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The Camino de Santiago – Saint Jean Pied de Porte to Pamplona

It was unmistakably French. The arguments between drivers and cyclists, the cafes and pastries, the political graffiti, and roads named for its long and sometimes less than illustrious colonial history. Yet in some ways it was different. In the early evening, as people filled the streets and outside cafes and bars, the character of Bordeaux seemed as warm as the weather itself, even the bum I refused a smoke wished me “Bon journé”. Recently having come south from Iceland I wondered how the hell I was going to cope with the warm weather, my summer hiking gear seemed way too heavy already.

Bordeaux was my first stop on an open-ended half idea to walk the Camino de Santiago. A notion that somehow, without my planning it much, and training for it less, had suddenly become real and therefore worrying. A recent tendon problem required rest, a crippling spine problem last year needed walking. Only one was going to be happy, and possibly neither when you count an 8-9kg pack on my back.

A late flight from Dublin had necessitated a stop here, before I got the train the next day to Saint Jean Pied de Port. And also because I wanted to drink a glass of Bordeaux in Bordeaux.

Saint Jean Pied de Port itself, the traditional (in a modern sense) point of departure for those doing the Camino Frances, or the French Way, is a charming little town nestled into the foothills of the Pyrenees of French Navarre. Already cursing my pack I made my way up to my gite in the old town, where pilgrims entered the old city gates on their way to Santiago de Compostella.

A pilgrim office staffed with older mountainy men in berets provides information, your first stamp, maps of the first stage and (which I highly recommend) a full and comprehensive list of every pilgrim albergue along the way. You can also buy a shell, which I declined due to the accursed pack.

There’s also a hiking shop which was my next stop to swap out a small day pack for something lighter.

Needing to go to the post office the next day meant I had a later start at almost 10am but I was only headed to Orisson 6-8km up the road, depending on who you believed. However the sounds of boots on cobbles began at 6:30, with most having left by 8am.

This was the part that really had me nervous. The little I had read on the way had centred on Route Napoleon, named for the paths the general had used when invading Spain, it was tough, steep and apparently the worst part of the trip. A lot like a route home after school which I avoided as much as possible, the inclines were immediately steep, the gentler, then worse. A warm day, I was soon puffing and panting, trying to appreciate the beautiful views with the clouds rolling between the hills, and wondering why I ever had this stupid idea, or maybe why hadn’t I just trained, even a little. Well for the last one I did have some small excuse in a tendon that suddenly started giving me trouble at the end of the summer. I hoped the special insoles I had gotten would be enough to keep it to a manageable ache. Finally, after stopping to watch some eagles gliding in the valley, most considerate of them, at this point I was dying for a break, a bend in the road finally revealing my destination, a bustling albergue and restaurant full of smiling hikers.

The albergue has some dodgy reviews online but I couldn’t fault it, even the five minute showers were fine. Traditionally all peregrinos stand up after dinner to introduce themselves and say why they’re doing the Camino. A really nice touch for those who are thinking more about the pilgrimage aspect than I. I just wanted a long walk and I’m sure I am a bit anti-social in Camino terms. The nights group were a lovely mix of French, English, Korean, American, Venezuelan, Italian, Spanish and more. Early to bed was the order of the day, with all in bed before 9pm to get some rest for the next days walk.

As the dawn broke, peregrinos were already setting off, in some cases already arriving from SJPP. The next section to Roncesvalles was hilly, yet not as bad as the previous day, though much longer. So off I set at 0830 like a walking washing line as nothing dried in last nights humidity.

Almost every creature around here with four legs wears a bell and heading up the hills you heard mental clanking for miles around. The trees surrounding the trail looking so old I wondered if Napoleon’s troops had walked passed the same ones. After a sunny start the fog closed in, eventually raining that kind of insidious rain that seems light but soaks you to the skin. Taking a longer but knee-friendly route down to the 12th century monastery, via an argument about the map with someone else, I was so happy to have a bed and a shower that the wash/dry service seemed a total luxury.

The monastery is a huge complex, with 72 beds in sets of four on each floor, for three floors. On top of that there is an overflow building, but even with that in the summer they have to turn people away which is astounding. Run by volunteers, the group managing the current rotation were all Dutch and strict but in a very friendly way. Lights were off at 10pm and on again at 6:30am accompanied by monks chanting hymns over loud speakers. As I couldn’t sleep a wink with the snoring and slamming of bathroom doors I thought it was quite nice but that was definitely not a universal opinion.

The next day’s trek to Zubiri was longer in distance but easier in gradient, but the path was rough and uncomfortable for stretches and unforgiving on my tendons which by now were screaming at me. This at least was offset by the pretty villages I passed through, immaculately kept houses with bright floral displays. The woodland trails were nicely shaded against the heat of the day and after a steep descent passing a spot where Roland called Charlemagne for help, I arrived to Zubiri.

Trying albergue after albergue after pension after hotel, there wasn’t a bed to be found in the town. Almost totally spent I ran into a few friends I had made along the way, one of whom was in the same situation. We started calling places in the next town and while my friend was going to walk the extra 6km I decided to get a taxi, knowing my tendons were just not able. Heading across the street to a butchers shop to ask for the number of a taxi, the butcher insisted on driving me himself, a lucky streak which ended when, having checked in at my lodgings and putting away my things I realised I didn’t have to put away my walking sticks. I had left them back in Zubiri. I did manage to get a taxi this time, frantically checking places like a lunatic while the driver waited, and the extra €8 was a lot cheaper than having to buy new ones. After a small bite and a drink when my friend arrived I was fit for bed at only 8:30, arriving to a dorm which was already in darkness, rather unreasonable I thought even by Camino standards.

I decided to go easy the next day for the 16km to Pamplona and send my bag on to give my ankle a break, which in 30°C I was thankful for. The going was much easier, and apart from the rather boring few kilometres through the suburbs, was a pleasant day. My hostel was just inside the old city walls and cafe complete with a lovely black lab, who was much more interested in food than the tired walkers fawning over him, myself included. My only goals of washing me and my clothes were completed with the help of some wine in a local bar with a group of walking companions, who most I sadly had to say goodbye to, as I was taking a very pleasant and lazy rest the next day to enjoy the city.

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