Camino Francés 2014

St Jean Pied de Port – Belorado

After the amazing time I had on the Camino in May 2013, I was eager to get back. I decided on May 2014 as a return date. I had my flights booked before calamity struck and I broke my tiny toe in February of 2014. I had hoped everything would be fine but I postponed for a few months just in case. So on September 3rd 2014, I flew out from Dublin. I started in St Jean Pied de Port the next day and ended in Belorado ten days later. I passed through the Navarra and La Rioja regions of Spain and loved every second.

September 3rd, 2014 – Day 0
Dublin to St Jean Pied de Port via Biarritz

I didn’t sleep much that night. Excitement, anticipation, apprehension..you name it…I had it. I had walked the Camino before but it felt like I was doing this for the first time. The flight from Dublin Airport was due to take off at 9am so I was up and out the door close to 8am. After a quick drive, I was at Dublin Airport ready to board the plane. I had my bag packed for the last number of days and even after 3 previous trips, I was looking for room for improvement. I had it down to 7kg which was more or less average for a distance of 230kms. I wanted to walk to Burgos or as far as possible but my last day of walking needed to be September 14th, which was a Sunday. I had chosen Burgos as I had been there before and I loved the Cathedral. It blew me away to be honest. Being a major city, it seemed like an ideal place to stop. It would mean me walking a few 30km+ days, but I had done that before and I knew that it was in me.

I had been in contact with Andrea from Lisburn a few weeks earlier (via the Camino de Santiago forum) and we agreed to meet in Bayonne and venture to St Jean Pied de Port. We had also agreed to meet some other forum members in St Jean for a few pre-Camino drinks and some food. I was looking forward to that.

The flight to Biarritz was made up of pilgrims and businessmen going about their day. It was delayed by 20 minutes due to low cloud in Dublin but weather in Biarritz was next to perfect so I was eager to get out there. I checked my bag in, sat on the plane and waited for the flight to take off. After close to an hour and a half, and a near-faultless flight, we arrive in Biarritz. The sun was splitting the stones as I stepped off the plan. Phew!

After a quick trip on a shuttle bus from the airport, I arrived in Bayonne Gare and I meet Andrea. I apologised for the delay and make my way to buy my ticket for the trip to St Jean Pied de Port. The ticket costs less than €10 and we both wait on the train to bring us to our destination, After a quick wait, a one carriage train arrives, which is far too small for the crowd waiting to board. We get on and manage to get a seat, hoping that this train will move shortly. Not to be. Ten minutes later, a man jumps on the train shouting in French. I had no idea what he was saying but after a while, we found out that there was a bus also travelling to St Jean, and that some of us could take that instead. Myself and Andrea agreed to take that which was probably a better choice. The train stood still in St Jean as the bus pulled off.

After an hour, we arrived in St Jean Pied de Port. There is a bit of a walk to take to get to the main village but when I got there, we are greeted by large crowds. It is busy. People are dining, viewing the sites and basically wandering around. I also notice a film crew on Rue de la Citadelle where both my hostel and the pilgrims office is located. We are told to stay put for a few moments while a scene is being shot. The whole street is at a standstill. I find out that the crew is from Germany and is shooting a film based on a popular book by a German author. Hmm..that should bring more people..I think to myself. It is busy as it is. The stagehand looked exasperated at being asked the same question over and over so I was glad when the scene was over. Myself and Andrea agreed to visit the pilgrims office, collect our credentials and check in to our respective hostels which were booked before. This didn’t take long and I found the volunteers in the office extremely helpful. The weather forecast was for plenty of sun, but there may be some rain so I was aiming for the Napoleon route the next day.

I checked into Gite Ultreia for a fab €15 per night..brilliant value. I buy a few things for the next day including a wooden pole, and meet Andrea, Trevor and Jason for some food before we called it a day. We were pretty tired but excited. The restaurant named “Cafe de la Paix” served the best pasta and spaghetti and it is recommended. Trevor and Jason weren’t due to leave St Jean for a few more days so we bid them goodnight and goodbye. We may even meet them on the way further down the line. I decided to leave at 7am the next morning so ventured back to the hostel to get some well-earned rest.

September 4rd, 2014 – Day 1
St Jean Pied de Port via Roncesvalles

I’m sleeping in a room of eight other people. I think they are part of the film crew working on the documentary but I’m not sure. It was pretty late when I arrived back the evening before so there was no time for introductions. The room is dark so I hastily put my things in my backpack ready for the next morning. I am out like a light.

I awake to the sounds of sticks hitting against the cobbled street below. I rush to my watch to check if I am too late but it is 4.50am so all is well. People like to leave early, I think to myself. Andrea and myself had agreed to meet outside Gite Ultreia at 7am so I had plenty of time to get ready. My stomach was like a roller-coaster with excitement and my head was throbbing from last night’s wine. I needed food…and coffee!! I drifted to sleep again and woke at a more convenient time of 6am. I got up, washed and ventured downstairs for some breakfast. Yumm. Bernard and Fafa, the owners, had prepared cereals, bread, toast, fruit and coffee, so I was going to take advantage of it all. There’s not a lot of places to buy food on the hills.

I left Ultreia at 7am and met Andrea who was waiting outside. She had been staying in another albergue further up the road. It was dark and cold but that would change shortly. I stopped off for some croissants at the bakery which had just opened. I had some fruit, and some yogurt also. There were other pilgrims making their way so we tagged along with them. When you reach the outskirts of St Jean which isn’t too far, there is a gradual climb and this continues for the next three hours. I knew it would be tough but when I needed to stop after ten minutes, I knew it would going to be a hard day. Over the next 5 km, we climbed 300 metres and I had discarded my fleece. At this point, the sun had crept up from the horizon and a new day was upon us.

It was great to be back on the Camino however. I had been looking forward to this day since May of last year, and I was eager to meet new faces, and see some new places. The next few days would have to wait until I got this day over however! After 7km, the Camino goes off the road for a while and it begins to get steep. Terra firma gave away to rock and gravel and I found this tough. We reach Refuge Orisson shortly after 9am..an oasis in the desert. I ordered a tea and inhaled my croissants in no time. It was buzzing here, and is a great spot to just stop and look over how far you have climbed. I felt a great sense of achievement but that was just 8km walked. People often stay here for the night but the refuge only holds a limited number of beds and you need to be quick to book.

After eating our snacks, taking in the stunning views, and gathering our breaths, we moved on. The climb continues but it is not as steep, which is good news for my calves which were crying at this stage. My wooden pole I bought in St Jean was doing tremendous work for me and I would be lost without it. After Orisson we arrived at Biakorre where there is a statue of the Virgin Mary. We took our time here. I also noticed a group of cyclists from Venezuala who were recording what seemed to be a documentary with a hand held device. I was asked for my name and where I was from so I assume I will be on some film. I wished them well and we moved on.

Slowly but surely the trail continues to rise, until we reach our highest point of 1450 metres at the Col de Lepoeder. I have never climbed this high and I take a few moments to savour it. It is all downhill from here to Roncesvalles. I read before starting out that there was a choice of two paths at this stage.  One path goes straight down the hill side and is steep and can be dangerous, the other to the right is much easier but slightly longer.  I had no hesitation in taking the second option and we were joined by others who wanted to avoid injury to their knees. The second option is longer and I was lost for a while but I got to Roncesvalles in the end….tired, hungry, with aching legs. I was blown away by the views though. It is an amazing part of the world. We finished just before 3pm.

I checked in to the huge albergue where I was given the last of the beds in the new building. For €10, you get a bed, shower, a cubicle for your stuff and I would compare it to a hotel in all honesty. Dinner started to be served at 7pm so myself and Andrea went to one of the restaurants across the road “La Posada” and had the “Menu del Dia”. Ah..it is great to be acquainted to the “Menu del Dia” again!! After dinner, there was mass in the church beside the albergue which I decided to attend. I would consider myself Catholic but don’t go to mass, but I promised myself I would go to this. All the readings and prayers were in various languages so I didn’t understand what was being said, but I knew where we were in the Mass (if that made sense)! Everything was perfect, the music, the blessing at the end of the mass and the atmosphere. It just felt right!

The next day, I decided to aim for Zubiri. I had Albergue Zaldiko booked before I set out so it was going to be a relaxing day. I got a message from a friend beforehand that it was a lot easier than day one, but there are a lot of descents. I looked forward to it!

A break at Orisson
A rest

September 5th, 2014 – Day 2
Roncesvalles to Zubiri

The lights go on in the large dormitory and I awake to find pilgrims getting their things ready for the day ahead. Some are doing stretching exercises, some are putting sleeping bags away and others are looking at their sore feet from the day before. I am wiping sleep from my eyes after the long night. Yawwwwwnnnn!! I gather my things after a quick wash. The room where shoes are stored is downstairs and there is a slight delay in finding mine. I’m all ready within 20 minutes and am out the door by 7am…wooden staff in hand.

I go in search of Andrea who is in the old overflow albergue, which is not too far away. The day before, I hear that both new and overflow albergues were full which is unprecedented for September. Things could get busy down the line as most towns don’t have 400 beds in them, especially Zubiri. Zubiri is a small village just off the Camino made up of a municipal albergue, and 2 private albergues. That would be about 200 beds between the three hostels so there was already a bit of competition to get there early. We also learned the night before that the albergue in the next town, Larrasoana, has been shut for the next few nights due to bed bugs. Hmm..let the bed race begin!! As I mentioned earlier, I had reserved a bunk in Albergue Zaldiko so I could take it easy. I find Andrea outside the old albergue along with other Irish folks that I had met yesterday. There was Joe, Mary and Martina who had traveled separately.

After taking photos beside the large sign showing distance to Santiago, we move on through the woods taking our time. It was pretty dark out and many had torches out. I was using my phone that had saved me on previous Caminos. On the flat, I tend to walk fast so it wasn’t long before I had outpaced Andrea and left her behind. I reached the first town Burgette and waited for her to catch up and we had some breakfast at the first cafe that was open. There we met Natty and Shelly, both Canadians. I had seen both on the 1st day. Shelly is a retired policewoman and was rarely serious. She was in the cubicle beside me in Roncesvalles. I had my first cafe con leche and tostada wolfing it down, probably too fast. Shelly joked about how bad I snore. I feign ignorance, but I know that I do. She is fine with it in the end. Natty is quiet and takes everything in, drinking her cafe con leche while reading Brierley’s bible. I have his took somewhere in my bag but to date I haven’t looked at it since I arrived. I couldn’t help notice how everyone had a copy while there was no need for it.

We move on after half an hour in the westbound and it is all downhill, crossing rivers and venturing in and out of forests. Shortly afterwards, we both meet three Irish women who were walking until Pamplona. They were staying in casa rurals and had arranged for their bags to be transported ahead, rather than stay in albergues. They had found the first day tough and were taking it slow.

Without knowing I had left the crowd behind and decided at that point to keep walking at my own pace. I would see them in Zubiri when the day is over. I put on some music for the first time and picked up a decent pace while on the flat, passing through Espinal before arriving at the first climb of the day. The calves were still at me from the day before but I prefer ascents to going down hills. It wasn’t long before I hit Alto de Mezquiriz and took a break. I had covered 10km in nearly 2 hours. But going down was not something I enjoyed. I get a great feeling passing people out, but these same people pass me when I come to a steep decline. I detest them and take ages negotiating them. The last thing I want to do is let gravity take over and pick up an injury. So the next 5km – 8kms was a very “stop-start” affair. I pass through more forest and again more streams, including the Rio Erro.

It was pretty warm this day with little cloud. I was quite happy with this as some of these declines must be lethal when it is raining. Rather dry than wet. I meet more Irish folk during the day, some who happen to pass me during the tricky descent into Zubiri. I didn’t see them again. I walked the final 5km with Natty from Canada and Ann Marie from New Zealand. They are both retired but I walked at the same pace as me. We reach Zubiri just before 1pm. I was starting to burn at that stage so I was glad to get checked in and rest for a bit. I was also happy to have made the reservation as Zubiri was totally booked out at this stage. The main municipal albergue were giving mats to people to sleep on the floor. This was crazy for September. The hospitalero in Albergue Zaldiko was helping passing pilgrims by advising them to get a taxi to the next town and stay there. Mad!

After washing my gear and sending a message back home to say all is well, I headed to the local cafe where I see Andrea! She was booked into a hotel on the main road. I was glad to see her again. I also met David from Australia, Bob and Leslie from Canada and I see Shelly and Natty again. No sign of the Irish crowd. They may have got a taxi to the next town. After a quick snack, we agreed to have dinner in the restaurant later that night. Another “menu del peregrino”!! I was getting used to them! Some of us agreed to aim for Pamplona in the morning but I was hoping to power on to Cizur Menor if I wanted to get to Burgos within the 11 days.

I would let my legs tell me how far to walk. Until then I was going to sleep soundly!

September 6th, 2014 – Day 3
Zubiri to Pamplona

It was 5.30am when I decided to make a move from my top bunk in the albergue. There were 8 in this small room; 4 Spanish, Ann Marie from New Zealand, a girl from Chile, a young guy from Italy and myself. All were sleeping soundly by the time I decided to leave although the Italian guy was a pretty bad snorer and had kept a few of us awake at the start of the night. The Spanish girls seem to get great fun out of it judging by their laughter! I enjoyed Zaldiko and Zubiri and thought to myself that I would stay there again should I return.

Once I stepped out and made my way over the Puente la Rabia, I had one thing on my mind….breakfast! I didn’t find a tienda to buy some fruit the day before so I just would have to make do without until I got to a cafe. It was 6am and it would be a while before I would see anything open. Maybe Larrasoana might have a cafe open? I started off alone this morning but it didn’t take long before I met other pilgrims. It was pitch black and all I could see and hear were the lights from torches and folks talking in various languages; Spanish, Italian, French. No English. When you leave Zubiri, you also get to walk by a pretty ugly industrial factory which took a while to pass by. The noise from it could be heard for miles. I didn’t see the crew from the night before, maybe they had left earlier. I didn’t mind. But I always had an eye open for any of them so I could have some company. I got talking to Christina from Argentina closer to Larrasoana who was walking to Burgos. She had great English and was really eager to talk. She had walked the Camino before and was stopping in the places where she didn’t stay last time. A wise choice. Just outside of Larrasoana as I was in hunt of a cafe, I see an Englishman called Bob. He had been in the town and told me that there was nothing open. Strange I thought, as it was close to 7am at this stage. He said there was a fiesta there all night and that none of the cafes are serving to pilgrims. Hmm..fiesta? That explains why the albergue was closed, and not bed bugs!!

I walk on past Larrasoana and am met by Bob and Leslie from Canada. Leslie looked like she was struggling. We discussed the Larrasoana affair also before mentioning that David is not far ahead! Aha..great! Someone who can match my pace! On I go a further 3 or 4 km before I reach Zurian situated on a river. It is a fab place and I stop by watching the river flow. It has an open cafe so I order my first cafe con leche of the day. Yum! I meet some of the Irish ladies from the first day. I was in no hurry here and would have stayed here for the night if it was closer to 1 or 2.

It was only 8am however, and I had a lot of walking to do before I called it a day. The Camino crosses the Rio Argo a number of times before reaching Pamplona’s suburbs but there is alot of walking through forests and wooden areas before I see any evidence of the city. There are a few steep ascents and descents to make before reaching Pamplona especially around Irotz. I really had to take my time here. It’s disheartening when you climb to the top of a hill and then see another stretch that needs to be climbed. The ever rising sun made it harder also. But I reached Zabaldika shortly after. I was another 8km to the suburbs but wanted to call it a day. Onwards!… I kept saying to myself.

Passing Zabaldika led me to another incline and further decline. I don’t know who designed the Camino to have us walk this way as there is a park just below that walks in the same direction and it is all flat. I pass Monte Miravalles and now I am on the home straight towards Pamplona. There are many suburbs to pass through and I begin to walk on asphalt paths until I reach my final destination. Sometimes I prefer this, today I do. I catch up with a group of 3 guys and 1 girl from Germany. They were kind of unsure where the Camino would take them now they were approaching a major city. The waymarks change from being signposts to being painted on the ground. The arrows can be hard to find and we needed to ask a few locals if we were going in the right direction. They were staying in Casa Paderborn (a German-run albergue in Pamplona) while I had decided to stay in the main albergue inside the city walls. All four were taking their time on the Camino and had no time when they needed to be home. The joys of university! If only I had known about this treasure at that time.

We reach Pamplona close to midday under the hot sun, passing Arre, Burlada and Villava. They say their goodbyes and turn to their albergue while I go in search of the city walls and the main municipal albergue. It is not due to open until 12.30 so I am early. I eventually find it (just beside the Cathedral) and meet the crew from the night before. I also see most of the crowd from day one, so I was delighted to see them. I took my pack off, placed it in the queue and drop to the ground exhausted. I had planned yesterday to go to Cizur Menor but that wasn’t going to happen. Pamplona was bussling and I was eager to see some of the sights. First I needed to check in, find a bed, wash and look after a blister that had appeared after my first day. Oh..and food!!

Later that day, David, Bob, Leslie and myself walked through the city. It was a weekend also, so it is worth pointing out that not much happens on weekends in Spain. Osasuna, the local football team were playing a game in the evening and many of the team’s fans were in the streets drinking openly and singing before the game started. It had a real fiesta atmosphere to it, but probably a little too much drink was being consumed. I also got a harsh reminder of how and when food is served in Spain. We made do with pinchos until 7pm when we could order the menu del dia. Phew! There are great advantages in making your own dinner.

Some of the crew from the meal in Zubiri were going to stay in Pamplona for an extra night so I said my goodbyes to them then, while I also met a new face. Anna from Estonia was walking from St Jean to Logrono and myself and David asked that she join us in the morning. I love meeting new people!

September 7th, 2014 – Day 4
Pamplona to Puente la Reina

Dave, Anna and I had agreed to wake and start early so we could tackle the Alto del Perdon before it got too hot. This is a 300m climb that starts once we leave the albergue and peaks after 8km. Climbing it apparently resolves you of all your sins. We shall see. Leaving later was not an option as the temperatures were set to be high and the humidity levels were through the roof over the last few days. I was glad to leave early as I thrive in the early morning. We decided to aim for Puente la Reina and more specifically, the albergue on the outskirts of the town which had it’s own pool and served meals. Bob and Leslie were more than happy to follow us and they agreed to meet us there. I woke up at 4 am after a fairly restless sleep. There seemed to be an all-night party on the streets of Pamplona. I’m not sure if this was due to the match or if it was typical Saturday-night revelry. Dave and Anna had little sleep too. I didn’t have a great experience in Pamplona and decided that I would pass through if I was to walk this section again.

We left Pamplona in the darkness close to 5 am, with the same kind of anticipation we had in St Jean, to reach the top of the Alto del Perdon and view the iron cast models. You need to be fully alert leaving Pamplona however and if you lost sight of the arrows or signs, you could end up far away from the Camino. That’s what happened to us. We got lost. One minute, arrows were in full view and the next, not one was to be seen. We turned back, we consulted maps, and tried to find someone to ask what directions to take. But this was Sunday morning, no one was out. In the end, a young man in a car pointed us in the right direction. When we saw arrows again, we came across other pilgrims who made the same mistake as us. So it isn’t that rare for pilgrims to become lost in Pamplona?

After an hour, we reached Cizur Menor, a suburb of Pamplona. I had originally planned on staying here. There was a fiesta in full swing while we passed through it. The local bar was still open thumping music and serving drink. Drunk locals were on the street shouting as we passed by. I was pretty happy not to have stayed there. We swiftly passed this town. It was just after 7am and the sun was starting to rise. The climb was getting more and more gradual..it was all uphill for the next few hours. The back of my legs felt it and we were stopping for breath more frequently than before. I seemed to enjoy the ascent more than Dave and Anna and always left them behind. They didn’t seem to mind as it was I who had great difficulties on the descent and usually took forever to negotiate the drop. The terrain is barren, mostly empty fields after the harvest. The only word to use is golden. Save for the odd green tree, everything is brown or golden. Crops won’t grow here until after winter. I would love to see this scenery in May. I try to picture it in my head..different kind of greens, yellows and colours of flowers. A vast difference.

We arrive at the next town, Zariquiegui after 8am, halfway through our climb. I personally can’t wait to get to a cafe for some breakfast. My feet need to be checked as the ball of my right foot is hurting. The nearest cafe is buzzing and I am glad to find a seat to sit down. I order a cafe con leche, tostada, some fruit and can of coke. My feet seem to be fine. I recognise most of the faces from the cafe, including an Irishman, Ciaran. I joke about the town name, saying that it could win a game of Scrabble for you. The town itself is quiet, save for the cafe. No one is awake as I venture to fill up my water bottle from the fountain. We decide to move on. Next stop: Alto del Perdon and a further 100m climb in the next 2km. The sun is up now and we can see the climb ahead. I could see the row of electric windmills, some working, some not. The road cuts between fields and ends beside the far end of the row of mills. The track is rugged but manageable. We agree to walk at our own pace until we reach the top and to wait for each other when we get there. On I go, happy enough to plow on. Going up is no problem but I am nervous for the descent.

I meet Ciaran from Ireland further ahead and walk with him for a bit. He is walking a section like myself and finishes up in Logrono in a few days. The Camino has been tough for him he says but he is taking his time. I move on, again on my own. Being so high, you can see for miles around you. I see the last two towns I have passed. I can only assume that when I reach the top that I will see the next number of towns ahead of me also. I reach the top at last and just want to sit down and catch my breathe. I haven’t taken in what I have climbed, I need to take in some water first. The first things I notice are the many iron cast statues dedicated to all pilgrims.  There is an inscription on one in Spanish “donde se cruza el camino del viento con el de las estrellas” which in English means “where the path of the wind crosses that of the stars”. There are tens of people taking photos, others just sitting in the hot sun and others who just decide to descend the alto once they reach the top.

I take a few photographs myself and wait for Dave and Anna to appear so we can start the walk down to Puente la Reina. I wasn’t waiting long before they arrived and we took a few photographs together. Anna is an aspiring photographer who brought along a nice expensive camera. It is pretty heavy to carry but she didn’t mind. Every so often she would disappear to take an obscure photo or to get a good position but she would return a few minutes later. On the Alto, a van appeared from the Albergue Apostol Santiago in Puente la Reina. We were hoping to stay there. I guess they were there to advertise themselves as they are based on the outskirts of the city and are not the first albergue or hostel you would pass. Speaking to the owner, she mentioned that the albergue has been full for the last weeks.

Eventually, we start to descend from the hill. It is steep and a little too uncomfortable for my liking. Here is me, the grown man, taking small steps, while Anna and Dave march down, trying not to run. It is a breeze to them! I am close to shouting “see you at the first town” but they wait for me. Good one! I have always been delicate on the descent ever since I was 12. Gravity beat me in a battle of wits while going down a mountain, leaving me with a broken collar-bone and a bruised ego. Ever since I have been taking downhills pretty seriously. I gain confidence as the descent flattens out over the course of 5km. We pass the beautiful almost-too-clean Uterga. The only sign of life is coming from the albergue which is close to full at this stage. We stop for water and to take photos.

Within the next 45 minutes, we pass two small towns, Muruzabal and Obanos. Obanos is located on a hill so we have another climb to deal with but it is nowhere near as harsh as the climb in the morning. Both towns were dead save for their local cafes and fountains. By this stage, the sun is out in full flow and the temp is close to 30c. We had another 6km before Puente la Reina and the Apostol Santiago albergue and my legs were weary. Mainly due to the descent earlier in the day. On the plus side, it was great to get to know Anna and Dave. Anna used to live in Spain before moving back to Estonia and had great knowledge of Spanish. Every so often, we would lose her while she took photos and she would catch up with us ten minutes later. That said, she was a pretty fast walker, loved the ups and the downs!

We reached Puente la Reina just before 1pm, the town is large and was starting to fill with pilgrims when we arrived in. We passed the parochial albergue and first private albergue and made way for the bridge over the rio Arga, which is on the way out of the town. Once you reach the pilgrims bridge, you can see the albergue at the top of a hill with a sign “Albergue 300metres”, Our faces dropped when we found out that the 300metres is all uphill!! What owner would place an albergue in such an awkward place?? Our legs took us there somehow and we checked in. I took a bottom bunk. The albergue has 100 beds which filled up pretty quickly. It wasn’t long before mats were used as overflow however.

Bob and Leslie arrived about an hour after us and I was delighted to see them again. They always made me smile. We were joined shortly after by the Irish gang, including Ciaran and two of the German guys that I had met outside of Pamplona the day before. So there was a close family being built up. The only person I had missed was Andrea, who had met a good crowd of people who walked at the same pace. I hoped to see her before I left for home. We all agreed however that this was probably the worst albergue we had stayed in. The people working there constantly sighing under their breaths and I didn’t get a pilgrim vibe from it. Call me choosy but I do appreciate owners who have a feeling what we pilgrims have undertaken.

The night was capped off by an epic thunderstorm, I mean epic! A band of clouds came in from the west and covered the albergue. The winds picked up and rain bucketed from the skies. I was so glad to be indoors. Water even started to breach through the ceiling of the albergue and I noticed a nice puddle gather right beside my bunk, So..it was a fairly busy day! I hoped to get some sleep tonight. I had come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t reach Burgos by the 15th. Plan B had kicked in at this point and I had hoped to finish up in Belorado. I was a little sad. I enjoyed Burgos last year and wanted to cap the trip off by visiting the cathedral. I would leave it to another time.

September 8th, 2014 – Day 5
Puente la Reina to Ayegui

Another early day was on the cards as we were forecast sun, and most importantly, humidity. I was beginning to get used to the heat and started to wear a scarf around my neck. It didn’t stop my bald spot on my head turning a bright shade of red, however!! But we were doing a good proportion of our walking in the early morning so there was no need for panic. We left shortly after 6am today. We being Dave, Anna and myself. Bob and Leslie would follow us. Our agreed stopping point was Ayegui, which is just beyond Estella. A large municipal albergue awaits us which many people speak highly of. On the plus side, we were off the dreaded recommended stages but on the negative side, I had passed through two major Camino towns without properly investigating them.

I actually had a good sleep in Puente la Reina and we were the first to leave. The rains had stopped shortly after midnight and there was little sign of the downpours on the roads when we left. Again, we chose to wait until our first stop for some breakfast. It was pitch black, save for the stars in the sky. There were a few other peregrinos out and about and you could see them by the bobbing light of their respective flashlights. The terrain was set to be tricky today. All the towns we pass through are based on hills, so once you climb up and into the town, you need to make a big descent to leave it. The first town we pass was Maneru which was still sleeping. It was 7am and nothing was moving. The lights were on in the town and showed us the way out.

Another 45 minutes down the line after a descent and another climb, we reach Cirauqui. I had read a lot of this town and its Roman bridge which is actually part of the Camino. It is worn out after a thousand years of trampling on but it was great to see a piece of history. Unfortunately, this had to be the day the battery on my phone died and I was unable to take some photos.

Throughout, the morning and early afternoon, we passed mile after mile of vineyards. We were not quite in La Rioja yet, but you could tell that we were in wine country in Spain. Dave, who works in the wine industry in Australia, could tell you the exact type of wine by looking at the grape. “Vino Tinto” was good enough for me! Lorca was the next town, a further 5km onwards. It was close to 9 am at this stage and the sun was up a good while. Due to the tough climb into Lorca, we stopped off for a bit to relax. Luckily enough, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so there wasn’t going to be a repeat of last night’s downpour.

Villatuerta is the next town, a further 5km onward. Villatuerta has a very popular albergue “La Casa Magica” which is privately owned and while we had no plans on staying there, there were people outside already. It is close to 11am at this stage. Villatuerta is, for a change, situated in a valley, and there is a nice steady climb once you leave it. My hip started to act up on me at this point. Time for some Camino candy (ibuprofen, if you haven’t walked the Camino before!!)

The great joy of walking the Camino is being able to walk by yourself for a while, or if you want to have company, you can have it. It is your choice. I walked the final stretch into Estella by myself, over mostly flatlands. Estella has a good few suburbs to pass through but not as many as Pamplona. The Rio Ega cuts the town in half and there are many bridges you need to cross. Some are wooden, some are made of stone. The first bridge is wooden and after the previous night’s rains, it was slippy. I knew there would be an accident if I wasn’t careful and yes! I was the first to realise it when my ass hit the deck. It was painful but the only thing dented was my ego as I watched pilgrims pass me by.

We arrive into Estella (it is also called Lizarra in Navarra) and are greeted by it’s church of San Pedro. Camino tourists litter the pathways taking photos of the sights. I spot Natty from Canada, the first time I see her in 3 days. She looks lost and is behind schedule she says. I wish her a Buen Camino and move on. I wonder how she got on. We pass through Estella and on to Ayegui, 2km westwards. It’s albergue hasn’t opened yet and we are in plenty of time. When I arrive with Dave, Anna is there with a Belgian called Phillipe. Phillipe has walked from Le Puy in France. He has very little English but great Spanish and we have enough to communicate, although my Spanish has been found out big time during the 5 or so days here. Anna and Phillipe are first in the queue of 2!! Bob and Leslie arrive shortly after. We didn’t see many other familiar faces after the usual crew. It’s a large albergue and I’m just glad to have found somewhere to sit down. I automatically think of food..like I do most days! This place serves meals but we wanted to visit the town and check out San Pedro church closer.

After washing my clothes, and powering up my phone, I am ready to see Estella. The food was top class and it was very cheap. 10pm was closing time in the albergue and we were 10 minutes short from being locked out. The run back was fun!

September 9th, 2014 – Day 6
Ayegui to Torres del Rio

During dinner the evening before, we agreed to keep staying away from the towns recommended by Brierley to finish your day. The next end town was Los Arcos and after that was Torres del Rio, at further 10km. So the plan was to aim for Torres del Rio, which is in or around 30km if you take ascents into account. I also started to notice that the majority of people were phoning ahead and pre-booking albergues for the next day, which I usually avoid doing. I prefer to let the Camino do its work and if an albergue is booked out, I move on to the next, however, I didn’t want to lose my buddies I had met and asked that I be included in the booking in Torres del Rio.

That morning, we (Dave, myself and Anna) started out early, as it was going to be a hot sunny day again in Navarre. It was pitch black and I believe it was close to 5 am. Easily a record for earliest start in my books! Walking out of Ayegui, you need to venture to the main road and again, you need to be careful as failure to spot a sign means you are lost. And guess what!? We missed a sign! Hmm..we turned back until we saw the sign for the turnoff to “Bodegas Irache”, the free-flowing wine fountain. I heard about this place ages ago, almost on the same day I heard about the actual Camino. Imagine waking up, being still asleep and before having breakfast, sipping on free wine. Nice, eh? It was 5.30am, we sure were the first ones there that morning. Pity I hadn’t an extra bottle, I would have filled it up for the rest of the day.

We moved on after a while through wooded forests, plenty of trees and it wasn’t long before the climb to Villamayor de Monjardin began. We had a 150m climb ahead of us over a few kms. We have walked worse however. The sun was starting to gradually rise as we were climbing. There wasn’t a cloud in the young sky. We reached Villamayor before 7am after a nice climb, it’s large church greeted us. There was nothing open when we arrived and we looked right through the town hoping that a cafe or an albergue was serving breakfast. It wasn’t to be. Damn! Now we had a nice 10km stretch ahead of us to Los Arcos with no towns. I have walked longer without food, but it is breakfast..c’mon!  Brierley even mentions “Take food with you during this difficult section!!”

Walking from Villamayor is all downhill for 6km or so and then the terrain becomes flat. We walk through field after field of vineyards. Nothing else. We passed owners looking after their crop, with the sun looking down on us. We pass a Spanish man beside his van, who was either opening up or closing down. After a quick conversation, we found out he was closing his mobile cafe. A highlight of the day came on the stretch leading to Los Arcos. Myself and Dave were talking for quite a while and didn’t notice Anna in the background. She ran up to us with large branch each of grapes from the fields. A great though and it quenched the thirst until Los Arcos.

We arrived into Los Arcos close to 11am and we went straight for the local cafe. There were two there. I bought a roll and a cafe con leche and took my shoes off. I honestly wanted to finish up there, but purely because it was so warm. We had another 8km to go before we reached Torres del Rio. We came across our German friends, whom we hadn’t seen in a few days and I met another Irish friend that I last saw in Roncesvalles. Local men were playing cards in the main square as the bells chimed for 11 am in the Church of Santa Maria. I didn’t visit the church, unfortunately. I hope to stay here the next time I visit. I remember thinking to myself that we were so far ahead of anyone at this stage that there was no need to book the albergue in Torres. Ugh..I hate races!

The next 8km was mostly flat but this was broken by a steep climb into Sansol, a small town before Torres del Rio. I often wonder who gave the go-ahead to build these towns so close to each other. On reaching Sansol, you turn a corner and you reach Torres del Rio. It is a fab town, it’s main attraction is the sepulcher church. It was quiet, and as it was after midday, it was reaching the start of its siesta. I needed one after that day. We checked in, got the clothes washed and had some lunch. Anna was super-thoughtful again and bought a melon in Los Arcos. We along with the other folks staying in Casa Mariela ate it all, with help from 2 cats. There was a good crowd staying here, a lot of people we hadn’t met before, including 2 English men. They were great fun. Phillipe found us also, along with Bob and Leslie. The other two private albergues were booked solid by 3 pm so it was turning out to be a busy September! We went for dinner later on that evening and I had an early night afterward. The sun took a bit out of me but I survived. Just.

September 10th, 2014 – Day 7
Torres del Rio – Logroño

We had another early start today but a short day was planned as decided to finish up in Logrono. It was Anna’s final day also. She has walked with us since Pamplona and was part of the family. But we had another few hours of walking to go before saying our goodbyes. I was also looking forward to getting back to Logrono as I had started my previous Camino there last year.

The weather was perfect again but it was cold in the morning. We were getting close to the La Rioja / Navarra border, which is just as you enter Logrono. La Rioja includes Logrono, Najera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and ends just after Granon..which is another 4 days away. Navarra has been very kind to us since we crossed into it at Roncesvalles. But it has some of the toughest terrains on the Camino. Wine Country awaits. The bad thing about leaving Torres del Rio at crazy o clock is there is a pretty tough climb just as you open the door of the albergue. We have a nice 100metres ascent over 2kms. I find climbs no problem at this stage and reached the top of the hill (Alto NS del Poyo) in no time. There is a Spanish couple giving refreshments for a donation at the top and I take a can of Coke to cool me down. It is only 7 am at this stage and I watch the sunrise while I sip on my drink. I’m joined by a Belgian girl called Cap. She stayed in the same albergue as us last night. She is in university at present and can afford the time to have a long Camino. Oh, I wish I was in her position again! I’ve also noticed over the last week that I had been drinking a lot of cans of Coke. Back in Ireland, I never drink it, but here I was a 1-or-2-a-day-man. I hope I don’t bring the habit home with me.

After the climb, comes the descent and I let Dave and Anna walk ahead as I navigate cautiously. The ground below me is made of dry red silt as there has been no rain here in a week. The descent is around bends and is tricky. You can tell I’m not a descent kind-of-guy! I had noticed, along with my blister at the back of my foot, that I had been getting pain in my left hip. It only seemed to affect me on descents but a few Camino candy sorted me out for the day.

We arrive at Viana, 12km from Torres del Rio. The Camino cuts through the old town, which is asleep. The only movement is coming from the main plaza. About half a dozen men are putting together a bull ring so I can only assume the town is holding “a running of the bulls”. There are no advertisements for it however. We walk on after a few minutes. Our next stop is La Rioja and Logrono. I’m not a fan of walking into large cities. Last year, the walk into Burgos was depressing and in 2011, the walk into Santiago was one I wish I could avoid. But they are part of the Camino as a whole and must be done unfortunately. The final 6kms into Logrono passes through suburbs, under tunnels and along main roads. A large green sign post with “Communidad de la Rioja” tells you exactly where you are. Just before that, we passed Felisa who sells trinkets and gives a stamp for a donation. She and her family have been doing this all her life. It is a great place to grab a rest as there are a few seats. I recognised Logrono’s main bridge (Puente de Piedra) over the Rio Ebro but many of it’s streets were in darkness when I arrived last year.

Logrono is a large town, with over 140,000 people living there. It is a recommended end stage also, and many pilgrims stay here. It has 7 albergues also, and it is next to impossible to not find a bed here. We stayed in one of the many private albergues here and after settling in, Anna decided that we meet to say our goodbyes. It was great to see Phillipe later on as it meant he could wish Anna well also. I slept for a few hours and met in the main plaza while the town was waking up. The meal as always was fab and I drank far too much wine yet again. Saying goodbyes are never my forte and saying goodbye on the Camino is much harder. You open yourself up to people whom you would consider strangers days before and friendships are formed. Anna also kindly gave each of us a bracelet with a shell attached to it, the symbol of the Camino.

I had decided before reaching Logrono to start walking by myself for a while. Prior to the Camino, I booked a room in a pension in Navarrette so I had tomorrow’s walk set out for me. Dave, Bob, and Leslie were walking to Ventosa which is further on so it was unlikely I would see them again. I hoped I did as I wanted to wish them goodbye. Tomorrow would be another short day which I looked forward to. It would be on familiar ground after walking it in 2013.

September 11th, 2014 – Day 8
Logroño to Navarrete

A short day but different to the previous week. No more would I be walking with the same crew, and I felt a little down knowing this. But this would be a great chance to meet some new people. After dinner, the night before, I bumped into the three Irish men who I had met first in Roncesvalles. One of them (called Tom) wanted to have a slow day and was hoping to stop in Navarrete, which was my stopping point. So I made plans with him to walk the short distance, around 12km. We agreed on 7.30 the next morning. I might not be walking alone after all.

The next morning came, and I was the last to leave. Tom had stayed in an albergue on the outskirts of the city but I forgot to take note of where it was. After 15 mins waiting, I moved on eastwards. I might see him further on, or he might catch up with me, time will tell. I wondered where Bob, David and Leslie were while making their way to Ventosa. Also, Philippe was going further, possibly to Najera, and Anna..I wondered what she would be doing today. I don’t mind walking by myself but it lets the mind wander. And mine was wandering today.

I have walked this stretch before in May 2013. You can read about it here. Walking out of Logrono, you don’t have the same experience as walking out of Leon or Burgos or Pamplona. You are greeted by a large park once you leave the main city. Murals cover the walls, while dog-walkers and morning-runners pass me. I’m in no great hurry and for the first time this Camino I switch on some music on my phone and my earphones go in. A Spotify playlist I have created blasts out “There is a Light that never goes out” by The Smiths. I start to sing under my breath…”Take me out tonight…”!! It’s one of those songs you want to sing at the top of your voice and I was in that mood! I reach the large reservoir “Planta de Granjera”, and I wait if I could see some fish. The famous pilgrim “Marcelino Lobato” was giving stamps in a stall just by the lake. He has walked the Camino 50 times. On my credencial he wrote “Cada peregrino hace su Camino” which translates to “Each pilgrim does their pilgrimage”. Very true!

Leaving Planta de Granjera, I am back in wine country, with vineyards to each side of me. Walking around this area is great in the autumn when you see the grapes ready for harvest.  It is different in May where the grapes are not ready to be picked. I don’t meet many people today. I’m baffled by this as in the last week, the Camino has been crowded. After an hour, I see the medieval town of Navarrete in the distance, but it is still a while away. It sits tall on a hill. It is not even 9am, I am far too early. Navarrete is a small town based around a hill with a church spire being the highest point, like most towns in Spain.  I walk in looking for the pension which I had booked before I left. It is called Hostal Villa de Navarrete and is located at the far end of the town, across the road from the main municipal albergue. I might as well have been the only pilgrim to have walked into the town that day based on the looks I was getting from locals. But not to worry. I checked in and had to wait an hour before my room was ready. I had some breakfast while I waited. The only food I had today was some fruit and yoghurt.

My room was standard fare, but 5-star compared to the albergues I had stayed in over the last week. I usually book one room in advance and this year I chose this small town. No idea why. After a rest, I took a wander around. I wanted to check out Naverrete’s church which is decorated with gold. I took a minute out here before checking if I knew anyone in the municipal albergue. I didn’t recognise anyone. I guess everyone who started with me on day one was ahead of me.

After the town’s siesta I came out later and had a meal in the restaurant with some folks I had got talking to. The weather gods were very kind again to us today with no rain and only a few clouds. We were expecting rain however, either the following day or the day after. Overall a short day, and one where I got used to walking by myself.

September 12th, 2014 – Day 9
Navarrete to Azofra

I had a near-perfect sleep after drifting off around 10pm. The town’s church bells woke me a few times but I was back asleep shortly afterward. Most towns in Spain have churches that chime on the hour every hour. I was reminded of my stay in Hontanas last May where the bells kept me awake all night. However, I wake up close to 5am right before the alarm bell went off on my phone. I wanted to get up, get ready and head out on the trail. The destination was Azofra which is 22km eastwards. Last year, I passed it without giving it much thought but I decided to check it out this year as I heard a lot of good things about the municipal albergue. Hmm..I seem to be basing my decisions on where to stay on their albergues..shouldn’t it be the other way around? 

I leave the hostel keys on the table and quietly close over the door. There is no one around, you could hear a pin drop in the streets. It wasn’t long before I was retracing my steps from last year. The only difference is last year the sun was out..now it is pitch black with a chill in the air. The thought crossed my mind that I could catch David, Bob and Leslie as they were staying in Ventosa which is another 6 km down the line. I first of all had to deal with the pitch black in front of me. I still had this nagging groin pain on my left leg and the blister on my left foot had not burst. A few Camino candy got rid of any pain I had.

Navarrete’s winding streets are tiny and without a decent amount of light you run the threat of getting lost. Yep..it happened again! I missed an arrow and had to retrace my steps before I ended up on the main road. Once you leave Navarrete, you have a short walk on the main road with lights and then you are back in vineyards again. And once again, at that point I lost the arrows again. I was almost thinking of staying put until the sun came up so I had some natural light. I switched on my torch on my phone and found myself slap bang in the middle of a nowhere. GPS to the rescue! I was off the Camino by a few kilometres. Not a great place to be alone at close to 6am. In the end, I discovered I had followed a rogue arrow down a detour to a town called Sotes. It’s not officially on the Camino but it has an albergue and people can stay there. After about an hour, I got to the next town, Ventosa where my buddies were staying. I meet Christina and her friends from Argentina again as she was leaving and waved to them. It was the first time I saw Christina since outside of Zubiri. I wandered on making my way along more vineyards and dustpaths, mostly alone although I do stumble upon two French women who wish me a Bon Matin!!

It wasn’t long before I could see the lights of Najera and it took an hour or so before I got to the outskirts. My hip was beginning to hurt again but I was hoping the walk would be over soon so I could put my feet up. I was craving a cafe con leche also. Entering Najera is not attractive by the way, the Camino floats alongside an industrial centre. A park doesn’t hide how hideous it is. I pass the funny little dome building and the scribes on the wall and it isn’t long before I cross the River Najerilla. It’s a beautiful town once you get into it. Again, all these memories come back to me from last year.

Leaving Najera, it was close to 9am and I knew my day was nearly over. Azofra is the next town and is about 5 km away. It is also when I bump into Paddy from Canada. He is just leaving Najera and heading to Santo Domingo de la Calzada. He was the life of the party back in Torres del Rio so it was great to talk to him. It was only then that I realised that it was him who stood up on the chair to take a great group shot of us all. A funny man and really intelligent. We reach Azofra close to 11 and grab a drink, a cold one. It’s quiet and the albergue is closed until after 12. What else better to do than chill with a drink until it opens!? I wish Paddy a Buen Camino as he headed to Santo Domingo, where he had a pension booked. At this point, everyone I has previously met are ahead of me. The joys of a slow Camino. I meet new friends here also, Alo from France, Peter from Germany and Joanna from Cork in Ireland, all of whom had started a day after me, the 4th of September. Azofra is such a tiny town, even smaller than Navarrete, but it’s shop / tienda was open all day (yay!!) so I was able to make some dinner. There are no bunks here also. Each room consists of two beds so I had the option of a room to myself or sharing. I shared with Peter. Highlight of the evening was coming across a group from South Korea, all of them stayed in the albergue. One brought with them a guitar and there was a mini-session that evening singing songs from their own country, as well as Beatles tunes.

I must have walked over 25km if you take into account me becoming geographically embarrassed! Tomorrow the aim is Granon as the majority of the gang here are going there..but I would like to walk longer so my last day is as short as possible. Two more days to go!!

September 13th 2014 – Day 10
Azofra to Redecilla del Camino

Today was my penultimate day. And I had a choice whether to make it a long one or short one. Do I walk to Granon and finish up after 22km or continue to Redecilla del Camino and 27km? By walking a long-ish day today, I would have an easy day into Belorado tomorrow. I also had the choice of sticking around with the guys in this albergue and staying in Granon, where they had planned on staying or moving on to the unknown.

I woke up early as usual. I had a great sleep in probably the best albergues I had stayed in. Apart from the poor wifi, it was fine. No bunks as well..actual beds, so make sure you stop by here if you can! My German friend in the bed beside me was snoring to his heart’s content so I left him quietly and moved on out. I had bought some fruit the evening before so I was sorted. The next town after Azofra was Ciruena, about 9km onwards. It was 5,30 when I moved on, the sky was pitch black but there were a good number of pilgrims out and about. I was expecting some rain today, the first of this Camino. I didn’t mind it, as long as it wasn’t heavy.

It isn’t long before you are back on dirt tracks again once you leave Azofra, Last year, I walked with an extra kilo of mud on my feet due to heavy rain, but today I walked with a crisp under foot. My black boots were unrecognisable now as they had turned to a shade of dark red. I had walked much of the morning alone, and I didn’t mind. I had enjoyed the company over the last week but sometimes your own company is healthy. I walked 9km in just over an hour and a half. It’s amazing how fast you can go with some good music in your ears. I passed alot of people this morning, none whom I recognised. I also knew David, Leslie and Bob were staying in Ciruena, the next town, so I hoped to see them.

I reached Ciruena and it was still dark, but the sun was rising. No clouds in the sky. I remembered my time here last year passing the vast housing estate beside the golf course. As far away from a Camino town as you can go. I try to imagine living here but can’t. Finding the way out of this town is pretty difficult and I become lost again. I take a road out and lose all sight of arrows….I retrace my steps. Gps even fails. I can’t even see the albergue although I see a sign pointing me in it’s direction. Lost is not a great place to be hmm. But just as I walk backwards, I see a woman from England and she tells me “It’s that way”, pointing me in the right way. I thank her and move on. I notice she was carrying the Brierley guide. The same guide that is sitting inside my pack. How lazy of me!

Moving on I meet Liam from Belfast. A tall stocky guy. He had walked from St Jean, but a day after me. He is hobbling but determined. He tells me he was in British Army and had served in Afghanistan so the Camino is a walk in the park. I can well believe him. We talk for an hour or so until he tells me he needs to stop and look at a new blister that is bothering him. I can see Santo Domingo de la Calzada in the distance so hopefully I can find a cafe con leche somewhere. The sun is up now and it is approaching 8am. Santo Domingo is quiet when I arrive, all its pilgrims have moved on and the last few stragglers are checking out of the albergue as I pass it by. I’m delighted to meet Christina again. I haven’t seen her since Ventosa. She splashed out and stayed in the Parador the previous night. She, like me, was looking for an open cafe. I couldn’t find one unfortunately. Maybe as it is Sunday?

I leave Santo Domingo a little after half 8, after resting for a bit. I enjoyed my time there last year. I remember speaking to the hospitalera in the albergue who knew of my home town, even though she is from France. The church with the chicken and the hen was closed unfortunately. I walk alone for an hour or so until I reach Granon. It is still mid-morning and I had completed 22km. The first thing I see when I enter the town is it’s large church..and then a cafe! I walk right to the cafe and order a cafe con leche and an aquarius…as I do every morning. There was a large crowd sitting down outside the cafe, I didn’t know any of them. It felt good to be a stranger again. I kept looking for Liam from a few hours back, or even some of the crowd from the previous night in Azofra. I have David, Leslie and Bob in the back of my mind today also.

It wasn’t long before I hear Liam..”What about ye?!! in a northern Irish dulcet tone. He was glad to see a cafe, like myself, so he sat down and had a cafe con leche. I didn’t mind sitting down for a little longer. The blisters were bothering him and he was considering buying a new pair of shoes in Burgos. I definitely know what he means. I had the same problem back in 2012. About twenty minutes later, I see Bob and Dave wander into the town. Now I didn’t expect to see them again! They both sat down and sipped on a drink. I asked about Leslie and why she wasn’t with them? She had taken a bus to the next albergue as she had problems walking. Bummer!

I reckon I spent the bones of an hour sitting in the same chair at the cafe in Granon. Soaking up the atmosphere, drinking and saying hello to everyone going by. Time meant nothing to me! I was due to finish up the following day and I didn’t want it to end. I was hoping the remaining day and a bit would drag out. We left Granon; Bob, Dave, Liam and myself. The next 3 or 4 kms were uninteresting. We were walking alongside a road and the terrain was flat. It was great to be chatting to the lads again however. Liam fell behind after a while before we reached the border to Castille y Leon, which is the largest province of Spain. The first town we encountered was Redecilla del Camino, which is just off a main road. It literally is a road which consists of a restaurant, a hotel, an albergue and a church. A number of houses lie off the main road. The albergue “Albergue municipal San Lázaro” has 52 bunk beds and is a steal at €5. It wasn’t open when I arrived so myself Bob and Dave waited outside the bar and had a drink and a snack. One last Coca Cola before my last day tomorrow.

Eventually, the albergue opened at 1 pm and I said goodbye to the lads. They had beds booked in Viloria de Rioja, the next town. I’m quite happy to “ad-lib” the Camino. Some people like to book in advance, but I prefer to let the Camino provide for me. I was very lucky with the weather also, as just as I entered the albergue, the heavens opened. I had dinner in the bar down the road and more good people, new people. The next day is my final day, 12km to Belorado.

September 14th, 2014 – Day 11
Redecilla del Camino to Belorado

Every good thing must come to an end. You hear this all the time and it couldn’t have been more true for my final day. I had 12 km left and I would hang up my Camino boots for one more year. I was going to make sure the day was close enough to perfect. Oh how I wanted to keep walking..and the plan was to get to Burgos..but I had a flight to catch in Bilbao in 2 days time.

I woke up that final morning at around 6am, which is pretty late by my standards. Most of the albergue had vanished into the darkness and I was left to gather my few belongings. I chose to leave my pole there as I knew this stage was flat and there was no difficulty to it. It was only like 12 km..I have walked further back home in Ireland. I had some fruit that I bought in the local tienda the evening before and headed out the door. Alone. I had gotten to know a few people from dinner the night before and I had a feeling I would see them at some stage this day. Writing this now, I couldn’t tell you their names but there was a couple from Portland, another couple from Canada and James from New Zealand. James had walked from St Jean like myself and was walking to Santiago..unlike me. He had made plans to meet his daughter in Leon in three days time so he had a few days to spare. He was hoping to have a short day today as a result. I pointed out Belorado to him in his Brierley book and told him where I was staying. Hopefully I would see him later.

Anyway, it was close to half 6am when I left. My pace was non existent and I was stopping and starting every quarter an hour. I passed through various little towns but it was too early for anything to be open. The trail was a whole lot less quieter also compared to the first few days. Were people shooting ahead on buses or was I too late starting? Regardless I took advance of the quiet surroundings and took in my final few hours on the Camino. It’s sure better than walking into a busy Santiago de Compostela, I thought to myself. The terrain was rather unremarkable, I walked mainly alongside a road with grasslands the other side of me. The trail had a number of puddles on it too, from the rains the night before. A bonus was the clear sky. I wondered how long that would hold out for.

After close to three hours of walking, I reached Belorado. The entrance to the town is ugly to say the least but the Camino isn’t all a cakewalk. I was far too early. It was close to 10 am and the albergue doesn’t open it’s doors until 12 am so I stop off at the first albergue at the entrance to the town and have a cafe con leche. It was the longest cafe con leche I had drank but it was great to chill out. There were a number of other pilgrims have breakfast there, including a few I had met before. I gathered up my things and moved further into the town. The albergue was closed and a sign told me that it was not open until 12. So I walked to the main plaza and chilled out there for a while. I met Cap, from Belgium, at the nearest cafe. We hadn’t met until leaving Torres del Rio. I had another cafe con leche and took it easy with her before heading back to wait for the albergue to open.

I didn’t mind waiting. I had music and I chatted to all the pilgrims as they passed me by. Most of them I knew. I had stayed in Cuatro Cantones last year and really enjoyed it. The family are super-helpful and I would recommend it to anyone (You can in fact read about my time there last year here). It holds 60 people, it has a pool and the family raises chickens!!! It wasn’t too long before I saw James from New Zealand. He has an incredibly relaxed pace and I don’t think I would last very long walking with him  He was walking with two German girls. He was more than happy to stop and wait for opening, however the German girls needed some convincing! They wanted to stay in the donativo in Tosantos a further 4km up the road. Just as we were talking, the owner’s daughter opened the door and said hello. I remembered her face from last year and I asked her straight away. “Do you remember last summer the day when the group from a college in Dublin stayed with you?” She had to really think about it, but she said yes, and mentioned it was one of her busiest days. I told her I stayed that night and I had a ball! She gave me a hug right there. The German girls decided to stay at that stage! It’s the little things!!

Later on that evening, I met Jason whom I met in St Jean before starting out. It was great to see him and find out how he was getting on. However, he was having some problems with blisters. I did my last washing, and had time for a couple of cervezas with James before dinner back in albergue. The night was filled with red wine, great conversation and hesitant planning for my return home. The next day I needed to get up early to catch a bus to Bilbao. My walking was over for another year but I knew I would be back. It was a matter of when rather than if.

Buen Camino!