Camino Portuguese IX

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(Paris Airport – you can play Where’s Wally – or Robbie, if you like….you’ll only see his hair, an ear and his glasses arm peeking out from beside an elderly white-headed gentleman by the big column)

Lisbon must be one of the prettiest cities to fly in to at midnight! Little orange lights pierce the darkness, looking like a pointillist painting. The bridge spans the river in three pointillist curves, this time in white instead of orange. It looked like a sparkling diamond necklace draped across the darkness. Even to our tired eyes it was a visual delight.

Speaking of  twinkling and sparkling, we had flown out of Paris right on sunset – right over the Eiffel Tower, all lit up, twinkling and sparkling in glorious beauty. Equally glorious was the sunset itself. Paris spread out before us, dark charcoal punctuated by glittery lights….all the way to the distinct black line of horizon. There a cerise so deep it was almost red was painted across the sky, blending upwards into pumpkin orange, then fading into pale yellow which somehow morphed into pale blue. As we flew the blue canopy turned darker until eventually we were enveloped in velvet blackness. The lone bright star which had appeared before the sun had completely disappeared was joined by a myriad more. I thought of a line from one of the movies I’d watched en route – something like “take time to watch sunrises and sunsets”. Good advice, and particularly spectacular from the heavens. But even from the ground it’s usually simply a matter of perspective and having open eyes. I’m always looking for beauty, and one of the things I love about traveling is the way beauty is so easily found.
PS beauty was in short supply from Shanghai to Paris. We were encased in a speeding medical bullet. There was a constant cacophony of coughing and hoiking and sneezing and general throat clearing. And I mean constant. Take, for example, the lady across the aisle from us. She selected from that menu of sounds at least four times a minute for the entire 13+ hours we were on that plane! No exaggeration at all.

Question for the kids: what is the name of that first “star” that appears in the sky? Do you remember watching it at Rabanal?

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9 May: Espelette to Amaiur-Maya

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Good-bye France, Hola again Spain!
Leaving France we said goodbye to French men in berets – some stereotypes are real and we have certainly met many black-bereted Frenchmen in this week.
Another stereotype which we thought we had disproved on previous trips to France was brought to life in this Basque region. After our previous encounters we had decided it was quite unfair to say French people expect everyone to speak French. We have since discovered it just might be a matter of location. Almost without exception when we have greeted and excused ourselves in French and then asked – in French – “Do you speak English?” we have been lectured in response something along the lines of, “You are in France, you cannot expect to speak anything else, we speak French here and you should too if you want to communicate with us.” If the lecture has been absent we have been given The Look that says even more than the tellings off. That said, once we drag out a map and even one word of French (ici?), people are most helpful and reply in rapid-fire French as if the lecture must certainly have imparted to us a sudden ability to understand!

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France and hiking trails. Our limited experience of the GR8 leads us to conclude that it is incredibly well-marked and can be followed without any other instructions or guide. The camino trails (La Voie de la Nive and the Baztan) on the other hand, could do with more comprehensive marking. We are not alone in losing the way – a French couple sharing the albergue we are in tonight got lost three times yesterday – and they were able to ask for instructions along the way! We haven’t fared so badly in comparison.
The countryside in this region is a dream – pastoral scenes, soaring mountains, trickling rivers….all just delightful. A setting most conducive to walking and thinking.
Today’s main thought was prompted by our morning reading. According to Common Prayer, Columba of Iona said, “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.” What did Columba mean? What *is* joy really?
I wondered whether rejoicing our way up the climb was joy. I’m not sure – I did feel filled with a deep content and peace, but I think that’s different.
By Columba’s definition (the echo of God’s life in us), was it joy to choose to be grateful when we discovered our lodgings to be grotty? How does joy figure when you’re missing your husband, when you want to know how the kids in India are doing but you can’t find out for almost another week, when the kids who are here are missing their siblings more than they realised they would?
Even with the gift of hours to contemplate, I got to the top of the last climb epiphany-less. A cuckoo’s call coming across the valley had accompanied us up the biggest hill. I wondered if there was any lesson in that – if there was, I couldn’t find it! If there were answers in the church we visited first thing this morning we had overlooked them there, too.
Maybe the answer is at the monastery we decided not to stay at tonight – we had been advised it is a fantastic place, and when we reached it we were very tempted to stop for the day; it looked absolutely gorgeous. But we knew if we stopped there tonight, we would not make it to Pamplona at the same time as Rob and the girls so we attacked the hill and ended up in accommodation that feels like a makeshift secondhand furniture store (and smells like it too).
We gave thanks for the beds – and I promptly sat down on one to show the kids that they weren’t *that* bad.
We gave thanks for the showers and I explained to the boys that they didn’t have to touch the mould and that they would come out cleaner than if there wasn’t one (and I ignored their protests and enforced use of the facility!)
We gave thanks that in the absence of a kitchen, there were no dishes to do.
We gave thanks for the light breeze to dry the washing – and for the lines and pegs to hang it up with.
We gave thanks for the awesome views, for the strength to walk, for much-needed muscle cream, for being back in Spain following yellow arrows, for the wonderful memories accumulated in France…..
As for joy…maybe we’ll understand that a little more fully tomorrow.

Distance: 26.8km
Cumulative Distance: 228km
772km to go
Weather: mostly overcast
Dinner: leftover dry muesli, half a packet of chips, donut, bread and butter with a hunk of chorizo – very nutritious! (the best we could do with no kitchen, nowhere to purchase anything, and our dehydrated food that we had made at home and sent ahead, lost somewhere in the French postal system)

8 May: Bayonne to Espelette

The car turned on to a small side road and then, somewhat strangely, reversed back and came towards us. It slowed to a stop beside us while the passenger wound down her window and asked us something.
“Espelette,” I answered. Hardly surprisingly, she figured we don’t speak French and offered with the help of mime to take us there.
Mrs Strava, our pet name for the lady in my phone, who (sometimes annoyingly) keeps telling us how far we’ve walked, how long it has taken and how slow the previous kilometre was, had just told us we had completed 29km, so we didn’t mind getting ourselves out of this lost pickle in a vehicle. Plus, we had to be at the Town Hall to pay for our beds by 6pm and we had only a few minutes, so this offer seemed like a divine apppointment! In we clambered and the car took off in the direction from which we had just walked!
“Did we look that lost?” I enquired.
“Yes,” the lady gently smiled back.
We know the exact moment that it happened. We had just crossed a little bridge and our instructions said to turn left. There was even a photo with an arrow. A marker on a post by the path pointed somewhere between where we thought we should be going and a path straight ahead. Having been following the markers successfully all day, we hesitated at this apparent ambiguity. Fortuitously, a couple out walking crested the ridge just at the moment we were deciding to go left, and so I decided to ask them. Espelette was on the path straight ahead they insisted. They didn’t know the Voie du Baztan, but Espelette was definitely where they had just come from. So we ignored our gut instincts and decided locals must surely know better than we would. There was a lesson for us on that path (other than don’t always listen to the natives!!) Huge puddles of stagnant water blocked the way and Micki observed, “People would be drinking this in some places. This is what we’re walking for.” It was a sobering thought.
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Not long after Levi had expressed his view that we might actually be on the wrong path after all, a mountain biker passed us at an intersection. He confirmed Espelette was “ah gosh”! Almost immediately a farmer appeared from the right, followed by his flock of sheep so we asked again – no harm in making sure. Straight on up the winding road.
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At the next inevitable intersection we had no idea where to go. A hay-making-farmer driving a huge tractor soon happened to finish his day’s work and drove to the edge of the field. That was invitation enough for me to stride on over, map in hand. Unfortunately he could not pinpoint our position, but he did point us towards Espelette and we took off up the hill, pretty certain we didn’t have a hope of arriving on time. That was when the miracle car appeared.

Until then it had actually been an uneventful walk. Leaving the cathedral, we joined half of Bayonne walking, running, cycling or rollerblading along the riverside path on this national holiday (celebrating/commemorating French victory over Germans). A signposted “deviation” had added a couple of kilometres, but the path was easy to follow, even if it was less interesting than the previous days. Or maybe it was just that it was hot and our bodies felt tired despite the flat walking. Various aches accompanied us for portions of the path, appearing without warning, and vanishing again just as unexpectedly. The river, a slow-moving thick-looking affair, sat beside us most of the way. According to our guide, there was a wide range of vegetation – all sorts of hedges and maples and alders and elms and ash – but to our tired eyes, there were just trees. That said, the poplars were a pretty picture:
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I don’t mean to sound ungrateful – we are so aware that every step we are able to take is a blessing, we experienced precious conversation over breakfast this morning with our hosts, the sun shone down on us, and organ and bells sent us on our way – it has been a good day. But it is valid to acknowledge that our bodies are tired, they felt sluggish today, they ached on and off (nothing major, just little niggles), the sun sapped what energy we had and at the end of the day, we probably won’t remember this as one of the favourite walking days, even though we did make the 200km mark!

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Destination: Espelette
Distance: 30km
Cumulative Distance: 201km
799km to go
Weather: sunny
Dinner: bolognese pasties, potato salad, couscous salad, cherry tomatoes and Italian mozarella

7 May: Espelette to Bayonne

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“It would have been treacherous to take the road,” the wordsmith of the family commented as we began our cross-country ascent.
The previous evening we had discovered our intended route was too dangerous to be comfortable (think big trucks on road with no shoulder), and so we had pored over the map considering alternatives. Taking the 7:20 bus along that treacherous 4km stretch of road was initially the favoured option, although no one really wanted to use any transport other than feet. But then I noticed that the hiking trail GR8 went right to the village we would be heading for. It would require a 3km backtrack to join the trail, and then the path itself would wind up hill and down dale for a good many more kilometres, but having heard these official French trails are well-marked, it was an alluring proposition.
Sometimes in life you make a decision without fully comprehending at that moment what the full implications will be. This was to be one of those times; it would turn out to be both an inspired and inspiring choice.
The rumours about the trail markings were well-founded. At every intersection, whether in a village or in a forest or at a stile in a meadow, not only would the right way be marked, but all the wrong options had a red and white cross painted onto them to further ensure your success. The markings might be on a tree or lamp post or fence post or wall or the side of a building – an absolute delight to follow. Although the hills we climbed were just as strenuous as ones on previous days, we walked with real peace. There was no low-grade anxiety like yesterday when the instructions had said to take the paved road at the intersection, but there wasn’t one and so we had continued about 4km before being certain we were on the right road.
Actually, it was particularly interesting when the GR8 and La Voie de la Nive merged to the same path. The distinctive red and white GR8 stripes continued to lead us, whereas the blue and yellow Bayonne markers were haphazard at best in their appearance. No wonder it has been a navigational challenge these past couple of days.
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By the time we got to Ustaritz we had covered 25km, it was already 2pm, and Bayonne was still 16km away. Levi and Micaiah both wanted to keep walking. So did I, for that matter. But I was very aware that while we feel good after 25km, it only takes another couple to change your whole outlook on life in general and walking in particular. Yes, we are probably getting stronger – nothing aches now – but were we really ready for a marathon? I decided, against common consensus, that if I could find a bus, we would take it. The section that we would skip today we would be walking tomorrow anyway, as La Voie de la Nive shares that portion with the Camino Baztan, which we are about to begin, so it’s not like we were going to miss out (and we’d had the added bonus of some GR8).
And so it was we went by bus to Bayonne.
Bayonne. What a beautiful little city. The centre is dominated by a beautiful cathedral, where we sat gazing upwards and wandering the perimeter feasting our eyes on the artwork.
The surrounding cobbled streets are flanked by rows of three-storey shuttered houses, and bustling with people. Although the river is wider than Dutch canals, it feels very much like Amsterdam.
It was to one of these houses just a block back from the river down a little alley we were bound.
Here a German-French couple open their home and lives to pilgrims. On arrival we were served kefir (yay – our first since leaving home!) and the evening was spent in animated conversation about food supplies, the church and dreams!
Before tucking in for the night, the boys closed the shutters, which seemed a quintessentially French thing to do!

Destination: Bayonne
Distance: 27km
Cumulative Total: 171km
829km to go
Weather: overcast, 20*C at noon
Dinner: mountain of pasta and cheese and tinned veges + chocolate mousse

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6 May: Helette to Espelette

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This was to be the day we DIDN’T write, “We got lost and walked further than we expected.” But no! 30km to destination, not what we had planned. In an effort to relieve you from the boredom and us the pain of reliving exactly what went wrong, we’ll skip the details.
Straight to the good, the bad and the ugly!
The good:
1) the weather – cool, dry and overcast.
2) a half metre snake spotted beside the road
3) no snakes encountered in the waist high grass we had to walk through
4) cheese and ham crepes for breakfast, two lunch stops, chocolate pastries late, plus dinner
5) watching hay making
6) the views – mountains, mountains everywhere
7) meeting a French pilgrim couple walking the other way
8) super-friendly Gemma from Barcelona at the gite pelerins
9) cute town to finish in
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10) the grace of God on us today – when exploring later (because 30km clearly wasn’t enough!) we discovered the road we “should” have taken today and were planning on taking back to the trail tomorrow, is actually very dangerous. We have been able to make alternative plans and were saved from putting ourselves in a foolish situation. (By the way, for anyone who is reading this for route info……Espelette is NOT on La Voie de la Nive – we had decided to sidetrack from Cambo-les-bains, because there is accommodation here, which does not require making a phone call to use like the accommodation in Ustaritz, the usual stopping point for this stage)

The bad:
1) up and down – mountains, mountains everywhere
2) losing the path (oops, we’re not talking about that!)
3) walking beside a busy 90km/hr road (better not mention that either)
4) sore knee for Micaiah on downhills

The ugly:
1) a bloated pig in the grass beside the road

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Destination: Espelette
Distance: 30km
Cumulative Total: 144km
856km to go
Dinner: microwaved pizza with potato salad and for the boys a Dutch toffee waffle biscuit (given to them by very friendly Gemma from Barcelona)

5 May: St Jean to Helette

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We made it to 100km today!

Around the 15km mark the boys were busy composing a blog post. It was mostly to do with their desire to see a bear and the excitement of finding a snake and squashed frog and mice, and a red squirrel initially mistaken for a possum, and a gazillion geckos and enormous worms, and butterflies dancing together, and hearing a cuckoo, and most of all the 23 large birds (eagles? hawks? vultures?) that soared silently over us. I thought I would add a bit about the amazing 360* panoramic vistas – wherever we looked, north south east west, there were mountains. The views were so impossibly beautiful that we couldn’t help but sing the hills are alive which morphed into How Great Thou Art – at the tops of our voices. We barely noticed we were climbing and the little hiccups of instructions not matching signs were soon put right with the help of map and compass.

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Then we descended to Irissary where we were to get lunch and hoped to fill our now-empty water bottles.
But everything was shut.
Never mind, we’d done 18km and only had four to go – we’d be at our destination in an hour, by 2 at the absolute latest if we kept stopping to take pictures like we had been.
Only we didn’t arrive until 4:15 and those four hours were as hard as the morning’s five had been awe-inspiring.
The problem was a simple one. Our written instructions said things like “turn left to Mandos area” – useful if you know where Mandos is! We didn’t. Or my favourite one: lowering and raising toboggan, top, turn left onto a mile to the bottom of the descent Etchartea. That’s where we got really lost. While we had been eating our lunch which ended up consisting of a handful of peanuts and some chocolate breakfast cereal, I had spied an old lady in the church graveyard. Hoping she could at least point the right direction to Etchartea, I felt confident when she gave very detailed instructions not once, but four times. I came away fairly certain (quite a statement when you don’t speak more French than bonjour, merci, pardon, baguette and voila!) we had to go to a bridge (pont) and we’d see a house (maison) with a balcony (balkon) and go up a hill (cote) and lots of “ah gosh” which her hands helped to explain meant something about turn left. We did all that and it was just as she said – the only problem was that after about 3km we realised we had not seen a direction marker since – oh, I don’t know, just before the church! We backtracked somewhat and stopped a passing motorist to find out where we were. I am grateful to him and the three kids he was taking somewhere for giving us quarter of an hour of their time, trying to put us right. We followed his instructions, but when we got to an “ah gosh” by the maison he had pointed to, we spied a marker to the right and decided to ignore the spoken instructions that we weren’t even certain were well translated and follow the sign. Our happiness at being back on the trail lasted only for the 2km we covered before discovering we were going the wrong way!!! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and while never found the toboggan thingy, we could see where we should have walked.
Then we had to “follow the road ignoring roads to right and left” – which one would you have chosen?

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We, of course, went the wrong way, asked a man in his yard, who turned us around and told us in the only English of the day, “Not far – by car!”

By now, our parched mouths made us think frequently of charity: water. When an elderly gentleman filled our bottles with cool fresh water, we understood a little more what a gift it will be to those who get a water source at the end of this!
We still had a long way to go and by the end of the day had covered 30km. Although the boys had been keen to blog when they were being wowed by mountains and big black birds soaring above us, their enthusiasm had waned by the time we trudged into Helette’s main square and even the ten pack of icecreams we shared and the pottles of potato salad only recharged them enough to do washing and journal entries!

Destination: Helette
Distance: 30km
Cumulative Total: 114km
886km to go
Cold foggy start (needed fleeces, gloves and scarves) through to HOT
Dinner: couscous and nasty stew out of a tin (we’d have eaten at a bar if one had been open – but after being concerned that we would not be able to buy anything, we were most grateful the wee grocer was open. We had prayed “give us this day our daily bread” and we bought the last three baguettes so we would be sure of having lunch tomorrow!)

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4 May: Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port

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The first stage is over. The two words that best describe this time would be “hard” and “adjustment”.
Adjusting to a different time zone
To being just three of us
To different money
To different language
To different food (which we love!)
Adjusting our plans

And HARD….(I asked the boys what they had found hard and here is what they said):
Rain and cold
Only having three of us here
Longer distances than last time
Language
Sore legs

It is fascinating that hard does not mean bad.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James 1:2-4
And it’s true – right before my eyes the boys are maturing. Through seeking to consider hardship as joy they – indeed we all – are finding blessing.
I suspect the wonderful meal we enjoyed in the company of other pilgrims last night was made all the better because of the hard day. I suspect finding a bed so late the first night was all the sweeter for having wandered lost for a few hours. I suspect being sodden has made us more grateful for Albergues with heat than we otherwise might have been. I realised I was taking for granted the blessing of having a phone charger – until it broke, and then the effort to get a new one helped us to really appreciate it….furthermore, we ended up in a much nicer place than we had planned. We are also grateful for every piece of equipment we have brought – with the exception of sunhats and medical supplies, we have used everything we packed – including thermals, gloves, scarves and sleeping bags, which we had contemplated leaving behind.
Most of all, we are really grateful for the Common Prayer book we read from each morning before departing – it amazes us how a book written by someone who doesn’t know our situation could be so incredibly relevant. Take one of today’s prayers, for instance:

We will proclaim your bounty and your blessing, O Lord. We will sing to one another the song you have put in our hearts. Our feet will bring good news to the ends of the earth. Help us, Lord, to live out our promises. Amen.

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Just after reading that we toddled off to a Basque church service and God whammed the songs they were singing right into our hearts. Our hearts felt full to overflowing as the organ music filled the space and soared to heaven, with the songs and prayers of the congregation and yellow-robed priest. Gloria in excelsis deo and a gazillion alleluias – and we could join right in, here at the end of the world where we are trying with God’s help to live out a promise walking on these (slightly swollen today) feet of ours.

No change in destination or mileage.
Dinner: artisan baguette, creamy cheese and Spanish chorizo – same as lunch, impossible to tire of!

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3 May: Roncesvalles to Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port

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Pretty as a picture. You’d be forgiven for thinking we’re just doing the tourist thing and have forgotten all about charity: water.
But that picture shows only a snippet of the day, and not a representative moment by any means.
Not wanting to push the bodies too far too fast, we had decided to take an easy day today – just 14km to Valcarlos. That was until the phone charger refused to work late last night. Some people pooh-pooh the idea of technology on pilgrimages, but for me it is a means of sharing the experience with those who are not able to physically be here, but would like to be. Relationships matter.
Today is Saturday – if I did not get a charger today there would be no chance until Wednesday. Unless we found people who would lend us theirs, we would not be able to blog, to message family, to track our daily distance, to read the spreadsheet of details or the instructions for the next stage. When it became apparent at 6am that no one was suffering, we decided to just go for it and put in another long day. We were advised NOT to go over the mountain due to the poor visibility and mud, but to go around the low route. That doesn’t mean it was an easy day. We are still walking “backwards” along the track, and when we lost the path today, we didn’t ever manage to find it again. We were stuck on the road for over 20km, which in and of itself is
a) hard walking
b) dangerous
c) boring and
d) longer!
It was a day when we just did what needed to be done. We kept putting one foot in front of the other as fast as we could to keep warm, and hoped we were heading the right way. While no one complained, it was not enjoyable. The rain fell in torrents from the moment we stepped out the door.
There was a not-too-demanding uphill beginning and when we got to the ridge (at least we think it was a ridge – we really couldn’t see more than a few metres ahead) it was amazing to see the rain drive across in sheets. It was like seeing panes of glass fly! As we had neared the top, we had realised there was a large white house off to one side in an open meadow; it was so camouflaged in the haze that we almost walked past without seeing it! Which is exactly how we missed the first signpost and in doing so added extra distance. We could hardly see even the trees that were close to the path – they emerged from the mist as dark silhouettes lacking any detail. The mist/fog/haze was so thick it was like trying to look through a wall of marshmallow. We heard mountain streams trickling and torrenting down, yet did not see them until we were upon them. We didn’t hang around to marvel at the way they crashed down the cliffs – we just kept moving, sometimes not seeing much more than the drips falling from our poncho visors. Within an hour our pants were so wet that water was wicking up our legs under our rain gear. Have I mentioned it was miserable? At one point with a steep drop off to one side Micaiah astutely observed, “Well, if we fall, at least it’s just into a barbed wire fence.” He was trying hard to find the positives!
We were reminded that what we were walking through is also what we are walking for – water!
And I contemplated that the one day of difficulty for us is really nothing in comparison to the hardships lived by those without water.
Then when I fell flat on my face in a gutter while trying to get off the road to avoid oncoming traffic, it made me remember that those we walk for face real danger.

By the time we got to Saint Jean- Pied-de-Port, the clouds had disappeared, revealing the hills we’d just been walking through. We found…actually make that *I*, not we – the boys were aching and so they sat with a Canadian in his mid-seventies who is just about to start walking and who could spin a great yarn while I disappeared with the guy’s son, who was equally outgoing, to track down a phone shop. Mission accomplished – found a charger and can now publish a blog post! That was one minor accomplishment, but the whole day felt like a major one!!
Destination: Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port
28.6km
Cumulative total: 84km – 916km to go
Cold, driving rain, mist
Dinner: typical French four course affair…soup and bread + pasta, beans, cutlet + salad, bread and cheese selection + apple cake with chocolate mousse

2 May: Zubiri to Roncesvalles

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Knowing we were heading up into the mountains today, we had thought this would be a good day to blog about the camino motto: onward and upward. Of course, the upward is supposed to be figurative, but for us today it was very literal…..elevation gain 863m.
We had thought we would have stunning mountain panoramas to share as we went upwards. But no. It rained ALL day. Light to middling drizzle, but enough to make for discomfort. Thankfully our rainwear performed admirably and we were among the minority to arrive with dry pack contents.
We didn’t look upwards much today. We had to watch our feet.

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Partway through the first ten kilometres which took three hours to complete, I suggested the boys come up with a life lesson from today.
Micaiah’s related to the fact that we went the wrong way and had to backtrack – he said that if we go up the wrong path in life we can always turn around and go the right way.
Levi simply but sagely concluded: be careful and stay positive. I am happy to say they both excelled. 28 upward kilometres in the rain and cold (oh so cold), trudging through mud step after step, being sent the wrong way, choosing the wrong way ourselves….and they did not complain once. Then, to top things off, when we arrived at the monastery they did their hand washing without being told to and soon after cooked dinner (rumour has it that they argued at this point, but I did not witness it as I was sitting in the WARM drying room hooked up to the internet typing this!)
My life lesson was that when the going is tough it is extra important to pay attention to where you are going, to decide in advance that you will move onward and look upward.

Destination: Roncesvalles
28.1km
Cumulative total: 56km (doubled in one day!) 944km to go
Incessant drizzle, 5 degrees
Dinner: boy-cooked pasta with chorizo, pickled veges and four cheeses on a bed of lettuce

Photos are small as large will not upload