Parallel worlds: Calm, crazy, beautiful worlds

[photograph © Narina Exelby]

An early afternoon run through the streets of old Pamplona which, a few weeks from now, will be the craziest party capital of the world; and a lazy afternoon cycle around La Digue on an old bicycle… they couldn’t be further apart. One, a city where for a few days the population will grow by one million, and where people will soon be running for their lives; the other, an island (population: 3,000) where people ride bicycles and escape theirs.

La Digue island, Seychelles

[words by Narina Exelby]

It’s beautiful what an afternoon on a bicycle can do for your soul. An afternoon cycling through humid, tropical air, through cool tunnels of jungle that can hardly be contained from engulfing the road, and through sea sand that’s won its nagging battle with concrete. In some places, it was futile to even put concrete there to begin with.

This is how it is on La Digue.

The island is the smallest of Seychelles’ three biggest granite islands. Five by three kilometres, there are only five taxis – and hundreds of bicycles. Two wheels: that’s the way you travel on La Digue. At your own pace. Rarely hurried. Lilting a happy “Bonjour!” to people you pass. There are less than 3,000 residents here, and there can surely be few secrets and fewer faces that are unknown if you’ve lived on this island most of your life.

With the freedom of the breeze on my face, I feel as though I’m home; as though pedalling this road, with a gentle sea at my side, is where I’ve always meant to be. Cycling through jungle tunnels, passing granite boulders more lovely than Henry Moore sculptures because they’ve been shaped without purpose or conscience. Wrinkled grooves, smooth curves – there’s something exceptionally nurturing about them. Solid Matriarchal. The great, great grandmothers of the island.

It’s because of the beaches they brood over that people travel here. Soft, white sandy beaches that ease into warm, shallow waters and coral reefs. And they come here for the tranquillity. To live for a few days a life determined by the pace of a simple old bicycle.

This is how it is on La Digue.

Pamplona, Kingdom of Navarra,Spain

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

It was 20 years ago that I first came to Pamplona. Things have changed dramatically but it’s a city that is full of memories for me. Most days I do the same run but there is always something different going on. Never a dull day in old Pamplona.

The first part of my run takes me across Vuelta del Castillo park. For almost half a millennium this has been the heart of the great citadel and today it is the most complete surviving star-shaped fortress in Europe. I overtake several old couples strolling hand-in-hand in the sun and run past a gypsy playing a harmonica on a park bench.

The scene is far less peaceful on the other edge of the park, where a protest march of a couple of thousand people are demonstrating against education cuts. Spain is a country in the middle of an economic crisis and, even in relatively rich Pamplona, we see more signs of this each day. At least this demonstration seems to have connected two sectors of the Pamplonica community that have traditionally been sorely divided: the placards here are almost equally divided between Castiliano (Spanish) and Euskera (Basque). The riot police following behind with their batons, crash-helmets and armoured vans harken back to days that I still recall clearly when Basque separatist demonstrations here were markedly more hot-tempered and occasionally violent.

By now I’m running through the central shopping district, past the monument to the encierro (the bullrun) and around the curved walls of the bullring. About six weeks from now the entrance to the arena will be crammed with dashing white figures trying to escape the bulls.

Behind the bullring I cross the road onto Parque Media Luna. This little park is best known to generations of backpackers as ‘Half Moon Hotel’ and during the nine days of the fiesta there will be hundreds of debauched and drunken party animals trying to catch a few welcome moments of sleep here. I’ve spent many nights sleeping under the bushes here myself.

My path now takes me along the rim of another section of the fortress walls high above the Arga River. The descent down the valley bottom is a long, slow one and I can only be grateful I’m not running this in the uphill direction. The thermometer on my watch reads 27°C but in summer at midday 45°C is not uncommon. I’m happy to have this chance to acclimatize before the full force of summer hits Spain.

On the riverbank my run coincides for the first time with the route of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim trail that brings many thousands of hikers into Pamplona from the French Pyrenees, and shuttles them onward to the sacred city of Santiago de Compostela in far off Galicia.

The camino sticks to the Arga riverbank for a while, cutting past the orchards and vegetable gardens. Pamplona is famous for its succulent and tasty fruits and vegetables. The asparagus in particular is said to be a local aphrodisiac. So are the sweet onions. The local garlic, however, is definitely not. The sound of a cock crowing carries from behind the vegetable gardens – maybe a fighting cock in the Gypsy tenements of Magdalena Quarter. I lived in this quarter for almost three years until recently. Many years ago, while this was still an undeveloped no man’s land I slept rough here during yet another fiesta and one summer a couple of us were ill for an entire week after swimming here.

The river is clean now though and today is the first time this year that I see kids swimming in the river. The steep, slippery weir makes a great slide and there’s even a high rope for swinging into the current for those who are brave (or loco) enough.

Running past the old stepping-stones I keep an eye out for the haughty heron and the beautiful little kingfisher I often see here. But I only see an old magpie hopping under the trees as I run along the series of steel plates that show where the Camino de Santiago crosses the ancient Magdalena bridge. Up on the skyline above me I can see the towers of Pamplona’s grand cathedral looming over the city walls.

Now I’m faced with the steepest part of my run as I head up to the old drawbridge on the Gateway to France (built in 1553). Robinson Crusoe and his servant Friday supposedly passed through this venerable gate; apparently the old sailor chose the mountainous route into France since he was understandably reluctant to travel by boat.

Now I’m in the old city and just over the crest of the hill I run through Navarreria, a predominantly Basque part of the city and the area where the largest concentration of foreign partygoers tends to congregate during the fiesta. Now I turn the corner at Estafeta street and run up Mercaderes. I’m now on the route of Pamplona’s famous bullrun – albeit running in the reverse direction. In front of the spectacular Baroque town hall I pass several pilgrims and three Trappist monks. One of the monks is sporting a beanie hat as protection from the sun.

Now I’m running down the steep slope of Santo Domingo, the most iconic part of the bullrun. In the wall high above me I can see the little, foot-high statue of San Fermin waiting for the blessings that will be offered up to him by the runners at 8am on 7th July. Just before I arrive at the corrals where the bulls will be kept overnight I turn up onto the old walls again. The foothills of the Pyrenees are off to my right and up ahead I can now see the mountains that separate the burnt-yellow plains of Pamplona from the lush valleys and forests of ‘Green Spain.’ Down below the walls are the huge corals where the bulls are kept until the night before their fight to the death in the Plaza de Toros.

I run across the high bridge now into Taconera Park. When I first came here this pretty park was still not much more than a hot gravel carpark. We parked a van here one summer and slept on hammocks among the trees. It’s a shame that the Camino de Santiago doesn’t follow this route, taking in the huge enclosure where deer, goats, peacocks and guinea fowl are kept. Few pilgrims want to add an unnecessary detour onto the end of their long walk down from the Pyrenees however.

I’ve been running for a straight hour when finally I step back onto the grass of Vuelta del Castillo park. I run dot-to-dot along the steel markers of the Camino de Santiago for just a while until they turn to make a beeline for El Perdon – the mountain across which the pilgrims must pass on their way to Puente La Reina, about 30km away.

Happily, I don’t need to continue for anything like that far and the end of my run is just a couple of blocks back from here.

I stop to celebrate my arrival with a litre of energy-packed local horchata (tiger nut milk).


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