I awake from the sound of boots on gravel early the following morning. It’s not unusual for pilgrims to be marching from 6am onwards, but for most, between 7 and 8 is normal. The sun rises later here and it isn’t until 7am that my surroundings are bathed in sunlight. My tent is wet from an early-morning dew and the grass soaks my shoes.
A bar in Zubiri welcomes me and I devour my favourite Camino breakfast: a cafe solo, fresh tortilla (potato omelette) and bread just delivered from the bakery. Good protein, carbs and who needs an excuse for a coffee?
True to form, Spain is hot. Damn hot. I slap on more sun cream, manoeuvre the flaps on my Sahara hat and pray for water. El Camino never lets a pilgrim down on the refreshment front. There are plenty of streams and rivers if you have a filter, but if you don’t, water fountains, especially in towns, pop up at just the right time. I always drink a litre so it starts working straight away, then take another litre with me. My arms glisten with sweat and my T-shirt blotches as I taste salt.
It is August after all but I have not walked El Camino this early before. Both my previous visits to Spain were in the latter part of September. It is hot but, consequently, pilgrim numbers are down. April and May are favoured months for a pilgrimage because of the cooler temperatures but September is the most popular. Out here now in August it’s quiet, easier to find a bed for the night and the trail isn’t crowded.
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Pamplona’s suburbs appear. I cross the Puente de la Magdalene, which for me signifies the start of the old town, and work my way up through the old, towering fortifications and through the Portal de Francia. Pamplona is of Roman origin and dates from the 1st century BC. Famous for the Running of the Bulls Festival, which sees people fleeing for their lives from hordes of rampaging bulls every July, Pamplona is a wonderful city.
Typical of Spain, the buildings are tall and the streets narrow, creating abundant shade and dropping the temperature a few degrees. Tapas bars, cafes, restaurants and pastel-coloured frontages adorn every street. Hemingway’s Bar dominates the Plaza del Castillo and the interior is a coffee lover’s delight. Conversation amongst the tourists is subdued as they glance around the wood-panelled, mirrored interior in awe.
Alas, I am not stopping. Cizur Menor is my destination, a further mile from Pamplona’s suburbs. The Albergue there, run by the Order of the Knights of Malta, promises a comfortable bed, shower and use of the kitchen for just four Euros. I sleep soundly away from the noise of the city.
From Cizur Menor the 300m climb up to Alto del Perdon warms a chilly pilgrim At a nearby spring called the Fuentes de Teja, the devil offers the thirsty pilgrim a drink, but only if they renounce God, the Holy Virgin, or at the very least St James. In 1996 a sculpture was erected here of a pilgrim caravan just before the scenery opens out to majestic views of the route. El Camino is clearly visible winding away into the distance, threading together several villages: Uterga, Muruzabal and Obanos. It’s always windy up top and today storm clouds bubble up and threaten but don’t deliver. As I descend, the breeze carries the scent of the fennel that grows wild.