The Camino del Norte: Bilbao to Pobena, 28 km
I started on the city streets of Bilbao in a light rain. The early morning push of pedestrians and cars heading to work was actually a relief from the solitude I’d been feeling over the last few days. After saying goodbye to Mary yesterday, I walked to the western side of the city. I found the albergue on a hillside overlooking the city though I soon discovered that it wasn’t the pilgrims albergue I was looking for. It was a commercial hostel that catered to the summer European backpackers. It was big and clean and inexpensive but lacked the community of pilgrims I was looking for. I dropped off my gear in the four-person dorm room they’d assigned me and headed back out to explore. The receptionist gave me a quick lesson on the Bilbao bus system. “Walk up the hill to Basurtu-Kastrexana Errepidea (it’s a street), walk down the hill several hundred meters to the bus stop and wait. It will take you right to the old city center.” I guess I could have figured that out for myself but I wasn’t feeling very independent. After dinner alone in a small cafe I returned to the albergue and slept for 10 hours. I never sleep 10 hours!
The cold morning rain dripped from my hat and down the back of my neck. I could have pulled up my hood but it felt good, I felt alive. The path led me back into the city where I crossed the Ria del Nervion O de Bilbao. I then followed the river through a dense forest of industrial buildings, garages, shipping docks and parking lots. There are two Camino paths leading out of Bilbao, the traditional path carrying the pilgrim through more farmland and over two steep hills before entering the riverside town of Portugalete. The more direct route followed the river with it’s bustling banks of commercial shipping. I took the direct route, I wanted the saturation of noise and sights and people going about their day.
A pilgrimage is more than just a journey. A pilgrimage is a search for the divine, for the sacredness in ourselves and in the world. A pilgrimage is a transition from the mind to the mindful, from the physical world to the spiritual world. It requires risk and pain. It requires a sacrifice of ourselves, a letting go of old beliefs and habits and becoming vulnerable. I’m struggling, I’m finding it very hard to just let the events unfold naturally. I’m independent and a loner, I’m an observer that prefers to watch events unfold instead of participating in the unfolding. That’s my pilgrimage. To be an active participant. To open up and speak from the heart, from the spirit, from the soul. Seven centuries ago the Sufi mystic, Mevlana Rumi, wrote, “Don’t be satisfied with the stories that come before you; unfold your own myth.” I’ve failed so far.
I walked 15 kilometers without stopping, following the river the entire way, until I entered Las Arenas. I’d yet to see another pilgrim the entire morning. As I approached the city I noticed a strange structure spanning the river that separates Las Arenas from Portugalete. It reminded me of those huge cranes used to unload ships but it wasn’t. It was as if someone started building a bridge to Portugalete but then stopped. As I got closer and started wondering how I was going to get to the other side, I saw a ferry boat crossing the river. But no, it wasn’t a boat. It wasn’t floating in the water, it was floating over the water. Then I noticed the cables, they could barely be made out in the rain. It was a huge gondola suspended over a hundred feet below the superstructure, it was large enough to carry several cars and dozens of passengers. I’d never seen anything like this before. In the matter of a minute the gondola delivered it’s passengers to the other side. Several minutes later, it returned to Las Arenas with a new load of cars and people. I walked toward it.
I reached the gondola “terminal” about 10 minutes later. There were several large placards describing the history of the bridge (if that’s what you’d call it) and one was in English. I snapped a picture of the placard and here is the Reader’s Digest version: The Vizcaya Bridge was built to connect the two banks at the mouth of the Nervion River. It is the world’s oldest transporter bridge and was built in 1893, designed by Alberto Palacio, one of Gustave Eiffel’s disciples and Elissague. It was the solution to the problem of connecting the two towns without disrupting the maritime traffic of the Port of Bilbao and without having to build a massive structure with long ramps. In 2006, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The UNESCO considers the bridge to be a perfect combination of beauty and functionality. It was the first to use a combination of iron technology and new steel cables which began a new form of constructing bridges which was later imitated throughout the world.
I paid less than a Euro to board the gondola and within minutes I was in Portugalete. Although this was a recommended stopping point for the Camino I continued to walk up and out of the the city on a well marked route. I saw another unique thing as I climbed the steep sidewalks through the city: outdoor escalators or maybe I should say “conveyers.” They were flat, not stepped. What a wonderful idea, great for the elderly and the occasional overloaded pilgrims with aching knees, struggling with the steepness of the sidewalks. I felt no shame in taking advantage of the free transportation.
I pushed hard, I don’t know why, I probably should have stopped. My right knee was starting to get stiff. The rain had let up but it was still overcast and cold, wonderful hiking weather. I left the city walking on beautiful pedestrian/bike paths that spanned across several of the cities highways. The path soon led me back into the familiar farmland and occasional forests that define most of the Camino.
Three hours later, I reached the ocean. I crossed a small footbridge into the quiet village of Pobena. High cliffs rise out of the water and the small lagoon I crossed could have come straight from the Caribbean. The albergue was closed until three so I sat down outside the front door with the first pilgrim I’d seen all day. A young woman from Switzerland that had just started her own pilgrimage this morning. She spoke good English. She explained how she’d just graduated from college and was taking some time off before going to work. Several minutes later an Aussie about my age appeared. He was bright and cheerful and loved to laugh. I was back among “my people”, my pilgrims.