Olentzero – A Basque Christmas Tradition

Over the last number of years, I have let my understanding of the Spanish language subside, mainly due to not using it. So I decided I would give it one more shot and see where it took me. I recently attended a conversational Spanish class in a busy Dublin city centre. The profesora gave us the challenge of talking about how we usually celebrate Christmas and what traditions we have, and we would present this to the class. All well and good. 

Now I need to mention that the profesora has lived in the Basque region of Bilbao for quite some time before moving to Dublin so when it was her time to talk about how she and her family celebrate Christmas, my eyes lit up! There are so many differences to how the Irish celebrate the few days, however, everything is centred around the family. Which is the right way, I suppose.

One of the biggest surprises for me is the Basque tradition of Olentzero – 
the equivalent of Santa Claus in the Basque Country. Olentzero lives or lived (depending on what you believe) in the mountains, is a coal miner and descends to town to give presents to the children on Christmas Eve. He smokes a pipe, is normally dressed in traditional costumes and wears a Basque beret. If you are bad, it is believed that you receive a piece of coal from Olentzero. Better than a Playstation 4 so! 
In modern celebrations during the Christmas season, children dress in traditional peasant garb and parade through the streets with an adult-sized representation of Olentzero while singing humorous songs written in the mythical figure’s honor. It’s also a fairly common practice to hand out candy and treats to the costumed children, similar to the manner in which Halloween is celebrated. 

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Camino Frances 2018 – Los Arcos to Viana

September 14th, 2018 – Day 3
Los Arcos to Viana, 18km

Dark thirty. I wake to pilgrims gathering their belongings. I reach for my phone and see the time. 4.30am. Sigh. I then see that my phone had not charged during the night. Well, I will have no photos today. I decided to turn my phone off until later that evening. With those two pieces of unwelcome news, I turned over and tried to sleep for another hour.

At 6am, I awake again and gather my pack and leave. The Quebecois duo had left, the American lady and Mexican man had both departed. However, I would hope to see all in Viana. I doubt I would see Doug today. So today would be a solo walk! Let’s go! Breakfast was served at 7am in Los Arcos main plaza which I accepted. There are not many stops for water and food along the route today, so it is worth filling up when you can. The Camino takes you past the Iglesia de Santa Maria and over the River Odron. It isn’t long before you are back in traditional Camino territory. But of course, it is still dark as we are expecting a hot day this day. I noticed the whirr of an electricity station on the outskirts of the town. Ok, now for music. I hadn’t had a chance to listen to any music since I started walking. Not that this is a bad thing. I’m in the zone when I walk alone and having some music helps me think, I suppose.

More and more vineyards crop up as I walk westwards. Reaching out to grab a few grapes are so tempting, but a voice inside tells me otherwise. The sun rises as I spot Sansol and Torres del Rio in front of me. Both towns might as well be joint to the hip for they are so close. Torres is bigger and is established on a hill. It takes great energy to get to a cafe and have a 2nd breakfast. I’m sad to learn that Albergue Casa Mari is no longer open. I stayed here in 2014 and really enjoyed it. The Templar church looks magnificent as always.

Although the day starts at about 450 metres, the high point of the day is nearly 600 metres. It is a very hilly day with many rolling ups and downs, it is it not as easy as it may seem. I passed a few pilgrims who were having difficulty and I always said “take a rest, you deserve it, the hardest is behind you. It gets easier”. While others, and more agile than me, walked past me like I wasn’t there. So you get all sort of pilgrims. I enjoyed today, particularly watching the sunrise over the vineyards. Stopping where you are, turning around and watching the sun rise is just essential on the Camino.

I was aiming for Albergue Izar in Viana and I arrived just before midday. The albergue didn’t open until 1pm so I had some time for a drink and some lunch. I walked past the bullring, and down Calle Rua Santa Maria where the Church of Santa Maria stands tall. I took a moment or two just to take it in and then ordered a cafe con leche. I immediately saw some pilgrims who I had met before from Finland and Germany respectively so I joined them for a bit. They wanted to walk on to Logrono, another 10km. But the day is young. The wine festival of San Matteo was happening over that weekend so most pilgrims wanted to be there for the festivities. I, on the other hand, was aiming for Ventosa the following day. I’m not a fan of the big cities. I saw the Quebecois duo also, who were staying in the same albergue as myself. They were fun to be around.

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The entrance to Viana

Albergue Isar is a good clean modern albergue with communal meal and breakfast. It has small rooms upstairs for just 6 or larger dorms on the ground floor. The only problem is that it is situated at the bottom of a short steep climb in the town.

Iglesia de Santa Maria de Viana. In the heart of Viana. ...#caminodesantiago #caminosocietyireland #caminofrances #viana #navarra #spain🇪🇸 #peregrino #elcaminopeople

Iglesia Santa Maria de Viana

I met L&R for the last time on this Camino for a final pilgrim meal and some drinks. The restaurant was on a side street so it was away from the crowds of Calle Rua Santa Maria. Back to the albergue I went after saying my goodbyes and thinking about tomorrow. Most were talking about walking to Navarrete, but my feet felt good, and I have walked before. I think I will make Ventosa. Adelante!

So nice meeting up with L from @somewhereslowly and her husband over the last 3 days as they start their Camino. Tomorrow we part ways. But we will see each other again...#camin

Myself, L&R meeting for our final meal before they continue on their Camin

Camino Frances 2018 – Puente la Reina to Estella

September 12th, 2018 – Day 1
Puente la Reina to Estella, 22km

I was awake at 6am, which is late by my standards. I could hear the clacking of poles belonging to pilgrims passing the hostal so I decided it was as good a time to make a move. It was dark and still, save for the odd van passing through. I was ready to go! I had a good sleep. I was hoping to make it to Estella where I would meet my friends, L&R, who would start their own Camino the following day.

Underneath the arch, over the bridge and out of the town – Goodbye Puente la Reina. Such a fascinating town, rich in history. Queen Muniadona, wife of King Sancho III was the queen (Reina) who gave her name to the town and the bridge, also known as the Puente Románico. She built the six-arched Romanesque bridge over the River Arga for the use of pilgrims on their way to Santiago along the Camino de Santiago. And I was one of them.

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Leaving Puente la Reina

Leaving town, I struck up a conversation with Doug from Canada. He commented on the size of my backpack and I explained that this was not my first time on the Camino. A pack of 7kg is more than enough, in my opinion. The road out of Puente la Reina is a tricky one and needs concentration. There are many ascents also. This was my St. Jean Pied de Port unfortunately as I embarrassed myself after a minute by stopping exhausted. Doug had walked through the Pyrenees. He walked on, enjoying this moment.

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Looking back following my climb from Puente la Reina

I caught up eventually, and we passed through Maneru. Cirauqui is just another few kilometres in the distance and there was no rain forecast. Towns in Navarra have a habit of placing themselves on hills. I’m not sure if it is to make it difficult for pilgrims to walk through them. Joking aside, I have always liked Navarra. Its rolling hills seem to go on forever and the people living there are the best. A cafe con leche y una tostada later in Cirauqui, myself and Doug left this little town and marched on.

After Cirauqui, we arrived at the famed and fabled Roman bridge that have been serving pilgrims for hundreds of years. Some work was undertaken on it since I was here last but you really need to watch your step while crossing it.

 

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Lorca (or Lorka) would be our next town. The trail is made of loose stone and it is very easy to lose your step and fall if you are not paying attention. That is exactly what happened to me! A fun day so far! I was a little bruised but I was on my way again. There is not much happening in Lorca, apart from the fact that it has 2 albergues and a cafe. We stopped for a rest. I had been looking for a walking pole since Puente la Reina and I picked up one here. It stayed with me until Burgos.

Doug had decided to stop in the following town, Villatuerta, for some lunch, so we said our goodbyes and I marched on to Estella. Little did I know we would meet the following day.

It wasn’t long before I was in Estella. It was before noon but the sun was out. “Where was that farmacia?” I stopped at the excellent Agora Hostel for the night. I cannot stay enough about Adrianna and Alfonso and the service they provide. If you are in Estella and are looking to stay somewhere, just go there! I also met Guilhermo from Barcelona, someone who I would meet on and off until Burgos. A gentlesoul.

I would later meet my friends, L&R, for drinks and tapas in the Plaza Mayor until it was time to prepare for the next day. All three of us agreed to meet in Los Arcos the following day.

 

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Back to the Camino Frances

And I can’t wait…

It has been nearly three months since I returned from Santiago and the Portuguese Camino. I had a great time. It was short. Too short. I arrived back and immediately thought “I need to go back”. So I sat down and looked at flights back to Spain. My trips to Spain typically last 2-3 weeks each year so a 10-day trip left a lot to be desired.

So when I heard that a friend and her husband are walking the Camino around that time, I asked if I could join them for a few days. Luckily enough, the response was yes and I quickly booked my flights. So I fly into Bilbao on September 11th and arrive in Puente la Reina later that day after a short bus journey. I meet up with them in Estella the following day, then I hope to walk with them for a few days after that. Hopefully, I will have enough days to walk to Belorado, a town I have many memories of.

So that’s it. I hope to meet people who have just set off on their journey as opposed to finishing in Santiago. I also hope that I can just switch off and enjoy each step compared to the frenziness of Santiago.

Towns Along the Way – Navarra #2

We continue on our journey…

Uterga (map) – 710 kms to Santiago.

utergaUterga is the first town you arrive at after descending the Alto de Perdón. The descent can be perilous at times, especially during bad weather. I remember walking into the village in September 2014 and initially spotting its large town hall. It must be the tidiest village I have seen. It is home to 2 albergues and a hostal (Gronze). Albergue Camino del Perdón is perfect for a stop off after the tough climb and descent. However, many choose to walk on to Puente la Reina, another fine town.

 

Villatuerta (map) – 685 kms to Santiago

Villatuerta is a town of just under 1000 residents located 4 km outside of Estella. Although probably of Roman origin, the greatest development of Villatuerta occurred in medieval times and, as a consequence of the Camino de Santiago. Since then it has retained its Romanesque bridge over the river Iranzu, the river that that divides the town into two neighbourhoods. The parish church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, also of Roman origin, it had to be rebuilt in the 15th century. There is the one albergue here, Casa Magica (Gronze), which is well recommended.

Villamayor de Monjardín (map) – 653 kms to Santiago

VillamayorDMonjardinIn 2014 I encountered this village in Navarra. I had stayed just outside of Estella the previous night and had left early that morning. Unfortunately, there were no cafes open in Villamayor when I passed so I had to make do with the wine I picked up in Irache earlier. I wasn’t complaining :). Villamayor de Monjardín is a small town located at the foot of the Castle of San Esteban of Deyo. The fortress walls are well conserved. The main site visited is the Romanesque church of San Andrés, from the 12th century. You should have no problem finding somewhere to stay here (Gronze).

Torres del Río (map) – 636 kms to Santiago

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Torres del Rio is one of the final towns you will pass before entering La Rioja. This small village, located at the side of a hill, hosts of one of the most characteristic monuments of Romanesque architecture in Navarre, an octagonal church of the Santo Sepulcro. I was unlucky not to witness the inside of this church as it was closed the day I passed through Torres del Río. There are three albergues here (Gronze). I really enjoyed my stay in Casa Mariela. The following clip shows you the church of the Santo Sepulcro.

 

Viana (map) – 625 kms to Santiago

Viana is a town that will surprise pilgrims for its rich architecture, wine cellars and, above all, for its extensive history. The last town in Navarre is situated just seven kilometres from Logroño. It has a fortified square, surrounded by a medieval wall, which served as a defensive stronghold during the Middle Ages against the ancient Kingdom of Castile. Its narrow streets, many monuments, and the majestic church of Santa Maria are highlights. The importance of the Camino on the evolution of Viana is evident by the six refuges for pilgrims, of which several traces still remain. Viana often hosts fiestas and is known to have a ‘running of the bulls’.

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Outside the Iglesia de Santa Maria in Viana

Leaving Viana brings us to Logrono and the new province of La Rioja…

 

Towns Along the Way – Navarra #1

You have left St Jean and make the climb up and over the Pyrenees. You have met your first pilgrim friends and experienced albergues for the first time. All part of pilgrim life. A simple life.

Now to briefly talk about some small towns in Navarra, that I have not talked about before. Some are so small that you and your companions will have passed them without looking back. Others not so.

Viscarret (map) – 759 kms to Santiago

Viscarret

Viscarret, or to give it it’s full name Viscarret-Guerendiain is situated in northern eastern Navarra and has a population of just under 100 people. It is 31km from Pamplona. For a town so small and not being a traditional end of stage town, there are a number of options for places to stay (Gronze). The always popular Corazon Puro has unfortunately closed since March 2017. Next stop is Zubiri – where many rest for the night.

Zubiri (map) – 750 kms to Santiago

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For a town of just over 400 residents, during peak Camino season, the population nearly doubles. It is an important stop on your road to Santiago. Most guidebooks list Zubiri as an end stage. In 2014, there were 3 known albergues here, however with increased demand, a number of new albergues and pensions have opened since I have been here last (Gronze). I really enjoyed my stay in Albergue Zaldiko, especially after the difficult descent from the Alto de Erro. Zubiri is Basque for “by the bridge” and one of the town’s features is the Puente de la Rabia over the River Arga. Walking under the bridge was meant to have healing qualities in medieval times. The next day brings you to Pamplona, your first major city on the French Way.

Zabaldika (map) – 735 kms to Santiago

Before you reach Pamplona, however, you will reach a signpost pointing you in the direction of Zabaldika. Not a town, but a parochial albergue in Iglesia San Estaban.

 

Zariquiegui (map) – 716 kms to Santiago

Zariquiegui

Zariquiegui not only wins you 200 points in Scrabble, but it is the last town before you make the ascent to Alto de Perdón. You can read a post I wrote dedicated to this particular Alto here. A sleepy village of less than 50 residents, Zariquiegui has the one albergue (Gronze). In 2014, I had stayed in Pamplona and found this town as a perfect place for a second breakfast. Walking to Puente la Reina can be tough as not only are you gradually climb from Pamplona, you also have the demanding descent from the Alto de Perdón.

Next town, Uterga…

Photos from The Way

I have another two or three posts to write before I complete my Camino from September but I before I did that, I wanted to tell you about one of my Camino family member’s photos.

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Anna, who walked to Logrono with us, has quite a talent in photography and some of her shots are superb. We were blessed to have good weather also so the sun brought out the best in the hills, valleys and trails. You can check out her photos on her Flickr site here. Some of her photos make mine look plain ordinary 😉