Week 21: Mi Vuelta a España

16/01/23 – 22/01/23 128 km

The rain is back! By the time I had walked two hundred metres to my local for my final breakfast I was wet through. It was gonna be a long day. I followed the river out of Bilbao, passing the Guggenheim on the way before embarking on a gruelling climb up to a picnic area that offered views back to the city. I saw nothing but cloud. After scoffing a free muffin in the shelter of a pagoda I was back onto the road heading east. The path was treacherously steep and soon became inundated.

I continued like this for the rest of the day, sometimes almost knee deep due to the torrents of water flowing down from the surrounding hills. By the time I arrived at the Albergue in Pozueta I was soaked to the core. I spent the evening drying out my kit in order to go again the next day. Fortunately I had company and for 10€ I was treated to a feast put on by the owners. It was one of the few occasions that I left an establishment feeling as if I had been undercharged!

I needn’t have bothered drying my kit out, as the rain was coming down harder the next day. After a luxurious five hundred metres on the road I was immediately back onto mountain paths and by now water levels were higher than ever. It was a slog, but after five kilometres I sought refuge in a bar in the famous town of Guernica. Having read about the tragedy there many years earlier, I was in no mood for tourism.

So on I went, once more into the rain. The thunder was rolling in from all sides and I was starting to feel extremely vulnerable. After a brief stop in Muntibar I was back into the hills and spent the rest of the day fighting my way up flooded paths before arriving at the Monastery in Ziortza. There was no one there when I arrived and I spent fifteen minutes searching for signs of life. In this short period the rain had turned to snow. Thankfully a monk spotted me and I was finally let into a small room set aside for pilgrims.

The shower and toilets were outside but I was grateful for the small heater and dinner served at 8pm which I shared with a pilgrim who owned a hotel in Galicia. At 9.30pm we both went to the church where we observed a beautiful service sung by the residing monks. It really was an incredible experience and I left feeling very moved. I am not religious but have great respect for these traditions and feel very glad that I had had this moment, given that I had stayed in so many religious establishments along my journey.

That night, during a mad dash to the toilet, I fell down the stairs. I managed to twist my ankle badly before landing in a puddle. After more than 4,000 Kms of walking I had sustained my worst injury going to the bloody toilet. It’s typical!

The next morning when I swung the door open the whole world had changed. It had snowed heavily overnight and there was about five centimetres of snow on the ground. One of the monks came to tell me that I could stay on, but what would I have done! There was no shop, no bar and I feared that it would get worse over the next few days. So I wrapped my feet in bin bags and headed out into the abyss.

By the time I got to the next village I was bombarded by hail stones. There was an electrical storm overhead and the thunder was deafening. I had never seen lightning so bright. It was a combination of the dark sky and the reflection of each strike against the white backdrop. It was both remarkable and terrifying.

After climbing out of the valley I dropped into the village of Hiruzubieta where I stopped for a coffee and more importantly to warm up. Here the snow had melted and I followed a relatively easy path along a stream until arriving at Markina where I finally stocked up on supplies in the supermarket. I thought I had got through the worst of it at this point.

I was heading for the train station at Deba which had been converted into an Albergue. Unfortunately I had to climb back up to 400m before dropping down to the coast. It was wild. By the time I got to the highest point, snow was blowing in from all angles and it was a complete whiteout. Despite the conditions I revelled in the challenge. It was tough going but I finally got off the mountain and the snow subsided the lower I got.

About three kilometres from the coast I bumped into an old boy walking his dog. We walked together for the remainder of the day. It was lovely to have company after so long in the hills. When I finally arrived at the Albergue the host couldn’t believe that I had walked that day. I could!

After another night drying out the kit I was back on the road by 9am the next day. I was shattered. A combination of the previous day’s climb and the technical nature of the walk due to the conditions. Oh, and my ankle! The morning started with a ridiculously steep climb out of the town before following the coast for the rest of the day. I arrived in the town of Zarautz as the sun was going down. Fortunately it had rained less and I was almost dry by the time I arrived. Small mercies.

I was out early the next day. I grabbed a quick breakfast in a bar and was soon climbing again before dropping down to the village of Orio. There I stopped for a coffee before the final climb of the day. Once up into the hills I followed the coast, about ten kilometres inland, before I eventually saw the city of San Sebastián.

When I dropped into the city I was surrounded by people in Napoleonesque costumes and chef outfits. It was Tamborrada, the city’s annual party, and what a party. There were people everywhere, and they all had their own drum (I have long thought that globally Spain has the most drummers per capita). The noise was deafening, the beer was flowing and the mood was convivial.

I checked myself into my hostel and made my way out to the crowds to soak up the atmosphere. I was happy to have three nights in the same place for the first time since Gijón. I was looking forward to cooking some decent food and washing my clothes. The hostel had neither a kitchen nor a washing machine. Nightmare! At least I could rest, despite my low mileage, this had been one of the hardest weeks so far.

Next I head into the foothills of the Pyrenees before arriving in Pamplona where I will start the final push. I have roughly seven hundred kilometres left, but I am by no means finished. Due to the recent cold snap, in particular the snow, I still have some of the most dangerous walking ahead. I also face a night in the tent where temperatures could drop to around -5°c, but don’t worry, I’m well prepared…I’ve bought a hot water bottle and I intend to use it!

1 thought on “Week 21: Mi Vuelta a España”

  1. Man, I’m knackered for you after reading that. You have to put your mental strength to some good use after this adventure, Mike. Where others would falter, you just push on through. Respect!!


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