San Sebastián > Zarautz
September 19 – 21, 2017
Everything was bright and blue and shiny when we got to San Sebastián. I let out a breath. The salt air in my lungs exhaled. It was the first time my muscles, my whirring brain had let me relax even a bit since the bedbug incident outside Pamplona. It was ok not to keep going, be strong, hold it together for Vanessa who was counting on me as a partner in her second thru-hike of the season. For all I talked about knowing that I had never done this before and that I would be I would not be afraid to take breaks or do what I needed to do for my own body I knew I couldn’t let her down. She also talked about less expectations for this trail, at least in comparison to the PCT, but it meant a great deal to her and neither of us really knew how to treat it in relation to ourselves or each other.
But San Sebastián was a mild and almost cool dusk, just a hint of a breeze as our feet console themselves on the edge of perfect sand and a calm bay sea. Not only that but it was Basque, proud and individual and, most of all, it was mounds and mounds of delicious bites of food.
Known for its culinary prowess, Donastia San Sebastián didn’t even wait for the late Spanish tapas hour to begin. All day long you could walk into any restaurant lining the narrow alleyways of Old Town, grab a plate, and just walk around choosing any little pincho you pleased. There were piles of sushi grade seafood on tiny croissants, cheese from any region of Spain paired with a tiny dash of marmalade or foie gras on a slice of baguette, miniature cups of soup, slices of Serrano, skewers of mixed vegetables and meatballs and whatever else you could think of distilled into a 3 bite 2 euro dish.
In our one full perfect day we walked around town and on both main beaches, ate ice cream, and settled in on the beach. Vanessa likes to soak up the sun but it was actually warm enough for me to go in the water and I swam out to the edge of the swimming area where they put a dock with a diving board and slide. I laid on the white pontoons, bright sun reflecting off of them as the waves gently rocked me and the two men also sunbathing, their curly thigh hair jutting out of Speedos. And while I would have preferred to be completely alone it was still quiet and peaceful, certainly more so in September than it would have been a month before. But when a couple skittish SUPpers joined us I decided it had become a crowd and dove back in, swimming more quickly and easily back to shore than I come in. my confidence fully restored.
We still had plenty of daylight left so we decided to catch a boat tour to the nearby island before dinner. I’m not one for too many tourist activities (save museums perhaps) but boat tours seem to have captured our hearts. They’re fairly cheap and you get both relaxation and information which is a nice contrast to all the walking or biking we have generally been doing on this trip. We still get to be outside in nature though, so I think these explain why it has become a popular personal pastime for us. This particular tour wasn’t super informational but we did get to see the giant metal sculpture on the far side of the third beach, which would have been quite a long walk, see fish through the glass bottom, and generally tour the cliff edged bay before being dropped off at the tiny island park and swim area. The weather was still nice and families and cute older couples playing card games ringed the swim area and as we sat with our beers I was tempted to go in again. Instead we just enjoyed the warmth and the slowly sinking sun before catching a boat back to the mainland.
I feel like I have described this magical place in as many words as are appropriate but pictures are probably better. Since I couldn’t stop taking them anyway, I will indulge myself by including as many more here as I want. You’re welcome.
Now I realized that it wasn’t really quite fair to compare a beach lounging, all day pincho eating fest with days and days of walking but this was our trip, after all, and our sojourn here had us thinking about how we really wanted to spend our Camino days. Vanessa reminded me that I brought up the idea of walking the North route early on, but we discounted it as too hard for our first Camino, and with less services. In case you’re not familiar, when most people talk about the Camino they mean the Camino Frances, which begins in southern France in St Jean-Pied-de-Port just before the Pyrenees, crossing into Spain and heading directly west across northern, but not coastal, Spain. This is the one we had been walking. But as the way was a pilgrimage to Santiago and not a specific hiking trail, pilgrims would pretty much start anywhere, their own doorsteps, and take whatever route made the most sense from our starting location. The Frances was an historically common route but not the only one at all. The Camino website lists many routes along with a color coded map. The Camino del Norte runs roughly parallel to the Frances but farther north along the coast and, most importantly, right through San Sebastián. The elevation profiles are generally tougher and the albergues less plentiful so we discounted it early on. But it was so life giving to be by the ocean we wondered if we should maybe change our plans and continue on from here.
It felt risky on a lot of levels. I usually like to do quite a bit of research before any journey and we had done almost none. As we scrambled to do so on our phones we weren’t finding much online, less in English. There didn’t seem to be an pilgrim’s office in SS and when we went to the general tourist office they had very little information and certainly no book to buy. We bought the Norte version of the Wise Pilgrim app I had on my phone but it came with the caveat that it was unfinished, and I wasn’t the biggest fan of my full Frances version anyhow. But it did seem that there were enough towns/accommodation that we didn’t need our own tent/shelter, like we had worried we might, and the difficulty level did seem manageable. Plans change and supposedly walking the Camino is supposed to give you insights and if you feel a pull in a different direction on a journey like this both inner and outer you’re supposed to take it right? So against our very deliberate natures we decided that the next morning instead of hopping a bus back down to our previous trail, our sneakers would instead hit the ground and continue walking west.
We began at dawn and it was nice to see the lively town so quiet in the early light. Sand sweepers cleaned the beach as one lone swimmer did laps in what must have surely been a chilly bay.
As we climbed out of the city we met an Irish woman who had done several caminos on various routes over the years. I had worried that this late in September we might not meet so many people on the Norte but though it may be less popular than the Frances it had plenty of travelers and would well into October I’m sure. The woman breezed past us as we huffed and puffed up the hill and I realized I could no longer say with assuredness that no day would be as tough or steep as the first day. I had no idea what lay ahead or how difficult it may or may not be.
Though we saw plenty of other people there was a dearth of open establishments. We passed by one with a cute little patio nestled amongst the trees but it was dark and shuttered so we ate some snacks from our bags and got a coke from their vending machine instead. What we really wanted at this point was a toilet but instead we found a cute little stand with free water and a self-stamping area.
As we walked on the perfectly blue ocean appeared again before us as we rose over it and our surroundings just got more and more beautiful. However, our bathroom needs just got worse and worse. When you’re in the backcountry with nothing for miles its one thing, in a place with plentiful amenities another but this place was neither. Eventually V had to duck into a side street that barely had a ridge or any bushes for cover. Of course, just as she did, walking traffic increased and two cars even ended up coming down a road that had looked barren all morning. But once that bad business was done, the rest of the walk into a small town called Orio was really beautiful and I especially liked the fuzzy cows we passed. We stopped there to rest as we planned our last few miles into our goal of Zarautz. I was a little worried that we should look into lodging but there appeared to be a couple albergues and another hostel as well.
We had passed Orio on our way in and it had appeared cute with little white houses dotting the hillsides but I could tell, walking through the heart of it, that it had had a hard time of it somewhere. The lone train station looked sad and rusty; the bridge was grey. We walked out of town on a tiny shoulder that butted right up against the dingy river that was reported to be badly polluted but recovering. Recovery looked slow and we walked cautiously on the edge as V began to feel a little dizzy.
It was only another 8 km as we crested a hill overlooking Zarautz’s fancy gold course and the longest beach in Basque country. We could see the groups of surfers as brightly colored little dots bobbing up and down in little bunches all the way down the sand. We headed toward the municipal albergue only to realize that the app had only given us a vague closing date. We assumed that it would go through the month but as we sat on the porch waiting for it to reopen we realized that must not be the case. Speaking a language you aren’t fluent in is difficult enough in person but the remaining hostels available we pretty spread out and it was 4pm by now so I, equipped with more of the Spanish, had to call all 3. And all 3 were full. Our once triumphant restart was once again feeling like a stressful fiasco and I felt the full weight of doubt in my ability to “do the camino.”
We had even gone backwards in order to do this route and even though I knew that we would take a bus and catch back up to where we needed to be in order to finish it had still been a bit disheartening to see miles to Santiago once again in the 700s, when they had been in the 5s. What had been literal was metaphorical and back again.
We continued down the main road and walked into a couple hotels that were full before finally finding a pension online that had a room. It was more money than we wanted to spend but our options were limited and we really couldn’t walk any farther. It was close enough to the beach that we walked down it and settled into a restaurant facing the waves. The food was decent but it was our first experience with Spanish cider as we watched the sun sink into the sea that finally relaxed us. We had to order another bottle, the waiter apologizing that only 1 was included with the meal and he would have to charge us another 4 for this bottle that we each had a couple glasses out of. As we walked back to our hotel I had to admit that I didn’t hate having our own room with a balcony that overlooked a music square.