camino de santiago

We had just finished our packing and double-checking our lists, when we got the call from the lads to come out for “good luck on your way” drinks. Surely one or two for the road couldn’t hurt???  It was a fantastic night listening to handed down experiences of friends and family who had travelled The Way of St James. It seemed everyone we spoke to that night knew someone that had walked at least some bit of the Camino. Then before we knew it, it was 2.30am in Burger King! As Sean and his bro Kevin said their fare wells (as you can see from above, it was emotional) I was already counting the minutes till we had to catch the 4.45am bus to Dublin to catch the flight to Biarritz at 11.40. I would say if you’re having an impromptu meet up with friends do not do it the night before you leave!

Now you may wonder why there are images of the airport. Trust me after a serious lack of sleep, I can tell you it was not because we were “that” excited!!! The truth is, we the camera lens somehow fell out of the bag and hit the floor of the check in hall. We still don’t know what happened. The two of us standing there in disbelief at the bits of the shattered lens reaching far ends of the hall. Queuing passengers *gasped* in horror.  I swear the earth stood still for a moment as everyone stared at the floor! Immediately we were gutted, like what would we do with out a camera for the next few weeks? As I rushed about picking up bits of plastic, still trying to figure out what happened, it came to me. I looked up and saw that Sean had been hit by the exact same thought!  What the hell were we going to do with a camera? There was no way that is coming to Spain with us, I couldn’t tell you at that moment what a camera weighed, but I knew for sure I wasn’t carrying it!!! Seriously every gram and ounce counted. While those around us gave us those “t’elpus” looks, I got on the net to check if we could get a lens in Dixons upstairs in duty free. It was a gamble, if they had one WHOOOHOOO!!! The camera had a purpose and would be allowed on our adventure. If not… Well, Thankfully we found a lens that was light and would do the job. We just needed to check it out before we got on the plane!

I think it was karma for staying out so late. Our flight was delayed by over an hour… at this point I thought we would never get going….

So, the flight was an hour late, sure that’s not the worst. WELL! We flew into Biarritz airport and took the bus (one euro each) to Bayonne Station. Upon my research I figure this was the easiest option. The bus leaves every half an hour from right outside the arrival hall and takes about 45 minutes. I figured it was the best way to scout out our fellow pilgrims and the best way to start the journey. So an hour and a half late we caught the bus, a tin of worms would have been more comfortable. It’s a busy busy bus route, it is used by all. {Bayonne is a stunning town. We know this as the bus goes practically everywhere. Amazing buildings and bustling medieval streets. I would recommend a trip there. We do plan to go back for a long weekend. It is that pretty!}  An hour later we arrive at the station and tried and figure out where to buy tickets. By figure out I mean just watch what everyone else is doing and then when all else fails ask the nearest Irish person what to do! Then we just had to play it cool. Which we did until we were informed that the next train was at 18:00. We had another period of just sitting and waiting. GROAN!!! So we went to the pub next door had some light refreshments and watched the world go by in glorious surroundings. We chit chatted about our expectations and tried to switch off our working brains. A while later as the sun started to fall we found our way to the platform and awaited the train.

I was kind of worried as there were way more people on the platform for the size of the wee train that pulled up, but we got on and got comfortable. I really needed to pee at this point, but figured I’d use the ladies room once we took off. But we didn’t take off. There were too many people for the train. We were told that we could take a bus, which they had arranged, and that as it was direct unlike the train it would only take an hour. I was concerned that with all the delays we were now really late. We had booked a room in Stephane and Ninnas {Citadelle21} house and I had given them an approx time of arrival. If we took the bus we should be roughly only an hour late 🙁 Off the train and while waiting for the bus I decided to look for the loos which were closed!!!! Never mind I thought, it’s not that bad! I have to say that the journey on the bus was incredible. The views of the surrounding countryside and the buzz of excitement from fellow pilgrims were second to none. By the time we arrived at the station in St Jean Pied de Port, I was ecstatic to have arrived and was almost doing a jig. Gently I disembarked and looked for the loo. The station was closed, I almost cried.  So, it was at breaking point we entered St Jean pied du Port, by rushing up the hill praying that the next building would be a bar. Finally there it was a bar in all its glory, with a big fat sign stating the loos were for paying customers only. I believe the sweat of desperation and the look of panic saved me as the owner pointed the way to the funniest little loo ever! The fact that I had to pee in the dark didn’t bother me. It was like I had won the lotto! Yes, I learned so much in that first half an hour in SJPDP. It’s the norm for them not to let you use the loo unless you pay to do so and all the lights are timed! And dammit, when you consume any liquids before going on a long journey go the to the toilette before you leave just like your mother taught you!!!!

We found Stephane apartment and he showed us everything we could possible need. Citadelle 21 is in a brilliant location, right in the heart of it all! I was thrilled, a home from home with a lovely couple. They were so cool and full of advice. Stephane had advised us to walk around the city walls, pointing to them from his back garden. We still wish that we had done this first.  Trying to make up for my pathetic entrance to this town, we figured we would stroll and get a bit to eat first, then do the walled walk and then head up to the Pilgrims office which was to open at 8, to collect our “Credencial del Peregrino.”  What I hadn’t figured on was the light fading so quickly. Not like at home when it’s bright till all hours. Yup it was pretty much sunset at 7.30 dark by 8pm. We got to the office at nine figuring the queue would have lessened, it also gave us time to figure out our packed lunch for the next days hike. There is a lovely little shop half way up the main street where you can buy a full lunch (sandwich fruit an egg and a drink €7), which is super, handy for newbie pilgrims. Anyway, there was a massive queue at the pilgrim’s office, pilgrims literally lining the cobbled street. I started feeling anxious probably because I’m now totally exhausted. “Why are they asking so many questions” I started thinking as I watched pilgrims speak in quick hushed tones….” Oh god is there some kind of test, like how did I miss this in my research?” We sat down with a lovely lady, I am going to say Janice (though that’s not right) who welcomed us and asked if it was our first Camino? To which we smiled and giggled like right eejits and said it was. Then we were asked a question that threw me. “Did we have accommodation for the night?” Of course we had. It made me wonder who in their right mind wouldn’t have accommodation for the very first night? Seemly glad that we had figured this much out Janice began the process of taking our details and giving us our Credencial/Camino passport. EXCITEMENT, its really cool when you finally receive it!!! We were given maps and Janice marked the route we should take the next day and made note of the dangerous route not to take. We were advised to bring food with us, as after we crossed the border there would be nothing available. We were told that it was a 1450-meter assent and to take our time, to take breaks, that it wasn’t a race to the top. We were facing into an eight-hour climb the next day. She asked if we had any questions. I shook my head and just said it had been seriously long day over 14hrs of traveling and I really needed sleep. We stood up and I was a little overwhelmed to get the warmest of wishes from this lady. As we walked out it then hit me. This is it… We are doing this incredible walk… It’s real.

Queue ridiculous o’clock the next morning. We were brought outside to have a marvelous breakfast all prepared by our lovely hosts. Ninna said that she didn’t speak much English. Yet she had enough to tell us to eat up and eat up again, we would need all our strength for the day ahead. It was chilly in the frosty morning air. Though I felt like we were sitting in scene from an old novel, wrapped up in a fleece, soothing cafe con leche warming my hands, watching the sunrise across Stephane and Ninna’s beautiful garden. I was all-mad to get on the road before the sun rose too much more. Wise Stephane had other plans though, as he joined us for the last of the cake and coffee.  He entertained us with the story of his life, growing up in France, travelling to America in his teens to learn English. Moving to Brazil and living there. At times when he spoke I forgot the need to get going, forgot that rush. I think this was his plan all along. There is no need to rush headfirst into the Camino. Just let it happen, enjoy the experience as a whole. The time came to say our goodbyes and get started on this mammoth walk. Hugs of thanks were given and the tall French man waved us off down the street as we started our journey. I was glad at that moment that we had found the route out of the town the night before as instructed by Uncle Noel. Walking the wrong way at this point would have been too awkward for words!

I know I had done the walking and jogging and really believed I was fit enough for this crazy walk. We walked under the archway and over the bridge that crossed the river Nive and I tried not too worry too much about the climb up the Pyrenees. How steep was it going to be? Was there going to hard ground beneath us or slippery soggy surfaces that would really take effort and skill? Well I didn’t have to worry about this for too long. Seriously by the time we left the town’s gates I was out of breath! My lungs positively imploding! We took the Napoleón route. I swear to god it was practically vertical. In the first two hours I stopped more times taking off my “little” bag with the excuses of having to apply more sunscreen and wrapping my feet in plasters “just incase” than I care to remember! My bag started to feel way more than 7kgs and I was dehydrating fasting that I could hydrate.

By the time we reached Orisson my face was a purple colour, even the guy behind the bar did a double take as I passed him. I saw that “Oh please don’t let her have a heart attack here” look cross his face. Orisson is only 7.8km out from St Jean. We stopped (as it was about the two hour mark) used the facilities, topped up the water bottles and shared some of our Dioralyte around (sorry I forgot to mention we brought lots of this,) laughed with others about how that first section better not be a sign of things to come, while secretly thinking “WHAT THE FU*K have I gotten myself into?”  We had heard that the albergue here was booked out and had been so since July. I realised just why it books out so quickly, people are just shattered!  It was at this point on day one 7.8km in that I thought I wasn’t able for this. This was a mistake. I just wasn’t able. That I should have booked ahead and we should be staying in this albergue in the middle of the hills. We got up and made our way over to the water fountain to fill our water bottles, I kept thinking while the water gushed everywhere,” There is only one hard day, over this mountain and all the rest is flat, you can and will do this. Suck it up! One hard day, everyone says so. Don’t fail yourself!” Then the stupidest thing happened. I put Seans water bottle in the side pouch of his bag as he pulled the waist straps tight around his centre. In the split second it took to do this, I realised that the first time I made the excuse to stop. I never retired this important strap. It just never dawned on me to do so. Like throwing your school bag on your shoulder kind of thing. The vertical walk up hill had been done with all the weight on my shoulders pulling me back. Instead of like now, all the weight of my bag sitting on my hips, I barely noticed the weight of it. Yup, I felt so silly. Another valuable lesson learned.

Bye bye Orssion, last official stop until Roncesvalles. Bizarrely you have to walk up and down hills to get to the top of the mountain. Not at all like I expected, but grateful for the relief of it all the same!

You start to wonder why on earth Napoleon would use have used this route to cross over into Spain, his soldiers must have been really loyal and super duper fit!

Mini van cafe! We were to learn that it wasn’t only us geniuses that stopped every two hours. Along the trail there are little pop up shops and cafes where you can stop for refreshments. It’s super handy and the folks that run them couldn’t be kinder! This was the last place to get your passport stamped while still in France.

Two hours later we are almost at the peek and we sit down on the grass. Socks off. Stretched out watching the world go by. I am no longer feeling like my lungs are going to explode or implode for that matter. I no longer feel embarrassed that my face is still purple and that I am sweating like a … a … well just a lot! Fellow pilgrims come in all shapes, sizes, ages, sexes, races, sexual origins and whether we know it or not yet, we are all one family traveling this journey together. There is no judgment. Already people are sharing information, stories, sunscreen and water. It’s already wonderful. Then I take out Mr. Brierlys book and see that we have been reading this all wrong. We have way more to do. Its not really 25km at all. Adjusted for the climb of 1450m it is in fact 32km!!! I think though compared to the first part of my day this later part has been a breeze and hopefully will continue to be glorious. The views are breathtaking. I keep having to pinch myself that we are here, we are doing this. I walk for a while wanting to have these amazing chats with Sean. So, would try to think of something earth shattering to start this movie like conversation in my head. Then I’d look at the landscape all around me, and all that comes out of my mouth “Holy crap that’s beautiful” Yup, earth shattering indeed!

At the peek of our climb and we were both struck by how much from the top of Col de Lepoeder the surrounding landscape looks a lot like Kerry. We are nearly at the end of this first day’s walk. We both feel tired but totally elated by what we have seen, the sense of achievement is ridiculous. At this point, maybe because I was so high up and tired and no longer dehydrated, EVERYTHING was amazing. I was amazing, Sean was amazing, fellow walkers were amazing and I felt overwhelmed with amazing gratitude. We were so, so lucky to have had splintering hot sunshine for this first day, as we were wearing trainers (tennis shoes) and if the conditions were wet we would be scr*wed.  If the weather is any way bad it is advised that you take the other route as conditions can turn quite rapidly from lovely to zero visibility, thunderstorms, blizzards, you think it and it’s happening right in front of you… apparently! People sadly have died on this section, mainly due to bad weather. Pilgrims have died the whole way along the Camino. However, judging by the amount of crosses and memorials we saw on this day, most have ended their journey here. It’s an odd feeling, being so grateful and ecstatic while so sad for the loss of a person that you don’t know. Sadder still that, if they had managed a few more yards or had taken the other route they may still be here to tell their wonderful story. Just like people carried and placed stones along the route, the memory of these lost pilgrims stayed with me through every achievement we had along the way.

Remember we were told avoid a certain route? Here it comes. We have been walking for hours now and starting to run low on water. So when the path splits in two on the descent to Roncesvalles and the sign post gives you two options of a seriously short walk and the other a longer walk… well what would you choose? Everyone kind of just stopped at this tree and signpost and looked uncertain. It reminded me of something out of the chronicles of Narnia, obviously with less snow, but still having to choose a path.  You know in your heart that the answer can’t be as simple as it seems. A few took the short route, I was like YAY!!!! FOLLOW THE LEADER!!!!! Sean, Oh wise man that he is was like, Ah Hello!!! Remember the warning we were given last night, well this is it, just look at the tree! This is the tree! I turn back towards him and find Sean with about six other pilgrims looking at the print out of a plusher looking tree with red warning biro circles drawn around it, raising their gaze to the very tired and thirsty looking tree and back to the print out then nodding, pondering if that could be the tree?! I’m like, somebody, anybody please just decide, do we take the path of the tree or the short route to certain death. We took the longer safer tree route!

This was the entrance to the grounds of Roncesvalles. Happy times indeed. Not just because our day was nearly at an end. But because we had lost sight of other pilgrims on the way down. On your first day, in fact on any day, the feeling of going miles of trail will strike fear into your very heart.

Our home for the night. At about 3pm in the afternoon, teary eyed (well I am anyway, I felt like I had just completed the entire walk) we are greeted at the door and asked if we are looking for a bed? Hell YES, YES we are! We are two of the one hundred and eighty three. ish weary souls that will sleep in this building tonight.  We are asked to take off our shoes and bring them to the shoe-room, then remove our bags and go and queue with our passport. We give our passport in and receive our stamp and are given our bed numbers, we are also told that there are loads more Irish guests. None of which we find, except for Aisling and her friend who we met at the train station yesterday and briefly this morning. Later I search them out, to inform them about the washer dryer lady and the bar! Anyway, we find our beds, which are a top and bottom bunk in a two-bunk cabin thingy. There are lockers; this place isn’t bad at all! I get my shower bag ready and off I go and wait my turn. I bring a plastic bag. You are stripping off in the shower and washing, but where do you keep the dryer change of clothes??… Plastic bag of course! The shower runs for 30 seconds but is piping hot. I can hear Sean across the divide declaring this is the best shower of his entire life, literally everyone falls bout the bathrooms laughing, because we are all thinking the same thing. 60 seconds into the shower, I realise that if I stand with my back to the button I can have almost continuous water. I said this to a few people later and they thought it was super clever! We meet back at the bunks and I’m still smiling at Seans shower moment! We get our bags ready for the next day, gather our used clothes and head off to find the wash room. We are all ready to get down and dirty with our smalls when we are asked by a lady if we would like her to wash and dry our clothes (don’t worry she is a volunteer there) naturally we say yes, put our clothes in the basket, pay the fee and walk away. Awesome. We walk across the courtyard, through the super plush hotel (yes the super plush hotel that no one tells you about!) and make dinner reservations for the pilgrim meal later. €8 each for a three course meal and a 1/2 bottle of wine. We explored the church and the posh bar in the posh hotel; our most exciting find however, was the vending machines in the albergue. Vending machines with full dinners and a full kitchen. We had a pre dinner snack, its ridiculous how hungry you become once the adrenaline of the first walk dies off.

This table made me giggle. For all those that over packed you were allowed leave behind those items that you clearly didn’t need. What was of no use to you however, could be gold to someone who had forgotten something. Brilliant idea this table!

Okay and there was a pint or two before dinner, walking is thirsty work! Besides it’s the Camino way! We watched on as a family came together to play cards, they even brought the green velvet thingy for their table. Dinner is in a busy bar. Forget about a table for two, you are put where there is space. We end up sitting with a lovely English couple that are biking their way across Spain and a hilarious Belgian dude that has a bag that is his weight twice over…. well not really but it is too heavy. We share wine and stories over dinner, which consisted of soup, a choice of duck or bass, flan or fruit for dessert, we would have been happy to stay for the night with this lovely group, but there was washing to be collected and time for lights out was looming. A brisk stroll across the courtyard is in order. The sun is almost gone and the temperature has done a nosedive! Washing smelling all lovely is collected and repacked into our bags. The theory being, all you have to do is put your sleeping and wash bag into your rucksack and just leave the next day. Loads of people advise to sleep in the clothes you intend to walk in the next day. Grand if you are an icy cold body or like waking in sweaty clothes. We “slept” in our smalls with our clothes beside us. It was grand. I was somewhat worried about getting dressed or shuffling to get dressed in front of strangers. The truth is though we are all adults, we all have some form of cop-on and know when to give others privacy, your not going to stare at someone you don’t know getting dressed. Well I hope you wouldn’t. The other reality is “Sleep” is like gold dust; it is a rare and beautiful thing. Everyone is just too goddamn sleep deprived to pay attention to any one else. If you can manage to get your own socks on and in the right shoe after a night of Camino sleep you are doing very well indeed!

Ten bells. Lights out. Mellow whispers from Steve, the lovely guy bunking across from us, we chat about our walk, lives, loves, losses and movies. The last words I utter are “Love Actually.” No more talking. Silence. It’s blissful at first.

Then, somewhere from this most peaceful of slumbers, you are disturbed, dragged back into reality by some un-human sound. For a moment you’re in that nowhere world, where reality and subconscious dance, except the tune isn’t soulful it is that of a dying baby elephant. Only it’s not just one baby elephant. As you open your eyes somewhat in a panic at your surroundings, you find you know that noise only too well and this time just for once, it’s not being emitted from your husband!

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October 30, 2018
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