Bilbao to Pobeña, May 18
One year ago today, I embarked on the most profound journey of a lifetime of travels as I set off from Bilbao, Spain to begin my Camino.
Bilbao is the largest Basque city that historically made its commerce from the export of iron extracted from the Biscayan quarries. Throughout the nineteenth century and beginnings of the twentieth, Bilbao experienced heavy industrialisation that made it the centre of the second-most industrialised region of Spain. It was my intention to go the northern route that would hug the coastline and drop me toward Santiago after I reached Oviedo.
I was blessed with Basque hospitality before I arrived as an online acquaintance booked me into the Pension Mendez and had a supper laid out for me at a local restaurant. After spending a couple of days in the old city, picking up my Credencial del Peregrino passport and paying requisite homage to the spectacular Guggenheim, I embarked on a drizzly cold morning and headed toward the train station where I was told to take a train to Pobeña and register at my first albergue.
Arriving late morning, Pobeña is a little town of few shops and an albergue, a small house containing dorm rooms filled with bunk beds that pilgrims or peregrinos can spend the night for a few Euros. There was little signs of life in this somnambulant village but soon it only took a few hours for the albergue to fill. Happily, the rain stopped and we enjoyed an afternoon of cool, sunny weather. I was soon to learn that I was starting my Camino during the coldest Spring in Spain in 60-years. I was also to learn how sleep deprived one can get by staying in albergues.
Pobeña to Castro Urdiales, May 19
My first night in the albergue was pretty awful. Sleeping in a room with two or three dozen other people takes perseverance and tolerance, attributes of which I am short. The cacophony of bodily functions including hacking coughs that punctuated the entire night made sleep next to impossible. I was alarmed enough about the pneumatic coughing and concerned about getting ill before I had even started.
Nonetheless I departed early at dawn and was climbing the stone staircase up to the seawall of the Bay of Biscay as the sun broke through offering a gorgeous rainbow as a beneficent omen. There were only a few of us on the morning journey and we staggered ourselves with comfortable distances between us. A Spanish pilgrim helped me cover my body and knapsack with walking tarp as we traipsed along the coastline sharing the route with all sorts of animal husbandry.
It was a glorious day once the sun decided to stay and we travelled through soggy fields, muskegs and grassy pastures. Halfway through the day, on the way up yet another mountain, I started to despair thinking I would not have the stamina to make it through the afternoon. I seriously contemplated taking out my tent and finding shelter in the woods, simply resting for the rest of the day. But I soldiered on, climbing yet more hills before descending into the city of Castro Urdiales I had covered 23-km that day carrying a 11-kilo knapsack and by the time I reached the city limits of this ancient fishing port, I was exhausted. I hitched a ride to the albergue and happily collapsed into bed.
That evening, my friend Angel drove out from Bilbao to meet me and treat me to supper of outstanding tapas. Angel is a constant peregrino and it was so friendly of him to go out of his way to help inaugurate my journey.
Castro Urdiales to Islares, May 20
Took it very easy today. Thrilled to see the sun as I had a short but marvelous walk today along 9-kilometers of shoreline trekking path. Found Paradise in the form of a small albergue right on the edge of the sea with hot water and laundry capabilities. I am enjoying the simple humility of hand washing my clothes every three days. Washed my clothes in a bucket and they are hanging out to dry. All this for 5-euros.
I was the first to arrive, so I picked an upper bunk, laid down my pack, walked into the little village that sits on the cusp of the albergue and grabbed a lunch of Spanish tortilla from its only pub.
Along the way, I cut my finger while opening a barbed wire fence. I was attended to by Roxy, a German biology graduate student, whom I had met in Pobeña who expertly bandaged me and sent me off. She later caught up to me in Islares where the albergue that comfortably slept 12, was home to 18 peregrinos that night. Every effort is made not to turn anyone away.
Although the sun shone most of the day, the high is only 10° but the nights are very cold dropping close to freezing. It is the third week in May and I am only carrying Spring attire. Throughout northern Spain, the cold temperatures are setting weather records and sometimes I am wearing two sets of clothes to keep warm. Most late afternoons, I stay in my sleeping bag and read, huddling down for warmth. I am loving the solitude of walking and the introspection, self-examination and reflection that walking alone affords me. This is primarily a spiritual journey for me, an expression of gratitude for surviving cancer and the countless other tumultuous events of my life. It was immediately, viscerally apparent from the moment I first walked up the seaside cliff at Pobeña, that the energy of the millions of people walking this 1,000-year path was like the third rail on a Metro – the third rail always carries the power. There is no doubt that this Camino is third rail of divine energy. Recognizing and tuning into it is a blessing.
Islares to Laredo, May 21
It was another night of fitful sleep in an overcrowded albergue with one too many sick people.
I left at daybreak and passed by a gorgeous beach and adjacent private campsite that I hope to revisit one day. The weather again was bleak, cold and cloudy. It was difficult to shake the dampness so it is not surprising that many came down with colds.
My goal today was to reach Laredo and I knew from my guidebook that I would be traveling on asphalt most of the day. I walked a few miles on the side of a busy highway until I could find refuge in smaller villages along the trails. There’s nothing open until at least 10 am in these hamlets and the bars don’t bother opening when it’s damp and dreary.
I saw few pilgrims that morning and walked several hours before realizing I might’ve taken a wrong turn. Easy to do because some of the Camino yellow arrow signs disappear or are incorrect. As fortune would have it, a young man driving a pickup truck pulled over to the side of the road, got out of the car, hailed me and said he’d already passed me once that day and figured I had gotten lost. He was a young forester with a small family and told me to jump in the truck he would take me to Laredo as I was miles off track.
Had a real nice visit with him and gave him some origami papers for his wife. He shared with me his gratitude about being employed in an economy that was very depressed and wounded. He dropped me off on the side of the hill that allowed me to descend into the town and find my way to an albergue.
Laredo is a thriving tourist town in the summer with an outstanding beach but today it was just a cold, gray, empty, wet seaside resort. I took shelter in the convent of San Francisco where the Trinity mothers assigned me a clean simple room with a private bathroom. After I replenished groceries from the market, I spent most of the day in my sleeping bag just trying to stay warm. Later that evening, I made the decision to leave the northern route and pick up the Camino on the Frances route at Burgos. But first, I would go to Madrid for a week as the only time I could escape the cold here was when I was huddled in my sleeping bag. Third week of May, and the high was 8°C. It was 25°C in Madrid. No brainer.
Laredo to Madrid, May 22
The high temperature in Laredo was 8°C. I fled to Madrid because I just couldn’t handle the cold even though for the most part, I was wearing every stitch of clothing I had. I expected spring, not winter. Happily friends of mine invited me to Madrid where the temperature was 25°C and I took advantage of their hospitality for a week while I rested and warmed up.
It had been 40-years since I had last visited Madrid and I forgot how beautiful the city was. Certainly the treasures at the Prado and the Reina Sofia are incomparable. I was thrilled to see Picasso’s Guernica at Sofia and the vast collection of Rubens housed in the Prado. Worth noting though is my experience with the ALSA bus line who provided me with first class SUPRA concierge service – finest I have ever seen on any mode of transport – on the €40 bus ride from Bilbao to Madrid. It was my intention to change Caminos from the north to the Frances route that I hoped would bring me a more agreeable climate.
next leg Leon to Hospital de Orbigo