Hiking across northern Spain on the Camino del Norte and the Gran Recorrido

Hiking across northern Spain on the Camino del Norte and the Gran Recorrido

Hondarribia, Part 2

My "individual" room

The house that Franco built

When I was at this campground in 2008, as I stood in the bar having a coffee and staring at an old photo of the grounds, an older gentleman told me the house had been built as a vacation home for General Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, some time in the 1950s. The man claimed to have worked on the construction of the house himself. I don’t know if that story was true, or if Franco ever came here even if it was. But I do know that Franco met with Hitler in Hondarribia once or twice (consult the works of American historian Stanley G. Payne for more accurate information). At that time, though I was planning to stay several days, I vowed never to venture further inside the building than the bar, as I was none too thrilled about occupying a space that might have been visited by men who had perpetrated so much evil. This time, though, I decided it was better to stay in the house than to suffer another night of high winds and torrential rain, especially since virtually everything I had packed was soaked through (see previous entry: Hondarribia, Part 1). So I entered the huge, cavernous house and hung my gear to dry in a room with 12 beds, imagining all the while what sorts of things Franco might have done in the house if he had ever been in it.

The view from Higer

The view from Higer

Since all my possessions were already wet, and I was staying another night, I decided I might as well wash some of my wet clothes. So I scrubbed them in the sink, then had a nice hot shower…until the hot water ran out three minutes in. Then I had a nice cold shower.

After everything was hung to dry, I set off down the hill to the town of Hondarribia. The road offers some spectacular views of the harbor, the estuary, and the French beach of Hendaye, as it winds its way down some 300 feet of elevation over two kilometers, and with the unique light of the changing weather, it was ideal for snapping some photos.

The town was quiet, and I wasn’t sure where to eat, so I fell back upon the habits I had formed with Amos four years before, and went to the Doner Kebab. I wondered aloud if it was the same ownership, but the man working said he had taken it over three years ago when he had come from his native Pakistan.

The remainder of the day I spent in an internet café, working on this blog. Internet cafés in Spain, called locutorios, are a gathering place for foreigners using various media to communicate with home, and this one was no different, as it was crowded with Africans and Caribbeans of various nationalities. Several hours later, after night had fallen, I strapped on my headlamp and hiked up the dark, desolate road. I had forgotten how much fear extreme darkness can cause, even if it is unsubstantiated. I tried to control my breathing to calm myself, but each time I started to relax, a solitary car came zooming around the corner, obviously not expecting to see a pedestrian. Forty-five minutes later, I arrived at the campground and headed for the bar to cool my nerves a bit.

One can almost always find company in bars in Spain, regardless of the day of the week or the time of day. This is not necessarily because Spaniards drink too much, though I’m certain there is plenty of alcoholism. Bars are meeting places in Spain. A place to go with family, meet friends, connect with neighbors, or just chat with whoever is there. It’s just as common to order a coffee at 10pm on a Thursday as it is to order a beer or wine. Ok, maybe not just as common, but it is common. This night the bar was populated with a smattering of old hippy-types, presumably residents of the campground’s trailer park. I had a beer and read the paper.

Eventually, I could stall no longer, and had to enter Franco’s house for the night. The campground did not give me a key, so the door was standing wide open. I hoped no one had any interest in some brand new wet hiking gear. I closed the door partway behind me, but did not lock it, as I assumed the staff wanted it open. Then I navigated my way through the hall using the few lights that worked, walking quickly to get to the next light before the timer expired on the previous one. I made my way up the marble staircase to the second floor, down the hall, and into my room. There, I turned all my gear over in hopes that it would dry by morning. Then I brushed my teeth, rearranged my gear, and laid my journal, headlamp, and multi-tool on the bed. Finally, there was nothing left to do but go to bed. So I tucked myself into my sleeping bag and stuffed my three pairs of socks (some clean, some dirty, all wet!) up under my shirt to dry them out with my body heat overnight.

I hadn’t yet decided if I would open the shades to let in the lights from the trailer park or if I’d leave them closed and sleep with the lights on in the room. The idea of Franco and Hitler having been in the building was creeping me out, and since I was the only person staying in this huge house all closed up for winter, with the wind howling and the creaking and knocking echoing through the hallways, well, it didn’t make it any better. By that time it was midnight and I figured I should get some sleep if I was going to leave early in the morning. I fell asleep in about 10 minutes. With the lights on.

After a fitfull sleep, I awoke at 6 o’clock, and the wind had intensified to a steady screeching and howling. I got up and shuffled over to the window, but it was pitch dark and I couldn’t see anything. I stayed awake for a piece writing and debating whether to get up and pack my bag. But I didn’t like the idea of hiking this leg with the wind gusting over 40 mph, since the trail ran along a high exposed ridge. I waited till 8 o’clock, and it was still dark and windy as ever. I couldn’t remember whether the solstice was that day or the next–the end of the Mayan calendar–but it sure felt like the end of the world in that far-off corner of Spain.

The voices of the workers just outside my door woke me some time after 10, and I felt groggy like one does when awoken from the midst of a deep sleep. I got up slowly and contemplated leaving, but the wind was whistling past the house just the same or worse. The workers were in the room across the hall talking about cleaning, since the house was a bit dirty. I began to feel bad that I had traipsed mud through the house, splayed my things all over the place, and laid my tent out in the hall. I got up with the intent to pack and looked at my gear. Several minutes passed, and I neither moved nor made any decisions about where to put things. There was no way I could pack in less than an hour, and by then it would be close to noon. Then I felt the clothes I had hung to dry. They were not dry.

An angry sea

An angry sea

So I put my wet clothes on to dry them quicker and packed away what gear was dry to get ready for the next day’s departure. Then I took my camera and hiked around to the tip of the cape on the seaward side of the Higer lighthouse. I attempted to descend the slope to get a closer shot of the raging sea and was nearly sent careening off the precipice into the crashing surf below. Not good hiking weather.

From the northeastern-most point of Spain, I found a hiking trail that rose and fell along the coast down to the harbor, where I walked around taking photos of the fishing boats, all tied up on account of the weather. This kept me busy, as Hondarribia has quite a fishing fleet with a storied history.

Fishing boats in Hondarribia Harbor

Fishing boats in Hondarribia Harbor

From the harbor, I walked along the coast all the way to the center of town. The clouds had begun to clear, and though the wind still blew, it was turning into a nice afternoon. As I walked around, I felt like I should be spending my time working on the blog, but it didn’t make sense to hole up in a locutorio when the weather was improving and I only had one day–a matter of hours–to enjoy Hondarribia. So I ignored the nagging feeling and postponed working on the blog until after lunch.

Later, after several hours in front of the computer, I wandered around the town until I found the new location for the tourism office. Amos and I had been pleasantly surprised with the helpfulness of the tourism offices throughout the Basque Country on our previous visit, and this time was no exception. The girl working was thrilled to be able to practice her English, and she spoke very well. Her name was Itsaso–Basque for ocean–and though she gave me all kinds of information and chatted with me for a good while, she confessed that she was bored with her job and wanted to travel to Australia or the United States to practice English and get to know someplace new. We exchanged contact information and I left the office with a satchel full of literature, including one booklet on the Camino del Norte, another listing all the places to stay in every town along the route, and a great deal of hiking maps of the area–this useful gem would go on to accompany me all the way to Fisterra.

Back in Franco’s house, I began to arrange my gear with the new materials from the tourism office. There was no way it was all going to fit. Luckily, my clothes had not dried on the hangers, so I couldn’t pack until the morning anyway. I had decided to lock the front door, and was feeling a bit less creeped out by the house. So when I finished reading and writing, I settled in for a restful night’s sleep–with the lights on.

P.S. One month after arriving home from Spain, I received an email from Itsaso telling me she had booked a ticket to New York. After her invaluable help, I got the chance to be her tour guide through Manhattan and Brooklyn!

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6 years ago 0 Comments Short URL

Hondarribia, Part 1

My tent on a beautiful evening at the Faro de Higuer campground, Hondarribia

My tent on a beautiful evening at the Faro de Higer campground, Hondarribia

Just a few days before arriving in Hondarribia, I had told a friend that part of the reason I was on this journey, and the Camino del Norte in winter, was to experience the challenge of cold and hard weather. So it was only appropriate that on my first night in my tent, at the beautiful campsite Faro de Higer, I was hit by forty-mile-an-hour winds (my conservative estimate!) and driving rain, in the early hours of the morning, while I was sleeping.

I’ll summarize the course of events by listing my mistakes: 1) I skipped both breakfast and lunch on the day of arrival in favor of getting to the campground and setting up my tent, trusting that I’d be able to find dinner up at the campground, which I knew had a restaurant, or that I’d have time to hike the twenty minutes into town, neither of which was possible. Instead, I cooked on my homemade Pepsi-G stove, which worked fabulously (thanks Jinky and Meg!), ate the small portion of quinoa, and became very drowsy. 2) I fell asleep at 7:45 pm and slept so soundly that when I woke up at 9:30 pm, I felt like I had slept all night and couldn’t fall back to sleep until 1 or 2 in the morning. Then I slept so deeply again that I didn’t notice the wind and rain increasing in intensity. The storm continued, and I eventually noticed that my pack, squeezed beside me in the tent, was wet. I shifted things around and went back to sleep. After a while I woke and realized that the  wind and rain had died down. 3) Against all instincts, I discarded the voice in my head that said that, since the wind had already uprooted the tent stakes tree times, it might be a good idea to move to a more sheltered area, while the weather was fair, in case it picked up again. 4) I did not heed the advice of the caretaker in the first place, who noted, upon my arrival, that while the view would be nice out on the open lawn, I might prefer to pitch the tent among the trees to the side, since they would give more shelter in case of a storm, since one never knew what the weather would do.

The view of the Cantabrian Sea from the campsite during the storm

Suddenly, the wind shifted and came whipping in off the water from the northwest at about 40 miles per hour. The windward stake was yanked out of the ground, and the tent collapsed on top of me. With the corner of the tent flapping all over, rain sprayed in through the mesh between the tent wall and floor. I lunged toward the free corner, still half in my sleeping bag, and held the corner down to the ground with one hand while attempting to move my objects into the center of the tent with the other. This failed to keep anything dry, and I realized I had no recourse but to get out and move the tent between the trees. Fumbling around with my one free hand (since the other was holding down the corner of the tent), I managed to extract my poncho from the pack and get it over my head and shoulders, but by that time it would have been just as well to let the tent fly around and put the poncho on with both hands, since all corners of the tent were filled with large puddles.

When I finally got all my belongings over to the trees, and my tent was set up in a mud pit, a campground employee came over and offered me a room. With a tent site costing 11 euros and 60 cents and a room at 10 euros, I decided to stay another night, hang everything up, and wait for everything to dry before starting the hike.

In the end, I got a taste of the hard weather I had wished for, so I guess I can’t complain!

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6 years ago 3 Comments Short URL


In 2008, I ran with the bulls during the Fiesta de San Fermín. Since Pamplona is on the way from Madrid to Hondarribia, I decided to stop there to relive the excitement and to visit the friends I had stayed with during San Fermín. It was great to get to know the city as it is in real life, as opposed to the chaos of San Fermín, when much of the town’s population goes away and is replaced by thousands of people from all over the world, who do a very good job of making a beautiful city look like a dump.

This time I stayed at Pensión el Camino on calle San Gregorio, which was virtually empty. An individual room with shared bathroom cost €25, not a bad price. The owner of the New Harp bar downstairs and the new manager of Pensión el Camino were both very nice, and the pensión was clean and modern. The city itself was quite calm, and I was surprised when I felt like people were staring at me, since this is a city that is quite used to foreigners. It occurred to me that this might have been more a symptom of my own feelings. After all, I had been in Madrid for a week, a city that used to be home, and I had been with friends most of the time. Now I was in a less familiar place, and since my friends were unavailable, I was completely alone.

Café Iruña - great pintxos, friendly people!

Café Iruña – great pintxos, friendly people!

So I decided to visit some of the places Amos and I had enjoyed during San Fermín. First, Sagardotegi Iruñazarra (Café Iruña), where we had eaten lots of txistorra, a type of sausage typical of the area. Just as in San Fermín, the pintxos (tapas) were delicious and the bartenders and patrons were very friendly. Then to Mesón de la Nabarrería, where a Euskaldun (Basque-speaking) friend from Burgos had taken me in 2008 to practice my limited Euskera. This time around, since I wasn’t with a Euskaldun, the bartenders and patrons seemed a bit skeptical of me. It is inevitable that sometimes you will feel awkward when you travel, so I tried to ignore the feeling and enjoy the pintxos.

The next day, I decided to go back to Mesón de la Nabarrería for a bocadillo, to see if the bartenders would be less skeptical. At least I wouldn’t be a complete stranger to them, and after the first visit, they knew I could even use a few words in Euskera. When I walked in, they looked even more perplexed than the night before. After a while, I initiated conversation, and one bartender talked to me for a bit. Of course, he returned to the other end of the bar when we were done, to chat with the other bartender while nodding in my direction. I imagined they were trying to guess what I was all about–it’s obvious I’m not a native Spanish speaker, and I wasn’t dressed like other people, but I speak Spanish well enough and toss around my sparse Euskera any time it’s even marginally appropriate. I didn’t mind if they were talking about me, and I relished the notion that maybe they couldn’t figure out where I was from. And at least they were amused, even if it was at my expense. Whatever they thought of me, this time they said agur (goodbye) when I left, so I considered it a success.

During los sanfermines, people sometimes climb this statue and dive off into the sea of people below. If they are lucky, the people catch them.

During the sanfermines, people sometimes climb this statue and dive off into the sea of people below. If they are lucky, the people below catch them.

Being treated like a stranger everywhere I go is one of the difficult parts about traveling. But I’m beginning to form a strategy to combat this. First, by being selective about the places I go, and by choosing places that suit my mindset or interests. Then if the people treat me downright rude, I don’t go back. If they treat me great, I leave a tip, and go back soon. If it’s somewhere in between, I consider giving the place another shot. I try to remind myself that I am the traveler, so it’s my responsibility to take the initiative and make an effort to show people who I am and to get to know them. Then I leave it up to them to decide how they treat me, and that tells me whether or not to make it one of my regular spots.

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6 years ago 0 Comments Short URL