The Road to Santiago.

September 28, 2004

River view in Portugalete

Bilbao to Portugalete

I had breakfast in the morning with Ria, my roommate from the previous night. She was a very interesting lady: 61 years old, from Holland, and a former nurse who had worked in hospices. After she retired, she sold her house and decided to walk the Camino.

I told her that the word hospiceis related to the camino like the words hotel, hostal, hospital, and hospitality. They are evolved from los Caballeros Hospitalieros (the Hospitalier Knights). They were one of two groups of Teutonic Knights — priest and monks who were trained in the martial arts. They went to the Holy Land during the crusades to protect pilgrims. After being expelled by Saladin and the Saracens, they established a series of outposts along the trail to Santiago in the kingdoms of Navarre, Castile, Leon, and Galicia (now modern Spain). The knights built and maintained churches outside the towns. There, pilgrims could find respite, be quarantined and receive treatment if sick, or absolution and burial if dying.

Ria knew well of the history and traditions of el camino. She showed me her credencial, which she had obtained in Holland. The credencial is sort of a pilgrim passport that allows the bearer to stay at the pilgrim hostels. Every place has its own unique stamp that the hospitalero imprints on the booklet. It results in an attractive and interesting graphic portrayal of the journey. Seeing hers, reminded me that I had yet to go get mine. I would do it before I left Bilbao.

I took the bus back into town to go to la Oficina de los Amigos de Santiago (the Office of the Friends of St. James). When I got there, I was sure that I had the wrong number. All I could find was a storefront with a sign: American Sex Shop. Somehow, I knew that wasn’t the place. Then I found a building with the correct address. I went in but I couldn’t find any entrance or sign. So I went up one flight on the elevator and knocked on a door. A woman politely told me that I should check with the doorman. The doorman impolitely told me that it was on the mezzanine above.

Well, finally I found the place. But, it was (a word we should all know by now) cerrado.

Faded beauty

So, I decided that my credencial would have to wait and I left town. The route instructions were somewhat simple: follow the river to the sea. I went through some pretty depressing neighborhoods. The first was dominated by industrial railroad tracks. The second was along a section of old houses that once were grand but were now rundown or deserted. I could see some rehabilitation work going on and thought that there would be a potential for some good housing.

I then passed a metal reclamation business with its stack of crushed cars piled up next to the tin buildings. There was silt and trash all around. Next came a giant factory that had a huge yard filled with what looked like big rolls of pressed steel. This gave way to a small settlement of old rundown houses which has to be the most depressing place in Spain.

But what a change a mile later! I could tell the sea was there before I could see it! It felt cool and refreshing. Looking down the hill, I could see an unusually attractive river with a lovely esplanade, parks, and even a public pool. I wanted to get down there so I asked for directions. A friendly man told me where to cross over the railroad tracks and reach the causeway.

As I strolled in the beautiful seaside town of Portugalete, I could see in the distance one of the area’s most famous landmarks, the Palacio Bridge, commonly known as the puente colgado (hanging bridge). It was built at the turn of the 20th century to accommodate the increase in the traffic of trolley cars and that new-fangled machine – the automobile. Since Bilbao was, and still is, the most important shipping port in Spain, it wouldn’t do to build a bridge that would prevent ships from going up river.

Puente colgado

So, Mr. Palacio came up with an ingenious idea. He built two, very tall towers connected by a trestle track. Along the track a small car rolled across the river. Cables suspended from the car hefted a train car which held not only pedestrians but also vehicles. The train literally shuttles back and forth. While I watched, about 50 pedestrians and about a half dozen cars got off the bridge. I inquired about the price for a car — 1.8 c. As we say in New England, that’s not too bad!

I wound my way up the hill and found the tourist office. I asked the nice young lady where I could find a reasonable pension and she gave me a map and indicated the ones that were recommended and the ones that were to be avoided. She also gave me the address of an Internet salon.

Referring to my map and list, I called one of the cheaper pensions and found out that, indeed, there was room available. After I arrived at the place, I took a shower and went to the Internet salon to answer my email. Later I found a small bar near the pension, where I had dinner. It was noisy due to a big soccer match. But after a day of solitary walking, the company of a crowd was welcomed.

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