😀👣💥 I am finally here at the sweet, picture-perfect, village of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, exhausted after the 43-hour journey but happy to be back. The whole Camino Françes is ahead of me and for that I am grateful. When Dave and I were approaching Santiago on our first Camino in the Autumn of 2015, I slowed my pace because I didn’t want it to end. Now I am back at the beginning again. So happy!
St. Jean lies in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the Basque region of Southern France and is the starting point for many people who walk the Camino Françes. Traditionally, a pilgrim would walk from their own doorstep somewhere in Europe and pass through St. Jean on their way to Santiago de Compostela but for modern day pilgrims, St. Jean is a common starting point.
It took 43 hours and many planes, buses and trains to get here: three WestJet flights from Victoria to London; train from Gatwick Airport to Victoria Station; bus from Victoria Station to London’s Stansted Airport; Ryanair flight from London to Biarritz; bus to Bayonne; and train to St. Jean Pied de Port. Never go this way!!! Go to Paris, go to Madrid, but never this way!
These two days got crazier as time went on, with the highlight being the Stansted Airport with noisy crowds rushing around everywhere. In security people were peeling off shoes, jackets, watches, gathering their liquids, pulling out computers, etc before reaching the tables where the bins are conveniently lined up to put our stuff into. The reason for this was that security wanted to speed up the process. This system looked pretty chaotic and it was easy to lose things.
What happened coming through security made me smile in spite of how tired and miserable I was feeling by then. “What do you have here? Tent poles?” the inspector asked. When I said they were hiking poles he asked if I need them for walking. In other words, are they are a walking aid? Another inspector piped up saying “Yes, they are a walking aid,” prompting me to echo her which I wholeheartedly did. All three of us were loudly saying the same thing. Loud for someone’s benefit – the supervisor maybe? The first inspector wouldn’t let me go, though, until I made a show of unfolding them and having to use them in the airport as intended: a walking aid. Once out of their sight, the hiking poles were again folded up and stowed in my backpack. I really think the two of them were just having a bit of fun! They did all this with a twinkle in their eyes.
By the time I reached Bayonne late on Wednesday night I was exhausted and so ready for some jet-lag recovery time at the Côte Basque Hotel. My budget double room cost 55.70€ and could very well be the last time I have a room with private bath for a long time. The hotel was a little rough around the edges but had character, especially the elevator. I didn’t take it.
This hotel was selected for its handy location across the street from the train station in Bayonne. It was just a short dash on Thursday morning to get my train ticket for the final leg of my journey to St. Jean, one hour away. The train came along at 11:54 AM so I had plenty of time to see a bit of Bayonne where there was a Foire Au Jamon going on. I had my first coffee in two days – very French, very small, and very strong! I made my first friends – Marco, Lily, and Leon from Brazil on the train although Marco will probably be over the Pyrenees in no time since he has had experience around Mt. Everest.
I went straight to Beilari Aterpea, a favourite hostel in St. Jean where pilgrims love to begin their journey. The owners are welcoming and dedicated to the pilgrim way, wishing to see them off to a good start with a communal dinner and breakfast included with the cost of accommodation, all for 37 Euros. I also ordered a sandwich for tomorrow for 5 Euros and will buy some fruit somewhere as well. There are 18 beds in four rooms and a simple bathroom with two showers. I am in a room with two other women. Carmel is from Australia and I don’t know yet who is occupying the third bed.
The Camino is a great opportunity to leave “normal” behind for a while, but what if that life haunts you digitally? Beilari offers a special service: no WiFi! If we can’t resist being “online” (like me), we can use internet for free at the pilgrim’s office, opposite Beilari. I am sitting just outside the pilgrim office typing this. It sprinkled earlier but the sun is trying to shine and it is warm.
I love Beilari’s “Spring Invitation” and want to share it: “Winter has passed. We are entering a time where everything is possible there is a call to a new step. We don’t know when, but we know that we will flourish. New sap runs in our veins opening space between past pain. Our pupils sense new buds coming. It is time to find the path. Time to abandon yesterday and risk the present. Time to breathe with our feet and walk with our entire souls. We bid you welcome to the Camino, Pilgrim!”
After checking into Beilari I was going to get a SIM card for the phone but decided to wait until I am in Spain (Pamplona?). There are no roaming fees in Europe, so in theory you can get a pay-as-you-go SIM card in France and use it in Spain as well. It is best, however, to get it in Spain, since it will be easier to get help or fill up the balance if needed.
I also needed to find out the weather forecast for the next two days when I will be crossing the Pyrenees via the Napoleon Route (the higher, scenic route). This route through the Pyrenees is closed during the winter and opens sometime in April, when the weather permits. The weather is expected to be fine so I am good to go!
Of course St. Jean hasn’t changed a bit since Dave and I fell in love with it on our first Camino, but why would it? The buildings lining the cobblestoned Main Street, Rue de la Citadelle, have been here for centuries as shown by the construction dates inscribed over doorways. Beilari was constructed in 1632.
The village is bustling with fresh faced pilgrims excited at the prospect of beginning their journey to Santiago de Compostela. They are sporting clean boots, have no blisters and brand new guidebooks not yet dog-eared. Things change.
Actually, I haven’t seen guidebooks in such perfect shape since the end of October, 2015, when Dave and I were in the “home stretch” within 100 km of our arrival in Santiago. The guidebooks belonging to pilgrims who walk just that final section of the Camino Frances don’t have a chance to suffer much wear and tear.
I have to admit that even though my Camino Françes and Primitivo guidebooks are new, they don’t look so great. I put my Exacto knife to work cutting out only the pages I need to get from St. Jean to Leon and from Oviedo to Santiago. All else is just extra weight! Authors John Brierley and Dave Whitson would be appalled!
Day 1 begins tomorrow for me, and I was hoping that the transformation would begin as soon as I reached St. Jean. Already I feel so much more relaxed and happy than I was on Tuesday and Wednesday during the horrendous 43 hour ordeal of getting here. The “traveller” who has been planning for weeks where to go, how to get there, and what to take, will transform into a “pilgrim” to whom the journey IS the destination. I’m not sure how easy it will be to shrug off expectations and fears, to take it all as it comes, to stay present to the experience, and never stop moving forward, but that’s the plan.
Although I will write a blog post every day, I know it isn’t always possible to publish them every day because of slow or non-existent wi-fi. Just hang in there. One, two, or even several will eventually show up all at once. Having the Spanish SIM card filled up with plenty of data for the phone might help with that inconsistency (fingers crossed) but I won’t have that until Monday in Pamplona.
Ahhhhhhh Pamplona… Too bad I’ll be too early to run with the bulls!