Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pilgrims Leapfrog Through Basque Country

Courtyard of the Cizur Menor albergue outside Pamplona
For dinner last night our little 1/2 band of pilgrims wound our way behind the spacious Cizur Menor albergue to an inconspicuous strip mall with what we discovered was a wonderful restaurant. The proprietor couldn't get enough of our strange band of Americanos and, after colorfully evaluating our President and First Lady, he made certain our glasses of Riojan Red never ran dry. We finally dragged ourselves away from his hospitality and put ourselves to bed in the 20-person bunkrooms of the modern albergue nearby.

When the morning came we looked forward to a reunion with the other half of our group, but as we walked out the albergue to greet the day we found a handwritten note tacked to the door: "Sleepers Awake! The Camino calls! Watch for our notes along the way, Ye Lazy Ones!", followed by the signatures of Alison, Bart, Catherine, Dawn, Jackie, and Lisa. So . . . this pastor was resigned to begin his day with half his flock.

Alto del Perdon's iconic iron sculpture
The first few kilometers after Cizur Menor are a gradual downhill. As the morning sun washed across the pinkish-brown stones of Cizur Menor's upscale homes we looked ahead at each bend for our compadres. After Zarequiagui we stopped briefly at the Fuente Reniega and read the story there of the medieval pilgrim who, dying of thirst, was approached by the devil. If he would sell his soul, the devil offered, he could have a drink. The pilgrim wisely refused the offer, at which point Santiago himself appeared, revealed the spring, and served him water in a scallop shell. 

The downhill stretch ended in just a few kilometers and ahead of us stood a high ridge, populated by windmills and cut by a single, dirt track up its 1200 foot face -- the Alto del Perdon. The path across the Pyrenees was a long, slow trudge at a 5-6% grade, but the Alto del Perdon is like walking up a stairway of loose gravel and sharp rocks. Thankfully, we were making the climb on a cool morning, but even so we were drenched in sweat by the summit. Greeting us there, who should we see? Our long lost friends? Not

What we saw was one of the true landmarks of the modern Camino: the sculpture of medieval pilgrims, heading west, bracing themselves against the wind and the challenges ahead. We couldn't help but think of our own nearby Wild Horse Monument that uses the same, iron medium. From the height we could look back toward the mountains we'd already crossed and ahead to the vineyard-clothed valleys of western Navarre and La Rioja. 

12th century Knights Templar chapel at Eunate
From an escarpment above the sculpture we heard Jeanne cry out: "There's a note from the other group!" We huddled around Jeanne as she held the note steady in the stiff and cool breeze. "Heading for Cirauqui. Catch us if you can." As we scrambled down the west side of Alto del Perdon, with the swoosh of wind turbines in the air, we wondered if we'd make it today to Cirauqui. Why rush, after all? A goal of Puente la Reina is a good 19 kms for this day. The other group's rush to Cirauqui from Pamplona would make a 32 km march. Our more relaxed pace, on the other hand, would allow us to stop by Eunate, the delightful chapel of the Knights Templar, where we're told if you circle the chapel eight times you'll be forgiven all your sins.

Puente la Reina and its "Queen's Bridge" built for
medieval pilgrims to cross our beloved Rio Arga
Out at Eunate we paused to hear the sounds of Gregorian chant piped into the perfect acoustics of the little, medieval building. Its perfect symmetry and its setting among the vineyards made us feel we'd stopped in paradise. Another five kms later we were in Puente la Reina, enjoying this medieval town and its "Queen's Bridge." What should we find when we checked in at the albergue? Another note from our faster friends, which read, "Sleep well, ye pilgrims. You'll need your rest if you hope to catch us." 

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