Camino Rest Day: St Jean Pied-de-Port
What is life but one grand adventure.
Bonjour family and friends! You are probably wondering, “Where in the world is Michelle?” Well, I have traveled all the way from Scottsdale, AZ to an adorable village here in France called, St. Jean Pied-de-Port. This quaint town is nestled at the base of the Pyrenees, the mountains that separate France and Spain. Today is my first day here in France and the beginning of a life-time adventure, in which I will be backpacking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago.
As I woke up this morning, the butterflies were fluttering because… yeah, I’m a bit nervous, and know I have much so much to accomplish today with final errands and preparations here in St. Jean. I still cannot believe I am HERE! I prepared for this adventure in…wait for this… THREE DAYS! Yes, I bought my backpack, hiking supplies, flights…all in THREE days! I think the reality of it all is now hitting me.
You are probably now thinking, “What? Why are you there, and what is the Camino de Santiago?” You are not the only one, for it is not as widely known by Americans as it is by Europeans and others around the world. The Camino de Santiago, aka “The Way of Saint James,” “The Way,” or simply “The Camino,” is a 500 mile (800 kilometer) pilgrimage across the northern Iberian peninsula of Spain that takes about a month to walk.
Just to give you a little background, there are many routes to Santiago; however, about 75% of the thousands of people who walk the Camino each year, follow the Francés route. I will travel from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, across the Pyrenees mountains, through cities like Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, and eventually end in Santiago de Compostela, located in the very northwestern part of Spain. Since I am between software projects, and I wanted to walk the Camino in October, I thought this was as good time as ever to hop on a plane and go!
People have walked the Camino for over a thousand years because, legend has it, the remains of Jesus’s apostle, Saint James, now lie in the Cathedral in Santiago. Many believe their pilgrimage frees them from the penance due for their sins. Just to share a little history, in the medieval period it was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages in the world: Jerusalem, Rome, or Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Today people walk the Camino for many reasons. Some still go for the traditional religious pilgrimage and to receive Christian blessings. However, others walk for their own spiritual wisdom or enlightenment. Many join in for the cultural experience of a hiking vacation, or just a chance to get into shape. Those who walk do not have to be Christian, and no matter what the purpose for being on the Camino, most experience one of the greatest adventures of their life – getting to meet their own Self.
So here I am, in St. Jean, where I found an adorable bed & breakfast on the internet, woke up rested and thrilled to be here. Satisfied from my amazing breakfast, I met a lovely couple from the UK biking through France and now plan to join the Camino. From them, I learned that a pilgrim can officially walk, bike or ride a horse.
After snuggling with Fifi the dog, I set out to explore this lovely town of St Jean, register in the Pilgrim office, and then complete a bit of last-minute shopping.
My friends say I never post pictures of me, so I am making sure to ask people along the way to snap a shot here and there. In doing so, I meet a couple from Brussels, and tour around St. Jean with them for about an hour. After we part, I carry on exploring the village, and discover the Citadelle above town. Here I have a stunning view of the village. The large mountains that serve as the town’s backdrop are the Pyrenees, and what I will cross tomorrow with my backpack… All I can say is, “Oh My God!”
I later visit the Pilgrim’s Office and purchase my “Credentials” or Pilgrim Passport. The Pilgrim’s Office is easy to find and conveniently located along the pedestrian-only main street of St. Jean. You won’t miss it for usually there is a large group of backpackers congregating out front.
LESSON (Pilgrim Office): I figured out that I should visit the pilgrim office later in morning but before the “siesta.” The busy time is in the evenings after pilgrims arrive on the last train to town, around 7:30pm, or early morning as they begin to trek out of town.
When I walk in the pilgrim office, I am happily greeted by an English speaking volunteer, Mary, with the warmest smile. She is so patient as I ask her question after question about the Camino, what to expect, where to sleep my first night, and the anticipated weather over the Pyrenees. It was enjoyable to visit the office during off-peak hours, for I feel like I am receiving the VIP service, and Mary has had the time to put my heart at ease.
The pilgrim passport (credencial) allows me to collect stamps (sellos) along the route to certify and remember my pilgrimage. Most organizations, churches and businesses along the Camino have their own branded stamp. I remember a scene in the move, “The Way,” and Ramon’s stamp. That scene cracked me up! Each time I check into a pilgrim hostel (alburgue) or a hotel, I request my pilgrim passport is stamped. I can collect additional stamps along the way; however, one stamp a day from the alburgue is enough, and will nearly fill my pilgrim passport.
TIP (Pilgrim Passport): There is no need to collect two stamps a day as read on forums. That requirement is only for those who start from Sarria, thus only walk the last 100 kilometers. For those who bike only the last 200 kilometers of the pilgrimage you will need two stamps a day as well.
The shell, which I purchase at a local pilgrim sport shop, is hung proudly on my backpack to let others know I am a pilgrim. The shell symbolizes the original compostela that pilgrims received in Santiago over a thousand years ago. The shells were once collected from the shore near Finnesterre Spain, near where St. James’ remains were discovered.
So today I walk a bit of the Camino path, to get familiar with “The Way” out of town. When I begin tomorrow around 7:30am, it will likely be dark, and I want to ensure I can navigate with ease. But to be safe, I did bring a head lamp to light my path. There are maps I can follow; however, the main form of guidance is directed by yellow arrows, shells, placques or various signs posted along the path. I am already surprised how well marked the Camino is.
During my trial run, I come across a couple of ladies I recognize from the train last night. Assuming they are Canadian, for I overheard them say, “Washroom,” I start to chat with them. Although I haven’t officially begun by pilgrimage, I am not afraid of approaching and speaking with strangers. Pilgrims are easy to identify and I feel comfort knowing we are all here for the same purpose. I had a delightful time hanging out with Rosalie and her niece, Elizabeth from Ottawa. Rosalie is escorting her niece on this trip so Elizabeth can learn to be more travel savvy and street smart. I call it “boot camp.”
I silently chuckle as I watch Rosalie and Elizabeth go through their first travel drama – Elizabeth is frantically digging in her pack, realizing she has lost her favorite hat. Rosalie rolls her eyes as Elizabeth runs back into the village to see if she could find her hat. I sit with Rosalie and learn the ladies are planning to walk only the first three hours of ‘Stage 1,’ and stay in Orrison, a tiny village half-way up the mountain. Auntie & niece plan to arrive in Roncesvalles the next day, which is where I plan to reach my first night. I hope see them there, for they are the first pilgrims I have gotten to know. It would be nice to see familiar faces and hang more with those who speak English.
A few minutes later, panting from her run into town, Elizabeth returns with no hat in hand. I could see the disappointment in her eyes as she realizes her first lesson in the big world… she needs to be responsible for her own things. We say our goodbye’s and I shout my first traditional pilgrim greeting, “Buen Camino!”
Since the French have their mid-day break from around 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm, I head back to my room to reflect and rest for my big day tomorrow. Plus, I have never walked with hiking poles, so I need to watch a few YouTube videos to figure them out. LESSON (Camino Gear): I probably should have practiced adjusting and walking with trekking poles BEFORE I arrived. I have a feeling it’s going to take me a couple of days to get comfortable with my poles.
Wish me luck and until next time…