The Road to Santiago.

September 27, 2004

photo of garden clock.
Garden clock in Gernika

Gernika to Bilbao

I took an  autobus to Bilbao for the same reason I went to Gernika by train. The camino was poorly marked and went through some very difficult mountains. Hey, Edmund Hillary, I am not. So I took a 45-minute bus ride to the largest industrial port in all of Spain — Bilbao.

I had read about the importance of Bilbao during the Spanish Civil War. Its capture would surely have brought an end to the war since Bilbao is the major shipping contact with Europe. The Republicans and Popular Front would have been totally cut off from the rest of the world. But, with mountains on three sides and the river system and ocean on the backside, the perimeter was known as the caja fuerte de Bilbao (the strong box of Bibao). The people of Bilbao quickly grabbed the heights and the city was saved during the war. If the other side had gained the heights, they could have dealt Bilbao, with simple mortars, the same sort of destruction that airplanes delivered to Gernika.

The bus stopped next to the rail station. As I stood looking at my guide book, I was approached by an older woman who obviously was a pilgrim. She had started in her native country of Holland. We compared guides and discussed where the local youth hostel was located. She was anxious to get there, so she hurried off. I wished her luck and told her I would probably see her in the evening. I set out to find the hostel (but at a slower pace).

At one point, I was confused again. A woman had given me directions. A few blocks later she ran into me again, so she accompanied me —  for over 3K. As we walked, she talked. She told me that she was a teacher. I could tell that she was because she kept giving me basic instructions on how to cross the street. ¡No, rojo! Si, verde. (No, red! Yes, green) At one point, she even held my hand!

On the way, she pointed out some of the city’s interesting architectural styles. ¿Precioso, no? Well, to be honest, precious has never been a descriptive adjective I would use for a building. To describe a gem, yes. A child, yes. Even a pet, yes. But a building? No!

She walked as fast as she talked, and that was muy rapido (very fast). She could see that el viejo (the old man) was getting tired, so we stopped and she bought me a coffee. She even gave me a hankie to wipe the sweat off my brow — Aw shucks, ma’m!

After she left, I continued up the hill, looking for the hostel. I followed the yellow arrows up 43 flights of stairs. With approximately six steps per flight, I figured I climbed about 250 steps. Fortunately for me, at two of the landings were benches where I could grab a breather.

When I got to the top of the staircase, I followed the arrows up the road. As the arrows went around a bend, the path went by a house that had a couple of mochilas (backpacks) on the porch. This had to be the place. This must be the hostel. When I knocked on the door, a woman appeared. I asked her ¿Esta aqui el albergue? (Is this the hostel?) She got quite agitated and kept shouting ¡Albergue, No! Albergue, abajo. (Not an albergue, albergue below).

A younger woman conducted me to the edge of the cross road and pointed down the hill and shouted, “Albergue, abajo.” I was confused by the yellow arrows (and the backpacks). Eventually another young woman came along and calmly told me the hostel was further down the hill and that I could take the bus there. Almost as if on cue, a bus appeared and the young woman motioned me to get on board.

Near the bottom of the hill, she indicated that I should get off and she pointed to the albergue in the near distance. Some albergue! It looked more like a big hotel — it was a seven-story building. (I later found out that it used to be the dormitory of some technical school.)

I went in and inquired about a room, but it was completo (full)! But the nice young desk clerk said that I should be able to get a room at 7 o’clock. She said that she would even save me a room. So I left my mochila (backpack) in the security room and set out to explore the city.

As I was leaving, the Dutch woman came in. She had made the same mistake that I had made. Apparently it was some alternative inland route that people seldom use. The hospitalera (hotel clerk) said that since we were both pilgrims, she would put us in the same room together.

Unas palomas blancas
"". I took a bus into the casca vieja (old section of town) and walked around for a bit. I decided to have lunch at Bikandi, a restaurant that was over a 100 years old, which the guide book recommended. I was the only one eating there at the time, but it was a great meal. I decided that I had to eat there because if I ever go to a Boston cocktail party and hear some matron boasting about eating at the Bikandi, that marhhhvelous old restaurant in Bilbao, I could say—“been there, done that.”

Later I went to the Church of Santiago and saw the huge portico under which pilgrims have slept out in the elements for hundreds of years. I myself was glad that I had the comfort of the hostel to return to.

On the way back, as the bus climbed up the hill, I realized that I had taken off my hat when I was in the church and must have set it down while taking a picture. I was sad because that old hat was with me the entire camino frances and it was like an old friend. But it was old and kind of ratty and, besides, one of my rules is: do not go back, never retreat.
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