Day 9, September 17, Santa Domingo to Beldorado

13 miles, 600 ft. elevation gain, 8:30 to 2 pm. Stop for coffee, lunch, snacks, a siesta on a bench and visit the small churches for a brief moment.

*Rolling hills, harvested farmland. Cross the border from La Rioja into Castilla, Leon. 
*Architecture changes. Vineyards are gone, now farmland.
*Motorists honk and wave at us, the pilgrims. It feels good.
*Buzzards, as in a HUGE flock, circle a farm building.
*A Dubliner plays his pipe, like a flute, in churches in the small villages. Fantastic to sit and listen, or hear as I pass by.
*Visit with an Irishman and others on the trail. It helps pass the time and is interesting.
*See the famous and old baptismal font at Redecilla.
*Walk through Tenth century villages built to house and support the pilgrims.

First night of the bull fights

I met Flor, the receptionist, at 5 pm in the lobby. She was off work, her 7-year old neighbor girl by the hand and we went downstairs to have a beer. Flor insisted on buying and got the little girl a treat, too. She told me why she had offered to go with me to the bull fight.

As a immigrant worker, living alone, she knows what it is like to be in a strange country as a single woman. Since she came to Spain a few years ago, she has learned enough Spanish, English, French and German to work at the reception desk instead of in the kitchen. I asked how he got to the little village in Spain. It seems she has a woman friend who married, and came here and invited her to come, too.

She made a phone call on her cell phone, then we went out to the bull fight. We walked up the block, around the corner, where there was a portable metal bull ring set up. This is not the old part of town, with large adobe-type apartment buildings. That is across the river and truly charming with cobble stone streets, old quarried red stone buildings and spectacular churches.

Standing on the corner for a few minutes, we waited for her friends to join us.  These two women worked in the restaurant of the hotel and were about the same age, early 30’s.  But not nearly as attractive as Flor, who has the latest frosted blonde hair style and beautiful make up. She tells me she doesn’t like the bull fights, but they are the culture. 
There are four nights of fights. Tonight, the first night, is for amateurs. There are no capes, matadors, or killing of the bulls.  The ring fills with young men, picking their defense. Some are in the two stacks of huge tractor tires stacked three high. A pickup truck drags in and drops a small grand stand with about 6 steps and about 20 feet long in the center between the tire stacks.  The ring itself has a metal bar about 18 inches off the ground that runs around the entire ring.   It is a toehold for the men to step on as they vault over the high wall to escape the raging bulls. On the other side of the inner wall is an alley, then the wall on the grandstands. We sit three seats up from this wall. Great view.
Raging bull is not an exaggeration. The first animal charges in, not a big one, but the horns are formidable, arching up and out and with sharp points. Reaching the center of the ring, it pauses, not sure what is happening.  All the animals are allowed only one time in the ring, by order of the pope in 1063 (or so).  Bulls quickly figure out there is a man behind the cape and if they are not killed in 15 minutes, they are taken from the ring and slaughtered outside. Otherwise, they charge the person directly. One bull killed 16 people and wounded several before the Pope had to make a decree. I guess the locals needed a really higher authority to control the killing by the bulls.
But tonight there are only young men hanging from the side and the tires. At first the bull blasts the ring, trying to catch an amateur. After a few minutes, the bull tires, standing and staring. Now the young men come out a little farther, and the bull charges them.  One man jumps up, tucking his feet up under him, and the bull passes under him. It was fantastic to watch. Some leap for the ring wall. But some brave men cleverly make a simple side step, with the bull’s horns passing by their knees and it passes. I guess the bull cannot turn that quickly on himself.
The bull gets slower and the young men braver. After about 15 minutes, a huge old blonde granddaddy bull, with great horns and a big bell around the neck enters, the young bull goes directly to him and they are herded out of the ring together.
The next bull comes in so fast I let out a yelp. It goes directly to the stack of tires, butting it and almost dislodging the stack.  I can see the men inside.  When the bull turns to the other stack, all evacuate and go to the sides, putting a hand on top of the wall, ready to vault over quickly.
This animal is not a bull at all, but a female. It acts as deadly and is very fast. One man makes spectacular jumps onto and off the top of the tire stack. Flor points him out, saying he is Pakistani.  I had noticed several women in traditional Muslim dress and she says they have a community of Pakistanis in Najera. The animal leaves with the granddaddy, easily and quickly.
When the next bull entered, it went to its right, tilting its head toward the wall of the ring, so the tip of the horn nearly brushed against the wall.  Since the previous animal headed straight to the tire stack in the center, the men were now all against the wall. The bull ran around the entire ring with its horn tilted to the wall and the men vaulted over the wall with breath-taking speed, like dominos. Tired, the bull went to the center and the men teased her.  The Pakistani, who was very tall and slender, enticed the bull to charge him. Instead of side stepping away from the horns, the man leapt up, spreading his legs and the bull passed under.  It stopped abruptly and stared at where the man should have been.  It was so comical we all laughed.
In all, there were six animals, teased by the young men, then ushered out by the granddaddy bull.  Each time their fast charge into the ring and deadly aim for the men made me yelp in fear. I have never seen any animal so vicious. Not surprising, as these are wild bulls and don’t compare to my Dad’s domestic Hereford bulls at the ranch in Wyoming.
Flor told me some of her story as we waited for the next bull to enter. She is from Romania, but  has no family there.  These Spanish people are now her people. She is welcome in their community, the neighbors are kind and the little girl is like her little sister. Flor tells me her two friends would like to talk to me, but they have no English. And my biggest regret the entire trip is I was too lazy to learn more than a few phrases of Spanish before coming. 
By 7 pm the fights are over. I go back to the hotel for dinner and Flor heads home. I am going to figure out a way to walk tomorrow and return to see the first night of the real bull fight. Flor says these are not the good fighters. The best fighters are the fourth and final night. But I will be three days down the trail by then.

Day 7, September 15, 2008

This hat I bought the second day on the trail, as the first one blew away in the mountains. It is looking well worn, as I stuff it in my pack until I really need it.

Logrono to Najera
7:30 am to 2 pm.

See many familiar faces on the pilgrim trail today. We all greet each other with “Buen Camino”, meaning good path.
Met a new South Korean woman and young Japanese man.

At ten a.m., sit on sun on steps, sharing snacks with a young Spanish couple and the South Korean woman, of licorice, apple, nuts, cheese. The young Spaniard asks, “Can I marry you?” He thinks I am rich to have a month in Spain! Ha, Ha! Good thing his girlfriend cannot understand English.

Then I walk up the steps to visit the local church, which has a carved alter piece covered in gold. Put 1 Euro in the box and it is illuminated. Met a couple from California there, doing an auto tour of the Camino.

Cover my blisters with blister pads. Wear my lighter WrightSocks. Feel good today.

Saw a rebuilt conical stone hut. It has a bench all around the inside and one small window, opposite the door. There are several ruins of these huts along the trail. Were they tombs, shelters for sheepherders or farmers?

A great battle was fought on a snall knoll along the trail. Roland, the Christian, killed the giant Muslim here, which marked the beginning of the demise of Islam here.

Pass lots of vineyards today with dark purple grapes and some light green ones.
Almonds falling to the ground from trees.
Lots of huge, furry caterpillars on the path.
Purple fall crocus.

Around a beautiful lake: Black ducks, fishermen, big, sucker-type fish visible from the bridge.
Stay at San Fernando Hotel, 35 Euros. I am not yet into the hostels.

Asked the receptionist about the bull fight poster ad I saw. Is it tonight and where is it?
Are you alone? She asks. Yes I am. Come at 5 pm and I will go with you to the bull right. It is very close.

Day 5, September 13, 2008

Irache to Los Arcos
10 miles, 600 ft. ascent
8:30 a.m. to noon

Cloudy, breezy day, pleasant walking through rolling countryside.

Castle on hill. Moorish fountain.
Huge, round bales of golden hay.
Ripe, black grapes in vineyards along path.
Bamboo in ravines.
Ripe blackberries.
Pines, olive groves.

Chatted with English couple from Yorkshire again.

Stayed at Pension Mali, 35 Euros.
My feet ache and are blistered!

Wine in the main plaza in the afternoon sun.
Visited the Santa Maria Church.
Attended the Pilgrim mass at 8 pm.
Many people there, mostly older, and several other pilgrims.
The church was then illuminated. One of the most beautiful I have ever seen, with a gold altar piece and spectacular paintings. It is nice to see the works or art where they belong, in a church, instead of a museum.

Dinner with pilgrim Anna, a 30ish Spanish woman I met on the trail. 10Euros

Day 4 on my El Camino

September 12, 2008, Friday
13 miles, 1, 072 ft. ascent.
Puente La Reina to Frache
8:30 am to 3:30 pm
Cloudy, breeze, cool walking, but a coat is not necessary.

Hilltown appears on the horizon, Maneru. It reminds me of Italy with the church in the middle, surrounded by homes with red tile roofs and vineyards with black grapes leading us to the village.

The path takes us directly through the town, as it was actually built to take care of pilgrims in the 1070´s. Narrow, winding streets and old buildings. Totally charming.

Stopped by a cafe and visited with an older couple from Yorkshire, England, in the sunshine.
Walked over a Roman road and a bridge built by the Romans.
Past two huge monasteries and a hermitage built to help pilgrims in 1060.
Visited with two Australian women from Tasmania.

Next to the medieval hermitage is a wine cellar with special offerings for Pilgrims, a fountain of both water the wine.
Had a little wine here, it was good. And about half a mile later found the most expensive hotel to stay in. I just could not continue on to the Pilgrim hostel…. One man was asleep on the bench at the wine fountain, another had a burro and stopped there, too.

Now that was a fun day.

Day 3, El Camino into Pamplona

From Villava, through Pampalona, to Puente La Riena
15 miles, 1, 150 ft. ascent. Leave 7ish, arrive at 4:30 pm.

Arrived in Pampalona about 10, though once the Basque capital Iruna. All signs are in both Spanish and Basque.
Walk into Pampalona along the river path, passing pens of horses, cattle and gardens.
Up into the huge fortress, across a moat, drawbridge to the cathedral and old, medieval buildings.
Find the Plaza de Toros, photograph Ernest Hemingway´s statue in front of it.
Stroll down the street where the bulls are run, there are photos of it in the shops.
Meet and walk with a couple from California and a woman from Denmark.

Mail my camping equipment home. It is something I will not use, campgrounds are hard to find, a little ways out of town, it rained one night, sometimes it is cold, it is too heavy, and so on. The accommodations of hostels and hotels are plentiful and that is fine.

Leave Pampalona through the university along the old fortress walls, into the countryside.
Sit on a bench on a hillside, sketching and counting four castles in the little villages.
At the Alto del Perdon pass is a metal sculpture of cutouts of pilgrims passing through the ages, starting with capes, donkeys, with dogs, and onto modern dress. There is also a large cross, as there is almost at every cross roads. Get a bicyclist to take my photo.

Fields of sunflowers, asparagus, beans, potatos and small gardens. Walk through small villages. Every one has a water fountain. The water is good and cold.

Stay in a nice hotel and watch the tributes in Spain and the USA to the September 11 victims. It is sad.

It is a cool, cloudy, breezy day. Perfect for walking. I love it.

Day 2 on the El Camino, Spain, Diary notes

September 10, 2008, Espinal to Villava, 19 miles
900 feet ascent, 1,200 feet descent.
Hike from 8 am to 4 pm.

*Mostly in shaded forsts and trails bordered with
holm oak, maples, holly, Scot pine, walnut trees.

*Pure pleasure of walking all day.

*Early morning mist as I walked down into the valley.

*Bought salami, cheese, bread, a straw sun hat with rhinestones and turquoise beads to replace the one blown away yesterday. Shopped in a tiny store in Burguete, where the older woman at the counter wrote down the prices on a piece of paper, added the total in her head, and gave it to me for a receipt.

*Staying in a monestery doromitory for pilgrims built hundreds of years ago.

*Walk to center of the plaza for the Pilgrim Menu dinner. Four Australian women invited me to join them, and later to come visit in Australia to play golf.

My El Camino Hike in Spain

4,000 ft. ascent, 2,000 ft. descent
20 miles. Walk across the border from France into Spain.

Oops, I misread the first walk from St. Jean Pied Pont, France into Spain. I was thinking the pass is 1,600 feet elevation. Not so. It is 1,600 cm and the ascent for the day is almost 4,000 feet. Then it is about 2,000 descent into Roncesvalles and 16 miles.

The plane trip from London to Biarritz, France, took an hour. Then a bus ride across town to catch the train to St. Jean Pied Pont. I explored Biarritz while waiting 2 hours for the train. Walked up to one castle to see another across the river. This charming old town is on a river near the ocean, and there are people surfing. Definitely a place to come back and stay a few days.

After 2 hour train ride, where I visited with a young French woman, Cecelia, and the pilgrims, at least 50 on the train, walked up to the reception building for Pilgrims. After receiving my Pilgrim passport it was 8 pm, most of the hostels were full and I was standing in the street wondering where I was going to sleep. A French woman took me with her to an old building down the street, motioned for me to stay, went up and got an old woman and they took me up to her sitting room. It had a sofa for me the sleep on. The price was 15 Euros. The older woman took her purse out of the desk drawer to get me change for my 20. Then put her purse back in the drawer.

The first woman took me by the arm down the hall to the bathroom, very nice and new. There was much chattering, none of which I understood, but said Decor and Qui. Then she kissed me on both cheeks and left. I went out for dinner, found Cecelia and two other young women from the train ride and had pizza with them. Cecelia kissed my cheecks goodbye and I have not seen her since.

The advice was to start the hike early, as it is 8 hours to cover the 16 miles to Roncesvalles, Spain, the first hotel or hostel or food.

Since I was on an earlier time from England, was excited and couldn´t sleep too long, I got up when the owl kept hooting. It was pitch black, no one was up and out I went. After finding my way across the river and out of town, where it was really dark, I put on my headlamp and putted up the hill and putted and putted. Two hours and there was lightening in the distance. Three hours and it was light enough to see without my lamp.

By now I am up into the common grazing area of the French Pyrenees. There are flocks of sheep herded down the mountain side to a small corral. They look like white water flowing down the steep green slope. Herds of blonde cattle, bands of 7 to 20 mares with foals roam freely. All animals have bells around their necks, so it is a beautiful sound.

The wind becomes more than stiff and straight into my face near the top, often making me stagger across the road. Even my trekking poles don´t hold me and they are so difficult to control, I attach them to my pack. For quite a ways, the path is tar and quite well marked with the sign of the shell, which is the Pilgrims symbol and the red and white bars which is the corresponding Grande Ronde trail across the country. I picked up first a couple of years ago in Geneva, Switzerland, walking 100 miles south into France on it.

I am the only one out, until 7 pm I pass a hostel and see people eating breakfast, so soon they will join me. By 8 am I see one man pass me, there are several behind him. Suddenly a van beeps me to move over, and it is filled with the people who were walking. They get a ride up to where the path goes from tar to trail near the top of the pass. My thoughts are distinctly unpilgrim-like toward them. I try to tell my self Everyone has their own journey. But, of course, mine is harder.

The mountains are well logged and an open view. It is misty and very windy. Finally over the pass, after passing some springs for water for Pilgrims and a big cross, the path heads straight down hill. The Romans put a road here and where there is solid rock, I can see the ruts from their wagons. And their roads typically go straight up and down, no matter how steep. Charlamagne also moved his troops through this pass.

About noon, in a light misting rain, I arrive in Roncesvalles, have soup and a cheese sandwich. There is a huge abbey built here to house the pilgrims with a great book shop for Pilgrims. I pick up a guide in English with history and strip maps which have a plastic pouch to hang around my neck so I can read the days itinerary, have an elevation chart and map of the towns. It is really helpful.

By now it is only 1 pm and there are many Pilgrims arriving to stay. I can´t face the walk being over, so keep going on down the trail through the woods. About 4 miles later in a small Basque village, I see a woman tending her flowers and it looks like she rents rooms. She does and so I stay with her. The building has beautiful wood stairs, floors, renovated bathroom and comfortable bedroom. What a nice find for the end of my first day on the El Camino. The restaurant down the street serves dinner and I am very happy.