When I hiked the Camino de Santiago five years ago, I passed through Pamplona, Spain. I didn’t stay the night, I think I just had a coffee, took some photos of some of the sites along the Way and kept walking. The timing wasn’t good and I was going the Camino like a thruhiker… crushing those miles and walking all day! I remember thinking “I could come back here and spend more time”. and so that’s what I did.
“Pamplona is changed, of course, but not as much as we are older. I found that if you had a drink it became about the same as usual. ~Ernest Hemingway
Pamplona, Spain – A city that knows how to have a good time.
My timing once again was not optimal. Arrived on a Sunday, I missed the party that takes place every Saturday evening in Pamplona. During the day there were still a lot of people walking through the narrow streets of the old town, the cafes were crowded and noisy. Pamplona was the historical capital of the Basques and more recently became famous for their indulgence in the Sanfermines Festival, which includes the much-known bullfight.
While staying at a quiet pilgrim albergue, the very friendly host asked me if I had heard of the Camino del Baztón. I said no and asked him if he had any information about it. He didn’t, it’s not a popular route, but he said it was “muy bonita” and referred me to a Camino information center. There I found the necessary information about distances, elevation profiles, places to stay, and was told about a practical application with all this and more!
So, being the start of the week and not much going on, I loaded up on sightseeing and digging and opted to hit the trail. It is very possible that I will choose to take a break from the HRP later in July to return for the bull run…
Day 1 – Pamplona to the Baltan Pass
Early in the morning, I set off, passing first through the Portal de Francia and then through the Puente de la Magdalena, two famous sites for those who travel the popular Camino Francés. After a bit of rural town navigation in a light drizzle, I hooked up with the official route I would be following.
The first few kilometers were along a tarmac track along the Rio Ulzama winding through several parks to the small town of Sorouren. At this point the trail has become a single track uphill through woods and meadows.
In the town of Enderitz, I had one of those interactions that only happens in a foreign country where neither party involved speaks the other’s language (yes, my Spanish is terrible and Basque non-existent.) I saw a woman carrying a heavy load of water so I offered a helping hand and for some reason decided to try and ask where the nearest place to buy bread was . She couldn’t keep up but gave me the impression that maybe I could find what I was looking for further up town.
The woman went home and I went to see if I could find some bread. I failed with that, but found a peaceful moment at the 13th century St. Nicholas Church.
A few towns later, I found my restore point. Here in Spain, everyone recognizes the siesta and closes after noon. It was around 1:15 and the place was closed, but their sign said they were open until 2:30. I walked around a bit, found some puppies to play with for a minute, then decided to start over and knock on the door as I needed a bit of a supply.
There was a delivery truck parked in front of the place and I knew I could talk at the time. It wasn’t a problem so I grabbed my bread and some sardines and cheese, then headed to a quiet place I had found to watch the siesta and have lunch.
After a few hours of waiting in the heat of the day, I continued my way through several small towns without stopping. At this point the route was mostly road walking – sidewalks and gravel side roads.
After Lantz, the real ascent began towards the Baltan Pass. The gravel road turned into a pitted forest track and then into confusing paths of logging and cattle. After a false summit, the “road” descends a little to the magnificent Monastery of St. Mary of Baltan, a 12th century pilgrim refuge that was apparently well known in the Middle Ages when this route was much more popular.
I had scouted this place as a place to spend the night, but it seemed a bit too visible and exposed. So I had dinner and then climbed the real pass and found myself following a paved path. I read that this was the medieval road that ran through the area, built over an earlier Roman road dating from the 1st or 2nd century BC.
After about a mile I found a peaceful grove of beech trees with flat ground and soft moss, the sounds of songbirds and sheep bells to fall asleep.
Day Two – Baltan Pass to Sunbilla
After one of the most peaceful nights sleep I’ve had in a long time, I’m off again. The Camino stayed high for a while, I found ripe wild strawberries for breakfast, then started the descent. After crossing Almadoz, I ran into another Pilgrim (the only other hiker I would meet the whole way) on the wooded single track, an older, outgoing gentleman from the Canary Islands.
The nearby town of Berroeta had a cheap pilgrimage hostel in a former school, the option I had planned in case of bad weather. It was a beautiful mountain town, quiet and isolated.
The next town, Ziga, was much the same. This is where I deviated from the official Camino del Baztán to create my own version so I could walk to Irun rather than Bayonne in France where the Chemin de Baztán led.
I descended for several miles along an overgrown single track until I encountered the Bidasoa River, which I would follow the next day and a half.
From here my route would be the Via Verde de Biadosa, a cycle route on an old railway line that is part of Euro Cycle Route 1. This route in its entirety seems legendary, it goes from the southern tip of Portugal across Spain and France, to Ireland and then Scotland, again over water and as far north as Norway.
My steps on this road would be much shorter. I made it to Sunbilla for dinner, then walked a few miles out of town and found a sneak camp spot with two nice marble tables and some soft grass. The noise from the nearby freeway was obnoxious but I was otherwise hassle free.
Day 3 – Sunbilla to Irun
I left very early as a good stealth camper does. After tidying up and picking up the grass I had flattened (Leave No Trace), I took the trail or bike path.
The day was mostly uneventful, if not grueling. The flat track makes sore feet and tired minds.
I took my nap at Berra. After buying fruit, bread and drinks from a small store, I found a nearby park, charged my solar pack and threw my tent to dry (single wall = condensation almost still.)
After a few hours, I left the city by this medieval bridge:
Luckily the rest of the afternoon was mostly in the shade. About three kilometers from Irun, I found a picnic area near a tunnel over the highway, which noticeably reduced the noise from trucks and buses. I’m a cheap traveler so rather than going into town and getting a hotel room even though I was close to town, I found a stealthy spot behind some trees. I was going to cowboy camp, but at the last minute, when it was dark, I decided to pitch my tent. I’m glad I did! A little after midnight, the sky lit up, thunder echoed through the river valley, and rain began to fall.
The next morning I finished the last kilometers in the city. The rain had stopped and the walk was cool and calm. Found a great cafe to wait out part of the day and will stay here until I feel it’s time to start the Haute Route of the Pyrenees. It could be tomorrow or it could be in a few days, I’m waiting for a buddy to join. So stay tuned, thanks for reading.
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