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


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.

Tags: , ,

6 years ago 0 Comments Short URL


I imagine Madrid is like many other large cities, though I wouldn’t know, since the only other big city I have lived in is Boston, which to me just feels like home, and not much of a city at all. When I lived in Madrid from 2007 to 2008, working as a Language and Culture Assistant, I found it alternately fun, stressful, exhilarating, and unforgiving. It also felt especially difficult to be a foreigner there. Even though I tried to fit in, and I had studied and practiced Spanish enough to speak more or less fluently, people were still dismissive of me when I interacted with them in public. But this was far from the case with my coworkers, who often went out of their way to make me feel welcome and to engage in conversation.

The spires of La Catedral de la Almudena

The spires of La Catedral de la Almudena

But I was thinking of none of these things when I arrived in Madrid. I was only looking forward to a week of visiting friends and former students and colleagues before heading north to begin my hike (which you can read about on the About and Itinerary pages). My friends Elisa and Luis had graciously offered to put me up for the week, and I was so grateful to have a place to call home while I visited.

My first order of business was to find a way to get a Spanish carrier for an iphone 3G, which a friend had given me for my trip. That was the last thing I accomplished during the week, and in the process, I had to delete the contents of the phone, including a well-planned music collection for my trip! But I saved myself the 30 euros the electronics stores were trying to charge me to unlock my phone, so it was worth it.

The Cortylandia Christmas display at El Corte Inglés

The Cortylandia Christmas display at El Corte Inglés, near Sol

Between multiple visits to mobile phone shops and internet cafes, I reconnected with many people, and spent much of the week eating at favorite restaurants (like La Montería!), wandering around Retiro (the old neighborhood) and Chueca, and weaving my way through the holiday shopping crowds in and around La Puerta del Sol.

It was amazing to see former students. The same students who seemed so young four years ago are now in the last year of high school, or in university studying to become engineers and doctors and all kinds of impressive professions! I was so thankful that people took the time to come out and see me. I was equally appreciative that I was allowed to give a lesson at the school I had worked at when I lived there. And of course I indoctrinated the students about all the great things in the state of Massachusetts, especially lobsters!

It was a great week of reuniting with people who were an important part of my life in Madrid, but it was also sad to say goodbye again. If there was one feeling that stood out at the end of the week, it was the feeling that I had made an impact on people’s lives, which was both humbling and gratifying. But this visit also made me feel like, at some point during the year I lived in Madrid, I had become a Madrileño. So, after seven days, and despite my reluctance to leave, I rode out on a bus to Pamplona, knowing that I would miss this city, and feeling like I had earned the right to call it mine.

Tags: ,

6 years ago 0 Comments Short URL