On 5 April 2017 I woke up 2 min before my alarm went off. I love it when this happens. After a delicious breakfast in the lovely hotel I was staying in, which obviously included croissants, cafe au lait et confiture de fraises, I walked to the bus stop from where my bus to Saint Jean Pied de Port (SJPP) was due to depart later that day: the starting point of my Camino. While walking through the maze of streets in Bayonne I realised I felt that sense of excitement building up inside of me – slowly flowing through all of my veins and making my heart jump with joy. I was already on the lookout for fellow pilgrims but the people I spotted were all very well dressed (no Camino fashion) and did not wear huge backpacks.
That morning I also realised that I brought the wrong charger for my mobile phone. This realisation was followed by a short period of frustration and self-shaming – but it just seems this very popular coping strategy hardly ever improves a situation. So – the only way forward was to go into one of those little electronic shops and try my luck by explaining my misery to one of the sales assistants – in French. I was nervous. The last time I had spoken French was years ago and my French is usually best after a bottle of wine or so. However, for the strangest reason – or may I just proudly announce: the person behind the counter understood my request. Although I was being sent to another shop I eventually got what I wanted. Ahh… I just love it when I manage to face my fears – and even better if the outcome is positive.
I then made my way to the bus stop. After waiting at the ticket counter for over 30 min, I realised that the general pace in a small town like Bayonne is much more relaxed – and I like it. The person behind the counter took his time to explain in detail different ticket and travel options to the person in front of me. When it was my turn everything went swiftly though. There was a sign next to the counter telling you the departure times and the price for the bus trip to SJPP – in English. I was being shown in which direction I had to walk and when I turned around one corner I saw them: all the other pilgrims. Dressed in contemporary pilgrim outfits: hiking boots, outdoor pants, fleece, windbreaker jackets and big backpacks with colourful rain covers. I stood a little separate just to take it all in and I could feel the air vibrating with excitement. But at the same time I immediately started questioning my decision. There were quite a lot of people waiting for the bus, the bus ran 3 or 4 times a day – and I did my maths: I would not be the only one walking the Camino. The bus trip to SJPP was beautiful and picturesque – but the roads were winding and I felt a little nauseous. Behind me two American women were chatting loudly. I felt a bit stressed. Additionally, I was very surprised to see lots of Asians on the bus and immediately thoughts from my past experiences in Asia popped back into my mind. Had the Camino turned into a mass tourist event?
My mind only calmed down a little after we had arrived in SJPP. While everyone else was busy making their way into town I rested on a bench right next to the bus stop where I changed my outfit. I exchanged my sandals (which I had fashionably worn with socks) for my hiking boots and put my hat, sunnies and my sunscreen in the front pocket and off I went.
Saint Jean Pied de Port
A town that traditionally has been an important point on the Way of St. James, as it stands on at the base of the Roncevaux Pass across the Pyrenees. It was the pilgrim’s last stop before the arduous mountain crossing.
These days it is one of the most important starting points for the Camino Frances. Approx. 12% of all Camino pilgrims start their Camino in SJPP. It is a beautiful town with old picturesque buildings, a church and the ongoing influx of pilgrims from all over the world has given this small town a very international atmosphere. It also provides everything a pilgrim could ask for: albuerges, restaurants and numerous shops where you can purchase pretty much everything the modern pilgrim’s heart desires. However, probably one of the most useful institutions in this little town is the pilgrims’ office (picture on the right above). Run by some very friendly and helpful volunteers you can get information on the weather forecast (which is important when you cross the Pyrenees – quite often the pass is closed due to bad whether conditions) and on accommodation options. There you can also obtain your Credencial del Peregrino and/or a scallop shell for your backpack (remember that they were supposed to ward off thieves – this might still come in handy nowadays). The most useful things for me were a little brochure with information on accommodation options in each town on the Camino Frances, incl. number of beds, prices and whether they served dinner and a leaflet that provided an overview of the 34 sections of the Camino Frances.
After a brief stroll through this beautiful little town I felt restless. After all I had spent many hours on a bus the day before and I was just ready to go. However, it was already too late to cross the Pyrenees that day (great, the first section of the Camino is also the most strenuous one), but I knew that there were two albergues on the way up the mountain – which would break-up the crossing nicely.
And so I started my Camino.
Full of energy, full of excitement, a little bit nervous.
Initially, I had only planned on walking 5,4 km uphill to an albergue in a tiny village, called Huntto. I did not see any other pilgrims on my way up. The countryside was beautiful. Very green and hilly. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to take water with me (ahh, the experienced traveller and pilgrim) so I was extremely relieved when I finally reached Huntto – just to find out that apparently no one, except of a very sleepy dog, was present. The albergue still seemed closed. The good thing though was: they had a water fountain and even a little bar – where you could just take whatever you desired and they trusted people to pay the correct amount. How nice is that….trust.
Now, I found myself in a bit of a dilemma though. The lady at the pilgrim’s office in SJPP had asked me whether I wanted to book my accommodation ahead, because the last albergue (called Orisson) before one crosses the Pyrenees often booked out quickly. Because I hate to plan and I don’t like the idea of booking ahead I declined her offer. Great idea, Verena (self-shaming is always helpful). It was already late in the afternoon. I could either walk up to Orisson, which was only 2,3 km away and just find out whether they had any availability or walk back to SJPP and do the whole crossing the next day. But hey, going back is for wimps ;). Although 2,3 km doesn’t seem like much it did take me much longer than expected – because damn: it was steep. I had just started the Camino and I was already struggling… When I finally reached Orisson it was already close to dusk – and thank God, they still had a bed for me.
What followed was a very fun and social evening with good food, wine and lots of laughter. And I loved how international the group was: Mexicans, Australians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Germans etc. Nothing beats the excitement you feel when you start something new. It is almost like a little crush on life. It is like the moment just before you kiss someone for the very first time. The air vibrates and is electrified.
But as with every crush you will have to sober up at one point. And that happened already during the first night. It was the first night on the Camino for most people. I was sleeping in a 12-bed dorm. Let me keep it short: not much sleep for me (and I guess, for quite a few other people too). Some people had set their alarm to 6am and that was pretty much the alarm for everyone else too – except you are a heavy (extremely heavy – almost comatose like) sleeper. I prefer to start my mornings relaxed and too many people and too much bustle easily stresses me out. Even though I knew it would be a long day of walking, I took my time and was one of the last people to leave – and I loved it.
It was a beautiful morning and apparently the first day the pass over the Pyrenees was open for this season. Yay! I was mainly walking by myself and even though I saw a few other pilgrims in the distance I experienced a sense of solitude and peace.
The further I proceeded the colder it got. While in SJPP spring had already arrived – it still was extremely cold in the mountains. The path, however, was clearly marked and I even passed two emergency points with free wifi, just in case you run into trouble.
And then I crossed the border into Spain and ‘Salut’ changed to ‘Hola” and ‘Merci’ to ‘Gracias’. The first Spanish province I walked through was Navarra.
A few times I passed by other pilgrims. Sometimes we just acknowledged each other by mumbling a ‘Buen Camino’ but sometimes I ended up walking with other pilgrims for a short while. At some point (just when it had gotten extremely cold) I started walking and talking with a woman. She was around my age and we had a good philosophic discussions (I guess, a philosophic debate is a good way to keep warm). But even the best conversation comes to an end at some point. And that is when you need a smooth exit strategy. My exit strategy usually involved a ‘see you later’ and an increase or decrease of my walking speed. She, however, just started to walk faster without saying anything. I have to admit, it took me a moment to understand her motivation. And that is why I picked up the pace as well. Additionally, it was very cold and I was looking forward to a hot shower. That, in turn, forced her to increase her speed even more. I think she must have thought that I was a bit creepy and probably regretted having started a conversation with me. But yeah, you do need exit strategies on the camino – sometimes. 🙂
After a long day of walking (19km – not that long but crossing the Pyrenees made it a bit more challenging) I arrived in Roncesvalles – a small village 4 km from the French frontier. In Roncesvalles there is a large albergue which can sleep up to 200 people. And believe it or not – even in April (not peak season) it was pretty full. It is a very modern albergue. Each floor is basically one large room that is divided into 4-person cubicles (in my guidebook they referred to it as the snorer’s room – oh dear God, help me). I was glad that costs had come down. While I paid 36 EUR for a bed, dinner and breakfast in France, in Roncesvalles a bed cost only 12 EUR (I cannot remember how much food was – but I think it was around 10 EUR for dinner).
What followed was a cold beer, check-in, shower, dinner. For dinner we got served the pilgrim’s menu which usually included an entree, main dish and dessert and water and wine! Or wine and water or only wine – in my case ;).
I had a few interesting and entertaining conversations that evening but my highlight was something rather unexpected. After dinner me and another pilgrim rushed to church to attend the pilgrim’s service. As far as I remember, that was the first time in my life that I was excited about attending mass. It was all in Spanish and the church was packed. There was a really nice atmosphere and we received blessings for our Camino (at least that is what I understood). After mass was over and most people had left (me and my companion for some reason were still there) the magic happened. One of the priests took us on a tour around the church – and one of the pilgrims translated into English. But what was magical about it? A simple answer: his passion. He was so excited and so playful at the same time. It was pure joy to watch and listen to him. See, and here is the difference. This could have been just another church somewhere on this planet. But he turned it into something magical – because he showed us what he saw – and what he saw was something magical. He had no intention of converting us – all he did was enjoying himself. And I find, people who have passion and who are playful with their passion, they radiate.
Sleep that night, in comparison, was not a very passionate and radiating story. The snorers snored and the bag rustlers, who usually get up at around 5:00 am to walk in the dark for whatever reason, flashed their torchlights and started packing their bags.
The next morning I left Roncevalles at around 7:30am. For breakfast I had something from a vending machine in the monastery – welcome to the modern times.
I am not really a morning person, so I do enjoy walking by myself – especially in the mornings. And I found that this was not always easy on the Camino Frances – even in April. There were always other pilgrims right in front of you – right behind you. As soon as you stopped to take a photo someone would catch up with you. “Buen Camino”, “Buen Camino” – but sometimes I just wanted to get lost in my thoughts or feel the connection with the universe and enjoy the solitude and I didn’t want to see another human, let alone speak to another person. When, at some point, I sat down on a big rock right next to the Camino, I felt like I am on a pilgrim highway. Every 2-3 minutes or so another pilgrim walked past. They were all very friendly. But I felt a bit overwhelmed. I started questioning my decision again: Am I in the wrong place? Should I leave the Camino Frances and walk another – less popular- camino? I really enjoy the more intimate encounters, the one-on-one conversations — sometimes obviously also the social part in the evening. But I am just not the person for a mass event.
The weather, however, was beautiful. After walking in the snow the day before, the temperature went up to around 25C at lunchtime – and I started sweating.
That day at some point I decided to leave the path to lay down in a field right next to the Camino. While I was lying there, surrounded by nature, I could hear the voices of other pilgrims in the distance who continued their journey on the camino. I felt I was part of this journey and at the same time – by separating myself just a little bit – I felt I wasn’t. Sometimes it is just like this. By separating yourself just a little from whatever else is happening, life already offers a very different perspective.
My destination for the day was the beautiful little town of Zubiri – a 23km walk. The last few kilometres were tricky though, because of a rather steep descent. I saw a few pilgrims limping and grimacing in pain- a sight that would become rather common. New injuries and old injuries – yeah, your body will remind you of ‘who’ you are on this journey.
After arriving in Zubiri I joined a large group of pilgrims who had gathered by the riverfront. I enjoyed eating some ice-cream and bathed my sore feet in the cold river. In the evening I decided to skip the rich pilgrim’s menu and had dinner in a little restaurant instead: tapas, because, hey, I was in Spain after all. Beers and conversations followed.
I wanted to conculde the day by going for a little walk around the village. The evenings still got rather chilly, so I tried to catch the last rays of sunlight on the bridge. But I was not the only one who had this marvellous idea. Another pilgrim was already there. While watching the sunset we started chatting about our bucket lists and all the reasons why we had decided to walk the Camino. If you look at the picture above you might be able to imagine the setting. And yes, it was bit romantic – so I guess, we were both getting carried away a bit by this romantic atmosphere. After the sun had set and it started to get really cold, he suggested to have a beer in his 10-bed dorm. Ahh, take me back to my teenage years. So romantic. So we had another beer in his room (it was still somehow romantic) – but the romantic atmosphere suddenly vanished when the hostel owner walked in with his washing in her hands – asking him whether the pink socks were his or belonged to someone else. I figured it was a good time for me to leave. However, I heard rumours that on the Camino many romances unfold. And I did meet an elderly American and his German girlfriend – they had met on the Camino last year (on their last Camino day) and were walking the Camino together this year.
Sleep, however, was again a difficult matter. I was on the upper bunk that night. And every time the person on the lower bunk moved I moved with them…same rhythm…
I got up early the next day. Early mornings are my favourite time of the day. So I always tried to start walking at around 7- 7:30am. The air was still fresh, it was not too hot and the warm light turned the world around you into a magical place.
This morning the Camino felt less crowded. I had a few brief conversations with other pilgrims while walking and I had some time to think about my life: where am I in life and where I do I want to go. I was surrounded by lush green hills.
I reached Pamplona in the afternoon. The city was insanely crowded. After spending a few days in the countryside it was almost overwhelming. I checked several albergues but they were all booked out. Thankfully I bumped into another pilgrim who excitedly told me about a German albergue a bit outside the city centre which apparently still had some availability. I had planned on staying away from an overly German place – because I enjoy the international experience more and it always leads to awkward moments when other Germans find out that your are German and then just want to speak German with you, although there are people around who don’t speak the language. But anyway, what was of much more importance to me was to have a bed for the night.
The German albergue – Casa Paderborn (6 EUR for the night) was run by two German hospitalleros (volunteers) who were friendly but I was surprised to see that they did not speak any Spanish (at all) and their English was very basic. But otherwise it was a nice place. And they tried to separate females from males, so I was in a dormitory full of ladies – would that mean less snoring?? I was very excited.
After check-in I made my way back into town. A beautiful town, so vibrant – but extremely crowded. I think they had several festivals happening on this weekend. The streets were full of people and it was so lively. It was hard to locate any other pilgrims. I tried to find a place to have dinner but all the restaurants were just packed. So I ended up with some ice-cream and take-out pizza for dinner.
Before heading back to the albergue to join the other pilgrims I sat by the river and read my book for a while. Obviously, I tried to match my choices of books with my current life experience. Some interesting questions were asked in this book which made me think for a little while.
- If a stranger would look at how I live my life, would they recognise all of my values?
- Could I recommend other people to live my life?
And this is the end of this blog post. 4 days into my journey and I walked approx. 70 km.
And for all of you visual people out there, here a little video about my first week on the Camino.
To be continued…..