Friday, 24 August 2012

Camino del Norte: Irun to Bilbao

I am now hiking one of the many Caminos and therefore I guess I am technically a pilgrim now! I must admit that I was a bit afraid of this stretch. I was worried about horrible fellow hikers, lots of pavement and boring hiking. And although some of this is true so far I am enjoying the Camino. There is a lot of pavement (and so much more than on any other part of this hike) but most of it is on concrete pistas with no traffic at all or very quiet country lanes so it is quiet bearable. The hiking has been very different but not boring. There definitely is no pristine wilderness here, but you see a lot of quite charming villages and a very different side of Spain. My fellow hikers have been a very positive surprise. After reading a couple of books written by ex pilgrims and visiting a German pilgrim´s forum I had been afraid that there would be more Germans than anyone else but the overwhelming majority of pilgrims are Spanish. Which gives me a great opportunity to practice my language skills.

These pilgrims are a very friendly community like long distance hikers in the US. Everyone greets me and some are really eager to talk to me. Although most other hikers are not very experienced they are very friendly and I enjoy talking to them - especially since my personal contact with other pilgrims is very limited. Unlike everyone else I am camping most of the time whereas normal pilgrims stay in pilgrims´ hostels. Camping has turned out to be as difficult as expected. I am walking through a very populated area that is also very hilly and the vegetation very dense. So first of all I find to find a spot away from houses which is difficult enough. Then this spot has to be reasonably flat and free of blackberry bushes that are scratching up my legs and arms. I usually manage to find something but mostly I end up totally scratched up or sleeping on a slope!

I reluctantly left Irun but there were so many cities coming up where I would have to stay in hostels that I could not justify a full rest day. Only 20 odd kms from Irun to San Sebastian but I could not make up my mind whether I would try stealth camping, a pilgrim´s hostel or a normal hostel in San Sebastian. After leaving Irun I first came through a little fishing town where everyone was gathering along the port entrance. I wondered what was going on and was told that everyone was waiting for a huge cruise ship that was so big that it would hardly fit through the port entrance. I guess the captain must have been really nervous as it really was a tight fit. I then ran into my first fellow pilgrims who kept me talking but then I decided to give stealth camping a try. It was still relatively early but hiking further would get me into the city. I had found a halfway decent site when I realised that plenty of people were walking around - and that I would have to wait before I could set up my tent. I still felt a bit uncomfortable about camping so close to civilisation when all of a sudden the music started: A music group had settled close to my spot and entertained me with loud medieaval music. Knowing that this is Spain I realised that the music would go on forever - and decided to move on. My guidebook listed a youth hostel nearby that doubled as a pilgrim´s hostel. The receptionist greeted me very friendly and although there was a bed available she suggested that I should move on to the bigger city hostel with shops and restaurants nearby. She called ahead for me and made a reservation. "Only 40 minutes walk", she told me. I don´t know how she walks but it took me 1 1/2 hours and a full culture shock to get there.

San Sebastian
The walk through San Sebastion took me along the main paseo along the beach - on prime paseo time Sunday evening. The street was so crowded that I could hardly make my way through. I must say that after 4 months in the boon docks I was shocked to see so many people - and so many girls in ultrashort shorts. Hiking gets you a bit out of touch with fashion.... At nine o´clock I finally arrived at the city hostel where I was given a bed - but no food. All nearby places were closed in August on a Sunday night and I ended up eating in a Doner Kebab place.... Not the best of food, but I was so hungry!!! Again, very reluctantly I left San Sebastion the next day after shopping for guidebooks and food. But five days later I would be in Bilbao and there I wanted to spend a well deserved rest day with museums and shops.

Those five days were pretty hard. Although the hiking is very easy compared with the Pyrenees I had not thought of the climate. It was hot, but more importantly it was very humid and that was the biggest problem. I was sweating so profusely that sweat was dripping onto my guidebook when reading it. The climbs are very short and not too steep, but only the slightest physical exercise and all my clothes were soaking wet. Chafing has become a big problem again. Although I take a sponge bath every night before going to bed I feel sticky and uncomfortable. And this is very hilly country. I am still doing 1,000 m of elevation gain per day! Although there is plenty to see along the way I have sort of lost interest in churches and local museums. All I can get excited about is a shower. I had been looking forward to Gernika with its Peace Museum but it turned out to be very disappointing. But now I am in Bilbao and tomorrow will be my rest day - hurray! Guggenheim Museum is waiting for me!

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