The events described herewith are not fiction. They are a narrative, according to the author’s memory and writing capabilities of the Pilgrimage, from the little village of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, lost amid the French Pyrenees, to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Kingdom of Spain’s western shore. This story begins at 5 of March and ends at 2 of April and will take the reader along 800 kilometers, give or take a few steps.
This is a journey through a land of kindness, humanity and faith, which will reveal to the reader that these values are not forsaken, but rather remain spontaneous in certain places of a world that, sadly, came to worship the ephemeral nature of owning over the eternal value of BEING.
Day 1. Saint Jean Pied-de-Port - Orbaitzeta
St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, 25 kilometers from the Spanish border. The luminous hands of my wristwatch, two fluorescent stars that heralded the arrival of the new day, indicated seven hours in the morning. I got up, wrapped the sleeping bag nice and tight and tucked it inside its proper bag. Likewise, I packed all the paraphernalia of supplies, books, kitchen utensils and clothes that were scattered on the floor and around the bed and shoved everything inside the backpack as neatly as I could. At this point the distribution of weight inside my backpack was not a pressing issue but, as I would later find out, when your feet are your only carriage, EVERY kilo counts. I stepped on the rough brown boots I had bought two days before in Portugal and was pleased with the stability they offered. Then looked around to confirm nothing was forgotten and - travelers' paranoia - looked under the bed just before leaving the room.
Still groggy from waking-up, I carried myself down the stairs to the ground floor, dragging the heavy backpack in my hand, and entered the kitchen of Maison Esmonde - "Le refuge du pilgrim", an hostel composed of 3 bunker-beds and 3 showers. Leaving the backpack on the floor near the door, I set some water to boil, unwrapped a tea bag and patiently waited for the sound of the thousand bubbles that were promised to rattle that gas stove in that clean, white, empty kitchen.
The clouds in the sky outside splattered shades of midnight blue and violet across the firmament and the sun seemed unhurried to start the day. Sitting on the chair, I wondered where the old lady - the owner of the maison - could be. She told me she’s be there by then, but apparently life must have kept her occupied. Shortly afterwards, the water was ready. Leaving the tea cooling for a while, I checked the pockets of my coat where I found a compass on the right side and a small penknife on the left. There was also my precious traveller’s notebook on my trousers’ side pocket and a bottle of water handily at my disposition on one of the backpack’s outside compartments. Considering myself ready, I took the mug and sipped a taste of the hot liquid.
"The comfort of a hot tea!", it was still cold to do the Camino, but there was no backing out now.
As I finished, the old lady had not yet appeared and I was rather impatient, so I took the small yellow paper that wrapped the tea (yes, there was no other paper, I’m not that barbaric!) and wrote "Merci, Gentille Dame!", to thank her for the hospitality and left it on the table.
I got the backpack around my shoulders and my hand on the wooden walking stick I had been offered by the circumstances the day before (I found it lying at the foot of a tree while sightseeing the old town to get used to my rough brown boots and, yes, it was basically a long roughly-straight tree branch) and I began to walk, enjoying that time-honored sound from the walking stick thumping the ancient stone floor.
"Clac! Step, Step, Step. Clac! Step, Step, Step."
From the blue shadows of the maison’s front yard, I stepped into the main street.
Walking beside the old brownish-red rough city walls that adorned the main street of the small town of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, whose literal meaning is directly translated as "Saint John At The Foot Of The Pass" - as it is right beside the magnificent Pyrenees - I couldn't help wonder if the name was a referral to Saint John the Baptist, who, history claims, once baptized Jesus Christ himself. I never did found out. Crossing the ancient archway of Port Navarre, with this still on my mind, I found myself in the antique cobblestone streets, perpetually charged with that faint magic left by eight centuries of travelers who crossed that same door and walked those same narrow streets. I went to the church's wooden door, just at the other side of the street, left the backpack at the entrance and walked into the darkened space. Inside the air was infused with a faint smell of flowers and incense. I walked the aisle, walking with the support of the wooden stick, feeling myself quite the pilgrim and paid respect to the divinities therewith.
Nailed to the wall on my left, a tenet in stone was saved for all eternity: "Holy Mary, please allow my eyes to see clearly and let my word be compassionate. Amen." Good words. How easy life would be if the world followed this simple precept.
Going back outside, I found three pilgrims passing by at that exact moment, geared up in colorful jackets and neat backpacks. The group was accompanied by a cheerful, light browned dog happily running back and forth, excited to go on a journey he didn't know where.
"Bonjour!" - I saluted.
"Hello! Bonjour..." they smiled back, never dwindling.
With the backpack on me once more, I crossed the archway of Notre-Dame, where the century old town market still takes place and, a little ahead, walking through narrow streets barred on both sides by tall, old houses and that same worn out cobblestone floor, scarred by many feet, I came across the ruins of Port de Espagne - the mythical place where eight hundred years of pilgrims find before them the quest of the high and desolate white peaks of the Pyrenees, that span way beyond the borders of Spain. The colors of the sky had changed to a light pink hue on the distant horizon and a deep ocean blue on the top of my head. The sky was still patiently awaiting the arrival of the sun. I took a deep breath, absorbing the solemness of the moment and took my first step of the 800 kilometers that laid ahead of me, across the French border and the whole of northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela - "the Star Field" - where the famous Cathedral is said to hold the remains of James, the Apostle.
I went up, up, up and then up some more, carrying the heavy backpack steadily, with the unwavering energy of someone who is absorbing a new experience and holds within a relentless willpower that lightens the feet and the spirit. The green valleys stretched in the distance behind me and newborn white peaks emerged on the blue horizon. After about an hour, I stopped a few minutes for minor adjustments of the backpack straps and on the laces of the boots that now seriously started to hurt my feet. Was I stupid on wearing new boots on my first day? Definitely. But now my right big toe, who complained soundly, would have to bear the austerity in the name of a greater goal. Sitting atop a rock, I enjoyed that eternal landscape in which silvery reflections of the morning light were poetically stated. After making the best of the situation and a sip of cold water, I was back on the Path. By then, I did have a faint notion that this was gonna HURT later, but my attention was entirely devoted to the songs of the birds and the sound made by the wooden staff hitting the ground at regular intervals.
The tiny gatherings of houses that mottled the green expanse in the distance, when put in perspective with the size and height of the mountains and the blue dome of the sky, reflected the overwhelming magnificence of the Pyrenees, as humble and brief examples of the human will in the midst of Mother Nature's infinite kingdom.
Day 1. Saint Jean Pied-de-Port - Orbaitzeta (YOU ARE HERE)
Day 2. Orbaitzeta - Roncesvalles
Day 3. Roncesvalles - Zubiri
Day 4. Zubiri - Pamplona
Day 5. Pamplona – Puente de la Reina
Day 6. Puente de la Reina - Estella
Day 7. Estella – Torres del Rio
Day 8. Estella - Logroño
Day 9. Logroño - Najera
Day 10. Najera - Grañon
Day 11. Grañon - Belorado
Day 12. Belorado - Atapuerca
Day 13. Atapuerca - Burgos
Day 14. Burgos – Castrojeriz
Day 15. Castrojeriz - Fromista
Day 16. Fromista – Carrión de los Condes
Day 17. Carrion de los Condes - Sahágun
Day 18. Sahágun – Mansilla de las Mulas
Day 19. Mansilla de las Mulas - León
Day 20. Léon – Hospital de Órbigo
Day 21. Hospital de Órbigo – Rabanal del Camino
Day 22. Rabanal del Camino - Ponferrada
Day 23. Ponferrada – Vega de Valcarce
Day 24. Vega de Valcarce - Tricastela
Day 25. Tricastela - Ferreros
Day 26. Ferreros – Palas del Rei
Day 27. Palas del Rei - Àrzua
Day 28. Àrzua - Santiago