Madelyn Given took this photo looking down from the Alto de Perdón mountain range on her Camino pilgrimage.

El Camino: Getting into a Walking Routine

My third night was at Cizur Menor, a 4.5 kilometer walk from Pamplona. After a good night’s sleep I began to feel I was getting into the Camino routine. It was the end of August, and although the hiking was very warm, there was no rain.

The next morning, I left the albergue at 5:50 am: it seemed insanely early, but for me it was necessary, as it became so hot in the afternoon that walking was very difficult. I also left early to assure myself that with a steady pace I would get to an albergue early and have a bed. An hour or hour and a half after the doors opened, the albergue would be full, and the pilgrims coming in after that have no choice but to keep walking, no matter how tired.

Hiking the trail is serious business. Everybody gets up and hikes along at a good clip. The towns are ancient and beautiful; everything that has survived is made of stone masonry. The Roman bridges are beautiful as well, and they clearly were built to last.

I was able to call home today, as I had purchased a new SIM card for my cell phone in Pamplona. I spent a lot of time trying to find a place that sold them, and finally succeeded thanks to a lovely Spanish lady, who sent her teenage son with me to find a place that had SIM cards. She finished up her business and soon joined us. People go out of their way to help you and they are proud of being a part of the el Camino heritage.

After leaving Cizar Menor, I walked up a steep long climb to the top of a ridge of mountains, the Alto de Perdón, where there are about 50 large windmills whirring and creating power. As you can see from the photo I took (at the top of this blog post), as I stood there I could see below me the villages I soon would walk through: Zariquiequ, Uterga, Muruzábal, and Obanos. It was a long descent to the valleys of Navarra. Then I walked over ever-changing terrain: through forests, fields, and pastures where I opened and closed cattle gates. I passed through Zariquiequ, a 14th century village once wiped out with bubonic plague.

The wild flowers were beautiful and carefully tended roses and geraniums filled the window boxes of the houses in the villages. Once in a while I would see scribbled on a sign or wall, “Utreia!”—which translated means “Onward!” Some of the villages are so small there is no place to stay or get something to eat but all have a fountain for the pilgrims to get water to drink. Sometimes there is a noted detour for something worth seeing; today it was Eunate, an eight-sided church, quite likely connected to the Knights of Templar, standing in the middle of a field in the countryside.

Sometimes the legends keep me stimulated and imagining while I am hiking. In the Middle Ages while on a pilgrimage to Santiago, the sister of the Duke of Aquitaine was so moved by the beauty of the village of Obanos that she decided to live the life of a hermit here. The Duke was so furious that he had her killed. Overcome with remorse he went to Santiago himself and spent the rest of his life mourning her. They were both beatified and their silver encrusted skulls are in the Obanos church.

I walked onward, past Obanos, with the highs and lows of a long hike day, to the large town of Puente la Reina, which had a restored medieval arch and ancient bridge with lots of daily activity on the streets. Then I went on through Mañeru, with tiny narrow streets in the oldest section of town, and onward through olive groves and vineyards. Going past a graveyard, I finally arrived at Cirauqui. A farmyard led onto cobbled streets to the oldest part of the village, the Iglesia, and there across the street was the albergue Maralotx. I walked into the albergue and drew a sigh of relief when I received my stamp on the el Camino passport and had a place to stay for the night.

Madelyn Given snapped this photo in Larrasoana on her Camino pilgrimage.

The el Camino: Beautiful Scenery

It was only the second morning on the el Camino, but I was up and out of the albergue at 6 am on August 28, 2014. Although during my trip planning I hadn’t expected to be walking in the dark, I had packed a headlamp and extra batteries in case of emergency—and now I was glad to have them as I walked for an hour in the dark, watching carefully to avoid missing the el Camino signs or stumbling on the uneven terrain.

The stars and constellations were magnificent as I looked above the dark unobstructed fields of the countryside. Soon a beautiful dawn greeted me, but since I was heading west I had to turn around to get the spectacular view.

I walked by fields planted with crops of corn and wheat, as well as cows and sheep grazing in pastures. I passed through the main streets of several ancient villages, made it to Zubiri by noon, and decided to keep going to Lorrasoaña.

It was a steep climb out of Zubiri and the path passed between two houses. I crossed a stream by stepping carefully on wobbly stones, then went on through farm lands and more villages—everything was so scenically beautiful! I also made a point of stopping to peek inside the Romanesque churches in the villages.

It was a very hot hour and half walk before I reached Lorrasoaña, where I took the photo at the top of this blog post. I signed in at the albergue, went about my routine of cleaning up after a long hike, then sat at an outside café for a diet coke and a snack to eat. I was welcomed into a group of walkers sitting at a table and soon friendships began to form. Later I would meet them for dinner at a restaurant and then go back to the albergue to sleep.

The albergues are strictly run: at 10 pm, the lights are switched off and all activity ceases. In the darkness of the morning, there are half a dozen early risers who quietly dress and leave before 6 am, when the lights go on at the albergue. I am one of these early risers, eager to start my day. Like a fireman prepared for a fire, I often lay awake waiting to get started, with my pack all set and my clothes laid out, ready to go.

It was on the third morning, after I had departed in the dark and gone about a kilometer along a road, when I realized that I had missed the last el Camino sign (it should have been by the side of a barn, leading to the path). I wasted what seemed like so much time hunting for the path. It was very frustrating. I like every day to go well and this was not a good start!

Each day a goal is set: how many kilometers to walk and how long it will take to get to a destination. In hiking there are the highs and lows of every day; soon something special happens and you forget the moments of aggravation. The hikers are so positive, helpful, and pleasant. They make my day! They appear out of nowhere, often during your most lonely moments, and your attitude changes.

After regaining the trail, I hiked a few more hours to Pamplona. As I approached, I took a long time to walk through the suburbs, past the casa de los conches (a house with scallop shells embedded all over the concrete walls) and across the Puente de Magdalena, and there, sitting at a long table, were some city officials greeting the pilgrims as we walked into their city. I was pleased at such pleasant hospitality.

I thanked the Pamplona officials for their kindness and walked on towards the city walls, where I saw the remains of a leper hospital just outside the massive walled city. I crossed the drawbridge, passed through the first town gate, headed through the ancient inner walls, and entered the second town gate leading to the heart of the old city. I went down the narrow streets famous for “the running of the bulls.” There is so much history everywhere: the city was founded by the Roman General Pompeius, destroyed by Charlemagne, and ruled by kings of Navarra. Near the Gothic cathedral is the Museo de Navarra, a magnificent historic former hospice filled with a wealth of information about Pamplona.

I walked from the old walled city through the streets and modern boulevards bustling with business. I stopped at an ATM for a transaction and walked three blocks before realizing that I had left my trekking poles leaning against the wall there. I ran, yes, ran with my pack all the way back. To my surprise and happiness the poles were still there!

At the time I was hiking with a senior woman from South Africa, who waited for me, and we walked on together. I hiked alone and with others each day. The Camino trail, with its unique albergue system, was unlike anything I had done before. I am a slow, steady hiker; I take few or no breaks, so I was assured of a bed when I arrived at my destination.

The best part of the el Camino was the unexpected surprises that happened on a daily basis. I was blessed with great weather and kind people.

(posted December 9, 2014)

Madelyn Given visited the Roncesvalles Monastery on her first full day of hiking on the Camino de Santiago.

The el Camino: Walking the trail with Michael, Part II

It was sunny and warm, and I was hot and tired as I began to descend into the valley on my way to the Roncesvalles Monastery. I passed a few hikers who had stopped at the site of Charlemagne’s Cross, a spot where his army had crossed safely and prayed to Santiago for help in their battles with the Moors. Further on I came to a choice of two routes to the abbey: I took the shorter, steeper descent and arrived at my destination before 1 pm.

As became my daily routine I signed in, paid the fee, and the official stamped my el Camino passport. I left the office, took off my hiking boots and put them in a cubby in the hall along with my trekking poles, went upstairs, found my assigned bed, dropped my heavy pack, and sat down. To sit down for five or ten minutes does miracles after hiking for 6 or more hours. Then I took a shower and was preparing to hand wash my clothes when a volunteer said they wash the clothes and dry them for 3 euros. That sounded great to me!

I changed to sandals to give my feet some relief and headed for a place for something to eat. Just as I went around the corner in front of the monastery, there was an outside café with the tables filled with hikers and cyclists. A woman stood up and beckoned to me. I did not know her but she thought she knew me and asked me to sit at their table. Most of them had already eaten, and it was a long time before I could get my order, but as I waited I talked with an older couple from Florida. They told me how they had arrived at Refuge d’Orisson yesterday and there were no beds: they had to sleep outside that night with no tent or gear and only light sleeping bags. He was limping and she seemed too fragile to walk very far. I wished them luck.  There were two tables full of cyclists from the Canary Islands; I talked with several of them. They had trained together for a year to take this journey to Santiago by bike.

I went back to the abbey to write in my journal and study my guide book for the next day. The Roncesvalles Abbey, pictured in my photo at the top of this blog post, is a large, ancient, and partially restored stone building which includes the albergue, church, and museum. Charlemagne’s soldiers including Roland and many pilgrims are buried in front of the monastery. In the museum are ancient artifacts including Roland’s ivory horn Olifant, maces, and a chessboard of Charlemagne.

Each evening there is a Pilgrim Mass: at the close of the ceremony, the nationality of each pilgrim is read and the Pilgrims are invited to the front of the church for a blessing of a safe pilgrimage to Santiago.

For me it was a moving ceremony, especially as today was exactly one year since the passing of my son Michael. He had lived in Madrid for two years and taught English to Spanish businessmen. He was also a great hiker, sportsman, and adventurer. This journey was ours together.

After the Mass the pilgrims were able to walk through the grand old church, including the crypts and belfry, and then we ate a pilgrim meal. Later, in my partitioned-off sleeping section with four bunk beds, across from me was a mother and her fourteen-year-old son from Sydney, Australia. They were leaving behind the rest of the family to take this very special pilgrimage together. She was very tired from the first day and her son was relaxed catching up on his texting. I wished them a safe journey and I crawled into my sleeping bag excited about my many days ahead. It felt like the beginning of an awesome journey and this was only day one.

(posted December 2, 2014)