Walking nine to five, with 50 new friends (Posted a day late due to no internet in Arantzazu)
Now you may be wondering why we could walk 16km yesterday in less than four hours but it took us twice as long today to do just five kilometres more. Wonder no longer, my friends, because someone dropped a rather large mountain in our path today and God threw in his own tests too. I, however, will get to that in a minute.
Last night in Zumarraga, we settled for a drink in a bar and some tapas for dinner. We were told that no restaurant would be open in town for dinner before 9:00pm. We were prepared though. We figure that this route isn’t going to bend tradition of their late & light Spanish suppers for the couple of pilgrims that come through town each month. With our large lunch, tapas for dinner was enough.
Again we managed a late start this morning. We really need to break that habit as it’s hard to finish at 5:00pm. We barely have time for showering, clothes washing, blogging, preparing for the next day, making reservations if needed and then dinner before bed. On the other hand, Melanie says that she has too little time for napping and dinner before bed but I’m not feeling too sorry for her. :p
Just after passing under a tall aqueduct, I believe around the town of Brinkola, we were greatly surprised to see a group of about 50 teenagers sitting on the porch of a small old factory. The kids looked like they were just resting from a walk or something. Uh oh, slowly it dawns on us – they have backpacks!!! They aren’t doing the Camino, are they??? We stop and stare as two adults notice us and come to chat. It turns out that they are teachers from a Jesuit high school in San Sebastián and they are leading the students on the first two stages of the Camino Ignaciano. At the same time, we’re thrilled to meet 50 fellow pilgrims but we’re suddenly scared that there won’t be any beds left in Arantzazu when we get there. We chat for a bit and the teacher introduces us to the students who yawn when they hear I am from the U.S. They perk up to hear that Melanie is from the more exotic Singapore and they actually look impressed to hear that not only we are walking all the way to Manresa but that we also completed the Camino de Santiago’s French route from the Pyrenees and the Portuguese route from Lisbon.
The teachers asked if we knew the route to Arantzazu and we assured them we had a good idea. They invited us to eat something with them as they were preparing the kids for the massive climb ahead. We declined (so that we had a head start to the hotel!) but noted the teachers’ last thoughts – that it was a beautiful cool clear day for climbing over the mountain. That jinxed it, for sure.
After another kilometre or so, we rounded a dam and soon our climb began. According to the guide, we ascended 882 meters today and I estimate that 800 of those where in a steep four kilometres at this point. To make things interesting, we heard the first of the rolling thunder with almost our first step up the mountain. With every step, the sky grew darker and the thunder roared more loudly and frequently. This is not good, I think to myself. I’m thinking of using my “call a friend” lifeline to see if it’s better to rush and get above the tree line when the lightening is striking or go slowly and trust the high trees around us won’t let us get harmed. God took the choice out of our hands though as only a few hundred meters into the climb, I heard the roar of the wind pushing the rain through the trees to us. We raced to get into our rain gear but we were in trouble. The first ten minutes of the storm wasn’t rain at all – it was hail! Fortunately the ice was small but it was still as frozen as we were. It rained all the way until just shy of the summit. Luckily the skies quickly cleared and gave us some stunning views before the blasting cold winds hit us on the flat mountain top.
Near the summit, there was still a fair bit of snow in the shadowed alcoves but we didn’t need to pass through it. Also on the summit, we were told to follow the red and white painted blazes on the rocks. Huh? Let me tell you that this is the exact mountain top that St. Peter, the patron saint of rocks, grows them for distribution around the entire world! There are more rocks here than blades of grass and we’re running around looking for the few with paint on them. Dios me! We eventually find the right ones and start mud-skiing down the last five kilometres to town. The kids were kind enough to take a break every time they caught up to us which gave us some solitude on the descent. At one point though, we lost the trail. After a few hundred meters, we realised our mistake and retraced our steps. This put us right in the middle of the group for the last 2km. We enjoyed it though as everyone wanted to practice some English and ask questions. Some of the girls also appreciated the help on the slippery slope – I swear I was the perfect gentleman.
We arrived in Arantzazu and went our different ways. I’m not sure where they are staying but we’re again staying in a little plusher place than planned, the Hotel Santuario de Arantzazu, right next to the famous church and formerly part of it. We’ve only had a few minutes to look inside and say some prayers but it is a stunning church with a great story. Google it. We also met the students again as they went into a special mass in the Spiritual Center. They invited us but at this hour, the choice was between mass or dinner as the timing was mutually exclusive with only one restaurant in town. A mass with the kids would be awesome but our lunch was only an apple and some almonds. We need earthly nourishment too.
Fun fact for the day: Basque words are required by law to contain a minimum of one “k” and one “x”. “Z’s are also encouraged but not mandatory. You just get extra credit for them.
For those of you following us: the few orange arrows we saw today were very helpful but forget about relying on them. The only ones we saw were in the mountains, more than half way through the stage. The GPS points from the Ignaciano website and an iPhone with GPS Kit (or similar app like maps.me) is mandatory. On the mountain, it was relatively easy to follow the red and white GR blazes one we got a start but don’t get confused. Most of the blazes also contain an additional yellowish-orange blaze. We thought that was a Camino addition but at one point the trail split and we had a choice to follow the red and white or the new yellowish-orange and white trail. The red and white is the correct one. The other trail and a later green and white trail are just other GR routes.
Finally, I’m too tired to proofread this for grammar or spelling mistakes as well as the missing or repeated words. Please forgive me.
That is a killer stage for sure. But what a great place to arrive. This stage will give you some story material long after your camino is over. Keep smiling.
Great narrative and photos.
…and my story will keep growing too. I can see myself telling grandkids one day about the golf ball sized hail lasting hours while the lightening was striking the trees right next to us. As I carried some of the school kids off the mountain.
We drove up to Arantzazu last year and I thought “Wow, I'd hate to have to walk up this mountain!” Now I can do it vicariously through you! Thank you so much, I will be following you closely.