Walking without a donkey 9: Camino Francés 

Day 1 – 21 October 2016

The famous shell, symbol of the Camino, the Way, which runs from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostella in north western Spain, with an optional extra wander to Finnistere.

I could have started at the beginning and walked straight through to the end. After all I had the time, but it took a while for the fear that I wouldn’t manage the miles, and the weight of my rucksack, to be assailed. So I did some practices, left a lot of stuff with the delightful Carmen (Shiatsu practitioner) in Pamplona, travelled close to Uterga by bus, and began to walk from there.

I begin! 2pm Legarda.
I walked to Muruzabal, all the way worrying, and then reassuring myself, that I would be ok, even though I didn’t know what was ahead. I was grateful that I had been practicing that for a while. The inevitable wrong turns reminded me of my habit of going back into the house a few times before leaving proper.

As I cross the first main road and cars zoom by, I am realise that I started my Spanish adventures on a boat, which is so much slower than going by air, and now I am taking an hour to get somewhere I could get to by car in a few minutes. I like it – that’s what I came here for!

Santa Maria de Eunate is perfectly blended into the landscape. It’s scorching hot and I was mighty glad to take my backpack off.

I walk through olive groves, past almond trees, alongside acres of gleaming red peppers, and by slopes of maize. There are villages with their church spires on little hills in the distance, white wind turbines along the high edges between sky and forest, and fennel growing everywhere. The first taste of its seeds is of sweet aniseed, then green juiciness in my mouth, and finally the strong essential oil perforates my sinuses.

The end of summer leaves the routes bleached, with muted colours of brown, yellow and dusty green against the strong blue sky.

I have of course internalised the donkey, and am starting to get used to the best way of tightening the straps of my rucksack and relieving back strain. Several little bubbles of happiness move from my centre (Hara in Shiatsu) upwards, a signal that I’m doing the right thing.

I arrive in Puente la Reina, the monastery hostel for peregrinos (the name for people who walk the Camino) at 5pm, and pay 5€ for a dormitory bed. I shop and cook alongside the others, and before I know it I am giving foot Shiatsu to the lovely girl who offered to share her chickpeas with me. Guess what? Early to bed and only slightly footsore!

Walking without a donkey 8: Egileor, Vitoria-Gasteiz, San Sebastian, Pamplona


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From Egileor, Basque Autonomous Community, Spain

Isabel, a Shiatsu practitioner and Free Dance teacher, who I didn’t know but with whom I had been put in contact by the redoubtable Gill, met me off the bus in Salvatiera (Agurain in Basque) in hot, hot sun. She drove me to the nearby village of Egileor where she lives with her daughter and partner in their beautiful, self-built house and garden. Fields, countryside, and hills surround it, and watching the enormous, orange Autumn moon rising faster than I have ever seen, seemed to fit the special atmosphere of the place.


Throughout the property they have paid attention to detail, from the alabaster in the sitting room through which the sun shines (above); to the carefully placed sculptures; and the circular, garden dance space (below).

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Sculpture by Paco San Miguel pacosanmiguel.com

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We visited Feria, a local town celebrating it’s annual festival. It was full of animals (including donkeys) in hastily erected stalls in the streets; typical regional architecture…

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..groaning tables of produce..


from neighbouring towns; and families enjoying themselves in costume.


Vitoria-Gastiez is the first Spanish municipality to be awarded the title of European Green City in 2012. Amongst the shopping streets were these drummers (just like the group I used to play with in Edinburgh)…


supporting this cause (rebels against poverty).


And beside La Florida park was this secret garden, photographed at night.


The Jardin Secreto del Agua was created in 2006, with 29 varieties of plants which all require a low consumption of water. It is huge, situated on a patch of land measuring 3,100 Sq m.


The view from the bedroom 

Other members of the family and friends were welcoming and I joined a traditional Sunday lunch of bacalao (salt cod). I was looked after so beautifully and so pleased to give Shiatsu to my hosts in return for their care.


The first day-long walk up on the hills was behind Isabel’s house. What magnificent views! Sticky clay soil was underfoot, and heather, brown at the end of this year’s life, even occasional thistles, were on the slopes. Then 1, 2… 15 huge birds took off one at a time from the forested side of the mountain and abseiled down an air current before swirling around in an upwards pillar, slowly making their way back up. The vultures formed the shape of a handlebar moustache. I loved it all.



A companion ran along beside me.


San Sebastian, known as Donotia in Basque, is on the Bay of Biscay, with its sweet sands, stunning views, and English speakers.


Rio Urumea


Going up Monte Ugueldo on the narrow gauge railway allows one to see the Playa de la Concha stretched out below. At the same time as some people were swimming, there were women fully dressed in fur coats, smart with lipstick on.


The zig-zag road back down is surely the place to go if you are a young man, have a car, and want to impress your girl, racing round the helter skelter hill.


I walked back from Salvatiera station (6km) as a test to see if I could manage a few days of serious walking.


The sun and beauty of nature by the roadside was enticing.



A very welcome invitation to stay in Pamplona was received, and after my days in Egileor I went to Merce’s, another experienced Shiatsu practitioner.

Even in the rain this elegant city is worth seeing. There are the streets where the bulls famously run; the Câfé Iruña where Ernest Hemingway and other writers met and inspired each other to sip green tea in (below); and the city walls to take more photos from (above).

The next morning I gave a Shiatsu, and packed a small bag of unnecessary and heavy belongings to be sent on to Madrid. I was given victuals which would last me the next 3 days (such kindness), and dropped off at the bus station, rucksack on my back, where 20 minutes later I at last joined the Camino Francés.

Walking without a donkey 5: Aviles 


A middle sized city, Avilés is between Salinas on the northern coast of Spain, and Oviedo the capital of the Asturias region. It’s a national seaport with a significant industrial area.

I began by wandering around the city, choosing my way as places attracted me, and discovering green spaces between busy shopping streets.

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Ferrera Park

Then I happened across the Avilés estuary, beside residential properties and independent retailers.

Aviles smaller

And, on the opposite bank, the rather futuristic arts centre.

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Centro Niemeyer

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Along the Ruta del Acero are a series of sculptures made out of industrial materials found during the modernisation of the area.

There were many men and women walking along this Ruta, many in sports gear. I first noticed just how many Spanish people engage in outdoor sports when I was in Salinas, but then saw this everywhere I went, up and down the country (especially walking and cycling).

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As the sun started to set, the water and crossing structures were shown to an attractive advantage.

Well worth the time, the walks on both sides are very interesting and there are even public toilets if needed!

I wound my way back to the câfé, past a red-brick building with shop and graffiti.

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I was able to make a phone call and write my journal there because like most Spanish bars, you can sit for quite a while, using their wifi and only drinking one beer. Here I was once again given free tapas.

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Walking without a donkey 4 Salinas 


The very early car journey from Santander to Aviles was spectacular. The sun rose orange behind us as we passed through beautiful ancient villages, huge imposing mountains, and industrial factories spewing much gunk.

My first hour-long walk with all the stuff on my back was from Aviles to Salinas on the same northern coast of Spain, but further West of Santander.  It was a Google maps walk which means it was efficient (I didn’t get lost), but all on tarmac.

Google map link to Salinas

I was carrying what I hoped would be enough, but not too much, for 3 months – information gleaned from the web and the Camino book my friend, colleague and experienced walker, Liz leant me. I am likely to walk through 3 seasons, and this initial amble when my hips, feet, and knees all ached, immediately impressed upon me that I can’t carry that much for up to 8 hours on the Camino de Santiago otherwise, known as the Camino de Peregrinos (pilgrims).

Thus began the process of letting go of what I believed I needed, probably a metaphor for the mental process too. I left things at hostels and friend’s houses and I sent some back home, some forwards to be there later in the year. 

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I walked past a mix of the industrial type of area you get on the outskirts of a town, past prettily coloured and elegantly balconied residencies, and beautifully kept front gardens with both larger versions of the sorts of plants I am familiar, with as well as ones which don’t thrive in the UK. I stopped to buy a croissant for breakfast and the woman in the shop, like all the oh-so-friendly people I have come across, wanted to know where I was from and where I was going.

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Montse, a newly qualified Shiatsu practitioner, met me in the hot sun and took me to her flat where we started the process of getting to know each other, she often in English, me in Spanish. We spoke about being a mother, and about the age children get to when they are part independent and part dependent. I gave my third Shiatsu session and enjoyed it. All of them felt spacious and it was great to be swapping for such amazing hospitality.

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The beach at Salinas is another surfer’s paradise and it was warm enough for me to sun bathe on the wonderful swathe of golden sand and watch. I don’t know anything about surfing, but usually people seem to head straight into the beach, whereas one impressive guy skimmed on top of a single wave parallel to the shore for what seemed like miles.


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It may be something to do with the Shiatsu folk I stayed with, but I was served fresh and local produce wherever I went. One of the first new words I learned from Manolo, who I stayed with in Santander, was huerte meaning vegetable garden, and their fresh tomato salad was muy rica (‘delicious’. Thanks Iris for teaching me this in my Spanish classes!). Montse, her mum, and I picked apples and lemons, and gathered nettles and mint for infusions from an orchard in the hills outside the town. We has fresh figs, black carrots, and walnuts; merluza (fish, hake); home-made marmalade, and drank cidra (cider), which this area is especially well-known for (not all in the same meal).

Montse did her Shiatsu training with Gill, my principle Spanish contact, in Aviles, and we moved back and forth several times between there and Salinas when she worked and I engaged in sightseeing or where I taught my first Shiatsu workshop. Aviles is the subject of the next blog!

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