Day 3: Basquing in National Fervour

Why can’t Australia have fun like they do in Spain? The festive atmosphere has taken a hold of this country and filled it with love and fun that is a contagion that quickly infects travellers, and certainly makes me envious. I loved San Sebastian when I first visited here when I was 21, and it seems I still do. The people party from whenever they feel like their first wine or beer, they stay up until they fall down, and they spend their siesta time between their split shifts basking and swimming at the beach. To be here now though, in August, has been a blessing, to let us truly see the character of San Sebastian at its best.

The festive season has brought the best of the best street performers to the beautiful coastal city, and throughout our day of roaming the streets, we witness incredible dancing, stunts, musicians, artists and even a man who is at least 50 showing amazing Pele-esqe soccer skills that enrapture anyone walking past. (I watch three fathers each with their daughters in prams completely mesmerized by him, like three schoolboys watching a sporting idol.)

The festivities are set off with a National Holiday, and everything is about National pride and love, and the music, literature, sport and traditions that make this country unique and wonderful.

What I must clarify, of course, is that we are not in Spain at all. We are in the Basque country, the fiercely patriotic and proud region that covers a heart shaped area of the North of Spain, and some of France. The people in this region, who have their own distinct culture, language and history from the country they are governed by, will not rest until they are made independent, and remind the travellers within their borders that they are independent, at least in spirit. Posters and stickers on walls, light posts, windows and doors warn us: “Tourist remember, you are NOT in SPAIN or FRANCE – you are in the BASQUE country.” Basque flags hang off flagpoles, boats, and house windows, and many a person wears the Basque colours, or T-shirts demanding independence. San Sebastian, one of the biggest cities, is known as Donostia.

The week long fiesta here is a strong and sure demonstration of the strength of Basque pride. The first firework set off is the lighting up of the Basque name for their country, “Euskal”, and the celebrations are sponsored by the phone company “Euskotel”. More than a few of the fireworks are in the Basque colours – an explosion of red, green and white. (Upon seeing a house decked out in a pattern of red, green and white flowers, I muse “I’m surprised their amber traffic lights aren’t white!”)

The Basque country will most probably never gain full independence (it is an autonomous region, but movement for its independence was knocked back overwhelmingly by Spain’s parliament in 2005, and then a proposed petition for 2008 never took place). Spain will not let it go, and it is a contentious issue all over Spain – although here, what is wanted is very clear. And what is sure, is that for Basque pride to wane or be forgotten, a complete turnaround in the psyche of the people here will be necessary. And if they continue to raise their families rich in the history and traditions of their country, and continue to speak their language so proudly as they do now (there is no other language that Euskadi has been found to be linked with) then at least unofficially, the Basque country will always exist.

And where there are people who still have faith (just like Dumbledore says) then there is always hope.



Day 2: Sore, but in San Seb

The trek today was quite difficult; we leave San Juan at about 8, and after a coffee with Funny Spanish Man and our German friend, we set off over the mountains. Along breath-taking coast line we trod, and meet an interesting local out for a morning jog. The sweaty man entreats us to take the coastal option – the cyclists’ route – when we reach an upcoming intersection. He mentions that some pilgrims choose not to believe his suggestion that the coastal path is the most scenic and beautiful. He leaves us, going the opposite way, but then he miraculously appears, even sweatier than before, at the intersection of paths where we must choose which way to walk. We go his way, but, as suspicious as any tourist that has travelled through Asia can be, we keep looking behind us in case he and his mates are actually bandits ready to rob gullible pilgrims.

No bandits come, just some more locals out for their morning jog, and we feel silly having doubted the lovely man. The scenery is amazing. We cross a semi-ruined Roman Aquaduct, and muse over the direction of Greenland, and the location of the ill-fated Titanic.

8km later, we are trudging into San Sebastian. Tired and weak, our bodies still adjusting to the conditions of walking and carrying our gear. Everything hurts. I am grumpy and sore. An amazing peach brings me back to life for a short time. We once again gain the last two available beds in the Youth Hostel. We could have stayed in the Pilgrim Hostel, but this doesn’t open until 4pm, and we would have had to endure a 4 hour wait with our bags and no freedom to explore. The beach was calling, and the town seemed to be buzzing with excitement about something. The hostel staff informed us that the building was open until 4am –because it was a week-long fiesta (a curfew that many of our roommates would make full use of).

Just before 11pm, we venture out of the hostel and find the beach front so packed with people it is difficult to move, and we know something big is about to happen when we see a man hosing down a fenced off area – wetting the gardens, park benches, and basically anything within the barriers. The palm tree fronds are tied upwards, tucked away from whatever was going to happen. It dawns on us that we are in Spain – either it’s fireworks, or something is going to be set on fire. Just as I figure out how to ask the woman next to me when something would begin, BOOM! It starts.

A massive explosion rocks the thousands of people gathered along the beach front, and the fireworks dance in the night sky. The crowd shows their satisfaction by applauding in the brief pause that ends each set of the display. I have never seen such amazing fireworks – but if anyone knows how to impress using lights and fire in the sky – it’s the Spanish.

There is so much joy in the air, and when the show is over, we disperse with the rest of the crowd into the city centre. The buskers start up and we watch an impressively implausible breakdancing show, as young children dance around as if it’s not midnight at all.

As we walk home along the beach, we pass groups of backpackers who have found themselves homeless with all the city’s hotels and hostels completo, and they are fashioning small backpack and sleeping bag ‘camps’ on the sand, huddling together for security and warmth. (The next morning we pass a couple on their mats, hidden inside their sleeping bags, but we can’t see their backpacks and hope to God that they weren’t stolen during the night.)

Tomorrow we will stay another day, to explore the city properly, so we settle down to sleep and wait for the other travellers to stumble in at 4am after a wonderful night’s revelling in the celebrations.

Day 1: Weighing up the Way

I am literally swimming in my own sweat. My arms are glistening, my fringe is stuck to my forehead, and my T-shirt is drenched.

Our plan was to go to the Post Office this morning, and send onwards to Santiago all our unnecessary belongings that are filling our backpacks to the brim. But alas, today is fiesta, day off, public holiday, can’t-find-food-to-save-yourself-day. So, no post offices open.

We could have put off starting the walk a day, but instead decided to head to San Sebastian, the next big town, over two days, and send the stuff from there. That means two days of walking with in excess of 15kg on our backs.

15kgs you say? Easy peasy! Easy if you are walking to the shops, easy if you are jumping from aeroplane to hotel and to a train and maybe a ferry. But for the run of the mill Pilgrim traipsing up and down mountains and over undulating hills, anything over 10kgs is really ridiculous. Last time I did this, I carried maybe 8kg. Two tops, two bottoms, a sleeping bag, a jacket, sandals, soap. Today, being all tech-savvy, I am also carrying a laptop, an iPod, an eReader and all the related chargers. On top of that, I have at least 3 other outfits, a Yak shawl and a small umbrella that I might need after the walk, but definitely not during it.

People look at our massive bags – did I mention I have a small guitar in mine!? – and give a glance that says, “ooh, they haven’t figured the whole Camino thing out yet. Novices.”

Somehow though, despite the extra weight – and perhaps through eagerness to get to our first night’s stay and take the bags off – we set an absolute cracking pace. Even with the detour to the closed post office, and the stop for discussion over coffee about a possible course of action, we soon overtake people from our Irun hostel that had left an hour before we did. We pass the Dutchies and the German Pair, a Slovakian man whose pilgrim staff is actually a traditional wind instrument, Chain Smoking Drunk Pilgrim, and the excitable Michelle from America.

Along the way we meet a funny Spanish man, he is over 60, who lifts my bag to feel the weight and tells me I have good legs. After a short chat – he is from Andalusia, where they play fabulous Flamenco he says, noting the tuning pegs sticking out of my backpack – we leave him behind, only to have him pass us on a break. He asks the time as he can’t read what his phone says. It’s 11:50. “11?” He asks in Spanish. “No, no, not on-ce,” I say, searching for the word for 12… “It’s a little bit before midday!” I say. “Muy bien!” He says, commending my Spanish, which he can see impressed myself more than him. We pass Funny Spanish Man once more, with him calling out an English “See you later!” after us.

Still powering along – although the steep parts deflate me immensely – and with an energetic push through the last few kilometres, we arrive early in Pasaje de San Juan, looking out over a stunning fishing village, with the small gap of the bay offering a glimpse of the ocean beyond. A venture into town provides us with a few cold beers and a sandwich, which we enjoy in the main square and watch some of our pilgrim acquaintances arrive. The Dutchies, the German Pair and Funny Spanish Man all join us at the town’s pilgrim hostel.

The lady hospitalero takes some of us for a tour of the church (to which the hostel is connected) and lovingly shows us the bells that are run by a 300 year old contraption that keeps time by a series of cogs and wheels. Funny Spanish Man spends most of the time babbling about his shoes (the lovely girl translating the Spanish explanations for me looks completely confused/amused) and then he animatedly instructs me to lock the door when he and the other girls are up the bell tower stairs.

It is now bed-time (“don’t make noise before 7, but everyone’s out at 8!” the lady in charge tells us) and all the pilgrims are slowly retiring to their beds. “Goodnight” is whispered in many a language and accent, as we curl up on our sleeping bags and mats and hope to God the bed bugs are not out.

This is why you do the Camino: to meet women passionate about cogs, Slovakian men who carry metre and a half-long flutes, and elderly Spanish men who, even if they were speaking English, you know you wouldn’t understand a word of what they are saying.