We are on the road in the dark prior to 7:00 a.m. to avoid the heat of the day – and to get a spot in an albergue in Estella, a larger town of 14,000 which is 22 kilometres down the road. We begin by walking down the main street in Puente de Reina and cross an impressive 12th century Roman bridge over the Rio Arga. We are hiking the Camino Frances, the most popular of the pilgrim routes, but just beyond the bridge here another trail from France joins ours. We have been cautioned not to take the wrong fork, which would lead us back along a trail toward another destination in France.
We meet two Swiss friendly guys just beyond the bridge but leave them behind when they stop to smoke. The hill is steep and soon we climb an incline to well above Puente La Reina. As dawn breaks the countryside becomes one of rolling vineyards, the skies are mainly sunny and the day begins to get warm. After the lovely hilltop town of Cirauqui, there is another medieval Roman bridge, a short one, over the Rio Saldo, where a knot of pilgrims sit either on the bridge or down by the water to have their morning snacks and to drink from their water bottles.
Albergue San Miguel
It seem a long walk, especially in the heat of early afternoon, but eventually we cross over a lovely stone bridge which puts us into the middle of Estella. After staying in hotels in Pamplona and Puente La Reina, we have opted for San Miguel, a parish run albergue with about 32 bunk beds packed into two rooms. We are just in time. They begin to turn people away not long after we arrive at about 2:00 p.m. They do make an exception, however, for an older man of perhaps 75 and his younger companion, who is blind. The younger man is tethered to the older with a thin rope attached at the wrists. There is no room remaining in the albergue but the two are allowed to spread their sleeping bags under a tarpaulin in the courtyard.
Our first point of contact in the albergue is a somewhat taciturn French man who registers us and says the charge is a donativo, or whatever we wish to pay. We also meet Pilar, a friendly and smiling woman of perhaps 45, who gives us instructions about the rooms and bunks, about sharing the showers, and about the simple breakfast to be served in the morning. She tells us that there will be a mass and blessing for peregrinos at 7:00 p.m. in the nearby Church of San Miguel. We promise to attend but we barely make it because it is Saturday and we have read that often in small towns along the trail restaurants and stores are not open on Sundays. So we head off looking for a small supermarket and get quite lost before we find and buy some bread, cheese and fruit.
Blessing the pilgrims
The mass is attended, in addition to the pilgrims, by perhaps 50 local regulars — mostly older women but a few men too. It is really hot in the church and the women fan themselves as does the green-robed priest as he says the mass. He races through it in a 25-minute no-nonsense way and at the end he invites all pilgrims into an adjoining room. There he engages in an animated talk using a mix of Spanish, English and German and he caps it off by bestowing a blessing upon us. Pilar is there, her arm linked to that of the austere Frenchman who registered us at the albergue, and she is all smiles.
The room in which we bunk down is stinking hot and due to an operatic score of snoring, snorting and grunting that punctuates the night we do not sleep much. Over a simple breakfast of dry cereal, bread and coffee we learn that a number of people vacated the dorms and slept outside under the tarpaulin accompanying the older man and his blind companion.