It is always impressed upon pilgrims that a pilgrimage is different from tourism. The pilgrim has a sacred destination somewhere in the world, but she is also on an internal journey. She is not traveling to take in sights, however beautiful or significant.
Nevertheless, we stopped in Pamplona for two nights and a day during which we toured the city center and rested from walking — or at least, from walking on the Camino. And of course the first thing our guide Mikel told us about was the running of the bulls during the Festival of San Fermin in July. We walked the route, heard the statistics on accidents during the running (surprisingly few), and paused before the bust of Hemingway outside Pamplona’s bullring. Mikel told us a little bit about the Basque language and culture to which he himself belonged, though he was baptized Miguel during the Franco era, when it was forbidden to speak Basque. If any of us were ever to learn Basque, a mysterious language unrelated to any other (except, perhaps, Finnish and Japanese), we would be Euskaldún: Basque-speaking and therefore Basque.
After our tour we dispersed and I ducked into the Café Iruña on the Plaza Mayor for a late lunch of pintxos, the Navarrese version of tapas. I’m not a Hemingway fan, but I was dogging him, a female pilgrim in the shadow of the swaggering writer. He used to hang out at the Iruña, a vast, ornate café from the turn of the last century, full of gilt mirrors and elaborate iron grille-work.
At the bar I ate a toast covered with a square of olive oil-cured red pepper topped with fresh and cured anchovies, a piece of toasted baguette with cured Iberian ham, and another with cured salmon and cream. I ordered a glass of vino blanco with my pintxos and then I ordered an espresso. I was in a state of near-bliss, which had nothing to do with Hemingway but a lot to do with being by myself for half an hour in a European café, eating and drinking food and wine with distinct, vivid favors and textures.
On my right at the bar was a German couple, on my left two French women debating what to choose from the pintxos and tortillas on display (the Spanish tortilla is more like a quiche). I was not a pilgrim. I was my imagined self from my early twenties and for many years afterwards: a cosmopolitan, a traveler, someone who could slip into other languages and customs.
But this morning at eight we began walking out of the outskirts of Pamplona on a narrow, sometimes stony dirt path that wound up the green curves of a hillside to the Alto del Perdón, the highest point of today’s stage. We walked mostly in silence, even when a few of us walked together. The path was fragrant with flowering bushes, bordered with wildflowers, full of invisible bird songs. Much of it was open to a wide and lush landscape dominated by the white wind turbines along the ridge of the Alto. Passing pilgrims murmured “Buen Camino”.
I tried to walk at a brisk pace because I wanted to get as much of our walk done as possible before it got hot. I find it difficult to meditate on any specific subject while I’m exercising, and the Camino is definitely a physical effort even if it’s not “working out.” But the rhythm of walking and the rhythmic tap-tap of one’s trekking poles are also a form of meditation.
It is a language the grammar of which is difficult to systematize or pass on, this walking meditation through changing landscapes. It is not spoken by cosmopolitans, it would have been too monotonous and devoid of drama for Hemingway. It is as unrelated to tourism or the sophisticated traveler as Basque to any Indo-European language. But walking the Camino is also blissful, and belonging to it, if only for a few hours, is my Euskaldún.