles posted by cyber pilgrims as of Jan 30, 2011)

Friday, January 28, 2011

At the Foothills of the Pyrenees, Set to Leave Tomorrow for Spain

After a long journey of planes, trains and automobiles we've arrived at St. Jean Pied-de-Port! The biggest hassle? Your humble author getting bush-wacked by local Spanish clerics while our crew hunted down the van driver for Pamplona (more on that later).

After arriving at the Madrid airport we changed money to Euros and, thanks to Jackie's sharp eyes, found the Metro to Atocha. We pushed our way through the crowded and humid subway stations filled with Spanish business execs and grandmothers, stumbled between the "8" and "6" trains and again between the "6" and "1" trains until we arrived at Atocha, with just a half hour to spare before our 11:23 departure to Pamplona. If only Seattle had a public transit system where you could get from the airport to  just about anywhere for one Euro.

Dana and Greta outside the gate at St. Jean. Note
the albergue in the background - our lodging for the night.
As the countryside rolled by on our train from Madrid it became clear for several reasons that we were no longer in the U.S. While some of us slept, others noticed a) that (unlike Amtrak) the train was fast -- we really felt like we were getting somewhere, b) it was full of people using it to get around the country, unlike our too-often empty American trains, and c) the Spanish countryside is full of history! Who'd ever guess we'd see castles and ancient villages right from the windows of the train? "Toto, we're not in . . . . " etc. etc.

Once we arrived in Pamplona we had what I'm sure we'll later call "Bart's Hemingway Moment." Perhaps it was all the Ernest Hemingway related history of this mid-sized city, or perhaps there's something in the air, but it was as much as we could do to hold Bart back from heading to the city square and getting chased by the bulls! When we reminded him that the Feast of San Fermin is July 6-14 -- nearly 6 months away -- he settled down, though with a fair amount of disappointment. We're still going to watch him carefully, though, when we walk back through Pamplona in a few days.

As we waited at the train station for our van driver, a colorful cadre of local priests arrived in a van. They were looking for a friend of theirs who was to take part in the parade for the January 29 Feast of San Tomas de Aquino. Since he'd failed to arrive on time, in a moment of unusual ecumenicity they invited your humble camino guide to participate in their procession! I barely had time to throw on a beautiful, embroidered surplice (itself an unusual delight for a Methodist), dash to the main square, walk the procession, hobnob with the archbishop, and head back to the train station to the great relief of our group since the van was loaded and everyone was there except the tour guide. Oh, the busy life of a cleric.

A quick procession in Pamplona for St. Thomas Aquinas
before heading to the van for St. Jean. 
After a short and scenic van ride over the Valcarlos Pass (actually our bad-weather route, if necessary, for returning to Spain), we arrived at the picturesque hamlet of St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France. Its crisp air, green hills, red tile roofs, centuries-old white stucco houses, and air of expectancy mark this beautiful little town as a special place to all Camino pilgrims. After a quick visit to the office of Les Amis de Saint Jacques de Compostelle (the French camino volunteers' headquarters) to pick up our pilgrim passports, albergue list, first stamps (sellos) and a weather report (clear skies, no chance of rain or snow) we unrolled our sleeping bags at the albergue and settled in for our last rest before the 3,000 foot climb up and over the Pyrenees. Let the walk begin!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Spain at last -- what an airport!

A very quick post since we're waiting to get to Atocha Station (I wrongly wrote Chamartin Station earlier) to catch our Pamplona train. The flight was uneventful, landing was smooth, and passport check was no problem. We're looking for the Metro while a few of our party are using the airport's plumbing facilities. Our goal: the 15:05 train to Pamplona/Iruna. We'll write next from our pilgrimage starting-point: St. Jean Pied-de-Port.
Madrid's Barajas Airport

Meantime, we've found ourselves admiring this amazing airport. The beautiful colors and waving lines are unlike anything most of us have seen. Spain is clearly proud of its modernism and, while it couldn't have been cheap, it's great to see a thoughtful investment in an important public space. Makes me want to come back here again.

If we had time we would want to see more modernism at the Reina Sofia Museum, an amazing Madrid museum on the order of MOMA or Musee D'Orsee, stuffed with Picasso and Dali and other Spanish modernists. Alas, the Camino calls and we need to catch our train to the Town of the Crazy Drunk Men in White Clothes and the Bulls Who Chase Them.

Sanitary needs have been accomplished -- we're ready to roll. Don't forget to make a comment below and wish us a buen camino! Or better yet since we'll be in France, bon chemin!

B-Bye Dallas, Madrid Here We Come!

I think Seattleites are a little prejudiced against Texans. We're not that big on cowboy hats or country music, and as our group of Seattle pilgrims watch Texans go by in the long corridors of DFW I can sense the occasional snicker. One thing that used to make me certain Seattle was better than Dallas/Fort Worth was how DFW was laid out in comparison to Sea-Tac.

In the past I used to greatly dislike DFW because of the long, long walks down narrow corridors with beeping and impatient electric cart drivers ferrying disabled passengers to their gate. I expected that's what we'd be looking forward to this time, especially because of the transfer from domestic to international. However, we arrived at Terminal A and discovered the amazing SkyLink train could quickly take us to Terminal D without even  having to go through security. Hooray, we can save our footsteps for the punishing walk across the Pyrenees in a little more than a day!

The plane (see right) boards in just a few minutes. Now is the time to grab one final Starbucks -- no more tall, decaf, 2-pump, no whip mochas for a month or more. Instead our group will be floating on a river of cafe con leche and inexpensive La Rioja vino tinto.

As always, I'm worrying a little about our connections. We'll feel our way through the Madrid Metro when we arrive, testing our Spanish skills. The train to Pamplona will be easy and fun. Then in Pamplona we have to make contact with our van driver who'll take us over las montanas to St. Jean, where we make the beginning of our walk to venerate the memory (and bones) of St. James the Greater.

Twelve Seattle-Area Pilgrims Leave Sea-Tac to Walk the Way of St. James

After months of preparation it's hard to believe that our group of 12 pilgrims is on American Airlines flight 488 to Dallas/Fort Worth. We'll transfer after a six hour layover there (heaven help us) to American Airlines flight 36 to Madrid. When we arrive there we'll have completed an arduous 13 hours of flying to get to Spain. Ahead of us is a transfer to Madrid's Chamartin train station, three and a half hours of train travel to Pamplona, and a 90-minute van ride over the mountains to the tiny French hamlet of St. Jean Pied-de-Port.

I'm so proud of our collection of pilgrims and so looking forward to getting to know each one even better. Our peregrinas (female pilgrims) are Alison, Cathy, Dawn, Elissa, Greta, Jackie, Lisa, and Susan. Our peregrinos are Dana, Bart, John, and me. At Sea-Tac we must've been quite a sight to behold! To those unfamiliar with the Camino, I'm sure we looked like a nondescript group of backpackers ready for a long trek. To people who know the Camino, our scallop shell ornaments would clearly have identified us as Pilgrims on the Way of St. James. To the Spanish speakers we are Peregrinos del Camino de Santiago de Compostela. To the French: Pelerins du Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle

Whichever language, at the airport we had quite the mountain of backpacks and hiking boots! As we piled onto the plane, nervously wondering which tiny seat we'd fold ourselves into for the first long flight, we packed away our bags in the overhead bins. I caught a couple of disapproving looks from other passengers as we perhaps took up more than our allotted share of bin footage. Alas, it's better to carry on than to check a backpack, after all, considering the importance of what's inside:

Backpack Packing List for the Camino
  • Shoes: Hiking boots and flipflops;
  • Clothes: 1 pair long pants, 2 pair hiking shorts, 3 technical t-shirts
  • Underclothes: three sets, hiking style
  • Socks: 3 pair SmartWool trekking socks, 3 pair sock liners
  • Hats: 1 sun hat, one wind/rain hat
  • Weather gear: 1 light fleece, 1 rain poncho, one pack cover
  • Sleeping gear: lightweight sleeping bag, anti-bed-bug bag liner, lightweight sleeping mat, inflatable pillow (and one small teddy bear accompanying an unnamed peregrina -- who will confess?)
  • Toiletries: sunscreen, bathroom products (some of us are buying these in Spain to avoid the hassle of liquids going through security)
  • Miscellaneous: passport, guidebook, water reservoir
  • Camino specialities: a credentiale (for those who aren't buying theirs in France) and a scallop shell
The challenge is to collect all of this into a pack that weighs no more than 20 lbs. I'm a little worried about the weight of some of our packs, but it's common for pilgrims to jettison items at albergues (more about these later) and other stops along the way. We'll see what our pilgrims consider most important as we carry on our backs everything necessary to live a month in Spain.

I'm also a little worried about our training. Ideally, we'll walk about 25 kilometers a day, which translates to a bracing 15.5 miles each and every day. I'm not quite sure how many of our group understand what that means. Most anyone who can walk can walk 15 miles. The challenge is walking it every single day. How many of these 24 feet will suffer painful blisters? How many of these 24 knees will hurt with each step? Our poor, little flock. Does it know what struggles lie ahead?

As we soar into the sky these thoughts don't keep me from closing my eyes and drifting to sleep. The in-flight showing of "Revenge of the Bridesmaids" brings back too many memories for me to watch for relaxation. Come, blessed sleep. Prepare our merry band of pilgrims with your soothing caress. Make us strong for our travel and the first steps of our journey.