Bayonne to Santander

Hey everyone! I've merged two sections again for this blog because they were so short and I've taken some breaks between them to celebrate Christmas and my birthday. There have been some huge mile stones reached during this time - like reaching Spain and walking over 1000 miles (or 1600km) so stay with me till the end!

Leaving Bayonne was a great feeling - knowing that, in a matter of hours and following the sun, when I left the flat lands and headed into the mountains, I would have achieved something that most people only ever dream of - walking the length of a country using only the sun as my way point and the help of strangers to find my marks along almost the entire journey! What an incredible feeling.

Almost the entire day I walked thinking about everyone I had met and the unbelievable kindness I had encountered along the way. But it was hard going, with a pack that was heavier than ever (in preparation for the mountains ahead) and an unexpected issue with my fitness. I was sure that after walking so far I would have no problem once I finally reached the Pyrenees but I hadn't thought about the fact that the mountains would require me to use entirely different muscle groups to the flats of France and they absolutely wrecked me! After a full days hiking I could see the river by Irun that marks the frontier between France and Spain but I also found an old couple that were looking a little lost! So of course I went to see if they were ok or if I could help them in anyway. I quickly found that they were Columbian and were lost, looking for their car! They told me where it was and even though I had no idea where I was, or the town was, I knew it was roughly south so offered to try and take them there using only the sun and my newfound talent for always knowing where South is - and I succeeded! They were so amazed by the fact that I had managed to do this and by all the stories I told them on our walk about my travels that they offered me to stay the night and have a meal with them, which luckily I accepted because the pilgrim house was shut in town and there was nowhere to camp for another 15km!

In the morning I was woken by Doris (mama Columbia) cooking a huge 5 potato Spanish omelette for me to take with me for lunch! I was very grateful but it was also very heavy to add to the weight of my already huge pack but I took it and, on the first peak - which was a hell of a lot longer than I'd expected taking almost 5 hours to summit from sea level - I ate the whole thing looking back over France and almost all the way to Bilbao (a few days away along the coast to the west). When I finished I packed up my stuff again and followed the alpine pilgrim route to an old radio town where I spent ages trying to figure out how to get around it without getting mixed up in the animal trails, only to find that a section of trail had been wiped out by a land slide - and to get possibly one of the best quotes, from an old local, of my entire journey: “Don’t worry about that it's nothing, it might look like you’re going to die, it might feel like you’re going to die, but you'll be fine, you’re young” -not exactly reassuring words for someone who doesn't have a head for heights! But he was right and I made it! I spent the rest of the day summiting smaller peaks and following cliffs and even though it was exhausting it was a beautiful section and a welcome change from the flatlands of France!

After a full day of cliffs scree and mountains I was beyond exhausted and looking forward to making it to the pilgrim house in San Sebastian and just passing out - but fate had other plans for me… On the very last climb of the day I met one of the nicest communities of my journey so far, The 12 Tribe’s Church. They took me in to celebrate the Sabbath and have a meal with them. This turned into dancing and storytelling until midnight! I have no idea how I managed to stay awake and active after that day but somehow I did and I fully intend to return one day to take up their offer of living in their community for a while to see how they do things.

After only about 4 hours sleep I was woken up by banging downstairs in the baker. At the time I wasn't too happy but realised at breakfast a few hours later that wasn't such a bad thing as it turned out the women in the community had decided to wake up at 4 in the morning to bake fresh cakes, pastries and bread for breakfast and my journey ahead! Again I didn't really have room for this in my pack but was very grateful for them!

The day flew by on the lower alpine trail, this time through valleys and hills with the mountains towering either side of me or with the sea to my right at times, all the way to Oreo where I found again that the pilgrim house was shut! Luckily there was a number for a campsite near by which I called and managed to get a room for 3 euros as there was no camping - on a campsite -weird right?! I also got the worst directions of my life from the manager who didn't speak as good English as he claimed to. Everything was completely back to front - when he said go up the hill he meant go down; left at the crossroads was right; and no river meant cross the river! 2 hours, and a cliff, later though I managed to find the place, kept my cool with him criticising my listening skills and got a bed for the night - with another pilgrim! However, he turned out to be an overweight 40 something that had been out partying all night, who couldn't get up in the morning and who I never saw again!

In the morning I got going early in search of churros. The route was across my first big section of beautiful, sandy beach and flat cycle path that cut through the mountain passes and I reached my goal in record time of around 2 hours! So I chose to carry on to Deba where, unbelievably, I met another pilgrim! Again he was a fair bit older and bigger than me but I figured if he had stuck out the hellish last 10km of medieval cobble stones over the mountains to town then he must have something about him! And even though he didn't speak English, I couldn't pronounce his name or vice versa and at times he was slower than me we stuck together for three days and it was great to have the company!

In the morning we both got up before sunrise and shared what we had for breakfast. I even made English tea, the right way, for us both and, from his initial reluctance and eventual begging for more, I think I might have turned him into a bit more of a Brit! This turned out to be a bit of a mistake as we decimated my tea supply over the coming days -I don't have enough for the end of the journey now!! But it got us in good spirits for the uphill battle ahead. Rain and big peaks were the forecast for the day and just before lunch, partly because his pace was literally painfully slow for me to keep at uphill and partly because I could see it was going to pour down at any second, I made a break for the summit through the clouds. Just as I broke through the clouds I could hear the skies open up below me - on my new friend! I stopped to have a snack while I waited for him but it was so cold on top that the sweat on my back was freezing. I made the decision to make some tea to keep warm while I waited for him but to press on if he didn't arrive in time. Luckily for both of us he made it! He was so happy to have that tea waiting at the top of the climb and I was too, this was going to be my first lunch with someone in almost two months! We even found a shelter slightly lower on the mountain when the clouds started to break. The rest of the day passed without incident and we made it happily together to Markina for the night.

Unfortunately, that was my new companion’s last full trail day because of his work and the weather had turned most of the trail ahead into a quagmire - and we had nothing for breakfast! We both left in search of food and agreed to meet at the cathedral with anything we could find at 9. However, 9 came and went and there was no sign of him, so I ate everything I had and tore off down the trail as fast as I could hoping to catch him again with no luck. This was a huge blow to morale and the point I realised what a huge impact human contact has on me. The day was terrible - drizzle all day; blown over trail markers; and wet clay clinging to my boots and caking everything, making it painful to drive on and making me unwilling to stop as often as I would have because of the mud over everything. But things changed for the better right at the last minute when 300m from town my companion arrived! It turned out his watch had died so he had no idea what time it was and couldn't find any breakfast so me going as fast as I could all day was actually driving us apart! But we were together again and very relieved of it. We got to town and found a great pilgrim house where you could cook anything you wanted and there was an all you can eat breakfast! Just what I needed and a great ending to my amigo’s pilgrimage.

I was expecting the road to Bilbao to be an uneventful one because it was so close to Christmas, the weather was still not amazing and I was alone again, but I was wrong - and not in a good way!

Most of the day passed with nothing to report - woodland, mountains, rolling hills and fog - but around 3 I met another pilgrim; this one was from Serbia! He was wearing sandals and was covered in mud from a fall earlier the day so I stopped him, cleaned up his wounds and did what I could for his feet. Instead of the thank you I was expecting though, he started to demand I tell him if I was Croatian or Jewish even though I'd already told him I was a Brit! Then he started asking about my kit, how old I was, if I was alone and all kinds of other questions that made me pretty uneasy round him so I made my break for it first chance I got and ended up being chased over the last mountain, breaking trail to Bilbao as fast as I could, through the woods, into the dark, and eventually into a street party right outside the hostel where I spent Christmas… and where I met some of the best people I have on any of my travels! This journey has had a strange way of doing that, giving me some hardships that really test me and almost right away rewarding me with a huge morale boost - and I wouldn't have it any other way!

Bilbao turned out to be a great part of my journey despite the sketchy journey there. I ended up staying almost a week rather than the two days I’d planned because of the amazing people I met there. The first person I met there (not including the incredible staff) was the first Brit of my journey, Dan, who was cycling the opposite direction to me through Spain. We pretty much hit it off from the get go. Heading off into the street party, I finally managed to shake off the Serb, and Dan and I bonded over sharing stories, drinks - and having a gun flashed at us by a very drunk, angry Basque! We pretty much spent all day, every day, that week together after that. There were also two great girls, Tiffany from LA and Yousil from Korea, in the hostel as well that spent most evenings chilling with a few drinks with us too, so that was my little hostel family for Christmas!

After a week’s rest though I was more than keen to get back to the trail and head for Santander. The first day I thought I would take it easy after the lack of exercise and bad diet I had over the holidays, so I headed for Portugalete. Without much to report, again it was a very easy flat walk through the city and linked surrounding towns. Pretty much the only thing I actually remember from the day is feeling like I was cheating when the street turned into an escalator and trying to get directions from an old Basque man who spoke no English and seemed to finish every sentence with an aggressive point and saying potato. I still have no idea what the hell he was talking about but it cracked me up and kept me entertained for hours trying to spot the potato!

The trail to Castro was much nicer than the day before, walking along the cliffs again in perfect sunshine and feeling strong again with all the rest from Bilbao. The only problem was that it was crazy hot all day, very exposed and my water bottle leaked half of my water before I realised! Thank god for dry bags!! While sorting out my kit again as best I could I found a little friend I’d forgotten all about - Donkey! The poor little guy that was supposed to be my mascot and I had carried since week two had been crushed for the past two months in my pack!

And I think he might have cursed me for that because shortly after that I had a pretty terrifying moment underground going through a tunnel that was part of the trail. My pack snagged on one of the wooden support beams and made the entire place creek and groan. I don't think I've ever moved so fast with the Bergan fully loaded before!

The road to Hazas is a bit of a blur now. I really suck at writing these blogs, hey!? All I really remember is that one of the roads was closed because of logging and that I had to take a 10km detour through a thick jungle of gum trees - or go the other way through farm lands for 18km - which at the time seemed like an easy choice, but of course I’m going to take the shorter route! Unfortunately, again there was no water. But this time instead of being exposed I was trapped in a horribly humid jungle full of hornets that would try to land on me and get in my kit every time I slowed down or stopped for water! And when I finally found the trail again I found that it crossed a huge headland that was more like a cliff face and was given some more great local advice - “You’re really close now. Just go up that hill and you'll be able to see where you’re going. Maybe take your glasses off though, it won't look as big that way!” Well his glasses trick didn't work - but I made it! And just in time for a kids’ school disco in the pilgrim house – yayyy

Still feeling pretty exhausted from the day before - and having to stay up with the kids that had a huge sugar rush and just wanted to play with the foreigner - I got up ready to head out on the longest section of trail for this chunk of the journey, the road to Güemes. And it was soooo much longer than it needed to be with the ferry being closed and the trail markers being in a poor state of repair or missing - not to mention the genius road workers using the same paint to mark their arrows as the trail uses to paint theirs!

A lot of that day was spent walking in circles or to dead ends but, as there always has been when needed, a trail angel came through setting me on the right course and, after finding out it was my birthday the next day, filling my pockets with cakes and giving me my first birthday beer - none of which made it past the end of the road! Having a pretty good sugar rush and buzz off the beer - and with my morale raised to its highest it had been in days as I realised I had reached my 1000th mile during this stretch - the rest of the day flew by, walking into the nights mist to find the poncho padre who gave me a bed for the night, a huge birthday meal of pork and snails and just might have inspired my next trip…

In the morning I woke to a huge breakfast set out for me; phone calls from the family wishing me a happy 22nd birthday; a photoshoot as “The Last Pilgrim of the Year” and a beautiful sunny day with a 5km beach to walk along to my ferry across to Santander and my next rest days seeing in the New Year. Sure beat the suicide and mental illness lessons I had to do this time last year in Zambia!