Day 1 – 17th September 2015, Battersea to St. Jean Pied de Port.
I am sitting outside a cafe in St. Jean Pied de Port enjoying a nice cup of tea, while the afternoon sunshine begins to dip behind the mountains. I know what you are thinking – typical Brit! I have arrived at the beginning of my pilgrimage… well the start of the physical part of my journey anyway. I suppose the spiritual part began all those years ago, when I felt intuitively that I would walk in the footsteps of countless peregrinos and peregrinas along this well trodden path. My emotional connection with El Camino de Santiago came sharply into focus the day my mum died in July, so in effect, there have been several ‘beginnings’ to my pilgrimage.
My journey from Battersea to Biarritz was smooth. My trip began in Battersea, where Brett waved me off as I hopped on the 344 bus from Clapham Junction to Liverpool Street station. As I write he is flying back to Canada and I shall surely miss him! The Stansted Express took me swiftly to the airport and as usual, I arrived far too early. When the desk opened I was through in minutes and headed across to Giraffe for a cheeky veggie brunch. On the way to the gate I spotted a fellow pilgrim with her telltale scallop shells dangling from her rucksack and swinging side to side as she walked. I introduced myself and it turns out her name is also Sarah. This is her third time on the Camino as she had previously walked the length of the Camino Frances in two trips. I asked her why she was going back, “It’s hard to explain”, she replied, “there is something about the Camino, it draws you.” On landing we made our way to the exit to wait for Caroline from Express Bourricot to pick us up and spotted few more pilgrims also waiting – Janey from the US, Emily from Canada and an Irish couple called Theresa and Pat. We chatted happily during the hour long bus ride to St. Jean de Pied Port and wished each other “Buen Camino” when we parted company.
A short while later I had walked under an ancient stone archway, the Porte de Navarra, along a narrow, cobbled street over a bridge and under another stone archway, the Porte Notre Dame. I ventured up the Rue d’Espagne to my refuge, Le Chemin Vers L’Etoile, right next to a chocolate (I resisted temptation at that point). Eric, the owner of the refuge, who had walked the Camino de Santiago himself seven years ago, gave me and two peregrinas from Lithuania a very warm welcome coupled with an assessment. Not too far from eccentric, he looked at my feet and nodded approvingly at my Saucony Peregrine 5s and exclaimed “Aaaah very good, you have the right shoes!” (Feeling a bit Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, I said a smug hurrah to myself). He then proceeded to weigh my backpack. Alarmed I thought this was some pre-requisite to getting a bed for the night. “Noooo, it is too much. Your pack weighs over 10 kilos and it should be around 7. You will have to ship stuff back home”, Eric said sternly. I bit back the retort I wanted to say “well, that’s not what my guidebook said” (in a Thomas Avery kind of way…those of you, who have watched the film The Way will understand). Thankfully Eric didn’t go through my pack item by item. Instead he told me some very wise words. “The Camino teaches humility above all else. You must learn to love yourself and accept yourself for who you are. Lead from your heart and do not walk the Camino for anyone else, only for yourself.” With that he told us our room was on the first floor and dinner was at 8.30pm.
I managed to have a minor backpack zip emergency, which must have absorbed an hour and took Christine, a fellow British pilgrim and some soap, and Eric with some pliers to sort out. The addage “the Camino will give you everything you need”, certainly applied straight away!
Dinner was a three course meal, veggie couscous, followed by stewed lamb and rice and rounded off with slices of juicy melon washed down with water and wine (Jesus must have been in the building). I chatted with some cyclists from New Zealand, who came down from Toulouse, the ladies from Lithuania and a possey from Canada. Eric gave us an after dinner briefing, including top tips for the following days hike up steep slopes e.g take small steps, drink water every ten minutes, keep going because if you stop you won’t be able to start again…all quite straightforward until the last piece of advice pointing to a large map on the wall Eric exclaimed, when you get here to the f***ing sign”(where there was a fork in the road) “turn right, don’t go straight on through the forest, it is dangerous…its only because the Hotel (I have removed the name ) paid for the f***ing sign that pilgrims go straight on. It is not the right way”. Food for thought. On that note it was time for bed.
More later…. watch this space.
Peace, love and light.