This picturesque, sparkling, Spanish Basque town with its shimmering white two-mile long beachfront promenade was about as perfect as perfect could be. We set up camp, and then rode our bikes the short 15 minutes to the expansive beach. We walked the length of the bay enjoying the views and ended up in the lively old town.
We decided to attempt to join the locals tapas-hopping. It took us a few tries, but we finally figured out the system. We’d enter a very crowded restaurant, and there would be many platters at the bar each filled with delicious-looking small snack-size creations, some fancy, others more like small sandwiches on crusty bread, topped with jamon, bacon, fresh anchovies (yuck) and/or cheese. After watching for what the locals ordered, we would point to (sometimes we’d just grab) what looked good, and eat! You were on the honor system and just paid for what you ate on the way out. Most were delicious. We’d then head to the next place that looked good and repeat the process. We had so much fun, we repeated the process the next night as well! We both felt that we could have stayed longer than the three short days we did in this charming town that was both modern (great shopping), and traditional.
Departing the next day, we happened upon the Camino de Santiago (Saint James’ Trail). This is Europe’s most popular pilgrimage. People walk or bike 500 miles covering the same path that took Saint James to the northern corner of Spain (the edge of the known world at that time). While we did not come prepared to walk the trail, we decided to drive it, visiting the small towns and villages along the way. Pilgrims on the walk start in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, then through Pamplona, through the vineyards and plains, and then end their journey 500 miles later in Santiago, Spain.
A favorite town of Ernest Hemingway; a Basque town with narrow lanes and beautiful churches, and of course, the town world-famous for its Running of the Bulls.
We camped nearby and rode our bikes for six miles along the Camino de Santiago (Saint James’ Trail) into the historic downtown Pamplona. When we arrived, we walked the path the bulls take during their famous run, marveling at some of the narrow passageways and turns that both the bulls and the participants must maneuver. That evening we enjoyed tapas at various locations in town. and then made our way back to our bikes and the trail for the ride back to camp (getting more than a little lost, so that the return trip took about three hours).
Continuing the Camino de Santiago
We enjoyed several short stops in interesting small towns, their narrow cobblestone streets lined with tall old buildings. In some towns these two way streets were not wide enough for Dakota to maneuver through, so we would have to turn around (not easy) or back out. We were glad there was not much traffic. Instead of the usual streams of cars, we would see many people walking to buy their morning bread, talking with neighbors, hanging out their wash to dry from upper story windows, or enjoying a cup of coffee with friends at an outdoor cafe.
One of the interesting side trips was to the Irache Monastery. Here they offered free wine (and free water) to pilgrims and travelers alike. at their self-serve outdoor fountain. We also ducked inside for a quick visit to a once abandoned church. It was almost empty, but the carvings and statues that were left were beautiful.
Briones – while driving toward our next destination, we spotted a sign that said “Briones 30 km”. Steve agreed to a detour in honor of our friend Rosie Briones. The quaint town is located in the Rioja wine region of Spain. We drove up and up, and at one point had to pull over so a tractor could pass. We parked and walked toward a rather humble looking church. We respectfully entered and were amazed at the ornate gilded interior. It contained several small chapels, a beautiful collection of art in its treasury, and an impressive pipe organ. Although difficult to describe, it was one of the most moving experiences of our trip.
O Cebreiro – we traveled up a mountain road to this remote, rustic village that had round stone igloos with thatched roofs as houses. We found out that the animals lived on the lower levels of these houses while people lived on the upper floor so that the body heat of the animals kept the families warm.
Final stop – Santiago de Compostela – this is where the pilgrims celebrate their completion of their long journey. We visited the cathedral along with the pilgrims who had truly made the journey. We appreciated their dedication, and could see the evidence of their journey in their well-worn shoes, slight limps from blisters on their feet, sunburned calves, and their hunched shoulders from carrying their large hiking packs.
We toured the cathedral first. We could feel the energy from the pilgrims and other visitors as we entered this church that began in the year 1075 and contains the tomb of Saint James. We sat and admired the ornate golden altar before continuing our visit. We marveled at the intricate carvings and statues of the prophets and angels. We learned that the carvings were done in 1180 by Maestro Mateo who has a self-portrait in the church. It was funny to hear that it used to be a ritual for scholars from the nearby university to kneel and tap their heads three times against his to help increase their intelligence and therefore their grades!
Due to the inability of using the flash, interior pictures do not do the cathedral justice. Search Google for pictures of what we feel is one of the most impressive (if not the most impressive) church interiors in Europe.
We also visited the museum where we saw more of Maestro Mateo’s carvings, the original church bells, beautiful tapestries, an incredible library of ancient scrolls and books. We spent time enjoying the town, listening to street music including bagpipes and guitars, shopping, eating and just plain walking around enjoying the people and ambiance.