Monthly Archives: March 2014

Day 4: Arre to Cizur Menor

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Today was one of the days on the Camino we were really looking forward to.  We would have an opportunity to visit Pamplona.  We were also a bit tired from yesterday’s long hike so we decided to go into “tourist mode.” This is Pamplona’s most historic bridge called the Magdalena, which crosses the river Arga.  It was constructed in the 12th century.

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The camino winds into the city below the high walls of the citadel, then across a drawbridge and through a beautiful portal as you enter the historic city center area.

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The central plaza called Castillo was huge and beautiful.  After walking around a bit we found a laundrymat and took an hour to actually clean our clothes in a real clothes washing machine.  A real luxury while trekking.

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After our washing was completed we decided to walk the route that the bulls run in July. Sandy had an opportunity to meet one of them outside a souvenir shop.

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The bulls run down this street on their way to the bull ring.

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Their bull fighting arena is huge. The bulls run down this street and enter it through the red doors (between the minivan and hatchback)

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There is a great sculpted depiction of the running of the bulls on the main pedestrian mall.

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Here, Sandy points to the two unfortunate souls (probably stupid Americans) who are seconds away from being seriously injured.

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For lunch we ate at a famous restaurant/bar along the running of the bulls route. We had delicious pinchos/tapas at the bar. The huge wooden barrels dispense different local wines.

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The parks in the city were plentiful and beautiful. Lots of well maintained green space in an urban area was really neat to see.

We tried to book a room at a hostel near the foot of tomorrows mountain route but it did not open until April 1st.   Missed it by one day!

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So, instead we stayed in a pilgrims albergue just a couple of miles outside Pamplona.  Tomorrow’s hike is within sight from our village.  Note the numerous windmills at the summit. We will be hiking over this small mountain tomorrow.
Buen Camino!

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Day 3: Viskarret to Arre

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Day three started out with us on the camino by 0815. We felt great after our relatively relaxed second day. I documented Sandy actually crossing a stream without falling in it. (see prior post re: Deer Creek)

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It is difficult to explain how steep the camino is. Even pictures can’t accurately portray the elevation. The original pilgrims from 1000 years ago obviously did not know the concepts of switchbacks nor did they think about maintaining elevation gain. Every massively steep incline is followed by a harrowing decent. Some of the trail near towns has been improved by cementing in the local slate rock. Most of the trail was protruding rocks surrounded by mud. Our trail focus today was A. Trying to keep from twisting an ankle on the upwardly protruding slate rock = SUCCESS and B. Trying to keep our boots tops from being completely covered by the mud =  FAILURE.

While walking your mind clears and thoughts come together. My thoughts today were how, much like life, we experienced highs and lows, ups and downs, success and failures.

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They say the camino provides. Just when you start thinking the hills are beginning to kill you, you come around a corner to see a friendly dog, tail wagging. He first sniffs your pack to see if you have a treat for him. Then he walks with you for a half mile or so and dissapears.  Or you come upon vistas like the above photo.

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Our lunch includes stopping at the first shop we see on the trail. We purchase two apples, cheese, slices of meat and fresh bread. It gets placed in our pack and we hike. When we get hungry we stop, make our sandwiches and enjoy. Our lunch on the camino has been averaging about €5 for the both of us.

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Horses in Navarra have collars with bells on them. When hiking you hear the differing tones from long distances away. It sounds like wind chimes.

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A random act of kindness by a local resident along the way.

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Waterfalls are everywhere. Many little ones end up making the trail into a muddy mess. This one was too cool to pass up. The water cut through the slate making natural stairs all the way up.

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Tired and sore after 7 hours of hiking, we walked up a huge hill to our intended destination in a church. They had a sign out indicating they would be open on April 15th.  The nice nun directed us to an open monastery in the next town. Ugggh. We hiked another 4.5 km to the monastery.

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We arrived at the 10th century bridge which led directly into the ancient monastery’s albergue. Today was a long day. We walked 27 km (16 miles). Sore feet and knees, but it is to be expected.  Tomorrow we will be in Pamplona. We will take in the sights and have lunch there. Our bodies are telling us it will be a short distance day.
Buen Camino!

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Day 2: Roncesvalles to Viskarret

Day 2 on the camino started out with an early morning wake up by a large number of the 170 pilgrims in our albergue. They were up and preparing for their days journey by 0530. We, on the other hand knew this would be a short day for us so we ate our pilgrims breakfast (€6) and were out on the way by 0815.

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As you can see from this photo, we are still very much in the Pyrenees high country.  Snow, ice, slush, mud and water were under our boots for a good part of today’s trek.

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One of the more interesting river crossings I’ve ever experienced.

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Some incredible vistas in this part of Spain for sure

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We hiked to a town called Viskarret where we found a great hostel which offered a pilgrim special of a dinner, double room and breakfast for €36. It was run by a young Hungarian couple and was a great stopping point after a difficult first day. The food was great and the wine flowed as we talked about everything imaginable.   Especially funny was their views of Americans who participate in the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona.  They say the Spanish take their running seriously – it’s like an art.  They know which bulls from a particular region run on which days. They avoid the aggressive bull days.  Of course the crazy American just run whenever and inevitably get gored.  One American mother and father ran last year with their two small children.  The father’s meeting with the bull resulted in a  broken arm and the children were trampled. The parents were charged by the authorities with child abuse. We were told that the  Spanish people were talking about those idiot Americans for months.

Today’s total distance was 11.4 km, about 7 miles.  Tomorrow plans are for a longer distance day as we hope to reach Pamplona by Monday.

Buen Camino

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Day 1: St. Jean to Roncesvalles

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St. Jean had symbols of the Camino just about everywhere.  It’s understandable as pilgrims have been funneling through this town of 1,600 residents for over a thousand years.

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Today’s hike was planned for the Napoleon Route, but the recent heavy snows closed the preferred high mountain passage. The pilgrims office gave us details on the alternate route, Valcarlos.  They advised that heavy snows also closed the camino trail along Valcarlos too. So we were told to use caution, but hike on the side of the shoulderless two lane international road N-135 which heads to Spain. The “normal” Valcarlos route on the trail is 24 km (14.9 miles) and 22% of the distance is on the main road. Now with the weather closures, more than half of our hike would be on International Road N-135 and it also added extra miles. Walking this long on the asphalt is both tiring on the legs and downright dangerous. Oh well, not too much one can do, so after a quick breakfast we were on our way.

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Our first steps along the camino. The boots will look a bit different at the end.

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Beautiful sheep and cattle farms lined the lower portion of the route.

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After a while we met up with Bob from Sweden and David from Australia.

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Many hazards on the N-135. Narrow winding roads, speeding tractor-trailers and a pack of goats. They were hilarious.  All three would run out onto the road and start licking the salt. As soon as they heard a vehicle winding down the pass, they’d run behind the guardrail until it passed.  Once safe, back onto the roadway.

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Our high point crossing into the Pyrenees.  There was 2 feet of snow at the top.  After the chapel it was downhill a few kilometers to the 183 bed Albergue (which we were very glad to see). All tolled we hiked nearly 18 miles and gained 1000 meters in elevation. It seemed like more elevation gain as there were many very steep accents followed by equally steep decents.

Overall, a very successful first day on the camino. We are hurting a bit, but no blisters so far. We both agreed to plan a shorter day tomorrow to recover a bit.
Buen Camino!

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Watch “St. Jean Pied de Port” on YouTube

We have arrived at our starting point for the Camino.  At 0800 tomorrow we begin the longest distance day hiking on this 500 mile trek.
The Pyrenees Mountains tower over this beautiful town. Without a doubt SJPdP is the most beautiful town in France we have visited.   See for yourself:
St. Jean Pied de Port: http://youtu.be/jAIu1gmKyGw

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Ten Observations about France

After our first extended visit (we have spent a total of 9 days in France) it is time to share some general observations:

1. Most Americans hear the negative comments about the bad treatment of tourists by French people. Well, we can barely say hello in their language yet we asked if they spoke english, always smiled and were patient. We were always well respected and treated kindly.  Well, except for the aggressive driving, crazed and maniacal postal van driver in Rouen.

2. French drivers are more controlled, cautious and courteous on the their roadways. Driving in France was a breeze after weathering the gauntlet in Sicily.

3. French people smoke a lot of cigarettes. Seriously, they inhale more tar than the dinosaurs did in La Brea.  Unfortunately they start at a young age.  At least 3/4 of every young person we saw was smoking.  If you want a romantic table outside a restaurant just understand you will be surrounded by more smoke than a vintage Yugo produces. Which brings to mind a question, are there any vintage Yugos out there?

4. If possible, try to travel to France in the off season. Shoulder seasons are best. Hotel rates are cheaper (except in Paris – nothing is cheap in paris). We were in Normandy virtually by ourselves.  We always were able to park the first row of parking spaces, no crowds to be seen anywhere.  On some of the roads to major sights we wondered if we were lost. There were no cars on the roads and only an occasional tourist bus. Based on the size of the parking lots it apparently isn’t always this way.

5. Eat like the locals. Most of the time we would ask what the local specialties were. We always were rewarded with a fresh and tasty meal. The local cheese is amazing. Normandy is one of the few areas in France that doesn’t have a local wine. However, they have lots of apples. So they make a unique apple based alcoholic drinks. They were very tasty.

6. Make an effort to spend a day out of the touristy areas and get into the country. See the real, everyday France. Even if you cannot communicate well, you will have some great experiences and memories.

7. Walk. Hike. Run. You will be eating some great foods and lots of desserts. Exercise whenever you can to burn off some of those extra calories. We averaged more than 8 miles a day. We saw some neat sights hidden from the everyday tourists.

8. Do not be hesitant to ask questions. Be open to suggestions. If traveling with a friend or spouse work together toward solving the daily issues which traveling in a foreign country can present. I must say that Sandy and I have really complemented one another on this trip. I look at things in black and white and usually make a decision then charge forward. Sandy takes her time and looks at the big picture. I rush and she slows me down. By working together we are able to find things and solve problems much more effectively. For example, do we take the 1222 train from Paris to Bordeaux or the 1222 train to Irun? I was ready to just hop on the Bordeaux train.  Where the heck is Irun anyway? Iwalk. Irun. Iran? Heck no – Let’s go  But Sandy said let’s check on the Irun train. Well, come to find out they are both the same train, leaving from the same bin. At a certain town, which I cannot pronounce or spell, the train stops and separates. One train runs one way and the other train heads toward the Spanish border town of Irun, stopping at Bayonne along the way.  So she was right. I hate it when she is right. note to self:  I need to work on this while trekking the Camino.

9. Avoid renting a car at all costs. It adds unnecessary stress to your trip. Use public transportation. If you must have a car, like you do in Normandy, ensure that you understand how it runs before shooting out of the rental lot. Check to ensure your hotel has parking on site or a secure lot nearby.  Avoid situations like we had in Rennes. A young man fell off a curb onto our rental car when we were parked downtown. He excused himself and walked away.  We wondered if he was drunk. Later, down the block we drove past him while he was peeing on a wall.  About 15 minutes later (while we were continuing to hunt for the rental return location for the next morning drop off) the same guy was about 500 yards further down the road barfing into the gutter. Ah, some vacation memories will last a lifetime.

10. France is beautiful.  Really beautiful. The food is fantastic. Really fantastic.  The language is difficult, REALLY difficult. Add all the above to the neat people, museums, sights, and history and you come up with a place that everybody should try to visit at least once in a lifetime.

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Utah Beach Museum

We had the opportunity to visit a great museum at the site of Utah Beach landing.  It costs a few euros, but well worth every penny. There is a great video in English which sets the stage for what you about to see. Here are a few photos:

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At  the Rennes Train Station, heading back to Paris then off to Bayonne.

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