The Camino de Santiago is the name given to any of the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. There are many paths to Santiago, the most (in)famous being the Camino Francés, (French Way) which starts on the French side of the Pyrenees and continues West for around 780km to Santiago de Compostela.
I’m not sure when I first heard of the Camino de Santiago, I can recall people talking about walking 500 miles across Spain and I’m sure my former boss told me about it after one of my epic running adventures. It re-entered my consciousness last year after returning from the USA and hiking on the Arizona Trail. Whilst I absolutely loved the experience and still think every day of the people I met and places I saw, the amount of kit I had to carry just to stay alive in the desert made it extremely difficult. I wanted to try something of a similar distance, but where I could travel very light, carrying minimal kit but still be challenged – albeit in a different way.
So, as 2016 wore-on my mind wandered back to the Camino and I started finding myself looking at websites, maps, trip reports and YouTube videos. I watched, (and re-watched) “The Way” – a film starring Martin Sheen and a documentary called “Six Ways To Santiago“. Both of which are about people walking the Camino Francés. I’d also started learning Spanish and so everything seemed to point to this being an ideal adventure for 2017, there was water, food and accommodation every 10km so I could travel light, using hostels along the way. However – I’d also be in a foreign country where English was not the first language and while the terrain didn’t look too challenging, 780km is still a long way to walk. Plus, the idea of communal living in hostels doesn’t fill me with joy – give me a tent and a secluded bit of land with a campfire instead of a room filled with strangers in bunkbeds any day!
So, I bought the excellent John Brierly guide book to the Camino Francés, booked a one-way flight to Biarritz and ordered the all-important Credencial del Peregrino, (Pilgrim Passport) from the Confraternity of St. James in London which allows the holder to stay in the pilgrim hostels, (albergues) along the Camino. It also serves as a record of the pilgrimage by allowing the holder to collect stamps, (sellos) from albergues, churches, bars etc. along the route. On arrival at Santiago, if the pilgrim can provide a credencial showing that they have walked at least the last 100km evidenced by at least 2 stamps a day then they they can receive a Compostela certificate written in Latin. Regardless of your motivation for doing the Camino, it’s a nice memento – and the different designs and colours of the sellos are a good reminder of the journey.
As this was going to be such a long journey I kept a daily journal as I knew that I’d forget about things along the way. Something that seemed to work well on the Arizona Trail, the journal entries combined with photos taken refresh the memories of the people I met, things I saw, places I went and emotions I felt. I’m going to break down the adventure into a series of blog posts as it felt like there were several very distinct “stages” to the journey. I intend to write a short section for each day, including any interesting photos, journal notes and the sellos collected for that day. There may be some ramblings about more general topics along the way if I think they’re relevant or interesting!
The first stage is all about getting to the start of the Camino Francés from Cardiff.
Day 0: Cardiff to Bayonne (Flight / Bus)
“Still not in the right mindset for this Camino but am slowly getting there. First contact with fellow pilgrims has re-enforced the the idea that meeting good people along this adventure will be very exciting” (Journal Entry)
The National Express to Stanstead airport leaves Cardiff at 05:00 so I’m up at 03:30 in order to make sure everything in my house is shut-down, switched-off and put into hibernation mode for the foreseeable future. I’m not exactly sure how long I’m going to be away, a month? Maybe more? Everything perishable is thrown out, the heating put into holiday mode, WiFi turned-off and a single light put onto timer mode to provide an illusion of occupancy at my house. At around 04:30 I lock the door, put the key into the bottom of my rucksack and head out in the dark to start a new adventure.
The National Express to London is fine, but the journey to Stanstead takes hours through the centre of London. I become increasingly frustrated by the traffic, which does nothing to calm my nerves and I become increasingly anxious and nervous about this trip. Again-and-again I think it would be very easy to get to Stanstead and just turn around and go home. I keep asking myself “why am I doing this?”, and “what is the point?” and I can’t come up with a decent answer. But somehow I keep moving forwards and get through security at Stanstead Airport. I decide to treat myself to a pint or-two in the airport Wetherspoons which calms my nerves down and before I know it I’m on the Ryanair flight to Biarritz. We’re past the point of no return now, it’s a one-way ticket….
Arriving at Biarritz it’s a short bus journey to Bayonne and whilst waiting outside for the bus a group of 5-or-6 people with backpacks form, it’s pretty obvious we’re all off to walk the Camino so a conversation strikes-up fairly quickly. I get chatting to an elderly couple from South Africa who are walking the Francés, they have twice walked the Camino Portuguese from Lisbon and are back for more. We chat about lots of things on the bus journey to Bayonne and I feel an immediate connection to these people – familiar from ultrarunning and my time in Arizona, a strange bond.
I have a hotel booked in Bayonne and after checking-in, walk into the city to find the start of the trail tomorrow. Most people get the train to St. Jean Pied de Port, (St Jean) from here, but I’m planning on walking the 80km to the start of the Camino Francés over the next couple of days. Why? well – let me try to explain.
The Camino Francés, along with the other routes is increasing in popularity every year. 2016 statistics say 277,915 people received a compostela in 2016 with 63.37% having walked the Francés – albeit not all do the full 780km, many people do it in sections – walking 1-2 weeks at a time. Others just do the final 100km from Sarria in order to obtain the compostela certificate. Reports of overcrowding, full albergues, commercialisation and litter increase every year. I really struggled with my decision of which Camino route to do, the Portuguese and Norte routes are similar in distance, arguably more scenic and tougher with fewer facilities and hillier terrain – so probably better suited to my experience. However – I felt that instead of running away from the problems of the Francés, I should confront them head-on and deal with them. I hate crowded trails and love being out in the wilderness on my own, but sometimes you can’t have everything – I knew that choosing the Francés was going to put me out of my comfort zone, I would have to deal with the crowds and hey, if it got too bad, I could always divert up to the Norte route, so I had an escape plan!
I also didn’t want it to feel like St Jean was the “start point” of my Camino, that made it feel too much like a race with a start/finish point. I wasn’t planning on finishing in Santiago either, but instead heading on to Muxía, (another 120km) So I decided to spend 2 days walking to St Jean in the hope that by the time I arrived there I’d be mellow and ready to embrace the Camino as a pilgrimage, well – that was the plan!
Day 1: Bayonne to Hélette (42km)
“I keep forgetting where I am, it could be anywhere…” (Journal Entry)
As with the start of any big adventure, a mixture of nerves, excitement, adrenaline and anxiety got me up and out of the hotel pretty quickly and I was on the road by 07:30 after a quick breakfast. There is an official route to St Jean from Bayonne which initially follows the river Nive. It’s not brilliantly marked, so I had maps and instructions translated from French with me.
The first 22km was pretty uninspiring and flat along the Nive and I really wasn’t feeling the love for walking for the next month. But I was now on my way, deep in French Basque country and past the point of easy escape back home.
The second half of the day was better, the weather was nice, sunny and warm and the scenery picked-up a little. The Pyrenees occasionally appeared in the background, snow-capped mountain peaks and the walking got a bit more challenging, I was mainly walking through rolling countryside on roads or little paths and to be honest, it could have been anywhere in the UK. Endless green fields, farmyards, cows and woodland. It was only when the occasional sign or village appeared with signs in French that reminded me I was a long way from home!
I’d booked a Gite d’Etape in the little town of Hélette – basically a youth hostel and got there at around 15:00 heading to the town hall to collect the keys. My French is pretty rusty, and having been learning Spanish for 6 months got very confused between the two languages but eventually managed to get the keys and found the hostel which I had to myself for the night. This was my first experience of hostels on the journey and a bit of an eye-opener. While the hostel was clean enough it was full of dead flies stuck on flypaper, peeling wallpaper and a smoky-black fireplace. I would have loved to see the reviews on Trip Advisor! But – it had a bed, cooker and fridge. All I needed really.
The one-and-only little supermarket opened at 16:00 so I headed over, picked up some food, beer and snacks for the next day and sat outside watching the sun go down until it was time to go to bed. There was no WiFi, internet, TV or radio to entertain me. I hadn’t bought any books or reading material… It was just me and my thoughts in a little village in France.
An alarm went off at 22:00 in the Gite, obviously signalling it was “lights out” and so, with nothing else to do I went to bed.
Day 2: Hélette to St Jean Pied de Porte (27km)
“People from all over the world here, nobody seems to know why they are here or why they are walking the Camino?” (Journal Entry)
At 07:00 the alarm went off again in the Gite and the lights came on! It was only 27km to St Jean today so there was no rush to get out but I was back on the trail by 08:00. I don’t remember much about the walk into St Jean apart from getting lost at one point and ending up in a farmyard, a bemused farmer tried to point me in the right direction and we both ended up laughing as we couldn’t understand each other. Anyway – somehow I manged to find the trail and got into St Jean at around 13:00, far too early to check-into my albergue. There was a line of pilgrims outside the pilgrims office waiting to register at the official start point of the Camino Francés, so I wandered around St. Jean for a while noticing that there were a lot of people who looked suspiciously like pilgrims in the bars and cafes.
The sunny weather disappeared and it started raining with thunder and lighting strikes. Fortunately there was a Carrefour supermarket nearby so I dove into that and picked-up some supplies for the next day along with a few emergency beers. Then I headed off to one of the cafes for a quick drink before heading to the pilgrim office to officially register at the start of the Camino Francés.
The Napoleon Route is the “high” route out of St Jean over The Pyrenees and doesn’t open officially until April 1st – which was tomorrow, the day I was planning to start my Camino. I didn’t know this, but it seemed that this fact, along with it being a Saturday meant that lots of people were starting on the same day as me. Typical… I’m starting on one of the busiest days on the Camino Francés. However, the French lady at the pilgrims office told me several times in no uncertain terms that the Napoleon was ferme, (closed) and neige (snow) and danger, (no translation required). People die on this route, it’s high and exposed – and with it being the first day people are unprepared and unfit. Later on my adventure I heard many different stories about this route, if it was actually closed and what conditions were like up there. But for now, let’s just say I nodded wisely and told her there was no way I was planning to go up on the Napoleon route. I’m not sure how much she believed me – but she stamped my credencial and wished me a “Buen Camino”.
My albergue, (hostel) was across the road and it was now time to check-in and face one of my personal challenges for this trip. Hostels, bunk beds, dormitories and that whole communal living experience fills me with dread. I like my own space so this was going to be a huge challenge. Beilari, (Basque for “pilgrim”) offered me a bunk bed and communal meal for 33€, (I later found this to be expensive by Camino standards). I checked-in with a group of 3 – Huw, (California), Janine (New-Zealand) and Anna-Maria(Peru) and was shown to my bunk in an 8-bed dorm. A few more people arrived, Rosita (Brazil) and Koos (Netherlands) and at around 17:00 Janine and Anna-Maria popped their head around the door and invited me down to the pub for a few drinks with people from an internet forum, all of whom were starting tomorrow, April 1st. There followed a couple of hours of nervous, excited chatter – mainly about how heavy your pack was. I seemed to have the smallest lightest pack by a long way, and even though I tried to make light of my running background – people seemed to be under the impression I was going to be in Santiago in a week.
We headed back to the albergue for a communal dinner, it started with a quite uncomfortable group bonding session, we had to play games of passing an imaginary ball to people, and then talking about why we were walking the Camino. It was almost like a corporate away day exercise and I really wasn’t comfortable with it. I recall that most of the people there either didn’t know why they were walking the Camino, or weren’t willing to reveal it to complete strangers at this point. When it came to my turn to say why I was walking the Camino I said (something like)
“To find out something about myself that I don’t yet know, I’m not doing the Camino Francés, or on Pilgrimage… This is just a long walk and may end at any moment! “
I’ve thought about that statement many times since and in general I stand by it. Over the next few weeks the Camino revealed many things to me, it provided answers to many questions and also posed many more questions that are all still unanswered. But that’s all still to come!
The dinner finished around 22:00 and everyone headed off to the dormitories to get a good nights sleep. Tomorrow we were all off into the Pyrenees and the weather forecast was not good.