Camino del Norte, Day 5: The Monastery

Bario Ibiri to Monasterio de Zenarruza: 27 km

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The final stretch of trail to Zenarruza was steep and paved in what’s called the “original road,” which may look pretty, but any Camino pilgrim will tell you is the absolute worst thing to walk on. Cobblestones are uneven, sinking over time into an ankle-breaking, knee-destroying obstacle course that not even my physical therapist would inflict on me. The stones are slippery in the rain, or in the shade where moss grows, or just in places where they’re worn smooth. It’s the kind of path where you have to watch every step, especially at the end of a long day.

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And Day 5 was long: a little over 27 kilometers (17 miles). The first 20 were remote, passing no towns or services. The sky was overcast but dry, leaving only patches of the miserable mud, and we mostly walked on logging roads through forests and past fields full of calves and lambs, the signs of spring. Walking with Peter, we climbed, and then descended, and then climbed again to a high point of about 425 meters (1400 feet) before the path dropped sharply all the way back to almost sea level in Markina-Xemein. Here, at last, we found a place to sit and refuel with tortilla patata and our refueling beverage of choice (coffee, beer, a shot of orujo…)

We were all tired, my feet were throbbing, and it was tempting to stay in the perfectly interesting-looking convent albergue right there on the square in Markina. Zenzarruza was still almost two hours and another 320-meter climb away.

But the chance to stay in a remote monastery that dated back to the 9th century couldn’t be passed up. The Monasterio de Zenzarruza was a key part of the Camino story along the northern coast. According to their website:

The existence of a hospital to accommodate walkers and pilgrims highlights the importance of Zenarruzaas a place of passage since ancient times.

Shortly after starting its journey, the community had to ask for protection from King Juan I , before the assaults suffered by the two sides that fought in the area in the 14th century; the king agreed to this and made it a condition that a hospital or shelter be erected to receive all those who passed through the place . For their maintenance he granted them the rents of the Church of Bolívar .

And so Eric and I rallied, pulled on our packs, and set off again. Peter, uncertain whether to continue or not, wished us well and ordered another glass of wine. (He eventually decided to make the climb, and arrived not long before dinner.)

We climbed, driven by the rest, the meal, and the ever-present worry that an albergue would fill before we arrived. (That never actually happened; it’s just where my Type-A plan-ahead nature runs up against the take-each-day-as-it-comes nature of the Camino.)

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As soon as I saw the Monasterio de Zenzarruza, I knew that the final push had been worth it. The sturdy collection of stone buildings, fashioned for protection against invaders as much as sacred rites, stood on a hill surrounded by rolling fields of green. At one time, this had been an important collegiate church, sitting at a key crossroad for trade. But in the 19th century, as the pilgrimage to Santiago had started to lose its pilgrims, the monastery declined. Other roads, leading to bigger towns, drew the traffic. A fire burned the original pilgrim hospital. The number of brothers joining the church dropped.

Today, things were quiet, the only sound coming from the low chimes of the livestock bells across the street.

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In fact, I realized as Eric and I passed under the arch and into the courtyard, there were NO other sounds. Where were the people? I knew that there were at least half a dozen other pilgrims here somewhere – a group of young Germans had stopped at our café table in Markina and said they were headed here. And surely there were monks, or monastery staff, or…someone to show us where to go?

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But the courtyard was deserted. The small office/gift shop was locked and dark. I looked into the church and the cloister, but there was no one there.

Just as I was starting to worry, a monk came striding around a corner, his black robes swinging behind him and a calico cat close to his heels.

“I will be back,” he said, in a tone that might be brusque and might just be busy. “But first, the cat must eat.”

I was utterly charmed. (I’d see this same monk later, being followed by a different cat. “We have eight,” he’d explained with a roll of his eyes.)

The next few hours were some of my happiest of the trip. The brother eventually came back and pointed to what probably used to be a storeroom built into the foundation of the complex, where a dozen beds stacked in triple bunks provided us shelter. The showers were warm, and I hung my towel on a railing with a view.

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My first triple bunk

Once the daily tasks were over, I hobbled around, taking everything in. The 15th century church itself, Gothic and solid, reflected the austerity and simplicity that I’d come to appreciate from the Cistercians, relying on soaring ceilings and simple (by Spanish standards) altars instead of walls full of gaudy gold. I circled the building, touching rough walls and pausing before a cemetery.

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But it’s the cloister of Zenarruza that drew me, like almost everyone else who passes by. Old and moss-covered, the grass-filled courtyard reflected light onto delicate arches etched with the scallop shell and the cross of St James himself.

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I sat on the stone floor of the cloister, my swollen feet soothed by the cool brick, the rest of me sheltered from the breeze outside. For a while, I just stopped. I pushed aside my plans for the next few days, or even hours, and I forced myself to just be. I listened to the echoes of my own voice as I hummed Ultreia. I imagined the abbots and brothers walking slowly along the balconies at the monastery’s peak of influence in the 13th century. I watched the shadows move across the stone.

“Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen – that stillness becomes a radiance,” says Morgan Freeman.

 

In that cloister, I found a moment of radiance.

The feeling followed me through the rest of the afternoon and evening. At 7:30, the pilgrims joined four monks, possibly the only ones still living in this fading place, for evening vespers. Their wavering voices echoed across the almost empty sanctuary.

When dinner was over, they directed us to an open window of the refectory, where they passed us a giant pot of hearty vegetable and pasta stew. The church, as it always has, cares for its pilgrims and asks nothing in return (although a small box on the wall was there for anyone who wanted to make a donation, to help support the care of pilgrims who followed us).

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And pilgrims care for one another. The Germans had bought some beer, brewed here at the monastery, from the abbots. A French pilgrim we’d met in Izarbide pulled out a bottle of wine. Those who were bilingual translated. Those of us who aren’t learned to speak slowly and listen intently.

As darkness descended, I made one final lap of the complex, a walking meditation of gratitude.

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And then, while light still lingered on the horizon, I slept.

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