I hardly slept. One woman was making these weird low frequency sounds, like she was trying to communicate with elephants. Another pilgrim sounded like a truck. All night I was terrified to roll out of my small top bed. I clearly woke up on the wrong foot. Or should I say feet? My soles look like raw steaks. Saignants. They even hurt when I am not walking. I am panic stricken. “Alors, tu t'arretes ici?” asks Ernesto, my Pamplona buddy. No, this can't be the end. I fix myself up like a meat man. Once in a my shoes, my feet don't feel too bad. I stumble out of town. The Camino turns into the Paralympics.
The rain has changed the dirt trail into a mud trail. On the first hill, the Way of Saint James becomes the Passion of the Christ. My backpack is my cross. My blisters are my stigmata. I am gonna be lucky to finish this stage. But once the Advil kicks in, I am pretty OK. Now the main challenge is to stay dry. The rain is fine, the problem is the sweat. Luckily, I have 3 dry t-shirts in my bag.
My boots are sinking deep into the muddy footpath. I don’t mind, the soft surface is a welcome gift for my battered feet. I like to think that us Fleming are at our best in the mud. I skilfully plough my way to Ciraqui. On sunny days, this village must be great. Right now, pilgrims are staring miserably at the rain. I change to my last dry t-shirt under a bridge. Yeah, it’s one of those days.
My ego is bleeding as I am sitting at the end of the peloton. Even the old geezers are passing me. The finish line in Estella doesn't come too soon. Ernesto and me score the last beds at the albergue. High five, amigo! It’s a great hostel, a nice change from the Puente La Reina one. Now there's only one joyful task left: doing the laundry. In ice-cold water. Lovely.
Later, as I walk through the ancient city, I am blown away by its Gothic and Romanesque heritage. I limp my way to the Santo Sepulcro church with its stunning gothic facade, only to find a closed door. Same thing at the nearby Santa Domingo monastery. I crawled up those stairs for nothing. Ahhh, are churches ever open in Spain? I try my luck on the other side of town. Several medieval bridges cross the wild waters of the Ega river. The Plaza San Martin houses the 12th century Palace of the Kings - a stunning example of Romanesque civil architecture - and the fortified church of San Pedro de la Rua. I check if the doors are open before limping up 5000 steps.
In the evening, I catch up with fellow pilgrims. Since we're all walking the same stages, the group is slowly becoming a series of familiar faces. The dorm also starts feeling familiar, with the same familiar snores filling the air. I can’t help but laugh.
Puente la Reina to Estella is a short 22.4 km stage
Albergue de Peregrinos de Estella - Calle La Rua, 50 - +34 948 550 200 - 96 beds, 6 euro - open all year from 1 to 10 pm. Outstanding facilities. Big kitchen area, perfect to hang with other pilgrims. Terrace in the back. Laundry room with several automatic washing machines and dryers.
Right opposite is the fancy Rua 33 Pub, with its terrace overlooking the river. Serves good tortilla and nice coffee. The spaghetti was rather poor.