Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Bonne Noel. And all the rest. Hope it has been the usual gross overindulgence in all things gourmet and alcoholic; if you are a member of my immediate family, one assumes this goes without saying.
We have had a most amazing few weeks.
After Pamplona, we headed into the rugged country of Navarra. It is an almost surreal landscape, something like an obscure Dali painting; there are sharp lines of dramatic peaks which cut away suddenly to barren valleys of red dirt and grape vines, and above it all an enormous sky which changes constantly. In the distance tiny white villages with ancient churches cling precariously to the hilltops, so you find yourself walking from one to another whilst the last three remain still in view. It was an incredibly abrupt change from France, far more rough and wild, but quite exhilarating to walk through.
As it was when we crossed the Pyrenees, we have found ourselves in a kind of loose group.
and Josef, a lovely young French guy who started in Paris. Although we rarely walk together, we usually wind up in the same refuges every night, and often eat together. Due to the fact that loads of the refuges are closed now, and there are few pilgrims travelling, we have got to know each other pretty well. Occasionally other pilgrims turned up; in the last few days we have been joined by Joe, a Canadian, and Atto, a Japanese.
But as we were coming into Christmas, it was just the original group. In Santo Domingo we decided to do a group shop and then hike the last six km to Granon, which reputedly had a fantastic refuge, with our horde of Christmas goodies. Early the next morning we set off with Andreus carrying a kilo and a half of beef and two chickens, amongst other things, and the rest of us hauling various bottles of booze, vegetables, cheese and all manner of yummy things. Lucky it was only 6 km.
The refuge was as good as reported - a converted part of a 16th century church, complete with open fire and well equipped kitchen. We settled in and started preparing a feast.
Then the Nutter showed up.
Now, it is important to realise that Nutters on the Camino are a far from rare species. Like anything with a spiritual foundation, there are a certain quota of souls who are either hard core Christians, out to convert and preach; bizarre wanderers who really have no idea what they are doing or why they are there; and the usual array of spiritual tossers who believe they and they alone are on a higher plane than the rest of us mere mortals. But every now and then one comes along who really does blow the average wacko clear out of the water, and Donkey Man was just such a one.
We were just settling into our cooking,
(Andreus, Gary and Elsbeth)
along with the new addition of a (mad) Italian guy also called David, when into the room came a stinking vision of loveliness, clad in well worn travelling clothes and carrying an ancient pack and wooden staff. He had wild black curling hair and slightly mad looking eyes,
but he seemed normal enough when he told us that although he wasn’t a pilgrim, he was walking Spain with his donkey, and wondered if he could shelter in the refuge since it was Christmas?
Sure enough, eating the best part of the village square below was a black donkey, surrounded by an array of odd shaped bulging plastic bags. The priest said it was ok, and so entered Donkey Man.
He was Spanish. As only David and Elsbeth are fluent in Spanish, it took the rest of us a while to realise how truly nuts he was. At first it was just little things, like the fact that despite repeated requests and the fact that all the other smokers were going outside, he flatly refused to comply, rolling cigarette after cigarette of highly dodgy substances and smoking them all through the refuge - including in the kitchen. As we were all also slowly imbibing our hefty stash of Rioja, we were not really in the mood to be dictatorial, and still made an effort to be sociable. By the time we sat down to dinner Elsbeth was fairly sure he was a mental case, but the rest of us hadn’t really talked to him.
Dinner was really lovely - very multicultural, with Andreus making a German marinated beef dish, Elsbeth a Dutch dessert, and Gary the in-between bits (I supervised and opened the wine) - and of course, it being Christmas, we invited Donkey Man to eat with us. Well, he sat down, and proceeded to stuff his face, whilst spouting endlessly to poor Elsbeth in Spanish. She later said it was complete gibberish - he was stoned off his head - but she did manage to glean that he had suffered a major nervous breakdown and was currently existing by virtue of a state pension. The rest of us got steadily inebriated and did our best to ignore him, although it was kind of hard as he had the kind of voice which is as subtle as a jackhammer. We did manage to decline his offer of a particularly potent moonshine which appeared from one of the plastic bags.
During the night, as we all tried to sleep, Donkey Man charged up and down the refuge with a manic energy, throwing ever bigger tree trunks onto the fire and muttering to himself. We were all afraid to lapse into blissful drunken slumber in case he managed to burn the place down. At around 4.30 and after about 30 spliffs he eventually laid down on his donkey infused bedroll and passed out, only to jolt us all awake again at about 8.00 as he returned to fire duty.
We were far more circumspect the second day, and gave him a wide berth; after a few hours, his behaviour became increasingly bizarre. Methodically he went through every single cupboard and drawer, examining anything which was not locked down, and arranging his accumulated treasures into little piles, ready for a quick getaway. We watched in amazement as he blatantly appropriated anything which could be of any possible use to a wandering Donkey Man. On the desk was a chest for pilgrims’ donations, which bore the inscription: “Give what you can and take as you need.” Obviously, none of us were about to put any money into the box whilst he was roaming speculatively about, particularly as he eyed the box covetously every time he passed it by.
In the meantime, we were all getting on with a very merry Christmas, including an international tournament of the highly intellectual game “Pass the Pigs”, which involves tossing two tiny pig statues in the manner of dice and earning points depending on the way they land. For some odd reason, Italy excels at this sport. True to form, England came in a pathetic last, and Australia held her own. As the smokers were banished to the heights of the belltower every time they needed a hit, the tiny hamlet of Granon was blessed with some very interesting bell ringing over the Christmas period. In addition to the festivities, on Christmas day the snow started to fall; and fall, and fall, and fall. It was sort of amusing at first but as the day wore on we began to get a little worried about what it would be like for the next few days, as we had to leave on Boxing Day. Although, with two roast chooks and all the trimmings plus copious amounts of Rioja, we weren’t too fussed.
The next morning we woke and packed up and cleaned the refuge. Donkey Man had bounced out of bed at dawn in order to spirit away all of his carefully stashed treasures. Obviously he felt no need to assist in the cleaning process, content to smoke his spliffs and eye the donations box hopefully. We were all in a quandary; we desperately wanted to leave a generous donation, but had no intention of leaving it for Donkey Man to appropriate. A kind of extended waiting game ensued. We kept hoping he would leave, but despite being packed up, he obviously had no intention of moving until he had our donations in his pocket, and so sat patiently waiting for us to leave. Eventually we decided to put the donation into an envelope and leave it with the owners of the bakery for the Priest. We left when he was (we thought) with his donkey downstairs, and went to the Bakery. Guess who was there? We had to out wait him there as well, but once he realised we were leaving, he dashed back to the refuge in an almighty rush, no doubt anxious to grab the cash. My sole moment of joy in his acquaintance was in imagining the depths of his fury at discovering he had no money to take.
So that was Donkey Man. May he live to enjoy the fruits of many refuges.
In the meantime we set out for Belorado, a short walk of just under 20km. There are three refuges there; unfortunately, none were open. Fortunately David tracked down the local priest, who came and opened one of them for us. After a day of walking through snow, however, 2 tiny gas heaters were a little inadequate to heat the huge old hall, and we all shivered around them before diving into bed early.
That night, the snow really came down, and yesterday we awoke to chocolate box views of blue skies and a white world. It was stunningly beautiful, if a touch on the chilly side, and even though we had to walk over 30km on the road it was a beautiful day to do it. We could have taken the trail - if you don’t mind wading through nearly a metre of fresh snow! We took the road.
We arrived in Atapuerca at about 4.30 yesterday and went straight to the refuge - which wasn’t open. Nor, according to the owner of the bar, were any of the refuges in neighbouring towns, which meant the nearest accommodation was another 20km away in Burgos. We had no intention of walking that far. David and Elsbeth had got there slightly before us and
been directed to the home of a little old lady down the road; for €6 each they had a freezing cold room and two mattresses - David’s thermometer read 2 degrees. Heartbreakingly (not) she had no beds left, so Gary and I reluctantly coughed up the extortionate price of €40 for a tiny room in the hotel, which had a shower with no hot water. We were absolutely furious; but our anger was nothing to that we had an hour later. On our way to the bar, we saw there were lights on in the refuge, which was adjacent to the hotel we were staying in. When we knocked on the door, we found Andreus, Josef, Joe and Atto all crowded around a tiny pot bellied stove. To our intense frustration we discovered they had persuaded the hotel owner to open the refuge for them. The same hotelier who had stung us for €40.
Back to the hotel we marched, and demanded our money back (or rather, David did, since our Spanish is non-existent). He kept telling us that there was no hot water in the refuge, or heating, and we would be very uncomfortable; since there was little of either in the hotel, I didn’t see this as a major problem. Eventually we won our argument and adjourned next door, where we joined the boys in burning little bits of paper in a vain attempt to beat the chill. At least it was free.
We woke this morning to yet more snow. Today we walked the final 20km to Burgos through driving wind and snow, along roads with black ice and slush. Never let it be said we did the pilgrimage trail easily. But as I write this we are in the cosiest refuge imaginable, complete with hot shower and internet, planning a dinner out tonight with everyone - so life is good.
To be honest, our time on the Camino has just been fantastic. The company is great, and the moral support is really nice also. We have walked every day since Dax with the exception of Christmas day, and have nearly done another 1000km. Our packs are so light now it is a whole different experience - I think back to that first 1000km and honestly wonder how in hell we did it. Our feet are fine now. They might get tired after 30km, but it is nothing like the mind numbing agony of those first few months, and we just don’t need to rest like we used to. The walking has been quite challenging the last few weeks, particularly through the hills and mud of Navarra, but we have truly enjoyed every day, and laughed endlessly. It is a lovely break in routine for us to have this time on the Camino and we plan to savour every bit of it.
It is difficult at the moment to access the net as we are walking so much and are rarely in places which have cyber cafes, but we will try to update more regularly. In the meantime thankyou for all the lovely emails and messages - I don’t have time to answer them all this stop but will definitely get to them next time.
And to David and Elsbeth, who are leaving us in Burgos (slackers) thanks so much for all of your help and please stay in touch.
By the way - just had to add this one in, as it is a photo of the Irache Fountain, which has one tap for wine and one for water. And yes, wine really does come out of it. And it is free. It took a long time for us to walk past it.