Last year we found a brochure offering a pilgrimage on the 200km Aragon Route, a side arm of the Camino de Santiago or Way of St James in Spain. Most pilgrims take the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela. The Camino Aragon runs further east beyond Pau, over the Somport Pass along the River Aragon to Jaca, where the river turns west. The Camino Frances is joined at Puenta la Reine. We saw ourselves as walkers rather than pilgrims. The scenery was truly magnificent, the villages ancient and inspiring and we had real luck with mostly dry, clear weather.
Our itinerary began in Pau, in France, where we met the other 10 walkers in our group. We used public transport to near Urdos then, shouldering our packs, headed upwards on woodland paths, along stream beds and across mountain meadows to the Somport Pass (1064m) and Spain. After coffee at the café, out of the chill wind, we followed well-signposted, rough, loose tracks downhill to Canfranc Estacion with its closed neo-baronial railway station. The station is enormous, a mainline terminal nestling in a hamlet.
Next day, after a hasty breakfast, we soon branched off along rough paths with good views, eventually to Jaca. A steep climb in the afternoon heat became a regular feature of our trip, but Jaca's medieval town centre is a jewel.
The last town for several days, this was a final opportunity to buy any necessities. The next sports shop was in Sangüesa, three or four days away.
Next morning Jaca seemed loth to let us go. The Camino logo is normally displayed on a pillar by the side of a path: when drawn flat on the pavement it is difficult to follow. On the edge of the city centre we were stymied by the lack of yellow arrows. We soon realised our mistake, tramped through an industrial estate then an untarred path alongside a main road. Our group leader, M, an aficionado of the Camino in Spain, explained that Spanish pilgrims prefer to follow main road routes rather than side loops with less traffic. We turned off the main roadup a steep path, climbing 200m over a ridge to the hamlet of Atares, followed by a difficult hill climb 400m to the upper San Juan de la Peña monastery. This has been converted into a museum with an excellent cafeteria.
There we discovered that the Spaniards drink shandy, just right on a hot day. After a diversion to see the view from the Balcón del Perinea (‘the balcony of the Pyrenees’), we slithered down steep tracks to visit the original monastery, tucked under a towering shale cliff. Our hotel lay 4km away in Santa Cruz de la Serós. It had been a tiring day and this path was difficult, covered with loose round stones. It wound steeply round the cliff face with nasty looking drops to the side and short scrambles over outcrops. Having walked 20km or so over difficult ground some of us were quite tired, and all in all we and M were grateful when we reached our excellent hotel in one piece.
Next day’s route was flatter, to our relief. We climbed over a low ridge and down to the valley floor, then walked into the teeth of a gale force wind. We were glad we were not cycling. We had lunch in a bar in Santa Cilia de Jaca and experienced a recurrent problem: cafés and bars are used to only two or three customers arriving at once. When we, 12 hungry souls, ordered sandwiches and shandy the kitchen was overloaded, and the necessary eggs, bread and ham were rapidly brought by neighbours. The cheese omelette bocadillos were fantastic, but more than an hour disappeared. After lunch we walked along the south bank of the Aragon to Puenta la Reina de Jaca, where we crossed to the only hotel in the village.
By chance a Guardia Civil jeep escorted us across the single lane bridge next morning. Then we climbed the valley sides to reach the village of Arrés, where there’s a pilgrims’ hostel run by volunteers. We dropped again to the valley floor and followed a roller-coaster road from crest to crest. Curious soft white rock formations blasted heat back at us on the way to Artieda, our overnight stop. At 25°C it was a sweaty torment following the road up the hill. The hostel was shut on arrival but we had seating, shade and water and even had time to visit the church to get our pilgrims’ passes, which verify that one has walked the Camino, stamped. The hostel was pleasant, with good home cooking.
After a fine evening meal and a reasonable breakfast we were strong enough next morning to walk back down into the valley towards a large reservoir. In Ruesta, a collection of ruins, we found a bar and experienced a two hour lunch break. Finally bidding our hosts farewell we set off to climb 300m over a ridge on wide forest roads. From the top of the slope we descended to below Undués de Lerda, then puffed up the last steep rise into the village. The old washing tank acted as a welcome coolant, as many plunged their arms into the dark water. We had good views across the Aragon Valley from our modern hostel, especially of an approaching storm front. It rained heavily in the night.
It had stopped raining next morning. M was keen to divert to visit another monastery, rather than taking the short walk originally planned. We argued against this as rain was forecast and several fancied a short day. M accepted the reality of the forecast and the idlers had their way, so we walked along unpaved and paved agricultural roads enjoying wide views across the fields. The sun came out in a blue sky. Not all the local farmers use selective weed killers, so the wheat fields and their edges had fine displays of flowers.
We thought we would be unpopular for wanting a short day until, within a few minutes, a cold front slapped us across the face with heavy, icy rain. We reached the edge of Sangüesa, where we sheltered under an overpass and spent 20 minutes watching the gullies fill with water. Once the rain slackened we wandered, half blind under our hoods and rain-spattered glasses, through the town. Once in the hostel we dried off and went out for a late lunch at about 3pm. That evening we ate tapas in a bar with the Basque equivalent of the Conservative Women’s Organisation. Unfortunately our Spanish is at the ‘hola, adios, si, no, gracias’ level, but it would have been interesting to talk to the ladies, all beautifully coiffured and handbagged. Think Mrs. Thatcher in her prime.
The next morning, with day sacks, we set off into the wind along a main road before climbing up into the hills above Sangüesa on a rough track, spurred on by M who hoped we’d catch the return afternoon bus from Izco, 19km along the Camino. The wind was laden with pollen: Judith suffers badly from hay fever and had real difficulty breathing. The wild flowers and the fruit tree blossom were beautiful, but if you can’t breathe… We neither of us fancied being under pressure to catch the bus so shortly before the halfway point, with M’s agreement, we walked back to Sangüesa.
Sangüesa is an interesting little town architecturally, with former merchant houses lining the main street. It offers most services. The one shop you can invariably find in Camino towns is a pharmacist, with a huge display of foot repair pads, plasters and insoles. Our feet were in fair shape, unlike those of others we saw later on the main trail. Cramp was our main problem, despite taking a daily magnesium salt tablet.
On our penultimate morning we breakfasted early and walked across town to catch a bus to Izco. We followed the Camino along wide agricultural roads to Monreal, where many vultures circled ominously overhead. It was difficult to find the bar by the church in a community centre. This is a poor part of Spain and despite the Camino there are few tourists passing through, and bars are often run as a community service, staffed by volunteers. We spent a long time there: M liked to have at least an hour’s break at lunchtime, but we preferred a shorter break when the afternoon was going to be hot. We set off into the foothills, climbed and dropped on narrow paths through woodland and across meadows as the temperature reached 25°C. This was the hardest day of the trip for both of us and we became the Zimmer Framers – the slowest group – but we were about 20 years older than most other folks. The heat was stifling and a water point for walkers in the next hamlet was a godsend. I was probably mildly dehydrated. Judith slowed down: she is a Type 2 diabetic, which she controls with tablets and diet. Exertion lowers her blood sugar levels, which can be more dangerous than the reverse. At the foot of the last hill we told M to go on and stopped for glucose and sugary muesli bars. We walked very slowly up the hill into Tiebas, like climbers at altitude in old films of the Himalayas. Fortunately there was not room for all in the taxi to Puenta la Reina, so as we waited I ordered ‘Spezi’, a mixture of Coca Cola and Fanta and a favourite German drink in hot weather. It may sound dreadful, but it is good way of getting a quick burst of energy. Judith drank this while waiting for the transport and her blood sugar levels returned to normal: I had a beer.
The day of the last walk dawned badly. The hotel was overwhelmed by 12 hungry guests, so we scarpered to a café and breakfasted well on tortillas, pain au chocolate and coffee. Then we returned to Tiebas and followed a diversion that left the official route, which runs for several kms along a motorway. Fortunately two members of the party had GPS software loaded on their mobile phones and so, after discussions with passers by and a local out for a day’s ramble, an excursion into a builder’s yard and a trip across the loading area of a flour mill (very dodgy), we found the ginnel leading up into the countryside. Unfortunately we then passed a farm emanating the aroma and sounds of pigs being loaded into lorries for their last excursion. Several of our party were vegetarians and found the whole scene very upsetting: I was more concerned with the steepness of the slope. We wandered over hill and dale on quiet roads and farm tracks, stopping only for lunch in Ucar. I found a packet of dried dates in a rucksack pocket and had a brainwave: I fed Judith a date every hour, and this seemed to keep her blood sugar in order. We continued on to St Maria de Eunate, a mysterious unsymmetrical octagonal church, which seemed to be the high spot of a Camino pilgrimage, but unfortunately the church is only open at weekends.
We sat in the grounds of the church and discussed what we’d learned on the trip. In our case that at 75, give or take, we’re probably getting too old for this lark: but I was a coward and didn’t say it.
The Aragon Route is quieter than the Camino Frances. We met six pilgrims in the 10 days we were underway: we then joined the main route in Obanos and in the next hour met about 40 pilgrims walking. Cyclists use the routes as well: many are considerate, ringing their bells and slowing down near pedestrians, but others treat the pilgrimage as preparation for Le Tour, and Judith was nearly taken out as we left a grocers in Puente la Reina by an idiot cyclist zooming along the pavement. Language unsuitable for pilgrims followed.
Modern pilgrims do not carry beloved prayer books or Bibles, as in the past. Instead they carry mobile phones. They need the password for WLAN in hotels, and they need their pilgrims’ passport stamped in order to obtain the treasured Pilgrim’s Certificate on arrival in Santiago. We initially thought the stamps were only available churches, but now bars, hostels and hotels are deemed trustworthy. Our group got most of its stamps from bars.
All accommodation and transport on our trip was pre-booked. On a few days we could use day rucksacks, when either we stopped for two nights in a hotel or a taxi was organised to transport our gear. On five days we carried our belongings. Public transport in this area of Spain is rare, but taxis are easy to come by and reasonably priced.
We stopped in small hotels or hostels. In hotels we had a double room, in hostels we slept in bunk beds in multi-occupant rooms. All our accommodation was clean and comfortable, although after 25km carrying a rucksack I could have slept on a board.
This not an area where people speak English, unlike the Camino Frances. We ate in the hotels or hostels or in nearby restaurants and were often offered a menu. We had several dictionaries in the group and several people who spoke some Spanish, but it still was difficult to sort out what was on offer. Breakfasts were somewhat sparse, and for lunch we either sandwiches or stopped at a bar. Water was a cultural problem. The rest of the group were Germans. We Lancastrians are both against bottled water, for both environmental and economic reasons: tap water is free. We carried stainless steel water bottles and filled these from water fountains, whereas our fellow walkers preferred to drink bottled water, spending between €1.50 and €3 daily, filling litter bins with plastic bottles and earning our disapproval (although we said nowt!)