Fog City Boy on the Camino del Norte
Hendersonville, May 2, 2023
Irun to Santiago – The Prequel
My last perigrenacion was in the fall of 2019 – the Camino Ingles from Ferrol to Santiago. Shortly after returning home to San Francisco, I formed the intention to walk the Camino del Norte. As our daughter, Elizabeth, a peregrina in her own right, has observed, “Your Camino begins the day you decide to go.” And in that sense, my Camino del Norte started several years before I actually took the first step! Conversations with pilgrims who had walked that Camino, guidebooks, surfing the Correos Paq Mochila website, populating a spread sheet, all the time building ever greater anticipation.
Covid set me back quite a bit: limited travel that I was willing to undertake, and myriad restrictions on entry and movement in France and Spain. And the gyms that I frequent, like most others in the US, were shut down for an extended time. That situation proved problematic in the immediate term.
[For the record, I am fully vaxed and as of this writing, triple boosted. And an additional data point. . . after my first booster, I caught covid.]
Though there were competing opportunities for my attention and participation, the Camino beckoned. And our son, Noah, asked to walk with me, as well. And so, on August 29, 2022, the Fog City Boy boarded a flight from Hendersonville, North Carolina to Atlanta, and continued on to Paris, with an additional flight to Biarritz/Bayonne, arriving mid-afternoon on August 30.
The Fog City Boy had a reservation at a small pension in the Bayonne’s old town, just two blocks from the Cathedral where, on the next morning, he would receive his first sella of the perigrenacion. The lodging was clean and comfortable, though hauling my mochila up four flights of stairs was not fun. Hauling it down the next morning wasn’t either.
31 August 2022 – Bayonne to Biarritz
After a pleasant breakfast at a nearby café, the Fog City Boy collected his mochila and walked up the hill to the Cathedral.
Supporters of the Camino maintain an information desk open most mornings where peregrinos are counseled about what lies ahead and they may receive the first stamp in their pilgrim passport. A genial hospitalero provided both to me. He also provided a schematic representation of the elevation to be encountered by the peregrino along the official route.
I set out for Biarritz. There is a way marked route to Irun, but I was not aware of it. So I trusted my cell phone which, it turned out, wasn’t the best choice. A walk that ought to have taken an hour and a half, in fact took five hours and, though I enjoyed seeing many neighborhoods I would have missed, the software took me a great distance out of my way. Some of the interesting sights along the way:
Jardin Public Leon Bonnat (Bayonne)
A maritime range finder (Bayonne)
But, eventually I got to Biarritz and quite enjoyed my sojourn there.
It was one of the last weeks of the summer, and many beautiful young people were enjoying the weather, and the beach.
I enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a small restaurant near the beach.
And rested comfortably at La Maison du Lierre.
1 September 2022 – Biarritz to St. Jean de Luz
After breakfast, I set out for St. Jean de Luz. The path I chose, again without benefit of way marks, took me along the beach and up a hill past a handsome church – Sante-Eugenie.
The way forward was comfortable through the town. And I had a wonderful lunch at a small restaurant tucked behind a surf shop in Bidart.
Eventually, my failure to do the proper advance planning landed the Fog City Boy with some challenging territory to traverse. And it was along a heavily traveled roadway. And the afternoon turned hot and humid. After descending and ascending the lengthy grade, I opted for a local bus that deposited me directly in front of the hotel I had booked – Hotel Colbert.
I had delayed making a dinner reservation at the restaurant and when I sought admittance, alas, the house was sold out. But I got a good pizza at the pizza joint next door.
The Fog City Boy was now squarely within Basque Country. There are 3.1 million citizens of Spain and France who consider themselves culturally Basque, with a unique language unrelated to any other, and with historical traditions. Many, but not all, Basques (and some of their neighbors) speak the language and carry on the traditions. The Basque flag and the Basque Coat of Arms:
2 September 2022 – St. Jean de Luz to Irun
Our son, Noah, was flying in from Sacramento to join me for a week on the Camino. He was due to meet me at our hotel in Irun. Hotel Colbert was directly across the street from the SNCF railroad station. The weather forecast was for hot weather and not having forgotten the previous day’s travail, I determined to take the train to Hendaye, the end of the line, and across the Bidasoa River from Irun. The river marks the border between France and Spain.
I exited the train, left the station, and walked across the bridge to Irun. Because both nations are within the Schengen Zone, there were neither customs nor immigration processes to deal with. I reached Hotel Alcazar about 30 minutes later.
I spent the balance of the day exploring Irun.
The Fog City Son arrived in the late afternoon. We sought out the Albergue de Peregrinos Jakobi where Noah got the first sella in his pilgrim passport. We had a nice dinner nearby the hotel.
3 September 2022 – Irun to San Sebastian (Donostia in the Basque Language)
We were off timely and retraced our steps from the night before – passing the albergue and continuing along the way marked Way.
Shortly after clearing the outskirts of Irun, we began our climb through alternating residential and agricultural areas. About an hour after we had begun, the rain came. It did not deter us, but we found shelter and waited for it to pass. We then continued to climb along a dirt track,
eventually arriving at the Santuario de Guadalupe.
Noah and I explored the church and surrounding grounds. The views were wonderful.
After our exploration, the Fog City Boy and Fog City Son had a choice to make. Shortly after the church, the Camino splits into a high level variant, and a low level variant. The paths rejoin at Pasajes de San Juan.
The Fog City Boy had been advised by several Camino del Norte veterans to take the high level variant which affords spectacular views, though the route is extremely challenging. We were feeling good after a break at the Sanctuario, and decided to go with the high level variant.
We set out and shortly reached the split. Especially at the very beginning after the split, the Way seems to require the peregrino to climb straight up. There is a reason this route is called the Purgatorio route. We took our time and made it safely up the very steep grade.
Once ascended, the route follows along the ridgeline. We explored several ancient fortifications along the Way.
And the views were as spectacular as they had been advertised.
After several hours, we reached the high point – Jaizkibel – elevation 545 meters. Not surprisingly, a radio broadcast tower is located there.
We rested there and enjoyed the lunch we had brought along. After lunch, we headed down the mountain. The Way down was steep and often covered with uneven paving stones. The Camino intersects with other hiking trails in the area.
A cross alongside the Way reminds the perigrino that this is a peregrenacion.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Pasajes and took the small ferry across the river to the outskirts of San Sebastian. Along with a dozen or so American tourists we had encountered on the Way, we boarded a local bus that delivered us to downtown San Sebastian. It was a short walk to the Pension Koxka where we would spend three nights.
3 – 5 September 2022 – At San Sebastian
We explored the old town and adjacent bay and its beaches.
There was a festival in progress while we were there.
It included rowing competitions. The winner of the women’s race was a team from the town of Orio which we would visit en route to Zarutz. The boats were large and bore no resemblance to racing shells with which we generally are familiar. They reminded the Fog City Boy of the whale boats that were resident at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California back when the Boy was an undergraduate at Berkeley.
On September 5th, Noah and I hiked up the hill from San Sebastian to Igeldo – the first leg of the next stage of the Camino del Norte. It was a lovely morning walk along the littoral.
We took a city bus back down the hill. Where we continued our exploration of pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”) – which perhaps is best translated as “skewers.” Sometimes these delectables are presented on a skewer, but not always. Every bar in this part of Spain has them – fresh every morning. These are not tapas, which generally are more substantial in culinary scope. Here are some examples.
Noah found a small painting of San Sebastian harbor that he fancied and bought it as a souvenir of his Camino adventure. We had a nice dinner down the street from the pension.
September 6, 2022 – San Sebastian to Zarutz
We returned to Igeldo via a city bus, and struck out on our walk to Zarutz. The Way was largely residential at the outset, with unpaved track along the way. And some beautiful views.
When we arrived in Orio, which translates as “of the river,” we had a beer before taking the train the rest of the way to Zarutz. We walked a few blocks to our hotel which was not far from the rail station.
After settling in, we realized that Noah had left his painting at the restaurant where we had had diner the night before we left San Sebastian. So we made a new plan.
The Fog City Son would return to Orio to buy a soccer jersey in the town colors, which are similar to the national colors of Ukraine – yellow and blue. And the Fog City Boy would return to San Sebastian to retrieve the painting.
September 7, 2022 – Zarutz to Deba (via San Sebastian and Orio)
The Fog City Boy took an intercity bus to San Sebastian, arriving in the late morning. Noah took a train to Orio. Both the Fog City Boy and the Fog City Son succeeded in their respective missions. The Fog City Boy captured some additional views of San Sebastian.
And Noah scored two soccer jerseys. The blue and white one is worn by the team (and its fans) Real Sociedad – a first division Spanish team. The second one is the jersey worn by the Oreo Rowing Club (and its fans). Arravnketa Elkartea is Basque for “Fishing Association.”
Separately, and by train, we headed for Deba, where we took a taxi to our hotel which was some distance from the train station. The views were wonderful and Noah made friends with a resident kitten.
8 September 2022 – Deba to Guernica
After a light breakfast, we made our way back to the train station, again by taxi. The trip to Guernica was swift and we had the afternoon to explore. We visited a tiled rendering of Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica” which speaks to the bombing of the town, its people, and its livestock during the Spanish civil war.
Our hotel was nearby.
9 September 2022 – Guernica to Bilbao
The Fog City Boy located the Guernica town library which offered citizens and visitors access to the internet. Yes, regrettably, the Fog City Boy checked his email and tended to other chores. The Fog City Son did it all on his iPhone.
We proceeded by train to Bilbao City Center. Our pension was a few blocks from the train station. It was comfortable and convenient to . . . another selection of pintxos.
10 September 2022 – At Bilbao
The Fog City Son was up quite early. A taxi was waiting for him just outside the pension. He was off to the airport, and his transit back home to Sacramento, California.
The Fog City Boy bade him a fond farewell. It was the first time that the Boy and the Son had spent a week together. Just us. Very special.
For the remainder of the day, the Fog City Boy walked the Old Town and explored beyond its confines making good use of the town’s tram system.
11 September 2022 – Bilbao to Biarritz
There is a passenger railroad that originates in Bilbao and traverses many kilometers north along the Bay of Biscay. It is a blend of intercity railroad, interurban railroad, and local transit – sometimes surface and sometimes subway. I got to ride all the way to France! The last stop is a short walk to the SNCF station at Hendaye. Border patrol officers met passengers departing the Spanish train. But there were no formal customs and immigration inspection.
The Fog City Boy took a brief train ride to Biarritz and then a taxi to a Best Western Motel (yes, really) at the Bayonne/Biarritz airport. That would be home for three nights until Air France returned him to San Francisco.
12 – 13 September 2022 – At Bairritz
Biarritz had much to offer, as it had before. Dinner at sunset was a special treat.
A nearby light was flashing its warning to mariners.
14 September 2022 – Biarritz to San Francisco
The Fog City Boy was up at 4 am, donned his mochila and walked a few blocks to the airline terminal. He boarded a “Hop” flight from Bayonne/Biarritz to CDG – the main Paris Airport. And then a direct flight home to San Francisco. It was good to be home, though the Boy was a bit wistful not to have progressed farther on the Camino del Norte on this occasion.
But, all in good time! And thus, this FCB entry is designated a prequel. The Fog City Boy is planning to continue the Norte from Bilbao starting in August of 2023.
And with that, I’m off.
If you would like to subscribe to future posts on this Fog City Boy blog, scroll up all the way to the top and look for the button on the lower right corner of the screen. Click on it, be redirected, and ask to be included. I would be honored!