Azkoitia - Urrextu/Zumarraga -June 10
Because it was Sunday, the hotel reception and breakfast didn't open until 9am, so it was a later start than I would have liked. I had the best tortilla I can remember for breakfast (it was also the first since arriving in Spain so perhaps that's not the most reliable judgment).
Getting out of Azkoitia was a challenge. It was simple enough at first to follow the walking and biking path along the river, but then upon entering the main part of the city,I started following the GR signs, which almost got me in trouble, sending me toward the mountainous route rather than the one which follows the river. My internal compass halted me and I sat down to consult the guidebook and map. I headed back over the bridge I had just crossed and got back on track, arriving at the 11AM Mass in Euskera at Iglesia Santa Maria just in time.
So, by noon, I was finally leaving Azkoitia. Again, I got a bit turned around (word of advice, in the early section, pay close attention to the guidebook...because there are a few routes, the descriptions in the guide are your best resource for finding the right way). I ended up walking in the right direction, but with the river on my left (no-no). My saving grace came when I glanced across the river in the distance and saw a crowd of people descending a path behind the factories - the Syrian refugees Fermín had told me were walking to Loyola that day! I turned around, crossing a bridge I had just passed, and created my own way through the complex of factories, relieved to arrive at the entrance to the path just in time to greet the group of refugees, who were chanting and singing and laughing.
The rest of the way was straightforward, following the old train line converted into a pedestrian path which passes through several tunnels, through the forests and mountains and by the river. Basque Country at it's best, it was like walking through a fairy land.
My old friend Mikel surprised me about 2km from town, and we walked together into Zumarraga, where he helped me find a room at the pension, Balentina. There, we met another Ignatian pilgrim, Jutta, from Germany! After a short rest, the three of us, driven by Emanol, a priest and friend of Mikel's, went to see Ermita de La Antigua. My favorite church in the world, there is evidence from St. Ignatius's letters that he prayed here during his pilgrimage.
At La Antigua, we met with Fermín,the first pilgrim to walk the Camino Ignaciano, and an expert in all things Camino. Raquel, the docent, gave us a quick tour of the church and we spent the next three hours getting to know Fermín and receiving advice on the Camino Ignaciano. Fermín has also written a guidebook, useful for Spanish speakers, which is more basic and direct, and a great size for backpacking (it does not have the spiritual resources of background provided in "The Guide to the Camino Ignaciano").
As the rain came and went that afternoon, I debated the wisdom of making the climb to Arantzazu the next day. Jutta had already decided not to do it, so I would be alone. Nevertheless, I was confident and determined I was capable, and went to bed mentally preparing to tackle that "hardest stage" the next day.
*In 1521, Ignatius of Loyola was severely injured when he was hit in the legs by a cannon in ball in battle in Pamplona, Spain. During a long and difficult recovery in his home in Loyola, in the Basque Country, he passed the time reading about the lives of the saints, and what he learned drastically changed his aspirations. In 1522, he undertook a pilgrimage to Montserrat and Manresa. The Camino Ignaciano, designated in 2011 and which received its first pilgrim in 2012, follows this journey, which changed Ignatius life - a life which changed the world. These are my reflections as I attempt the same pilgrimage, in an answer to the call to take a solitary walk and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
If you are interested in making this pilgrimage, visit www.caminoignaciano.org