It had been buzzing about in the back of my head f
or a couple of years now and finally i had the call to go. There is a saying that you don't choose the Camino but the Camino chooses you. Folk walk this ancient Pilgrim
route for very different reasons; some religious, spiritual or as a nice walk, whatever your reason it is a fantastic experience, which will be unique to you and one that will help set you free in so many ways. There are many Camino's that finish in Santiago de Compostela the one i chose was the Camino Frances
, The Way of St James, starting in St Jean Pied de Port in France. Of course, you don't have to walk the 800km, you can cycle or travel on horseback.St Jean Pied de Port
- Aptly translates as Saint John at the foot of the mountain pass, it is a very picturesque town, indeed, at the foot of the Pyrenees. When i arrived on the train from Bayonne i had that tumbleweed feeling as i descended to the platform. If Clint Eastwood was standing at the end of the platform, and i found i was an extra in a very bad spaghetti western i wouldn't have been surprised. The stillness and quietness was eerie. It was a bright warm spring day in February and the fruit trees where just bursting into blossom a good two months earlier than at home. I followed the signs for Pelerins (Pilgrims) to the old quarter and made the very steep climb up the hill. It was as though time had stood still here, the old quarter had a mediaeval feel to it. Eventually i climbed another very steep hill to the municipal hostel with my heavy backpack to find the Accueil St Jacques closed and a polite note
on the door directing pilgrims a few doors up to 55 Rue de la Citadelle and Madame Jeanine. Mdme made me feel very welcome. I quickly learnt that the French are very expressive and my french is passable so i was able to converse relatively easily with the odd reference to my dictionary....much to Madame's amusement. I found from a newspaper article that Madame Jeanine was known as the Maman de Pelerins, or Mum to Pilgrims having set many on their first tentative steps on the 'chemin' over many years, indeed, Pilgrims were her life. She fussed and fed us all, her children.
- I learnt that the pass had only just been opened following the snow so the following morning there were nine multi national pilgrims setting off that morning and a sense of excitement filled the air, eight where walking and one, Claude was cycling the national route on his recumbent bike. With the exception of Claude we set off in two's to the pass to Roncesvalles
in Spain a 30km hike. Most would cover this in a day but with my fitness levels, and suffering from bronchitis i found that this was an unrealistic target for me. With my new walking buddy, Peter, we walked at a very slow pace, uphill. I don't think i have seen two adults more excited at the prospect of setting off. Peter and I had met in St Jean and found we had common interests in nature, conservation and sailing and had agreed to walk together to Roncesvalles. Six weeks later we were still walking together, it was just the way it turned out. For whatever reason we agreed much later, that it was decreed we met in St Jean. Neither of us had any preplanned notions of what the walk or experience would be. We both had different reasons for doing the walk, and agreed it would be one hell of an experience.
In the event we only managed to walk 15km on the first day, our fitness levels weren't what we had hoped, mine probably more of an issue, but then again we didn't feel the need to rush either. After the days walk we eventually camped near the emergency shelter at an altitude of 1400m. I'm not sure who was the most excited at the prospect, me or Peter...both of us were playing down our excitement at wild camping, but secretly pleased we had made the decision to do so. It was to remain our most favourite part of the trip. Daylight hours were only short for the time of the year so it was dark at 6pm, a full moon lit mountains making it a very beautiful night to camp out. We were well prepared, and kept warm and had enough food and water to last, oh and a drop of Port to warm the innards.
The next day we set of for Roncesvalles. Having packed up base camp we headed off, fresh with anticipation. We didn't have to go far before we hit the snow, we were pleased that we had decided to camp. After the snow there was deep dry leaves and i mean deep...waist high. Neither was particularly troublesome, in daylight at least and being fresh to the new day. It was tricky but not impassable...unlike some weeks later when freak snow storms hit the area and left people isolated and the pass impossible to traverse.
The ruins of the old border post was covered in snow and it was impossible to believe we had actually crossed the border...to Spain. The border post was a quiet place, full of corrals and very picturesque. It felt like a milestone but we still had a few hours walking to our destination, the Monastery at Roncesvalles.
- We arrived at Roncesvalles after a beautiful days hiking uphill for most par
t and then a rather steep descent through a forest to the Monastery. It was here that we met Denis and his dog, Caresse, who had walked the Camino the previous October to Finisterre. Denis informed me that this time he was walking to Israel and had been walking a while from Vezelay in France. What was amazing was the he was walking the the trail mendicant, relying on the goodwill of others for food and shelter. Perhaps how the original pilgrims would have done it, no money and very little possessions. I was touched by his belief that 'God provides'
and i felt somehow lacking with my cards and cash...to us he was a true pilgrim.
Pilgrims at last!
- After obtaining our necessary 'credencial
' at the Monestary and completing the necessary formalities for registering for the walk, we were shown to the dormitories. We were a small group staying at the monastery from various countries; Denis with his collie Caresse (France), Peter (USA), Daniel (Germany) , Olaf (Germany) , Anna (Germany) and myself (Scotland). After Pilgrims mass, a strange affair delivered by five monks and in Latin. I kept giggling because one of the aging monks kept falling asleep and had to be nudged by his colleague when his bit was to be read afterwhich he promptly fell asleep again. The monks, however, realising that there may be a language problem had seen fit to provide a local who sat at the front so we knew when to sit and stand. After being blessed for our Pilgrimage, we ate our pilgrims dinner in the local bar full of anticipation for the next days trek. Eating with us were fellow Brits staying at the inn on their way back to blighty, a couple from Lancashire and a chap who had relocated to Alicante. They were bemused by the Pilgrims seated with them. The meal was a happy, jovial affair despite the different nationalities as we all had a good laugh.
The following day we set off again. It was funny but neither, Peter nor I, had planned or discussed walking together, we just seemed to fall in with each other, like two old friends who had known each other for years. It was bizarre, i was to find out that it was the Camino effect.
Unfortunately, Anna whilst walking with Daniel and Olaf over the pass the day before had become badly sunburnt on her face, her feet were in a mess with blisters. I looked at her dressing them and winced, i had managed, so far, as had Peter, with no blisters. I realised this was because we walked at our own pace, this was a lesson - walk your own Camino. It was a few days before we reached Santiago that we saw Anna again and couldn't believe the difference in her. The change was amazing.
- Over the following weeks, it was amazing how we could walk in companiable silence and look at the flora and fauna, simple things seemed to amaze us. Our delight was evident when we spotted trees up ahead and the pink colour of Almond trees, as we approached the flowers became more detailed and we could hear the distinct buzzing of bees going about their work of pollination. It was a tunnel of blossom, with petals from the flowers drifting down like a rain of confetti and the scent was heady. I have never seen anything like it. Later the 'almond walk' became a symbol of new beginnings. It struck me that a few weeks later or earlier and we would have missed this beautiful site. Whilst we rested under the clear blue sunny skies it was a place of tranquility, somewhere to revisit in our minds at a later date. I recall sitting under the trees feeling significant and insignificant all at once, it really put things in perspective. This was what it was all about. Simple things!
- I was always amazed at how poor Northern Spain was, yet, the people were very giving and always willing to welcome you and help you along your route. Whilst we were walking campaigning for the General election was ongoing and the whole country understandably where caught up in it...not surprising given their previous history and Franco's reign. The days the Spaniards refer to as The National Tragedy
. In true Spanish style they went to the polls on a Sunday and the night before was one big fiesta. Although this was tempered somewhat by several terrorist bombings in Madrid which upset the predictions as the people turned against the reigning government and ousting them at the polls.
In Spring, Spain is lush and verdant, a very pretty place not unlike Scotland with mountains, forestry and wind farms. Oh yes those wind farms. I had no idea of what Spain would be like, but it wasn't what i found. I think it's an undiscovered gem, they have canals and mountains. It's a place where Health and Safety hasn't gone daft allowing people to think for themselves and test the boundaries. They are stuck in a time warp but it's a nice time warp. It's a place where no-one has any expectations, no-one rushes and you can just 'be'. It's like a permanent retreat. Literally men can be men, women can be women and children are polite and respectful. It's quite refreshing when you contrast it to the pressures of our materialistic lives, of course, they have pressure but it's a different kind of pressure and not an easy life it's just at a slower pace.
The Three Amigos
- At various stages of the trail, Peter and I felt guilty because we seemed to be having too much fun; walking, eating and laughing. We seemed to have developed a knack for sniffing out where the locals dined. Three hour lunches became the norm, nothing is rushed in Spain. The strange thing is that you adapt, become more laid back about it, leave the monetary world behind and find out what it SHOULD be like if only we took more time to stop, wonder and just 'be'. Walking is a form of meditation...it doesn't have to be a long walk to slow you down mentally and reflect on what's important to you.
We met Jose, a rather well built Spaniard from Seville who was huffing and puffing his way on the trail, he was walking the 100km to Santiago which would still entitle him to a Compostela, the minimum distance on foot to qualify for a Compostela. He fell in for a while and later we leap frogged with him along the trail. Despite his obvious lack of fitness, i admired his determination to do the walk, and like most people on the trail they were looking to effect change in their life in someway. The next day we came across Jose with two new friends Esther and Marie from Madrid with Jose being stuck in an open concrete ditch in hysterics. These 'three amigos' were having fun too. We spent several days leap frogging each other on the trail as they walked about a similiar pace to us. During lunch in a bar with them, we were told that Jose had started out with two friends, whom he managed to lose, not apparent quite how, but he had telephoned them and arranged to meet them along the trail but obviously he preferred his new friends on the trail, so this didn't seem to happen. He had forgotten his walking shoes and donned some canvas shoes. Apparently everyday these two girls had to organise him, but he managed to leave something behind, we reasoned that he would have nothing left to carry by the time he got to Santiago...good plan, maybe we should give it a shot. I have never laughed so much, he was a natural comedian and the girls were very caring fussing over him. Unfortunately, we never saw them again, however, we know they reached Santiago, as we saw Jose's shoes at a waymarker, complete with holes, but it was evident that they too were having too much fun to be Pilgrims!
Now a Pilgrimage is all about suffering is it not? Well yes, you have to sacrifice something in order to find something else. This is a slow process on the Camino...it's a slow but gradual change. You never see it in yourself but in your fellow Pilgrims you meet at various places along the trail. It's wonderful to see the people you meet at the beginning, when you see them again weeks later, happy, healthy, relaxed and fit. When i walked into Santiago, i was fit and had lost two dress sizes but i gained far more mentally, emotionally and spritually than i ever could have done laying on a beach.
Labels: Camino, Camino de Santiago, France, hiking, Spain, Walking, Way of St James