Rain, witches and France. Espelette, Zugarramurdi and Saint Jean Pied de Port.

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When I first arrived in Bilbao, capital of the world, I noticed flyers posted around town advertising day trips. I’ve always wanted to sign up for one, but never have for whatever reason. I’m not a tour group person, as I prefer to be able to take my time to explore a place and be on my own timetable. However, there are some places that aren’t accessible by public transport, and sometimes you just need to change things up.  Cuando llegué a Bilbao, la capital del mundo, vi muchos anuncios por la ciudad para excursiones a sitios cercá de Bilbao. Siempre he querido apuntarme a uno, pero nunca lo he hecho. Hasta ahora. No me gustan muchos los grupos de tour porque prefiero poder ir a mi bola y tener mi horario propio. Sin embargo, hay algunos sitios que hace falta transporte privado, y a veces hace falta variar los viajes normales. 

When I saw an excursion including Zugarramurdi, a place in Navarra famous for its burning of witches during the Spanish Inquisition, around the time of the Salem Witch Trials, I took the plunge and signed up. The trip included two French villages in the French part of the Basque Country, Espelette, home of peppers, and Saint Jean Pied de Port, a town that has meaning for me as a peregrino on the Camino de Santiago del Norte (and Camino de la Vida)  as it is where many pilgrims start the Camino Frances. Cuando vi una excursión a Zugarramurdi, un pueblo en Navarra famoso por quemar mujeres sospechas de ser brujas durante la Inquisición antes de lo mismo pasó en Salem, me aproveché y me apunté. La excursión incluyó dos pueblos franceses en el País vasco, Espelettte, sitio conocido por sus pimientos, y San Juan Pie de Puerto, un pueblo especial para mi como peregrino del Camino del Norte (Y el Camino de la vida), donde muchos peregrinos empiezan el Camino Frances. 

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After paying for the trip and learning more about the meeting point, I was excited, despite the rain forecast. The bus left from the San Mamés metro stop, and about 2.5 hours later, we were arriving in Espelette (Ezpeleta in Euskera), a French village of 2000 residents famous for its peppers and pepper festival. Después de apuntarme y pagar y enterarme donde quedamos para salir, me emocionó, aunque daba lluvia para sábado. El autobus salió desde la parada del metro de San Mamés, y unos 2 horas y medio después, estabamos llegando en Espelette (Ezpeleta en Euskera), un pueblo frances de unos 2000 habitantes, un pueblo conocido por sus pimientos y su festivo de pimiento. 

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On a rainy morning like this one, there was little going on. I had a café au lait, 2,30€, a full 1,10€ more expensive than on the other side of the Bidasoa River in Navarra, along with a chocolatin/pain au chocolate. El pueblo estaba vacío esta mañana tan lluviosa. Me pasé el tiempo tomando un café au lait por 2,30€…1,10€ más que el otro lado del Bidasoa en Navarra, y una napolitana de chocolate (pain au chocolate o chocolatin en frances). 

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The pouring rain let up some so I could do some exploring, and I found a beautiful bridge near the church. We had an hour and 20 minutes to explore. Durante una tregua de lluvia, exploré el pueblo, y encontré un puente bonito cerca de la iglesia. Tuvimos una hora y 20 minutos para explorar. 

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The next stop was a few minutes away on the bus, back on the Spanish side of the Bidasoa. Zugarramurdi, population 225, is a village tucked away in the Navarra Pyrenees that is famous for the 17th century witch trials. First stop were the caves, featured in the 2014 farce Las brujas de Zugarramurdi (In April, I will begin a feature on director Álex de la Iglesia, which will include a look at this movie). The caves were home to suspected witchcraft in the 17th century. The summer solstice is still celebrated with bonfires here. La próxima parada estaba a unos kilometros en el otro lado de la Bidasoa. Zugarramurdi, población 225, es un pueblo pirineo conocido por quemar personas acusadas de brujería en el Siglo XVII. Primero fuimos a las cuevas, que se puede ver en la película de 2014 de Álex de la Iglesia, Las brujas de Zugarramurdi. (En abril, voy a escribir más sobre Álex de la Iglesia.) Las cuevas era el sitio donde la brujería tenía lugar en el Siglo XVII.

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We walked around the caves, and if it weren’t raining cats and dogs, the views would’ve been spectacular. I was quite thankful to get to the cave where it was dry. The cave is beautiful. Paseamos por las cuevas, y si no estuviera lloviera tan fuerte, las vistas serían espectaculares. Estaba agradecido llegar a la cueva donde no estaba lloviendo. La cueva es bonito. 

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The next stop was the witch museum, and I was so thankful to be inside. The museum tells the history of the witch trials, including a very “experimental film” about the witches. By experimental, I mean lame. The museum was nice and showed a lot about how life was in Zugarramurdi in the early 1600s, when the witch trials took place. Después, fuimos al Museo de las Brujas, y otra vez, estaba agradecido estar dentro de un edificio. El museo cuenta la historia de las brujas, e incluye una “película experimental” sobre las brujas. Experimental quiere decir muy cutre. El museo estaba bonito y cuenta mucho sobre la vida de Zugarramurdi en el Siglo XVII, donde ocurrieron la quemada de las brujas. 

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Entrance to the caves and museum is both around 4.00€, but we had a group discount so I got in for 6€. However, with the ticket to one, you can save 1€ on the entrance to the other. The caves are worth it, but I’m so not a museum guy! La entrada a las cuevas y museo cuesta unos 4,00€, pero con el descuento del grupo entré por sólo 6€ a los dos. Con la entrada a uno, se puede ahorrar 1€ con la entrada a la otra. Las cuevas merecen la pena, pero no me llaman mucha la atención los museos para ser sincero. 

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The sun made a brief appearance, so I walked around the small village, taking in views, before I had lunch at the hostel restaurant, Graxiana, for 12,50. The lunch wasn’t bad, and the homemade yoghurt was delicious. Salió el sol durante un rato y aproveché para explorar el pueblo, mirando las vistas bonitas, antes de comer en el restaurante del albergue, Graxiana, por 12,50€. La comida estaba buena, y el yogur casero estaba super rico. 

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At 15:30, after exploring the town and getting wet a few times, the bus took off for our final destination, Saint Jean Pied de Port (San Juan Pie de Puerto in Spanish, Donibane Garazi in Euskera, St. John at the foot of the mountain pass in English) is a village of about 2000 habitants, but it feels a bit bigger. It’s located on the River Nive about 5 miles/8 kilometres from the Spanish border (I know for pilgrims it feels much longer!) and is a traditional starting point for the Camino Frances. A las 15.30, salimos por el destino final del día, San Juan Pie de Puerto, Saint Jean Pied de Port en frances, Donibane en Euskera. Es un pueblo de unos 2000 habitantes, pero se siente algo más grande. Está ubicado en el Rio Nive a unos 8 kilometros de la frontera española. (Sé para los peregrinos se siente mucho más largo) y es un punto tradicional del inicio del Camino de Santiago Frances. 

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We arrived about 16:30 and explored the old city walls and the citadel on a hill above the city. I got excited at seeing the albergue for peregrinos on the way. The rain started back up on the way, but it gave us a beautiful rainbow. The Camino provided me with a rainbow to encourage me to retake it this summer in Santander. I mean, it had to be a sign that there was such a beautiful rainbow at the start of the most famous Camino. Llegamos sobre las 16:30 y exploramos las murallas antiguas y la citadel en una colina sobre la ciudad. Me emocioné ver el albergue de peregrinos por el camino. Empezó a llover otra vez, pero nos dio un arco iris bonito. El Camino me regaló un arco iris para animarme a retomarlo este verano desde Santander. Quiero decir que tenía que ser un señal el hecho que había un arco iris tan bonito al inicio del Camino de Santiago más famoso. 

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After that, I went into a Basque gift shop and spoke a little Basque instead of French. I think I know more Basque than French, and I know maybe 30 words in Euskera! The clerk was delighted at my horrible attempt to speak Freuskera (Ni…Bilbon…vive?) . Después, fui a una tienda de regalos vasca y hablé un poco de euskera en lugar de frances. Creo que sé más euskera que frances, y quizás sepa unos 30 palabras de euskera. La dependiente se alegró con mi intento horrible hablar Freuskera (Ni…Bilbon…vive?) 

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I had a crepe before boarding the bus back to Bilbao at 18:15. It was a great day, a great trip and I crossed another place off my Basque Bucket List while seeing two more beautiful Basque villages. Gora Euskal Herria! Me tomé un crepe antes de volver al autobus para volver a Bilbao a las 18.15. Fue un día genial, un viaje genial, y taché otro sitio de mi Basque Bucket List y encima vi dos bonitos pueblos vascos más. Gora Euskal Herria! 

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The joys of hostels.

Once upon a time, I used to stay in youth hostels as they were a cheap way to travel. I didn’t let that cheesy horror flick from the early 00s deter me. However, as I’ve grown older, I’d prefer to pay a couple of euros more and have the privacy and tranquility of my own room. (And in Spain, it’s not that hard to find a cheap pensión or “hostal” (hostel is “albergue”, false friends) After a couple of horror stories, one can imagine why. As I prepare for the Camino de Santiago del Norte from Santander next summer, I am somewhat apprehensive  about the albergues after some of my experiences.

Most of the time, things are fine and people are somewhat normal. They tend to be young university students who are looking to party or interesting older folks who want to see the world in a cheaper way. One of the better experiences I had was in Santiago where I met a guy about my age (I was 27 at the time) who was traveling to see the world, and we went out and had drinks and enjoyed the night. The same happened a few months later in Madrid with a French guy who spoke flawless English and Spanish. In Mallorca the following year, on my worst holiday ever, I met a Brasilian guy living in London who tried his best to seduce me. I turned him down, but we did go out that night. I was so angry I was the only one in the group who knew Spanish and who wanted to meet, you know, locals. Wherever I travel, I am always wanting to meet locals and learn more about the place than I am other tourists.

This spring, I returned to staying in hostels due to Ireland being super duper expensive and a bunk bed in a shared room is more expensive than a private room with a private bath in most Spanish cities. I met some friendly people, but I was on Spanish time (meaning I woke up way too early despite Ireland only being an hour earlier than peninsular time). The hostel in Cork was located a good 20-minute walk from the centre of town, and being there on a weekday meant there was absolutely nothing going on. In Dublin, I shared a room with someone who worked there and an Indian guy who was awake no matter what the time was and on his laptop even more than me. No big problems.

In Pamplona, there was hardly anyone at the hostel except angry German pilgrims doing the Camino Frances who did not understand the Spanish, English and German on their e-mail stating in bold letters that if you cancel a reservation the day of, you will be charged the full night. This is standard procedure in most places in Spain if not Europe. By failure to cancel, the hotel/albergue/pensión misses out on selling a bed, and they need that money in times of crisis. I tried to help explain what the desk clerk was saying in Spanish, and they went off on ME for taking their side about something that had been previously said. The customer is not always right. Lucky for me, the only other person in the room I was in was a madrileño, who in typical madrileño style, did not understand why I ever left Madrid for Bilbao and slept late, missing his important doctoral class he was in town for in the first place.

Another fun time was when I was in Barcelona and went into the kitchen to fill my water bottle and got screamed at by an American “DON’T DRINK THE WATER!” Apparently she thought as Spain speaks Spanish that the water must be like Mexican water and carries with it Montezuma’s revenge. After asking if there was a boil advisory or something, which can happen anywhere, and the girl shrugging saying “You don’t ever drink water in Spain!” I went ahead and filled it up and drank it in front of her. Another American who, like me, lives in Spain rolled her eyes at the tourist and asked me about Valencia versus Barcelona. By the way, I was fine drinking the water. The water from the Mediterranean cities can be a bit hard so many people prefer bottled water, but it is perfectly safe to drink.

In Amsterdam at the age of 21, I just remember the shower leaking through the entire room and me spending as much time as possible outside the hostel.

My first hostel experience was in Barcelona that same year, at 21. It slept about 20 to a room for 10 Euros or so a night. The desk clerk was horrible and unfriendly, and they still had lock outs. So I slept about 2 hours when I arrived at 7 am, and that second night I was nearly pickpocketed and robbed on the Ramblas. Don’t ever walk alone on the Ramblas at night. Now that I’ve spent more time in Barcelona than any other Iberian city that I have not lived in, I just avoid the Ramblas all together.

The best story, and by best I mean HORRIBLE, DISGUSTING, SO BAD IT HAS BEEN FICTIONALIZED IN MY SECOND NOVEL…happened in Rome when I was 26. It was my first Christmas in Europe, first Christmas away from my mom, and I was traveling through Italia for the occasion. I was staying at a pretty famous hostel in Rome. I believe it was the 26th or 27th, my last night in the city. I had seen all the tourist sites and even saw the Pope give Midnight Mass on the 24th. I was tired and ready to go on to my next destination, Milan. At about 5 in the morning, I was suddenly awoken by a drunk guy stumbling in. A few seconds later, there was screaming from the others in the room. WHAT THE **** ARE YOU DOING??

What was he doing? Why mistaking suitcases and the floor for a urinal, of course!

We all rushed downstairs to complain to the desk clerk, who did her best to calm us down as they sent someone to clean the room. When everything was clean, I considered myself lucky that all my stuff had survived the night dry. However, the guy had absconded with some of my rings and bracelets. A small price to pay.

Of course, this is the one experience that sticks with me most about nights staying in hostels…

As the Spanish say, mejor estar solo que mal acompañado.

What are your most memorable, for better or for worse, hostel/albergue experiences? Are they a nightmare for you, or do you love them?

By the way, if you’re on Facebook, you can like Setmeravelles, and you can also follow me on Twitter, although I will say I do Tweet about more than just travel!

Pamplona and Estella. Navarra.

Pamplona is famous for the annual San Fermines (Running of the Bulls) festival each July, but the city of nearly 200,000 people has more to offer than drunken tourists attempting to outrace bulls who are running themselves to their own deaths. I have nothing against bullfighting, for the record, as I understand it is part of Spain’s history. However, I also don’t support it. Neither do most of the Spanish, but that’s neither here nor there.

The capital of Navarra, Pamplona (or Iruñea in standard Euskera), like almost all Spanish cities, has a charming old quarter. The Plaza del Castillo offers Café Iruña, an old café where Hemingway himself is said to have written during his stays in Pamplona. If you’re not having your coffee or meal on the terrace, it’s actually reasonably priced for being in the main square and for having such historical ties.

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The café is located quite close to the “encierro”, the route the bulls take during those 8 a.m. summer runs. Even closer to the encierro is the Arga River, which provided a nice walk through nature.

Another fave for citizens and tourists alike is the Parque Taconera, a park featuring animals. I loved seeing the deer, but children like the chickens and the “pavos reales”, or peacocks.

The old quarter comes alive on Thursday evenings when everyone goes out for “juevintxo”, which is Navarre Basque for “pintxo pote”, when everyone goes out for wine or beer and a pintxo. It was quite difficult to even get to the bar to order, but I had some decent rabas (fried squid, also known as calamares).

For me, the best of Navarra and visiting Pamplona has been the villages close by. Navarra is the gateway to the Pyranees, an area I am dying to explore more. On my first visit in 2010, I visited the Camino de Santiago village Puente de la Reina, which has a beautiful medieval bridge and is charming in its own right. I also visited Olite, home of a spectacular castle on this trip. Olite might quite possibly be the most boring village in all of Spain. It was hard even finding a place to have dinner on this trip. Granted, it was December and a very cold night. I just remember the castle being beautiful and not much else.

On this trip, I decided to visit Estella, or Lizarra in Basque. While a bit bigger than Olite and Puente de la Reina, it still has its small-town charm. Like Pamplona and Puente de la Reina, it’s a destination on the ubiquitous Camino de Santiago.

About 40 kilometres from Pamplona, Estella is built in the hills. They have a stunning basilicia on top of one hill, and a cross if you want to hike even higher. There are a few other Medieval churches and a very small castle ruins.

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I regret not having more time in Estella and spending more time in Pamplona. The people seemed a bit subdued, especially compared with the lively Bilbao where I live. There were quite a few nice cafés, including the Katakrak Liburak, which came attached with a bookshop. However, Pamplona just seemed quiet. Estella, despite being a quarter of the size, was livelier for me. I can only imagine how crowded San Fermines must be though.

In any case, Navarra, Navarre, Naforroa, or whatever language you want to use to call it, is worth visiting outside the festivals.

Set Meravelles of Navarra (that I’ve seen, as of June 11, 2014)

1. Palace of Olite, Olite: 

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2. Puente de la Reina:

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3. The Pyrenees

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4. Cafe Iruña, Pamplona

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5. Estella

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6. Parque Taconera

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7. San Fermines, Pamplona

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