I approached the church from the side, walking down a pebbly street that was bordered on both sides by open fields. The road was quiet and so was the area around the church, so quiet that I soon realized something was wrong. Not another person was in sight, there wasn’t a single car in the dirt covered lot. And then I saw the sign: “Eunate. Closed on Mondays.”
The walk to Eunate, a 12th century Romanesque chapel between Pamplona and Puente La Reina, was my first detour on the Camino de Santiago. It had been an easy decision, made the night before as I rested in my bunk bed in the large municipal albergue: this alternate route would add only a few kilometers to the next day’s stage, and would take me to what many consider to be a gem of the Camino Frances. The purpose of Santa Maria of Eunate (or, Saint Mary’s of the Hundred Doors) is unknown, but one of the theories is that it was once used as a funerary chapel. It’s octagonal floor plan is compared to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, and pilgrim remains have been discovered in the nearby grounds (how do we know they were pilgrims? They were buried with their scallop shells!). But Eunate continues to remain a bit of a mystery, with ties to the Knights Templar and with its isolated location- nowhere close to a village or a town, surrounded only by wheat fields and rolling hills.
Taking detours/alternate routes was something I came to love doing on the Camino, and it was all because of this first experience at Eunate. Leaving Pamplona, I was accompanied by Ibai, and we were soon joined by Paulo, an Italian, who’d just begun his Camino that morning. This was only my fourth day of walking, but I felt like I’d been on the Camino for weeks. And I also felt like I’d rather be walking alone. But soon Jorge joined our little group, and then we fell in step with a Spanish father and his young son. We traveled in a pack for awhile, sometimes walking single file down a narrow path bordered by bales of hay and fields of young sunflowers. I loved starting my days on the Camino alone, but I also loved the strange groupings that seemed to just happen, the easy nature of meeting people and walking by their side for awhile.
As we climbed up a large hill towards the Alto de Perdon, I moved ahead of Ibai and Jorge and the Spanish father and his son. But Paulo matched my pace. He was young and tall and athletic, so outpacing him wouldn’t be easy. And after we all stopped for lunch at the top of the hill, with the windmills to our backs and the metal pilgrim sculpture below, I lingered and Paulo waited. Later on the Camino, I would learn how to let someone know that I wanted to walk alone, but I hadn’t figured it out at this point. So Paulo and I walked together for much of the afternoon; at some point we were separated but soon enough I found him waiting for me, leaning against a low stone wall, next to a wooden sign that spelled the word ‘Eunate’.
“This is your detour, I think.” He pointed off to the left. Earlier on our walk I’d told him that I’d planned to take this detour, and now, as he sat against the stone and in the shade of a curly-branched tree, he squinted down the path, tired. “I don’t think I’m going with you.”
So when I took that left and walked down the long road towards Eunate, I was finally alone. And not just alone on the fairly populated Camino path- where eventually you will catch up to someone ahead of you or be caught by someone behind you- but alone. Very alone. I have at least one hundred ‘top’ memories from my Camino, but this is surely one of them: walking and dancing and singing and skipping down that path, under a bright hot sun, feeling far away and free. It’s when it all clicked in my head- that I was actually in Spain, and actually walking the Camino de Santiago.
There was something spectacular about the approach to Eunate; spectacular because of the quiet and peace and calm of the afternoon, and of seeing the chapel appear, if out of nowhere, in the very middle of an empty field. So when I realized Eunate was closed, it didn’t seem to matter. In fact, if anything, I preferred it that way. Closed meant that no one was visiting- not any other pilgrim (at least when I was there), no tourist or local. No one.
I jumped up onto a low wall that ran parallel to a circle of arches enclosing the chapel, and I walked around and around. My backpack and walking stick had been dropped somewhere in the grass behind me, and I stretched my arms out as I walked along the wall. Later, I sat on a bench and ate a bar of chocolate, softened and melting from the hot afternoon sun. Relaxed and rejuvenated, I continued to walk, and soon returned to the main path of the Camino.
I would take other detours in the month that I walked the Camino, but this was the first, and my favorite.