To Spain and Back
I have been telling friends that we are going on El Camino, or The Way in English. This is one of the ultimate routes any pilgrim worth the name would attempt to take, time, energies and resources allowing. It is in the north of Spain, originating from the French Pyrenees and going from east to west to almost the Atlantic Ocean and allegedly the route taken by St James in the first century from Jerusalem to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ after his Death and Resurrection. St James returned to Jerusalem in AD44 where he was martyred, beheaded by Herod Agrippa, but before his remains were devoured by the lions, as was the practice in those days, they were smuggled out of Jerusalem and sent by a stone boat by his two disciples, Theodotus and Athanasius, to a secret place in Galicia in northern Spain. The remains were rediscovered by a monk in 813, who reportedly followed the stars to the place, which was later made famous by the episode and became known as Santiago de Compostela, which is the finishing point of El Camino and where Su and I were supposed to end up on this trip, planned some nine months ago.
It turned out that I had to start the journey by myself, which I began three weeks before, leaving after midnight and taking three flights, through London and Madrid to a not very big city in Spain called Pamplona where I was supposed to be picked up by a limousine to another even smaller city called Logrono 90 km further east. By the time I landed in Pamplona, my humble back had not lied on any flat surface for over 40 hours, and I began to wonder why I was doing that. There was no driver bearing my name after I cleared customs, and in accordance with the instructions given me, I called the tour operator and was told to wait five more minutes, which I did out of faith. A man in a suit and tie did showed up after a few minutes and asked me whether I was waiting for him, introducing himself as Julio. There was no one around at the time, and I was happy to see him. He took me to his transport which was a humble Volkswagen and offered to take my luggage to the trunk. Julio was chatty, which helped to keep me awake. It was 34 degrees, hot and dry. Julio said it had been raining for a while which was good for the vines and began to describe the wine industry and the car industry in the area. When I landed in Heathrow two planes ago, it was about 18 degrees.
Let me go back to why I was there alone, after having paid the tour operator – Camino Ways – good Euros for two persons. The answer is simple. Su had other more important things to look after back home, and she promised me that she would catch up with me as soon as she finished her businesses.
Logrono is not exactly a big city, but with 200,000 people living there, it is not too small either, but certainly smaller than Bilbao which has a population of half a million. I mentioned Bilbao, because I spent a full day and night there backpacking, and by myself. It started the morning after I arrived Logrono. I was looking for things to do and I recall this city which is not too far from here. I was also prompted by Gus in a rather terse email. So after breakfast, I packed my bag and walked to the bus terminus which was about 20 minutes away, according to the hotel staff. I finally got there and managed to buy two tickets for the outward and return journey to Bilbao. My plan was to visit the very famous Guggenheim Museum as soon as I got there, as Rick Stevens suggested that many tourists would so do. It was very much worth it, and I felt like a backpacker, which for the record I never was, but that would be another story. It was past 7pm when I left the Museum, but it was still rather sunny and hot. I made my way back to where the bus dropped me at town centre, a place called San Mames, and with remote assistance from Su, I got the names and addresses of two hotels nearby. I made my way to one and got myself a room. It was not exactly easy. The streets were extremely crowded and there was a festive mood. The city soccer team would play the Barcelona team that evening and the entire city was out to support the home team wearing the colour of the Athletic Club, which were vertical red and white stripes. The streets smelt of alcohol, just like Causeway Bay in the Rugby Sevens weekend in March. I was tired, hot and beginning to smell too, but I felt rather happy at what I had just done what I did not have a chance to do in my early twenties, but could still do so some 40 years afterwards.
I took a bath immediately and then found that I had not packed any spare clothes. I had my tooth brush, shaver and even toothpicks, but no spare underwear. I had my clothes aired in the room and slept in my birth suit. It was too early to eat in Spain. From the front desk, I got a reference to a good restaurant and walked there, with the assistance of some kind police officers, who were all over the place, carrying out crowd control duties. The restaurant unlocked its door for me. There was only one other table occupied. Everyone was out there, I suppose. I ordered a full dinner, complete with a bottle of local red wine, and was feeling even happier when I walked back to the hotel, past 11pm.
I got up rather early the next morning, and checked out after a good breakfast. The Spaniards are much better than the French when it comes to breakfast. I got onto the city green train and made my way to the Old Town. I followed the map and went to the market, the seven streets in the Old Town, the Cathedral and was looking for the Basilica when it became slightly difficult. The tourist map did not show gradients, which is quite normal. I had to ask around from more than a few people on the streets before I finally found it, by which time it was past 1pm, very hot and sunny, and I was steaming, sweating and rather smelly. Afterwards, I got lucky and stumbled onto the equivalent of our underground MTR and got back to familiar territory, the bus terminus, rather quickly. I slept almost the whole return bus trip. My walk back to the hotel from the bus terminus was a bit quicker than my outward journey; and I missed only a few blocks on the way. At the reception, I invited myself to a pint of cold beer before going back to the room.
I typed what was still on the mind after dinner on the hotel computer, but I got the password wrong, which was why this letter, written on 27 May, could only see the light now.
Talk to you later.