Off the path – three museums

Sept 21, 22 and 23

I need to backtrack just a bit to mention three incredible museums that  are on the path of the Camino Norte. Each is very different. Each is  worth a visit.

First, the Guernika Peace Museum. 

This museum initially opened in 1999 as a museum of the history of the Basque region and the Spanish Civil War. In 2003 it was renamed and reopened as the Guernika Peace Museum. 

The museum explores the concept of peace, the paths to peace and the abscence of peace within the historical events of the town. 

Since the Middle Ages, the oak tree has been a symbol of peace.  Basque assemblies met under oak trees to do town business, settle affairs and take oaths. All important matters and arguments were settled under an oak tree.

King Ferdinand took his oath under the tree in Guernika in 1476 and although each town had its own oak tree, the tree in Guernika became the symbol of democracy for the entire Basque region. 

The official oak tree has been replaced over time from acorns of the original tree. In 2004 a new tree was planted to replace one planted in 1860. Thi newest tree is dying and a new one will not be planted  until the soil is replaced.  A comment on our world today??

The second event commemorated is the aerial carpet bombing of the town on April 26, 1937 by combined forces of Germany and Italy. Franco had asked for their help during the Spanish Civil War in hopes of defeating the Basques. 

The planes bombed the city for three solid hours. The town was destroyed and more than 1600 people were killed. The munitions factory however was intentionally spared and after the city was taken by Franco, the remaining men went back to work there.

The photos and the stories are beyond words.  Pablo Picasso said it best with his paintbrush. A copy of his painting simply entitled Guernika is on permanent display in the city park. 

Sobering reflections and much to think about as we moved down the path. 
The next day in Bilbao we visited the Guggenheim Museum.

This museum designed by the Architect Frank Gehry, has been called a masterpiece and it is, both inside and out. Although it must say I like outside better. 

Gehry’s challenge was to fit a museum into a space that had a river on one side and a large bridge on another and construct it on a sloping hill. 

 His design is brilliant. It goes under the bridge and the bridge goes through the museum?? Approached either from the water side or the street side it is breathtaking. 

We walked along the river in the rain. As we came to the museum we were met by a gigantic sculpture of a spider and jets of steam and fog- two of the latest exhibitions. We passed another sculpture, a tree made of huge steel balls. 

The angles are impossible and titanium “skin” covering the limestone blocks picked up light and cast shadows. It was stunning.

Inside was overwhelming.

 Glass elevators, see through paths and walkways , hidden stairways and galleries and lots of famous very modern paintings, videos and sculptures that left me overwhelmed and out of my depth.

I did however like the Jeff Koons tulips and the flower dog. I like anything that has flowers (60,000 self watered internally) a dog and is so big that even I look little!

And finally another masterpiece built one hundred years earlier in Portugalete just outside of Bilbao and also on our path- the Bizkaia Bridge. That is Basque for Bilbao.

Built in two years and opened in 1890, this work of engineering art was the first transporter bridge in the world and the only one in use today. 

Not only can pedestrians and cars cross the river by gondola, since 1999 it was been possible to take an elevator up 500ft. to a pedestrian walkway which allows   you to look down on the gondola and the river as you walk across . Quite terrifying going up but ok going across. Ride back was free! 

Since 1893,  650 million people have crossed this estuary by gondola. Since 2006 it was been a world heritage site. If you are in Bilbao don’t miss it.

And one last modern touch. We were whisked up the hill out of Portugalate by a series of electric hill climbers ! In seconds we were back on the path heading into the country.

Un buen dia

Sept 26

Today was a great day which was welcome after the adventures of yesterday. 

What better way to start the day than with  trip to the coreos, aka, the post office! 

Many years ago we discovered that the post office was the walkers’ best friend. 

There is no better way to lighten the load than to empty the backpack, pile everything on the bed, and put together a package to send home. It takes about a week for the first purge. Every ounce counts and less really is more (better that is).

 Some countries have cheaper rates than others but whatever the cost, it is worth every penny.  The quickest way to know what you can live without is to carry it on your back for eight hours a day.

 This morning we were at the post office, ready and waiting when the grate was raised at 8:32. 

While we waited I practiced how to say ” I’d like to buy a box , to send as slowly and cheaply as possible, to the US.”

I did pretty well but the heroine of the morning was the woman in the post office. She was kind, patient and funny, helping us put the box together  without  tearing it, filling out the endless forms, and taping it all up tight.

Slightly absurd in that we were sending home  one pair of shorts, a hat, B’s reject walking shoes, the first fifty pages of our guide book (neatly cut out with my Swiss Army knife), and a snow dome of the flower dog at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao-total of 5 pounds. 

Not much?? Just 15 percent of the total weight of the backpack . 42 Euros and worth every penny!

By nine we were finished and rewarded ourselves with coffee and “sugar pillows”. Not sure what they are called in Spanish but they are fat, sugar coated puffs filled with custard. Not the typical  one teaspoon of filling, more like a quarter of a cup! The weight that was taken out of the backpack was put right back onto the carrier of the backpack.

With spring in our steps we were off. It really was a two boot day. Easy that is. We had the usual ups and downs  but walked 14.85 miles in a record six hours, including a stop at the grocery store and a picnic in the woods. 

The weather was beautiful- in the sixties  and a picture perfect blue and white sky. We walked mostly on back roads and talked with various pilgrims (more on them later). We had time to enjoy the scenery around us and check out some of the local critters, butterflies and and more snails.

We checked into our pensione and are the only guests here. It is rustic and charming and the walls are covered with photos of the area taken by the owner.

We had time to do laundry and even time for it to dry.

We took a tour around Guemes and even found an open church- unfortunately a rarity in Spain.

An early dinner in the garden and we were in bed by 8pm.

 After ten days of walking we are finding our rhythm and settling into our walking groove. We are one third of the way to Santiago de Compostela.Ultreya!!

The …by the sea

Sept 24-25

Officially it may be autumn  in America but it is still summer in Spain and people are still going to the beach.  Beaches along this route are numerous, accessible and free to all. They are spotless.

Sunday the temperature was in the high 80’s and the beaches were crowded with families of all ages. Those who were not at the beach were enjoying tapas in the town.Not the be outdone we or at least I, did both.

We tried out some anchovies in oil and some Pulpo( octopus very tasty) and then hit the beach. B held the fort while I had a nice swim- water cold but not freezing, small (by Rhode a Island standard) waves, and no undertow. A pair of lifeguards, flippers in  hand, patrolled the  beach from end to end. A nice way to finish a walk.

Today’s forecast was for afternoon rain but the dawn came cool and sunny. The mornings glories were out in full force-a little color to start the day.

Morning glories grow rampant here covering the hillsides and going high up into the trees. We don’t expect to see many today as our route calls for a pleasant stroll along two beaches with a little walk up a hill in between to get the blood pumping. A two boot day.Or so we thought.

We set off on the first beach – a two hour five mile barefoot walk on a sugar sand beach.

We ambled along collecting scallop shells and black oyster shells. We played in the water. We watched surfers,complete with crash helmets,  trying to turn a two foot wave into a memorable ride. We were joined by several other groups of pilgrims and compared notes and blister tales.
The beach ended on a narrow strip of land where we sat to wait for the “ferry” to take us across the river. These small ferries are a common way to cross when two towns are separated by a river.

This one was great. It pulled up close to the beach, threw a metal dock onto a sand dune and we climbed aboard. For two euros each we took a ten minute cruise. 
Back on terra firma the rain finally caught up with us and we played raincoat on raincoat off until it was pouring and we were soaked.

And as they say, when it rains it pours.

For the first time in ten days we lost our path. We missed a turn and ending up walking two miserable  kilometers on the highway , mostly behind the guardrail thus keeping most but not all of the car splash away from us. But we eventually found the path and we didnt become roadkill.

During our trip down to the boat a spanish couple walked with us and gave us long fast complicated and incomprehensible advice-something about a hill and a road.   Our Spanish guidebook had a tiny exclamation point with the words” sentia muy duro”. We weren’t too concerned.

On my 60th birthday,crossing the alps, there was a sign that said, ” path not suitable for horses and bicycles”. After coming off of that path I was relieved to be alive to celebrate my birthday.

This little hill outdid the birthday adventure. The rain had turned an already  steep narrow and rocky path into two hours of treachery. We could either slip up or slip down, but hopefully not slip off that “little hill”.

We  crawled on our hands and knees, clawing our way up through the red mud, packs swaying on our backs We sat on our butts and slithered down through the mud. We wondered how it has come to this.

Once B got stuck. She couldn’t go up or down. She removed her pack and I dragged it up the hill. I went back and hauled ( not dragged!) her up too.

Three feet at a time we inched up one side of that “little hill”and down the other. It wasn’t pretty but then neither were we.

Down on the flat of beach number two B said, ” I think that couple was telling us to  go on the road and not over the hill.”

Still it is was not a total waste of an afternoon.

Because were so close to the ground we had a chance to discover another  new rock  formation and to see a phenomenal snail. Pale green no less.
For the last five miles, we were spent. We walked in the water in hopes of making ourselves somewhat presentable  although the hotel  advertised a pilgrim discount so they knew about dirty walkers .

Naturally the entrance to town was uphill and the pensione higher still. We had to stop  and eat  a pear to fuel us up that last incline.

And then we were in, into the pension and into the shower.  Clothes too. Took ten minutes for the water to run clear.

One last adventure.

We had earned a beer and we needed food. Man at bar recommends these delicious “percebes”. We are too tired to argue.

I watch father clean and cook these things and he too assures me they are delicious. We are too tired to argue. We get a lesson in eating these delicious things. Grab claw. Twist rubber part. Pull apart. Eat the pinky hose like thing.  Suck juice out of the dragon claw end.

We are to tired to argue. We eat them.


What did we eat??                  GOOSE NECK BARNACLES.

Can’t wait to get up tomorrow and put on all those wet clothes. Rumor has it tomorrow is an easy day. Too tired to care.

Flysch and Karst

Sept 19 and 20-

For the past two days we have been trekking through  an extraordinary geological part  of Spain. The area which has been designated a world heritage site is called a Geopark. We were fortunate that the Camino del Norte goes right through a large section of the park.

As we walked from Getaria to Zumaia and on to Deba we were struck by the interesting rock formations. It was only later that we learned we were walking along land masses of flysch and karst that were formed 60 million years ago and are very famous in the scientific world.

Here follows are very simple non scientific explanation of both terms .

Flysch are thin layers of shale which were formed when the Pyrenee mountains shifted and pushed against the coral reefs at the edge of the ocean.

Karst are limestone formations, mainly caves and underground rivers that are found higher up in the mountains, much softer rock changed over time by water.

For two days we alternated between the flysch cliffs and the karst hills. Always up and down, whether on the cliffs or in the mountains. A real workout that lived up to its 5 boot designation.

As we walked along the edge of steep cliffs we were in awe. We hauled ourselves and our packs up and down over and over. A steep up, a steep down, a little beach, repeat until it was time to turn away from the coast and head up into the mountains.But flysch was only half of the story. There was also karst up in the hills and our path took us there too.

The hills are dotted with caves which  are famous for the ancient cave paintings. We will see one of theses sites in several days further down the path as most are closed to the public.

So we walked up our flysch path to get to our karst mountains.  It was even steeper, even  slower and very hard on the feet, requiring total concentration to stay vertical! Periodically we’d stop to breathe and  marvel  at the beauty of the landscape around us.sAfter two days of up and down, 300 plus “flights of stairs” and forty miles we rewarded ourselves with a night in a wonderful agrotourism. ( a B and B on a working farm). There we were treated to  more incredible views and a gourmet  dinner with every speck of food and drink produced on the premises.

And on our quiet mountain top we fell into our beds under a sky full of stars.

All in a day’s walks

Sept 19 -Orio to Getaria

We are up and away shortly after sunrise which in Spain in mid September is not until about eight o clock. Window after window is decked with large yellow flags. In fact there is yellow everywhere. We are curious but stumped.

On our way out of town we are treated to a glorious morning sky and the path is easy to follow.

We also solve the riddle of the yellow flags. As we watch two long yellow rowing boats beneath us the on the river a man stops and gives us a local history lesson.

The boats, called traineras, were originally used for sardine and anchovy fishing.

The fisherman who returned first to the shore to sell his catch received the highest price. Since His his crew earned a percentage of this price it was to everyone’s advantage to hustle back to the shore.

Over time this developed into a competition between boats and eventually towns.

Since 1859 races have been held the first two Sundays in September along a three mile course in front of the beach in San Sebastián.

Modern boats are made of carbon fiber and carry a crew of 13.  Each town is identified by a different color. Orio is yellow and they had just won the Regatta for the 31st time.  Hence the celebratory flags.

Our walk takes us through vineyards, along the beach swarming with surfers who file down a steep path from the campground to the sea with their boards on their heads. We can barely make it with a backpack. I can’t imagine a long board. We assume they get a ride back up!

(Surfers come down from the top of the hill on the right.)

Stop for a chat and photo op with two men from Barcelona and Brazil who are here to surf but have done the camino.Spend a pleasant afternoon walking our final six miles to Getaria above the sea on a pedestrian boardwalk. People of all ages are happily walking, talking, running and enjoying the day.

Arrive in Getaria, home of two famous sons.

Juan Sebastián Elcano was the Captain of the Nao Victoria, the only one of Magellan’s ships to successfully circumnavigate the globe. He did it first!The other, son of a fisherman and a seamstress, went on to become one of the most famous haut couturiers in the world- Cristobal Balenciaga. His museum, opened in 2011, is stunning as are his clothes. Not exactly camino wear but a feast for the eyes          and looking doesn’t add weight to the bag.

A dinner of, what else, local  wine  and fresh sardines and it was off to bed to dream glamorous dreams and hope our washing dries by morning!

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