The We Walk For You Camino has started.
Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles to Zubiri to Pamplona
First, thank you to everyone who has sent messages of encouragement and prayer requests. These now total over 300. Your requests are encrypted and held on this datastick which will be carried every step of the way to Santiago. Every day we add to it. Keep them coming!
To carry it every step of the way we had to take the first step, so on Monday night before setting out we went to Mass in Saint Jean Pied de Port. The church was peaceful and the few local people there were very friendly. We had hoped to engage with other pilgrims but at the end when the priest invited pilgrims to the front for the Pilgrim Blessing only 8 of us stepped forward. The priest spoke in French and it turned out all of the other pilgrims were French apart from us. When it was our turn to say where we were from I said “Scotland” and Stephen said, “Ecosse”, “Ah, Scotch” said the priest. Summoning up my schoolboy French I replied, “Oui, s’il vous plait” Yes, please! It took a moment for the penny to drop, then the priest led the laughter which broke the ice.
The few pilgrims at the Mass was replicated next day. We started at 7.15, first light, and during the day encountered maybe 20 or 30 pilgrims. “These days” said Marisol in the albergue in Roncesvalles, “only 40 or 50 come over the hill”. “Hill” is the understatement of the century. The ascent to almost 1500 metres is over a long and gruelling 20 kms with a further 5 into Roncesvalles. As the sun rose so did the temperature. When we reached Orisson some 8kms into the stage we were already on nodding terms with some other pilgrims, all either Spanish or French. We greeted a family who said they were from Valencia. We assumed they were Mum, Dad and two teenage daughters who already looked exhausted.
After Orisson we climbed steadily, the road rose more steeply and it got hotter. Stephen was ahead of me as usual when I came slowly puffing round a corner, walking in step with the mum and dad of the Valencian family. As I stopped for a rest the mother sat down to get her breath back. As an encouragement the Big Man uttered the immortal words, “Don’t worry, wee man, we’re higher up than we are lower down.” I started to laugh at this nonesense and I translated it for the dad. He started to laugh. “What are you laughing at?” asked his wife, sweating profusely. As the man tried to explain she erupted letting forth a stream of expletives which almost singed the grass. In summary, she was blaming her husband for the fact she was halfway up a great hill on a path that never seemed to end. No laughing matter. We beat a hasty retreat and we were soon turning off the road. With one final push we followed the path over the summit into Spain, at the marker for the province of Navarra. We paused for a break and reflected on the way Spanish people swear using religious profanities shocking to our ears. Just at that the family turned the corner, “Welcome home to Spain!” we shouted as we applauded them across the border. The hill was over, the mother was smiling. The dad looked relieved.
To be honest there were times when I thought it was too much for me. I cursed my pride for opting to walk it all in one day and not sleep at Orisson. I swore “never again” several times – with emphasis on the word “swore”. However the truth is that every time I just had to look around me at the magnificent views of the majestic Pyrenees, which I had been unable to see for clouds last time and that made it all worthwhile. So too the grunts and grimaces of fellow pilgrims as we inched up the hill, early bonds being forged. At one point Stephen remarked, “this is more beautiful, more vast, more wondrous than the Scottish mountains”. Now there’s a compliment.
In Roncesvalles we wanted to meet with the Dutch volunteers who staff the huge albergue. We’ve had a long standing connection with the Dutch association since we helped them start their Welcome Centre in Santiago some years ago. They were glad to see us but sad that their season was coming to an abrupt end because the Dutch Government has imposed a period of quarantine for citizens returning from parts of Spain, including Navarra. They spoke about the changes over the last few years. Until a year or so ago they had 300 albergue beds and regularly had to call taxis for pilgrims they could not accommodate. Then the local authority cut the number of beds to 185. The consequence of the pandemic is that they have reduced the number of beds to 90 but “this year we are never full”. That night 60 pilgrims were in the albergue. The reduced numbers was further confirmed when we counted 22 pilgrims at the Pilgrims’ Mass who went forward for the traditional “start of Camino” blessing.
That evening I had a long conversation with Teresa who runs one of the hotels. “The situation is desparate on the Camino”, she said, “we have 10 % of the pilgrims who would usually stay. We’ve had to make staff redundant, freeze modernising work we were going to do for the Holy Year and winter is still to come. Mark my words, many of us will not be in business in one year.” A depressing thought. My mood was lifted by being reminded how beautiful the route is from Roncesvalles. Unlike before there was no great procession of pilgrims making their way to Zubiri. We met a few Spaniards walking for two or three days and a solitary French woman who was planning to walk to Santiago then Finisterre. Buen Camino!
In Zubiri we learned another lesson. We all must accept now that accommodation either has to be booked or you should at least phone the albergue to check availability – because of anti-Covid measures everywhere there is reduced capacity. So too in the bar/restaurant in Zubiri. Their tables are reduced by half and so they ask for a 10 euro deposit which is returned when you arrive.
The gentler walk to Pamplona was a joy today. Not long after we set off a group of 12 Spanish young people passed. We saw them on and off all day. They all know each other and have formed a “bubble” to travel together. We saw few other pilgrims. It strikes me that younger people form groups and older people keep themselves apart. The couple from Pamplona walking for a few days, the man in his 60’s walking to beyond Logroño, the couple from Madrid… All friendly, but sitting more apart than the younger people.
We decided, all three of us, that if we were to walk to Santiago we had to accept it is our own responsibility to keep ourselves safe. Everywhere we’ve gone the routine has been established – wear a mask before entering, use hand gel on entry and frequently and keep away from other people. Last night the waitress asked a man who sat at the next table to move to keep his distance from me.
Today on arrival at our hotel in Pamplona we were asked to walk on a disinfectant welcome mat, use gel and had our temperatures taken. I was impressed.
I’ve been speaking with Gemma and others who are using albergues – these more sophisticated measures aren’t available but generally it seems people are trying their best. It reinforces the point that our own actions are our best protection.
A word on masks because this has been unnecessarily controversial in some forums. Wearing a proper face mask is compulsory in Spain. Walking alone out on the Camino most pilgrims remove their masks. However even in the smallest hamlet local people wear masks – so it is essential that pilgrims do the right thing and do likewise.
Today some 10 kilometres from Pamplona we could hear the whoops and laughter of children and young people in the distance. It was coming from a riverside recreation area where families were sunbathing and children were paddling. The teenagers were dropping and diving from the bridge into the deep pool below. It was a delightful sight. Starkly normal in these strange times. I make no comment about social distancing, it is their country and it was in the open air. However, we looked but didn’t join in!
In these last days the temperature has reached 36 degrees. Hot. Very hot. However relief has come in a frequent cooling, gentle breeze. A roadside vendor, having lamented at length at the lack of pilgrim customers, said the breeze comes from Storm Ellen. I’m not convinced, I think it may be sent from the hundreds of you who have already written. Please keep the emails coming:
In addition to these posts about our Camino, each Friday we will post a feature about your petitions. They have already been prayed for in some special places.
Thank you all for your support.