I told you I would not post much, but there´s free internet here and I intend to make the best of it!
I was last on this stretch of the Camino Frances in 2001. Nine years ago. I did not think a trail from a mountaintop monastic complex down to a grubby village could change much. I was wrong.
And I was oblivious, too. I had forgotten SO MUCH of what I saw then, and the scraps of memory I had of that first day´s walk are splattered with mud and driving rain. It was a miserable day, in mud that sucked the boots right off our feet. But I am getting ahead of myself.
First, Roncesvalles. I first saw this place in 1992, back when it might as well have been 1930. You could touch the things in the museum, and go inside Charlemagne´s Silo and peek down into the depths and see the skulls grinning back up at you from the eerie dark. Now it´s all cemented neatly and barred shut. Now that thousands of goobers flock into the village every year, God knows what kind of plastic bottles and candy wrappers were tossed down there with the ancestors´ bones. I can´t blame them for that.
But I am peevish about how I was treated. I should have seen it coming, seeing as thousands of goobers, etc. etc., and I am just another one, bounding off the bus and lining up for my Pilgrim Credential. But these days it´s a moving sidewalk. Two kids with punk haircuts take your money, stamp your credential (they charge THREE EUROS for a credential up there, and they´re not even the stylin´ new Holy Year model! For shame!) And a quick hustle of 6 more Euros to stay there at the albergue.
Used to be the albergue was not heated, but they said that was not true any more. What they did not say was that 20+ people were being crammed into bunks in a basement bunker with a single non-functional toilet and one shower. They did not bother telling us where this place was, either, before they blew away in their little car. It was a long, noisy, vile night. I won´t do that again. (the priests are sweet, and the pilgrim Mass is a jewel. But the albergue was like Midnight on the Kalahari. They oughtta be ashamed.)
But the morning was bright and beautiful, with a bit of snow still lying on the ground. Cattle and backwoods trails, huge birds circling in the sky (waiting for something to die). I´d been there before, but none of it was the least bit familiar. No mud, no stunning scenery, no medieval Basque villages, and no Paddy this time.
But I learned some cool things by stopping to read the signboards along the trails. (another big difference this time is I now can read and communicate in Spanish.) I learned that when you walk from Roncesvalles down to Biskarret for your breakfast, the little forest you pass through is The Witches Wood. Back in the 1600´s there were four big waves of witch-hunting up on that mountain, which ended with at least five local women burned at the stake in the plaza of sleepy little Bizkarret. Salem wasn´t the only place where people went nuts in the 1600s. It´s those women, I tell ya. Worshiping in ways that just can´t be tolerated.
Not to let the Massachussetts people get a jump on them, the local tourist agency has charted out a Ruta de las Brujas, so you can load up the family for an afternoon of fun and adventure driving round to the places where mountain women got out of hand... or the locals just got so bored they started turning on one another.
And on down the mountain I went. I didn´t remember it taking so long, or these long uphill bits. I am sure, now that I´ve done it, the camino was somehow re-routed in the last nine years. I have a very good memory for places, and this trail completely eluded me. Weird. I am doing more thinking and less writing and socializing this time around. The things I always do, I am going to not do. The things I never do, I am going to give them a shot. Tomorrow I will meet up with an Irish pilg and his German friend for a St. Paddy´s Day Irish Whiskey Shot-O-Rama. (I may have to stick with bourbon, however.)
A couple of observations: People who walk this stretch of camino call it "Crossing the Pyrenees." It is a really tough couple of days of mountain walking, but it really is only one mountain, a single Pyrenee. And the really bad bits have been PAVED, for heaven´s sake. (I am of two minds on this. Dangerous places should be made nominally secure, but c´mon! This is a mountain path here, and a pilgrimage oughtta be kinda hard, no?) It´s not conquoring Everest, even though some of the people are dressed for that. But it´s not supposed to be Space Mountain either. So there.
And now I am checked into an unpronouncable, starts-with-a-Z private albergue in Zubiri. This place, too, has changed out of all recognition. The raggedy old stone houses alongside the 12th Century "Rabies Bridge" are all gone now, replaced by neat three-story ethnic-ironwork apartment buildings. You can get down here to the river and put your toes in, even. (and God, my toes look like they belong to someone else!) (Pardon me, but toes and feet and ankles and knees are deeply meaningful to pilgrims, and I am now a pilgrim. So you may hear about my sad old toes. You were warned.) Anyway, I am sure Zubiri is much improved now. It is full of young families raising their kids in suburban splendor.
But I wish they´d left a couple of the ruins, just for looks.
Bitch bitch bitch, I know. And bit of witch.
I am having a wonderful time!