Camino Frances: The Journey Begins!

Are we ever happy to be here and have one full day to relax and explore in Saint Jean Pied de Port before starting our really long walk (one step at a time). This is such a pretty little French (Basque) town lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. It truly is picture perfect, including the weather. The name of the town literally means “Saint John at the foot of the pass.” The pilgrimage routes from Paris, Vézelay and Le Puy-en-Velay meet at Saint Jean Pied de Port and is the pilgrims’ last stop before the arduous mountain crossing through the Pyrenees and into Spain. Arduous! So that’s what we are in for tomorrow and the next day! Who’s idea was this?! We see pilgrims regularly passing our door who have come from other places in France and who are now joining up with the Camino Frances on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Their pilgrimages are much longer than our 800 km.

St. Jean’s quaint, medieval atmosphere with its old stone gates and buildings and narrow cobbled streets is quite magical during the daytime and was even more magical during the fading light last evening. We felt we could have been dropped into a movie set and wouldn’t have been surprised to see knights in their shining armour atop their proud steeds getting ready for a jousting match. The very old buildings have such distinctive features, many with inscriptions of the date of the building over their doors. One building (a bakery) even lists the price of wheat in 1789.DSCN5091


St. Jean

St. Jean

St. Jean Pied de Port



Port de Navarre

Port de Navarre

The rue de la Citadelle is the main street and is part of the pilgrim route. At the top of the town is St. James Gate and the 17th century Vauban Citadelle (now a school) with a beautiful view over the old town and the Pyrenees. We walked up there this morning when fog was still laying in pockets in the valley. It was spectacular and apparently sunsets viewed from the citadelle are gorgeous, too.

This evening we walked around town again and went into the Notre Dame du Bout du Pont church, a fitting place from which to bless the beginning of our journey and that of our fellow pilgrims. Just as Tania did when she began her journey, I also lit a candle.

Notre Dame du Bout du Pont

The B&B where we are staying, Maison Errecaldia, is a three-hundred-year-old traditional Basque house nestled below the Citadelle. The name “Errecaldia” means “valley view” in the Basque language. The house lies on the ancient Chemin St Jacques, the pilgrim route, and is just a few minute’s walk down the chemin to the centre of Saint Jean Pied de Port.

The house has three sunny en-suite guest rooms with modern facilities. Our room is called “Sunrise” and, if we had been awake early enough this morning, we would have seen the sun come up across the valley from one of our two windows. Our simple but delicious continental breakfast was served in the dining room and consisted of very good artisan bread, a pot of homemade jam, cheese, and meat, good coffee for me and hot chocolate for Dave. Tim comes from Britain and has been running Errecaldia B&B for the last ten years.

Errecaldia B&B

Errecaldia B&B

So, let’s rewind back to Monday morning in Victoria. Whether we would get to Saint Jean Pied de Port without a hitch was questionable for a brief period of time at the Victoria International Airport. Although we breezed through security as we had hoped with our hiking poles stowed inside our carry-on luggage, we soon saw that the plane we were supposed to take being towed away. Not a good sign! The plane that was sent to replace it couldn’t land because of fog. They announced the possibility that our flight might be cancelled and that we would have to rebook. The fog lifted just in time so there was no problem making our connecting flights in Vancouver and Montreal. What a relief that was!

Entering Europe

Several planes must have arrived at the Charles de Gaul Airport in Paris at the exact same time as ours. What a madhouse it was! It took an hour to wind our way along the snaking lineup to the border police to show them our passports. We laughed because the read-out on the electronic sign never showed the wait time to be more than nine minutes. They lied! Then to get to the train station at the other end of the airport, we were among a crowd pushing through an even bigger crowd of Arabs, obviously very rich and dressed in their finest whites. With a few colourfully dressed Africans and fully-shrouded Muslims in the mix, it was quite an unusual cultural scene.

After 14 hours flying time, we spent another 12 hours on three trains and a bus to get to St. Jean Pierre de Port. The train from the Charles de Gaul Airport in Paris was awfully crowded at first but thinned out by the time we reached Bordeaux. The trains move along very fast and are so quiet and smooth that it was hard to know we had left the station. The route we took by train was through countryside that was surprisingly flat and not too interesting. At least I got some much needed napping done. It wasn’t until after Bayonne that the scenery became more interesting with hills, farmland, sheep, horses, and little villages.

We met our first pilgrim while we were waiting to board the train at the airport in Paris. Catherine comes from Quebec and will be walking her first Camino. We kept running into her on the trains and in St. Jean and each time we parted we wished each other a “Buen Camino” as we probably won’t keep up to her pace. She is on her way to Hunto today so is already more than one day ahead of us. The train that would take us from Bayonne to Cambo Les Bains was filled to the brim with pilgrims. What a happy, excited, chattering bunch of people they all were, and they came from all age brackets.

It was so exhausting getting here, that by Tuesday night I could hardly even think! What a difference a day makes or, should we say, a good night’s sleep. It is Wednesday, and we’re feeling fantastic now. Thank you, Tania, for handing the Camino baton over to us because this is sure to be the journey of a lifetime. But we’ll go with no expectations, a clear mind, a clean slate, and put one foot in front of the other.

P.S. Watch this day’s video slideshow by copying and pasting this link into your browser:

Pilgimage begins 1

Pilgrimage begins 2

Pilgrimage begins 3

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P.S. There IS life after the Camino!

There actually is “life after the Camino!” It isn’t easy, though, because there are no yellow arrows pointing the way. The Camino is a “no brainer” in that respect. We never had to figure out where we were going; we were shown. Now it takes a lot more effort to get around. We’ve landed in two cities – Porto and Lisbon – and were so utterly confused about where to go. Why is it that street names don’t appear on our maps and why street names on our maps can’t be found on street corners!? Continue reading

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Day 50 (October 29, 2015) – 8.7 km., Villamaior to Santiago de Compostela

On the day of our arrival in Santiago de Compostela, we got a message from Tania that made us laugh. She said waiting for us to reach Santiago was “like waiting for a couple of babies to be born!” We are happy to announce that although the labour was long, the delivery went smoothly. The babies arrived at 10:30 this morning! They (make that “we”) will be spending two nights at the Hospiteria San Martin Pinario, a renovated monastery built in the 16th century and located as close to the Cathedral as you can get.

Our arrival in the city was a happy/sad time. The rainy weather we got while walking into Santiago was consistent with my feelings of sadness that this amazing experience of walking the Camino de Santiago was coming to an end. It was the journey of a lifetime. How often do we get to be in a crowd of people all walking in the same direction and along the same path. Even though we don’t all speak the same language, there is an unseen bond between us. How wonderful it would be if all the world got together like this with one goal, one path. Continue reading

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Day 49 (October 28, 2015) – 11.4 km., O Pedrouzo to Villamaior

This is another one of those days that can be called a “prelude to tomorrow.” Tomorrow we will walk to Santiago de Compostela. Between here (Villamaior) and Santiago, there is a long slog up to Monte Gozo before coming down into Santiago just 8.7 km away.

There was no sunshine, periodic rain, and muddy paths. Are we being weaned off of the Camino? There are many other things we would have preferred to do other than walking in the rain and trying unsuccessfully to avoid the mud while carrying all our belongings in backpacks that sometimes feel like too much of a burden. Warm sandy beaches,  blue skies, flip-flops are starting to sound awfully good! Continue reading

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Day 48 (October 27, 2015) – 22.1 km., Ribadiso to O Pedrouzo

It took just a few words written on one garbage can that started me humming a tune that stayed with me all day: “Imagine there’s no Heaven…” So what was written on the next garbage can? “It’s easy if you try.” It went on like that, one garbage can after the other: “No hell below us; above us only sky. Imagine all the countries, living life in peace…” Meaningful words and a beatiful melody. Thank you, John Lennon. Continue reading

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Day 47 (October 26, 2015) – 10.8 km., Melide to Ribadiso

Oh no! This is a bad time to get writer’s block! It could be our focus is too much on our arrival in Santiago de Compostela in three days instead of experiencing the present moment. The journey to this point has been incredible and worth every ounce of effort. Will our arrival in Santiago be as incredible or will we be overwhelmed by crowds, disappointed that the journey is over, and/or feel gratitude for our safe arrival? Will there be a crowd gathered at the side of the road cheering us on and will a marching band be leading the way?

The logistics (the easy part) are worked out. We made a reservation for two nights (October 29 and 30) at Hospideria San Martin Pinario near the Cathedral. We will arrive on the morning of the 29th and attend the pilgrim mass at the Cathedral at noon. With any sort of luck the swinging of Botafumeiro (giant incense burner) will take place. It was originally used to fumigate the sweaty (and possibly disease-ridden) pilgrims. Hopefully the required dozen attendants can be gathered together to perform the ritual. Continue reading

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Day 46 (October 25, 2015) – 15 km., Palas de Rei to Melide

Spain has so many fields of sunflowers, especially in Navarre and Castille y Leon. Tonight in Melide we learned why. Spaniards simply love to eat sunflower seeds. We went into a bar for their “menu del dia.” A group of men at the table across from us were playing what sounded like an exciting card game. They were far more interested in their card game than in the football (soccer) game playing on the overhead TV. At the same time, they were busy opening and eating sunflower seeds at a shocking speed and tossing the empty shells on the floor around them. When a bowl of sunflower seeds was empty, it was replenished. Meanwhile the pile of shells on the floor grew higher. Apparently it is perfectly acceptable and normal to throw the shells on the floor in Spanish bars. They say a dirty floor means a good bar in Spain! Who knew?! Continue reading

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Day 45 (October 24, 2015) – 30.4 km., Mercadoiro to Palas de Rei

We are in Palas de Rei, just 68 km away from Santiago! We didn’t intend to walk this far today, but we made the mistake of not staying in Ventas de Naron and then had no choice but to keep going until we could find a place to stay. “Ultreia!” Pilgims of the Middle Ages would shout “Ultreia!” (onward) as a wish of unfailing courage. We had to draw on every ounce of courage to make it to Palas de Rei! Continue reading

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Day 44 (October 23, 2015) – 16.8 km., Sarria to Mercadoiro

We expected to see a pilgrim “rush hour” leaving Sarria this morning and were surprised that it was not busy at all. Sarria is just a little further away from Santiago de Compostela than the required 100 km a pilgrim needs to travel on foot, by bicycle or on horseback, without vehicular backup in order to receive their Compostela. Sarria is where many people begin their journey. Continue reading

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Day 43 (October 22, 2015) – 18.7 km., Triacastela to Sarria

This was one of those days when we should have checked our guidebook before leaving our room. It was still dark when we came to the intersection just outside of Triacastela and didn’t know which way to turn. Usually we simply follow the yellow arrows, but we couldn’t see any. When there are no yellow arrows, we follow others. The problem this morning was that they were going both ways, right and left. We ended up relying on two people with a GPS who said it has never failed them yet and followed them to the right.

Later we learned that both ways end up in Sarria, but the route we took was shorter, 18.7 km versus 25.1. Distance can often (but not always) be the decision-maker. The longer route goes to Sarria via the Benedictine monastery of Samos, one of the oldest and largest in Spain. Apparently it is well worth the visit as we later found out. So now there is something else to add to the list of things to see, if and when we walk the Camino again! Continue reading

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Day 42 (October 21, 2015) – 21.3 km., O’Cebreiro to Triacastela

We could have stayed in the “fairy tale” town of O’Cebreiro and lived like hobbits, but we had kilometers to go before we sleep. So it was toast and cafe con leche at our favourite little funky restaurant in O’Cebreiro followed by a view of the “almost sunrise” before saying “adios” to the little village. We were fortunate again today to have clear skies and a comfortable temperature for walking, so it wasn’t long before we were peeling off several layers of clothing. Continue reading

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