We left from Madrid, Spain for the 60 minute flight north to the sea side town of Biarritz France. Here we were picked up by the shuttle van we had arranged for the transfer 55 km to the village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. This was 18 Euros each and saved us a taxi from the Biarritz airport to the Bayonne train station 20 minutes away and then taking the train for 10 Euros each for 1 hour to St. JPP. A taxi from the airport to St JPP runs about 80 Eoros! We are feeling pretty excited to get started on our Camino, but a little worried about the challenge of walking over 900 km.
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (“Saint John at the Foot of the Pass”) is a town in south-western France in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The town is also the old capital of the traditional Basque province of Lower Navarre. This is a starting point for the Camino Francés or French Way, the most popular option for traveling the Camino de Santiago. We also plan to continue walking another 100 km past Santiago to the lighthouse at Fisterra.
The Camino de Santiago is also known by the English name Way of St. James and is the name of all the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Santiago is the Galician variation of the Latin Sanctus Iacobus (St. James) and Compostela from the Latin Compositum or Composita Tella (burial ground).
The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. It together with the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem are pilgrimage routes on which a “plenary indulgence” could be earned. In the teaching of the Catholic Church this is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment in purgatory that one has to undergo for ones sins”
Legend holds that St. James’s remains were carried by a stone boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain, where he was buried in what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.
The “Way” can take one of dozens of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one’s home and ended at the pilgrimage site. However, a few of the routes are considered main ones like the route we took on the Camnio Frances.
During the Middle Ages, the route was highly traveled. However, the Plague, the Protestant Reformation, and political unrest in 16th century Europe led to its decline. By the 1980s, only a few pilgrims per year arrived in Santiago. Later, the route attracted a growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe. In October 1987, the route was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe; it was also named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
In 2014 over 200,000 Christian and other pilgrims set out to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, but some by bicycle. In addition to those undertaking a religious pilgrimage, many are hikers who walk the route for travel, sport, or simply the challenge. Many consider the experience a spiritual adventure, take it to remove themselves from the rat race, or to manage a difficult life event or life change.
The key to remember is you can not get lost on the Way if you follow the yellow arrows (everywhere) or scallop shell markers on cairns or embedded in the street. If you get distracted and are walking without seeing an marker for more than 300 m you better consider that you may have missed a turn.
“There are many stories trying to explain the ancient link between the scallop shell and the Saint James Way. In French the scallop is called Coquille Saint Jacques, while in German scallops are called ‘Jakobsmuscheln’ (James mussels).”
The scallop shell is said to be a metaphor, its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travel from all over the world leading to Santiago de Compostela.
“Medieval pilgrims often wore a scallop shell attached to their cloaks or hats during their journey to Santiago. More than being just a symbol or a pilgrim badge, the scallop shells also had a practical purpose: they were a handy and light replacement for a bowl so the pilgrims could use them to hold their food and drink on their long journey. Pilgrims would also be given food at churches and other establishments, and a scallop shell scoop was the measure for the food they would be donated.”
The shape of the scallop shell also resembles the setting sun, which would have been an important daily event, full of symbolism in pre-Christian societies. The Saint James Way is a journey to the West, finishing at the ‘end of the world’ (the name given to Fisterra – Finis Terrae) and the setting sun.
The other thing that becomes a routine with your fellow walkers is to call “Buen Camnio” or “good way”as you pass them.
Another daily ritual is to get a stamp or sello in your Camino credential. The credential is a pass which gives access to inexpensive accommodation in refugios along the trail. Also known as the “pilgrim’s passport”, the credential is stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or refugio at which the pilgrim has stayed. It provides pilgrims with a record of where they ate or slept, and serves as proof to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago that the journey was accomplished according to an official route, and thus that the pilgrim qualifies to receive a compostela. To obtain your “Compostella” or certificate of completion in Santiago you must have at least a stamp a day and 2 per day in the last 100 km. This stamp was very easy to get except in the last 100 km, where you would expect it to be easier as we were told it would be very touristic and commercial and crowded. We had a hard time to get 2 stamps and resorted to the rare bar you came across and the Albergue we stayed at. Almost none of the churches were even open after Sarria. Before this every bar, shop, tienda, and accommodation had a stamp.
Accommodation along the route for most pilgrims is a choice between Albergues, pensions, and hotels. An albergue is a hostel which offers shared sleeping accommodations, usually in mixed-gender dorm rooms. Dorm rooms come in all sizes, the smallest being two-person cubicles and the largest with more than 100 beds under a single ceiling. Many private albergues now have private rooms as well.
In order to stay at an albergue pilgrims present their credentials to the hospitalero or host for a sello, or rubber stamp, which is placed inside the credential. Hospitaleros are experts on their town or village and will know where to buy food, when the mass is held, and what time the bar opens in the morning for bbreakfast. Often your host will have once been a pilgrim him- or herself, and will know what lies ahead on the trail.
Albergue operation falls into six general categories: municipal, parish, convent or monastery, network, association, and private. Municipal albergues are operated by the local government or municipality and here facilities are the most basic, and will be at the lower end of the cost range at 5-6 Euros. They are usually open after 12 pm and close at 8 am. Parish or Paroquil albergues are run by the local church or diocese and many of these albergues are donativo, meaning you choose how much you pay based on your means. Convents and monasteries that serve as albergues provide a unique experience for pilgrims who are served by nuns and monks and they can also be very basic. Network albergues are private hostels that have organized into an association and are managed by a management group. They have modern facilities that cater to the needs of pilgrims and cost in the €8-12 range. Association albergues are run by the local Spanish pilgrim association or an international confraternity. They are usually staffed by former pilgrims who volunteer for two weeks at a time and usually cost the same as Municipals. Private albergues are businesses run by an individual or family. Typically these cost more, say €10-15, but they offer modern facilities and often more flexible opening hours.
If sharing space, bathrooms, and snorong isn’t your thing, you can stay at the pensions, guesthouses, and hotels along the Camino. These cost more, say €25 to €100 a night for a single or double room, but they come with sheets and towels, and often with an en suite bathroom.
We arrived here here in St JPP in the early afternoon and just as we did the pilgrim office was opening up and we were 5 th in line. Here you register for the Camino and obtain your Pilgrim credential for 2 Euros. The women next to us had just weighed her pack at 25 kg! Agh what does she have in there. Our packs were 7.5 kg with the water bottle filled and we used every item in there.
Checking into our accommodation a private Albergue we were happy to find we had only a 2 bunk room and 2 lovely roommates (Tallahassee) Kathy and (Australian) Teresa.
The Napoleon route from St Jean is steeply up quiet paved country lanes. You will climb from 200 metres above sea level to just above 1,400 meters then descend steeply back down again into Roncesvalles at 900 metres, which can be hard going on your knees and shins.
We had planned to follow the traditional stages of the Camino Frances for the most part, but for the first day the route was 24 km up and over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles, Spain. There are also several other stages over 30 km, which we feel is unnecessary. The alternative today for us was to try to get a bed in the only Albergue along the route, which is at the 8 km mark in Orrison, France. It is 8 km up hill though. This place usually sells out more than 6 months ahead, but we sent an email 2 weeks before and they had 2 bunks because of a recent cancellation, so it must be fate.
Day one we started out just as the sun was rising at 0730 we left thru the old town gate.
There was a few minutes of showers that did produce a nice rainbow.
We made good time and arrived at Refugio de Orrison at 930. This gave us the opportunity to see most of the people who would spend much of the next 6 weeks on the same Camino time line as us. They all stopped here to rest on their way to Roncesvalles if they were not staying here for the night.
What it also afforded us was to miss the terrible rain, thunder, and hail storm that descended on all the others that afternoon. We sat and watched the weather from the comfort of our refuge, but several late comers were stuck out in it (including German Rita). We heard later that 4 of the people that had to press on that day to Roncesvalles did get trapped on the mountain and were delivered to the Albergue by the local rescue team. Our new friend Australian Teresa had had to go on, but Kathy made it to stay at the hotel long before the weather turned ugly.
We got into the daily routing of immediate shower, hand washing of clothes, lazing about, and foot care. Then it’s time for a walk to see the sights!?
We had the traditional communal Pilgrim’s meal with wine (except for Daniel since he had a no vices no devices pledge for the 6 weeks of his Camnio) OR water, salad , veg, and chicken. Yogurt is NOT a dessert!
We had a room with 3 other couples, which would have been ok except Quebec City Dennis snored terribly… this was a harbinger of nights to come. That said we did have a great view of the valley and the sunrise.
Getting up the next morning we had a nice sunny, although chilly day. After Orisson, you arrive at Biakorre where there is a statue of the Virgin.
From here, the views stretch into the distance as far as Pic d’Aspe and the Somport Pass. This area once held a medieval pilgrims hostel of which nothing remains. We continued up hill to the border marked only by a food truck actually. After this the trail was thru the woods and up and down quite a bit. You even pass an emergency station will a call box and wifi.
Approaching Roncesvalles there is a choice of two paths and you will see the monastery nestled in the valley below. One path, which is an old Roman road goes straight down the hillside, it is steep and can be dangerous, while the other to the right is much easier and better underfoot, but slightly longer. Both routes bring you out at the Collegiate Church in Roncesvalles. The funny thing here is that the paper they give you in the pilgrim office for this section of the Camino has some very nice photos and instructions. However the pictures are taken from the opposite perspective (ie as if you are walking up from Roncesvalles) and not from the one you arrive by from St Jean and the same for the turning directions. That said we had planned the steep route which was obvious in front of us. We did this on the advice of others who were on their third Camino and said to avoid it if it was raining due to risk of falling. We did hear of one older gentleman who followed the instructions for the “turn left” and ended up going an hour up the road in the wrong direction before a local re directed him. There was also a British couple who were “lost” up here for 4 days in July, which seems so impossible, but apparently true.
The final leg for us was all down hill on a very steep rocky trail. This was quite treacherous at times. We saw very few people today except in the first few km. After a total of 16 km we arrived to the small village of Roncesvalles at noon. There was an old man up on the bridge waving at us to go right from where we stood instead of keep coming towards him! Ah he is directing us to the pilgrim hostel!! The new Albergue here is very modern and staffed by the Dutch. We could check in now, but not get in to find our bed until 1330. We were 4 th in line on a place that sleeps 180 plus an overflow tent for high season. We had a 2 bunk pod thankfully as far as possible from the noise of the bathrooms.
Here we met up with Ali from Rome. The funny part of our meeting was she was lying on the ground and the jumped up and ran over to the woods and started barfing (dehydrated) and then yelling “I’m sorry I’m sorry”. We had many a funny moments with her over the next 6 weeks. This was the beginning of the formation of our Camino family on whom we depended on our journey. We were glad there was a restaurant here since there is no grocery store.
We did join the tour of the village, which included the church, convent, the old pilgrim’s “hospital”, and the cemetery. The city here in ancient times was full of pilgrim’s who had survived the trip to and over the mountains, but many were in bad shape and cared for here. Many others died here of plague and the bodies placed in a communal grave. We had the disappointing Pilgrim’s communal meal (our second of only 3 in the 6 weeks). Again yogurt is NOT dessert.