53km southeast of Bayonne, at the foot of the Pyrenees mountain ranges lies St Jean Pied de Port (St-Jean at the Foot of the Pass). A place that was for centuries has been last stop in France for pilgrims heading south over the Spanish border. It was my turn to start my pilgrimage and this would be where I said Goodbye to France before heading into Spain.
I was about to start The Camino de Santiago, on ‘The French Way’, which would be a journey of 780km, or 500 miles, to Santiago de Compostela in the west of Spain.
Unfortunately the first train of the day from Bayonne to St. Jean Pied de Port was cancelled so I didn’t arrive in the bustling French market town until lunchtime.
As I had been extremely busy working and studying before leaving on this adventure, I had done minimal research and had hardly even looked at my shine new guide book. The train to St Jean Pied de Port was packed with backpack bearing, hiking stick owning pilgrims and luckily the girl next to me was an old hand. After a few days in transit making my way overland from Holland to the bottom of France I was keen to get going on my pilgrimage that day but had heard that the first day crossing the Pyrenees to Spain was the hardest day of the Camino.
She kindly warned me that it might be a bit too ambitious to start that afternoon.
I sat and pondered what I should do as I enjoyed the train ride that I hoped would be the last mode of transportation I used other than my feet for the upcoming month. I was very keen to make it to Santiago on my own two feet and unfortunately I was not convinced that I should wait another day to start.
After saying farewell to my train friend I almost ran into town. The walled town itself is beautifully preserved, ringed by ramparts and topped off by a sturdy citadel. I found myself in awe of the medieval beauty and the cozy feel of the town. Unfortunately this coziness was accompanied by a commercialised pilgrim industry. Gift shops and hotels squeezed into every corner and looking towards the mountains ahead I felt restless.
I already had my pilgrim passport and knew that I had to get a stamp in the city I was starting in and wandered into one of the many pilgrim gift shops to direct me towards the holders of the stamps.
Something I was yet to decide on was whether or not to invest in hiking poles, the shop I wandered into had a nice collection of regular metal poles alongside touristy wooden ‘traditional pilgrim-style’ poles. Deeper into the store a young, cool-looking Australian girl was getting assistance in selecting her own poles.
I felt drawn towards her (maybe her familiar accent was slightly too comforting in my restless state). I decided to discover her plans for the day. Our conversation went something like this.
“Are you starting today?”
“I’m not sure.”
“We should start today.”
I don’t know who’s idea it was and who was responsible for the ultimate decision of starting our camino that day on September 2nd 2016 and I suspect it was a combination of the two
After my new friend Sharron (“or Shaz, I don’t mind”) had selected her hiking poles and had them fitted for her tiny self. We headed straight for the passport stamping office AKA ‘the pilgrim’s office’ (at the top of the main street, 39 Rue de la Citadelle). We lined up and eventually were seated in front of a tiny, grumpy lady. We told her about our plans to start our camino that day.
“Absolutely not, the accommodation half way to Roncesvalles is full and there is no way you will make it all the way today. You must sleep here in St Jean Pied de Port and leave tomorrow.”
Sharron and I exchanged a “let’s ignore this lady and go anyway” look and pretended to agree with her.
Our pilgrim passports lost their stamp virginity and we were good to go.
We bought snacks and started the Camino de Santiago…