Thursday, April 14 2016
Distance: 24.2 km
8:35 – After a rest day in Pamplona, I’m reasonably refreshed and ready for a 24km hike that includes at least one steep ascent. I’m not sure when I’ll see tapas (pinchos) like the ones in Pamplona but it won’t be in the small towns that I’m passing through for the next few days. Just finding a bar or restaurant that’s open is a challenge in most Basque villages. In the meantime I can always dream about last night’s pre-dinner snack – warm goat cheese drizzled in grape compote for 2€.
10:02 – The first town I come to is Cizur Menor. The sign at the edge of town indicates that it’s home to 2402 inhabitants, and based on the number of houses, that seems about right. Based on the number of people I see on the street, it’s entirely possible that the current population is ONE, and that would be me. I’m 9/10ths of the way through town before I come to a shop that’s open. Although the store is about the size of your average North American gas station convenience store, I could take inventory in about one minute. Unless they’re hiding stock in the back room for safe keeping, the entire inventory appears to consist of 20 ice cream bars in a freezer that hasn’t been defrosted since the Franco regime, 12 small apples (possibly crab apples), 6 rolls of toilet paper, 5 boxes of laundry detergent, 4 boxes of Alpen cereal, 4 Timex ‘Iron Man’ watches, 4 Virgin Mary necklaces, 3 see-through disposable lighters that appear to be lacking lighter fluid, 1 small box of sultana raisins and 1 large, hairy carrot. Just when I thought I’d have to walk to the next town to pick up a mood ring, I spot about 50 of them in a large but otherwise empty display case. It could be worse. Every other shop I come to is locked up tight.
10:09 – I’m sitting on a rock on the outskirts of Cizur Menor. I feel kind of bad that I cleaned the town out of raisins and carrots but hopefully they’ll get more stock in later this week. It’s at least a 15 minute drive to the bustling city of Pamplona, after all.
11:11 – A sign indicates that it’s 14.6 km to Puente la Reina. It’s 12C and overcast but if the rain holds off, it should be a perfect day for walking. It would also be a nice day to ride but this friendly guy would be missed, I’m sure.
It was uphill all the way to Cizur Menor but once you leave town the trail gets even steeper. At least you can see where you’re going as the crest of the Alto de Perdon has a string of at least 30 wind turbines.
I wouldn’t say the 1000′ vertical climb to the top of the Alto de Perdon was “gruelling” but it was no Sunday School picnic either. Overcast skies, intermittent showers and at times gale force winds made for an interesting hike. Thankfully the panoramic view from the top is stunning and it all seemed worthwhile.
Some people find the descent to Uterga just as difficult as the climb due to the loose footing. I’d still rather hike downhill but it was definitely tricky.
15:40 – I’ve stopped for a late lunch at a cafe in the town of Uterga. The local cheese and bacon on a baguette is simple and unadorned but possibly the best sandwich I’ve ever had. I can only imagine how big the pig must have been as the baguette is about 10″ long and the strips of bacon (3) are each folded in half to fit in the bun. I swear one piece of bacon is close to 2′ long. It may have been a very old pig but the meat has a wonderful smoky flavour and the cheese is sharp and dry. The baguette was baked this morning in a wood fired oven at the other end of town.
16:00 – I stop to change socks in Muruzabal. Too much info? Sorry, but dry socks are the key to keeping your feet happy when you’re hiking 20+ kilometres, day after day.
16:23 – I’m tempted to spend the night in the town of Obanos but at the last minute I decide to press on. Most businesses are closed even though siesta time supposedly ends at 16:00.
17:40 – The first building you come to in Puenta la Reina is a pilgrim’s hostel / hotel / tourist information booth. The guy manning the booth didn’t exactly give me the hard sell but it was clear that he was pushing this particular property. When I asked if there are private rooms in town that have a bathtub, he thought about it for at least a minute – which is a very long time when you’re standing in front of the guy and not quite sure if he understood your question – but he ultimately said “not likely.” That doesn’t definitively mean no so I decided to check out the town before committing.
18:20 – There are at least three convents but no apparently bathtubs in this town. I’m quoted 7€ for a spot at the pilgrim’s albergue, 11€ for a dorm bed in a privately operated hostel, or 40€ for a dumpy looking hotel with shared bath. Just when I figured the 11€ hostel would be the best bet, I noticed Hotel El Circo. The hotel itself is brand new but it’s housed in a 900 year-old stone tower with heaps of character. Other than the lack of a bathtub to soak my aching calves, Hotel El Circo was perfect for about double the price of a crowded hostel. I checked in for two nights.
19:10 – I went for a walk in search of deodorant and BandAids. The local Farmacia had BandAids but no deodorant. The alementacion had everything from pipe tobacco in big glass jars to magnums of Bailey’s Irish Cream and super soaker water pistols to caged rabbits, but no deodorant. Every ATM in town was out of service and the gas station attendant was waving cars away so I assume he was out of gas. The grocery store did have a few cans of Axe body spray (packaged in 2012) but very few items that could be considered groceries. The 50′ long meat, cheese and deli counter was completely empty.
20:20 – There are several bars in town – and miraculously they do have beer and wine – but I’ve only found one that serves food at this hour. While reading the menu board outside Tito’s, another pilgrim invited me to sit with him. Ron turned out to be a London bus driver who loves to play the ponies. He despises harness racing and I don’t know much about thoroughbred racing in the UK so the discussion turned to casinos. He’s been to Vegas many times and we have the same favourite dealers at The Flamingo. Ron never did tell me his last name, and I didn’t ask, but he did volunteer that two of his relatives are professional card counters and in the 1980s both were on Interpol’s Most Wanted List for various reasons that would likely be more serious than cheating at a casino. I asked if these were close relatives. He replied, “Well, I guess you could say so. One’s my oldest brother and the other’s my dear ol’ mum.”