Camino de Santiago

© Bruce Nichols - 2004

Camino #1
The Journey Begins

next story | story index

April 2004

Hola from Spain,

Yesterday marked the end of my first week on the Camino. I’m currently in a small town named Belarado about 210 kilometers from where I started this walk in St. Jean Pied de Port in France. It may still be too soon to characterize the experience but I am enjoying the great beauty of the Spanish landscape and tremendous friendliness of people I am meeting on the Camino. The trip has been marked by a series of misadventures that turned out to be blessings.

As I was flying my final leg from Heathrow to Paris a flight attendant came down the aisle and asked if I was Mr. Nichols. When I replied, yes, she told me that my wallet had been found in Heathrow and what did I want to do about it. All sorts of thoughts swirled in my head. Had it been stolen and dropped by the pickpocket. Had someone just found it and turned it in. The last place I could remember having it was going through security in Heathrow. After a moment of speechlessness I asked if it could be sent along on the next flight. The attendant said she would find out and let me know. A while later she confirmed that it would be sent along on a subsequent flight. When I arrived at DeGaulle I checked in with British Airways and told them of my plight and they said that when the wallet arrived they would get to the baggage office.

This turned out to be a good thing because one of my pieces of luggage, a small cardboard box with my trekking poles did not arrive with the rest of the things from my flight. So I found a comfortable place in the airport and began my wait. I had landed at 2:30 pm. At 4:30 my wallet arrived on the next flight. Much to my relief, it was intact and still had my US cash and credit cards. I was depending on my bankcard for cash in Europe so at least the trip could now continue. When I picked up the wallet I also checked on my poles and found that they would be in at 6:30. I was given a voucher for some food in one of the airport shops and continued my wait. My overnight train from Paris to Bayonne did not leave till 11pm so there was no problem there. At 6:30 my poles were the very last thing off the plane and finally intact with all my gear and goods, I found the bus to the train station. And here is where the good fortune come s in. The train station proved a much less comfortable place to wait around than the airport. It was cold, there was only one toilet in the place and you had to pay to use it, and it was loud and chaotic. The airport had been warm. I’d had a free meal on the airlines and waited in relative comfort.

At 11 pm I boarded the train for Bayonne that would have me there at 6 the next morning. So I slept one night on a plane, the second on the train. The train seats were did not recline but there was plenty of room in our second-class car so people spread out and got as comfortable as possible. After some observation, I decided there are 4 times as many ways to sleep in a train car as there are people present. Some ran their feet across the aisle. Some sat upright, others, including myself, curled up in various fetal positions and snoozed a bit.

In Bayonne I had about an hour wait for my train to St. Jean. It is still dark in France and Spain ant 7 AM local time. The sun rises here just a bit before 8 am right now. I had thought about staying a day in St. Jean but after picking up my credential – the official document that would allow me to stay in the refuges along the Camino, I decided to start immediately. I had been told in the local office that the Napoleon route, that is the most beautiful but goes high into the Pyrenees on its 27-kilometer path into Spain, was impassable due to snow. I decided to take the lower but much less scenic route along the road.

But my second mistake came here. I did not consult my guidebook and started out thinking I was following the low route when I was actually following the Napoleon. It took about 6 kilometers to realize the mistake and I debated about going forward or turning back. I started back down thinking about all the extra miles I would have to walk and encountered a farmer walking in his yard. On a whim I asked about the route and much to my surprise he spoke back to me in perfect if accented English. He said his son had been in the mountains recently and the snow was not too bad and also that may Perigrinos (pilgrims on the Camino) had been by in the last day and none had come back. And so I decided to continue. And I was not disappointed. The high route while a bit cloudy and cool did offer wonderful views of the surrounding mountains. The Camino here mostly follows mountain roads some paved some not and occasionally breaks off onto paths and trails. Most of the route is open mountain scenery but there are several stretches where the Camino passes through beautiful stands of hardwood. I did encounter snow on the route but only a little which was easily negotiated. In 6 and a half hours of walking I was over the high ground and down into Roncevalles on the Spanish side of the mountains. So a second mistake turned into a blessing as I got to traverse the route I wanted and avoid the traffic and noise of the lower route.

In the days since, I have walked out of the mountains and now am surrounded by wide planes bordered by higher hills and mountains. This is agricultural land with many vineyards and lots of potatoes. At the hostel last night there were two 50 lb bags of potatoes available to the perigrinos - all you could eat. Of course you need to peel and prepare them in the little kitchen. Two big helpings of home fries for me.

I have been surprised by the number of people on the Camino. On my first night in Roncevalles (I’m probably spelling this wrong). Busloads arrived at this popular starting point at around 7 pm. The hostel has over 100 beds and most were full. It has not been a lonely walk though I have at times felt some loneliness due to the language barrier and adjusting to the new culture.

It has also been COLD. As I walked through Logrono two days ago a bank thermometer read 3 degrees Celsius or about 37F. It probably did not get much about 40 that day and there is a constant wind. I fortunately brought sufficient layers and as long as I am moving things are OK. It has also been overcast with some rain almost every day but not enough to be a major problem. In 7 days walking I’ve had only one that was more sunshine than cloud.

But the thing about the Camino that seems to be marking many of my experiences is the people. I have been treated with great kindness by many. Offered food and help. Most notable was a couple of days ago when I took an alternate route to visit a small village where the local winery has a fountain that offers both water and wine from taps in the wall. With a couple of locals I took some photos and did sample the local vintage (watered down I’m sure). My guidebook told me that the alternate route quickly rejoined the main Camino again and I had planned to walk up to a low pass and stay in a little town called Villamajor.

The trail was lovely winding through woods and across open slopes with great views of a town on the opposite side of the valley. It thought this was Villamajor and expected a trail marker to turn me in that direction but this never happened and soon I was abreast of this pretty little pueblo that has an ancient monastery on a hill over the town. But still not trail.

At about this time another walker came along in the same direction I was going. He was a Spaniard out for a day hike. Through signs and my limited Spanish he indicated that the town I was passing was indeed the place I wanted to go and rather than leave me to my own resources, he proceeded to lead me via a complex network of paths several kilometers across the valley and all the way to the albergue (pilgrims hostel) there. He went far out of his way and had to ask the locals where he could find a bus stop to get back to Pamplona his hometown. Through a translator at the hostel I thanked him profusely and had a photo taken. This is just one example of many large and small gifts that have been offered by both Spanish and others met so far along the Camino.

So, after a week my Camino goes well. It has had its ups and downs both literally and figuratively. At times I wonder what it is that takes me far from home to walk 18 or 20 miles a day among strangers in a foreign land. Maybe I’ll understand that better in a week or two. Maybe not. It is so hard to get the essence of this experience into words. I’ve been treated to such deep experience already. A landscape that is lush and wide and beautiful. To cold showers and full alburgues (slept on the floor in a cold hall last night - thought the night before was warm and in a lovely little hostel in a quite town with only two other peregrinos). Each day is new - a new mood, a new experience, a new view, a new insight or view. I don’t plan ahead much and take each day as it comes deciding as I walk where and when I will stop. Here today I had decided to go on only to change my mind when I stopped in this little bar for lunch and found an internet connection for only 1.50 Euros per hour instead of the 5 or 6 that are more typical.

So much more to tell but I’m out of change and time is running out. So adios my friends. Somewhere down the road there will be another opportunity to get you up to date. For now, I thank you all for your friendship and whatever we have shared.

Peace and Blessing to All,

next story | story index

page revised -7/04/2004
All text and photos © Bruce Nichols