From Home To The Pyrenees
The First Step Is The Most Important
The adventure begins with the knock on the door at 4.10 am. All the thinking, planning and talking about walking 500 miles (800 km) over 31 days is over. Now’s the time to fulfill the dream of 15 years. Now’s the time to walk the pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago.
A chill in the air greets me as I leave my flat. No time to re-pack the rucksack; a luxurious chariot in the shape of a Mercedes SEL awaits to carry me to the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras. What a lovely, comfortable way to start. Peculiarly inappropriate for a pilgrimage, but I’m not going to argue. Pampering will disappear from my life all too soon.
The Eurostar terminal is a bustle of activity at 4.30 am. I navigate check-in, security and passport control within ten minutes. Three-quarters of an hour before the train to Gard du Nord leaves: time for the ritual of the last cup of English tea. While sitting in Caffè Nero, I hear an ominous announcement: “All trains going to Paris may be subject to a 30 minute delay due to engineering works en route”. Will I still have time to cross Paris and catch my connecting train from Montparnasse station? It will be close, very close. ¡Que será, será!
At 5.25 am, the train edges towards the garden of Kent. What a dull, misty day or is it the tint of the train windows?
Plan Each Day’s Villages
The train trudges onwards as I reflect on the adventure ahead. The Camino meanders through different parts of Spain with very different landscapes.
The first day is the hardest and most difficult. You’re the least prepared, yet you must face the most difficult challenge: the indomitable French Pyrenees.
Starting in the foothill town of St Jean Pied-de-Port, you ascend to the Col de Leopoeder mountain pass at 4,757 ft/1,450 m. Just before here you enter Spain before descending to Roncesvalles.
From the foothills of this Basque country hamlet, you travel through Navarra region to the city of Pamplona. This, the regional capital, is famous for the running of the bulls festival held each July. Leaving the mountains standing far behind, an undulating landscape next unfolds covered by a carpet of vineyards.
La Rioja region follows. One of its highlights is the Camino town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, distinguished by its architectural treasures and monastic importance.
La Rioja falls away, and Castile and León comes into view: a region famous for the cathedral cities of Burgos and León. Under the dome of Burgos cathedral lies the last resting place of warrior general El Cid. Expect a flat and barren landscape, with longer walking distances between a smaller number of villages.
After conquering the Leonese mountains you enter the final region, Galicia. Rolling hills, woods, dairy farming and the greenery of the Pyrenees return. Little hamlets abound as the Camino enters the city of Santiago de Compostela.
Factor In Contingency Time
As the train sneaks out of the Channel Tunnel and into the flat landscape of the Pas de Calais, it immediately picks up speed. As a Brit, the change of pace strikes me as ironic. A little over an hour and a half later, Paris comes into view. I’m only ten minutes behind my original schedule. Fantastic: all I need to do now is buy a metro ticket, collect my SNCF rail ticket to St Jean Pied-de-Port and get to Montparnasse station to jump on the train.
I get to Montparnasse with just enough time to refuel with a cafe crème and croissant before joining the throng of people piling towards platform number nine.
Out of curiosity and excitement, I automatically assume that everyone laden with a rucksack is on the same mission as me. Are my new best friends among this lot? Only time would tell.
According to the books, the maximum weight of your rucksack should be either 18 lbs / 8 kg or no more than 10% of your bodyweight. Scaling the Pyrenees tomorrow will indicate whether I still have some non-essential items. In going for lightness, on a recent business trip to Buenos Aires, I purchased a couple of items which are practical but make me look ridiculous: bright yellow Croc sandals and a navy blue, fold-up Stetson hat.
Motivation Comes From Knowing ‘Why’
What motivates people to walk the Camino? There can be many reasons: religious, spiritual, to reflect on life’s purpose and meaning, or as a physical challenge, a long distance walk.
For me, I think it is a combination of all three. I’m not particularly religious, but there is undoubtedly a spiritual element to the Camino. Stepping out of your ordinary life for a month and into the ‘unknown’ makes you question your beliefs and current practices, as well as providing plenty of opportunity to see alternatives.
A further motivation for me is that I simply love the historic buildings and ambience of Spain. As a seven-year old, I visited El Escorial, King Philip II’s 17th century monastic-styled palace, the Roman aqueduct and Alcazar in Segovia, and the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. All of these left their impression on me. And, of course, there’s the attraction of the culture, the fine food and the even finer wines. The Camino encompasses it all.
In early afternoon, the train crosses over a wide river just before it halts at Bordeaux. I make a mental note to check that it´s the Garonne. Whatever its name, it’s a stunning sight. I’m now in the province of Aquitaine: serious wine country. I sense the closeness of the Camino.
Each Journey Is Unique
The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) arrives at Bayonne station just before 3.00 pm. This is where I need to take a connecting train to St Jean Pied-de-Port. I collect my pack and jump out onto the platform. I see a rainbow of prospective pilgrims, and notice the different colours, brands, textures, styles and appropriateness of their clothing and kit. I let go of my long-held belief that I’m not fashion-conscious.
Track The Right Crowd
We all troop down the platform together: everyone seems reluctant to take the lead. I experience this as a metaphor for the European Union functioning at its finest. And guess what? It works: we all shuffle patiently onto a two-carriage train and find ourselves a seat.
My seat is next to a pile of rucksacks, all of which are at least double (between 33 lbs / 15 kg and 44 lbs / 20 kg) the size of mine. Inadequacy colonises my mind: “What have they got that I haven´t?” Sanity reasserts itself as I remember the 18 lbs / 8kg guideline. I shall look out for the owners of those packs en route.
The Journey Takes As Long As It Takes
The journey from Bayonne to St Jean Pied-de-Port lasts just over an hour. Travelling through green, rolling Pyrenean foothills, covered by a blanket of forest, we steadily gain altitude. The train chugs its way, parallel to a gushing, gurgling river, full of snow melt, flowing down from far upstream.
Deepen The Desire To Be Curious
During the journey, my attention wanders to the other pilgrims. I suspect all of us are equally curious about one another. In front of me are an elderly American couple who are loving every minute of the scenic journey. To my right is a man whom I would describe as solitary, except he is accompanied by a gigantic rucksack, a bum bag, and a camera bag. I feel overloaded just looking at it all.
Further down the train, I catch sight of a beautifully prepared pilgrim: an Asian lady resplendent in purple. None of us makes conversation. Are we all suffering from collective shyness or will we only be able to talk as we walk? I wonder if we’ll even see each other again after the train.
Stand Out From The Crowd
Le petit train halts in St Jean Pied-de-Port at tea-time. As I disembark, I have a flashback: it reminds me of going to boarding school for the first time at the age of eight. Not a happy memory; I shake it out of my head. We stream ant-like into town. I break ranks only when I spot my bed and breakfast accommodation. After settling in, I set off to find the Pilgrims’ Office.
Complete The Paperwork Correctly
It’s at 39 Rue de la Citadelle: on the left-hand side of the street as you walk up to the castle overlooking the town. Already I’m off the pace: in front of me in the queue are most of the train passengers, including the American couple and solitary but over-burdened man. We’re all waiting to get our very own pilgrim passports (credencial).
The wait torments me; in time, the Camino will teach me patience. At this stage, though, I am my everyday, impatient self. Eventually, it’s my turn: I sit down, complete a couple of forms, pay two euros and pick up from the table my very own pilgrim passport – already adorned with the stamp of St Jean Pied-de-Port. Now, I can legitimately call myself a pilgrim (peregrino).