I just trimmed this down by a couple of hundred words. Enjoy.
We waited at Portugalete Metro station in silence. Perhaps it was the early morning vestiges of sleep, or perhaps, like me, Rachel was wondering why she had agreed to dedicate her weekend to walking with someone she hardly knew. We hadn’t planned it like that. There was plenty of enthusiasm in the bar when the idea was mooted but by the time the message pinged into people’s phones the enthusiasm had dried up. So, it was just the two of us on a Metro bench on a Saturday morning, tied together by a stubborn desire to do a bit of the Camino del Norte.
The Metro whistled and screeched to a standstill, its doors breathed open and we stepped on to be whisked away to San Mames bus station. In San Mames we boarded the bus for San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque). The bus was packed. It seems as soon as you arrive in Bilbao people tell you to visit San Sebastian – ‘more Michelin star restaurants per sq metre than any other city in Europe, ’ you are told. But we didn’t care for fancy restaurants – we were walking the earth. When our boots hit the ground in San Sebastian we hauled our bags onto our backs and took the first steps of an epic 40km adventure across the Northern Coast of Spain.
‘Let’s go to the tourist office first. Get some maps.’
‘Agreed. Then let’s find a nice café. I hear this place is like Mecca for gourmands.’
The cafe was bedecked in Christmas decorations and, as luck would have it, the music of Bruce Springsteen. I sipped my coffee and noticed a cardboard cut-out of a man amongst the smiling snowmen and Christmas lights; fat, rosy cheeked, black hat and coat, large belt and a pipe sticking out between his smiling lips. In real life he would probably be accompanied by a bottle of whisky and a bad smell. Who was this man? He seemed at odds with all the cosy Christmas images.
‘Olentzero – the Basque version of Santa Claus,’ Rachel explained. ‘He lives in the mountains with his wife. At Christmas, he comes down the chimney or through your window.’
‘He looks a bit seedy. If I saw him coming in my window I’d call the police. So Santa Claus doesn’t visit the Basque region?’
‘Well, it depends on your family. It used to be only Olentzero but in the last few years Santa has moved in on his turf. Blame Hollywood. Generally children receive a gift on the 25th and a second gift on the 6th December – King’s Day.’
‘That’s very interesting. Thanks Rachel. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve taken the liberty of recording this conversation so I can recreate it verbatim on my blog.’
‘Don’t give a fuck. No one reads your shitty blog,’ Rachel said. She drained her cup and stood up. ‘Vamos.’
We set off. It was unseasonably mild with temperatures high enough to encourage locals to swim in the sea. We left the promenade and followed the yellow arrows up a hill. There were less people in fancy clothes and more people with panting dogs, sticks and mud-crusted boots.
We felt positive; We were doing the thing we had set out to do and the beautiful day was like a thumbs- up from the universe. It was nice to be getting away from it all – work, traffic, laundry, grocery shopping, that nagging sense of ‘What next?’ The only thing on the agenda was walking from San Sebastian to Zarautz and an occasional café con leche to refuel. We shierked the humdrum and surrendered ourselves to the Camino. Fully alert and alive the conversation flowed.
On our way uphill we noticed what looked like some unloved old chairs waiting for the dustmen. On closer inspection we realised it was a small station for pilgrims with water, first aid equipment and stamps for your passport. It was a free service for the pilgrims provided by some anonymous do-gooders.
The more we walked the more beautiful the views. There were hills everywhere- distant ones, close ones, sharp ones and smooth ones. Hills decked in orchards, hills shouldering villages, hills with lonely houses and hills rippling off into the distance. Goats stared calmly back at us as we chattered by.
We stopped in a café to refresh with some water, coffee and a snack. The café, perched on a hillside, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by having a wall around its garden that successfully blocked any view of the sparkling blue sea on the otherside. It did have a cat though which we tried to befriend by going ‘pissshwiisssh.’ The cat had no interest in being chummy.
Later we came to a town called Orio. As we walked its narrow cobbled streets we happened upon a church, wherein there was a beautiful model of a fishing trawler hanging from the ceiling like a chandelier. The town’s inhabitants, I surmised, were wholesome, traditional Basque folk bound together by Faith and fishing.
We walked further down the cobbled street and came to a harbour where two beautiful fishing trawlers; one red, one blue, sat patiently. They aroused my suspicion. In my experience trawlers were strong, ugly, smelly, but above all, reliable; not unlike the full back on your parish football team. The two trawlers in Orio were so immaculate and pristine you could be forgiven for thinking they were merely posing to help fulfil the town’s postcard perfect qualities.
We sat in the sun and had a few pinchos. I loaded my plate with octopus, ham and goat’s cheese and sardines on bread. I washed it all down with a refreshing beer and commented for about the 100th time on the good weather and beautiful scenery.
The plan was to have a quick pincho and then do the last six kilometres to Zarautz but we noticed a stage was being setup and got the scent of a party. A friendly barman informed us that the local festival, San Thomas, was starting that night. How fortuitous. With a giddy sense of naughtiness we abandoned the Camino and made our way to the tourist office in high spirits.
Our bubble was soon burst – the albergues (pilgrim accommodation) were all closed in December and the hotels in town were booked up. Also, darkness was closing so going by foot to the next town was no longer an option. Well, for us, it wasn’t but it didn’t hold back the springy young Austrian backpacker we encountered. With a clipped manner of speaking and rapid fire questions he bamboozled the tourist information lady. It was as if he was a shrewd detective with an abrupt line of inquiry and she was a murder suspect trying, but failing, to withhold information.
‘Is there or is there not a campsite on the edge of the next town?’
‘Is it, or is it not open?’
‘Yes but it is dark.’
‘That is of no consequence,’ he scoffed, banging the counter before speeding out the door.
You know the type – surviving on 50c a day and eating nothing but broccoli. Our penny-pinching schemes were hastily abandoned when a local hotelier happened to walk into the Tourist Information Office and reveal she had one room left.
Later that night, our bellies full of platos combinados and are bodies relaxed after a good day’s workout we strolled through the streets amongst the hordes of revellers.
In the square the mayor made a speech from the balcony of the town hall and raised the local flag. With that the festival swung into action. A choir sang, traditional dancers danced and men with giant heads and brooms chased giddy children. Swarms of people thronged the narrow streets of the old town, chatter and laughter filling the air.
As the night bore on the scene changed from ‘Quaint Fishing Village Festivities’ to ‘Get Fucked-up With the Boys!’ While waiting for a taxi to deliver us from the madness, we noticed a bunch of lads on board the beautiful blue trawler pissing and snorting cocaine.
The next morning the sun was up, the litter cleared and the town’s beauty restored. We had coffee and chocolate pancakes outside. The church bells rang, the Trawlers looked untroubled and a warm December breeze tickled our arms. The freaks were still in their beds. Awaiting them was a sore head and empty wallet accompanied by the realisation that it was all a con; they had boldly reached for the stars but landed in the gutter. For that brief taste of freedom, they would pay with a few days imprisoned in a private hell. Hold on wayward brothers; It shall pass.
That Sunday we walked from Orio to Zarautz. From Zaurautz we took the coastal road to Getaria where a playful sea drenched us with salty kisses. The plan was to make it to Deba but our progress was hampered by stopping every few moments with the lie ‘Just one last quick photo.’ We finished in Zumaia and took the train back to Bilbao as the sun bowed out behind a bank of clouds.
‘I know you are disappointed we didn’t make it to Deba but perhaps you might feel better knowing you have made a new friend,’ I said to Rachel.
She looked at me blankly.
‘Me,’ I clarified.
Despite her efforts her blank expression turned into a smile.