Estella – Ázqueta – Sansol – Viana

When I left you last, on Thursday evening, I was in a guesthouse in Estella, rewarding myself for my longest walk so far. Although I loved the guesthouse – having a room to myself, not having someone else decide when the lights went out, not having Germans wake me because I’m snoring – there are also disadvantages to not staying in a pilgrim hostel. First of all, there was nowhere to wash my clothes. Secondly, I had to go out for dinner. When I’m exhausted at the end of a day’s walking, going for dinner downstairs in a hostel is painful enough on my tired feet, but when I’m not in a hostel, I have to actually do more walking to go for dinner. It might only be a few hundred metres, but after a day’s walk, I found it really hard. Thirdly, there’s no one kicking you out on to the road at 8:00 am. I didn’t get up until 11:00. 

It was easily the worst day of my Camino so far. I was just so sick of feeling so sore all over. I was sick of sweating and smelling. I was sick of walking, of hills, of having to be friendly to other pilgrims. I was sick of insect bites and sun burn and blisters on my feet and no TV and not shaving. It is impossible to feel clean here. I’m constantly smeared in layers of sun cream. And when you spend all day walking on dirt tracks, dust sticks to your skin, with the sun cream acting as a glue for all the dirt. My hands are always dirty. Twice so far I’ve started crying because I wiped my eye and dirt from my hand found its way onto my eyeball. 

As I say, I was feeling particularly grumpy and unmotivated on Friday morning. I walked out into the suburbs of Estella. There was a hostel in the suburbs, about a kilometre from where I’d started. I very nearly stopped there and gave up on the day’s walking. But I didn’t. I kept on going. But I wasn’t walking in a good mood. I kept stopping. I would find myself going two steps and stopping for a break. There was a real battle of wills going on inside me. I trudged on. 

In the vineyards of Irache, beside the bodega, there is a fountain that is filled with 100 litres of wine a day, and pilgrims can take the wine for free. I stopped and had some. The German pilgrim in front of me filled two whole bottles with free wine, which I thought was a bit mean, considering how cheap wine is here anyway. I haven’t had a single dinner yet where wine wasn’t included in the price. 

There was a campsite in Irache. I stopped there for lunch. There was a sign there that said they had rooms. I considered staying there. I had only gone 5 km and my legs still had plenty of energy left in them. Unfortunately, my soul didn’t. I really wanted to ask for a room, but in the end my better angels won and I carried on to the mountain village of Ázqueta, to ensure that I would do at least 10 km every day. The climb into the village was strenuous. 

Ázqueta is easily the quietest village I’ve been in since starting this Camino. I found the only pilgrim hostel there. It was a vegetarian hostel. The owner greeted me, a woman with messy curly hair, a woollen dress with the ends frayed, a pair of crocs that were two sizes too big for her and a hand-rolled cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She looked exactly as I would expect someone who runs a vegetarian hostel would look. 

She took me to the hostel, which – as it turns out – is the attic of her house. It was one big room, with the dining table in the middle and the nine camp-beds kind of scattered around it, with a bathroom to the side. When I arrived, the cast for the night had assembled: three theological students from Steubenville, Ohio, an elderly German couple, and an Irish girl whose first words were that she’d arrived early and had been terribly worried that she’d have to spend the night alone in the hostel. I’d love to have a hostel to myself! 

There was nowhere to hide. Usually, when I’m done walking for the day, I lie down for an hour or two to try to recover, have my shower, do my laundry and then I’m sociable until dinner and bedtime. But lying down wouldn’t work here. I wouldn’t be able to switch my brain off. I’d have to be social. I wasn’t feeling it. One of the Americans spotted a guitar in the corner. If you know me, you’ll know that one thing I can’t stand is people at parties playing guitars and in the process sucking all the joy out of their surroundings. My heart sunk. This was going to be awful. I should have stayed in the campsite. 

Luckily no one could play the guitar. I had my shower and I socialised. Of course, I’d judged all these people far too harshly. They were all absolutely fine. We had a lot of fun, gossiping and chatting and giggling and eating our vegetarian dinner. I did eventually retreat for an hour to my bed just to unwind, but I drank wine and told stories and behaved as one is supposed to and I actually enjoyed myself in the process. After dinner, the elderly German couple went for a walk up the hill. I was flabbergasted. They said they found walking without their backpacks relaxing. I can’t even imagine relaxing after a day of walking by going for a walk. I can’t even imagine being able to. 

I was on the road early the next morning. I had both more energy and more motivation than I’d had the previous day. After an initial ascent of 2 kilometres up a hill, the rest of the day was gentle downhill walking. It was also a cloudy day, and the lack of sun combined with the lack of extreme slopes, made the walking more pleasurable than it had previously been. 

The one drawback to the route was the lack of benches, or even of decent-sized rocks to sit on. I’m getting better at walking, but I still need more breaks than your average pilgrim and I found that hard. There was also an 11-kilometre gap between villages, which made the day seem long and limited the options for toilets and for eating. 

Everyone I met on the road that day seemed to have the same aim. The town at the end of this 11-kilometre gap was called Los Arcos and everyone I met was stopping there for the night. I got there at about 5:00 pm, and I sat down at a bar and had a coke. I felt OK. I still had energy. The day was still cloudy. How many more times would I get an opportunity to get some walking done without the sun beating down on me? My guidebook said that the next village was 7 kilometres away and that the path there was flat. I could do it!

I set off. The path was indeed a flat one. It was a raised ridge parallel to the main road. It was very exposed. After half an hour, it started raining very heavily. I began to get very wet very fast. So did the contents of my backpack. This path offered no protection at all from the wind and the rain. I got out my rain poncho. 

I only have eleven pieces of clothing with me in Spain: 3 T-shirts, 3 pairs of underpants, 2 pairs of shorts, my sandals, my baseball cap and my rain poncho. The only thing I bought especially for the Camino is the sandals, which are serving me very well. Everyone else here seems to have invested a lot in neoprene, magical, quick-drying, moisture-wicking, bug-proof, SPF-imbued, sports clothing. I’ve mainly brought bulky clothes that I bought in the Big and Tall shop on Dawson Street in Dublin. Two of the items I bought for the One Direction concert I went to in Croke Park two years ago. One is my baseball cap. It’s a pink cap, with a picture of the 5 boys on the front and “I ❤ One Direction” on the peak. I’ve been wearing it constantly here and it’s been a good conversation starter. It now has extensive sweat stains and Harry’s face is beginning to peel off. There is also a crack beginning to appear in Niall’s forehead. On the day of the concert, there was some unexpected rain, and I nipped into O’Carroll’s Irish Gift Shop and bought a one-size-fits-all rain poncho there. It’s for tourists and it says “Ireland” in giant letters on it. 

I must have looked comical as I walked across the Spanish countryside, a massive green poncho waving in the wind with my staff by my side like Saint Patrick coming to drive out some snakes. 

The walk got harder. It felt like a lot more than seven kilometres. The rain kept coming down and the wind was against me. I could see all along the track in both directions and I was the only pilgrim to be seen. These were ideal conditions for some kind of murder/accident. 

I got slower and slower. This was the furthest I had walked any day so far. Mud was caked to my sandals and feet and blister plasters, and spattered all over my rain poncho. 

Eventually, just as the rain stopped, I reached Sansol. There was no room for me at the pilgrim hostel, but there was a “Pilgrim House” in the village, where I would get a private room. It was 8:00 pm. This is late night for someone on a Camino timetable. Lots of people finish walking at 2:00 or 3:00 and everyone is done by 5:00. But not Connor. 

I was too late for dinner. That was OK. I was too tired for dinner anyway. I collapsed onto my bed, fully clothed. I was so sore. I had walked around 22 kilometres. I haven’t walked that far in years. (Because I’m me, and I keep a close eye on these things, I know that I haven’t walked that far in one day since October 2010). My body was destroyed. My whole body was quivering, inside and out, as if I’d just thrown up. My feet and ankles were throbbing. I couldn’t move. 

Eventually, at 10:00 pm, I managed to have a shower. My feet and ankles were so sore as I stood in the shower that I cried. But I slept incredibly well. I was elated from my achievement. Even though I was in pain, I felt stronger than I’ve felt in a very long time. 

I woke up this morning feeling confident. I had breakfast in the Pilgrim House and noticed a book on display. It was on a stand of its own, under a light right in the middle of the hallway. It must be a bible, I thought. I went to check. It was, in fact, a book called “El Dry Farming o Cultivo de Secano” by John A. Widstoe. Dry farming must be a really big deal here. 

After yesterday’s victory, I wasn’t sure of how to approach today. Should I take it easier? Or should I keep pushing? I know I have to increase how far I can go on a day if I want to make it to Santiago. My flight leaves on the 30th June. I need to walk an average of 19 km a day to make it on time. I’ve been averaging 12 km so far. 

My legs wanted to walk. It’s amazing the change that’s come over them in a week. I can feel my leg muscles pleading with me to get walking. They have a taste for it now and they want more. So my legs want more. My ankles and feet however, aren’t as enthusiastic. The pain had subsided since the night before, but they were still unhappy. 

As it turns out, today was one of those days with ridiculously strenuous uphills and crazily steep downhills. It was an incredibly difficult walk and I’m glad I got 12 kilometres done. It was 5:00 pm when I arrived here in Viana and I was lucky to find a bed. 

I’m adventuring on! More to come soon!

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