An up and down day

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Robin and I emerged from our room at the Hotel Rural O Palleiro in the pre-dawn half light gingerly negotiating stairs hidden in shadows. We carefully made our way to Isabel’s welcoming and warm dining room where breakfast awaited us. It was the usual toast, cake, juice and coffee, but the coffee was served French style in a bowl instead of a cup. Isabel, who was born in France, and lived there for 21 years, simply stated a cup was too small. Who could argue as we nosed into our coffee bowls. Our amigo, Saturno, from yesterday arrived on schedule at 8:30 to return us to Borrenes where we would continue with today’s walk to Puente Domingo Florez. As we arrived back in Borrenes Saturno dashed off to his hotel and returned with two Camino Invierno pins for our backpacks. Apparently Saturno and his wife Marisol are very active on the Camino Invierno Facebook page. Robin recently joined and posted some pictures and they were thrilled to have her as a new member.

It was just about 9:00 when all farewells were made and we set off once again on the road to Santiago. It really was a simple day. All we had to do was climb for half the day (to just past the village of Medulas) and then descend for the other half down to the river at Puente Domingo Florez. The path, once again, was very well marked. We walked over a mix of senda, forest tracks and quiet rural paved roads. No problems and quite enjoyable. The first two days of this Camino are being scored very high for beauty, signage, and services. If this continues we might never go home. Having a fabulous Camino. More later.

 

 

Las Medulas

Robin and I have been relaxing this afternoon at the Casa Rural O Pelleiro in Orellán. What we did not realize was that there was a scenic overlook to the Roman Las Medulas gold mines only 1.5 kms from where we are staying. Our host Isabel kindly offered to drive us there to see this remarkable site. What you see in the pictures is what remains of a mountain after decades of hydraulic excavation in search of gold.

Off to the Castillo

Today was our first day on the Camino Invierno, and it did not disappoint. We try to be easy on our bodies for the first few days of any Camino. So this morning we caught a taxi from our hotel and got dropped off in Villalibre de la Jurisdicción which reduced today’s 20 km walk by 8 kms. In short order we were off the main road and walking through decaying villages that are sadly very typical in Spain. The Camino followed quiet village roads and the moved onto double and single track lanes. We pushed along looking for the split where one has a choice to climb to the ruins of the Castillo de Cornatel or continue along the road towards Borrenes. The trail to the castle scribes a roughly horseshoe shaped pattern. The road option would be the short distance connecting the ends of the horseshoe. So in short the climb to the castle is all about seeing the ruins and enjoying the elevated views than advancing along the Camino track. But, as we were only looking at a very short day, off we went climbing up to the castle.

The grade was, at most, moderate. We simply chugged along slow and steady following switch back to switch back as we ascended. I must admit that when we first glimpsed the castle ruins high above us in the mist I thought, no way are we going all the way up there. Yet, that is exactly what we did and it really wasn’t difficult. In fact it turned out to be a gorgeous climb that provided some breathtaking vistas as we continued along. The trail took us through what looked to be another abandoned village, but a dog was barking and someone (maybe the only one) was playing some loud music. No neighbors to complain. As we approached the castle we were gifted with broad open views of mist carpeted valleys and snow capped peaks. It was simply stunning scenery. Absolutely breathtaking, and well worth the climb.

The sun was now out, the temperature was moderating as we started our descent. Robin and I couldn’t believe our good fortune that on day one we had such a perfect experience. Once at the bottom we saw we only had 1.6 kms to go to the village of Borrenes where we would be spending the night. Having heaps of time at hand we just ambled along enjoying the simple gift of being present here at this moment. I can’t imagine anything better.

Borrenes was very quiet save for a passing car, the driver of which, called out a “buen Camino” as she kicked up some gravel seemingly anxious to get to town. We found the main square and our hotel, and a bar across the square from it. We headed for the bar. As it turned out the owner of the bar was also the owner of the hotel. He was behind the bar with one customer nursing a coffee. His face lit up when we walked in. He likes peregrinos, and is a big promoter of the Camino Invierno. We ordered a couple of cervezas and once they were on the table he disappeared. Not long thereafter he reappeared with two bowls of sopa de ajo (garlic soup), and man was that good. Once all this hospitality was shared he broached the more immediate problem. His hotel (across the street) was having a heating problem and we could not stay there. However, he did have a solution. He whisked us away to a the neighboring village of Orellán and introduced us Isabel and her casa rural (bed and breakfast). So this is where we are encamped for the night. We will be picked up after breakfast tomorrow morning and returned to Borrenes where we will resume walking the Camino. A perfect (if short) Camino day. Off to Puente de Domingo Florez tomorrow.

On the road to Ponferrada

 

Today was a repositioning day. We had to get from Logroño to Ponferrada and the only viable option was by rental car. So after another delightful breakfast at the Hotel Calle Mayor we called a taxi to take us to the train station and the Avis rental car agency. 30 minutes later and many euros lighter we were wending our way through Logroño to get to the freeway that would eventually take us to Ponferrada. The gps was set up and Google maps handled the rest. A previous road trip in Spain proved quite costly when I received an invoice for some photo radar speeding tickets. I duly paid them and made a mental note to, in the future, just stay at the speed limit. So that’s what I did, and lo and behold, we arrived safe and sound in Ponferrada around 2:30pm. Of course the rental car agency was closed for siesta when we arrived so we headed off to our hotel with Google maps screaming course changes by the second in the tight confines of the old town. Nonetheless we arrived unscathed but a little rattled from all the “where the hell are we moments” we hadas we drove down one alley after another in search of our elusive hotel.  But a few hours have now passed and we are in a much better state of mind. In fact the number one restaurant (trip advisor) is right next door. Things are looking up. All this aside we are looking forward to starting the Camino Invierno tomorrow. Now let’s see what happens. Ciao for now.

 

Afoot amongst the vineyards

Yesterday, after a nice evening in Laguardia, Robin and I set out to walk to Navarrete, about 20kms further south. The day was forecasted to be a bit warmer with expected temperatures in the mid 50’s. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and finally got underway around 10am. As we stepped out of our hotel we were buffeted by a cool gusty wind that was to keep us company for most of the day. We made our way through and out of Laguardia and onto the Camino trail to Navarrete with just a little gps help.

We could see, from our vantage point to the far distant snow capped peaks, nothing but vineyards. I think I could be happy here. So off we went, following what was pretty much a service road for the many acres of vines. It was a pleasant walk under sunny skies. Our plan was to arrive in Navarrete and then catch a cab to Logroño where we were to spend two nights before heading off to Ponferrada to start the Camino Invierno. Robin was feeling some pain in her right foot, but onward we went to the village of Lapuebla de la Barca where we crossed the Rio de Ebro. We shuffled along to the next village of Fuenmayor where we pulled over for a coffee. We were, at this point, about 4 kms from Navarrete and Robin’s foot needed a rest. Fortunately we were able to catch a bus just around the corner from where we had coffee and off we went in grand fashion to Logroño. We are now comfortably tucked away in a very nice hotel (Hotel Calle Mayor), enjoying our rest days. We have discovered it is not easy to get from here to Ponferrada either by bus or train so we are going to rent a car and hit the road in the morning. That’s the plan for now. Let’s see how this plays out. More tomorrow, hopefully from Ponferrada. Now back to relaxing.

The long and winding road.

We caught a ride from Genevilla to Lapoblación with Guy, our host in Genevilla. It was a crisp bright morning that was perfect for walking. Starting from Lapoblación made today’s walk 20 kms instead of 28,  and that was just fine with us. We said goodbye to Guy and headed off towards Laguardia, the center of a huge wine producing area in Rioja. The temperature started out in the upper 30’s F. And then rose to the mid 40’s. We soon headed off the main road and followed a trail that hung low and close to a mountain range that steered us towards Laguardia. It was just as we were descending from this trail that we spotted the hilltop town of Laguardia off in the distance. We knew from previous experience that it might look close but…there were still some kms to go. The road just seemed determined to bend and turn and twist so that the distance to go just seemed to taunt you. But, alas we did shuffle uphill into Laguardia and into our hotel for the night. This time of year many businesses take their holiday breaks so it was a quiet scene that unfolded as we walked the streets doing a bit of shopping. But we are now back in the warmth of our hotel enjoying a few pintxos and some wine. The accompanying pictures will say more than whatever words I might string together. It was a very fine day and Robin and I continue to count our blessings. We will be in Logroño tomorrow and then will head off two days later to Pomferrada to start the Camino Invierno. All is well.

 

An alternate way to Genevilla

A dull grey sky greeted us this morning as we pushed open the shutters at the Casa Rural Zadorra Etxea in Agurain. Our friends Zazpi and Josemari were due to pick us up at 8:30 and then we would go to where we would do a short walk from the village of Maestu to Santa Cruz de Campezo, around 11 kms. Today was more about renewing friendships and not so much about logging another long Camino stage.  It was a quiet Sunday and the short route we would walk would allow us all to catch up as we walked along.

A bit more information on Zazpi and Josemari. These two Basque guys are inveterate hill walkers and have covered almost every meter of the Basque Country since childhood. They know every nook and cranny and are wise mountain men. They also happen to be two really fun guys with beautiful fun wives as well. Zazpi leads a group of retirees on weekly walks and is involved with another group that does longer walks in a series of stages. The main point is that they are always up in the hills walking. They are very fit and the retirees that walk with them are also very fit. In fact I haven’t met anyone that they are associated with who isn’t fit. They are all like mountain goats. They just start walking and whether it is up or down, no worries , off they go at a brisk clip. Robin and I have first hand experience trying to keep up with them. Keep in mind these are mostly retirees. Impressive fitness. No couch potatoes in this group.

So back to today’s walk. Zazpi suggested we walk a Basque “rails to trails” route that passed nearby and would take us to Santa Cruz where we would then part company. The Basque government took up the challenge to convert an old, abandoned railroad into a beautiful long distance hiking trail. It runs from somewhere near Zumarraga to Vitoria/Gasteiz and onward to Estella on the Camino Frances. I am not sure of the exact distance but it is certainly well over a hundred kilometers. It is a level packed gravel trail that is firm enough for mountain bikes and perfect for hikers. It was splendid. So we walked along and at the appropriate moment Zazpi would peel off to move the car ahead and then walk back to meet us so that the car and all of us wound up in Santa Cruz together.

We first met these guys 3 years ago in January on a mountain top near Agurain, where Zazpi lives. Robin and I were walking the Camino Ignaciano from Loiola to Manresa (27 days) and as we reached the summit of a mountain near Agurain we saw these two guys standing in the snow finishing their lunch. We all exchanged hellos and have been friends ever since. What a blessing.

So once we said goodbye to Zazpi and Josemari Robin and I hiked up to the Plaza Mayor (town square) looking for a restaurant. We found the restaurant and also a local señora who, when asked, advised us that mass was about to start in a small chapel nearby. So off we went to mass where we happily, and prayerfully, gave thanks for the many gifts bestowed upon us. It was a wonderful and memorable day.

We were in Santa Cruz and our beds for the night were in the neighboring tiny pueblo of Genevilla. We stayed there three years ago at the Casa Rural Usategieta where we met our hosts Guy and Mirabel. I had been on the phone with Guy and he agreed to pick us up. So with lunch done followed by a quick carajillo (coffee and cognac) Guy suddenly appeared and we were off 5kms to Genevilla. We are now relaxing in front of a warm fire, sipping some vino and just catching up. We are off to Laguardia, in Rioja, tomorrow. The weather looks favorable so we should be just fine. Signing off to continue relaxing.

More tomorrow.

 

 

A lay day in Agurain

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The weather (snow) has cancelled today’s walk to Alda. We have learned our lesson regarding snow. Instead we have taxi’d to nearby Agurain where our good friend Zazpi lives. We have booked into a very nice, and very warm casa rural. Today was spent wandering through this medieval walled town, visiting churches, doing a bit of shopping (more on that later), and then of course lunch (Spaniards are big on lunch). All in all it was just another day to rest and recover. We feel fine now and are looking forward to tomorrow’s stage from Alda to Genevilla. Our two best local friends Zazpi and Josemari will join us for that stage. Zazpi and his lovely wife, Esther, drove over to San Roman last night to welcome us back to Euskadi (Basque Country). We shared a drink and related our tale of woe from Zumarra to Arantzazu. Just before they left, Esther gave us a gift of a jar of honey that her brother makes. It was delicious, but the jar must have weighed 3 pounds. There was no way this honey was being left behind. Now what to do? Back to the shopping. We needed some light weight containers, now where to find them. As there was no large supermarket nearby we were relegated to making do with the local shops. We were not opposed to buying something and then emptying that something out just to have the container. But a chance visit to a pharmacy saved the day. We bought two baby formula bottles and will transfer the honey into them. Once again Robin’s Korean creative thinking  came to the rescue. We now have the containers but as this will be a messy process some bread and wine are  also required to ensure a proper transfer. I shall update with a photo later. All is well and we will resume our pilgrimage tomorrow. We have discovered that we are in fact resilient, and thank God for that. Off to the Camino in the morning.  Good night from a chilly Agurain.

Expect the unexpected

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Sanctuary of Arantzazu

Two days ago Robin Robin and I stepped out of the Hotel Etxeberri in Zumarraga to begin day two of this winter’s pilgrimage in Spain. Two days ago I was thinking the very same thoughts that flew through my mind three years ago when we first walked this route, build in some extra time for possible problems on the mountain.  So we taxi’d of to the small village of Legazpi and that chopped off 5kms from the day’s walk. It was a cloudy day with occasional rain showers slanting down. The upper mountain views showed some snow on their peaks. So onward we went climbing up out of the valley floor following the trail towards the summit approach. The approach trail was mostly free of snow, but once we turned off to start to the summit the snow was there in abundance. Almost immediately the drifts were calf high. This is the point that a wise person would just call it a day and head back down. But having climbed this mountain before I reasoned it might be a slow day but it would be doable. Upward we went ever so slowly. Me breaking trail and Robin following. We had a gps and were using it to locate the trail as all we could see was a white featureless sheet. A zig here and a zag there finally brought us to some familiar terrain. The snow drifts at this point were thigh to crotch deep. Breaking trail through this while ascending a very steep grade was exhausting. My foot would go down and I would sink to my thigh. I would then lean into the grade to widen the hole so I could pull my foot out. Then I would try and tamp down a place where Robin could put her foot as she ascended right behind me. One can see this was a time consuming and laborious process. When this process was completed we might have advanced six inches. That was the drill that repeated itself all the way to the summit. It took perhaps two hours to reach the summit, 3000 feet up. By now the snow was falling hard and a stiff wind drove it right into our eyes. I spotted the summit trail marker and gazed down towards what would be our descent route. It looked familiar, but….My gps was freezing over with ice and my glasses were fogged with exertion. We started down. Using a gps is only as effective as the frequency with which you reference it.  Due to the continued presence of very deep snow our focus was on trying not to break a leg, which distracted us from watching the gps more closely. When next I looked st the gps there was a sizable rock outcropping between us and the Camino Ignaciano (CI) trail. My thinking was we were going down (that is good) and we were paralleling the CI trail (also good), but as we moved on down it became clear there wasn’t a good cross over point in our immediate future. Mind you we were still in the six inch step mode as we tried to avoid all manner of obstacles (discovered by suddenly sinking to the waist) hidden beneath the snow. One particularly aggravating problem was plunging unexpectedly into very deep snow and slipping forward so that your boot now has a high column of snow over it which prevents you from pulling your foot out. The solution is to take your hiking pole and excavate the snow above your boot until you can wiggle free. Keep in mind all this extraction is going on while wind driven snow is blinding you and adding to the already dangerously deep drifts. So when we happened upon a seasonal shepherd’s hut, and remembering all the challenges of this day, we agreed to halt for the night. At this point we were perhaps 3 kms from Arantzazu, our destination, but with the short winter days and the unrelenting snow drifts it would have been almost suicidal to continue. We had excellent 20 degree F. sleeping bags with us and the temperature was forecasted to be at freezing or slightly lower. Our bivouac site consisted of an exposed porch with a full ceiling and partial walls, It also had a cord of split firewood that Robin used to lay a floor to keep our sleeping bags off the cold wet floor. We next spread some cut up plastic bags to help keep our sleeping bags dry from the bottom side. The final touch was to pop open our umbrellas and place them advantageously around our bags to help fend of loft killing moisture.

When we arrived at the hut the temperature was right at freezing and we were soaked through with sweat from the exertions of the day. So we stripped off all our soaked clothes and socks, and put on every piece of dry clothing we had. Then back on went the waterproofs, the woolie hats, and buffs. It is especially important to always put on dry socks to prevent frostbite.

So the scene was set and the players were on stage, but the dialogue was minimal. We squirmed and moved and tucked and untucked legs throughout that interminable night. But dawn did arrive and with it a plan to find our trail to Arantzazu and get there. We broke camp at first light (about 9 am) and set out once again into the deep snow. We shuffled along and after a few false starts there it was, the way home. With our spirits lifted, and a marginal decrease in the depth of snow we made best speed for Arantzazu where we arrived as the Sanctuary bells tolled 12 noon.

The weather made it impossible to complete our scheduled walk from Arantzazu to San Roman. So muy  pronto we booked a taxi to take us to San Roman de Milan, where we knew a truck stop hotel with wonderfully heated rooms and a laundromat awaited us.

So the past two days were revealing in several ways. Here are some lessons learned. First, even seasoned pilgrims can make bad decisions (that is the human part), having a trusted hiking/climbing partner is essential (I trust Robin implicitly), don’t panic when things go wrong, focus on how to make them right, carry the gear you need to survive a night on the mountain, and finally God watches out for pilgrims.

The journey continues.

Perfecto!

The dismal forecast for today did not materialize. Instead we had a beautiful walk under partly cloudy skies with temps in the mid to upper 40’s. Our crazy sleep pattern continued last night. I collapsed exhausted at 9:30 and popped awake at 11:30. How does that work? So then it was back to sleep until 2:30 and then comitose until 7:50. Robin and I hopped to it and were out the door of the Hotel Loiola by 8:50. We were excited to see a clear mild day and that urged us onward to a bar up the street where we knew coffee awaited us. A lightening fast cafe con leche was all that we needed. Once done we were on our way to Zumarraga. The Camino route follows a walking path alongside the Sanctuario. The morning hours seem to be popular with local folks who were all out walking on this same trail. As we made our way along out of Loiola we heard a call from a gent behind us. His name was Fernando. He was concerned we were lost and offered to guide us to the trailhead leading to Zumarraga. We agreed and he led us along a new diversion that took us through a neighboring town’s business district before reconnecting with the trail we remembered from our previous Camino Ignaciano. He was a kind fellow and we enjoyed our brief time together. Once established on the path to Zumarraga you are on autopilot. There are no diversions. This path was a former, and very import railway in its day. These days the path from Loiola to Zumarraga is a classic “rails to trails” success. It is used extensively by pilgrims, local walkers, and cyclists.

All day long Robin and I have been thinking of the hotel and restaurant Etxeberri where we will be spending the night. Yesterday was Robin’s birthday, but our plan was to celebrate it today at lunch. And celebrate we did. The hotel is on the left just as you approach Zumarraga. We always seem to miss the turn off as it is not marked from the uphill side. But, a chat with a couple of locals had us back on course and before you know it we were there.

We checked in, cleaned up and headed for the restaurant. We sat down at 2:00 and left at 5:00, In between we shared course after course of delicious food and wine. It was a birthday meal to remember, Tomorrow we are off to the mountain hamlet of Arantzazu where the terrain steeply climbs. So today’s excesses at lunch will be tomorrow’s, much needed fuel. For now it is goodnight from Zumarraga. It has been splendid first day of this pilgrimage, Let’s see what tomorrow brings. Hopefully, more grace. Peace.