Stories that take you on a journey

Camino Francés – Physical stage – Part 2/3

Commit yourself to a dream. Nobody who tries to do something great, but fails, is a total failure. Why? Because he can always be assured that he succeeded in life’s most important battle; he defeated the battle of not trying.” Robert H. Schuller.

Day Nine: Viana to Navarette  (La Casa del Peregino)

A day not measured by how many kilometres I walked but the massive relief of ticking off a few of my Camino milestones.

The Camino Francés route traverses four Spanish regions. And, today, I would be leaving the region of Navarre and entering La Rioja, the second-smallest autonomous community in Spain, best known for its wine.

I left Viana around 7.30 am; the sun rising, the air crisp, perfect walking weather. I was refreshed after my spa-like day feeling physically and mentally strong. Such a stark contrast to 2014. Then, our day began in Los Acros, with a stop at Sansol for breakfast, before arriving in Viana around mid-day. We had stopped for a long leisurely break, then explored the village before heading out into the mid-day sun. By the time we crossed over the Rio Labraza and started walking up the incline into the outskirts of Logroño, I was struggling. Just before entering the city, we walked through a park with an elongated water trough. The ice-cold water flowed continually and beckoned our feet. I sat on the ledge; my feet were in a dreadful state, swollen from the heat and covered in blister plasters, tattered and mangy looking. I was beyond caring. My feet required some respite.

Five years later, having achieved my first milestone of the day, walking into the region of La Rioja, the long incline to the city lookout was effortless. As I looked over the city, I decided my feet didn’t need an ice bath. Just as well, because the glistening water-trough was empty, its white interior littered with the debris of city life and falling leaves. Entering Logroño, walking across the Rio Ebro on the regal Puente de Piedra ticked off my first milestone.

I wasn’t ready to face my battlefield, the place where I had admitted defeat five years earlier. So I decided to follow the footsteps of the mediaeval pilgrims and visit the Cathedral.

Navigating Logroño proved to be a challenge. The narrow streets twisted and turned into lanes, only to snake back in another direction. Finally, I entered what I thought was the Cathedral, but was instead Iglesia de Santiago el Real. As some of the interior motifs depict the “Way of St James,” I was surprised to discover I couldn’t get a stamp for my pilgrims credencial. The church had a welcoming vibe, oozing a feeling of homeliness and warmth. I sat for a while, soaking in the energy and marvelled at the beautiful altar. A calmness washed over me. I harnessed this energy, stored it because in 2014, finding the route out of Logroño was challenging.

But first, I decided to stop for a second breakfast, a café con leche and a slice of tarta de Manzana (apple pie). As well as calmness, I also needed a caffeine boost to help me navigate my way out of Logroño. It was a great decision as I retraced my footsteps on the outskirts of the city on more than one occasion.

Five years ago, pilgrims clambered up and down a bridge resembling iron scaffolding, over a railway line, before entering the tranquil Parque de la Grajera. Lisa and I had barely slept, as beneath our corner private Albergue bedroom, the weekend wine festival raged all night. Bleary-eyed, we dressed and packed, ready to depart when a torrential storm silenced the loud voices and washed the city streets clean. I reluctantly took off my sandals and put on my boots. The instant I placed my right foot on the iron stairwell, pain shot up my shins. I was already hobbling, my left foot covered in blisters. The thought of another injury knocked both my confidence and resilience.

I was relieved to find the bridge had been replaced by a tunnel. The surrounding area was open parkland, with a paved track under the motorway. Here the Camino joins a local walking trail along the reservoir wall and through the pine forest of Parque de la Grajera. I stopped at a picnic table, which overlooked the lake, took off my socks and shoes, propped them up to dry. I looked at my feet with disbelief and awe; day nine, no blisters, no taping. My milestone moment was interrupted by the sound of breaking twigs from the woods behind me. I turned and saw my Camino friend, Christianna, running towards me. She was agitated, hot and relieved to see me. Christianna plonked down beside me to regal me with her Logroño navigation nightmare. Although we were shattered, we needed to muster some energy to walk another 7kms. I was also relieved that Christianna wanted us to walk together to Navarette. Walking solo at the end of a mentally draining day is very tough.

 

At Alto de la Grajera, the high point of this day, another pilgrim Jimmin from Korea joined us. It was almost one o’clock as we clambered up an earthen pathway and crossed over the A-12 motorway. The sun was gaining strength, our water supplies depleted, and our pace had slowed to a dawdle. Jimmin suggested that we march to his Navy song. The rhythm of singing and marching got us through the arid valley of vineyards into the historic town of Navarrete.

Hilary messaged to say she had decided to walk onto Nájera but was happy to call and book me in at a Navarrete Albergue. The Albergue she booked occupied the top storey of a historic hilltop house. It was a large room divided into smaller spacers by lockers. There was a tiny shared bathroom/laundry at the far end of the floor. Arriving early has its perks. The main one is picking a great bed. I managed to get a single bed at the front of the room; my next-door close neighbour was Christy, my Korean pilgrim friend.

Day Ten: NavarRete to Azofra (Azofra Municipal)

Most Albergue’s offer breakfast, but my preference was to have a snack before leaving and stop later on at a village café. I retraced my steps past the Municipal where Christianna stayed, past Bar Deportivo, the tapas bar where I had dinner last night with my SJPP roommates, Yolande and Jennifer and descended into the square. I filled up my water bladder and a small bottle, tasted it, ugh, chlorinated, almost unpalatable. Thankfully, as the track to Nájera is devoid of villages, I managed to buy bottled water in the café then ordered a café con leche and a neapolitan (pain au chocolat). I sat, watching the local men drink coffee and cognacs before heading out for a day of bike riding.

The first part of the day, roughly 5 km, follows the motorway. Once past the turnoff to Ventosa, an artist retreat, we began to climb, then entered olive groves and vineyards, and unexpectedly reached a milestone marker; 593 Kms. I’ve walked 200kms!

Earlier in the walk, my path crossed with Yolande and Jennifer. Their pace was slower than mine, so we soon parted way. Later, on a speedy Yolande caught up with me, and we walked for a bit. We then parted after a short stop at a food truck. By the time I reached Alto San Antón, I was walking alone. The descent to Nájera through vineyards and trees was so beautiful that I found some rocks to perch on. I aired my feet and shoes, had a snack and enjoyed some solitude. Broken briefly by Christy, as she roared past, shouting “Buen Camino.”

After a short break, I continued on, later stopping to take photos of the graffiti poem Pilgrim, Who Calls You?

The Nájera apartment I had booked for us in 2014 looked down onto the main bridge and Camino route. It was a great viewing platform to watch pilgrims sauntering into town. Five years on, I’m walking with Des, an Irishman from Kilkenny. Coincidently, this is where my Noonan family roots lie. The Rugby World Cup was underway in New Zealand. Des had just seen the results of the Japan (19) vs Ireland (12) game. He was upset that Ireland had lost and wanted to vent his disappointment as we walked into Nájera. Des’s speed was like a racehorse heading for home, so once we reached the city centre, we bid each other a Buen Camino.

Wise move, as the final 6.1 km of the day was brutal. It’s a steep climb out of Nájera. The outskirts of the town dropped away as we entered the countryside. The concrete pathways are replaced by dry red La Rioja earth pathways that wind briefly through a pine forest then rise into a desert-like plateau. Here the cerulean sky hangs low, and the sun acts as a directional heater. Thankfully, my Aussie-style Ranger hat is doing its job and keeping the sun off the back of my neck, but my feet feel like they are on fire. Ahead of me is another pilgrim, who also appears to be struggling. I try to keep her in my sights, but the track twists and turns. The spire of the church at Azofra comes into view then disappears again. Finally, the village appeared. I made my way to the Municipal. Azofra Centro looks like a prison block, inside and out. Although the rooms looked monastic, they were comfortable; two single beds per room, louvred windows allowing the breeze to flow through.

After the daily shower routine, clothes washing, setting up my bed, I made my way into the village. I ordered lunch, squid, chips and salad plus a well-earnt beer. Later on, I returned for dinner with Des and Regina, a German lady.

Day Eleven:  Azofra to Granon (Donativo – La Casa de las Sonrisa)

The Camino route from Azofra to Santo Domingo de la Calza offers little shade and is devoid of drinking Fuentes (public water fountains). Except for Navarrete, the water from the Fuentes come from deep springs. The water is cold and delicious to drink. Generally, I replaced the day’s water supply in the afternoon, ensuring I had enough water in my backpack water bladder for the first 10 km. However, given the heat, I changed my routine, brought my snacks and fruit, but decided to fill up my water in the morning.

To avoid another day of sweltering heat, I decided to leave at 6:30 am. As I stood at the Fuente, juggling my pack, water bladder, and unscrewed the lid off my water bottle, it flew into mid-air. I tried to catch it, but it fell onto the Fuente grid. I watched in disbelief as it tumbled into the gap. It is a trivial event in everyday life; on Camino, it’s not; as every item of your kit is fit for purpose and irreplaceable. I stood at the Fuente, knowing I couldn’t leave Azofra without water and wondering what to do. Then, against all odds, I spied a light shining from a doorway further up the street. I bought a small bottle of water, filled my water bladder while giving thanks to the Camino fairies.

It wasn’t until I left the village that I realised how illuminated it had been. Out there on the track, it was pitch-black. There was no going back, but with a head-lamp that barely cut through the darkness, I wasn’t sure it was safe to go forward.

I turned around, two small circles of light peaked over the horizon. A few minutes later, the pilgrims were approaching me, two ladies from Poland. I asked if I could walk with them for a bit. The track from Azofra to Cirueña is a steady incline that stretches for 9.4km and climbs 245m. It was a fast walk; however, with the crisp morning air and their fascinating stories, we arrived at the outskirts of Cirueña in what, for me, was record time.

This modern satellite town, which consisted of empty apartment blocks, emitted a twilight-zone vibe. I was though delighted to discover a community kitchen garden. It looked like an excellent spot for breakfast. I bid a Buen Camino to the ladies and headed of the garden to eat my banana and a tub of yoghurt.

Upon leaving the pavements of Cirueña, we rejoin the remote, undulating patchwork farmlands of La Rioja. It was just after 9:00 am as I stood at the top of this track. It’s the last leg to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, the sun had lengthened my torso and cast it out onto the dirt path. I walk past a lady and bid her a Buen Camino. Usually, I would stop and chat, but today I was on a mission – to avoid the mid-day heat and get into either Granon or Redecilla del Camino in time to secure a bed for the night.

I stopped for a café con leche in Santo Domingo de Calzada, then had a brief walk around the old town before heading back out onto the Camino. In 2014, I had wanted to visit this town, so I took the bus from Nájera with another injured pilgrim and made it my last day on the Camino. I didn’t have time to think about the significance of this as I left Santo Domingo de Calzada because Jimmin was hanging out at an intersection, looking forlorn. He was in the midst of an existential crisis and wanted to know if he could talk and walk with me.

Most of the pilgrims, Jimmin included, making their way to Granon were hoping to stay at the Albergue Parochial in the upper floors of Iglesia San Juan Bautista. As we entered the village, he rushed off to reserve his bed. Christy was sitting at an outer door table of a bar/café opposite the church. She also was undecided about staying here or walking onto Redecilla del Camino. I went into the bar to get a drink and something to eat. Turned around and saw Yolande.

After lunch I went with Yolande to her hostal, they were full. Together we went back down to Village past a Donativo and checked it out. Yolande found me a bed in the back corner, with a window overlooking the courtyard and a big comfy chair. I bought Christy up to have a look, but she was still tossing up whether to stay or go on. Then Jimmin appeared by a bed on the other side of the room. After Yolande left, I sat on my bed, updating Instagram. An Aussie man, Den had commandeered the comfy chair. Jimmin in the yogi position sat by his feet, digesting Dens views on life. Jennifer appeared, plonked herself down on my bed, the springs popped, expanded and released. Christy messaged to say she was walking to Redecilla del Camino. I felt as though I’d entered an alternate universe and was a bit player in an English comedic stage play.

Before Jennifer and I headed off to dinner, she insisted I book accommodation for the next day. Looking at the options on Booking.com she decided my best option was the very posh looking hotel at Villafranca Montes de Oca. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking that it was a long way to walk, but I was tired, so I pressed the “book now” button.

Day Twelve: Grañón to Villafranca Montes de Oca (Posh hotel – San Antón Abad)

There were doorways at the head and foot of my bed. The latter had two single beds; home for the night for an Australian couple, Den and Pam. Just before lights out Den explained that they would be leaving at 5:30 am but not to worry as they would gather everything up and pack downstairs. I woke up just as they tipped-toed past by bed, decided it was too early to get up and snoozed for another half-hour. Then I used their room to pack up my gear. Downstairs I bumped into Jimmin, who was off to meet a friend.

The air in the village was still as I left Grañón. The street lamps highlighted the multicoloured geranium flower boxes. A fluorescent vending machine set into the wall of an ancient building radiated light.

I navigated my way out of the Grañón, and into the countryside. The sky looked like a tunnel. It was the colour of obsidian, a volcanic black, devoid of light and life. I was both mesmerised and paralysed by the unknown. Walking into that darkness alone was unthinkable.  I turned and saw headlamps; Jimmin and the lady I had passed on the downhill to Santo Domingo de Calzada yesterday. They invited me to join them. Ingrid, from Slovenia, and I instantly gelled. We soon discovered that we had a similar walking pace. Perhaps this is why, when one of Jimmins Korean mates rushed up to him, they headed off like a pair of greyhounds into the void. Ingrid and I smiled, continued and crossed into one of Spains significant autonomous regions, Castilla y León. But not before stopping to look back at Grañón and the majestic blood orange sky.

It also transpired that Ingrid and I had a similar walking day pattern; stopping between five and ten kilometres for coffee, then another stop to air shoes and socks and take a rest. We stopped at Viloria de la Rioja 7.4 km out of Grañón for our first break. I had my banana and some water. By the time we eventually found a café we had walked another 8.3 km. The sun was beginning to sear as we walked into Belorado, where the path twisted and turned down a slight incline and stopped at the large circular Plaza Mayor. It was market day. Our first stop was Café Bulevar. I ordered freshly squeezed orange juice, café and something sweet. I minded the backpacks while Ingrid went in search of a bank. I was fascinated by the Plazas centrepiece; ancient plane trees, with branches that reached out to each other, forming a canopy and providing shelter for the inner circular two-storied rotunda. When she returned, I visited the market stalls and purchased some fruit.

Ingrid hadn’t been able to book accommodation at the Albergue in Tosantos, the next village. She had rung several times. Upon entering this hamlet, we saw the Albergue; there was a notice saying it was up for sale. We continued to walk. We had walked about 21 km when I began to feel the heat rising on the side of my foot. The track was narrow, and uneven camber with lots of stones, which rotated my feet, shearing the skin on my left foot. I stopped immediately got out my blister kit and patched up the area. By the time we got to the next village, stopped and got our shoes and socks off I could see the early formation of a blister. I was gutted, but also amazed that I’d managed to evade a blister this long. I still had 5.2 km to walk. It was going to be a 28 km day, carrying a backpack, walking in sizzling heat; blister territory.

My hotel room had two beds and a separate bathroom. I offered to share it with Ingrid. She was worried about the distance, which was way over hers and my preferred daily mileage. But, as she was running out of options, she accepted. The last 3.6 km was challenging. The fields of sunflowers with their blackened faces and their stiff soldier-like bodies was unsettling. The Anzac poppies, our tribute to dead soldiers, growing in the cracks and crevices of the baked earth, cast a shadow over the day.

Thankfully the hotel was luxurious. We took it in turns to hog the bathroom, soak in the bathtub, wash our hair and clothes. We explored the grounds, the ornate hotel lobby and guest lounges. Then went down into the garden to have a cold beer. I hadn’t realised that the hotel had an Albergue attached to it. It turned out that most of our Camino friends were staying there. Pilgrims and hotel guests ate in the same dining room, so we got to sit with our friends. We laughed, talked and ate the delicious food.

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