There are seven predominant Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) routes in Spain. We chose the Camino Frances – starting in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, during the last week of August 2016.
My wife was giving thanksgiving for getting a clean bill of health from breast cancer that encompassed months of chemotherapy and weeks of radiation therapy starting in early 2014.
We bought hiking equipment – poles, backpacks, clothes, shoes, socks, etc. and practiced walking (in Houston, Texas) for nearly a year before walking the Camino de Santiago. As prepared to walk 500 miles as we were ever going to be, we spent a week with our son and his family in Norfolk, VA, and boarded a military Space-A flight to Rota, Spain.
The weather was good (hot for most people) the day we arrived. We cleared customs, took a taxi to the bus station for a thirty-minute ride to the Jerez de la Frontera train station. A short wait and we boarded the express train to Madrid. An hour later, we were on another train to Pamplona and arrived a little after ten p.m. without any reservations. This was a long first day, but it was not a day that included walking.
We joined a couple of other pilgrims (people are called pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago) for a taxi ride to their hotel. I managed to secure a room for the night at that hotel, and all was well. The next morning – just a few hours later, we would be on our way to France to start the trek.
We got instructions from the desk clerk and walked to the bus station in Pamplona. We were able to grab an excellent breakfast at the train station and were quickly on our way to St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France – the beginning of the Camino Frances – an 800-kilometer (500-mile) walking journey to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Marilyn (my wife) and I wanted to start as true pilgrims – not making any reservations in advance. It worked reasonably well so far from Norfolk, VA to Pamplona, Spain. We had walked for nearly a year in practice for this journey of a lifetime. It was a little over 100 degrees (F) as we wandered around St. Jean. It took me over an hour to find a hotel that had a vacancy.
We had a lovely meal and settled in for the night early. Before sunrise, we got dressed and headed downstairs to leave our backpacks for pick-up by a backpack transport company. There are four hotels at our destination. I picked one at random and had instructions on our backpacks to deliver the packs to that location. I enclosed the money in the required envelope. And off we went to the streets to begin the first day of our excursion through the Pyrenees Mountains.
We found a couple of other hearty souls walking ahead of us, and we followed them to a place where the Camino de Santiago splits – the high road (route de Napoleon) through Orisson to Roncesvalles, Spain. We had chosen the lower route through Valcarlos, Spain. The high road starts in St. Jean at 170 meters above sea level and climbs to a maximum of 1450 meters with a steep and dangerous descent into Roncesvalles. The high road was a little over 25 kilometers (15.5 miles – mostly uphill).
The low road was quite enjoyable for the first twenty kilometers. After that, it rose from 170 meters to around 400 meters. There were towns to rest and eat. The scenery was gorgeous. The traffic on the roads was minimal. We walked into Spain and never knew we left France.
I carried two one-quart water canteens and thought it would be more than enough. So every place we stopped, we grabbed a glass or two of water. There was one long stretch of a few miles that we shared the road with traffic, but we had plenty of room. Then, at the twenty-kilometer mark, the Pyrenees began to ascend, and ascend, and ascend! In the space of three lateral miles, we climbed over 600 meters (over 2,000 feet).
We had left the highway and ventured into the deep forest. Idyllic was the operative word – gentle breezes, lots of trees, streams, etc. An hour into the climb, we both realized that we had done zero training at walking up inclines. We were huffing and puffing and stopping a lot. It did not take an hour to go through all our water.
The stops became more frequent and lasted many more minutes than we planned. I began counting steps to see how far I would get between stops. At first, it was around fifty, then thirty, then twenty, then twelve steps before I had to stop for a moment. Every step was upward. The climb was more arduous than anything I had ever done.
My wife stopped more often than I and was literally ready to pull the plug on our pilgrimage. We looked up and saw nothing but trees. We heard nothing – no car noises. We did not know where we were on the trail – how much further we needed to go. It was terrible and going downhill quickly.
The Camino de Santiago is very well marked. Yet, some people do get lost. We did this a couple of mornings later on our journey. When we went a reasonable distance without a sign, we would retreat. Some mornings, a gaggle of us and a couple or more would take off in different directions and shout back at us when they found the right path.
The hill country of the Pyrenees had adequate signage, but there was a place that was not marked that we could have gone left or right. I studied it for more than a few minutes while Marilyn caught up. Then, I climbed a bit further while Marilyn rested to ensure I was going the right way. Once I found proof of the correct direction, I reversed and went back for my wife. I also planted a large arrow with rocks for anyone behind us to know the route to take.
We were beyond dehydrated. I was still sweating – a good sign. Many years earlier, I stopped sweating in boot camp on a hundred-degree afternoon in Pensacola, Florida, and learned it is never good to stop sweating. The temperature was not a hundred in the hills, but it was still sweltering when the breeze stopped, which was often.
We lost track of time. I had a watch, but I could not remember what the time was the last time I looked at it. An hour (maybe, maybe longer) later, we heard the noise of cars, busses, and an occasional motorcycle. Regardless of how close the sounds were, we could see nothing above us. We wanted to see the sky or clouds, but only tree limbs.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and I was concerned about finishing our journey to Roncesvalles that day. When we seemed mere steps from sitting down and waiting for someone to find us, we saw the blue sky above. A short distance later, the clamor of highway noises seemed close enough to touch. We left the forest and rejoined the highway.
At the forest exit, there was a bench with a water spigot next to it. The sign on the water warned us not to drink. It was definitely a tease! Marilyn told me that she was not moving from that bench. I had orders to go to Roncesvalles, get a taxi, and come back for her.
I could have continued through the forest into Roncesvalles and walked about 100 yards before returning to the highway. Instead, I decided the flatness of the highway far exceeded the unlevel, rocky, pitted path I had been on earlier. The downside was that it was a kilometer or two longer with the S-bends in the highway to keep the road from becoming too steep for vehicles (and people!).
I arrived in Roncesvalles and walked immediately into a café and drank two large pitchers of water. I asked the owner about getting a taxi for my wife. I explained what had happened. Marilyn was exactly 4.1 kilometers from her café – that was the best guess I could make. She called and told me it would be 40 euros and take about two hours. The taxi would have to come from another city.
One of her employees heard my story and offered to drive me to get Marilyn and bring her back. The owner agreed, and off we went. Unfortunately, that was not the end of the first day. But, we were again in civilization. Ironically, the café was also a small hotel, and it was the place I had our backpacks sent to. I asked if she had received our backpacks, and she told us none had come to her hotel that day. She suggested I check the other three hotels in town.
I did and found out we had no backpacks. I did make an intelligent decision at one of the hotels to grab the last available hotel room for the night. A fellow traveler told me to go to the monastery, the Casa de Los Benficiados. I found one of the helper bees and explained my predicament – no backpacks.
He suggested that a nominal tip to the monastery could guarantee me a ride to St. Jean to determine what happened to our bags. I agreed, and off we went. He warned me that he had to be back by 10 p.m. because they locked the front doors at that time.
We arrived a very short time later; however, you could tell that darkness was not long to come. We parked in a lower level away from the Old Town (no cars allowed in the Old Town) and walked to the hotel where we had spent the previous evening. We were very fortunate because the front door was open. We walked in and found our backpacks, where we left them at sunrise.
The proprietor caught us and asked what we were doing. Unfortunately, she did not speak English, and my driver had to translate. She told us no one collected the bags, and so they stayed there all day. Thoughts had been running through my mind about how we would replace the items we needed to complete the Camino de Santiago, and I could see many, many unplanned euros being spent – assuming we could find what we wanted. Regardless, backpacks in hand, we left the hotel to return to Roncesvalles.
Arriving a few minutes before ten p.m. allowed my driver to sleep inside that night. I dropped the backpacks with my wife and went downstairs a minute or two before the restaurant closed. I had a great meal, a bottle of wine and returned for a shower and bed.
We had left that morning thinking that the first day might involve a climb into the mountains and did not think it would be nearly that bad. The uncertainty about our backpacks weighed heavily on my mind as to what could have happened to them. The ability to get the last hotel room in Roncesvalles was mandatory to keep my wife happy on this journey.
We learned a lot of lessons from that first trek. We carried our backpacks for the next week until my wife’s backpack broke. The logistics of backpack transport worked exceptionally well for the last three weeks of our journey across Spain.
We learned the next day that a British couple had been lost on the trail we had taken four weeks earlier. It took eight days to find them. They were OK. They had gotten lost and could not find their way out. The local guide places in St. Jean put the word out to take the high road and avoid the low road because of that event. Unfortunately, we never got the word.
I had wondered several times that day why we never saw another pilgrim that day. The paths in some places had nearly grown over. It was strange at the time, but the dehydration didn’t help my curiosity.
After the worst start to any trip, every day afterward was pleasant, rewarding, enjoyable, and invigorating on many levels. We finished the 500 miles in 30 days and spent a few days sightseeing in the Santiago area. A bus back to Jerez de la Frontera, followed by a taxi to Rota, got us back to the starting place five weeks after we started. We stayed two nights before a Space-A aircraft could return us to the States.
Yes, I would definitely do the Camino de Santiago again. We both celebrated our 70th birthdays on the Camino, and maybe we will consider spending our 80th birthdays there also?