far too much writing, far too many photos

[Continued from entry of March 21.]

With Curtis having done el Camino de Santiago so many times, he’s fairly knowledgeable about it — extremely, even excessively knowledgeable compared with someone like me.

As we stood in Sunday morning sunshine, Curtis talking about el Camino, two people hiking the trail toiled up the grade in our direction. Across the small road, off in the other direction, the land spilled down and away. Nesting birds appeared from hillside bushes, making short, swift flights to nearby points, producing sharp bursts of song. Though the sun shone strong and warm, a cool breeze blew — Curtis had encouraged me to leave my jacket in the car, I found myself glad I had it on and pulled it tightly around me as I peered off across the countryside.

Back in the car, we drove further west of Pamplona. Several miles along, Javier hung a left and sped down another two-lane, flanked by fields and the occasional spread of vineyard, until we approached a turnoff for a small church that sat amid acres of fields, la iglesia de Santa Maria de Eunate. Javier turned in, guiding the car to a small parking area, pulling in by a pair of porta-potties, them looking a bit out of context there in the middle of nowhere but logical considering the number of visitors the place received.

The church: a lovely stone structure, small in diameter with a high domed roof that gives it a sense of great space. Built in the second half of the twelfth century, appearing at once austere and complex in structure. The small windows had no glass, no surprise given where and when the church was constructed — instead, they’re covered with slabs of marble cut thinly enough that they allow light to pass through. The church is surrounded by a portico, nearby sits another building constructed of stone, a refuge for hikers making the pilgrimage, where they can find a shower, get some sleep.

On our arrival, the only other people about were three young women who seemed to carefully avoid us. As we walked back to the car, other vehicles pulled in, discharging people, changing the atmosphere drastically with noise and motion. I was glad we were on the way out.

Javier drove back out to the original two-lane, heading further west to the town of Puente la Reina (Queen Bridge), a pueblo with at least three churches — all Catholic, natch. I was taken into two, both several centuries old –- one austere, the other extravagantly elaborate –- both on a long street that ran from the east end of town to the river at the town’s west side and the bridge that gives the town its name. Built in, I think, the 15th century. Old, beautiful, nice to walk across, providing nice views of the old town on one side, green hills and flowering almond trees on the other.

The morning sunlight had strengthened, the temperature edged upward to jacket-divesting levels as the day tilted toward noon. We walked back toward the car along a different street -– wider, relatively busy -– passing the third church as we left the river behind, I mulled over how it felt to be among so much Catholicism, past and present.

I grew up in a Catholic family, going to mass every Sunday, attending religious instruction for nine years. (Nine long, long years.) And though the religion was part of my life’s routine back then, I never felt at home in it, was never a Catholic. I mean no offense to any Catholics in saying that, it’s just the simple truth. In fact, there is no religion that calls to me. I walk my own spiritual path, and I respect the ways other people walk theirs.

There were many things about growing up that way that I genuinely did not enjoy, and it’s been interesting spending much of the last two years in a country with such a strong Catholic tradition, with centuries of dark, turbulent Catholic history. I love Spain, and have had no trouble with that aspect of the country -– it’s simply what it is, part of the nation’s rich, complex character.

From there we traveled west to a stretch of el Camino that ran along the course of an old Roman road, cobbled and crossing an original Roman bridge, out in the middle of countryside, in a ravine off the two-lane where trees were showing green and birds called. As I moved ahead of Curtis and Javier, two hikers passed — young women, both sporting huge packs, one of which had two or three pieces of washed clothing spread across it to dry in the sun as they walked. Curtis began chatting with them, when I returned from enjoying the near-total quiet off across the bridge it turned out they were college-age American women — one from Tennessee, one from Illinois — doing the pilgrimage and experiencing the contrast between what they’d imagined when they dreamed about it and the rigorous, sometimes disheartening reality of traversing mountainous, rural terrain with a full pack. Curtis gave them gentle encouragement, some tips on stops they’d be making in the coming days, and they headed off.

Next stop: the town of Estella, the day’s final stop. A medieval pueblo, with old, narrow streets, large plazas, and a pretty, shallow river that wends through the heart of the town. Javier parked the car, we made our way up a long series of stairs to yet another church perched in the, by then, early afternoon sunlight. We passed through to the cloister, a sizeable area of flowers, grass, flowers and a tree or two, sheltered by walls, surrounded and bisected by walkways. Quiet, with lots of old stonework. I would have been happy to remain there a while, as lack of sleep was becoming more and more a factor in my day. Curtis had also been up late — later than me, I think, having far more fun — also looked to be at less than optimum. Javier was fine, and when I got too quiet he made a point of chatting me up, explaining things or asking about my experience in Spain. Between that and the fact that he had volunteered to do the driving for the day, he went far beyond what would be expected of someone who had never met me before. An extremely considerate person with a generous, gentlemanly nature.

A mass had begun while we were outside, we couldn’t pass back through the church and so took a different stairway down to the street — old, narrow, with vistas of sky and neighborhoods. We found our way to the center of the town, crowds of chatting, well-dressed locals milling in and out of restaurants/tabernas. We made our way into one, found a space at the bar, got something to drink, then went somewhere else to eat, a place off another narrow, quiet street. A long meal, punctuated by stretches of silence between which Curtis and Javier conversed, Javier now and then addressing some conversation in my direction, which I did my best to engage with. Afterward, we found our way through more narrow streets toward an old medieval footbridge we’d spotted earlier. The street that led us there — old and, of course, narrow — only permitted resident traffic, and at the end of a block that fed out onto a larger busier street, passage was blocked by a thick, squat metal column, maybe two feet high, planted in the pavement directly in the middle of the street. A car approached from the outside road, stopping by a box at the roadside where the driver produced a card and swiped it through a slot. A pause, then the column slowly sank into the pavement so the car could pass, after which it reappeared, regaining full height. Freudian traffic control.

We made our way across the bridge, trees and large sprawling expanses of bushes on either side of the river a bright, vibrant green in the early spring sun. Willow trees rose three or four stories into the air, trailing long branches thick with new leaves. Javier and Curtis had yet another ancient church or two in their sights, we made our way toward them though not into them (for which I gave silent thanks), settling down instead on some stone structures by the river to flop and get some sun. It was late afternoon by then, the town had the feel of a place slowly dealing with the coming reality of returning to the workweek. Couples were out, two groups of people came together not far from us, talking, then headed off in the opposite direction from which we’d come and disappeared. We eventually pulled ourselves together and returned to the car, walking along a stretch of el Camino which included an old, well-kept building that functioned as the town’s sanctuary for pilgrims.

As we neared the car, the snug street opened out into a small plaza that fronted a park and two old buildings, one of which apparently housed the local equivalent of a circuit court. Paint had been hurled against the door and the facade of the building, leaving splashes of red, yellow and green, the colors of the crest of Euskadi, the Basque Country. As we stepped out into the plaza, I glanced into the windows of the other building we passed, into a room filled with old, old furniture, including what appeared to be an ancient canopy bed, draped with mosquito netting.

At that moment, we became aware of a car coming in reverse along the narrow street that faced us, coming fast, the gearbox whining loudly, insistently, the rear end jerking back and forth as it approached, tires squealing. It skidded into the plaza where the driver hit the brakes, spraying gravel before changing gears then gunning his way through a loud, aggressive three-point turn, almost hitting me at one point, the afternoon air suddenly thick with the odor of testosterone. The driver: a truculent, macho 20-something whose behavior had Curtis hooting and commenting unflatteringly in English. My last image of Estella.

An hour and a half later I found myself at a window seat on an Iberia airliner after saying good-byes to Curtis and Javier, thanking them for setting aside their day to entertain me, assuring them I’d enjoyed it despite my state of burn-out. My last view of Pamplona, from a plane angling up away from the ground: a line of wind power generators ranged along a ridge of hills to the north of the airport, extending off toward the Pyrenees and the border with France.


Sixteen days later, a Tuesday afternoon gradually sliding toward evening. Sensational weather continues –- the air has cooled some from yesterday, though the sun remains every bit as brilliant. Next Monday, my nearly two years in Madrid will give way to a return to the States. I’ve begun packing and sifting through accumulated dreck, a process which will be a bit compressed because of the fast trip to Granada coming up on Thursday through Saturday.

The days roll on, everything passes.

Went and picked up the Camper footwear for Sam this morning (see yesterday’s journal entry). Did not have to try on women’s shoes, got no strange looks.

On to the rest of the day.

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