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Friday, 29 July 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 7: Zubiri to Pamplona

Zubiri to Pamplona 25km (182km cumulative)

At times, during the winter and spring of 2015/16, my student warden cell - I mean bedsit - resembled a World War Two operations room. So many maps and guides, to the casual observer it might have seemed like I was planning an assault on norther Spain.
Which isn't so very far from the truth.
I sat, I planned, I drank gin and tonic. I walked the Camino Frances - and several others - time and time again, in my imagination, on the map. I drank too much, I planned too much; it was always going to go arse over elbow when I finally got my feet on the ground. 
Like many pilgrims, I overestimated the first stage of the Camino Frances and thought that, once I'd gone up and over, the rest would be plain sailing. Somehow, perhaps after a night of particularly fine gin, I'd reckoned I could walk the 38km from Burguete to Pamplona.
No effing way!
That much became apparent with the first few kilometres of yesterday's walk so I quickly hopped on to the internet and booked a room at a very pleasant pension in Zubiri. Couldn't do that in 2012; in 2012 I'd spent an unpleasant night at the municipal albergue in Zubirir which had crammed in far too many pilgrims for the limited facilities. Nowadays, Zubiri, like many towns on the Camino Frances, has three or four albergues plus pensions, hostales and hotels. Spoilt for choice, I don't know what the purists would say. Not that I really care. 

Back to life, back to reality. First up out of Zubiri is the Magnesium fabrica, which sprawls alongside the Camino for a couple of kilometres. Many moan, but over breakfast mine hosts at the pension told me the plant employs over 250 people, without it the area would be reliant on tourism and that, as any decent geography student will tell you, is not a good thing.

I was walking on my own for the first part of this stage so I didn't overhear any comments about incursions on and ruinations of nature; I guess there are many pilgrims who think the plant should be shut down and nature be allowed to reclaim the landscape. I'd have had to remind them, of course, that all human activity is nature and that the magnesium processing plant was as much part of the landscape as the churches, abbeys and cute little Roman bridges.

The magnesium process plant kept me entertained for a good half hour; I was fascinated the by the both the geometrical patterns of these slag heaps but also the mechanics that kept them stable. Many, many years ago I worked in a soil laboratory and then, in a period of my past that really ought to be consigned to history, attempted to study for an MSc in Geotechnical Engineering at what was then the Bolton Institute of Higher Education. Needless to say, I failed spectacularly but 26 years later the filthy lure of soil hasn't lost its attraction.

'Circles in the sand/'Round and 'round'

Shortly after the fabrica I came across a right little gem in the shape of the Abbey of Eskirotz and its Church of St Lucy. The church, its adjacent house and grounds are currently being restored by Neil from South Africa. More details on the Abbey's Facebook page: suffice to say that the place is a veritable web of intrigue with enough occult spirituality to make The Da Vinci Code look like a Janet and John narrative. Buried moors, parish politics, repressed Virgin Mary and Templars (obvs); they're all here. Well worth more than a cursory visit if you're passing by.

Santa Lucia. The church appears to have been originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Why was she demoted?

The door - not the original - had once been painted with stars but these have, in turn, been painted over. Is somebody trying to hide something? I feel a Holy Grail plot narrative coming on ...

The church of Santa Lucia from the outside. Much restoration still to be done inside but it's an exciting project.

Path of the Day. Nice, easy walking down to Pamplona.

Altarpiece, Church of San Esteban, Zabaldika, overseen by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Pilgrims are allowed to climb the tower and ring the bell tower once. A deeply moving experience, the hospitaleros at the adjacent albergue were also very, very friendly. It's just ten minutes up the hill from the Camino, worth the effort of the short climb.

And what's this? Not a Virgin and Child but a stepfather and son (17th century)

Looking back up the valley before the Camino enters the outskirts of Pamplona

 Trinidad de Arre, outskirts of Pamplona. Close to here the Camino Baztan joins the Camino Frances.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 6: Burguete to Zubiri

Burguete to Zubiri 19km (157km cumulative)

It's inevitable, really. After the ecstasies of crossing the Pyrenees, the second stage of the Camino Frances has the potential to go a bit 'after the Lord Mayor's show'. For the past five days the mountains have been in the foreground, creeping ever closer until you could touch and feel them. From now and for the next three weeks they'll be in the background, on the horizon, tempting and tantalising. It's enough to make you weep.

The Road goes ever on and on ...

Back in 2012 all this was new to me and such was the intensity of the experience as I hiked across the Pyrenees that the following few days exist in my memory as little more than a blur, a landscape I could barely recall. So, four years later I was expecting ... well, not disappointment but certainly a lowering of excitement levels as the Camino filed down the Arga valley towards Pamplona and hordes of pilgrims followed its line. 
Landscape and memory, like the glorious decade that was the 1980s, the way we remember our environs isn't often the way it might have been. We spin an alternative narrative to the events as others might have recorded them, which doesn't mean to say that one's the truth and the other's a wilful falsification. In 2012 this stretch of the Camino had its vitality eroded - or perhaps 'sucked out' - by the presence of the adjacent Pyrenean 'elite' landscapes. These Navarran foothills live in the shadow of their illustrious neighbour and back in 2012 my gaze was forever directed north, towards the spectacle.
But you know what, you can re-walk the same trail over and over again and every time it's a different creature, revealing some hitherto invisible trait. When it comes to landscape, familiarity most definitely doesn't breed contempt, rather, it deepens one's presence, blurs that thin line between subject and object. I become the land, the land becomes me.

The first stages of the day's walk and the path has become playful. Unlike yesterday this isn't serious stuff; time to chill out and lighten up. A footbridge here, a set of stepping stones there; the grandiose canvases of yesterday give way to a track that ducks and dives, ebbs and flows.

The hills have shrunk in size but they can still pack a nasty punch. The pilgrim, still congratulating herself for her exploits over the Col de Lepoeder, still conjuring up tales she'll spin to her mates back home in the pub, in front of a blazing log fire, thinks she's done it all. But the path has a trick in its tail and, when you're not looking, it's liable to spring a surprise or two. This ascent, small but juicy, packs a mighty punch and will suck the life from limbs still delicate after the previous days exertions.

One of the great joys of this Camino is the trajectory of the path itself, sometimes snaking, sometimes hitting out in a straight line but always carving its presence in the landscape.  You can look back and see from where you've come, you can look ahead and see where you're going. You can take the landscape out of the Camino but you can't take the Camino out of the landscape; the track puts everything in its place.

As if I ever would! Second time passing this sign, it now seems almost oxymoronic

Saints and Cynics Day 5: St Jean-Pied-de-Port to Burguete

St Jean-Pied-de-Port to Burguete 27km (138km cumulative)

Imagine, if you will, the mighty Europe pitching up at your local bar to run through a selection of their finest works of rock 'n' roll. I know, as fantasies go it doesn't get any better than this so you nudge yourself, very politely, to the front of the crowd to place yourself within a plectrum's-toss of the god-like Joey Tempest. 
You know every song: word-by-word, note-by-note, and you know that from the off Sweden's finest contribution to bubble-haired poodle-rock will carefully and cleverly up the tempo to finish the two-hour show (yes, I know, they could go on for much, much longer) with the national anthem of the 1980s, The Final Countdown.
So you're standing there, all agog, when a familiar riff kicks in. Surely ... it can't be? But it is. Joey takes to the stages, locks flickering in the spotlights and utters those immortal words: We're heading for Venus/but still we stand tall ...
Tell me about it! I'm still having nightmares even though I know it'll never, ever happen. But if it did, it would resemble closely the repertoire of the Camino Frances from its starting point in St Jean, including the encore to Finisterre. The first stage, up and over the Pyrenees is The Final Countdown of European pilgrimage; I doubt whether it can be bettered.

The starting point: Port de Espagne. I don't know whether it was the pent-up excitement, exacerbated by four days along the Via Podiensis, or concerns about the heat, but I didn't sleep well and whenever I drifted off into subconsciousness my dreams encountered unfamiliar themes. So I was awake at 05:00 and off at first light; I wasn't, of course alone

Pilgrims at a fountain on the lower slopes. The hike up and over the Pyrenees via the Col de Lepoeder is, without doubt, a huge Day One task for pilgrims, many of whom are not prepared physically, emotionally or materially. But the 1400m ascent is more laborious than life-threatening, and most is on asphalted roads. There's even, about halfway up, a refuge and bar where one can get a bed for the night. Given the predicted temperatures of 35 degrees plus I briefly considered it but as I arrived there before ten and a strong (but a very warm) breeze had blown up there seemed no point in dallying.

The Virgin of Biakorri,1100m. In a sense, this was is where the project was born, on a fine and clear morning in May, back in 2012. It was my first day and I'd arrived at the start of the Camino with precious little preparation, armed only with the ubiquitous John Brierly guidebook I had no idea what to expect so the sudden 'apparition' of the Virgin seemed quite miraculous. With a backdrop extending eastwards towards the higher, still-snowcapped peaks of the Pyrenees, the Virgin is perfectly placed to elicit all manner of responses. The scenery is stunning in itself, in almost literally taking-one's-breath-away manner, but for me, at least, the presence of the Virgin makes the landscape perform in a way which might be considered generally religious and more specifically Catholic. When I stopped here in 2012, the Virgin and her presence in the landscape moved me to tears, this time around it was equally emotional. I could have stayed here all day.

Offerings left in a small hollow beneath the Virgin of Biakorri

Feels like heaven ...

'You're just too good to be true/I can't take my eyes off you/You'd be like heaven to touch/I wanna hold you so much'

The last hundred metres or so towards the summit of the Col de Lepoeder, coming towards the end of the day, can be a test of endurance. I knew it was coming, otherwise I'd have been hurling abuse at the pernicious cruelty of the path. But at every turn the landscape cranks it up another notch, holds you in its thrall. I stopped here, unloosed my rucksack and threw myself down onto and into the grass, to put my body in as much contact as possible with the earth beneath, to feel it pulsing through my veins. An elemental affect; up here, the land and me, we are one and the same thing.

This is how I recorded it at the time: 'So I'm just about 500m from the Col de Lepoeder and it's absolutely stunning. 'It' has happened here, not at the Virgin of Biakorri. The landscape is absolutely stunning but what's different from last time is that I have a greater sense of where things are, I'm more 'in place'. It's not just an arbitrary landscape into which I've walked without any preparation. The second thing is that I also have a very strong awareness of the path itself, the path in the landscape. I can look back and see it, as it climbs up ... the path that comes up from the road, you can see how it winds around pretty much level, around the valley, past the fountain of Roland. Over to the east you can see the Pic d'Orhy and right in the background you've got the high peaks of the Pyrenees and in the foreground an almost pefect 'v'-shaped valley. I know where I am.

Roncevalles, the end of the stage for most pilgrims who stay at the abbey's modern albergue. Your correspondent, however, continued further 3km to Burguete

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 4: St Palais to St Jean-Pied-de-Port

St Palais to St Jean Pied-de-Port 30km (111km cumulative)

A brutal heat had descended upon the Pays Basques and, on day four of Saints and Cynics, it showed no signs of letting up. Au contraire, as the much-anticipated crossing of the Pyrenees edged closer, kilometre by kilometre, so the thermometer crept up, centigrade by centrigrade. Those pilgrims who faced the daunting challenge of climbing the Col de Lepoeder to Roncevalles began to tread a little cautiously in our loosely-laced boots, calculating our start times and wondering whether we could walk in the before-dawn dark.

An early start but I was barely out of town before I'd already started chasing the shade. I'd left the Via Podiensis to take the detour to St Palais, I was now on the Via Lemovicencis which sets out from Vezelay but the distinction would soon be pedantic, both join the Via Turonensis from Tour just south of St Palais - two become one and lead up a short but steep hill. The sweat begins.

Chapel of Soyarza, at the top of the hill. Interesting offerings.

My poor left foot. Partly my own fault, new boots, not broken in (does one still have to 'break-in' new boots) but also a consequence of walking too far in the heat along asphalt surfaces. Prime conditions for blisters.

Ostabat. It felt, in a sense, like the heart of Europe - or at least, western Europe. The convergence of three of the four main routes across France which would have brought together pilgrims from across the continent.

Paths of the Day: In fact, just after Ostabat, the hike as a pleasant amble through rolling hills of pasture and maize came to an end and, given the heat, I elected to follow the main road and make a more direct beeline for St Jean; all my thoughts were on crossing the Pyrenees the following day and I was hearing predictions of the mercury hitting 40 degrees. It was not a choice I wanted to make and I almost paid for it; the road was hard and hot and I was running out of water. About 12km out of St Jean I returned to the Camino and at another refreshment stop found a hosepipe and enjoyed an impromptu cold shower. I managed to repeat this several times, even when I'd joined the main road, once 'showering' myself in a church cemetery, another time on a garage forecourt. The last ten kilometres was an absolute pain; to top it all, when I arrived in St Jean I discovered the accommodation I'd reserved was another 45 minutes out of time. I cut my losses, found a relatively cheap hotel in the centre of town where it took me a good half hour to fully cool and rehydrate myself.

Two of my fellow pilgrims had acquired their shells - I don't have one - and placed them among the candles before the Virgin Mary in a gesture which I found profoundly moving. I met them again the following day and spent many hours walking with them until they had to head for home in Logroño. This was also something I hadn't anticipated, I'd intended to spend the first few weeks of the Camino walking on my own.