From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Markina-Xemein... The unplanned route!
SJPdP - Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorry (20) **Car - Bus - Train - Train - Bus to Irun, Spain** Irun - San Sebastián (33km) - Zarautz (18km) - Deba (24km) - Markina-Xemein (23km)
Well this last week most definitely has not gone as planned, but that does not mean it hasn't been absolutely sensational.
The first day of walking through out of St-Jean up through the Pyrenees was phenomenal, remarkable, exceptional - take your pick. I was very lucky that the weather as I left that morning was in my favour - low cloud in the valleys, but an expansive blue sky above and the sun shining. It's a bit of a miracle that I made it up the side of that first mountain (no exaggeration), as I stopped to look behind me at the view every couple of minutes.
It was definitely the hardest day of my whole adventure so far (again, definitely no exaggeration) - early on in the day I'd followed a footpath with my eyes, as it zig-zagged it's way up a practically vertical ridge-edge, and seen what I thought were people at the top of the steepest section. I quickly convinced myself that it was either goats or a hallucination, as there couldn't possibly be a path up there that people actually used... Of course, this turned out to be my path! Up until that day, I had always employed a "no stopping for a break till you're at the top" policy, but this went out of the window within those first few hours. It was unrelentingly steep, but with every step further up the mountain, the views behind me got increasingly sensational.
As I was inching my way up, I noticed some fairly large birds circling around above me. Just as I was reaching the highest point of the day, I heard a loud rushing and whooshing sound... About 15m to my left, six of these birds were taking off - I think I got a bit close to their perch. I later found out that they were Griffon Vultures, with a wingspan of 2.3 - 2.8m. That's pretty big, bigger than the biggest seagulls I'm used to seeing! During that day, I saw over thirty of these vultures (though they luckily kept their distance, clearly I didn't resemble 'prey').
After my fantastic first day in the mountains, I was exhausted but raring to bound up whatever the next day brought. Unfortunately, the next day decided to bring some serious storms - torrential rain, thunder and lighting - conditions you do not go into the mountains in... My host and several other experienced mountain walkers strongly advised me to stay put until the storms were cleared from the area, which was unfortunately several days away. Reluctant to hang around for that long, I considered my options, which turned out to be fairly limited - a very brief conversation with my host established that there wasn't a single bus or train from the town! Luckily for me, the next morning she was driving into St-Jean and very kindly offered me a lift. Thus, I found myself back where I had started a few days earlier.
I then decided that the most sensible thing to do would be to get myself to a Irun to start the next phase of my adventure, the Camino del Norte. So, on Sunday morning, I set off from Irun with a group of fresh-faced and excited pilgrims.
I've now completed four days on this route, and they have been M-E-G-A. On day one, my new walking companion Rowena and I managed to go completely off-route on what we now call The Ridgetop Extravaganza... The day had already been fantastic, following a ridge above the sea with views of the coast in both directions. We were so absorbed in conversation that we just kept rolling along that ridge instead of dropping down into town. The only clue that we'd gone wrong was when the path narrowed so much a rope, attached to the cliff-face, was necessary to stop walkers from plunging to their deaths... Our only option was to retrace our steps. While not exactly an ideal exercise, the views most definitely made up for the extra kilometres!
I've had two days of gorgeous weather (both of which have ended with a swim in the sea and sunbathing on the beach), one day of constant storm, and one day of rain and cloud (both of which have ended with wet socks and a hot shower). Regardless of rain or shine, each of these days have been amazing... There's been a well-rounded mix of beach, city, mountain, cliff and forest - I've enjoyed a cold beer on the beach, and pegged it across fields in order to escape the thunder and lightning surrounding me. Lots of variety! One consistent theme is that this camino is hard work. Including our scenic detour yesterday (intentional), our total ascent was equal to that of Ben Nevis... Today's total was the equivalent of Scafell Pike! So... Onwards and upwards!