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Friday, 9 October 2015

That was the summer that was: TransCantabrica - Stage One, Irun to Deba

Time, I think, for an account of this summer’s six-week hike before I start to focus on this winter’s #FireintheBlood volcano hiking project; someday I’ll get into the habit of writing up the day’s events at the time of walking, as opposed to two-and-half months later. What was intended as a ‘guerrilla’ camino from Irun on the French/Spanish border to Santiago, loosely following the Camino del Norte, the GR121/123 and then Mike Salazar’s Alta Ruta Cantabrica ended up a bit of a curate’s egg as the customary gravitation towards the yellow arrows of the camino de Santiago network set in. Even so, I might have made a compromise by following the Viejo Camino from the Basque Country all the way through to the Camino Francés at Villafranca del Bierzo then on to Santiago until I allowed myself to become distracted by inconsistent waymarking, a lack of maps and the lure of the Picos de Europa. And whilst I’m rummaging around for excuses I might as well bung in the weather and a crucial faux pas vis-à-vis preparation. But on to the nitty-gritty of the trail, here divided into stages.

1. Irun to Deba – Camino del Norte
The first cut is the deepest, the first stage is the cruellest; especially if, like me, you’ve been sitting on your fat arse for the past four months, filling the heads of your ‘A’ level students full of geography and willing them to pass so hard the veins in your forehead bulge with blood. 
All roads lead to Santiago
For the uninitiated – which’ll be most of you not as obsessed with the Camino de Santiago as I am - the Camino del Norte follows the Atlantic Coast of Spain as far as the Galicia/Cantabria border from where it deviates inland towards the Holy Grail that is Santiago de Compostela. I say follow, sometimes it wanders inland and on several stretches one can lose sight of the sea for hours on end. And because it’s a coast path the Camino del Norte, like the British South West Coast Path, goes up and down in a seemingly infinite series of disniveles. On day one, from Irun to Donostia/San Sebastián, I fell victim to the trail’s first trick – lulling the hiker into a false sense of security. After an initial sharp 200m ascent the going is good and I’m trundling along like a Weeble on speed only to realise later that energy generated from jouissance isn’t sustainable; after 14 ‘easy’ kilometres the camino plunges almost vertiginously back down to sea level at Passai Donibane. Here, a purist such as Nick Crane would be faced with their first ambulatory dilemma, either take the ferry to cross the short (about 100m) stretch of water and continue hiking from Passai San Pedro on the other side or make the landlubber’s diversion which, according to my calculations, would add a further three or four kilometres of bleak industrial walking to the day’s total. Fortunately, the pilgrim is permitted to take the boat though my inner psychogeographer did have cast a lascivious eye over the frontages of post-industrial porn.
Ermita de Santiago, Irun

'Alpinist' pilgrims up and onto the ridge, the rest of them along the 'easy route'. It was day one, I took the latter

Passai Donibane

As I was serenaded, on the ferry, by a group of retired Basque doctors – I kid you not – I had visions of an effortless passage to Santiago with enough time remaining for a quick hop-and-skip hike onwards to Finisterre. At my time of life, with half-a-dozen caminos under my belt, you’d have thought I’d have known better but I was walking with the eyes-wide open of an innocent child, the silver sands and faded glory of Donostia/San Sebastián were just around the corner.

Ferry 'cross the Portua de Pasaia with industrial porn background. Sadly no retired Basque doctors present
Not. The lack of fitness told already; Donostia/San Sebastián was another eleven kilometres away, up and over the cliffs, access to which was via a 120 metre staircase, direct from sea-level. Shouldn’t have come as a surprise, should it? You pays yer money and you takes yer choice; if you opt to hike the Basque littoral you really ought to come at it with the understanding that the coastline can and will bite back. 
Donostia/San Sebastian: plenty of siver sands but not its glory still unfaded

Which is exactly what it did for the next two days, from Donostia/San Sebastián to Zarautz and Deba. The ‘kneebreaker’ disniveles never quite crippled me physically but on more than one occasion they filled my soul with the wrath and ire of hiker who thinks the path has wronged her, even though she knows, deep down inside, she’s the one to blame.  
Don't ask!
I walked, as intended, alone; for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere I didn’t want to get socially or emotionally involved with a path I was only going to follow for three days although I’ve subsequently realised I might be seeking an intellectual excuse for my inherent commitment-phobia. This policy was put to the test on only the second day when I fell in step with Manuel on the descent into Orio and spent the remainder of the day walking alongside him. 
Last rites for a walking pole

Manuel and his Venezuelan flag; now so full of signatures one can barely make out the colours and stars
Manuel, a Madrileño from Venezuela was – still is – walking the camino in what many would consider its ‘true spirit’: with minimum funds, trusting himself to the kindness of strangers and the whimsies of fate – or God, as the case may be. He was - still is - carrying with him a Venezuelan flag which he asked fellow pilgrims to sign in the cause of peace in his homeland. When he arrived in a town he would seek to engage with local politicians and any fellow venezelano emigres to draw attention to his cause which was, in a nutshell, a protest against the growing militarisation and authoritarianism of Venezuelan politics. As a student of Latin American politics, an afternoon spend in discussion with Manuel represented, in many respects, the ideal camino day in which the landscape and the trail come second and third to social – and in this case political – interaction and in this instance our talk of Venezuelan politics took me back to the hallowed halls of my alma mater, the Institute for Latin American Studies in London, some fifteen years ago. 

From Donostia to Zumaia

You know what’s coming. Is it possible to speak of Venezuela and not immediately follow it up with mention of the late Hugo Chavez? I’d finished my MSc in Latin American Politics before Chavez and Bolviarismo had really made their mark on South and North America and it was Causa R – the Radical Cause – that caught my attention at the end of the 1990s as a possible future for the Latin American left. I think Manuel and I must have exchanged only a couple of sentences before the ‘Ch’ word was mentioned and it immediately occurred to me that Manuel was out and about to tarnish the image of the former leader in particular and Chavismo in general and make a case for a return of the right.

The Basque coastline at its most sublime. It's only day two and already I'm thinking about changing my plans and following the Camino del Norte all the way to Santiago. I mean, how does one tear oneself away from this?

Well, he was and he wasn’t; in espousing the cause of Causa R he was certainly disparaging current president Nicolas Maduro as a thug and a criminal but Manuel was equally calling for the return of a more democratic leftism which, he argues, has been tarnished by the current regime, if not Chavez, too. I was stuck in no-pilgrims-land, like many on the European left, I’d taken a shine to Chavez, been taken in by his charisma, some might say, but I’d been out of Latin American politics for so long I waded in carefully and with an unusual amount of thoughtful consideration.



My big fat Basque diet

The mountains already

But we talked about the camino, too; about the reasons why we were drawn to it and, after telling him I was technically homeless, Manuel memorably summed up my situation in one pithy phase: tu casa es el camino – your home is the camino.
Out of the mouths of Venezuelan Madrileños! 

The wonder that is Donostia

Manuel and I parted ways in Zaruatz; me to sleep in a hotel, him to crash out on the beach after taking his flag around the seaside town but it would be wrong to say we never met again as we followed each other’s trajectories on the Book of Face, he’s just finished the Camino de San Salvador which I walked in late July – and we’ve just decided to hike together from Rome to Santiago in the next few years. 

If this doesn't get your geological lovejuices flowing, nothing will

In many respects, that afternoon’s hiking with Manuel reaffirmed my resolve to walk alone but it also reminded me, quite intensely, of what I was renouncing. For the next day I could fall back on that familiar cliché of having the sea as company to counter any melancholy solitude might – would – bring on but on Day 4 I’d turn inland and head for the mountains, leaving the pilgrims behind.

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