On the Way to Santiago – St Jean Pied de Port

The Camino de Santiago is a walk that I have always wanted to do. Not quite sure when or how the Camino seed was planted in my mind; whether it was from someone I had met on my travels or from reading “The Pilgrimage” by Paulo Coelho many years ago; but, finally this year I decided to start my journey on the Camino de Santiago.

Pilgrim sign on the Camino de France with the Pyrenees in the background.

Pilgrim Sign on the Camino de France

When I told my friends I was walking the Camino de Santiago most looked at me blankly as they had never heard of it.

So, what is the Camino de Santiago?

Loosely translated it means the roads of St James. It is a number of paths spanning Europe that all lead to the tomb of St James at Santiago de Compostela.  Pilgrims have been walking these ancient roads since the 11th century.  To me it sounds romantic being like the pilgrims of olden times, carrying all my belongings, walking the medieval paths and not knowing where I was going to be spending the night.

Pyrenees Pilgrim

Walking the Camino de Santiago

I decided to do the Camino de France, which starts in St Jean Pied de Port in France, traversing over the French Pyrenees, across the countryside of northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. From start to finish it is a total of 769km, taking pilgrims up to 35 days. Unfortunately, time is not a luxury I had on this trip, I sadly only had 8 days. I could have chosen the last section, ending in Santiago de Compostela and claiming my pilgrim certificate. However, I decided to start my Camino in France, in the hope one day I will return to continue and complete the whole journey to Santiago. Most people think I am crazy walking 160km/100 miles on my holiday, but I longed to join the pilgrims doing the full pilgrimage of 769km.

St Jean Pied de Port Train Station

St Jean Pied de Port, Train Station

To get to St Jean Pied de Port I left Paris, at the crack of dawn, by train. The first leg of the train journey was uneventful, but when I changed at Bayonne, the atmosphere also changed. It was a small 3 carriage local train, all filled with excited pilgrims, chatting about the upcoming adventure.  Topped by stunning scenery rushing past the window, having reached Basque country, with its pretty red and white houses, set against lushest mountains.

St Jean Pied de Port

The Beautiful Walled Town of St Jean Pied de Port

On arrival in St Jean Pied de Port, a pretty medieval walled town, the first task was to find the pilgrim office to get my credential. The credential is the pilgrim passport that you need to stay in the official pilgrim albergues/hostels. On locating the office, along with all the other pilgrims that had just arrived by the train, I discovered the office was closed until 2pm. The strange opening hours of Europe was something I would have to get use to in the coming days. There was no other choice, but to put down my backpack and wait an hour with everyone else. When it finally opened I was slightly nervous whether I would get a English speaking helper, but luckily the lady who served me spoke English. She was very helpful; she found me a bed for the night, and gave me a map and directions ready to start my Camino tomorrow.

Bed in the Albergu St Jean Pied de Port

Whoopee!!! Bottom Bunk :o)

The accommodation was quite simple, but for only 10 euros ($15 AUD) I couldn’t complain. The first night I didn’t sleep very well.  It was not the snorers that kept me awake, I am use to that sleeping with Ian, it was the bloody mobile phones. Someone hadn’t turned their phone to silent, so every time they received a message, it was beep, beep beep – all night long!

Grrr!!! The joys of dorm sleeping!!!

A clock showing 7am

An early start!!!

After a bad night sleep, but eager to start my first day on the Camino, I got up at 6am. I quickly got ready, had a typical French breakfast of baguette and jam (minus the bowl of coffee), and whilst still dark I started my Camino journey, the first of many days following yellow arrows or yellow/blue shells or red/white stripes.

A tor with an yellow arrow showing the way

A Tor marking the Way

The yellow arrows led me through the old town, over a bridge and to the foot of the Pyrenees.  It was a glorious morning, beautiful blue skies and the tops of the Pyrenees peaking above a sea of clouds.

Pyrenees Blanked in Clouds

Pyrenees Blanked in Clouds

Today, was one of my toughest days on Camino, a distance of 24.7km, and the majority of it climbing up and up and up.  The word of today was definitely “up”. As well as the constant climb, don’t forget, for the first time in a long while, I carried a whooping 9kg on my back. Not a very gentle introduction to the Camino.

View of the Pyrenees

Picturesque Pyrenees

The first few kilometres of the Camino was along a country lane, and there was a constant flow of cars passing me.  Even though it was a Sunday, I did think that there was a large number of cars to be going out for a tourist drive.  As I climbed higher, I could hear singing in the hillside, and soon discovered where everyone  was going.  On top of the mountain, at least an hundred people had congregated, for Sunday mass.

Mass in the Pyrenees

Pop-Up Mass

As I knew it was going to be a long day, I had packed a pasta lunch and planned to have a decent rest at Pic D’Orisson, where a statue, the “Virgin of Orisson” stood.  Long after my estimated lunchtime, I was still walking and searching madly for the statue.  The time was passing and I had seen no sign of a statue, but I was a 100% certain I couldn’t have missed it.  Looking ahead the sky was pretty grey and the clouds were coming down.  Eventually I gave up my quest to find the statue, instead finding a spot alongside the road and chomping down my lunch quickly, as I wanted to make sure I was over the highest peak before it rained.

Late I discovered I had seen the statue and had even taken a photo of it.  Doh!!! If you look very closely in the “pop-up mass” picture above, on the left of the peak there is the statue.

Camino Clouds Coming Down

Rain Clouds?

Energised after some food, I continued on my pilgrimage. Luckily, the rain didn’t materialise. Throughout most of my trekking I could always see someone in the distant, so I knew I was on the right track. However, after the highest peak the number of people became less and less. At times I had only the livestock for company, but they did sound magical. The sheep, the goats, the cows, and even the horses, all had bells around their necks, that jingled each time they moved. But, I was a little nervous when I couldn’t spot anyone, being in the middle of nowhere and unsure whether I was on the right path, it was always very reassuring to spot one of the Camino markers.

The last 2 hours I was so over walking.  I was finally heading down, but it was very steep and the path was like gravel. The mountains had now been replaced with pine forest and it was relentless. Every clearing I saw ahead, I kept hoping it was the end.  My body had started whinging about what I was putting it through.  Up until now, my ruck sack hadn’t bothered me, but now my back had started twinging.  My toes where feeling the pain of every downward step.  Old injuries in my hip and achilles were complaining.  Very tired I staggered on until a little before 5pm, after almost 10 hours of walking, I finally arrived at Roncevalles, where I was blown away at the huge monastery that stood before me. I had finally reached my bed for the night.

Roncevalles Monastery

Can You Believe that’s Where I Stayed?

Some pilgrims skip this day of the Camino de France; either to start at Roncesvalles or use an alternative lower route.  However, if you are fit and healthy, and the weather permits, I don’t think you should miss the Napolean route.  It is a tough first day, but I promise you the magic of Camino will keep you going.  For me it was the musical animals, the pop-up mass and the magical Pyrenees with the cloud filled valleys.

A hard, but great start to my Camino!

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