If anyone ever asks me why I chose to do the Camino, otherwise known as The Way of St. James, I wouldn’t be able to give a straight answer. I had an inkling of its do-ability but never thought of pursuing it until a basic idle thought, followed by intense spontaneous curiosity led me to a firm decision a week later. A bit of a discussion with a friend who had done part of it, some internet research and an odd recollection of a podcast featuring Paolo Coelho and inspiration to start writing his bestselling surrealist novels after his Camino experience, all may have brought me here. The French national rail operator, SNCF, seems fine tuned to ‘’pilgrim’’ needs as all that one needed to do to kick it off was to buy a one-way ticket from the Paris mega-polis to the diminutive but not insignificant St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.
This is the part where I need to explain the meaning of ‘’Camino.’’ The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St James, is a medieval pilgrimage route over a thousand years old, which brought pilgrims from all corners of Europe, across Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela, believed by many of the Catholic faith to be the final resting place of Saint James (the Greater) the Apostle. Thousands of people set out from their homes to travel to Santiago on foot or on horseback. The Camino Frances has been one of many pilgrimage routes in Europe but for many centuries it was the most popular. It is now traversed by thousands of people every year, for a wide variety of reasons. It takes about 30 days to walk. I was only planning to do 8 days of it. The idea of the Camino runs deeper than a walking challenge that one must complete. Driving all the way is not considered cheating in any way. Anyone, able footed or not, is welcome to get onto ‘’The Way’’. Other routes such as the Via de la Plata, from Seville, and the Camino del Norte, along the north coast of Spain, have also become more popular, but not to the same degree as the Camino Frances.
The cold anonymity of ones existence in a large city like Paris began to warm up at Bayonne, in the French Basque country, where I left my TGV train and had a 2 hour layover until my regional TER train departed. I identified friendly looking faces of pilgrims. The writer of a guide book that I downloaded online highlighted the reason for him coming on the Camino time and time again was because of this opening up. Camaraderie, interest in others and a good atmosphere. It looks like I missed a really massive vibe–the Fêtes de Bayonne, the city’s annual festival, had just concluded yesterday and as I walked through the town I saw the aftermath – hangovered youth dressed all white with red sashes and scarves wandering around town, a pile of garbage by the riverside and a busy tapas food court no doubt full of punters with the post-fiesta munchies.
We had to take a rail replacement bus service from Cambo-les-Bains (no time to enjoy this spa village) to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. The name literally means ‘’foot of the pass’’ in Pyrenean French. The 30-minute affair took us up a heavily forested valley with rapids, therefore it was not surprising to see lots of rafting tourists gathering at one spot on the way up. We filed and fanned out of the bus from the train station towards the still walled town of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. It surrounds a Citadel – a reminder of the warring nature of the past. How the pilgrimage kept on is a wonder!
The Auberge du Pelerin had a discreet vibe to it. I almost thought that it was closed before I gently pushed the door open. I went down a dark corridor and then saw another shut door! Is this a hostel or a monastery? That door led to the reception area. The friendly lady who welcomed me seemed to be running a tight ship. She rapped the dinner, breakfast and hostel closing times in one breath and then got her summer jobbing young colleague to take me to the dormitory. She glanced at me and said that I should get walking poles. I bought an elaborately finished wooden stick and she later on, showing true French indignation, smirked that the stick is just a fashion statement of no practical value compared to the light, composite material, dampened pairs of walking poles. I then asked her how on earth did she think pilgrims hundreds of years ago made it across to Santiago without all this technology. I really hope that she one day does the Camino in order to understand it better. I was also only just starting to!