DAY 1: The Day of Ups And Downs And Ups Again!
Today I began The Camino De Santiago del Norte. An 838 kilometre (520 Mile) coastal pilgrimage through the north of Spain also known as The Way of St James. The day had many surprises, twists and turns along the mountain paths, the city roads and I can most definitely say I don’t think my legs will ever be the same again. So let’s call this day by its real name: A Day of Ups and Downs and Ups Again.
We started off at 9:46 am Friday 26th of June, smiles as bright as the sun, excited at the beginning of a new adventure that would take us along a path of discovery and exploration. Despite starting later than we had anticipated, we merrily sauntered along the boardwalk on the French side of the Bidasoa River estuary towards the centre of Irun.
Staying in France the night before brought our total of countries visited to 25, but it didn’t really count, as we are yet to explore France properly. As we walked to the starting point along the Ponte de Santiago, we already started to get a hint that what we had packed into our backpacks was way more than what we needed. This was after we had already shed at least a total of 10 kgs from our 4 backpacks the night before.
A word of advice to those starting – the starting point bridge doesn’t really give you clear directions as to where to start, and the person in the information booth nearby wasn’t that helpful either. It was an elderly gentleman who saw us looking lost, who was kind enough to give us directions as to which way to go. We had come already 3 kms to the start and now the way was taking us back into the centre of Irun where we finally found the marker points, sending us in every direction, bar the straightest point to exit the city. It was a sort of visual sightseeing tour that for us was not at all necessary, given the fact that we had already explored the city the day before when we arrived, plus the excessive weight on our backs now.
By the time we found ourselves in the middle of the city of Irun, we already felt ourselves being drained of all energy with every step that we took. The only energizing experience through the seemingly endless maze of the city was the kindness of the people around us, all spurring us onwards, with the same words – “Buen Camino!” they called out, blessing our journey with smiles of joy.
At the 7km mark we finally found our way out of the noise filled, fuming streets, taking deep gulps of fresh air as the smoke faded behind us. Now only 27.6 kms to go today!
We turned off the highway following the golden yellow markers that would become so familiar to us, into the middle of paradise. The countryside lay before us in a beautiful tableau of farms and wildflowers. Grey eared donkeys, amber coloured chickens, lion-like German Shepherds, wild ginger cats and proud black horses lined the dirt paths and called out greetings to us in their individual ways. The ice blue sky stretched over our heads like a soft blanket as we stopped to have a drink by one of the many water fountains that flowed straight from under the Earth. The cold liquid, racing down our throats, rejuvenated us. There was no doubt about it; our energy had been restored.
We climbed higher and higher along the steep mountain ridges, catching glimpses of beautiful vistas surrounded by the greenery that we craved. We had been deprived of true grass and trees for the past 8 months, as living in a dry part of the south of Spain was also like living in a semi-arid desert.
Regrettably, my back was getting sorer with every step and I now had long purple weals at my hips, where the backpack buckle was tight against my flesh. We were only 15 kms (9 Miles) from our starting point. This was when the massive realisation hit, with its stabbing pain in our shoulder blades that, like so many other Camino rookies, we had packed way too much stuff. It’s a regular but extremely agonising mishap that occurs with people. We walked at a pace that for us is usually very slow and we had to stop every 2 kilometres (1.2 Miles) to give our battered shoulders and necks a break. It was rather ironic. We were surrounded by such beautiful fern laden forests and paths in the high mountains, exactly where we envisioned ourselves, but this added weight was taking away from the true enjoyment of the experience. We ascended, then descended, and ascended again. We wound our way around this vastly beautiful mountain ridge line in Basque Country, in the wilderness, with the sprawling cities and freeways within ear shot, yet far below us to our left side.
By the time we had reached the 20 km mark, we realised that we would most likely have another 11 to 12 kms left on our journey. The weather started to change. Wisps of white misty clouds descended over the tops of the ridges from the ocean side and settled in the valley below. I started to despair. I had never really felt pain like this in my legs before, even though we had walked longer distances than this in the past. There were times when my mind got away from me. I was thinking if this was day one, and only twenty or so kilometers behind us, how were we ever going to make this walk. Tears started to well up in my eyes. We started to descend again.
Step by step, slowly, and I mean so slowly that nearly eight hours after we started, we made our descent into the small town of San Juan, where we boarded a small green and white motor boat that transports all Camino walkers across the waterways for 0.70€ a piece, so that they need not traverse the inner sanctums of the city to continue onwards.
The ride across the inlet was over in a matter of seconds, leaving us little time to rest. As we walked up the boat ramp, we were thrust straight into the arms of a Basque festival, the Feast of San Pedro and it just so happened that we were now in the town of San Pedro. Without any time to brace, we were slapped hard by the ear-splitting impact of cannons being fired from a traditional rowboat, led by an interesting character at its head. Battling our way through the crowds of drummers, trumpeters and cute children dressed in blue costumes, we managed to pick up the path again, which led us to face the largest and most daunting stone staircase I had ever seen…and then we had to climb it.
The stabbing pains continued to linger like the annoying oversized flies that buzzed in front of our noses. My clock showed 7:30pm and we were all very close to being spent of energy. Tears were running down my face, mixed with sweet mist rain that rolled in from the Atlantic Ocean below us.
We ascended again, on the final part of the track, which led us back to a narrow paved road. We turned left and walked about 500 meters in what turned out to be the wrong direction before we discovered there were no more yellow markers. Now the mist had increased its intensity to rain and I looked at my Vivo Fit watch to see we had already walked 32 kms. I was at breaking point, my legs were shaking, I had no more energy, and the looks on the faces of my family more than spoke the words that they were too.
The Way started to ascend again, this time up a very steep concrete road, where a sign showed us that we still had 3 kms to San Sebastian, our planned end-point for the day. Thoughts were running through my head: ‘Where would we camp? Would we have to go another 3 kms out of the city? Where would we eat?’ Just then, a small sign, about 500 meters up ahead, came into view. When we got there, the words “Love finds the way” were painted on it.
Looking up the pebble stone driveway, we saw a glass and wood house surrounded by what looked like the Garden of Eden. From outside appearances , the building looked like a Guest House, so Lalika and Dad made their way up to enquire how much they would charge for us to camp on their lawn.
Five minutes passed, and I heard lighthearted laughter coming from the doorway and a few moments later Lalika reappeared looking as light as a feather. He explained that the house was run by a Community, dedicated to human kindness. They welcomed weary travelers along the path. They were not on the official list of Albergues in the region.
We had asked to camp, but were now offered beds, food and warm showers all simply for a donation. It seemed too good to be true and we were all waiting for the catch. There was none. This was the kindness of the human heart, the purest energies of giving, in action. Making our way through the doorway I immediately felt the energies of this space of love. We were greeted by a man and a woman who gave us a hug and said “We’ve been waiting for you, you are welcome” Now, I really thought that we had passed out while walking and were dreaming. Was I actually lying out cold on the path by the road?
We were shown to a room with four comfy beds and rose-coloured curtains. The comforting feeling I received when sitting down on the soft couch was surreal. We were given a delicious hibiscus, mint and raspberry juice and then all took hot showers before making our way down to the dining room. Plate after plate of vegetarian and vegan cuisine made its way out of the kitchen, all produce grown organically on the land here.
We ate heartily, while we got to know the kind, generous and loving people that live in this community where peace and harmony thrives.
The kindness of these people has left an indelible mark on our hearts.