San Martín to Zumaia: 16 km
We woke up in a cow barn, walked on a beach, and fell asleep in a convent. Which, when I think about it, sums up a lot of the Camino del Norte in a single sentence.
There are a lot of ways that pilgrims decide how far they will walk in a Camino day. Some people just follow the recommended stages of whatever guidebook they’re using. Others map it all in advance, making reservations for every night before they ever leave home. Then there are those who don’t know when they set out in the morning where they will stop that afternoon; they walk until they feel tired and then find a place to stay wherever they are. Still others decide the maximum distance their body can go in a day, and they push themselves to test their limits.
For me, every night I study my guidebook, check what my friends and fellow bloggers recommend, and pick a destination that sounds interesting. That’s how, when we set out on Day 3, I knew that it would be a short day, because I didn’t want to miss the chance to sleep in Convento San José. I’m a sucker for a historic building, especially one that promises two beds per room.
The previous day’s rain had turned into passing showers, and we skirted the river near Orio and returned to the ocean, following the coast south past golf courses toward the modern, beachside resort town of Zarautz. This was our first chance to actually walk on a beach, and test how the weight of a pack changes the ways our feet sink in the sand.
At the end of the beach, the path split. We could climb up the steep hill and experience what the guidebook promised were “wonderful views,” or we could follow the sea wall along the ocean. Still entranced by the sparkle of water and the sound of the waves, and conscious of the waves of ominous clouds, we opted for the low route. The path was crowded even with the threat of rain on the horizon, but after the past two remote days it was fun to people-watch, and there was a rowing race happening just beyond the rocks out on the choppy water. I spent a few years rowing crew when we moved to Seattle, and I couldn’t stop watching the smooth motions of the teams as they pulled over swells and against currents. (On further research, they were Basque traineru, originally fishing boats now used for competitive rowing. The videos of similar regattas are super cool.)
We walked with Peter, the Australian we’d met the night before. He was on his first Camino at 74, carrying an enormous pack and relying only on a set of pages he’d printed from Gronze. I tried not to regale him with too many of my old stories and new advice.
We took a break in Getaria to wait out a passing shower and fuel up with tortilla patata and café con leche, and then it was back into the hills for the final stretch to Zumaia.
Though the day’s walk had been short and easy, the final half hour seemed to take forever. We could see the old city, with the blocky cathedral rising on the hill, but it never seemed to get closer. We cut inland along an industrial river, crossed a bridge, followed the other side of the river down, and finally, finally reached the old city.
The hovering clouds reflected my mood of growing impatience as we climbed narrow cobbled streets. The town was beautiful, but I was unsettled.
As soon as I passed through the sliding gate of the convent albergue, though, the peacefulness of the place surrounded and filled me. The sloping garden was a little shabby and overgrown, full of wildflowers and old religious icons. The building itself was spacious and spare, an enormous square of small rooms, each with just two cots and a pilgrim shell.
I loved it.
The rain started again just after we arrived, and I spent the afternoon wandering the creaking halls, studying the artwork and listening to the echoes of history. Even more than the famous grand cathedrals, it’s in places like this—worn around the edges and dented by passing time—that I feel most connected to the Camino as something sacred. This pilgrimage is woven into some of the earliest expressions of the Christian faith, tended and guarded by generations of faithful believers who dedicate their lives to the story behind it.
In fact, late that night, long after I’d gone to sleep in my echoing cell, Eric had one of his “top 3” moments of the whole trip. He and Peter had stayed outside talking, sheltered from the rain by the overhang of a small altar. As the 10:00 curfew hour approached, the albergue’s volunteer hospitalero found them, and Eric started asking questions about the building. The man, perhaps a little bored, pulled out his keys and offered to show them the rest of the building.
A secret tour of a sleeping convent? Who would say no to that?
The hospitalero took them into the shadowy chapel and along some narrow passageways. The building, set on a steep hill, descended several floors below what we’d thought was the ground floor. At one point, on a staircase, Eric’s guide paused to ring a bell. There were still nuns living on the lower floors of Convento San José, he explained, but they were cloistered and not allowed to see other people. He rang the bell to let them know he was there, so that they wouldn’t accidentally come into the hallway at just the wrong moment.
Those sacred whispers of history I’d heard? They were closer than I thought.
(And yes, I’m more than a little jealous that I missed the tour.)