Pilgrimage to Gijon
Trip Start Apr 20, 1998
24Trip End Nov 22, 2000
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Most travellers who pass through Pamplona are either holy or reckless. Holy, because they are pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Reckless, because they are running with the bulls during the Sanfermines festival in July.
I was both
It´s not my fault I follow Sporting de Gijón. I always seem to throw my support behind football teams from obscure seaside ports. In England it is Grimbsy Town, not exactly the jewel of the English east coast. But here I was making the long journey to Gijón, via the Basque cities of Pamplona and San Sebastián, for the opening match of the season.
Outside the bullring in Pamplona is a small monument to Ernest Hemingway. He made this city famous in his book Fiesta. Now for a week in July people come from all over the world to get pushed, stamped and crushed on the cobblestoned Pamplona streets. The 800 metre route goes through the heart of the old town, though the runners would probably be oblivious to the neat, attractive buildings.
I saw the video of this year´s running of the bulls. The bulls did well. In the first running they stamped thirty men and sent six to hospital. One man, running next to a huge black beast, belted it in the head with a rolled up newspaper
Once the fiesta ends the town returns to the Spanish. Or rather the Basques. Pamplona is in the province of Navarra, one of three Basque countries of northern Spain. This means you see a lot of red, white and green Basque flags, bilingual street signs and references to independence. You'll still feel you are in Spain, just don't tell the locals.
It is a city with a calm elegance. Apart from the hordes of rollerbladers it lacks the bustle of many Spanish cities. I spent most of the day in the three parks in the east of Pamplona. During siesta there are more seats than people.
In the Parque de la Ciudadela the walls of the fortified citadel still stand. It is now the home of deer and peacocks. They remained oblivious to me as I watched tortoises and goldfish swim together with ducks and swans, sharing corners of their world peacefully, which doesn't always happen in the Basque countries.
It is said once you seen the bullring you see Pamplona
The city's flats and houses are elegant with steeples and domes, and its Parte Vieja (Old Town) is about as atmospheric as an old town gets. It is not as old as you think. It was destroyed in 1813 when the English routed Napoleon's forces from the city, and slowly rebuilt in the years following.
I was warned accommodation was difficult to find in the summer season. I found a pensión in San Jerónimo named after the street. An elderly lady in her cooking apron tried to sell me a single room for 6,000 ptas (£23). I told her 4,000 (£15). She vanished into the kitchen, argued with a hidden voice, and returned. 5,000 but I had to stay five nights. I didn't back down.
"4,000 y dos dias."
"No," she said.
"Sí," I replied.
I shrugged and made to lift my bag but she stopped me
She was friendly though. On her advice I took a walk up to Monte Urgull Parque. At its pinnacle is a large statue of Christ. He is regally blessing the city rather than embracing it as he does in Rio. The view over the bay from this pleasant hill is a good indication why San Sebastián is so popular. It has cathedrals, plazas, a clean beach and gardens. It also has a small, green island in the bay with a solitary building jutting out above the trees. People can't resist small islands with whimsical buildings. From all over the bay people were kayaking, rowing, sailing and even swimming to it. I wanted to swim it, even in the cold Atlantic water, but I never did.
Instead I took an even longer walk up the hill directly opposite Monte Urgull Parque on the north side of the bay, Monte Igüeldo. It promised even better views but what I got was a long, sweaty walk and a 50p entrance fee to a rather awful fun fair. There was what had to be the oldest rollercoaster in the world and loud, crackling Spanish music. I quickly took the funicular down (90p return, making the walk a waste of time) just in time for the weather to turn and the beach to empty.
That night I went bar hopping
I walked down one street, Fermín Calberton, where the bars are the most plentiful. I found a seat at the bar. A group of locals next to me were picking off tapas at great speed. I thought it better to ask how it worked. "200 pesetas for each tapa, 400 pesetas for the jamón (uncooked ham) rolls. You take as many as you want," said the barman.
I thought it safer to put three on a plate and pay for them immediately. You can end up spending a lot of money on bar snacks. Each tapa in the bars were bite size baguette slices with toppings such as boquerones (very small sardines), calamares (squid) and tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette).
In another street filled with bars, 31 de Agosto, I found a small bar with cheaper tapas (150 ptas). The locals were drinking what I thought was whisky but what turned out to be small shots of beer. It is served in glasses called zurritos. Tapas and zurritos allow you to finish up quickly and move to neighbouring bars. It also means there are very few drunks in the street as you probably eat more than you drink.
It was difficult getting to sleep that night. I wasn't sure if it was from too many boquerones, my favourite tapa, or the brass band next door that broke into jubilant renditions of Basque tunes every ten minutes. They played until 2am and then the next day accompanied Napoleonic-era cavalry and soldiers through the Parte Vieja streets. The soldiers stopped and fired their muskets and then the band stuck up a rousing marching tune. "Is this a typical weekend?" I asked a local. "It is the start of the boating fiesta," he said. "But it is typical".
The seaside atmosphere of San Sebastián kept me here longer than I planned. Sporting were playing, I hoped, on the Sunday evening and it was now Saturday afternoon. Gijón was six hours away so I was forced to detour Bilbao, a Basque stronghold east of San Sebastián. A few years ago this wouldn't have been a bad thing but now Bilbao has the Guggenheim Museum. It is filled with art from the New York Guggenheim with a lot of local input from Matisse, Picasso and Dalí. Most of the bus emptied at Bilbao with day trippers from San Sebastián.
Such is the sacrifices of the holy pilgrim. Not that Gijón is such a bad place. During the Franco era it became the resort of choice for his cronies. It still remains an almost exlusively Spanish resort. It is also ideally placed, with an excellent city beach and the largest national park in Europe, the Picos de Europa, just 25 kms away.
I tried to find someone who could tell me if Sporting were playing tomorrow. A sign on the front of the Sporting de Gijón store advertised "Excursión Universidad las Palmas", which indicated to me they were playing away. Palmas is in the Canary Islands so they were also playing far away.
A friendly waiter at an exclusive lady's club (I walked in thinking it was a football social club) confirmed, to my relief, that they were playing at home. He showed me how to get to the Estadio el Molinon and what I should pay for a ticket. Several ladies sauntered over to observe. They had crackly old tanned skin and expensive gold earrings. Their husbands probably owned yachts in the local marina. They were openly surprised that a foreigner would support their club.
I spent the few hours before the match watching the surfers at the excellent city beach, and then wandering through the three gardens which surround the stadium. The Parque Isabel la Catolica is the most pleasant, where young children in smart cord overalls chased chickens and threw bread at peacocks. Elderly men in pressed white shirts read the newsaper while their wives fanned themselves with the newspaper supplements.
The football ground lifted my spirits, which were worn out after such a hot day. So this is what the pilgrims who first see the Wailing Wall, the muddy waters of the Ganges or the Sanctuaries of Lourdes feel. The stadium was plastered in the red and white stripes of Gijón and the pounding drums of the faithful behind the northern end echoed around the ground. The chants for the local team were filled with the promise of a new season.
The first year I started followed Sporting they were relegated from the Primera division and have never been back. This could be the year, and the crowd knew it. They had two new Brazilians, a Russian and three Argentinians. Palmas, recently promoted, were all locals from the Canary Islands.
It was a poor game. Palmas had only one decent shot on goal and Sporting were not much better. Even when Palmas were visibly exhausted and Sporting surged forward the scoreline refused to budge. The chain smoking fan next to me stood up, swore at his idiota players and left. Soon after the Sporting players departed the stadium to a chorus of sarcastic whistling.
I left the stadium surrounded by subdued Sporting fans. They seemed to say, "Well, here's another mediocre season to look forward to." It didn't matter. It is the journey rather than the destination which makes pilgrimages rewarding.