Robin and I are now two days into the Camino Vasco. We arrived this afternoon in the town of Tolosa and have checked into the Hotel Oria. But, let me back up to our first day from Irún to Astigarraga. We set out in cool and dry weather mustering a measured pace as our legs sought to reach an accommodation with the backpacks they were now having to carry. So off we went and made our first wrong turn about 100 feet later. As it turns out a sign had been damaged and we missed it, but as I also was running a GPS app on my phone we quickly caught the error and backtracked. We followed a mix of paved rural roads and dirt tracks over the many hills and valleys that added to our growing fatigue as we ambled along. We believe it is always wise to ease into any Camino by walking a bit more slowly and covering shorter distances for the first few days. The walking slowly part took care of itself as we just didn’t seem to any more throttle left. As for the distance we wound up walking about 22 kms. A little shorter distance might have been better for by the time we reached Astigarraga we were both running on little but fumes. The terrain was challenging, but quite scenic. All the twists and turns of the trail forced us to pay attention to our navigation and that helped to pass the time that otherwise would have been marked by increasing levels of knee pain. Arriving in any town in Spain on a Sunday is always challenging as shops and bars will often be closed. Our funky hotel, the Pension Astigarraga, is right on the Camino, but in an industrial area. The owner directed us to the one bar that was open, and we managed to stay awake long enough for the kitchen to open so we could have something more substantial than potato chips to eat, but it was close. So that was day one. It was a good challenging walk that got us back in the groove and refocused on the work required to move along this pilgrim road. We are coming around in spirit, now our bodies just have to catch up.
Our stay at the Hotel Oria in Tolosa was restful and quite pleasant. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful and the cafeteria produced some exquisite meals. But, the pilgrim road was calling so it was out of the warmth of our room and into a 35 F morning. We knew we would have another day of mostly pounding the pavement, but due to the many nice pedestrian paths it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. We felt stronger today and stepped along, in the cold morning air, at what for us was a sprightly pace. We climbed gently but steadily overhauling one village after another as we made our way to Besain where would wave goodbye to the pavement and head off into the hills to tonight’s destination, the village of Olaberria. The weather warmed gradually until at mid afternoon my little backpack thermometer read 60 F. We found our way out of Besain and over the N1 on a nice pedestrian bridge. Immediately after stepping off the bridge we should have turned left but there were no arrows and the left turn looked like it was just heading into a car park, so we went right. Looking at my GPS map I could see that there was a road around to the left but by that time we were invested in our turn to the right and as both roads seemed to meet we just carried on.
Having spent a peaceful night in a warm cozy room at the Pension Zezilionea in Olaberria it took great fortitude to get going and out into the freezing morning air. All the cars were covered in frost when I first peeked out to check the weather. As today was only to be around a 16 km day to Zegama we decided to linger just a little longer over breakfast to let the sun climb a bit higher and hopefully thaw things out a bit. Eventually the front door of our pension quietly closed behind us and day four of our Camino Vasco was officially underway. A thin cold fog veiled the town and closed in on us from time to time as the temperature struggled to climb above freezing. But the clear sky (when the fog allowed it to) offered more gorgeous mountain scenery as we made our way along a very quiet rural paved road on our way to Zegama. We followed the folds of the landscape up and down enjoying the quietude of this section of the Camino. One mountain range, with its icy peaks, dominated the far horizon. It was always in front of us as we moved along throughout the morning. It finally dawned on us as we drew near to Zegama, and the mountains still stood front and center, that this was the range we would be crossing tomorrow as we ascend to the San Adrian tunnel and then drop down to the valley below en route to Agurain, Vitoria-Gasteiz and beyond, but first we must carefully negotiate some quite steep, icy trails. That thought has occupied my mind since we started this trip. But, the weather has been quite nice here for several days so I am hoping that the trails are passable. If not we will just turn around and try again some other time. Zegama is quiet town nestled into the foothills of the Basque mountains. There is not much activity, but In all fairness it is still pretty cold outside so today is not a perfect day for strolling around the town. It is only about 8 kms from Zegama to the top, and in that distance one gains about 850 meters in elevation. Not the toughest climb, but not a walk in the park either. The snow and ice will rule the day. We remain hopeful that all will go well. For now we are finishing up our laundry and then we will sample a local white wine, Txakoli, that the owner of the Pension Zezilionea gave to us as a parting gift. An interesting note, this is the third time this has happened to us in the Basque Country. Twice on the Camino Ignaciano and now again here this morning. The Basque are very hospitable people. More on the wine tasting and tomorrow’s climb from the other side of the mountains. Light’s out from here in frosty Zegama.
Our lodging in Zegama proved to be a good conditioning experience for today’s freezing mountain air. The señora initially fired up the heat in our room, as it was like a refrigerator. However, her generosity with the heat was short lived. Two hours later the radiators were cooling down never more to return. Our room held steady at 50 F. So Robin and I slept in everything we had not hiked in (including down jackets) and scored 3 extra blankets as well. Robin needed a total of four. I was okay with two. This morning, predictably, the radiators were stone cold and it was 21 F outside. Breakfast in the bar downstairs was also a bit tricky as a nice hot cafe con leche quickly became an ice coffee if you set it down for a second. Despite enduring the night at McMurdo Station we were very pleased with the clear weather we stepped out into. After a quick GPS calibration we set out uphill, on the road out of town, towards the mountains that beckoned us.
Our evening spent in Agurain with our amigos Zazpi and his wife Esther was a perfect cap to a great day’s walk from Zegama. Zazpi organized a special dinner the main course of which was chuleton, which is a piece of beef about the size of a spare tire. Being in the Basque Country for our wine selection we went with the ubiquitous Basque white wine called Txakoli. A platter of grilled prawns and a salad rounded out the menu. The curious part of the evening is that neither Robin nor I can hold a conversation in Spanish (let alone Basque), and neither Zazpi nor Esther speak a word of English. Yet, for two hours we ate, talked and somehow communicated. It was great fun. In the early morning hours of the following day, as I lay half awake, I could hear the wind sweeping the streets of Agurain, and rain pelting the cottage where we were encamped. Dawn thankfully broke with a brief respite from the worst of the weather. Last night we had arranged with Zazpi to get a ride out of Agurain to a place somewhere down the Camino to make the day’s walk a bit shorter. At 9:30 we were off in Zazpi’s car going right down the Camino. He dropped us off at a location that left us a 16 km walk to Vitoria-Gasteiz where we arrived at 2:00 pm. At 4:15 our other Basque amigo Jose Mari Lizarazu picked us up in the city center on his way back from a business trip to Pamplona. He brought us back to his nearby home where together with his wife Isabel we cooked and enjoyed a simple but very tasty Basque meal of potatoes and chorizo. But, this was also accompanied by a number of other treats and a great selection of wines. Fine dining indeed, and more importantly, a nice time to reconnect with good friends.
We interrupted our Camino Vasco in Puebla de Arganzón to return to Vitoria where Robin had an x-ray to determine if anything was fractured after a fall (landing hard on her tailbone) when we arrived in Vitoria from Agurain. Fortunately nothing was amiss. But Robin was cautioned to rest a few days before resuming our Camino. So we headed from Vitoria to Bilbao and spent the night there, and then continued on to Porto the following day. We arrived in Porto yesterday and have been resting up before we begin our walk to Santiago tomorrow. As always life on the Camino is filled with the unexpected. Sometimes those moments fall in the plus column and sometimes they fall somewhere else, but nonetheless life goes on and the journey continues (thank God). We have had a restful time, enjoyed some great meals, discovered a taste for fine port wine and and are keeping a wary eye on some heavy weather due to descend on us as we set out in the morning. The forecast actually said “tons of rain.” Yikes! Maybe the 20-30 mph winds and thunder will distract us from the rain. Should be an interesting day as we slog on to Vila do Conde. It appears this weather system will be with us through Sunday. So we shall rig for heavy weather and hope for the best. For now the streets outside our hotel are showing occasional umbrellas but typhoon conditions have not yet been set. We shall see what the morning brings. This is our first time in Porto and it has been a perfect place to recuperate. We went to the 11:00 am mass at the cathedral, walked quietly through its cloister, got our first sello, and headed down to the river for a nice seafood lunch. All very peaceful and good fun, especially our lunch at the restaurant Ora Viva, where the food was great, and the staff truly excelled. One interesting quirk was that the kitchen was one floor below the restaurant and all the meals came up from the kitchen via a hand cranked tiny dumb waiter. I kept seeing one of the waiters cranking something behind the bar and when I asked about it I was invited to look down and wave to the cook smiling up at me. Somehow this led to a port wine tasting and a bottle of 20 year old tawny port appeared, and we were hooked. As I said, a fun afternoon. But, duty calls and it will soon be time to set out once again. Praying for God’s grace we will complete this Camino and arrive Santiago safe and sound. More to follow from the pilgrim road.
Despite yesterday’s scary weather forecast, today turned out to be better than I expected. At first light I could see from our hotel room there was water streaming down through the cobbles of the Plaza da Liberdade No rain but plenty of wind was evident. Robin and I had an early breakfast and were ready to go shortly after 8:00 am. We grabbed a taxi to head out to Matosinhos where we would begin today’s walk to Vila do Conde 22 kms up the coast. Robin was feeling strong and the rain was still hanging offshore so we were off to a good start. We found the boardwalk and lots of Camino signage and off we went. The wind was pretty much just shy of gale force for most of the day. Coming out of the wsw it sort of quartered us on our left side. By snugging our umbrellas close to our shoulders we were able to create a rather snug, calm environment as we were buffeted along by the howling wind. A wide stance was required to keep from going right over in the peak gusts. As we moved along we saw an opportunity to move from the boardwalk to the sidewalk of the coast road. We shifted over and the wind eased off a bit and our footing was much more secure on the cobbles than on the slick boardwalk.
We had a very fun and restful stay in Vila do Conde. Fortified with a healthy breakfast we swung out the door of our hotel and wandered down to a nearby taxi rank. A tap on the window got our driver at the ready and soon we were off to Arcos about 8 kms away. Our driver was a funny and expressive guy. He spoke almost no English but I could follow most of what he was saying in Portuguese. He brought us to the small village of Arcos where we immediately spotted Camino arrows. We paid our bill, included a nice tip (for the entertainment value if nothing else), and bailed out in front of the church. As our driver blasted off (no one in Portugal drives slowly) we saddled up our packs and set out to follow the yellow arrows to Barcelos where we would spend the night. Weather wise we caught a break. The wind and rain in today’s forecast was now expected to cross our path around 2:00 pm. We hopefully would be in Barcelos by then. So off we went. No one else in sight. The temperature increased a bit ask we moved through Rates and Robin and I shed our rain jackets. Onward we went enjoying the early rural kilometers. Later in the day we found more road work and more crazy drivers that added a bit of anxiety to walking the shoulder of whatever road we happened to be on. The Portuguese just seem to enjoy driving fast, hugging the inside corner (where we were walking) and leaning on the horn approaching blind turns (not slowing down). But, all in all it was another fun day. Robin did very well and despite a lot of cobblestone walking our feet were none the worse for wear. That was good news. So we plunged on keeping a steady if not breathtaking pace and arrived at our hotel in Barcelos at 1:30 pm. Our habit is now, after making arrival, to go right to lunch. We skip dinner as this just seems more convenient. As it turns out there was a wonderful restaurant right next door to our hotel. In we went and continued to explore the seafood side of the menu. It was grilled sea bass for Robin and grilled salmon for me. Both were superb. But, an unexpected highlight was the grilled octopus salad. Wow, says enough. It was a fantastic meal (no menu del dia) that finished off another fun day on the Camino. Now back in our room the weather has taken a turn for the worse. Heavy rain and strong winds are now lashing our hotel. We arrived just before all this settled in. Perfect timing. We are off to Casa Fernanda tomorrow and God willing the storm will have passed by then. All is well.
We left Barcelos on Saturday morning after deciding that the dire weather forecast for the day would still allow us to walk. The previous night had been stormy indeed with heavy downpours and gale force winds, but come morning things seemed to have eased off a bit. The updated forecast for Saturday was for moderate weather during the day and heavy winds and rain to return mid-afternoon. We felt sure we would be safely ensconced in Casa Fernanda before the weather turned, so off we went. It was the right choice. Strong winds racked through the tree tops but we felt little impact close to the ground. We had a few rain showers but nothing our umbrellas couldn’t handle. So we plunged in enjoying the day’s walk until we reached the “old bridge” about 6kms from Fernanda’s. Here the path, and all the surrounding fields were under water. Opting not to take our boots off we just waded in. The water came to about mid calf and then we were out of it. Surprisingly My boots didn’t fill up. Not sure why but we walked another 6 kms to Fernanda’s with wet feet without incident. We walked into Fernanda’s yard at close to 1:30 pm. She was outside with her husband Jacinto. Before we knew it she had us in a private room and was gathering laundry together and planning for lunch. She is truly a force of nature, but a very caring force of nature. By 2:00 pm we were all in her kitchen, the laundry was in the machine (thank you Jacinto) and a pot of lentil soup was simmering away. She asked us what we would like to drink and so lunch began. The interesting thing is that lunch just sort of ran into dinner. A German lady trailed in after us just catching the change of the weather. It was now really howling. Fernanda got us all settled in with food and drink and then more food and more drink, and then great conversation, and then more food and more drink. At 10:00 pm (after 8 splendid hours of eating, drinking, and talking) we all agreed to call it a night (but not after one last shot of aguardiente) and headed off to our beds.