On Easter Sunday I started what I hoped and hope will be a great adventure. I took a Eurostar to Paris then a TGV to Bayonne in the South of France followed by a 45 minute bus ride to arrive in the small medieval town of St Jean Pied de Porte – the ancient capital of the Basque region of Basse-Navarre. I was very excited to be at the start of a long journey – the Camino Frances – the beginning of a 500 mile ancient journey through the Pyrenees, into Spain and ending up at Santiago de Compostella.
Scholars believe that the remains of of St James the Apostle- St Iago in Spanish – are buried in the cathedral there – or rather that a cathedral has been built where his remains are buried. There is some suggestion that after Christ’s crucifixion James himself sailed to Galicia in Spain and preached there – particularly at a place called Finisterre (finis terrae) literally meaning the end of the world. It was a place of immense spiritual significance in the Early Roman and Early Christian periods. When St James returned to Jerusalem in 42 AD he was beheaded by King Herod and his followers tried to take his body to Finis Terre but finally laid him to rest in Libredon which was the previous name for the newly named Sant Iago. The compostella part of its name dates back to 813 when a shepherd called Pelayo was drawn to a field – compos – by a bright star – stella. During the Middle Ages Santiago grew in importance as a pilgrim route at the time when pilgrims found it difficult to get to Jerusalem and Rome. The pilgrims on this route became known as Santiago Perregrino’s – the image of which is of a traveller carrying all their goods with them with the addition of a staff, a bible a wide brim hat to keep off the sun and a scallop shell or concha in Spanish. All pilgrims carry a scallop shell on their rucksacks and the shell symbols literally mark the route. Some say that the grooves in the shell may be seen to be the many varied routes that pilgrims take to arrive at the single point of the cathedral at Santiago.
So in St Jean on Easter Monday morning we started our camino. We visited the very well manned pilgrim office to receive our first pilgrim stamp and buy our shells and to take on all the information that was available. And then we were off- taking our first few steps out of the walls of the old town and beyond. We were excited. But then in all the busyness of getting there and train schedules etc we had both neglected to spend much time in mental preparation. So as we walked I read the self-assessment part of our guidebook – ‘What do you see as the primary purpose of your life?’ and then ‘How clear are you on your goal and the right direction for you at this time?’… and other such questions!!! And so on we walked…
The whole camino takes approximately 5 weeks – 33 days walking at approximately 24 km a day with 2 rest days. On this our first visit we completed the first four stages basically walking for just four days with an extra day in Bilbao at the end. The first stage or day is purportedly the hardest and most strenuous of the whole camino – and it was a very hard uphill walk through the Pyrenees, across the border into Spain and on to our first night at Ronscesvalles. Having left St Jean at 10:30 am we arrived at our albergue (pilgrim hostel) at gone 8 pm. It was amazing, spotlessly clean lots of loos and hot showers with over 100 beds in one room. All for just €10 per night. We had a very comfortable night there in our bunk beds. There was a bit of group snoring going on but were woken at 6 am with lovely monastic music. We had to leave by 8 am so in fact we left before dawn – there was snow on the ground and a very definite chill in the air. We had fresh coffee and pastries in the next village at the Hotel Burguete where Ernest Hemingway used to stay. By 11 am it was gloriously sunny and warm.
And so our camino continued. We spent time chatting, not chatting, meeting other pilgrims, enjoying lovely meals and pilgrim menus. Each night our pilgrim passport was stamped and this document enabled us to stay at a variety of albergues. All were fantastic. Spending time walking in beautiful natural scenery was wonderful. Pilgrims place stones on the shell signs that mark the way. Eventually the pile gets too high and they all tumble down. Then another stone pile is started. I liked the idea of leaving a stone, but happy too to know it would fall down.
We finished our first visit on the camino at Pamplona (famous for summer bull running). I can’t wait to return and complete the next leg.