Buen Camino – First steps on “The Way”

I recently returned from my first adventure on walking the Camino de Compostela.  It was a ten day trip that my son Joel and I started from James Rice’s tomb in Waterford with a plan to walk from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Logrono in Spain. I have had so many asking how it went I decided to transcribe some of those thoughts I committed to paper as I went, in the hope that it might assist others thinking of setting off.  Its not so much my personal thoughts as some nuts and bolts reflections on the actual route.
Firstly I have to say that getting there was so easy. We departed Dublin airport on Friday 16th on a 7.10am flight to Biarritz in SW France.  We stepped off around 10.10 (adding an hour for the time zone) and walked through the customs area and to the first bus stop outside on the left.  There we waited about a minute and a bus pulled up, with an electronic message board stating “Bayonne Gare” – Bayonne Train Station, which was where we would get a train to St Jean Pied de Port.  It cost €1 and the bus swept us along with its final stop outside a beautiful old ornate building which housed the station.  As we walked in the electronic ticket booth was on our right, and it gave an option for selecting your preferred language! €20.40 for two single tickets.  It departed within ten minutes filled with Camino bound walkers.
Fifty minutes later we arrived at St Jean Pied de Port.  Although we were unsure of what to do we opted to follow the crowd and we were led directly to the Camino office in Rue de la Citadelle where a helpful American gave me a very useful guide of all the hostels (albergues) along the route along with the costs and the services they provide.  
Porte St-Jacques, leading out to the Pyrenees
A credential was available here for €2, but as I already had mine posted from the Camino Society of Ireland, he stamped it and wished me my first Buen Camino, the traditional greeting or salute to fellow pilgrims as you pass along the way. The credential was our pilgrim passport, without which you could not get into a pilgrim hostel, and as you went along there were many opportunities to pick up a stamp, churches, hostels, cafes etc…each one becoming a little treasure or keepsake, imparting a specific memory of a place or time.
Outside Joel and I discussed what to do. It was about noon and although were were tired we opted for some lunch and to get a head start on our journey heading off to Orrison about 8km into the foothills of the Pyrenees. A beautiful stroll and although steep coming near the end, we covered it easily.  The hostess at the albergue was shocked when I stated we had not booked ahead, but she managed to find us a bed in an overflow building at 1km back down the hill. (we never booked ahead trusting we would get a bed and it was always so, but perhaps at a busier time of year this would be foolhardy)  It cost us €15 with cold showers but we slept fine and at least we had a good start for the next day. The hardest part was retracing our steps. Having climbed so far, we both resented giving up the yardage, but a bed is a bed.
Day 2
We were off at about 6.30am, picking up a quick coffee at the main albergue to give us a caffeine lift. The climb was steep, but the views stunning and around each bend or hill top was a new and more magnificent scene. Large birds of prey swept over our heads, seven at one specific time. I speculated that they were Condors. The cattle, sheep and horses grazed on the scarce grassland and shepherds were a constant occurrence, checking their livestock from what I imagined to be temporary homes on the hill tops. A distinct feature were bells on the necks of cattle and horses and the chimes were a companionable sound to the stillness of the hill top.
Although I found the climbing hard, Joel was in his element, even diverting off the path to nearby hill tops for an extra challenge, while he waited my catching up. Finding the path is easy, the signage is excellent, even without a map, but we do have Brierleys guide for reference which is excellent. It is essential also in giving a guide to the climbs (up or down) on each days journey…it’s as well to be prepared.  We stopped for a breakfast of some sandwiches I had made at home at a drinking fountain, which I think was Col et fontaine de Bentarte. We crossed from France to Spain without any ceremony or discernible markings and walked through some wonderful beech forestry towards the summit at Col de Lepoeder. From here we took the steep path down to Roncesvalles which was treacherous at times, but shaded. An alternative, longer path, was used by many others who found it much easier. The plants and tress are very familiar to me which I find surprising, and I spend a lot of time just watching nature as I wander along.
We arrived into the old monastery before 12 noon.  Although hot, Joel was keen to move on.  I on the other hand wanted to stay, to rest and soak up the atmosphere of the place. We had a beer at a local bar, and then lunch at another spot and at 2pm were were able to check in to the albergue. After a shower and a wash of our clothes we got them onto a clothes line outside and then I went for a siesta. Joel to the bar. At 6pm there was mass in the beautiful nearby church which many of the fellow pilgrims attended and afterwards two choral groups performed a concert. By 8pm I was tired and longing for bed.  Looking forward to another days walking.  The laundry was dry, so I laid out the following mornings clothing, packed everything else away and got a great nights sleep.
At this point the rhythm of the road is starting to settle in.  Up early, pack away, fill the drinking bottle and out walking.  A stop for a coffee and a small sandwich (Bocadillos) or a slice of omelette (our favourite I think and came in many varieties and locally called Tortillas) after a few hours walking.  By lunch we were either at our destination or settling down to a siesta and doing an extra few kilometers in the evening. Today was such a day and we arrived about 4pm in Larrasoana, tired and hot.  The heat is becoming a real factor, and it was only later that evening when we got talking to a Spanish walker named Ramon that we realised how extreme. It had reached 37 degrees during the day. Ramon was saying it ten degrees hotter than normal, and we should walk accordingly.  
Our fellow walkers are an interesting bunch and we are both quick to say hello and get at least on first name terms. Some you get to know briefly never to see again, others are with you for a few days at a time. Some I avoided; a man in a monks robe with Mother Theresa emblazoned front and back, others I welcomed if only for a yard or two along the way. Many names stay with you, many stories, and many more you can only speculate upon.  I tried to be never nosy, always willing to lend a hand, sure in the knowledge that it is returned in spades.  I came upon John Paul today, he was dazed, and lost on the high hills outside of Zubiri. All around us the smell of pine was intoxicating, but my new Italian friend was oblivious to it.  He had become overcome with heat and had turned back up the hill, fearful he had become lost.  After rest, and a drink and my reassurance we set off down the path.  He held on at the steep parts, and slowly we wound our way into the town where he quickly found a fellow countrywoman who took him in charge.  I often thought of him after.

Dinner was problematic that evening as the menu was far from appetising in the local bar.  Many of our follow walkers refused the Pilgrim Menu, including Joel who opted for a burger off the main menu, which left a lot to be desired, but the bottle of wine he ordered, helped it all slip down and I was happy to join him in that. The pilgrim menu seems to divide opinion.  Some say it is just a slapped together meal of whatever is cheap and handy, but it is usually €10 and with three courses including wine, it will at least fill you up.  Many times we went for something lighter but for about the same cost.  On occasions when we did have it, it was indeed hit or miss. An interesting thread here on the same topic.
I’m also unsure about the benefits felt by locals of us walkers.  We don’t buy much, most of us are on a strict budget, and even if there was something that you fancied, how would you carry it, when everything goes on your back. (there is a bag collection service available at the albergues, and I counted no less than 4 companies offering it in one place.  Basically for €5 your bag can be collected and dropped off at another albergue at a set distance, I think 25km was the limit)  As I walked I became more conscious of how we are perceived by locals.  In many cases I think we are tolerated as we go, but perhaps would not be missed. I was careful to always say Bunos Dias or Hola, and generally this was returned, but how would I feel if hundreds of walkers passed me every day as I worked in my vinyard! What do we bring to the Camino, rather than take from it.  A question I have left unanswered.
Day 4 – 6
And on we went in that rhythm.  Pamplona was wonderful to visit and though we had the look around it was very touristy and we were keen to be on the road. We walked later that evening towards Zariquiegui as the sun beated down on us and at one point found blissful shade under an old knarelled olive tree.  There we rested and chatted away about how easy it would be to sleep right there. Sleeping outside was becoming a real thought, the heat was getting more uncomfortable as we went on, and even at night the temperature never went so low that you would want to creep inside a sleeping bag. Continuing on we found two albergues in the village and so slept another night indoors. The following morning we made an easy climb to Alto del Perdon and got a photo of the rising sun against the Monumento Perrgrino.
We made Estella that day as we had the sun behind cloud for much of the morning and so felt energised after the interminable heat. It came out as we entered Lorca and those last 3.7km were a struggle, but a shower and a rest in the very airy municipal albergue soon put us right. The following morning we visited the Irache wine fountain, and weaving our way through fellow pilgrims became a bit of a bother.  Many appeared to be out for a day trip, wandering along chatting in Spanish, a small back back and walking sticks in each hand creating extra hurdles for us to pass. 
We chose Brierley’s alternative path over the hill, through the nobel firs and down into Luquin where we breakfasted and then took on the long unshaded path to Los Arcos.  Pure drudgery in blinding sun.  I counted two trees on the road and a roadside cantena for a water stop.  We were parched by the time we made Los Arcos, but really enjoyed the beautiful church in the town square.  We rested up after lunch before setting out for Torres del Rio, a road I have to say that tried me to the core. Again blinding heat, endless wheat fields, and although there was a promise of rain on the far away hills, nothing but a whisp of a breeze occasionally reached me.  Joel had powered on ahead.  My walking companion and I are completely incompatible.  I choose shade, he wants sun, I love cool, he loves heat, I like to eat at lunch time, he prefers food in the evening, I like to be up early and in bed likewise, he wants to sleep in and be out all night.  Arriving at Torres del Rio that evening I was wrecked, but Joel was wondering if I was up for another 10km.  
That path tested me to my core.  All along I had been drawn to nature, marveling at the little things, wild flowers, streams, natural fords, field patters, a solitary robin on a blackthorn tree, lines of ants across the dusty roads, dragging wheat kernals back to their colonies. Always mindful to step over them, that afternoon as my feet began to drag, I started to loose interest.  Away to the south I could see huge cloud formations and dreamed of the rain it was dropping somewhere, perhaps 50km away. As my mouth dried, and my eyes stung with sweat and my feet started to blister I had only one thought which was to lie down and rest.  And then out of the corner of my eye I spotted the one thing that I had wished Joel was here with me for…a si gaoithe, a fairy wind.  It picked up right in front of me in the road, whipping up the dust into a spiralled colum and dropping it again seconds later.  I was disappointed at how quickly it had started and finished.  And then it happened again, this time in the newly mown wheatfield.  The straw was whipped up and carried skywards and slowly as the momentum in the updraft dissipated the straws floated down around me.  I felt blessed to have seen it, and then sorry that Joel was so far on that we could not share it, like we had when he was only a boy all those years before in a fishing boat on the Suir. The scene spurred me on, and later when we met up he was as happy as I was to have seen a similar event further along the road.
That night the heat really got to me, at 1am I walked out in my shorts and lay down on a bench, but the heat was all around me. I was dressed and walking by 5.30am and had told Joel I would meet him in Logrono.  I reached it at 11am, Joel was ten minutes after me, having slept until 7am.  After another night of lying in oven-like conditions, we decided to head to Bilboa and some air.  Sorry to leave the Camino behind, but happy to be heading back towards the family.
1.  I watched and read numerous items about what to pack and what to wear.  When you opt to carry everything in a backpack you need to be choosey. What I packed;
A water bottle for drinking – drinking fountains were in every town and village we passed through, the water is perfect, no need to buy it, we topped up at every fountain we came to.
two tee shirts (only used one – evening wear)
two underpants – essential
two pair of walking socks – essential
two pants – one shorts, one with detachable legs – essential
a fleece (never used once) 
a towel – essential
clothes pegs – handy, but perhaps not essential
a water proof mac in a sac – never opened (still bring it if going again though)
a toilet roll – what was I thinking??
a pair of flip flops – essential after wearing walking boots all day
First aid – Compeedes were essentail – got blisters in the heat
sun block
Hat – I had to replace mine as it was too heavy  and buy a new sun hat en route 
Sleeping bag – handy to lie on, but to all intents and purposes irrelevant in the heat, and most albergues were spotlessly clean
And you can buy anything on the way in any modest sized town
2. Footwear.  We both wore walking boots which were well broken in and comfortable.  I can honestly say however, that runners (or even walking sandles in the vast majority of places) would have sufficed for everywhere we walked.  Perhaps the weather conditions played a crucial role in this.

3. Budget – set a budget of €30 per day each.  Easily kept to and it would be relatively easy to stay at €20 as my appetite was not so large in the heat.  We paid between €6-15 for a bed which included showers, toilets, kitchen in many cases and laundry facilities (in some cases this was just warm water and a clothes line).  The Pilgrim menu was generally €10 and a beer or glass of wine was just over a euro.  Water was freely available on the route.  A small breakfast cost about €3.50 including coffee.

 4. I miss the walking and the company.  Hard to say it but turning away from the Camino was harder than I made it sound in my conclusion. I loved the rhythm of the road. I loved being in nature, of looking ahead to a new turn in the road and what it would bring, to meeting new people, to sharing a hostel, a shade break, a meal with folk who were on the road with me. I enjoyed having to think of nothing but my journey, enjoyed not having social media, no phone calls, no work.  It was a freedom to concentrate solely on walking, I found it relaxing, peaceful and indeed joyful. The Camino gave me a wonderful feeling, one that I sorely miss, and one I want to get back to as soon as funds will allow.