Sept. 18: Pamplona- 13 miles, six hours
It’s so hot! The path is narrow and we walk single file through all sorts of rocky terrain. Bamboo trees that seem 10 feet tall line the route for a while, then a forest. I feel as if I am melting and getting grumpy, but soon I find myself listening to the interesting stories that some pilgrims share with me; how a cowgirl from Nebraska met and married a Latin man from Texas while vacationing in Mexico, the woman from the California who spoke fluent French and lived in France for two years, working as a nanny and interpreter for a wealthy Lebanese family and the woman who just retired from the army, after living all over the world.
We enter the old city over the historic drawbridge and head to our albergue, Plaza Catedral. Our cubicle has two bunk beds and a view of the garden. We meet our bunk mates from Denmark and Rumania and settle in. After we check out the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Real, some pilgrims wave us over to join them at an outdoor cafe across the street. We continue on to dinner with the merry group from Switzerland, Sweden, Taiwan, Denmark and make room for our Danish bunk mate that was dining alone.
Sept. 19: Puenta de la Reina- 14 miles, 7-1/2 hours
Another hot day! We start out through the city, but soon the path turns to loose rock and boulders. It takes all my concentration to navigate my steps and I feel as if I’m also cleaning out all the cobwebs in my brain. We climb to the top of Alta de Perdón in the midst of all the wind turbines.
We all take turns taking photos of each other at the famous iron sculpture of medieval pilgrims and stand on line to get a handmade wax passport stamp. A young, enterprising couple provide the stamp for free in exchange for our email, in order to send us information about their upcoming Camino documentary.
Sept. 20: Estella- 14 miles, six hours
The bad news: Spain shouldn’t be this hot in September, but the good news is that there is less loose rock. We walk through gently rolling farmlands and pass three hilltop villages. The fields carry with them an artistic quality; the perfect rows of plantings high up in the hills, the squared off sections of beiges and browns that look like suede in the sunlight and even the tractor’s treads leave behind their own ornamental quality.
We are very excited to have a private room at Hosteria de Curtidores. We are warmly greeted with a sample of local beer and our backpacks are carried up to our room. We learn that this area by the river was once the tannery center. The original stone walls of the city can still be viewed behind glass in the basement. First things first; we grab a washing machine and alert our friends to hurry and bring their laundry down and laugh that washing our underwear together is bringing us closer.
Rather than join a big group tonight, we opt for an inside taverna where it’s cool and quiet. We are dining alone when a young woman pilgrim asks for help with the menu. She is delighted when we ask her to join us. Since her husband is now stationed in Afghanistan, it seemed like a good time for her to walk the Camino. She did not want to walk by herself, so asked a friend to join her, never expecting that the friend would get hurt on Day One, stay behind and she would be on this journey alone. By the end of dinner, she realizes that she is only alone if she wants to be.
Sept. 21: Los Arcos- 14 miles, six hours
There is a big group already gathered at Fuente del Vino, drinking the free wine offered to pilgrims at the famous wine fountain spigot. It’s only 8:30 a.m., so we decide on a water toast instead, a photo and we’re on our way. Though the climbs are gentler today, there is no shade and the Powerade is refreshing in the relentless heat.
It’s hard to find a place to stay because of the car races this weekend. Even though it’s not our first (or second) choice, we are grateful to find a private room on the outskirts of town. Hostel Ezequiel does not have much personality and the Wi-Fi is not working, but the room is clean. Apologetic about the Wi-Fi, the receptionist says she will do our laundry and we hang it on the line outside to dry, laughing that we might just be one of the few pilgrims that have monogrammed clothespins, having put our initials on each one with marker.
Los Arcos is a bit of a lackluster town (the population is 1200 and decreasing), but the astonishing beauty of its church, the Inglesia de Santa Maria, makes up for it. The sumptuous interior from the 16th century, the bell tower and the cloisters were enough to actually make me gasp.
We find our friends from the U.S., Switzerland, Russia and Taiwan sitting outside the cathedral. The wonderful conversation continues through wine and then dinner, as we swap stories about our lives and our families. I fall asleep tonight wondering how I could feel so close to people that I’ve just only met.