Thursday, June 5, 2008

Pamplona, Spain

Friends: The tourist office in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port was not dispensing the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim passports, but rather an organization called "Les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques" over on rue de la Citadelle, a steep, narrow, medieval, cobbled street that was once the town´s main drag. For a mere two euros I was given a slightly larger than passport-sized folder with eight blank pages for stamps from the many refuges and hostels along the way. Upon arrival at Santiago I can present my passport at a similar office and receive a certificate asserting I had completed the pilgrimage and thus be absolved of all my sins. But more important, my passport allowed me to stay at certain dorms along the way for a donation.

However, the first such dorm I came to after a strenuous 17-mile climb crossing the border from France to Spain up into the Pyrenees to the small village of Roncevaux did not accept bicyclists and charged a flat six euros. The Dutch volunteer running the 60-bunk facility said that since bicyclists could range further than walkers, the walkers had priority. For the three weeks be´d been there all 120 beds had been filled each night. With it light until ten, even if there were empty beds at eight or nine, they had to be held for the stragglers. A nearby, smaller youth hostel charged eight euros and there were much more expensive bed and breakfasts. Or one could continue on towards Pamplona, 30 miles away, and find other accommodations in the assorted villages, easy for a bicyclist, but not so easy for someone on foot.

I had arrived at 2:30, way too early to be quitting for the day, especially after only biking 30 miles, but if I had been allowed, I was willing to stay at this first legendary refuge to share the unique communal experience of sleeping with a load of weary, blistered pilgrims after their first day. The dorm was housed in a centuries-old, windowless, stone, warehouse of a building. Its dimly lit interior, enhanced by the fragrance of sweet-smelling candles, looked like a cross between a cathedral and a hospital ward with its neat rows of bunks.

I had to wait until four, when it opened, to get a look. Though I couldn't sleep there, I could get a much needed shower for a couple of euros. I had a host of housekeeping duties (changing brake pads, drying out my gear with the first sunny, rainless day in a while, get some food into me), so that 90 minutes passed quickly. There was no end of entertainment watching all the pilgrims straggling in and listening to the Dutch guy explain the refuge´s procedure in a variety of languages. One had to go to the pilgrim receiving center across the street to pay for the dorm. That office too didn't open until four. One could also purchase a dinner meal ticket at the same place for nine euros.

The pilgrims were a mix of all ages, though mostly retirees. There were few students just yet with most schools still in session. Most walkers were equipped with walking sticks and not very heavy packs. There were several shelves of goods free for the taking in the dorm of items that walkers had discarded after their first day.

According to the pilgrim office in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 31,180 pilgrims had registered at their office in 2007, 13% of which were bikers. That looked about to be the same ratio here. The male-female breakdown of all pilgrims was 56% male, 44% female. The office also had a listed the 60 plus nationalities that had registered at their office in 2007. Not everyone registers at the office and many pilgrims pick up the trail somewhere along the way. One only has to complete the last 100 miles to receive a certificate, and a great many people only do that stretch. About a quarter of those registering in St. Jean were French, the greatest percentage. Next were Germans with 5502, Spaniards 3547, Italians 3384, Canadians 1347, Dutch 983, English 784, Belgians 734, Swiss 686, then Americans with 680. Countries with only one representative included Bolivia, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Taiwan. Every year the numbers increase. In 1996 there were 1,264, in 2005 23,710.

I biked the last several miles into Roncevaux with a retired Englishman who had hiked the trail three times. This was his first time biking it. He was weaving, tacking across the nearly trafficless road as I caught up to him near the 3,500 foot summit. He´d never tackled such a climb on a bike before. He wasn't struggling as much though as a couple of young Dutch girls much further down the mountain, who were stopping to rest and walk a bit every half kilometer. They all admitted they were woefully under-trained, but fully accepted that suffering was a part of the pilgrimage. I also rode a bit with a couple of Italians, husband and wife. I had hoped they could tell me who had won the Giro d´Italia, just completed Sunday. Last I heard, the Spaniard Contador, last year´s winner of the Tour de France for the Discovery team, was in the lead. But they didn't know.

I passed a handful of hikers as I approached St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, but I didn´t encounter any after I registered at the office and set out for Roncevaux 17 miles away, as they all stuck to an alternate route that was only partially paved. It was possible to bike it, but with all the rain in the past weeks it could be more of a slog than I cared to endure. It was also steeper and higher.

There were only four showers, two for the men and two for the women, at the Roncevaux bunkhouse. I was first to the showers, as everyone else in line at its opening grabbed their choice of bunks before heading to the showers. I ate a little more after my shower as my towel dried on the communal clothes line that was already filling up with socks. It was tempting to linger for a couple of hours for a photo of the 200-foot line fully clogged with all manner of socks and towels.

But I was on my way by five, continuing another 20 miles just before the wild camping started to look iffy as I approached Pamplona, one of just three significant cities along the 500-mile pilgrimage route and the largest by far. I had a meadow alongside a river all to myself. There were two more minor passes to climb in those 20 miles, making it a good training route that a continual stream of hard-riding cyclists were taking advantage of, many, many more than I´ve ever encountered in France. This is Basque country and cycling is their passion. There is even a Basque sponsored team that competes in the Tour de France. Signs are in Spanish and Basque. There are militant Basques, explaining a road-block of a dozen soldiers cradling nasty-looking rifles and machine guns that had me thinking I was back in Israel.

I think of Israel whenever I fly down a descent, something I was deprived off when I was there several months ago thanks to a small crack in my rear rim. Hard braking at excessive speeds heated up the rim and led to a couple of flat tires. It was a 48-spoked rim that I couldn't replace while there, so I just put up with it until I returned to Chicago and could entrust its replacement to master-mechanic Joe of Quick Release. I don't like remembering those treacherous descents of Israel, but I am happy though to reminded of the many other fine experiences I had there.

Later, George

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