Postcard 5 – Back on the Camino – The Transition – The Kathy Hohn Dahm Episode

Things have picked up on the Norte but we’re still prone to the odd electric storm at night and that’s fine but now is the time to make my way East and into France.

The bus is a highly efficient and practical form of transport here so it’s back to the Alsa App and its quirks. It won’t allow me to plan a journey from Villaviciosa to Saint-John-Pied-de-Port informing me categorically that there are no busses which is disappointing and worrying in equal measure. I’d promised Kathy, my dear friend from St Louis that, I’d walk a couple of days with her on her mini camino that she’d planned with her delightful daughter Becky and this is not a message that I wanted. So I divided the journey into bite size chunks. I knew I could easily get to Llanes where I could get the local bus that I’d used earlier in the week to Ribadesella. If those ducks lined up then I would wait an hour then travel to Santander. Santander is a hub so I could get a bus to Bilbao. Find a hotel in Bilbao and complete the journey the following day when, with any luck, my final leg to Pamplona could be achieved from there. An overnight stay in Pamplona and I could get to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port the following day and the really good bit of this leg is that this is the bus that goes through Roncesvalles, the village cum Monastery that I’d be staying at the night of the second day of the Camino. So there’s the plan and I set off early on a sunny Wednesday slightly anxious but also confident.

I arrive at the Villaviciosa terminal ludicrously early which turns out to be temporarily unnecessary as the bus is running 40 minutes late. This could make the next leg interesting! It’s 11 o’clock and the bus isn’t going to come till 11:40 so I’m trying to work out how tight that makes the connection when … the bus turns up!

I’m baffled but relieved and really chuffed because I get the front seat and this leg is beautiful.

I’ll not prolong the tension, suffice to say all the other ducks line up and I arrive in Bilbao where I find a cheap hotel in the old town. It’s a forty minute walk or a ten minute ride but I need all of the exercise I can muster for the Camino Frances with Kathy and I’ll be walking through the old part of Bilbao so I’m smiling.The hotel is basic but adequate but it’s place in the middle of the old town is fantastic and after a quick shower I’m out and about in a pleasantly busy, beautiful part of town in the sun.

We were in Bilbao three years ago and I do like the City. It’s even better to be able to explore these narrow streets and gorgeous squares with an odd interruption for a cerveza to stay hydrated. 

There are a lot of students in the bar near the hotel and at two euros for a beer it’s easy to see why. I have a fascinating conversation with one of them who hails from Exeter. She’s been here two years and loves the place but she tells me that she daren’t go home because, although she’s studying here, she hasn’t got permission to stay and because she’s overstayed her ninety days she might not get back. She says it’s not an issue and she doesn’t seem stressed. She doesn’t know if the authorities are aware of her through the institution or not but doesn’t want to rock any boats until the end of this year when she finishes her course. I admire her relaxed attitude and wish her well, I have to confess, I’d have been a bit tense!

I wake up to torrential rain but still do the walk across town to get the bus to Pamplona. I arrive early again but this time because Bilbao is an international bus terminus with numerous platforms and whilst I like Paris and Brussels, today I want to go to Pamplona.

All’s well and the bus is on time but I thought it was direct and it turns out that I have to change at San Sebastián where, coincidentally, Kathy will be arriving for an overnight stay at about the same time that I’m changing buses. It would have been too much to ask, and we don’t meet, but the change of busses is seamless and two hours later I’m in Pamplona.

As I ride into the city I’m not particularly impressed but it turns out to be an endearing place with narrow streets and big squares and, like Bilbao Old Town, it’s vibrant without feeling packed. There’s a street market selling second hand books and the bars around the square have pintxos (Basque tapas) which I avail myself of after a brief discussion about which is ‘sin lactosa’. They’re really on the ball with this and point at four of the dishes that are without milk and I’m a happy man.

I’m well settled nibbling my way through the pintxos when I’m asked if I mind sharing the table. I’m used to this now and think it a great idea. If you’re by yourself and there are vacant seats then it’s not unusual to be asked to share. You don’t have to join in conversation and it’s not an expectation but it can be interesting. 

I’m joined by two sisters and their mum. They speak impeccable English but mum doesn’t speak any but we have a wonderful conversation through Google Translate. I understand some of her words but she speaks too quickly for me so we resort to the app. She’s lived here all her life and never been anywhere else even on holiday and she tells me it’s the best city in the world which is interesting without a reference point. I agree that it’s a wonderful city so I’m her best friend now and she gives me a kiss on the cheek as her daughters come back with beer including one for me – apparently it’s for keeping her entertained!

I’ve scored again with the hotel as it’s in the centre of town, en suite and big double bed which means I can spread out. There’s no meal included but the streets around it are littered with cafes so that’s not an issue. The clincher is it’s 40 euros (about £37). It is automated however, so you check in on-line by taking your own mugshot, entering your passport number (one of the joys of brexit) and ticking a box to say you’ll comply with their regulations (the electronic equivalent of signing the register) all using their app on your smartphone. Once accepted they send you an access code that you use to release the lock on your bedroom door. I type it wrong the first time and nothing happens so there are a few seconds of tension. Once typed in correctly there’s a satisfying click and I’m in.

In the morning the sun struggles to hit the cobbles lining the narrow streets so I’m wearing a thin coat then as I arrive in the open areas and walk through a park to the bus station I have to stop and strip down to t-shirt and shorts.

The bus is on time and takes me through the Pyrenees enabling an elevated view of where we’ll be walking and, in fairness, it looks like a tough couple of days but spectacular too.

I get a call from Cecilia, she’s bumped into Kathy and Becky in Bayonne and they arrived here together on the same transport which is a wonderful bonus. I arrive only twenty minutes after them and with the aid of “what.three.words” (an app I would highly recommend) we’re hugging affectionately and planning a beer or two to celebrate.

Now all we have to do is cross the Pyrenees but that’s another story.

Enjoy the snaps. 

Love G x

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