The Camino del Norte: Irun to San Sabastian, 27 km
I’d been told that this leg of the Camino del Norte would be the worst. It’s very mountainous with steep accents and descents. To add to the difficulty, it was cold and pouring down rain. I was not in a hurry to leave the comfort of my albergue to begin the 25 kilometer (15 mile) journey. It was 0900 when I finally committed. I walked out the door with wearing all my rain gear and started climbing. Within minutes I came upon a Portuguese man, Joaquin. He was about my age and very jovial. A professional pilgrim, having done the Camino Frances, the Japanese Shikoku Pilgrimage, the São Miguel Pilgrimage in the Azores, and just last month the Camino Portugese. He’s published two books in Portugal and a third is due to hit the bookstores next month. We shared our stories and walked together for several hours. Both of my companions we trail hardened and with the extra weight of my pack I was soon lagging behind. After a couple hours I called to them, “I’m going to stop for a mid-morning snack and enjoy the view”
Joaquin asks, “Are you all right? Should we wait for you?”
“I’m fine, I’ll catch up”
I knew I never would. This was a tortuous day for me, the wind was picking up and the rain getting heavier. The cold was sinking into my bones and even with the exertion I was starting to shiver. I stopped to put on my down jacket and kept moving.
I eventually descended into a port city. I was lost, dejected and miserable and walked right past a small pier on the edge of the water where there was a boat to ferry pilgrims across the harbor. Later, after finding Joaquin, he told me he’d waited on the other side for me for 15 minutes. He actually watched me walk past the pier and into the city. He yelled to me but I was too far away, too far gone to hear him.
I wanted to heal up and dry out. Everything, I mean everything, was wet. I eventually found the ferry, crossed the harbor and moved on, it was 1400 in the afternoon.
I pushed hard to reach the municipal albergue located on the far side of San Sabastian, walking over 25 kilometers and into the area where it was suppose to be. Seeing a church, I walked in. It was beautiful, a novena was just starting. A number of elderly female beggars were out front holding out empty soup cans. I felt uncomfortable, I know it’s a scam, a well organized group that makes a living out of this. Leaving the church, I rounded the corner and found two men leaning against the wall, smoking cigarettes. I’m sure they were the leaders of the beggers. I didn’t care, I walked over and asked directions. They spoke no English, but I showed them the address for the albergue and they understood. One of them opened his umbrella and indicated I should follow him. I was a little reluctant but desperate. Walking down the streets in the center of the large city, he stopped a well dressed businessman and asked him a question. The business man was able to relay to me, with extremely little English, that the albergue had shut down. I was heart broken, my lags were aching, my feet throbbing and I could hardly walk another step. The two men indicated to follow them; the business man turning and going in the opposite direction of where he was originally heading. As we walked, they both took turns holding umbrellas over my head, protecting me from the rain. I was worried; “Is this some type of con team?” We wove our way down the streets for about 1/2 kilometer until the business man pointed out a yellow flechette. “The Camino!” It was on a sign post at the base of a steep mountain trail, right on the edge of the city. I vigorously shook my head, “No, there is no way I’m walking up that mountain!”. They both shook there heads back at me, I didn’t understand. They then led me a half block further down the street, the rain still coming down, their umbrellas still over my head. They delivered me to the front doorstep of a modern youth hostel with a Camino sign out front. You wouldn’t belive the relief that ran through me. I was still expecting to at least be asked for money, at least from the rougher looking leader of the beggers. With big smile’s they both said “Buen Camino” and walked away. I smiled at their departing backs.
I walked into the hostel, completely drenched, dripping water all over the tiled floors, and up to the reception desk. A women in front of me said, “Hi!” as she was checking in. She was obviously American and just as drenched as me. I now even had someone to talk to in English! Mary is a retired teacher that now teaches rope courses in the mountains of Washington State and she’s an experienced backpacker.
The thick sheets they handed me at the front counter felt and looked like they’d just been ironed and starched, they were still warm. I limped my way to one of the large bedrooms where there were 8 bunk beds (16 beds) filled to capacity with men of all ages. I spread the entire contents of my bag out on the bed and started drying off. I found Joaquin here as well and we continued our conversation as if it had never stopped. His next big adventure is the Appalachian Trail next year. I told him to let me know when he starts and I’ll join him for a week or two. That is, if I recover from this one.