Days two to seven – Roncesvalles to Logrono
From Roncesvalles, the Camino continued to capture our attention with misty mornings, thick forests and rural Spanish villages, all with double storey stone buildings, colourful shutters and flowers spilling from the windows. Following the yellow arrows and markers bearing the yellow scallop shell, we met more pilgrims every day. Most pilgrims were just starting out, getting used to packs, shoes and the daily walking.
We reached Pamplona on day four of our walk, three days before the festival of San Fermin (running of the bulls). The sense of excitement was palpable and six foot high wooden barriers with evenly spaced horizontal beams were being set up around the city centre to protect onlookers and give the bull runners a quick escape if they find themselves cornered by the half-tonne bulls careening around the streets. While a number of pilgrims we met in Pamplona decided to stay for the festival, the call of the Camino was too strong for us to delay.
Our albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) in Pamplona was a lovely little wooden affair alongside the river and staffed by a German volunteer couple. The day we left, we awoke at 5.50am to the sound of German opera being sung in a resounding tenor, owned by our hospitalier rousing us all for the day ahead.
Our days were spent walking up and down undulating hills and weaving through golden wheatfields under startling blue skies. The Camino is designed, and has occasionally been altered, to go by as many churches as possible, with villages constructing their churches on the highest possible point. There were many times where, from a hilltop, we would look west toward Santiago and guess how many of the seven or eight visible churches the Camino would pass. It tended to be the majority.
It is frustrating in these first days to know that you are not taking the most direct route toward Santiago but will be going first left, then right, then diagonal before reaching a town that is straight ahead. Yet I had to swallow this frustration, after all, there is nothing to do each day except walk. There are no schedules, timelines or key performance indicators.
After a few days, the hills started taking its toll on my knees. Constantly navigating a rocky track up and down hills for several hours each day saw me almost in tears every time I came across a descent (which was frequent – remember the churches?) I ended up stopping to buy a knee brace in a Farmacia in a small town. The locals are so used to pilgrims’ injuries, it didn’t take long for the pharmacist to help me try out a range of knee braces before I found the perfect one.
On day five, we reached Estella where we said farewell to Mick, our friend from Australia who travelled with us for a week before heading to Scotland to meet other friends. Mick is also gluten intolerant, a relevant fact because the Spanish love their bread. For good reason too as it is delicious. Yet bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner, usually with some cheese, tomato and jamon (Spanish ham), does get old pretty quickly, especially as it doesn’t exactly have the best nutritional value. By the fifth or sixth day of eating copious amounts of bread with every meal, enjoying the occasional beer or three, and walking through wheatfields every day, we were all well and truly shot of the stuff and I had to take a few days before I could stomach it again.
The day we left Estella was much quieter with only the two of us, but we couldn’t be too sad as just outside of the town is a free wine fountain. Yep, a FREE. WINE. FOUNTAIN! After we had our free wine (at 8.30am) and watched a couple of old Spanish guys take advantage of the fountain to supplement their breakfast picnic, we continued on our way. I made the mistake of putting the little bit of wine in my empty water bottle, which meant I ended up drinking slightly sour tasting water for the rest of the day. You can actually watch people drinking from the fountain on this live stream: http://www.irache.com/es/enoturismo/fuente-del-vino.html
Soon after Estella, we crossed from Spain’s Navarra region into the Rioja region, famous for its wine. This was clearly evident as the wheatfields quickly petered out, replaced by vineyards, the vibrant green of the leaves a striking contrast against the reddish soil.
Our first stop in Rioja was the city of Logroño. Logroño is not a beautiful city, yet its tall stone buildings do have a certain vibrancy, borne of its narrow winding laneways that hide numerous wine and tapas bars. At night is when the city really comes alive. In Logroño, we stayed in the large municipal albergue. It is cheap and cheerful with three or four floors of dormitories in an old stone building adjacent to one of the city’s churches. As the albergue wasn’t open until 1.30pm, pilgrims who arrived early placed their packs in a queue, ready to check in when the doors opened. We arrived, dumped our packs at the end of the queue of multi-coloured backpacks and sank gratefully into chairs next to other sweaty and weary pilgrims. After checking in and showering, we explored some of the city’s laneways, alleyways and hidden tapas bars, ensuring we were back for the 10pm curfew.