Please note! This is not a professional translation, only the first basic version for a translation, without proofreading and checking.
The six pilgrims
A journey through time between present and past on the Camino Francés
Original edition 2017 in German Version
Published by Tirom-Verlag, Austria
Reinhard Holzegger 2017 “The Six Pilgrims”
Cover design by Reinhard Holzegger
Hardcover in German language
All rights reserved, in particular those of translation, public presentation and transmission by radio, television and the Internet, including individual parts and passages. No part of or passage from the work may be reproduced in any form (by digitization, photography or other methods) or processed, copied or distributed using electronic systems without the written permission of the author.
Printing and binding: Christian Theiss GmbH
Printed in Austria
Our alphabet consists of only 26 letters and yet some people succeed time and again in arranging it in such a way that true marvels of language arise from it. If I had only a little of this gift,
then I could share with you a state that goes far beyond the limits of our ancestral sensibilities.
Nor would it seem to me to be a bungling attempt to make my feelings transparent to my readers. And yet I was as impudent as I dared to take that step on the Camino Francés.
One can still see a slight drawing of the path, which more and more threatens to be closed by the snow. Wetness makes the snow heavy. If you step on it, there are clear traces in the ground. It’s the tracks of Adeline, Flore and Julien. Small footsteps accompany big, beside it small red dots, which run to spots, in a network from innumerable accumulated ice crystals, white and cold. Adeline’s steps mark the big tracks in the picture, Flore and Julien the small and from Flore’s nose it drips red dots into the snow. A picture that is lost shortly after its appearance, so many thick snowflakes spread across the land and violent gusts of storms close the path.
No one should be up here in such weather, on the peaks of the Pyrenees, and yet I see a small, lively pile, in which there is still a breath of warmth, which stands against the inhospitableness of the moment and threatens to go out. I see the almost lifeless and cold faces of Adeline, Julien and Flore. I almost overlook the red thread running from Flores nose over her cheek, her face is so red with cold. She cries, but I see no tears running down her young face. A face that promises grace when cared for with the necessary warmth and love. Adeline is already an adult, almost eight years older than her little sister, and she puts one arm around her.
The ankles of their fingers are purple and hardly moveable due to the cold and yet they lead Julien, whose hand they hold enclosed. His head is low and he himself is held up by the power of Adeline’s arm. Her body offers him protection from the snow, which now grips her wildly and violently. It becomes more and more difficult for Adeline to stay on the road where dark and deep slopes cling to. But it is precisely this fear of taking the wrong step and thus putting an end to the existence of Julien and Flore, a life that has only just begun and is still ready for so many questions, that makes them mindful and makes them forget the pain and cold they are surrounded by.
The steps become shorter and the terrain becomes noticeably steeper. The feet of the three constantly lose support and the bodies are caught by the swollen knees of Adeline, each time the pain tears her face. A face that bears a strong resemblance to Flore’s. It is more mature, has already been examined countless times by the world and is thus robbed of its shyness, drawn by clear, straight lines, slightly playful. Straight black hair that reaches up to her shoulder, even though it now appears sticky and wild due to the snow and the wetness dripping off from it. The cloak, which is nothing more than a rectangular wool cloak wrapped around her body, cannot hide the delicate, narrow figure underneath. Wrapped in a bliaut, a tight-fitting, linen dress emphasizing her narrow figure, which is her pride and joy, even if on closer inspection it does not look as splendid and elegant as it seems to pretend. It reaches to her ankles and lets out the equally long undershirt in the movement of the steps alternately. The feet are wrapped in pointed leather pieces that converge from the front and are interwoven over the instep. They are hard pieces of leather that overlook their heels with blisters and rub their toes sore. Flore and Julien also wear such shoes and would complain about the sore spots inside them if they had the strength for it. Like Adeline’s, their bodies are protected from the cold by a rectangular wool coat as far as possible. More and more often it glistens from its surface, caused by ice crystals that have attached themselves to it and are fed by the sun penetrating the now thinning band of clouds. The snowfall subsides and gives a view of a white landscape. There’s no way to tell. Adeline stops and looks into the expressionless faces of Julien and Flore.
“We rest for a moment,” she says exhausted. Julien drops into the snow. Adeline warns him to get up, but Julien doesn’t react. She lifts him up and knocks the snow off his buttocks, leaving a wet stain on the fabric. The snow cover is not particularly dense and the grass underneath is wet. Adeline clears a piece of rock of snow, spreads her coat over it and puts Julien on it. Then Adeline takes a seat with Flore in her lap.
The sun now finds more open places through the cloudy sky, the rock begins to live.
Adeline responds to Julien’s desire and grabs into her bag, breaks off a piece of bread and hands it to him, she also gives Flore a piece. Adeline removes the red thread running across her cheek from Flore’s nose with a handful of snow and looks at the source of its formation. The nose has stopped bleeding. Adeline rubs her knees with her hands, bends and stretches them, chased by a yellow cloth that moves with Flores head.
She got this headscarf for her 11th birthday. That was less than four months ago and it was the best day of her still young life. At first, then she hated that day, but she still loves her headscarf, the last memory of her father. Flore’s mother had died giving birth to her little sister Merle. That was four years ago and a year later Merle also died of an undying fever. Julien also came into her life at that time. He was always hanging out near her farm. It was Flore who first came into focus. He became part of the family and her brother, her little brother, whom she has to take care of. The farm they worked on in La Romieu, a small settlement of farmers and part of the property of a Benedictine abbey in Marseilles, produced enough to live on. And sometimes it was enough for a little surprise, like on this eleventh birthday of Flore. Her favourite colour is yellow and she wanted nothing more than to decorate her long black hair with a yellow scarf.
With the sunlight, the snow settles and there is a direction in the landscape. Time to move on. Each step causes the feet to sink into the deepening ground and drains the last remnants of the forces already used up from their bodies. This part runs quite evenly and the melting snow is absorbed and held up by the earth like a sponge. They don’t realize how deep the next step will sink them into the ground. There are no traces to show them the way. After each step Adeline looks around. Yeah, we have to be right here, she keeps saying to herself. Flore and Julien follow her without saying a word, but they resent their big sister for bringing them up here.
They wade through the mud for half an hour, which seems to them like an eternity, until they again have reasonably firm ground under their feet. Flore, who has now run a bit ahead of Julien, looks first into the valley of Roncesvalles.
“Children, we made it, we must be at Col de Lepoeder,” says Adeline with a weepy voice. “Come here, give me your hand, we must be careful when we go down.” She turns emphatically to the two who jump from one side to the other. Flore lets her sister confirm that she was first up here before Julien, and is visibly proud of it.
“But only because I slipped.” Julien has a hard time admitting defeat. The ground is firm and meanwhile free of snow. The bad weather has spared the south facing side of the mountain. Fog’s coming up. The view gets worse with every step. Adeline grasps again at the hands of her siblings.
“Where’s Julien?” Adeline looks at Flore.
“I don’t know, he was just here.” Not a very helpful answer.
“Julien!” Adeline calls.
“Julien!” Flore is now calling. “Over there, you see him?”
“Julien, stop,” Adeline shouts in his direction. But Julien is already standing and raising his arm.
“Shut up, don’t you hear?” Silence. “Listen, it’s coming from the direction ahead.” Julien whispers as if the sounds could be lost through his words.
“It’s bells.” A little uncertain for now, but then it spurts out of Adeline. “Yes, that must be the hospital Father Raoul told me about.” She digs through her pocket, pulls out a folded piece of paper and reads: Great Mountain - Ibañeta Pass - Hospital. “We are on the right track. Thank God.” Julien and Flore take up the cheerfulness emanating from Adeline’s face into theirs and smile, for the first time today.
“Come, children!” They are seemingly/positively attracted by the ringing. The ringing of the bells becomes louder and walls enter the picture. “Look, the hospital, we can stay here“, says Adeline.
“Can we get something to eat, too?” asks Julien hesitantly.
“Surely you’ll get something to eat.” Adeline strokes her fingertips across his cold cheek.
They are now standing in front of a large wooden door that can be opened. Adeline looks inside. A tall man in a brown cape with a hood dangling at his back comes down the corridor and greets Adeline and her companions, who in turn enter the corridor behind Adeline.
“Welcome, I am Father Nevio. You must be hungry, follow me,” says the man in the hospital. A sparse, narrow room, just as sparse and narrow as its host. With a candle in his hand, the man leads them into a room lit by several candles and warmed by a fire.
“We have enough wood here,” affirms Father Nevio, when he sees the children as the pleasant warmth rises in them. “You can dry your clothes and shoes by the fire.”
Adeline observes another four people in the room. An elderly man threatening to cough his soul out of his body and a middle-aged woman stroking her right hand over his back while dabbing his forehead with a cloth. Both are right next to the fire. Another, her averted man looks out of the window on the left side of the room. Although barefoot and only dressed in an undershirt, this man looks distinguished on Adeline. It’s his hair and the way he stands that makes it happen. The fourth person in the room is handling shoes around the fire. A younger man, probably the gentleman's servant at the window, thinks Adeline. He nods to her. She buries her face embarrassed in the wool coat.
“Come, you three,” says Father Nevio and leads them to the next room where the kitchen is located. “It’s better if you dry your clothes and shoes here. This is Brother Noel.” Father Nevio points to the man at the fireplace.
“He’ll give you something to eat. The two beds there next to the wall“, Father Nevio points with his chin to the right side of the room, “belong to you tonight. You’ll be alone. Noel and I will sleep outside with the others.”
“You’re in luck,” Brother Noel tells his three new guests. He is as lean and tall as Father Nevio. His voice is loud and powerful. “The Navarrese - I must say, a fierce and frightening people - brought us a sheep. They said it was struck by lightning. I don’t know, I don’t trust them, but they keep bringing us something to eat, be it so. Here, eat, we’ve had enough for today.”
Brother Noel gives each of the three a large piece of roasted saddle of lamb. He also puts out a bowl of cereal porridge for the hungry stomachs. Flore and Julien have never eaten lamb in their lives. Pork and chicken, yes, they know that, even if it was not abundant in their previous food environment, but lamb or sheep, whatever that may be, has never slipped through their throats. Nevertheless, they gobble it up with their mouths, so Adeline has to slow them down all the time.
Later that evening, Father Nevio approaches Adeline again.
“Where are you from?” he asks. “You’re on a pilgrimage, as I can see from the embroidery on your bag.”
“We come from La Romieu and we want to go to the tomb of St. James, and I am glad when you see us as pilgrims. My name is Adeline and these are Flore and Julien, my siblings.” Adeline is flattered by his words.
Father Nevio looks at the two children.
“Are you alone?” he wants to know from her.
“Yes,” is the short answer.
“This is not really a place for children,” admonishes Father Nevio Adeline, “and by that I mean you,” he adds.
“They are my family and they go with me wherever I have to go, and it leads me to Santiago, to Compostela,” Adeline replies.
“You are not aware of what awaits you on this journey. Do you even know the way?”
Adeline takes the folded paper out of her pocket. “Here are the waypoints and I can read.” She defiantly holds a piece of paper in front of his face.
Father Nevio unfolds the document, looks at it and says: “Who gave you this?”
“A long time ago, before my father was born, a man settled in what is now La Romieu. He was a hermit and told the passing people about his journey to St. James’ tomb. People came just to hear his story, and gradually people settled there. This was no longer hidden from the Benedictine monastery to which these lands belong. The monks also listened, checked his stories and finally gave this place the name La Romieu. That’s what my father and his father told me. This piece of paper is all I have left of him.” Adeline looks at Father Nevio. He folds the note and returns it to Adeline.
“Where is La Romieu?” he wants to know now.
“Not far south of Agen.”
“I know where Agen is. You must have been on the road for about six days.”
“It’s twelve,” says Adeline.
“Then I mean another Agen.” Father Nevio plucks his chin with his hand.
“You mean the right Agen, Father. We went to Conques before, to the tomb of Saint Fides. It should give us strength for the journey, but especially Julien, who is not the strongest.”
“I know that story. A young 12-year-old girl, martyred, beheaded and burned on a red-hot grid. She had refused to worship the pagan gods. It happened only a few years before Christianity was recognized as a religion. However, the girl’s bones were not brought to the present Conques until hundreds of years later. It should give strength to the sick, but also to the healthy. You did the right thing and I’ll give you my blessing.”
Adeline humbly lowers her head with a “Thank you, Father”.
Father Nevio leaves the room, opens a locked door leading to another room to the right. A small chamber with a table, a chair and a shelf on the wall. He touches the shelf, pulls out a book and begins to write: “May 17, anno 1134 - the hospital now accommodates seven people. There are seven pilgrims with the destination Compostela. A couple from Le Puy (Note: Both of them will stay here for another day, the man is ill). A nobleman from Tours with servant. Adeline, Flore and Julien, siblings from La Romieu (note: 18, eleven and ten years. Strange how pleasant this place can be sometimes).”
And I see life in the faces of Adeline, Julien and Flore and I feel Julien's lungs filling with oxygen.
“Cafetería Palace” stands above the narrow front door of the restaurant Kurt recommended. I also immediately see the table on which the menu for the pilgrims of the Camino Francés is offered with chalk. On the side facing the road in English and on the side facing away in the national language. The restaurant is well attended. Answering the waiter’s questioning glance, I say: “Menu”, and I am led to a table that is still free. Next to it are people I’ve already seen. I recognize Wolfgang and Anna, both from Germany, and greet them after they have welcomed me before. Also the others at the table nod.
I immediately get a bottle of red wine and sliced baguette served in a basket and shortly afterwards also the starter, a salad with noodles and cheese. That’s a good start, I guess. I don’t like cheese, poke around in it and then leave the salad. I explain to the waiter that it’s not the quality of the food, but that I can’t eat cheese, and emphasize it again in Spanish. These are always the first words I learn in a foreign country. “Sin queso.” The waiter does not let up and brings me a new salad, this time without cheese. Wow, that’s what I call service.
At the next table, where Wolfgang and Anna sit, a girl gets up. It’s Gina, as I’ll find out later. Wolfgang and the others at the table ask me to come to them, with my bottle of red wine of course, which they intend to drink together with me. I don’t make a fuss for long, hinting at the waiter’s change of place and sitting down, the bottle of wine in my hand, in the empty seat next to Wolfgang. At the beginning it is difficult for me to fight against the attention that is given to red wine, but in the end I can hold out longer than my red friend.
We introduce ourselves. Rather, it is Wolfgang who takes over this task and introduces me to everyone. He probably felt obliged to do so because, like me, he speaks German, and I am also grateful to him for that. Chris is sitting opposite me, he is 59 years old and of the county Essex in England. To his left are Sherri, she’s 57, and Kristi, 50, both living in Oregon. Wolfgang considers it appropriate to mention age as well. At the head of the table is Steve, the 54-year-old Australian, and next to Wolfgang, he is 49, sits Anna, 44 years old, she also comes from Germany.
“Reinhard,” Kristi repeats my name, a little differently coloured, and she makes me understand that tonight will make do with the English language.
“You’re from Austria? A beautiful country, I've been to Salzburg and Vienna before.”
“Really?” I am astonished and immediately interrupted by Sherri, who also thinks Austria is beautiful. She even knows that we Austrians speak German, even if she has never been there before.
The waiter brings me the main dish, a fried chicken fillet with potatoes, and already the desserts for my table neighbors. Another waiter, as it turns out now the boss of the house, puts another bottle of red wine on the table. Sherri and Kristi confirm this with a loud applause and the rest of us agree happily. This is my third evening in Spain and I find it difficult to understand the hospitality offered to us pilgrims by the inhabitants of this region. I have just eaten a three-course dinner and drunk a bottle of red wine at a price I should be ashamed of. At home, I wouldn’t get more than the main course for that money. I just want to address my table neighbours when the glasses are raised at the table to greet the restaurant. I’m there with joy and almost break my glass.
My eyes fall on the table. Food leftovers wallow next to red wine stains and make the tablecloth almost a work of art. Next to it are crumpled paper napkins that underline this artistic aspect. Wolfgang blurts his nose into his napkin and contributes to the musical background of this ambience I admire. Only happy faces surround me and contact me again and again for moments. Especially these wordless looks take me and they give me a feeling of warmth and security. We use the remaining time until the taps at 10 pm for a stroll in the neighbouring old town of Pamplona.
I would like to say a few words about the meaning of the tattoo. At all public, church and city hostels on the Camino Francés, it is part of the pilgrimage to close the doors at 10 pm and not open them until the next day at 6 am. This practice used to protect pilgrims and is still used today; many private hostels also abide by this agreement.
It has become cold, but still there is life in the narrow streets of the old town. A Friday evening on which the transition from the busy part of the week to the short, relaxing days at the end of the week is celebrated here as in many other Christian towns and communities, even if, according to the Catholic Church, the week begins on Sunday. Many restaurants and bars adorn this part of the city. Two streets away we stand in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria, a massive Gothic church building. The gates are already closed. Sherri asks us to move together at the end of the steps to the cathedral. She takes a picture and we continue strolling through the old town.
Chris stops in front of a scoreboard with ticker and mumbles a little bit at 13 degrees. I also look at this board. Chris points to the ticker tape that counts down the countdown to the bull run that takes place every year in Pamplona. I mean, the last number is hours. Chris is thinking, then this event should already take place next weekend. There are two groups of numbers that are displayed. The second group of numbers shows 2014, we interpret them as the year, the first one shows 44. Wolfgang has also joined our discussion and we are now sure that it is days that are shown as the year. The Bull Run will therefore start on 7 July, so we have decided, and the bulls will come along this road.
“I think I read in Ernest Hemingway’s novel ‘Fiesta’ that Ernest Hemingway tells about this bull running,” I say to Chris.
“It’s quite possible,” he says in the affirmative and tells me that, although he knows Hemingway, he hasn’t read anything about him yet.
“Through this book, the Bull Run is also famous for the Americans. . .” Kristi gives me the floor.
“What about the Americans?” and drives us to move on. “It’s already 9:30, we have to go back to the Albergue if we want to sleep in a warm bed tonight.” Kristi underlines it with trend-setting arm movements.
“Do you think they’re so strict about curfew around here?” I ask.
“Yes,” answers Kristi. “After all, it is a hostel of the Brotherhood of James - Paderborn.” She says the name of Albergue long and smiles.
“We don’t want to take the chance,” Chris agreed.
“You’re right,” I say, “and it’s not fair to the other pilgrims who want to sleep when we’re in the room so late.”
The way back turns out to be shorter than expected and we sit on the stone bridge that stretches across the small river next to the Albergue. We enjoy for a short moment the splendid play of colours of the sunset and my view wanders to our feet, which dangle from the bridge. Here it was again, the feeling of security and warmth that I felt for the first time at dinner together. It is the Camino that is beginning to open up to me, a small thank you for the powers I have sacrificed to him over the Pyrenees and a small redemption for the pain he has inflicted on me, which I have endured without even wasting the spark of a thought of giving up. I had the feeling of being tested for the journey I was planning and was happy about it and now I am even more so.
We hug each other wordlessly and look at our feet together. The feet that will carry us hundreds of kilometres through northern Spain, and even if nobody says it at this moment, I am convinced that if a word were spoken about it, it would be the same for everyone: COMMON.
In the beginning
But let us first look back two days. It all started in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small town on the French side of the Pyrenees. In the Middle Ages, this place was part of the Kingdom of Navarre, now confined to the other side of the Pyrenees, the Spanish side. It rained all night. I heard it through the open window in the numerous waking moments of the early morning hours and now I am all the more relieved not to hear this sound anymore. With the night and sleep, the rain has gone. I am glad that nothing would have been worse for me at this moment than taking my path in the rain.
My bladder’s pushing me into the bathroom. Occupied. There are six people in the room and we have to share the toilet in one room, the washbasin and the shower with another three people in the next room. There’s nobody in front of the bathroom. So I wait between the locked door to the bathroom and the open door to my bedroom.
A young girl, it should not be older than 22 or 23 years, tender, with long blond hair, starts breathing again, or is it cleaning his lungs? I was watching it last night when I came back from dinner. At first I instinctively thought of a water pipe, because the young woman was sitting in bed with a young boy of her age. Unfortunately I had to realize that this was not a pleasure for both of them, but a technical achievement that helped their lungs breathe. The girl apparently suffers from a severe lung defect and the young man, I mean, it’s her boyfriend, helped her operate the device. I can’t understand what they’re saying, it sounds a little like a Scandinavian dialect. The bathroom is free now.
Almost at the same time as the girl and the boy I leave the Albergue, that’s how they call the pilgrim accommodation on the Camino, and say goodbye to Rosa, who owns this pilgrim accommodation with her six cats. It was my first one on the almost 800-kilometre-long Camino Francés, waiting for me, and my first mass sleeping room since my compulsory nine months in the Austrian Armed Forces. 30 years have passed since then and I have celebrated my 49th birthday, more or less, rather less. It’s May 21, 2014, and it’s just before 8:00. Most of the pilgrims starting today are already on the Camino. I buy another baguette and out it goes through the city gate, the first climb up to the Pyrenees.
In my mind, I’m going over the checklist again, all of it? I’m thinking of a book I’ve read to get me in the right mood for the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago de Compostela. In it, the author writes that he had forgotten to stamp his pilgrim’s passport. I get the creeps. I turn 180 degrees and take aim at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, back through the city gate and directly into the pilgrim office. There are only a few pilgrims left. The first stamp appears in my pilgrim passport and I am a little bit proud and above all glad to have noticed my mishap in time. I start my journey a second time and now a scallop is dangling from my backpack.
I have to pay attention to the markings, because I can no longer see any pilgrims, neither in front of me nor behind me. After about 30 minutes on the slightly uphill asphalt road I come across the girl with the clogged lungs and her boyfriend. They are accompanied by a man with a huge camera, she is almost as big as my backpack. I overtake the small group and take a quick step - my condition is great - further up. As I will learn later at a small stop, the man is from Danish television and films the way of the two. “It won’t last more than three days financially,” he’ll tell me. “The TV station is small. The girl and the boy will go to Burgos.”
It starts to drizzle and I put on my jacket. A lightly lined jacket against wind and rain. It’s strange that it’s just this jacket that will be with me all the time today and for the next few days, because I didn’t want to take it with me until the end due to lack of space. I finally decided to pack them at least for crossing the Pyrenees, after which I could give them to someone on the road so as not to have to drag them through sun-drenched Spain. It was supposed to be different.
The light drizzle turns into a shower and I put on my rain poncho, which doesn’t turn out to be that easy. As a real layman, as far as hiking is concerned, I didn’t put the rain cover ready to hand, but stowed it in the middle of my backpack and this turns out to be quite stupid.
Meanwhile the Camino and I have left the paved road. I have already caught up with several pilgrims who started before me and overtook some of them. The rain has subsided and is now completely over. I get warm when I walk and I pull off the rain poncho. A view to the sky: It has become brighter, I stow away the poncho on the outside of my backpack. The path has become steeper and I see a few pilgrims standing at its edge gasping for air. My home gives me a little advantage now. The topography of my community is very similar to this one. Not that I have done walks at home with full luggage, but you move over one or the other hill and also the completed swimming and running training pay off on the ascent to this mountain. With my 187 centimetres I have grown taller than most of my companions and apart from the twelve kilos on my back and the water bottle on my belt I only carry my normal weight with me, last time it was 84 kilograms.
I enjoy walking and already reach Orisson, a small private Albergue, which nestles into the terrain on the slightly separated hill at the end of the four kilometre long and steep ascent. Here I have a coffee with milk or, as they say, a café au lait, and a croissant. I count about 25 pilgrims. They form small units that probably knew each other before the journey began. A group of six, judging by the language French, spices up their coffee with cognac. The picture of a happy hiking day. I enjoy the coffee and the wonderful view of the valley below, which is decorated with white-grey cloud carpets.
I have to keep going if I want to reach Roncesvalles today. The steepest part of today’s stage is behind me, according to the guide. I follow a narrow road over a barren and rocky landscape, which today is crossed by a colourful band of pilgrims. It’s getting windy and colder. Some cyclists pass me. A glance at the sky reveals nothing good, dark clouds are approaching me. The flow of pilgrims has been holed; the distances between them have increased. Raindrops clapping on the asphalt. Time to get back under my rain poncho.
The rain gets stronger and strong gusts of wind whip me wet in the face. From the knees down, because so far my poncho reaches, it gets wet and cold. Now it’s happened what I was so afraid of. The thoughts of cold, wetness and the meaningfulness of my undertaking jump through my head, circle around and let the surroundings pass me by without noticing them. Meter by meter, until I notice something on the hill in front of me. It looks like a vehicle, a minibus, probably a bar. I have another goal in mind and this helps me to organize my thoughts and to suppress the questioning of my journey.
I feel a slight pull in my thighs. The first signs of deficiency are noticeable in my muscles. Four and a half hours constantly upward without real food supply, I also had no breakfast, take their tribute. I remember the magnesium tablets that I have packed for strenuous journeys. My thoughts shine through the backpack. Here they are, in the lower part of my backpack separated by a zipper, where I stowed my toiletries, in the larger bag of both. Just the little way to the bus. I can already see him clearly, I also see an awning. There I take a snack and the magnesium tablet, also a hot coffee, if there should be one, I think to myself and I am whipped up by the rain.
Finally, I have reached my previously set goal and there is hot coffee with which I not only warm myself inside, my hands also like this chubby feeling. Not many people have found shelter here. Shortly before me, a girl, not much older than 20, has arrived with his girlfriend, she is crying violently. I think the girl is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His girlfriend tells the man at the bar to call a taxi, which he does. An older woman tries to calm it down.
Two men, the owner of the bar and I try to stabilize the awning, which is now shaken by violent gusts of wind. Other people are not at this point in the Pyrenees, which is now increasingly becoming the focus of a doomsday scenario. The raindrops have mutated into ice crystals and now hit us from the side, fanned by a mighty storm that tears the awning out of our hands and whirls through the air. I am constantly deprived of the view of the rain cover that winds over my head, which releases me from the icy wetness. The Camino tries to throw me off, but something inside me orders me to go further and face this elemental force. It is also the most sensible thing to do in this situation. Deprived of the only shelter on this naked ridge, I decide, like the two men and the woman, to continue.
I look back to the girls cowering at the van and waiting for the taxi. The path rises like a shy horse. The water shoots almost like a stream over the rocky subsoil and is unstoppably fed by the frozen masses of water pouring out of the sky. I am a plaything of the forces of nature, but for some reason a serenity washes around me, I let the forces of nature act on me and it seems to me, I am even grateful for it. Forgotten is the cold that envelops my body, the wetness, the burning in my thighs, as if I am carrying the full attention of the Camino. I look around, do not see anyone and yet I feel a bond, a bond that I now underline with tears of joy dripping across my face on the Camino. For a short moment a thought, a memory in my head dissolves and immediately disappears again into the infinite twists of my brain. It was like a beautiful dream that you still feel in the morning, but as hard as you try and try to remember, it is free of pictures, it just radiates a beautiful, pleasant and comfortable feeling.
The weather calms down, rain and wind subside and the path becomes increasingly flatter. Somewhere here I crossed the border into Spain. I also come across some pilgrims again. They don’t know anything about a storm like this. It rained heavily, yes, you can see that in the mud we wade through, I hear them say. I try to avoid the deep places in the mud, and I am hindered from it by the trees, which are getting closer and closer to the path. Only after some time do I realize that the rain is now falling from the leaves and no longer from the sky. The trees are getting sparse and I am standing at the highest point, the Col de Lepoeder.
The next four kilometres lead me through a steeply downhill forest area. The floor is soft and smooth. Carefully I walk down, look for a hold on the slippery soil and always try to keep my balance, which is not always easy with the weight on my shoulders. I’ll pass two pilgrims. “Buen Camino,” we come out almost simultaneously. The greeting on the Camino, which I’m sure I’ve heard and said 50 times today.
It’s very quiet and lonely in parts, like now that I haven’t seen anyone for 30 minutes, and here it is again, that strange, I almost want to say weird sound that’s been following me for several minutes. A creaking, a knock, like hitting sticks. Woodworker? I look around, I don’t see anyone. It’s quiet, not a sound can be heard. I go on and I hear it again, this rubbing and tapping. Always short, sometimes in a row. I look up. A drop of water comes off a beech leaf and explodes in the middle of my forehead. That’s it, I found the cause. Here beeches and fir trees grow close together, in pairs, they cross in growth and the wind lets them strike each other from time to time, very effective.
A signpost writes “Roncesvalles - 1 km”. I am relieved, it is already 4 pm and it has been a long and strenuous day. I’m looking at a huge complex of brick and stone. The monastery of Roncesvalles, but where is the village? I ask one of the locals just passing by where I am here.
“This is Roncesvalles,” he explains to me with a French accent.
“This is Roncesvalles? Only the monastery”, I react a little unbelievingly.
“Yes, above the monastery there is a hotel and a restaurant. There are no more than 28 inhabitants here,” I get the answer in a mixture of English, French and Spanish. I look around again, take the stone steps leading up to the building and stand in front of a large wooden gate leaning only into the castle. With a strong pressure I push the gate back and look into a large room in which numerous backpacks spread out in front of me. I’m greeted by a tall, sporty-looking man. He asks me where I come from, first in English. After I made myself known as an Austrian, he explained to me in German that he and the other employees here come from Holland and do their services for a limited period of time. He directs me to the reception, where my data are recorded and I am assigned a bed for the night.
I stand in the line, which consists of eight pilgrims, and receive a note on which I have to give my personal details and a few questions to answer. My corners of my mouth bend slightly upwards as I read “by horse” as well as “on foot” or “by bicycle” when checking the question of means of transport. I doubt whether these forms are up to date. On horseback? As it turns out, I will have to revise this in the next few days. I am assigned the bed number 135 on the third floor and conclude from this that I am the 135th pilgrim to seek shelter in this monastery today.
“There is room for 180 pilgrims in total,” explains Gillis, the Dutchman from before, whom I now know by name.
“And it looks like we’re all gonna need those beds today. For emergencies, however, there is still the old 120-bed wing,” he continues, showing me the way to the accommodations, but first to draw my attention to the laundry room in the basement and the lounge on the ground floor and the kitchen for self-catering. I had to take off my shoes in a special room before. No one is allowed to enter the upper and lower rooms with their hiking boots.
The bedroom accommodates 40 beds, which are divided on each side into two beds with a breast-high partition wall. Each berth has a spacious locker and two sockets. The whole hall is very bright and bordered by wooden gables on the ceiling. So the third floor is the last floor in this building. On the other side of the bedroom a lift leads to the basement where there is the laundry room, which I first visit to wash my wet and muddy jeans, by hand, because the two washing machines are completely booked out. I find a heated drying room and wash my soaked T-shirt, shirt and socks. Who knows what it will be like in the next few days.
In the large courtyard of the monastery, which is now lit by the sun, a sea of hiking boots and pilgrims spreads out. I also use this spectacle to clean my shoes and then put them in the sun to dry. Here I sit, type on my tablet PC and review my first day on the Camino Francés.
It was a restless night. Although I was exhausted and tired from that first day in the Pyrenees, I was constantly pulled out of my sleep. First through the snoring orchestra, which declared the hall to be its playing surface, but from which I could largely escape with earplugs that I pushed deep into my ear canals. Then I was pulled out of my sleep by the unpleasant coolness that gripped my body, because the silk liner that I had to make do with did not give me the necessary warmth. For space reasons I had renounced a sleeping bag, because I had already imagined warmer temperatures for this season in Spain. I managed to get the necessary warmth by putting on socks, jeans and a T-shirt and throwing a towel and rain poncho over me. A stabbing pain in my left knee provided the crowning underpinning of this night.
At 6.30 am the hall was flooded with artificial light and I was released from the agony of that night. As if you were poking into an anthill, the hall began to live. People spread out in all directions. Some of them went to the laundry to get their washed and dried clothes overnight, the others were drawn to the laundry room and toilets. There were two toilets each for the female and male guests of this dormitory with 40 persons. Surprisingly, there were no queues, neither in front of the toilets nor in front of the washbasins. After one hour the hall was empty. Almost. I and three other persons stuffed the last utensils into the backpack and got ready for today’s part of the way.
As one of the last ones I leave my accommodation, this time the monastery of Roncesvalles, and now, after not quite two kilometres, I am faced with today’s first great challenge: a steeply sloping section, only about seven metres short, which separates the asphalted road from the marked route of the Camino Francés, turns out to be insurmountable for me. The first step that leads me down makes my left knee explode. A stabbing pain arises from the knee, goes up to my temples and turns my face into a grimace. I stand there petrified, relieve my left leg, bend and stretch it carefully. Not much pain. I put my leg in the ground again. Shit! Drops of sweat form on my forehead, not from exhaustion, no, from pain.
It seems to me like an eternity until I have overcome this short gradient. Thousands of thoughts flow through my brain. No thoughts of giving up, but of return, hospital and failure. I envy the pilgrims who now overtake me, who almost walk past me and shout “Buen Camino”. Self-pity rises within me and makes me break up almost at ridiculous seven meters of the 800 kilometer long Camino through the north of Spain.
Not yet, because with each further step in the plane the pain subsides. They are reduced to a tolerable level that allows me to continue my march at normal speed. It soon turns out that it is the downhill parts of the road that cause my left knee problems and increase the level of pain. I now take long and straight stretches at high speed. They make me feel less uneasy. I avoid putting my leg in the way and stressing it. So I can manage the first 15 kilometres quite well. I’m not the only one who limps. There are other problems with her limbs. Sometimes it rains slightly. The landscape is hilly and lonely, if it weren’t for the flood of pilgrims that I never lose sight of when the terrain is open.
In Bizkarreta, a small village, I use a parking place next to a snack for a small meal. Most of the pilgrims, who now number about 180 people, have already passed through here or are getting ready to go again. It is dry at maybe 17 degrees Celsius and the sun blinks shyly through the cloud curtain. Seven other pilgrims are joining me, three are on their way. I eat a piece of dry sausage, which I still carry from home with me, and a piece of baguette, with which I also cut open my lower lip, the crust is so sharp and my lips have become so sensitive. Is it because of the fresh air I am exposed to all day, or because of the water?
A woman, sitting next to me on the knee-high stone wall, draws my attention to the fact that I am bleeding. I can see it on the baguette I bit off. Red spots along the crust. I explain to her that I must have ripped my sharp crust, my teeth are fine. We chat a little, her name is Anna and she comes from Koblenz in Germany. My leg is bothering me and I don’t feel any special desire for entertainment. So I keep it short and don’t show any initiative for a serious conversation. All I get is that she’s out on her own. She’s on vacation for two weeks and wants to make it to Burgos. We’re on our way again, separated from each other.
I now remember seeing them in Bayonne at the bus station where I waited for the connecting bus to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and with me another 60 to 70 pilgrims. I notice women with long, black hair. Even if her hair isn’t quite as long.
It goes up again, up to a big hill, mountain would be too much said. Going up works quite well with the knee, but on the other side it will go down without a doubt and that worries me. I walk through wooded area and it is still dry, even if on the north side mighty dark clouds are pushing together. The stream of pilgrims has now spread a little. A long, straight climb gives me a clear view of the expected path. I see two girls. I can see from a distance that they must be younger people. They leave the beaten path and instead seek out the presence of the shrubs in the immediate vicinity. I conclude that there is a human need that they intend to meet and that they have already fulfilled before I can get to them. Two young girls from Canada, Ashley and Sara, as I learn in a conversation in passing.
Now I notice that I am above the average age of the pilgrims who started with me. I had assumed to belong to the younger circle of pilgrims. Now I see that only a few elderly people, many at my age and very many younger to very young people, such as Ashley and her friend, walk the Camino. I didn’t expect so many people of working age to take the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago. A route that, if you want to walk it to Santiago de Compostela, takes five to six weeks from one. A window of opportunity that most professions would not have been able to open. I am all the more surprised to meet so much youth and cheerfulness around me. I am suddenly surrounded by lightness, which replaces the constant attention to my offended knee. The most beautiful moment of the day.
A signpost shows seven kilometres to Zubiri, my stage destination today. Again it starts to rain, not particularly strong, but still so much that I slip under my rain cape. 20 minutes later the whole spook is over and isolated sunrays replace the raindrops. The scenario of the previous day is also repeated today. Rain poncho on, rain poncho off.
The further route to Zubiri leads me through dense deciduous forests, which are crossed by a wide pilgrimage path. Today I overtook many pilgrims with this knee, I think to myself and I am also overtaken by three pilgrims on bicycles, who announce their approach by ringing a bell. I must have been in the middle of the way, in my mind and not thinking that someone could overtake me.
The terrain becomes sloping and it happens what I feared: Pain. I try to shift my weight as much as possible to the right side of my body without much success. More and more often I stop, try to relieve, lift and stretch my knee, rub it, clench my teeth and move on.
I’ll run into Spaniards. Two men, two women. One of them lags a little bit behind the other. Our paths cross.
The man notices my limp. “I have pain in my left knee,” I say in English. “Especially when going downhill.” The man only speaks Spanish. He points to my knee and tells me to bend it and stretch it. It’s not possible, the pain is too much. He lowers his head and pulls up his lips a little on one side. I don’t speak Spanish, a few chunks of French, but I can extract something like “Ce n’est pas bon”, which means “That’s not good”, from his words. He has two trekking poles and insists I take one of them. I am a little coy, but I finally accept with gratitude.
“My name is Fausto.” A few words I can put back in order.
“My name is Reinhard,” I reply in French. It’s really better. I can take my weight off my left leg and relieve the knee. We catch up with the other three Spaniards, his wife Teresa and a couple of friends. Teresa speaks a little English. She translates Fausto’s fiercely gesticulating fights of words.
“It is imperative that you see a doctor in Zubiri. There is also a sports shop there. You need a stick if you want to move on.”
I cheer in such a way that Fausto understands it. Fausto and I take over the leadership of the group of five pilgrims. Fausto talks all the time and I hardly understand anything about it. The path is rocky and above all painful, despite the helping stick. Fausto always runs ahead and then waits again for his wife and her companions. Sometimes I’m in front of him, sometimes behind him. Suddenly the trees that border the path have disappeared and I look at a small settlement.
“Zubiri” I can see in the Spanish words next to me. Finally, I’m relieved. I give Fausto his trekking pole back and thank him several times by assuring him to go to the doctor and get me a stick. I am not waiting any longer for his wife and the couple, who are further back than I thought before. With a “Gracias” in the direction of the Spaniard the hiking trail leads me over a small bridge to Zubiri.
Right after I have crossed the river, I find myself in the centre of Zubiri. On the left side of the street, a sports store immediately catches my eye. Later, I guess. It’s 1:30 and I should get a place first. The first Albergue I see looks very beautiful and friendly from the outside. That’s all I’m gonna get to see of it. Two pilgrims have just been turned away, with the word “completo” they were directed by hand signal towards the main road. I’m following them.
The place is not very big, according to the guide it has 420 inhabitants. But it takes a long time and it still takes us to discover the hostel. It is laid out in bungalow style and has two bedrooms with twelve bunk beds each, thus offering space for 48 pilgrims. The bathroom can be reached via the courtyard and separates at least the shower cubicles of the sexes. For eight euros per night it’s quite reasonable. I’ll ask the man at reception for a doctor. He points me in the right direction, looks at the clock and moves his right hand back and forth to indicate that he is not sure if there is anyone else there at this time of day. I decide to shower later and humble on good luck in the indicated direction along the main road.
I pass a school, a restaurant, a bus station, until I finally reach the doctor’s practice after about one kilometre. The door opens and I enter. Behind the reception counter I see a girl; otherwise nobody seems to be here.
The young woman says “Hola”, I reply “Hola”. She has long blond hair, is about 1.70 tall and slightly chubby. She soon realizes that her mother tongue can’t do much now, she searches for scraps of English words right to the last corner of her brain and never manages to lose her smile. Finally, she asks me to sit down. The doctor is out of the house, but is expected back any moment, she explains to me.
It’s funny how difficult it is to find the right one in a room full of empty chairs. I succeed the first time I try, I rub my knee and wait. After about 15 minutes, a man and a woman enter the practice with the usual “Hola” and disappear into the adjacent room. That should’ve been the doctor, I guess. I’ll wait another ten minutes. The man leaves the building and I am called to the practice. Uh-huh, the doctor is a woman.
I enter the treatment room and am greeted with “Hola”. My first impression is good. She has medium-length dark blond hair, a very feminine figure, medium size and looks very well-groomed, which further enhances her attractiveness. Your voice is pleasant, but we have this problem again with understanding what is said. Now I regret very much not speaking Spanish. We agree on sign language and I point to my left knee. I take off my shoes and jeans and lie down on the couch, which is instructed by hand signals. The doctor moves my knee in different directions and looks for reactions in my face. I try to support them with my facial expressions. She smiles slightly, I am probably not the first pilgrim who has taken a seat on this couch. Her eyes are green and are emphasized by a discreet painting of her eyelids. The eyeball is brilliant white and is not streaked with red veins. I once read that the purer the eyeball is, the healthier the human being. Her eyebrows are dark, but not black. This suggests that her hair color is of natural origin. I like looking at her face.
She’s telling me to get up and dress. My knee needs a few days of rest, she tries to make it clear to me and I tell her that this is not possible. The doctor finally gives me an injection for the acute pain and prescribes tablets for the next few days. She tries to tell me that the pharmacy is 200 meters into town on the left side of the street and only opens at 5 pm. I would like to thank the girl at the reception and go back to the Albergue, this time without any knee problems worth mentioning. More than two hours till the pharmacy opens. Enough time for personal hygiene and other concerns.
It is now shortly before 5 pm and the Albergue is filled to the last bed. I don’t know anybody. No, I recognized Pedro, a 26-year-old Brazilian. He also has problems with his legs, but is afraid to go to the doctor. The contact to the other pilgrims is still limited for the time being.
I get the prescribed tablets from the pharmacy and continue to the sports shop. A small shop, just a room maybe ten by ten meters. A young man, he speaks very good English, recommends a trekking pole, which he has on offer for 15 euros. I’ll take it and have a look around the trekking sandals. I lost mine when I arrived in Paris. Well, one of them, I disposed of the other. Again I am lucky and get a pair of Teva sandals for only 39 euro, much cheaper than at home. I would have expected everything, but certainly not that I would get brand shoes cheaper in a sports shop in the middle of the province, which is run through by pilgrims from all nations, than at the biggest online retailers. The man is really nice and I also buy a bandage for my knee from him, which I will not wear the next day, however, because it narrows me in the movement too much.
For dinner we have half a grilled chicken with French fries. The restaurant is friendly, the service is nice, there is a WIFI connection and I have a power socket next to the table for my tablet PC. I edit my pictures of yesterday and today, upload them to my website and start writing. After three hours, a good and sufficient dinner, one and a half litres of beer and a new impetus for tomorrow, I set off for my sleeping chamber.
Today I plan to go to Pamplona or even a little further. My breakfast consists of a piece of baguette left over from yesterday, fresh water from the tap, which you can drink here without hesitation, it tastes only a little of chlorine, and a tablet.
I’m not sure if the pills I’ve been prescribed are supposed to fix my knee or just relieve the pain. I will take them three times a day, starting with breakfast, then at lunch and finally after dinner. Yesterday’s injection lost its effect and I am shuffling through the Albergue until I have finished my toilet, packed my backpack and had breakfast.
It drizzles easily when I march out, not the last one today. At first I concentrate on my knee and I am very happy that I have pilgrims in sight and do not have to worry about the signs. With a trekking pole and tablet you can march quite well, apart from the weather. It starts to rain more and my rain poncho has to come back. Pilgrims have gathered in a small covered place and look questioningly to the sky. I’ll join them and make them like me. Some people I remember. There are again the two older ladies from Germany, whom I have already seen in the monastery of Roncesvalles. I also recognize Pedro and Anna and there is Wolfgang, with whom I exchanged a few words on the way across the Pyrenees. Like a first, timid touch when you get closer to someone, that’s all it is, but it takes away a little of my astonishment in this remoteness, far from home and the familiar.
I hear no signs of the sun making its way through the dense network of clouds and walk on. Next to me are only a few buildings that show me the way. It rains sometimes heavier, sometimes lighter, but it rains all the time. I leave the asphalt-covered road and the waving houses behind me and now walk into the field, as the Camino Francés with its yellow arrows and blue shell paintings shows me. They are everywhere, at any crossroads or junctions and every time the path divides, they show me the right way, the way to Santiago de Compostela.
The signs lead me along a small stream that winds its breath in narrow paths embedded in an area decorated with deciduous trees. I am constantly struck in the face by the hanging branches decorated with wet leaves. It is a real challenge not to slip on this smooth ground softened by the rain, to relieve my knee at the same time with the stick and to pay attention to the hanging branches to my head.
“Shit”, a branch didn’t just gently run through my hair and took off my poncho’s hood. I grab the scratched part of the branch on my head a few times. No blood, I’m moving on. An old, arched, stone bridge gets in my way. A yellow sign asks me to go over and change sides. I look around and I realize that I am completely alone. I’m transferring. A blue shell on a stone leads me to a narrow path on the left and right, covered with tall grass and probably worn out by pilgrims’ feet. In the distance I can now see two people, two pilgrims. I mean, knowing her. The distance to them is decreasing and I think it could be Fausto and Teresa. I am a little short-sighted, but I do without glasses because I have heard that people become farsighted in old age, and so it should then balance itself out again, even though I know that you are not allowed to see it in this way.
We’re about 20 yards apart. The man looks around. It’s Fausto. He stops, as does his wife Teresa. “Buen Camino” our welcome. He is happy to see me, but I appreciate even more that I followed his advice and bought me a stick. I’ll also tell him I went to the doctor and got some pills for my knee. Or rather, I tell Teresa and she translates it for Fausto. We walk a piece of the way together. Both also started from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on 21 May. However, they did not sleep in the village itself, but in Albergue Orisson, which is already a few kilometres up the Col de Lepoeder. The crossing of the Pyrenees was therefore a little easier for them and they were not afflicted by the horrible weather I was confronted with.
After a coffee in a bar I leave them again and go on alone. It’s 10:30. Despite my knee problems, Teresa’s pace is too slow for me.
Now I meet pilgrims again along the route. The area is clearly arranged and now gives more insight into nature. A huge mound of earth piles up in front of me. In the distance I see people with backpacks making their way up the ridge in single file. Pamplona must be behind it. In part, wooden steps have been embedded in this earth massif. Probably to prevent slipping on the smooth soil at the steepest points. This stretch of road is extremely hard on my knee. Constant ups and downs.
Finally I walked around the ridge and now I am on an asphalted, narrow road downhill. After a few bends I see houses. It should be Villava, but I do without a look in the guide.
Once again a bridge leads me to the place, which immediately unfolds, around a narrow alley, which strikes straight into the ground. Old walls surround me and show me the direction with yellow arrows. The alley becomes a road on which vehicles move. The road gets wider and wider and the traffic gets denser and denser. Pictures of scallops show me on sidewalks through the city. I look around. Many people romp along the sidewalks and cross the crossroads. But I see no one with a backpack, no pilgrims far and wide. I feel a little lost. Am I on the right track? Did I miss a turnoff? I haven’t seen any signs either for quite some time, now I remember. It’s not raining anymore and I decide to rest here to eat something. It is 1.00 pm and a bench next to a supermarket invites me to sit down. The sun is blinking through the clouds and I stow away the rain cover before I get over my dry sausage and baguette, which I bought at a bakery in Zubiri in the morning.
Now that I can finally relieve my knee, the pain starts to spread all over my leg like wildfire. Where are my pills? I should have gone to lunch earlier. The effect of the morning tablet has already evaporated. I need one right now. How long will it take for it to work? A multitude of thoughts flows through my head and they all lead only in one direction, in the direction of my left knee. I find it less painful when I stand, I notice and so I eat my lunch standing up. I keep looking for fellow pilgrims. Nobody. It occurs to me that when I first came to town I saw two hostels. Probably the others will spend the night there. But not everyone and I finally reject this idea.
Eaten enough, I decide to move on. I have to watch out for a signpost, it flashes in my head and there I can already see a yellow shining arrow leading me away from the main road. I follow his instructions and am led through narrow street canyons until I reach a river, over which a bridge stretches far beyond the boundaries of the river. A sign that the river has no control over its weight and can be very moody at times. But the water shows me a picture of joy, because at the other end of the bridge there are two men. Nothing special, you would think, if they didn’t have that huge piece of luggage on their back. Pilgrim, I’m on the right track.
I cross the bridge and meet Manfred and Karl. Both come from Massenbachhausen in Germany and are on the Camino like me since Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. I guess they’re a few years older than I am. They make a fresh, strong impression, are one head smaller than me and also look like real hiking fellows.
“I am Reinhard and come from Austria,” I face them. Now that they too have introduced themselves, I would like to reiterate to them my final decision to go as far as Pamplona today.
“But this is Pamplona,” Manfred says.
“Really?” I’m a little amazed, but even more delighted at my aching knee. Karl has his guide to hand and I can see on the picture that Villava is a suburb of Pamplona and merges seamlessly into this city. Karl points his index finger at a hostel. This one is only 200 meters from here and is said to be very pretty. It is led by the Brotherhood of James in Paderborn. It’s as if I hear bells ringing and my mouth forms into a smile. Had I not met them, I would have passed Pamplona, a city of almost 200,000 inhabitants.
“We walk a bit longer,” says Manfred.
With a “Buen Camino” the two leave me and I hope that they have heard how my knee thanked them. The turn-off to the left leads me into the centre of the city and after a few metres I see a secluded building with the inscription “Albergue Paderborn”.
I will be received by Doris and Kurt in my mother tongue. Can it get any nicer? In my mind I thank Manfred and Karl again and enjoy the coffee I get from Doris when I take my data for statistics or whatever. She’ll show me where I sleep today. This time, as far as possible, by gender. Three bunk beds are in the room assigned to me and only one bed is occupied. So I can choose where I want to lie and decide spontaneously for the lower bed in the bunk bed next to the window.
I use the early afternoon to get my laundry in order. I am talking to a couple I met on the way to Zubiri. I noticed it because it has some kind of child trailer for its little son. A covered trailer, intended for attaching to bicycles. Only that the two are on foot and the rods serve them for pushing or pulling the vehicle. You’re trying to tell me it’s not your son, it’s your grandson.
“You gotta be kidding me,” I say a little amused.
“You’re not the first person on this trip who doesn’t believe us.”
“I guess you’re only 40,” I say to the woman.
“42,” she replies briefly.
“Our Patrick is six years old and I am 46. By the way, my name is Walter and my wife, you recognized that correctly, we are a married couple, is called Sybille.”
I don’t know what to say. They explain to me how it came to this circumstance that I can talk to them here in Pamplona, but they do not go into their true motives. I respect that and don’t ask any more questions. I also meet Daniel, a 22-year-old student from Bonn, Germany.
“Bonn,” he said when I asked him if he had also started from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
“You’re not serious,” I say now. “You marched off in Bonn?”
“Yes, I’ve been on the road 66 days already. I interrupted my studies because I felt the urge to go to Santiago de Compostela,” the young man smiles at me.
Crazy, I imagine. I think I’m something special because I’m trying to walk the whole Camino Francés, and the guy’s already wandered half of Germany and all of France. I suddenly feel very naked. I am even a little happy when Kurt, the guardian of the hostel, interferes in our conversation. After a small update of his tasks concerning Albergue, he recommends a restaurant that offers inexpensive and, as he says, very good menus for pilgrims. He marks the spot on a map that he kindly hands over to me. I thank him and assure him to go there tonight. Little by little Paderborn fills up.
Later in the evening I will have made new friends, sit on the bridge at the back of the Albergue and let my feet dangle from it.
A crowd of people floods the city embedded in the lush greenery. Many move back and forth, walk along the overcrowded streets and partly disappear into the dark alleys, scattered like a spider’s web. Others, on the other hand, bring wheelbarrows to offer their goods for sale at the numerous stalls nailed together with unplaned boards. In the middle of them stands Adeline with Flore and Julien. They have arrived in Pamplona, the capital of the kingdom of Navarre. All yesterday and this morning they were on their way after leaving the hospice near Roncesvalles. A time of solitude and wetness. It had rained all day and all night. Only for a few short moments did the sky close its floodgates and then open them even further. The three children are standing at the market square enjoying the sun’s rays, which are now so strong that you can almost see the escaped, frightened souls return to their bodies and begin to live again.
At a visible distance from Adeline, Flore and Julien, a man is leaning behind a wooden shack. He is standing in the market so that he can see the three at any time, but is not even noticed by them. It is a tall, gaunt man with long blond hair, a bag over his shoulders and his right hand encompassing a wooden, long object with a pointed and iron-clad formation. His glances literally bore into Adeline’s flesh.
Two men pushing a wheelbarrow in front of them push Adeline and the two children aside. The smell of spoiled cabbage and rotten pig feet penetrates their noses and makes the feeling of hunger, which has spread more and more over the last two days, disappear abruptly. The stench is attached to the hairs inside their noses and will rob them of their desire for food for the next few hours. Julien spits on the ground and Flore buries her face in Adeline’s dress, whose pair of eyes are directed at a crowd of people on the other side of the square.
“Are you thirsty?” Adeline asks in a calm voice, without moving her head towards the children.
“Yes”, says Julien. “I can’t even spit properly anymore, my mouth is so dry,” and spits on the floor again to demonstrate to his big sister how ridiculously small his spitting results are, almost invisible. But Adeline’s head remains fixed on the crowd and doesn’t pay tribute to Julien’s acting. Only Flore lifts her head out of Adeline’s dress and looks at Julien, who continues to indulge his spitting skills.
Laughter now penetrates more and more into the most tortuous corners of the square. Julien interrupts his spitting tirades and looks together with Flore in the direction of the cheerful hustle and bustle. However, the two do not overlook the wall of human amusement built in front of them. Only Adeline follows the hustle and bustle, in which a donkey is led around the well, with suspicion. A woman and a man sit on the animal, both naked. The man is upside down, holding the donkey’s tail in his hands, with his back to the woman.
“What’s happening there,” Flore urges her big sister.
“Lift me up,” Julien throws in and stretches out his arms to Adeline.
“A man and a woman ride a donkey. It looks like the other people are having fun with it.” Adeline averts her gaze as excrement falls on the pavement as someone holds the tail up. A woman picks up the still warm legacy with her bare hands and throws it at the man with verve. Most of it falls to the ground again, but not without leaving a slimy trace on the man’s face. The spectacle repeats itself.
Bells are ringing from a nearby church. The ringing penetrates Adeline’s ear. She embraces Julien and Flore’s hands and pushes them away from the square towards the striking of the bell with the words “There is fresh water”.
The alley becomes narrower and it smells of faeces. The sunlight no longer penetrates to them and the screams of the people are hardly perceptible. The sound of the bells has stopped and Adeline tries to find her way with her memory. She enters, holding her brothers and sisters by the hands, a small square, not larger than 70 cubits, which breaks through the left side of the houses and is also shunned by the sun’s rays.
Three figures startle from the corner right at the beginning of this square and approach Adeline, who only now sees the men. She instinctively presses Julien and Flore firmly to herself, the blood throbs in her veins and a scratching, rotten-smelling voice penetrates her ear.
“Behold, my friends, an envoy of the Order of Mercy comes to us. Do you have jewellery with you, my sister?” The mouths of the other two men become crescents pointing upwards and release brown to black tines. The three of them now laugh and force Adeline into the corner of the square with their movements. One of the men snatches the children from her and holds them both. The second nestles against her back and crosses his arms between himself and Adeline. She feels his rough and wet tongue on her neck. Adeline steps with her legs towards the third man, who, defending himself effortlessly against the kicks, moves closer and closer to her. Adeline looks into his bug-eaten face, with a tongue moving from left to right over brown tooth fragments. Flore begins to cry, while Julien buries his teeth in the hand of his tormentor and is robbed of his senses with a fist punch. Adeline feels a steel hand squeezing her left breast, another hand grasping the dress between her thighs, and the man’s saliva dripping from her back onto her neck. She keeps her eyes closed and can’t see a piece of wood hitting the man at her temple on the back. The bone bursts and the eyeball dangles from the orbit. The man goes to his knees. A blow that came so violently and noiselessly that the man in front of Adeline and she herself haven’t even noticed it yet. The legs of the man who has nestled to her fail due to a hard blow in the back and he also sinks to the ground. Immediately the iron tip of a stick bores itself into the upper arm of the individual lying curved on the pavement. The man who is still holding Flore lets go of her and takes a quick step into the distance. Adeline looks into the eyes of a tall, slim, blond man who looks at her embarrassed. Nothing happens for a few minutes. All you hear is the wheezing and whining of the two injured attackers. Flore breaks this lethargy of silence.
“What about Julien?”
He still lies motionless on the ground, struck down by the punch of the now escaped guy. Adeline kneels down to her little brother, raises his head with her left hand and feels the scratched area on his left cheek bone with the fingers of her right hand. Tears drip on it. The blonde man says something Adeline can’t understand, and she looks up at him questioningly. The head in her hand moves. Julien comes to again.
“What happened?” he asks with a timid voice and the play of tears in Adeline’s face is accompanied by a beautiful and loving smile.
“We have to get away from here,” says the stranger with a strong accent, but in a language that everyone can understand now.
“Can you get up?” asks Adeline Julien.
“Yes, sure, there’s nothing wrong with me,” it comes back in surprise from the small, brave boy. Adeline grabs Julien and Flore by the hands and follows the rescuer into the dark alley.
Shortly afterwards they are standing in front of the church. There are only a few people crossing the square around it.
“Let’s go to the fountain over there,” Adeline says and walks straight towards it. Followed by Julien, Flore and the blond man.
“What is your name and where do you come from,” she asks her rescuer and still stranger as she walks.
“My name is Jan de Oddrrafn and I come from Rouen, the Norman Empire on the mainland, north of France.” Jan feels called upon by Adeline’s questioning gaze to tell a little more about himself. “Although we belong to England, most of the inhabitants see themselves as French. The marriage of the English queen Matilda to our Gottfried of Anjou did not change that. Imagine, he counted only 16 years at his marriage five years ago.”
“That indicates that Matilda probably has the reins in her hand,” Adeline says to him.
“Yes, and the people know that too, and there are many indications of a war,” Jan adds.
“A strange name, Oddrrafn?” Adeline intends with this question to lead the subject away from war.
“It’s a Nordic name, many Normans have come to this country over the Northern Sea for centuries and Oddrrafn means as much as raven’s arrow.”
“What does the name mean?”
“I’m not quite sure, I got it from my father, but he’s supposed to be moved by the fact that one of my ancestors pierced a raven from behind with his arrow after flying away. The arrow was faster than the raven.” Adeline notices a slight smile on Jan’s face. She replied timidly, saying to him that his accent was very strong, but that she could still understand him well. Jan’s corners of his mouth become wider, including Adeline’s, and she admires the clear lines on his face. Only Flore and Julien still look a little suspiciously at the tall Norman, who keeps his gaze directly on Adeline’s face.
“I am 21 years old,” Jan finally says.
“I’ll soon be 19 and that’s Flore, eleven years old, and Julien, ten.” Adeline looks again at the abrasion on Julien’s face. “And we come from La Romieu, a small farming village, and I, no, we are deeply grateful to you, my lord,” she adds. Jan nods slightly. Her gaze wanders from his blue eyes to his hair reaching to his broad shoulders, his dross-free chin and the slender figure to the bag on his back.
“Your master,” Adeline begins when she interrupts Jan.
“I am only a simple man, like most Normans in my homeland, do not say ‘Your Lord’ to me, please.
“Then we talk straight to each other,” Adeline affirms, bending over to the two children and smelling their backs.
“What do you have, yes, what do you have,” Julien and Flore say almost simultaneously.
“Jan, something smells so severe here as if someone’s digested food is sticking to their ass.” Immediately the little ones loudly defend themselves against any accusation. “I think it comes from your direction, Jan,” Adeline adds. Jan looks down behind him, a little bewildered, and sniffs his nose.
“Joie,” he says in a puzzling, questioning tone of voice. “Forgive me, I must introduce you to someone,” he continues, reaching for the bundle hanging over his shoulders. He holds it in front of him and pulls it apart with his arms so that Adeline can take a look inside. Cabbage black eyes, which are in the middle of a round face, shine questioningly at her. The small body is wrapped in a number of cloths, some of which have soaked up excrement and are now increasingly releasing their scent through the opening of the bag. Adeline cannot avoid briefly flinching, an instinct her nose evokes.
“Oh, my goodness, Jan? Who is that?”
“My daughter Joie,” Jan replies with a grin.
“She is practically still a baby,” Adeline says her thoughts out loud and Jan adds: “Yes, 16 weeks.”
“What are you doing here with her and where is her mother?”
“Her mother is dead. Joie and I are on our way to Santiago, like probably her, too, as I can see from the embroidery on your pocket.”
“Yes, but we should first take care of Joie,” Adeline brings the chat to an end and lets actions follow. She grabs the baby, takes it out of the bag and goes with Joie towards the fountain. The others follow her. She asks Jan to fill the bucket with water as a man in a brown frock approaches her with the words “Hold on.” Jan lifts the bucket onto the bricks of the well and, like Adeline and her little siblings now, looks towards the approaching man.
“You will not be so foolish as to waste this water for cleaning your belongings,” he looks briefly at Adeline with the child in her arms, “for washing. Many have already been pilloried in this city for minor crimes.” The clergyman pushes the bucket back into the well. “Follow me,” he asks the pilgrims in a harsh tone and they follow him through the huge wooden gate into the interior of the church. There he asks them to take a seat right after the entrance.
“I am Father Matteo and servant of the Priest of Santa Maria and of the Kingdom of Navarre. Where do you come from,” the Father said to Adeline in a quiet tone.
“From La Romieu,” she replies.
“Is that in France? I saw the sign of the Brotherhood of James on your bag,” Matteo added, before Adeline could answer.
“Call me Father Matteo,” the priest interrupts.
“Father Matteo, I think we have been on the road for 14 days,” Adeline continues.
“You don’t look like a Frenchman to me,” Matteo now turns to Jan, “and I can’t see any sign of a pilgrimage in you either. What connects you?”
“I am a Norman,” Jan replies and confirms to him that he also makes a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James.
“And this is Joie, his daughter, we met for the first time here in Pamplona,” Adeline Jan concludes.
“I don’t know how it is with you Normans, but you, my child,” eyed Adeline, “should know that it is strictly forbidden to wash your clothes or yourself at a public fountain. I know that it is also punishable in France,” says the priest.
“Yes, but,” Adeline sets in and the clergyman interrupts her immediately.
“Enough said. I bring you water and I allow you to, here in the church ...,” he searches for the name of Joie, looks around asking for Adeline and receives the word he is looking for through Jan, whereupon he continues to “... clean and wash Joie. You’d better wash the towels down by the river.”
After a few minutes, Father Matteo returns with a bucket of water in his right hand and a jar filled with water in his left. He puts the bucket in front of Adeline and calls Julien and Flore to him.
“Here, drink, you must be terribly thirsty, not a word comes over your lips.” Julien is the first to bring the jug to his mouth and then passes it on to Flore. The jug makes the round. After a short while, during which everyone was supplied with water and Joie was freed from her excrement, it became loud in front of the church.
“These fools,” Father Matteo returns to the church, scolding. “They have been driving these poor creatures half a day through the city. I cannot understand why people feel so much joy in the suffering of other people.” Jan now addresses himself to the clergyman.
“What is their offence?”
“As far as I know, coitus. She cheated on her husband and is therefore punished. You must know that it has always been burned into the minds of these people that men can betray their wives, that it is even a good custom, but vice versa it is a serious crime.”
“But why is a man also sitting on a donkey,” Jan wants to know from the father.
“His stupidity is punished. He has allowed his wife to betray him. He is too weak to keep his wife in check. She ridiculed him and he sits upside down on the donkey, holding the tail of the animal in his hands.”
During this conversation Julien sneaked out the door to watch the hustle and bustle. The elevation in front of the church, formed by steps, gives him a good view of what was going on. He sees two naked people on the back of a donkey. The animal is now led by the crowd in Julien’s direction. He can hardly recognize the figures on the donkey, smeared with excrement and blood and his head lowered. Julien shrugs when he realizes that it must be a female figure in the running direction of the mule. It is the adipose tissue, the two forms on the person’s chest. He knows about the forms of the female sex. But these frighten him. The left breast is torn open and lets the nipple hanging on it dangle in the trot of the donkey. The blood around it is already stuffy and mixed with excrement. Julien is just pinching his eyes together as a hand grabs his neck and gently drags him back to church.
“This curious little boy.” Father Matteo smiles, admonishing Adeline and Jan to take care of him. “Stay until the pack out there has moved on. Then go down towards the river. There you will come across the monastery of Santa Maria. It is still under construction, but you will have a place to stay for the night and a modest meal. Say that you come from me.” The priest mumbles a little and continues inside the church, where he disappears behind a door.
After the noise on the square in front of the church has stopped, the small group, led by Jan, starts to move. It is still early afternoon and Adeline presses Joie’s face against her breast to
protect her from the blazing sun. Julien and Flore jump ahead, spinning in circles again and again to see if Jan follows them. A huge complex of stones and mortar spreads before their eyes.
People wander from one side to the other, hoist large beams against the sky by means of ropes and provide for lively life in an otherwise rather quiet part of the city. The five decide to go
first to the river at Adeline’s behest to clean themselves and their clothes. The water is good, Father Matteo whispered. Even before it is really dark, they are back at the monastery
construction site. A boy stands in their way.
With “I don’t know you, who are you?” he underlines his importance in this place. He wears leg warmers made of linen that reach under his knees and end with a cotte worn over it, a slip dress made of linen that is wrapped in a rope in the hip area. His hair reaches slightly under his neck, is strongly wavy and decorated with wood shavings. His face is tanned by the sun, a bit cheeky and as dirty as his bare feet.
“Who wants to know?” Jan replies.
“My name is Marlon. I’m a friend of the priest to Navarre and I’ve been instructed by him to see what’s right here. So I ask you again: “What are you doing here?”
“Ho-hum,” Adeline says, “If you are a friend of the priest, then we are absolutely right with you. Father Matteo has promised us accommodation for the night.”
“Father Matteo, do you say? It’s bad, that big proliferating nose in his face.”
“You are a clever little boy,” Adeline replies. Father Matteo is about as tall as me, his belly stretches the frock over it, his forehead reaches far back over his round face, and his nose is not much bigger than yours.
“It’s good, you know him. Forgive me, but there are a lot of servants hanging around.” As soon as Marlon has spoken the words, Jan grabs him by the shoulder.
“Watch this, I will show you ...” Adeline intervenes and makes it clear to the young man with friendly words that they are looking for a place to spend the night. Marlon apologises again and emphasises that they are absolutely right with him.
“You can rely on me,” he reaffirms as he guides the five to the back of the building. Marlon also gets them something to eat and chats to them all the time. He tells them that he actually comes from France and has now been in charge of the construction for a year, together with the prior, of course, his friend.
“I have protected the prior from thieves, you must know,” he continues. “I saw some men offering wooden beams for building and carrying some of them away at night.” Flore and Julien listen with excitement, while Jan and Adeline are less and less able to take pleasure in his fibbing.
“An imaginative boy,” Adeline whispers to Joie and embeds her in the warm and dry straw. Julien still has the picture with the fluttering nipple before her eyes and flees to Adeline, who leans next to Joie in the straw. He looks at the little creature with the dark hair and the coal-black eyes hidden under her lids, feels the little hands with his index finger and watches her sleep a little until he falls asleep even after this eventful day.
At 6.30 am Kurt lights up the bedroom and asks us to get into the corridors. With me it still takes a little longer and I also mean to hear and feel in the movement of the bed that Wolfgang, who lies above me, turns his body again against the wall that donates darkness. It is not sleep that keeps me in bed and not tiredness. They are thoughts that need to be put in order, and I do not yet feel an increased urge to meet my morning needs. So I leave the others the right of way.
After a for me sparse breakfast with coffee with milk and a piece of dry baguette from the day before, I say therefore sparse for me, since sandwiches with jam and cheese were served and both are not among my food sources, I now meet Wolfgang, Chris and Steve as well as the others from yesterday evening before the Albergue Paderborn.
“You don’t know Gina yet,” says Wolfgang, pointing to a girl who is about to be swallowed up by her backpack, which she is trying to get on her back in this moment, bent forward. Gina turns a little to the side and raises her head to me. I walk towards her, a girl with short black hair who is obviously struggling with the size and weight of her backpack. I look into two coal-black eyes as our fingertips of the right hand touch with the intention of shaking hands. An electric shock passes through my body and I instinctively pull my hand back. After a “wow” on both sides, because Gina also felt this blow, we both have to laugh and finally shake hands without any further incident.
“I always do some gymnastics in the morning after getting up. Probably my shoes have become charged with it,” Gina tries to explain this reaction.
“Yes, I also stretch myself in the morning with a few relaxation exercises. It was probably too much after all,” I add and get into a chat with her, concentrating on the English language. It will also be the case that the further conversations in the group I am now in will be in English. For the sake of simplicity, I will not mention it every time. I meet compatriots and German-speaking pilgrims in the German language when they identify themselves as such.
“I am happy to finally get to know you. You left yesterday already earlier.”
“Nice to meet you too, we met for a moment before I went to church.”
Gina has an enchanting smile that can capture you and which you are willing to let happen. I learn from her that she comes from Chicago and is 32 years old. It’s time to leave.
It is cloudy but dry. The first one and a half kilometres lead us through Pamplona and our progress is regularly interrupted by traffic lights and a cycling race that is taking place right now. During one of these involuntary breaks Gina shows me our way today in her travel guide.
“This is the Alto del Perdón, we have to go up there. Then we go down to Puente la Reina. It’s about 25 kilometres and we want to spend the night there. What about you, Reinhard?”
“I, better said we decided last night to go together for the next few days. I don’t think it will hurt my knee either to approach the Camino a little more calmly.” After a few clarifying words concerning my knee, the road to be crossed has been cleared and we continue walking.
Before we start the ascent to the Alto del Perdón, we pass through a small village. From two busses a crowd of hikers streams towards the mountain. They have only light luggage and I suspect that they are only day tourists who want to climb the mountain. I hope so because otherwise there will certainly be bottlenecks at the hostels in Puente la Reina. A circumstance that I am now trying to explain with my companions and that unconsciously makes our steps faster. The sequence of Kristi’s steps and mine are identical in speed and we have set ourselves a good deal apart from the rest of our group. Only Steve, walking alone, is still within sight of us. Kristi is a cheerful person, as I quickly notice in her youthful facial features. The straw blond hair reaching down to her neck is covered with a baseball cap. If she hadn’t told me yesterday that she was 50 years old, I wouldn’t believe it. Her olive shorts give me enough insight into her muscular thighs and calves.
“Do you like my legs?” She says after my looks, which have now become too intrusive, after all.
“No, yes, yes,” I say a little stutteringly.
“What now?” She wants to know and explains to me that she sometimes goes on extensive mountain hikes, and she still enjoys taking part in marathons. Not as often as before, but at least two or three times a year she doesn’t let it get away. She looks at me and visibly enjoys my embarrassment and the incipient transformation of my facial expression in astonishment for her achievements. I look for the right words, but I can’t find them and limit myself to “All Attention.” She smiles slightly and gets our slower steps going again. The surroundings are green and, as Kristi has just discovered, there are pea fields as well as wheat fields.
“Try it,” she asks me. “These are peas,” she wants to explain to me and gives me her hand. I loosen the pellets from the pod with my thumb, rolling them into the palm of my hand, and suck them into my mouth.
“What are you doing,” I hear my companion shout in amazement.
“I pluck out the peas.”
“You can eat them as a whole with the peel,” she teaches me. “The peel also tastes sweet,” and she consumes one to show it to me.
“I believe you, but you never know what chemicals are used to spray these fields.” I stress chemicals to keep them from eating the peel.
“Doesn't look like they were sprayed,” she replies, stuffing the next pea pod in her mouth.
It has become warmer and the sun comes out through the clouds. The first time correctly when compared to the timid attempts of the last few days, which were limited to a few hours. We come to a fork in the path, in the middle of which there is a bench on which some pilgrims, including Steve, have settled.
“Hello friends,” he greets us. I take the opportunity and let my jacket disappear into the packing bag, which I then attach to my jeans with a carabiner. So I also distribute the weight a little so that not everything over the rucksack rests on my shoulders. I already have slight problems with it and tie my hip belt tighter after I have smeared my forearms and also my face with sun cream during this hold. We only had a short rest because there is still a small village ahead of us before we finally go up to the Alto del Perdón. We want to use this for a coffee and a snack. Our group should then be reunited, because we see Wolfgang, Anna and Sherri already approaching.
The way becomes more difficult. The sun is burning in the neck now and the altitude difference is covered also with shorter steps. The long mountain ridge of the Alto del Perdón, the mountain of the winds, as I call it, as the crest of the mountain is covered with windmills, is already clearly visible. Lined up like on a string of pearls, they stand next to each other in small distances, several kilometres distributed over the mountain ridge. Like all other pilgrims, I use every opportunity to take pictures. Like now, this picture in front of my eyes.
In the for me almost unspeakable place name Zariquiegui with its according to the hiking guide 160 inhabitants we finally meet all of them during a small snack in a bar. In the meantime, many pilgrims or hikers have overtaken us, it is not possible to tell the exact difference today, and the next two kilometres we go up steeply in a goose march, following a narrow path. I walk this part of the way alone and depend on the willingness of the people in front of me when I want to pass them. I come across Steve and we climb up piece by piece, silent and wheezing. Steve points with his right hand at a stone from which a trickle rises.
“Here, according to tradition, the devil offered to drink to pilgrims when they denied God, the Blessed Virgin or at least Saint James, but of course they did not.
“Honestly, how do you know that?”
“Gina showed it to me today in her travel guide.”
“Thank you, Gina, for the lessons,” I think to myself, and I intend to look at the guide more often.
The expected strong breeze on reaching the summit is cancelled today. Only a light wind blows towards me, which doesn’t bother me any further. It’s almost 12 o’clock on the dot, as I can see thanks to the wristwatch I bought especially for this trip. I never wear a watch at home. In my apartment there is one on the wall that shows me when it is time to go to work, and in the office I also have one that tells me when it is time to go home again. I have an alarm clock, even if I am usually awake before it rings. What do I need a watch for when I go out with friends in the evening? Here on the Camino it is something different. This wristwatch is my only reference to time and I look at it. Not often, sometimes I even forget that I have it with me. But not now, because my knee starts to hurt like hell. It’s funny, after all the effort up the mountain, where I didn’t find it very stressful, now, sitting on a stone and letting it dangle down on me, it starts to sting and burn. The time allows me to take another tablet. I still don’t know, are these tablets against the inflammation, the strain or do they only make the pain bearable?
Besides Gina, Chris and Anna, who were the last of our eight-headed group to arrive, I also see other familiar faces such as Carola and Franziska, the two ladies from Germany. They are now also in a small group, a purely German-speaking group, with Daniel and Martin, whom I both met in Albergue Paderborn, and Sandra, a 21-year-old girl whom I have just seen. Also almost all the people who started individually and still don’t walk the Camino alone. I don’t know much about the other people on this mountain, but I like to be among them.
Wolfgang’s pain in his right big toe has become stronger and he is the first to descend to Puente la Reina, which is about 15 kilometres long.
“I’m slowly going ahead,” he says as he walks away. “The problems with the toe only occurred this morning. Without signs. I didn’t bump my toe. Nothing fell on it either.”
“It could be gout,” I had said to him. “We drank a lot of wine last night after all and it could be connected with it.” He smashed it off with a short nod of the head and decided to call his brother, a doctor, in the evening.
Steve slightly pushes me when a pretty young woman with long blond hair on a white horse reaches the plateau, followed by a slightly older gentleman on a brown horse. They trot back and forth on the level of the summit, but do not descend from their horses. I don’t pay any attention to them any further, because I am worried about the previous view of the path that will lead us down. Big stones form the underground and I mean to hear my knee desperately calling for help.
I start this descent together with Kristi and Sherri and already the first steps leave me behind. I can’t keep the pace of the two and try to give as much weight as possible to my trekking pole. Metre by metre I face this agony. Fight my way down on this stockpile of stones. Sometimes I scream out loud. People overtake me. My eyes and thoughts are constantly directed at the stones on the path and block the rest of the landscape. I move in a tunnel and hope to see light after every bend I pass through. With every step I take without thinking, my left knee punishes me with a boring pain. Sometimes I feel him sneaking over my neck to my temples.
Unnoticed, veil clouds have formed between the sun and me and the shadows have turned pale. Then I notice that there is coarse sand and pebbles under my feet and that my posture has changed to an upright walk again. I do not know exactly where I am. I am surrounded by man-high bushes and am looking for yellow and blue messengers to show me the way. After the next bend I step into open terrain and see two people with backpacks far in front of me. I also see a yellow arrow, slightly washed out and bleached by the sun, painted on a stone. I make contact with life again, thank you.
I don’t know who of my group is in front of me or behind me, but I suspect that most of them are in front of me. My steps tense up again and become faster. They are in line with my use of the stick. And the pain in my knee? “What pain?” I talk to myself and am happy that they have reduced to a bearable level.
The surrounding countryside opens up and the Camino now visibly travels through the country. My forearms, which are still barely tanned, are now spared due to a milky veil that has settled between me and the sun, and I am just overcome by the desire for a sip of water. The water bottle is still almost full. I remember having refilled it in the village with the unspeakable name. Also that I washed a tablet with a strong sip through my throat at the Alto del Perdón. I just notice that I can hardly remember the last half hour, the way down the mountain. I think about it. Wolfgang has already left a few minutes before us. Then Kristi, Sherri and me. The others only after me. I lost Sherri and Kristi on the descent. So they and Wolfgang should be in front of me and the others behind me. I still think about it and decide to go on, because I also think I can see Carola and Franziska in the two people I see far away in front of me.
It didn’t take long and I caught up with the two ladies. We greet each other with the usual “Buen Camino” for us pilgrims and exchange a few words until Franziska suddenly starts running. I look at Carola questioningly and she explains to me that Franziska used to be an active marathon runner and occasionally needs these runs to bring her body back into balance. “Yes, with full luggage,” she says before my question. I smile a little and Carola mentions that this is the second time she has walk the Camino.
“All the way from Saint-Jean?” I ask.
“Right,” Carola replies briefly.
“How does one get to walk the path twice?” I want to know from her. The twofold pilgrim takes a deep breath, waits a little, looks me in the eye and begins to tell.
“You know, Reinhard, the first time I walked the Camino Francés, it was five years ago and I walked it alone then, I was totally empty inside. Almost two years before it came to a divorce. You must know, I loved my husband very much and I think I still love him. Not like before, in a different way. We didn’t split into quarrels either. As you can perhaps imagine, he met another one, a younger one. We are almost the same age. My husband was only one year older than me. We were married for 24 years and have a common son from this marriage, Severin. He celebrated his 30th birthday last month. The sad thing about divorces is that you also lose friends. People you have loved all these years and who have also become a part of you. In my case, there are not many who have remained with me. What do couples want with a single, aging woman? In the beginning you see each other more often and you start to notice how the calls or conversations become shorter and shorter in case of a coincidental meeting. It hurts even more when you notice how your husband’s new girlfriend takes your place. I didn’t give them their happiness and lost the small circle of friends that I still had left. One and a half years after the divorce, I lost my job as well. The financial crisis that had just begun in 2008 with the Lehman bankruptcy.”
I speak to her with a “I can still remember it well” and immediately fall silent again so as not to interrupt her story.
“It was a small regional bank where I worked as a broker,” she continues. “The bank got into trouble and had to cut a large part of its workforce. I was 55 at the time and too old for new employers. This is the point where many fall into depression. You no longer feel needed. You start to blame everything you can for this situation, only you don’t look for the blame in yourself. The elevator I had climbed into led down. He skipped over every floor, nobody wanted to get on and I could not get off. I didn’t have the strength to push a small button. I think it was higher power that sent me to the Camino. What should I say much? The path that I walked then breathed life back into me. I was like a scrawny tree and the Camino supplied me with water. Man!, what did I cry along the way, but they were tears of joy, of happiness and they brought me back into balance. They just shot out of me and I was sure I had brought some bushes on the way to the green. I always had to apologize to the other pilgrims I met for the constant blubbering. Just as I helped the plants to live along the path through my tears, so the Camino helped me to live and I am unspeakably grateful for it. Today I know that life is a gift from God and that you must keep your body and mind healthy in order to live up to this responsibility. Today I walk the Way of St James again. Franziska asked me for it. She was afraid to go it alone and I like to go the way with her.”
I completely miss the images of the landscape for the last 20 minutes, but Carola’s words have taken up all my senses. The words have captured me and I look back at the path that cuts through the terrain on which I just walked, and again I don’t remember it. I look at Carola, her eyes are not wet, they shine and sparkle with clarity, in the midst of pure life.
“Do you feel the Camino?” she asks me and I answer with a hesitant “Not really yet.”
“You will feel him, I am sure of that. Everyone feels him, in his own way. The Camino lives and you move on something alive, like a baby in his mother’s arms. You long for the warmth and you feel it when it leaves you. As long as this feeling is with you, you will never get lost.”
We catch up with Franziska, who after her sprint has returned to a leisurely pace. But first Carola whispers in my ear: “I don’t tell everyone, I don’t know if I told anyone except Franziska and you, and I don’t remember the words coming into my mouth like they did just now, but I think they were looking for the way to you.” Again, with a little distance, she assures me that she is well today.
“My husband, pardon me, my ex-husband, took over the house on my return from Spain. It has become too big for me. Instead, he bought me a small condominium, a kind of terraced house with a garden and a view of the lake, in Konstanz on Lake, where I grew up. There I met old acquaintances from my childhood, like Franziska. Meanwhile I am retired, financially well secured and life has me again.”
I embrace them and can no longer close my tear duct around one or the other drop. Carola and Franziska give each other a little rest and I march on alone with a “See you.”
I hardly ever meet people. The group from the two buses must have only hiked up the mountain. Shortly before Obanos I see a man lying in a green area. It is Wolfgang. He gives the impression as if he had just slept while he was standing up.
“How are you,” I meet him, putting my backpack on the ground. He looks at the clock.
“Not particularly, my toe.” His shoe lies next to him in the grass. He grabs it and slips into it.
“Can I help you?” I ask him.
“No, it’s all right, it’s all right,” he answers succinctly and gets ready to go.
“Have you seen the others?” I still want to know and he denies my question. We still walk together through the place where a festival is in progress. It is Saturday afternoon and the time is well chosen. Veil clouds protect against the blazing sun and the temperature makes it pleasant to stay at this moving place. Disguised people hidden under big heads and dancing on stilts decorate the events. But I don’t stay here too long. My knee is noticeable again and I would prefer to be in Puente la Reina soon. I lost Wolfgang in the crowd. So I go on alone.
It is 2:30 when I read “Puente la Reina” in red on a white sheet of tin. Right at the beginning of the village there is an Albergue, guided in the style of a hotel. At the reception I find out that there are still enough beds available. There are pictures of the sleeping places and the rooms on the wall and I like what I see there. So I sit down on the small piece of grass in front of the building and wait. It doesn’t take long and Wolfgang shows up.
“The Albergue looks beautiful, even inside, there are pictures of it,” I receive him. He looks past it and makes it clear to me that he will sleep in a hotel today. He needs rest and some distance. I have to explain it to the others and he reaffirms that nobody has overtaken him.
So I sit down in the grass and wait almost an hour until the group arrives closed. After a short conversation we decided to stay overnight here. It was a good decision, as it turns out. We all stay together in one room. It is clean, well ventilated, the sanitary facilities have been renovated and with eight Euros it corresponds to the usual prices. For 13 Euros we get a buffet tonight, including wine and beer and of course water, if you want it. The food is so extensive and rich that it is difficult to decide for something. And beer and wine in abundance.
“Did you know that the city is translated as Queen’s Bridge?” Gina gives us lessons. I didn’t know and neither did the others.
“Puente la Reina means Queen’s Bridge?” I repeat.
“Yes, we have to take pictures of it tomorrow,” Gina calls everyone at the table.
Sylvie and Rod are also sitting at the table with us. Both are our age, apart from Gina, they didn’t know each other before and come from Canada. We get even closer tonight as we hear the rain crackle on the generously set window surface.