Here I Go Again1
Sophocles, or one of the Greeks anyway, declared that you never go down to the same river twice. Someone else said never to go back to a place where you were happy. I certainly proved the latter true on my heart-breaking trip back to Darjeeling, my now-wrecked 70s paradise.
Maybe I’m a tiger for punishment or, more likely, I regard all generalisations with suspicion but I’m sitting in a train at Sants Barcelona waiting to pull out to Pamplona and my second go round with the Camino Francés.
A promising start — just felt on top of the world checking in to the albergué in Pamplona, although slightly envious of the walkers coming in tired, road-worn and hanging out for a shower and a glass of wine. Oh well that will be me tomorrow. Fingers in good form on the guitar.
Next day I wander into an old church, or rather the old church. St Saturnine. Weird name for a saint but apparently the first bishop of Toulouse, came to Pamplona, converted the heathen and went back to Toulouse, a mistake as it transpired. Seems the pagan oracles had fallen silent in the presence of the faith and the pagans showed their displeasure by tying the good bishop to the tail of a bull at the top of their capitoline hill. The bull went crazy and the bishop went to heaven. The pamphlet in the church failed to mention whether this restored the oracular voices. One would hope so.
As it happened I had turned up in time for Mass, said by an old, humourless and bored priest to an aged and sorrowful crowd of about thirty. Can’t blame him for his mien, facing that crowd every day of his life. The church was floored by large wooden, numbered plates. Seemed a bit cheap to me, saving the trouble of naming the long gone interrees. Magnificent gilded altar with a plentiful pantheon of painted saints.The gazes of the old women left no room for doubt — idolatry, plain as day.
Day One under the belt.
Supposedto be an image here. Damn the semi-crippled iPad. Hope to figure it out eventually. Read o
First thing: snow! A remnant pile, anyway, outside the magnificent, old and expensive albergué at Roncesvalles. Arrived in sheeting rain and freezing cold just really before nightfall and immediately realized that I’m not prepared for this sort of weather. Mostly worried about my guitar, which I have not equipped with rainproofing inside its soft case. Offered a night’s accomm and the pilgrims menu for €22 I recklessly accepted and was rewarded with an excellent meal – an entire trout, very well cooked. The next day I left in the dark to beat the rush, heavy overcast but no rain thank God.
I certainly made the right decision to flag St Jean Pied de Port and start at RoncesValles. A climb and descent of not more than 400 metres had my knees screaming for mercy. The ascents are strenuous and the descents painful, terribly so on the first day with a pack which is still, at 12+ kgs, a little too heavy. Two oddities encountered on the way: the letters SOS inscribed in the limestone of a distant hillside, twenty metres high if they were an inch, and a horse that wouldn’t take an apple. He looked on enviously as his brother – both stocky palominos, like most in these parts – scoffed his share, but when I offered him a portion he sniffed at it, took it in his lips and let it drop. I’m sure I have never known a horse decline an apple, a most curious thing. When I encountered them they were studiously licking each other’s hooves. Don’t ask me. Everything is somewhat awry in Basque country.
Arriving in Zubiri, 22 km under the belt and buggered I t was my misfortune not only to encounter but be officiously planted by the manager of the Municipal in the bed next to an Englishman who had pestered me the night before. This was one of that irritating tribe who interpret the taking up of a book or a musical instrument as a clear invitation to a conversation. Not that he had any conversation in him, and what he had instead I couldn’t understand as he was also one of that whispering sort who, when asked to repeat themselves lower their voices even further to do so.This guy had a masters degree in passive aggression.
Lying in my bed reading, exhausted and knees aching, I managed to eventually silence him with my monosyllabic answers, some of which made no sense as I hadn’t fully heard his question and just said any old thing. I fear I can be quite unpleasant when I require my peace and someone is determined to take it from me.
Around the dinner table at night, which I joined when the evening had advanced by four bottles of wine, all empty, I was assailed by the most withering blast of hatred I can remember. A middle-aged, sour-faced man was holding forth about his native Malta. I mentioned that it was the only island, indeed the only place in the world, to hold a royal title from the Queen in the person of the entire population, for steadfastness in the face of the German onslaught in WWII. He was well pleased to hear that, but then I made a joke, declaring that the trouble with Malta is that no-one, including myself, quite knew where it was, going further to ask people at the table. Only one, an affable American, could answer. (Apparently it is just below Sicily, so you won’t be caught out if you fall into the same trap.) This oaf went entirely off his head, and kept screaming at me, “You don’t even know who you are! Who are you? All you have is sarcasm and you don’t even … etc.) I made a couple of attempts at answering but as soon as I opened my mouth he went off again. In the end I had to make a joke of that by counting instead of answering. “One, two, …” “You don’t even know who …” It took a good five minutes for the others to calm him down. I finished by pitying him, and hoping the Camino does him some good; even from a drunk that kind of rant is a worry. He left and I retired to play my guitar. After a couple of tunes a lovely young American woman, a soulful creature, came over and kissed me. I welcomed the sympathy – I had found the onslaught fairly disturbing, the sheer malice of it, and went on to suffer dreams in which I was abused by strangers.
I’m taking the time to write this morning for the first time, my second morning. I left Roncesvalles before dawn yesterday in order to beat the crowd to the Municipal, but I have the luxury of time today, knowing the capacity of the Jesus y Maria in Pamplona – more than 150 beds, and it’s not the only albergué.
Bizarrely, as I left Zubiri this morning I passed the Maltese taking a coffee at a sidewalk table. He lit up with a smile and wished me a hearty ‘Buen Camino.’ Of course I smiled and waved back. Why not?
It is 36 hours later. I’m in Puenta la Reina. Last night, in the Jesus y Maria, I had just stepped through the door when S——, the young English pest, appeared out of nowhere behind me. Fortunately the lobby was crowded and we ended up about six beds apart. But I must say I have softened to him in the interval. I withdrew to a quiet corner to play guitar and was soon joined by Simon, an Italian with a collection of harmonicas which he played like a master. The half hour of
blues that followed drew a small audience including an enraptured Steve. But that wasn’t what softened me. Earlier, I had been talking to a rather enchanting South African woman who told me that she felt perfectly safe in Johannesburg and that she believed those who emigrated to Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere probably exaggerated the crime situation to justify their departure, to themselves as much as anyone else. I asked if she or anyone she knew had ever been car-jacked. She said not. S——, who was listening, interjected, “Well you wouldn’t be — you’re white.” Renée turned to him. “What?” He repeated his assertion. “Do you think only black people get car-jacked in Sth Africa?” I asked. “Yes.” Renée shook her head. “Have you been to Sth Africa?” “No.” “Then how do you know?” “Because it’s true.” “Fine,” she answered and turned back to me in dismissal. Thinking about it I understood that the poor bugger is so hopelessly insecure he has no idea how to conduct himself with other people. In fact he has told anyone who will listen how he hopes to find himself on the Camino. I pray that he does, because he desperately needs to.
This morning, walking out of Pamplona, I started to pass a guy who was going much more slowly than me, as almost everyone does. I’ve been keeping close to my natural walking pace; most people amble. As I passed him he quickened to match my pace. He had been laying for me, the cunning dog, and wasted no time in cracking on. First, the credentials. He had done the Camino Catalunya (1,200 kms.) The Aragonés. The Costal. Etc. Then the criticisms. The (very lovely, helpful) people at the Jesus y Maria were not real hospitaleros because they had not done the Camino themselves and didn’t understand pilgrims. Eight euros was too much. Only he and his group of friends who slept on mattresses on the floor to help out at an albergué owned by a friend were real hospitaleros, understanding that pilgrims, true pilgrims, are saints and hospitaleros have to be angels who look after them. Mind you, most people on the Camino aren’t real pilgrims any more, it has become a tourist trip. Then he started preaching in earnest. “You don’t do the Camino; the Camino does you.” Twenty minutes and I’d had enough. “Excuse me,” I said, “I have to say my prayers.” It was the only thing I could think of that was guaranteed to get him off my back. I did say a prayer, to keep myself honest. I prayed that I wouldn’t get cornered by the saintly, sneering Adrian again. I passed him an hour later, firmly clamped to another victim and talking nineteen to the dozen.
I would hate to give the impression I’m having a bad time. I most definitely am not. I have met and chatted with some gorgeous folk. Last night half a dozen boisterous Italians cooked a huge pot of pasta and insisted that I join them. I had an extremely enlightening discussion with a Spaniard around my age who filled me in open the political situation in Spain, translate4d in the difficult sections by a sweet young Argentinian with some English. But I am starting to wonder whether it’s me or the Camino that has changed. Last time, walking five hundred kilometres, I met only one single pilgrim who bothered me in the slightest. I don’t mind, not really. It’s all interesting.
This was lovely – the bell tower in an ancient church between Zubiri and Pamplona. a sign invited me to ring the bell once and listen, which I did. It rang for nearly a minute, still in great shape after 629 years.
A great walk today although the most strenuous yet. 25 km, including a stiff climb up the Alto de Perdon (Mt Forgiveness), arriving to a crowd of familiar faces in this wonderful old town (Punta La Reina), the Centre of which has scarcely changed in four hundred years. Narrow streets that you wouldn’t know had any shops till you were alongside them. No big glass windows, just doors to long, narrow shops crammed with traditional produce at nominal prices. I decided to cook. Three lamb fillets, more green beans than I could eat, a bread roll and some delicious elephant ear mushrooms cost less than €4, about $NZ5.50. And two bottles of the best cider in the world. Basque still cider with a specially designed cork at €1.50.
The slot at the bottom is a special modification that enables you to pour a stream of cider from a great height in the traditional fashion by replacing only the narrower part. Spanish cider has no bubbles and is traditionally poured through the air to infuse it with a certain effervescence.
Then on to share pasta and wine with the table of joyful Italians. We struggle to communicate, and enjoy the struggle enormously.
I am beginning to make friends to the extent that, unlike the last time, I plan to confer on destinations so we can continue our friendship. Today I caught up again with Ellie, a thirty-something Dutch woman whose extreme sensitivity to the sun has forced her to leave the outdoor catering business she has built with her husband and extended family. A sweet Christian, she told me of a Sunday service coming up tomorrow in Dutch in Villamayor, which I’ll try to attend. So may Rudolph, a young Dutch vegetarian yogi type; very clear, bright-eyed, he finishes his days’ walks with no noticeable signs of fatigue. Several others. My Camino is shaping up well, from the slight sadness that hung over the first couple of days. I hold high hopes for even more improvement.
An easy day’s walk today, to the ancient town of Estella, dominated by a huge abbey that I’ll check out before dusk. ‘The gang’ is well found in the parish albergué, warm, well supplied, WiFi everywhere and only €6.00. The guitar will come out tonight. So glad I brought it; almost didn’t.