The Road to Santiago.

September 21, 2004

Photo of Irun.
View of Irun

Irun to San Sebastian

As I left the pension, the sky was cloudy and misty. But I realized that it was just moisture from the ocean. I was looking for the Puente de Santiago (Bridge of St. James), which crosses the River Bidasoa from France and would be my official starting point. Asking several people on the way, I eventually came to a river with its beautiful promenade.

I asked an old man if he knew where the bridge was, and that I was looking for "una columna con a concha" (a column with a scallop shell), which was how the guide book described it. He gave me directions. I found the bridge and started looking around for the column. Couldn’t find it. After a few minutes of frustration, I heard a voice calling me. I looked up to see the old man pointing to a short post nearby.

I then followed the guidebook, out of town and across another bridge. Eventually, I stopped in front of a store that sold water sports items. The book told me to turn left, cross the street, and take a cement path between two houses. Soon I came to a series of huertas (gardens), which confirmed the guidebook’s directions.

Then, on a wall, I saw the first of many painted flechas amarillas (yellow arrows). The arrows are hand-painted by the Amigos de Santiago (Friends of St. James) to guide the pilgrim on his way. They are a lifesaver.

Soon I saw el monte Jaizkibel (Mt. Jaizkibel). Half way up the mountain, I could see the sanctuary of Guadalupe which was my first goal of the day. The trek didn’t look too bad, and I said to myself that I should be able to do that it two hours. Then I had the sudden realization that the trail continued on up the mountain and that I had to go over that bloody mountain. The guidebook said that it was 300 meters high. I groaned and kept on going.

Since I was a biology teacher in my youth, I’m interested in all aspects of Mother Nature. After the sun came out, I saw several mariposas (butterflies) flitting among the various wild flowers on the margin of the road. As I walked by a long stone wall, I was distracted by a scurrying sound. I looked around, expecting to see an ardilla (squirrel), but I didn’t see a thing, Then I heard it again, and again. But I still could not see any sign of life. Then I saw a tiny lizard dash by. When I looked closer, I could see hundreds of crevasses, each with a tiny lizard head sticking out. It was like a condominium for young up-and-coming lizards.

Then my attention was diverted to the other side of the road by the tinkling of a bell. In the field was an old oveja (ewe) with a bell around her neck. A small flock was following her. On the old gal’s back sat a bird, snacking on whatever beasties were crawling around in her fleece. In the next field was a donkey family where the mare was nursing a young one. The male burro eyed me wearily as I passed by.

Then the camino (way) left the pavement to go up a steep winding path. Along the way were 13 numbered cement crosses, each with a place to kneel. Not Catholic, I don’t know the specifics about the stations of the cross, but I did find them convenient resting points.

When I got to the sanctuary, I found a terrific view but no restaurant. It was closed. There went my lunch! I rested a while, talked to some tourists in a car, and refilled my water bottle from the fountain.

Even though I didn’t find a restaurant, I did find sustenance. Further up the path, I came upon an extensive stand of blackberry bushes. Many were quite ripe, and they were delicious. I ate plenty of them. I imagined that to the touristas I must have looked like un oso con mochila (a bear with a backpack.)

Shortly afterwards, I faced a crisis. The path was a crawl up about 20 yards to a clearing. I was able to hoist myself up by grabbing on to small trees. At the clearing there were two flechas amarillas. One pointed straight up the hill but the other indicated a dirt path that seemed to go on a level road at a right angle to the summit. Well, If you can’t go over the top of the mountain, then go around the mountain, I figured.

It was a fairly easy trail with gradual but continual upgrade, which made me think that I was indeed on a path which would get me around the mountain. Around the bend, I came across a gran vista (great view). It was the North Atlantic Ocean, with waves breaking on gorgeous, sandy beaches. It was France, a beautiful country, but with a pompous, arrogant government that longs for the glory days when Bonaparte ruled the Continent and when Paris was the center of culture. What immediately came to mind was a line from the movie Monty Python and The Holy Grail, "People of France, I spit in your general direction!"

The trail was easier but very long. I began to lose my nerve. I saw a young couple coming from the other way and asked them if this was the sendero (path) to Pasajes de San Juan. They said no and told me to go back and go up to the top. I would be perdido (lost) if I kept going. They said the other way was mas facil (easier). Yah! (Easier for them — they were in their twenties.) I thanked them but kept going. Almost immediately I came across another flecha amarilla which made me feel better about my decision.

Boy, was it long. It was approaching four p.m. and I had been on the trail almost five hours. The whole trip was supposed to have been only 6 hours, but I had to go another 7.7 K (4.6 miles) after Pasajes de San Juan. I then saw an old man coming towards me and asked I asked him how much further to Pasajes de San Juan. He answered only three and then asked me if I was going to Santiago. He suggested that I go to Luzo since it has a unique opportunity. It has the world’s only Christ figure that is calvo (bald). I pretended to be interested, thanked him, and continued on.

Soon my legs began to cramp again. I came to a signpost where I took off my pack and walked about shaking my legs. I then noticed the sign pointed one way to "Pasajes de San Juan — 3 K," but another way pointed down hill, "Luzo 1.2 K." That’s only 7/10 of a mile. Besides, I could eat in Luzo. The restaurants in Pasajes de San Juan are very expensive. So I started down the trail. After a short while, the trail turned sharply left and then went almost straight down. I began cursing the old man. With a 45-pound pack on my back I find it difficult to descend without pitching head over heels. Fortunately, I found that someone had strung cable along the trail, similar to video cable. By hanging on to it, I was able to repel down the trail. Half way down, I had the awful thought, "What if this is not a cable but some farmer’s electric fencing?"

Thankfully, I finally reached the bottom and started down a small back road. I went past a farm with a large kennel. There were scores of dogs — loud, barking, hunting dogs. They ignored my command of ¡Calle te! (Shut up!) So I shuffled on as fast as I could.

I went into the first restaurant that I found. But the kitchen was closed! It was 5:15 and lunch had been over for some time. The dinner hour wouldn’t be until 9:00 p.m. So I asked if he had any bocadillos porque tengo mucho hambre. (sandwiches because I’m very hungry). The proprietor took pity on me and motioned me into the comedor (dining room) and called for his wife to serve me a full lunch. What hospitality. Thank God.

With a full stomach, I decided that after all that trouble, I ought to look for the church with the bald-headed Christ. After a few questions, I was directed to a small chapel where, sure enough, there was a statue of a crucified Christ shorn of his locks.

Photo of Cristo Calvo.
Cristo Calvo

Since it was getting late, I decided that I had better hustle the additional 2 K to Pasajes de San Juan. But my body wouldn’t respond. My thighs began to cramp. So I took off my pack, massaged my thighs, and walked around, shaking my legs. I kept repeating that old line, "Feets, don’t desert me now!"

After a couple aspirin and a few minute’s respite, I was able to continue on. I finally came to Pasajes de San Juan, which is described as a quaint little village nestled in the back side of Mt. Jaizkibel. But I was too tired for quaint. Besides, I had been here before and had gone to the home of Victor Hugo. I had even tried to read Les Miserables or, as I used to call it, Less Miserable. As I said, I couldn’t care less about Pasajes de San Juan at this point and went directly to the wharf. There I waited for the barquito (small boat) which ferried passengers across the narrow passage to Pasajes de San Pedro. As I got in, I reminded myself that a thousand years ago pilgrims were ferried across these same waters.

Photo of Passajes de San Juan.
Passajes de San Juan

But on the other side, I abandoned the pilgrims’ mode of travel. It was getting dark and my legs were still cramped. I couldn’t do the additional 7 K to the center of town. So, I asked around for a cab. Couldn’t find a cab, but did find a bus stop. The driver let me off near the tourist bureau and told me where to find it.

I was lucky enough to reach the tourist bureau at 7:50, just 10 minutes before closing. But I was told that I was unlucky enough to arrive in San Sebastian during the annual international film festival. All the places of accommodations were full. Even if I could find one, it would be very expensive. The woman gave me a map and list of accommodations and wished me luck.

I went to a bar next door to regroup. Fortified with a glass of vino tinto (red wine) and my cell phone, I began making calls. I soon found that the local youth hostel had vacancies and that I would be welcome. But since it was night time and hard to see the trail up the mountain (another mountain!) in the dark, the hospitalera (hostess) recommended that I take a cab. What a great idea!

So I hailed a cab and gave him directions. I told him that I was a pilgrim on the way to Santiago and that mis piernes son como plomo (my legs are like lead). He just laughed and said the trek from Irun is hard and that I did all right for un viejo (old man). Me? Old man? Well, I suppose I am. I sure felt like one.