Beginning the Camino de Santiago – Part 1 (by Carmen)
Jet lag is not a traveler’s friend. Even after our wonderful few days in London, Nathan and I were suffering from it. On a few hours sleep, we made our way from London to the small French town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port via plane, bus and train. At each part of the journey more and more eager backpackers surrounded us. As we pulled into the rail station, we all spilled out of the train and rushed to the pilgrim office to register.
At the office we picked up two important items. The first was our credentials booklet with space for stamps we collect from the hostels, cafes and churches we visit along our journey. The second is our scallop shell which we quickly affixed to our backpacks. The shell has been the symbol of the camino since medieval times and represents one’s westward progression towards the Atlantic Ocean. We were starting to feel like true peregrinos (pilgrims).
On the eve of our journey, Nathan and I celebrated at a basque restaurant. We toasted with locally made cider as we ate vegetable soup, pork ribs and piperade (a sauteed onion, tomato and pepper mixture). That night we decided to camp in the local campground. We snuggled into our sleeping bags and readied ourselves for an early morning.
It rained heavily almost the entire night. The droplets loudly hitting the tent plus the lingering jet lag made for a fitful night of sleep. When we did wake up, we realized we had overslept by an hour and water had leaked into our tent. We hurriedly rolled up the muddy drenched fabric and we set out in the cloud covered morning. The walk from St. Jean is one of the hardest with a 1,400 m (4,600 ft) climb over the Pyrenees. I had envisioned the first day of our 800 km (500 mi) trek to be full of energy and enthusiasm. Given the persistent rain, lack of sleep and rushed morning, I felt short on both.
Donning our ponchos for much of the morning, we trudged our way further and further up the mountains. Towards midday, Nathan and I met for lunch. A Frenchman had set up a heavenly hot drink stand operating out of his van. We each ordered a hot chocolate to warm our numb fingers.
The rain obscured many of our views but it also made for a mystical, misty walk through the beautiful beech groves we passed. As we descended into Spain, the fog began to lift and the sun poked out of the clouds. Nathan noticed the first of many blackberry bushes which he happily plundered.
In the late afternoon we walked into Roncesvalles and checked into our albergue (pilgrim hostel). That night we enjoyed our first pilgrim dinner. At a table with South Africans, Kiwis and Germans we lamented the weather over pasta, fish, and plenty of wine. So began the first day of our month long trek.
Over the next few days it was a learning process to adjust to the rhythm of the camino. We learned to pace ourselves, to measure in kilometers and to appreciate the power of coffee breaks. We enjoyed the first of many bocadillos de jamón (ham sandwiches). We alternated camping and albergues. We walked in small medieval villages. Our feet grew tired and we learned our limits. Walking 20 miles a day is not easy nor glamorous. Blisters, aches, muscle cramps and more all come into play at some point.
On the third day we passed through Pamplona, a beautiful city best known for the running of the bulls. Since we arrived around lunchtime we picked the busiest tapas bar to eat some montaditos (open faced sandwiches). A few doors down we bought rich jamón ibérico from a butcher playing classical music. They take their pork seriously around here.
The history is ever present. Nathan took a detour to a medieval church and I waited for him in the main plaza of Puente de la Reina, surrounded by buildings that are centuries old. Towns like these have been hosting pilgrims for the past 1200 years! This has become a cultural adventure as much as a meditative one.
On the fifth day Nathan and I arrive at a much anticipated stop on the camino – the fuente de vino (wine fountain)! The first part of our journey walked through the basque regions of Navarre. To honor the entrance into the vineyard covered hills of Eastern Spain, the local wineries offered free wine at a fountain on the camino. Our new Swiss friend Didier and his son Basile were also excited. As we walked up to the fountain we were crushed to learn that it was empty. Nathan, not one to take no for an answer, took up the issue with the nearby winery office. They agreed to fill the tank but in the meantime we shared a 3 euro bottle Nathan bought at the office. Where there is a will, there is a way!
Our adventures in La Rioja will be continued in the next post.