So…let’s catch you up on some critical history that will help you understand this post…
We have been spending time in the Basque Country. It spans a bit into France, but mainly makes up a large area of the northern Spanish coast. The natives of this area have fought many times to become their own country and they still long for a time when that might come to be, however it is unlikely they will be able to separate from Spain. The natives of the Basque Country also have their own language, Euskara. This make communication, as well as reading a bit challenging for English speaking travelers. Many menus have both Spanish and Euskara columns of text. Even cities often have two or three different names and can show up on maps with any of them.
Most of you know that we are hiking the Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago, know as the Norte’. This path to Santiago has only really been back in popular use since 2010. It only sees a fraction of the pilgrims that the popular Camino de Frances does. This means less accommodations that are further apart and a lack of English spoken in most places. Any books also warn of the rigorous hiking and lack of Camino signage. (Camino signage comes in many forms: metal plaques on city streets, wooden signs on poles, wooden blocks dug into the ground, yellow arrows, straight markings letting you know to continue, X’s letting you know not to take a path and finally L shaped markings dictating a turn.) We chose this route to stay close to the coast, see the mountains and enjoy the coastal towns.
We start the day at a church in Irun obtaining our Credential and receiving our first stamp! We will have this document stamped in each town that we pass. Once we reach Santiago and show our Credential we will earn our Compestela honoring our completion of the journey.
Now that we are official we set off to the trail, picking up where we left off the day before. We hiked out of town and up into the mountains following the Camino signs and our handy Norte’ book. The next couple of hours we hiked up and down mountain hillsides finally arriving in a small town where we were able to refill our water (and refresh ourselves with the king of beers) and head back to the trail. The town’s people were very kind and a few even stopped to point us in the right direction.
Once we left the town we started in on several steep climbs rising higher and higher into the mountains. Then we would descend and start the journey up another mountain, weaving our way towards our end of day goal – arriving in Pasaia Donibane before continuing the journey to San Sebastián the following day.
It’s hard to describe these climbs, but from my point of view they were intense. Like any more of a steep grade and we would have been on all fours. Sometimes it was a steep paved road, or gravel; or fighting our way through sticky plants and branches while scrambling over rocks and dirt. I never knew I would come to love my hiking poles so much! 4 legs are definitely better than 2!
After one of our longest, steepest climbs we reach a trail that can only be described as a mud pit. It seems tire paths started the ruts on this path and rain turned them into channels. So much mud! But we finally come to an official Camino marker stating to take a trail to the left. Once taken we end up in a nice camping area where we find a map posting and it seems we are only 7km from our destination. We continue to hike, following the Camino markings till we see another map posting leaving the camping area. We realize that if we continue on this path we will end up further into the mountains and away from the water. We turn around and retrace our steps. After much debate (thank God we have each other) we determine that the official Camino sign has been altered and we should go the opposite way. Excitingly we start to see the Camino markings and know we are back on track!!
Guess what, another steep incline around farms and up through more rocks and dirt. I have forgot to mention the number of dogs on these trails. Luckily they are chained or pinned, but that doesn’t stop them from barking to no end at us attempting to protect their land. Anyway, back to the upward trek. As we were nearing the top of this steep section something weird starts happening with my left knee. And then weird turns to pain, and then we have to stop.
Michelle quickly identifies the problem as my IT Band (can’t beat having a doctor with you ;). We complete stretches and manage to get me going again. We have been hiking for 8 hours and would set up camp, however it is hard to find a place that is not adjacent to someone’s farm. We also are slightly frustrated by the fact we have not seen some of the landmarks mentioned in our handy book. We must move forward to figure out our location and hopefully find a place to camp.
Sadly this journey forward has a few sudden halts as I need to stretch and stop my knee pain. We happen upon an old apple orchard that has become a bit of a park. It is gorgeous space with beautiful views of the mountains and cities below.
As we walk on we see another map posting. As we study this map we realize we are no where near where we thought we were. It seems we are deeper in the mountains, but not sure where. We turn around to see Camino markings pointing in opposite directions. What is going on???? I look out from atop the mountain at the cities below. Ok…I see a mountain, the ocean, a mountain, the ocean, a mountain – all with a city between. “Michelle, that’s San Sebastián” – WTF. It seems we have hiked all the way to San Sebastián, our goal for the end of day tomorrow! Without any clue as to what Camino trail we are on, we opt for the TJ/Michelle trail and head for that beautiful city.
I hate to say the steep downward incline from the top of the mountain to the city has my knee in even worst shape and Michelle’s feet are not doing well either. As we get closer to the city, I score a room. We barley reach it around 11:30pm at night ending a 12.5 hour hiking day. Definitely not our intention, but happy to get into a shower and raid a mini bar. As we nurse our wounds we determine that we have taken a less familiar Camino right that heads into the interior away from the coast. We also come to understand that we just completed 18 miles on our first day out. It is time for rest…
Waking up the next day it is quickly understood that I have a bit of a major injury on my hands. We also now completely understand that the warning of the signage on the trail is an understatement. We have seen beautiful mountains and great coastal cities. We consider that goal complete. We will rest and get to know this city and then head south to Pamplona and join the Camino de Frances. Other pilgrims, more English, shorter daily hikes…that will be our new trail to Santiago…
Love to all…