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  • Calista Ocean

From Irun to Zenaruzza

Those of you familiar with my blog know that I tend to focus on my internal journey. It will be a change for me to share my travels with you in a way that captures what’s going on in the world around me and also reflects the journey within. I hope you’ll bear with me while I find my writing voice again, and learn to post from the road via my phone.

What follows are the highlight of my first six days on the Camino Del Norte in Spain.

It was a short walk from Hendaye, France into Irun, Spain. However it was warm and humid, and I’d had little sleep in the hostel in Paris. So I was disheartened when I typed “Albergue de los Peregrinos” in Google and saw a message that said it was “closed permanently.” After almost an hour of searching, I discovered that the facility I was looking for had moved (not closed). I was tired when I arrived, but the joy of the hospitaleros (volunteers who staff the albergues) was contagious! It was the Feast of St. James! I was invited to join a celebration on the patio where I drank cidre (a Basque hard cider poured from high above the cup to add oxygen) and ate sandwiches, olives, and potato tortilla. The new location didn’t have hot water yet, but there were plenty of beds and lots of pilgrims eager to begin their walk toward Santiago. Some were planning to go the entire way, others just as far as they had time to go. I felt grateful that time is a luxury I have right now. Whether or not I make it to Santiago, I don’t need to return home to pay the rent and earn more vacation time. What a tremendous blessing!

On Day 1, I walked seventeen miles from Irun to San Sebastián. I anticipated being able to stop for coffee and snacks along the way, but there were few towns or mercados along the path that I chose with my companions from Spain and Sweden. Thankfully, they shared food with me as we hiked the strenuous pass over Mount Jaizkebel. We wandered through hilltop clouds which obscured the view at times, but it was an amazing day and a beautiful way to begin my journey.

Day 2 was a quiet. I walked by myself. My body ached from the long hike and steep ascents of the first day, so I stayed that night at a a private albergue near Orio rather than walk all the way to Deba. The food was home-cooked, and I enjoyed meeting others from Austria, Brazil, Belgium, and various cities in Spain.

Re-energized, I walked with a young woman from Austria on Days 3 and 4. We had time to see the Church of San Salvador in Getaria and to have coffee and pintxos (individual size snacks, usually on bread or skewered with a toothpick) before checking into the Albergue-Convento San Jose in Zumai. Our hospitalero there was outgoing, informative and multi-lingual. I learned that the albergue was a 400-year-old convent that used to house cloistered nuns. From Zumai, we chose the more scenic (and of course more strenuous) coastal route GR-121 to another private albergue in Anote. Stunning views made the climbs worthwhile! Then a broken bridge in Deba added two kilometers to an already long walk.

I decided to slow down and hike on my own again on Day 5. Along the way, I met and walked with some friendly English-speakers - an Australian couple, a woman from Germany, and a man from Canada. At the top of one incredibly steep hill, we all stopped in a shady spot for water and snacks. One of the men was eating a sandwich, which he was hoping to finish rather than packing away in his bag again. He lifted it toward me and told me to “tear into it”. I thought it was a bit odd passing a sandwich around like that. I’d passed around a bottle of wine with friends, but never a sandwich with strangers. He seemed pretty insistent though, so I took a big bite of it. What an awkward moment! I chewed on the cured ham and bread, and noticed the astonished look on their faces. In that moment, I realized that he literally meant tear into it, not bite into it. He tore off a big piece for me (including the end of bitten off). I apologized and we all laughed about it, but I spent the rest of the day alternating between feeling embarrassed over the misunderstanding and giggling about it. We all crossed paths throughout the day. I shared some of my food, and intrigued them with my Steri-pen which we used to purify some questionable water. We all shared dinner and wine and laughter with other companions at a restaurant behind the albergue that evening.

Today is Day 6. My feet and muscles are holding up well, and I’m surprised how much easier it is to carry my pack each day. However, a heat rash is spreading across my lower legs, so I decided to walk slower and cover a shorter distance. A young German couple accompanied me to the Monastery in Zenarruza. The 14th century gothic church is home to Cistercian monks who offer accommodation and dinner to pilgrims on a donation basis. I arrived at 10:00 this morning. The albergue didn’t open until 3:00 in the afternoon, but the monks were kind enough to let a few of us in early since it was raining. It was a restful day, which gave me time for writing. I attended mass at noon. I didn’t understand much since it was in Spanish, but I was familiar with the flow of the mass service. I wept. I don’t know why, but I just felt such incredible joy and deep sadness at the same time. I felt both a loneliness and a sense of communion with the world.

It’s also worth mentioning that Eli was here at the Monastery when I arrived this morning. He is the one person who has stood out most to me during the first part of my journey. I first met him and Black (his dog who he refers to as his amigo) at the albergue in San Martin (near Orio). They have walked from Barcelona, often sleeping in a tent at a church or near an albergue, since most will not allow him to stay with his dog. Each time I see him, my heart is happy and my pack feels lighter. He is pure joy! His youth and his genuine love for others expand out in all directions! He’s full of energy and talks more quickly than I can understand. And he’s always smiling - when he is teaching his dog tricks, showering in a spring alongside the road, or making fruit tea while he talks with others. More than forty of us sat on the hot sidewalk outside the albergue in Marlins-Xemein. Eli and Black appeared with three boxes of ice cream cones. He walked down the line and handed them out to the tired pilgrims, and then rounded the corner disappeared from sight. He joined a group of us for dinner that night, and was able to sleep at the albergue. I was delighted to see him one more time today, eating a snack on the steps of the church and playing games with Black. I don’t believe I’ll see him again on the Camino since I plan to rest in Gernika, but I’m thankful for his presence this past few days.

As of tonight, I’ve walked about seventy miles of my Camino. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way...

I enjoy staying at private albergues over the larger donativos (municipal, donation based albergues.) The privately-owned ones provide a more intimate setting for getting to know others, especially over a community dinner. The cost is actually comparable to the donativos, at least for me, since I tend to over-donate at the free albergues and then must still buy groceries or meals.

“Arriba, abajo” means “Up, down.” This phrase describes much of the terrain along this first part of the Camino del Norte. I joke that whenever I see a yellow arrow (waymarker along the Camino) at a junction in the path, it will almost ALWAYS point in the direction that is steeper - whether up or down.


There is a simplicity in waking each day to walk. It requires a day-to-day and moment-to-moment presence to navigate the muddy hills and pay attention to the waymarkers. My mind likes to wander off the path sometimes. When it does, I usually just get stuck in questions that I can’t answer right now, and may never be able to. Then I look up to see the beauty all around me and a yellow arrow that assures me I’m on the right path.   


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