The Road to Santiago.

September 29, 2004

Photo of Playa las Arenas.
Playa las Arenas

Portugalete to Ontón

As I packed in the morning, I was determine to travel like a pilgrim: i.e., lodging in free or inexpensive albergues. Although my guide book didn’t show many albergues until Santander, I had found a list of small towns on the Internet with municipal alburges maintained by the town. I wrote them down and mapped out a plan before leaving. I was tired of taking a hit in my wallet.

At the edge of town, I was looking at the map when a bicyclist stopped. He was dressed in the popular Lance Armstrong look. He told me to look for El camino rojo (the red road) and take it all the way to Playa La Arena. Well, the red road was a paved carril bici (bike path) and pedestrian walkway adapted from an old country road made obsolete by the auto pista (limited access highway).

Photo of the carril bici (bike path).
Carril bici

It was a beautiful trail through the countryside with various rest areas and picnicking spots. There were many people on the path: walkers and bicyclists. I was so surprised to see how many older people were out strolling along, some at a pretty good clip.

At one point, I was overtaken by a man wearing a full backpack. I asked him if he was a pilgrim on the way to Santiago. He said no, but he was in training to do the camino frances to Santiago later in the month. I could tell, by his pace, that he wouldn’t have any problems.

As I started down the valley, I knew I was getting nearer the ocean. I could smell it and sense it. And there it was — Playa La Arena. What a gorgeous beach!. Its name is appropriate since playa means beach and arena means sand. And it surely was sandy — soft clean sand.

I decided to have lunch in one of the many restaurants near the beach. I found one that had a reasonably priced menu-of-the-day. I’m writing about it because it was a new Spanish experience for me. I decided to be daring and try something new. I had never seen cangrejos del rio (crabs of the river) on a menu before and I was curious. I should have known that “crabs of the river” meant crawfish. They were small and covered with a spicy tomato sauce. It was a messy meal but what little meat I could get out of them was tasty. The waiter was amused with my hapless attempts. Let’s face it, I prefer a New England lobster!

As I walked along the beach, glancing out of the corner of my eyes at the topless sunbathers, at least three persons came up to ask me if I was a peregrino a Santiago (pilgrim to Santiago). They each wanted to be helpful and told me how to find the stairs up the side of the mountain.

I found them – 120 steps — I counted. The steps led to a pedestrian path, up on top of the cliff, built on the old track bed of a narrow-gauge railroad of a late 19th and early 20th century mining company. The walkway was a beautiful stroll around the headland with a view in the distance of ships queued up for Bilboa. There were several walkers on the trail who had come from the opposite end. I came across a pilgrim sitting and contemplating the sea. He was from Germany and was on his way to meet his girlfriend in Santiago de Compostela.

I, too, decided to sit and admire the view for a bit. My phone rang just then with a call from home. So I took off my pack and enjoyed a pleasant 20-minute phone conversation, while admiring a most beautiful panorama.

In time, the paved walkway ended and the walkers thinned out. But the dirt path continued along the cliff overlooking the coast. Eventually it came to a tunnel hacked out of the mountain. Knowing that the rock in the area is the type that easily splits and shatters, I was not comfortable in that tunnel — hell, I was scared.

After I came out of the tunnel, I felt kind of strange. I didn’t think that I was that scared. Then I realized what was happening! I could tell I was going hypoglycemic. Going “hypo” for me is just like the Energizer Bunny in the battery ad: if I don’t react in time, I run out of steam and just come to a stop.

It means that my blood sugar is low. So I stopped and tested my blood. My glucose reading was 70. (This was way below normal. Normal for most people is 90-95; normal for me is 105-115). My usual response when I feel myself getting the symptoms of low blood sugar is to follow the 15/15 rule. That means: take 15 grams of carbohydrates, wait 15 minutes, and test again. But this time I decided I couldn’t wait for 15 minutes. I was in the middle of nowhere on a path next to a cliff without a guard rail! And I still had the challenge of finding my bed for the night. So I ate the entire roll of butter rum Life Savers which I carry for emergencies, and trudged on. I couldn’t tell if my staggering was from being “hypo” or due to being under the influence of the rum! I could definitely taste the rum in the candy!

I finally reached the village of Ontón, exhausted but relieved. My notes had said to go to the Bar Pedro and ask for the keys. I did. The bartender and his family were very nice but they wanted me to know that in the “albuergue,” I had to sleep en el suelo (on the floor) and there were no duchas, no servicios (no showers, no services). At that point I couldn’t care less, I just wanted some place out of the elements.

So they called for their daughter to give me the keys. The girl took me outside, pointed across the little valley connecting two hills, and indicated the building. She told me not to open the windows because the mountain huele malo (smells bad). Then she said to leave the key here by the window (in the bar) in the morning — but watch out for the dog.

As it turned out, this albergue was the local community meeting hall. In the main room there were about 20 seats, lined up in rows, that had come from either a movie theater or a bus company. On the dais was a table and three chairs facing the seats. Off to one side, near the table, was my “albergue” — an exercise mat. But it looked like the Ritz to me!

Photo of the meeting room in the albergue.
The Ritz
I sat at the table typing notes with my computer, I had some victuals with me that I had bought at the bar/tienda (bar/store) — ham, bread, cheese, and spring water. I called the meeting to order at 9 and adjourned at 10:00. All in favor of going to sleep now say “aye.”
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