Camino – Irun to San Sabastian

So Peeps, we learn that people walk the Camino for a variety of reasons but they all have a story. We’ll learn that Carolyne is recovering from cancer and I’ve had a major operation on an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm so making the most of our allotted time is important. So here’s my tale.

Last November, we went for a walk…

The Camino del Norte is about 800km (500 miles) long and stretches from Irun to Santiago de Compostela. It takes about 37 days but we don’t have to do it all in one and my first walk is less than a week and the next one a full week.

You can start from virtually anywhere…

But we’re walking The Norte..

This walk is reported to be tough and at 25 kilometres/day it certainly matches any of the walks I do in Yorkshire, the difference is in height and the stones and there’s plenty of both.

We leave the pension  (hotel) and are almost immediately challenged by steps, about 60 of them! It’s at this point I remind myself of:

  1. I am now recovered from an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm otherwise affectionately referred to as a Triple ‘A’ but still need to be sensible!
  2. My Achilles injury, whilst not an issue in itself has left me quite unfit.
  3. The fact that we’re carrying our worldly goods on our back will make a difference and I’m grateful for the advice willingly offered by the Pilgrim regarding keeping the weight down. (To explain…the Pilgrim is my close friend and partner Cecilia Kennedy, she’s on her third Camino and well experienced in the ways of the ‘peregrino’ and hence the tongue in cheek nickname).

I’m gratified that The Pilgrim emerges at the top of the steps a little out of breath; however, her recent Camino activity will stand her in excellent stead I’m going to be good for 20 km (12.5 miles) then, in fairness, the last 8 (5 miles) is beautiful and probably more so than the first 20, but it is tough.

We walk towards what is purported to be “the way” but it’s some time before we see the first yellow arrow.

Click on any of the images and you can page through them at full size…

The guy on the Spanish weather site is not in the same league as Carol and seems more interested in the Costas than this northern Basque area. No matter, there’s no cloud so that’s a bonus.

We need some sustenance so we call in at a tiny fruiterers on the outskirts of Irun. He’s very helpful and gives The Pilgrim an opportunity to practice the Spanish she’s been learning. We buy water, Gatorade, a baguette and enough jamon de York to fill it. It all comes at a price just over 4 euros, it really pays to do your shopping on the outskirts of town.

As we’re preparing to leave they point at The Pilgrim’s stick which has been left in the aisle. She swings her rucksack around jeopardising cans of fruit, jars of pickles and a number of items of Spanish meat in varying degrees of aging but missing all by parts of a millimetre, the stick is retrieved and as she returns, oblivious to the recent potential for disaster, I note the shopkeeper’s eyes are firmly closed and the other shopper is standing with arms outstretched in what would have been a vain attempt to catch them. We leave the shop to a duet of buenos dias and a significant sigh of relief with a sensible balance of sustenance and liquid which needs to be enough to satisfy our expenditure of calories but not too much to be cumbersome or heavy, we have over twenty kilometres in front and some of them are seriously ‘up’.

The Pilgrim props the sticks up in a pot in the door to readjust her rucksack and ensure the purchases are distributed evenly to ensure comfort and fit.

About three hundred metres along the road and we stop, “I’ve left my sticks”, she says and makes a return sweep of the shop to retrieve them. When I asked if they’d said anything she responds with, “I snook in and just grabbed them”.

We’re at the outskirts of town and the green of the countryside is a welcome substitute for the concrete and tar of the roads. The pilgrim points at some cabbages in the allotments to our right, it’s like walking with Barbara Good. I have to say her observations are valid though, the cabbages are like giant hogweed and devoid of the grub eaten filigree leaves that we tend to find on organic land back in the UK. This could be down to sneaky use of pesticides or lack of herbivores, they’re so clean I go for the former then feel cynical but either way, they look great.

The Camino is beginning to rise now and the yellow arrows that declare “The Way” are reassuringly closer together. Although we’re still on tarmac the gradient is becoming more acute and where the road ‘hairpins’ it becomes even more inclined. This is both challenging and a welcome early workout to get us in the mood for the track into the woods.

After half an hour we take a short break to catch our breath and look around. The scenery is what I would expect in Switzerland and before I can say anything The Pilgrim vocalises my thoughts, we laugh! There are the sea and beaches in the distance and in the foreground, meadows and woods with chalet type houses of various sizes and above all that, a blue sky, this is a great day to be introduced to Del Norte. It has a challenging reputation but the weather is in our favour.

Another half hour goes by and I have a feeling that we’re being followed. Not a sinister feeling and I’m sure it’s not ESP. My belief is that you spot something or someone in the corner of your eye but don’t consciously register it. You then process it and it becomes that feeling and I’ve had it for 5 or 10 minutes when I spot another peregrina a few metres behind. We greet. She’s French and started her Camino North of Paris. She’s been on the road, track and mountain for 42 days and, to her credit, looks like she started yesterday. She gives her name as Caroline and pronounces it the English way, the final syllable rhyming with pine, and then she repeats it saying in France we say Caroleen. As we walk she tells us her story. At only 22 she was diagnosed with a malignant lump and underwent surgery. Following that she decided to spend some time with herself and reassess her life hence the Camino. I’ve got to say, not only has she chosen a long one, but it’s also seriously arduous.

Caroline walks with us and we exchange thoughts as we pass along very stony tracks between 800 and 1200 feet.

The views vary from colourful pathways strewn with leaves and bordered by trees with every type of leaf all in autumn colours to dappled glades that are almost silent save the bird calls and even then only very occasional.

We walk along a path that follows a contour for the best part of 10 kilometres but forwards the end, when you expect it to start to descend it challenges you by suddenly going up.

As we begin to descend it’s a relief and relatively easy but as the decline becomes more acute it pulls on the muscles at the front of your legs and on your calf muscles and becomes even more challenging as we reach some steps.

Pasai Donibane and Pasai Pedro are the two sides of a delightful port very much like Whitby. We stop for a drink and a bite to eat at a local cafe and Caroline decides to go on. Our other agenda is to decide if we stop in this lovely town but after discussing it with the ferryman who takes us across the harbour and being told there are no hotels or pensions in this area we have no option than to take on the next 9km.

So off we go towards the estuary and past a small boat building company that’s in the process of repairing an old steamer and also building some kind of schooner which you’re invited to go and see. As the time is quarter to three and we have at the very least two and half hours of walking we carry on to the steps.

The steps skirt the entrance to the harbour and rise some three hundred feet in a zig-zag fashion. My legs are aching from the exertions so far and this is a real test but the views take my mind off the challenge and we stop from time to time to make photographs and savour the moment.

Towards the top, there are some picnic tables and bench seats which we take advantage of. We had passed a German guy in his twenties towards the bottom and he’s just made it to this viewing area. Like Caroline, he has a great command of English and asks us about albergues along the route. We tell him that our aim is for San Sebastian; his is a little more modest but we think that the place that he’s got plans for is shut and tell him that. The Pilgrim lets him photograph the page that has the address of the albergue in San Sebastian and I tell him he’s welcome to walk with us but he holds back, perhaps he’s a little shy or more likely, some people walk this to be alone.

This leg of the walk hugs the coast and the views are really quite spectacular with each turn offering a new angle on a bay or cove all heavily wooded and with spectacular cliffs that the Atlantic has eroded over many years. It’s easy to imagine the huge waves and spectacular storms that occur in all seasons but especially during the winter when the jet stream moves north. Today is placid, there is little or no wind and on the odd occasion that we see a house with a wood fire, the smoke rises vertically.

We stop from time to time for a pee or just to listen to the silence or occasional bird, it’s a great day.

About half way through this last leg there is an aqueduct with several arches. The guide suggests that pilgrims with a head for heights may wish to take this as a shortcut. It saves about three metres but I decide to give it a go anyway for the photo experience and The Pilgrim does the honours with the camera.

The path is now tacking back inland and we arrive at a tarmac road with a lot of shouting going on behind a wood. It turns out that there is a football field hidden by the trees which would have been the way that E. Walker and Chris Lennie describe in their guide. We follow the yellow arrows and the map on the phone which, whilst being the designated way, is a singularly challenging route that involves another 500 feet of ascent albeit in stages.

We take a break on a large stone and 5 minutes later the German passes us with a smile but his demeanour is really grim, he’s looking quite all in.

In another half kilometre we meet him again with a guy that’s offering accommodation to pilgrims free of charge. He looks like an elderly hippy and whilst we are tempted we decided to carry on and find a place in San Sebastien as planned.

The route is beginning to descend now and the gradient is steep. The muscles in the front of my legs are now complaining but I’m happy that we made the decision to go to San Sebastien even if the accommodation issue in Pasai Pedro made it a no brainer!

We’re descending at a great rate now and the Camino is signposted through a wooded park where the trees are carrying leaves of every colour. This is a great bonus and the soft layer of leaves makes it even more of a bonus as it cushions our steps.

The Pilgrim asks me to stop and listen so we do. It’s surreal how wonderful the lack of traffic noise, or any noise for that matter, and it soothes the soul. We do hear a lone bird calling but even that softens as it glides its way into the distance and all we’re left with an occasional sound of a leaf as it drifts down from its host.

We emerge from the wood onto a track overlooking the cove and sea whilst they sun is beginning to set and we’re hoping to get a glimpse of the big moon as we descend into the town.

The last part of the walk descends some 300 feet and we emerge into San Sebastián complete with traffic noise and bustle.

A coffee is called for in a local bar whilst we use wifi to arrange a hotel.

What a walk. Bien Camino. Enjoy the snaps…G..x

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This is life after an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm open repair. Don’t be afraid of the operation, it set me free. Please be encouraged and inspired to walk, it’s liberating…G..x

Here’s the next article:

Camino – San Sebastian to Orio

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