Saturday, June 7, 2008

Burgos, Spain

Friends: Two of the world's most storied paths, the Camino de Santiago and the route the bulls take through Pamplona on their way to the bull ring, converge for several blocks in the heart of Pamplona. Both paths are proudly and prominently marked on the city maps. The annual week-long running of the bulls is a month away, so I had no worries of being gored as I passed through Pamplona.

The route bulls follow is about a mile long starting in a small holding pen just a couple blocks from City Hall. They have a steep initial climb to the small plaza in front of City Hall, where they veer to the left for a block then make a sharp right leading to a long straightaway down a narrow, cobbled street flanked wall to wall with shops. The street is restricted to foot and bicycle traffic for 51 weeks of the year, and to bulls as well for a week in early July. After about five blocks their route crosses a busy intersection and descends into the bull ring down a slight decline. Just to the left of their entry is a large bust of Hemingway, one of only two statues outside the 12,000 seat arena. Unlike the Camino de Santiago, which was well-marked through this sprawling metropolis with yellow arrows and signs with a yellow sea shell on a blue background, there were no bull horns or signs indicating the way of the bulls, not that it would be necessary when they are actually running.

As well marked as the pilgrim´s route is, it is still possible to go astray, especially for a bicyclist who is moving faster than the walkers and can´t keep his focus directly ahead scanning for markers. On those occasions when I fear I may be off track I slow and scan for pilgrims, most distinctive with their backpacks, frequently with a sea shell dangling, emblem of St. James and his way. Many pilgrims are also armed with a walking stick or two. When they're on pavement, there is the sound of those sticks clattering along to listen for. The pilgrims are always a heartening and heart-warming site, whether in an urban environment, where they are a most incongruous site, or off on the trail, often only their upper bodies visible as they amble through fields of grains or vineyards or through orchards of olive trees.

I chose to stick to the pilgrim hiker trail out of Pamplona rather than the less complicated roadways as I had followed the first 50 miles of the route. I managed to lose my way several times and had to do some backtracking, and once even pulled out my compass. In suburban Pamplona I was totally flummoxed and resorted to plopping down on a bench for some crackers with cheese and sausage hoping for a pilgrim to come along. After half an hour without a pilgrim, I seized upon a pedestrian. She was thrilled to direct me to the route, just a block away.

Eventually the sidewalk gave way to a path of hard packed gravel cutting through a field of golden wheat. After half a mile the path turned to dirt and then patches of mud. I began to second guess my choice, especially when the trail began a long, long torturous climb over a high ridge that was lined with whirring wind generators. Actual steps were carved into the hillside it was so steep, absolutely impossible for biking even if I were on a mountain bike. At the top of one brutally steep stretch I came upon a man giving his horse a rest. I hadn't noticed him ahead, nor even hoof prints along the way. The man greeted me in English, "That was impressive, I didn't think it was possible to get up that on a bike, especially one with skinny tires."

He was one of the rare people I´ve met in my travels who immediately introduced himself. "I'm Dean," he said, thrusting forth his hand like a well-trained salesman. Then he launched into a lively, good-spirited, somewhat glad-handing patter, clearly relishing his celebrity as a man on a horse. I asked if he charged for photos. "No, no, go ahead, I´d be honored, just as long as it doesn't turn up on the Internet advertising something or other." I showed him my 20-year old Olympus, appeasing his concerns and earning another compliment for not being one who was hip with the latest of technology.

He´d been prepping his horse since February for this ride. He´d bought it in Spain. He´d initially been camping, but a night in a lightning storm made him decide to give up his tent. After several minutes of conversation, mostly me listening, he blurted, "I've only known you ten minutes, but already I admire you. Usually I have to know someone a couple of weeks before they earn my admiration." "That´s a new record," I replied. "A few months ago I was in Jerusalem and a Muslim, who was impressed with my manner of travel and just camping anywhere, commented to me after 15 minutes that I was the most perfect person he had ever met." "I wouldn't go that far," Dean replied.

We continued on together for half an hour, while I kept a close guard on my wallet. He wasn't bashful about immediately launching into English when a group of three French couples I had earlier passed caught up to us at the summit high over valleys on both sides of us. Amazingly, one of the couples was fluent in English. They were actually more interested in my bike than in Dean´s horse. One of the couples had spent a week the past six years hiking a section of the trail. They had completed the final stretch last year and returned this year with friends to do it again. I have met quite a few people who have hiked the trail multiple times. It is easy to see why. It is an uplifting experience sharing in the camaraderie of the trail.

I have only encountered one set of cyclists with front panniers, as most are riding without tent, trying to keep their load as light as possible. They were a pair of older Dutch guys riding the trail in reverse. They started in Santiago and intend to continue on to Rome, combining two of the three foremost Christian pilgrimage sites. I said, "You ought to keep going to Jerusalem for the third." "We´d like to, but it´s too dangerous." Several others had said the same thing to me. I can tell them otherwise having just been there. "And besides, no harm can come to a pilgrim." But none seem convinced.

A couple of Danish cyclists who have been sticking to the trail and walking a fair bit were happy to meet an American. "About everyone we´ve met have been Germans," they said. "Some German guy wrote a book about hiking the trail a couple of years ago and now everyone in Germany wants to do it." I´ve met a few my self and they've all been the outgoing sort in great spirits.

When I stopped at a hostel to have my passport stamped about seven last night a couple of Canadian women immediately latched on to me hoping I´d be checking in. They´d been on the trail for six days and had been pretty much stuck with the same cluster of people each night going at their pace and they were eager for a fresh personality. But there was still three hours of daylight and I had a rare tailwind, so I had no intention of stopping just yet, though I too am enjoying the route enough that I´d like to prolong it. As always, other things beckon. The Tour starts four weeks from today and its a long way up to its starting point on the English Channel in Brest.

Later, George

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