Getting to Pamplona: Newbies on the Camino

In the early part of the 21st century, the world was going through changes, and so was I. In my mid-30s, it was time to shake things up, time for an adventure. I had been riding mountain bikes for a few years, and had gotten into road riding about a year-and-a-half before. I decided on a bike trip in Europe, and fairly easily convinced my wife it was a good idea.

We talked, and decided: if we’re going to all the expense, and the logistical nightmare of getting us, and our bikes there, we should go for at least two weeks. I only found one trip that was two weeks: The Camino de Santiago. All the other trips I could find at the time were 9 days at best. They were also far more expensive than the trip I found riding the Camino de Santiago. It was settled. In May 2005 we would venture to Pamplona and ride the Camino with a group of people we would meet the night before – starting the most ambitious undertaking of our lives.

We made it to Spain! The description of the trip I read said the way to get to Pamplona was to take the train from Madrid. I never even thought that Pamplona must have an airport, and we could just fly straight there! (we have every year since!) There we are standing outside of the Madrid airport, the two of us, our big gray bike boxes, a giant backpack each (it’s our first trip = overpacked, I have 5 pairs of shoes!) one rolling carry-on each, and we both had a smaller bag for fragile stuff. There is a vast sea of taxis, stretching down a six lane road, out of sight around the corner. None of them would fit me and my stuff, much less the both of us and the mountain of possessions beside us. We ask the taxi stand attendee sheepishly “grande taxi?”, he stands up on his tippy-toes, and looks down the line of cars, “no!” he says, and turns around to continue with his day. We slink back over to the wall with our giant baggage carts, and wonder aloud what to do? A nearby homeless dude, dressed in rags with his toes poking out of his shoes says “come with me, I can get you a grande taxi”, and a bunch of other stuff in Spanish that I don’t understand. He motions for us to follow him by waving one of the plastic bags full of stuff he is carrying in the direction of the parking area. We look at each other, and say “what else can we do, we’re screwed otherwise”, and follow. He takes us to the corner of the parking area, and looks very happy that we actually followed him. He runs up to a random person, and asks to use their phone. To both of our surprise, they hand him the phone, he makes a very brief call, and hands it back. Rushes back to us, and says triumphantly “grande taxi, si!”. We’re skeptical to say the least, and tell him “if no taxi in five minutes, we’re outta here!”. To where, I’m not sure, but we aren’t going to be fooled, I guess? Sure enough, four-and-a-half minutes later, a van with a taxi sign on top, comes swerving through traffic, and stops right at our feet. Homeless guy is elated, and scolds me for doubting him. We offer him a couple of Euros for helping us, and he looks insulted! Won’t accept a penny. Turns out not everyone is motivated by money, he just wanted to help us out. This was just the first of many lessons I would learn courtesy of El Camino de Santiago.

Once the van dropped us in front of Atocha, the train station in Madrid, we got our mountain on new carts and started to maneuver through the station. It’s beautiful inside, birds are singing and flying about, and there are some trees to relax under while you wait. We decide to find our “gate”, and wait the 3 hours there so we don’t have to move the mountain more than necessary. We are, of course, first in line. The crew manning the gate shows up an hour or so before the train is scheduled to leave, and we exchange pleasantries. After going through all their prep, and waiting until about 15 minutes before departing, they inform us we can’t take large bags on the train. It’s a commuter train, and the only storage is an overhead shelf. We try to explain that we bought the tickets online, 5 months ago, and it didn’t say anything about baggage restrictions. They tell us that’s too bad, but doesn’t change the fact that this is a commuter train, and there is no room for our mountain. After some back-and-forth, they sigh, and say “go ahead, but don’t do this again!” We’re over the moon, thank them profusely, and rush down the ramp with our giant carts. As we approach the train, a conductor stops us and says “you and your mountain are not welcome here, this is a commuter train!”, or words to that effect. We explain the scene at the gate, and assure him they told us it was okay, but “not to do it again”. He informs us that this is his train and he could give a flying rip what they said at the gate! So again, after much back-and-forth he also resigns, and says “okay, but don’t do it again!”. Over the moon again, profuse thanks again. We rush to pile all of our stuff in the very limited space between cars, it pretty much fills the entire area, making passing from car to car difficult at best. We collapse in a couple of seats nearby, sweaty and breathing hard. The on-board conductor comes in and asks whose crap is blocking his passage between the cars? “It’s ours” we say as we raise our hands slightly. We are once again informed that this is a commuter train, and large baggage is not allowed. We tell our tale of the gate, and the other conductor, and our feeble apologies. Not impressed, he tells us that this is HIS train, and he has no intention of having our mountain block his passage for the next 5 hours. It must be removed. As he starts to go back over the baggage limitations of this particular car, we lurch to a start. He throws his hands in the air and walks away.

Pamplona! Finally! Just a taxi ride away from relaxing in our hotel, taking a hot shower, maybe lay flat and not be sitting up airline or train seat style. The security guard at the train station, seeing our puzzled faces, lets us know there is a taxi strike going on. Great! What do we do? I look around the parking lot, hoping to offer someone way more than enough money to take us to our hotel. Not one car will fit half of our mountain, much less the two of us. Defeated, I ask the security guard what he would do in our shoes? He suggests waiting for a bus to stop, and quick as possible, pile all our crap on board while repeating that we don’t speak Spanish. I look at the mountain skeptically, he agrees that we have a ton of stuff, and it’s a long shot, but what choice do we have? The bus stops, we start piling our mountain in the aisle, and the driver starts shouting and waving frantically. We assure him “no habla” repeatedly, and he just throws his arms up and sighs the sigh of resignation. The other riders don’t even flinch at our mountain. They lift their strollers over it, asking us to help them maneuver around it, but never show any sign of disapproval, or inconvenience. The bus drops us 5 long blocks from the Hotel Europa, and it’s hot. No carts to help, we have to schlep our mountain the old fashioned way. We carry, drag, push, and curse our way there. Of course! The lobby is one floor up, no elevator, no offer of help. Hell, we’re already drenched in sweat. So we start shuttling stuff up piece by piece. Exhausted and visibly moist, we have made it to the START of our adventure. In two days we would begin what turned out to be a whole new chapter in our lives.

 – Kempton Baker, Bicycle Adventures Head Guide



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