Camino del Norte Day 4: R&R at the monastery

October 4, 2015
Markina to Monasterio de Zenarruza: 5 miles


Instead of a good morning or how are you, I’m pretty sure that the first word out of my mouth today was, “Nope.”

Followed by: “I’m not getting out of this bed.”

We’d had another bad night. You’d think as many miles as we were covering, we’d be stone cold asleep as soon as our heads hit our pillows, but sleep did not come easily.  There were several factors: we were sleeping in bunk beds and apart from one another, which we dislike.  The mattresses offered minimal comfort, and we both had very particular pains that accompanied us to bed each night.  The biggest problem, though, was that we hadn’t recovered from the epic walk to Deba on Day 2.

It was obvious to me—we needed a rest day.

Dale, however, was reluctant.  We’d only been on the trail for three days; how would our resolve be affected if we took a day off so soon?  Wasn’t it a sign of weakness?  He sensed that my commitment to continuing the hike was precarious, and a relaxing day avoiding the difficulties of the trail might just make it harder to start again tomorrow.  Plus, we had to cover those miles at some point, and he knew that the price of rest now would be longer days later.  He had an itinerary in his head, and in the early days he was loathe to stray from it.

I wasn’t so worried about such things.  The first few days were supposed to be tough—the Camino wasn’t a stroll in the park, after all—but did we have to be freaking miserable?  I felt strongly that we needed to take a day off, and Dale finally acquiesced, admitting that he was feeling pretty lousy himself.  So we decided to hole up in Markina for the day.

Missing the trail

Funny thing is, though, that once we decided to take the day off, we immediately started missing the trail.  That’s how we ended up walking to a monastery in the mountains.  Instead of hiking 15 miles to Gernika, where most of our friends would end up today, we opted to walk 5 miles to the Monasterio de Zenarruza instead.

We knew that this would mean parting with the friends that we had made.  The young Frenchman Pierre would be many miles ahead of us by the end of the day, and it was unlikely that we’d catch Stephan, who had busted toenails and was bussing ahead to recuperate in Bilbao.  When we told Helle our plan, she looked sad but said that she was going to push on to Gernika today, and I was impressed by her stamina and pluck.   Despite being at least a decade older than me, she was a whole lot tougher than I was.  She moved slowly but steadily along the Camino and, other than her promise to her mother that she wouldn’t hike after dark, nothing got in her way.  We hated to say goodbye to Helle, knowing that we wouldn’t see her again unless we skipped ahead for some reason.  It was hard to let our friends go, but we had to hike our own hike.

The walk to the monastery

The trail took us mostly through forest and was pretty and peaceful.

We passed through the village of Bolibar, named after Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan-born revolutionary who led Venezuela’s fight for independence from Spain.  Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia would follow suit.  Bolivia (originally called Upper Peru) was named after him, as was this little Basque town that we were currently passing through.  Townsfolk had built a museum, the Casa-Museo de Simón Bolívar that was dedicated to him, and they erected a statue bearing his likeness. We laughed because this was the home of Bolivar’s ancestors, but his family had departed four generations before his birth, so why the big fuss over someone who had probably never even stepped foot in this little village?

It made more sense once we learned a little more about the Basques’ centuries-long fight for independence from Spain (which we discuss in the next post).


A water fountain for peregrinos in the town of Bolibar. These are commonly found along the Camino, especially at churches but sometimes in town squares and on private property as well, placed there for peregrinos to fill their water bottles.  This is a nice feature of the Camino because we don’t have to carry a lot of water with us each day.


Just ’cause.
The monastery

“Look at this,” I said, indicating the uphill, uneven stone path over which we were scrabbling.  In general I despised cobblestones because they were painful to hike on, but this narrow road, no wider than a sidewalk, dated back to medieval times, and people had been walking on these same smooth stones for over a thousand years.  The idea of it gave me chills.  Even better, it meant that we were nearing the monastery, as this rocky path led right up to the entrance.


Part of the medieval road leading to the monastery

The trail led to several rock steps, and a yellow arrow pointed us in the direction of an arched entrance.  We followed it into the grassy courtyard of the monastery, which consisted of a small complex of ancient buildings constructed from uneven brown rock, moss growing out of the crevices. A courtyard was boxed in by these buildings, one of which was the chapel, a tall, rectangular structure with a portico.  The monastery sat atop a hill that gave us an expansive view of the forest through which we had just walked.

Construction of the Monasterio de Zenarruza began in the tenth century, and additions were made over multiple centuries.  According to legend, an eagle brought a skull to this spot, thus prompting the monastery’s construction.  It is currently run by Cistercian monks, who live on the premises.  There was a small room set aside specifically for peregrinos, although I’m guessing they allow non-pilgrims to stay there as well.  The accommodations were modest, with several bunkbeds, a kitchen area with a sink and microwave, and a long dining table.  Outside there was a small porch overlooking the mountains.

The path of the Camino takes pilgrims straight to the monastery.
The Camino route takes pilgrims straight to the monastery.


Monasterio de Zenarruza
Monasterio de Zenarruza


Check out the relief on the upper part of the wall, which depicts an eagle carrying a skull.  This is the basis for the legend behind the creation of the monastery


The cloister


A sculpture on the monastery grounds


At first we were the only ones there, which was fine by us.  We went downhill about 200 meters to a “town” that consisted of an inn and tavern, where we had a few cervezas and watched part of a futbol game with the locals.  When we got back to the dorm, we found that we had a roommate, a gentleman from the Catalonian region of Spain named Joan.  He was an outgoing, thoughtful fellow, and we enjoyed spending the rest of the day with him.  He spoke limited English and we speak limited Spanish, but despite this we managed to have meaningful discussions on such topics as religion and his opinion on Basque and Catalan independence.  This was Joan’s second Camino hike, and like us he hoped to go all the way to Santiago de Compostela.

Since it was Sunday, there was a short evening mass. I’m not Catholic, but I accompanied Joan to the mass out of respect for our hosts and also because I was curious about a religious service run by monks.  Counting Joan and myself there were six people in attendance.  It was low-key and mostly consisted of the monks singing hymns in Spanish as well as occasional prayers or readings (no chanting was involved), and even though I hadn’t a clue as to what was going on, it was peaceful and enjoyable.

Joan and I returned to the dorm after the service, and shortly after, one of the monks brought us dinner, which consisted of fish soup and bread.  It may sound simple, but it was one of the best meals we’ve had on the trail, delicious and edifying.  We spent a little more time talking to Joan and then all of us turned in early.

We thoroughly enjoyed our relaxing time at the monastery and the evening we spent with Joan.

Dale, Joan, and I taking a selfie
Dale, Joan, and I taking a selfie.

We’ve written a lot about Camino del Norte!  Read more of our Camino blog posts here.