Day 5 – 21st September 2015, Roncesvalles to Zubiri.
The Collegiata in Roncesvalles is certainly an initiation! The building itself is an old convent that has been beautifully and practically renovated to cater for every need of the discerning pilgrim at scale. And I do mean a massive flow-through of pilgrims every day, not only from the direction we came from (i.e. St. Jean Pied de Port and Orisson) but bus loads of them from elsewhere in Spain and France because they choose to begin their pilgrimage here. Lightweights ha! (sorry, am I being judgemental?). The reception area reminded me a little of Piccadilly circus. The hospitaleros are pros, moving pilgrims along a well organised queue for a passport stamp, paying for accommodation and meals and collecting the timed meal tickets for early or late sittings.
Beds are in cubicles containing four bunk beds (thankfully solid wooden ones) in long dorms on each of three floors, at the end of which are showers and turbo loos (probably the noisiest loos on the planet and could easily drown out the loudest of snorers). After check in…and I am learning this…the usual routine is to shower, handwash laundry and hang it out to dry. The dorms were feeling a tad draughty by then as all the windows were open making the corridor to the side of the bunks a wind tunnel. I popped out to catch some sun in the courtyard. At 6pm Alan and I ventured into the church for the pilgrim’s mass and blessing. It has been quite a while since I had attended a mass in Spanish, the last time was in Bogota, Colombia back in 2008. I could just about follow the service, sang along to the Kyries and Alleluias, participated in sharing the peace and then went with all the other pilgrims up to the altar at the end for the blessing. The priests stepped down from the altar and turned around to join the throng, as they gave the blessing in order to symbolise Jesus walking with all pilgrims along the Camino, which was a beautiful moment.
The evening pilgrim’s meal, round the corner at a place called Casa Sabina, began with an insane queue, like the Harrod’s January sales…but at least this offered an opportunity for Alan and I to catch up with pilgrims we had already met en route (Andre from St Jean, Irene, Mary, Dan and Laurie from Orisson etc). The wonderful thing about the Camino, it seems, is that you can always meet up with someone you know as well as make new friends! Now regarding the food, the veggie soup was great, followed by some unidentifiable meat in a sauce with French fries (I think it was pork but wouldn’t bet good money on it). Afters or ‘pudding’ as we say in the UK, was natural yoghurt. Again, it was all washed down with a hearty red or a crisp white wine and plenty of water.
By the end of it I was grateful to get out of the melee and climbed the stairs to my pod. Windows and shutters were closed so I looked forward to a cosy night’s sleep…no squeaky bunk beds (hurrah) but law of averages dictated that in a very long dorm, there had to be snorers…and of course there were plenty but at least the cubicles provided some sound proofing!
I slept really soundly and got up in the dark with most of the other pilgrims. I packed my backpack and joined yet another insane queue at Casa Sabina for brekky at the 7am sitting. Breakfast was sort of an industrial production line affair of orange juice, toast and preserves and coffee, tea or hot chocolate. I went for the hot choc as the air outside was rather crisp and cool. After breakfast, Alan concentrated on his morning stretch routine outside the restaurant (a really good habit, which I haven’t quite developed yet) and encouraged me to go on ahead. Strategically, we were able to avoid the morning pilgrim rush (or crush) hour as eager pilgrims raced around like headless chickens and jostelled each other to do a final rustle (panic pack) of their rucksacks before belting click, clack, clicking down the hill. It isn’t a race people I wanted to shout out after them…and yet the anxiety and competitive levels can be tangible. I can imagine the dialogue set on loop in their minds “OMG..the sky will fall in if I don’t get to the next albergue ahead of everyone else so I can take the best bunk and lots of selfies on the way…”
So having savoured my hot choc, and managed to avoid pilgrim rush hour I set off in the morning light, down the road and into the Oakwood of Witches. Today’s trek would take us from Roncesvalles to Zubiri, a total of 21.9 km. The air felt ice cold on my bare arms. I was all alone…or was I? I followed the woodland trail, further into the trees, the morning sunlight sent dapled light scattering across the ground and every now and then I could hear birds calling. I could have sworn someone was with me. In these quiet moments I thought about my mum and sent a mental “I love you mum” as a prayer up through the tree canopy. I often feel much closer to the Divine or Universal Life Force in a woodland than I do in many churches.
Right at that moment I felt an upwelling of emotion in my heart, perhaps my mum was walking with me. Then the moment was gone. I heard a crackling of twigs and Alan was behind me, he had teamed up with a Belgian guy called Mateus and had been discussing economics.
Soon the path opened out into a clearing, where there was a cross on the left hand side. Apparently, this cross was used as a symbol to protect pilgrims from dark forces i.e. witches. According to the placquard next to the cross, nine women had been “taken at the stake” – which was a sanitised version of the true history, when these women were captured, accused of practicing witchcraft, tortured and burned at the stake. Funny how the church white-washed over that bit. In those days, as it was in the UK too, many women, who chose to live on the edge of a village or town, were natural healers and were very much in tune with their natural environment. They were adept at reading people, the ‘whole’ person (physical, emotional and spiritual aspects). They may or may not have psychic gifts. In my personal opinion, psychic abilities are fully human abilities. They are nothing supernatural or occult or dark. Being psychic means to take in information in the physical plane. Anyway, I digress – that is another conversation for another day. Suffice to say, the church of the day (patriarchal and co-opted into a corrupt and brutal Empire) was afraid of the power of these type of women. Sobering thoughts at the beginning of the day.
A few minutes later we reached Burguete, a charming little village bedecked with colourful window boxes full of geraniums. I stocked up on some fruit at the local shop where we bumped into Dan, Mary and Laurie and fell into step with them. Conversation was easy. Laurie and I quickly discovered that we both shared something in common – reiki, a Japanese form of energy healing. I have been practicing reiki for the last four years and I am a second degree practitioner, while Laurie is a reiki master. We spent some time sharing our reiki stories and discussed how reiki has opened up a whole new world, such as strengthening our intuition, enhancing empathy and psychic ability and being of service to others. While we walked along, both Laurie and I sensed my mum close by. I think she was enjoying the conversation. During the last two years, when mum became ill with cancer, I used to give her reiki treatment whenever I went home. The reiki helped her to cope with the symptoms of her disease, the side effects of her treatment and it enabled her to relax and stay calm. This year I decided to begin my public practice of reiki and this is something I intend to expand when I am home from the Camino.
We pressed on to Espinal where we stopped for excellent coffee (and dubious toilets!)? Here we met up with another fellow pilgrim we had seen before. Her name is Laurel, a Brit living on Lanzarote, who works as a carer. She is walking the Camino to raise awareness and funds for the Alzheimers Society. We discovered that Laurel had received reiki – another synchronicity!
The reiki connections didn’t stop there. Oh no. Universal Life Force energy was on a roll. Later on we reached Viskarret and a secret of the Universe was revealed to me. Yes indeed. Shall I tell you the secret? I know where heaven is…. it is in Cafe Juan. (“Where is Cafe Juan?” I hear you ask. Its next to two and three…ha!). I am sure heaven takes many different forms in numerous countries and cultures, but in this little town of Viskarret, heaven is most certainly found in Cafe Juan’s Ensalada Mixta and freshly squeezed Jugo de Naranja. If you don’t believe me, go and try it for yourself! While we munched our way through heaven, in the sunshine, we chatted with Stephanie, a Canadian, who is walking the Camino to celebrate the five years she has been in remission of cancer. We toasted her celebration of life! It turns out she has received reiki and afterwards her intuition prompted her to do the walk. What a wonderful story!
After lunch, we continued putting one foot in front of the other. As the sun climbed higher, I was thankful when the Camino bent round to a woodland. Here, it was obvious how deeply etched the Camino pathway had become by the hundreds of thousands of pilgrim feet!
Alan walked and talked with another peregrino, called Dennis, who is a social worker from the States. Dennis is a second degree reiki practitioner too! All of these reiki encounters has prompted Alan to think more about this form of healing and it will be very exciting to see how this aspect of the journey unfolds!
As if to confirm that these synchronicities were real and no mere coincidence, Laurie and I were forced to stop in our tracks during our ascent of a white, gravel pathway in the searing heat. A tiny, black snake, languidly slithered across in front of us. Wow, we recognised this as an affirmation for a snake is a symbol of healing!
Hot, tired and with aching feet we trundled into Zubiri. Laurie, Alan and I had kept pace with each other but Mary and Dan were nowhere in sight. We had taken a bit of a risk by not booking accommodation ahead, thinking it would be fun to trust that the Camino would provide. The first few Albergues and pensions were full up. We turned a corner and enqired at a hotel (hostal) but there was only a double room available. We declined and backtracked. At that moment, Laurie received a text from Mary. Dan had been taken very ill en route, a suspected kidney problem. We decided that it would be best to book the hotel room for Mary and Dan so that they could be comfortable and undisturbed. For us three, there were only a couple more choices to go before another long walk to the next place and hey presto! We entered El Palo de Avellano to find to our relief that they had beds available. Hurrah! We booked in, showered, changed and Laurie and I went down for the sumptuous five course pilgrim meal – a delicious, fresh, mixed salad, followed by a hearty vegetable soup, tapas, fish in a lovely tomato and vegetable sauce and a yummy slice of Basque cake. Could I have possibly found heaven twice in one day?
To walk off some calories, Laurie and I met up with Alan, who had popped out in search of an all vegetarian meal, and went for a leisurely, moonlit stroll by the river. This did the trick and by the time we got back, we were all a tad tired and looked forward to a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, the Camino did not provide this… a combination of ‘top bunk -o- phobia’ and the snorer from hell put paid to that!
Stay tuned for another exciting but somewhat shorter episode!
Peace, love and light,