Getting to Europe was smooth, although long – 14 hours of air time on 4 different flights beginning from Vancouver, not to mention a 9 hour time zone change and some waiting around in airports while being entertained by restless misbehaving children, particularly during my layover in Paris. It was quite amusing to observe two young siblings, a brother and sister, quarreling in French over a chair while mom and dad sat back too exhausted to do anything about it.
While I lay back in a hard scoop-shaped chair with my eyes closed, a piano melody suddenly broke out. Another traveler had sat down at the red piano in the airport lounge. It was there for anyone to play and I must admit it looked inviting, however I wasn’t brave enough to sit down and play the only song I know, Barbara Streisand’s “Evergreen”. That’s reserved for the privacy of my own living room and maybe a trusted friend who I don’t mind messing up in front of.
Sleeping on planes, I have discovered, isn’t easy even with one of those horseshoe-shaped blow-up things you wear around your neck. On the long flight from Montreal to Paris the flight attendants handed out blankets and pillows to try and make us comfortable, but if I slept it must have been one of those restless sleeps when you’re not entirely sure if you had lost consciousness.
What a relief to finally fly from Paris into the beautiful French coastal town of Biarritz on such a warm and sunny afternoon. It was shaping up to be a clear start to my 800-kilometre journey.
A couple of weeks ago the long term forecast didn’t look so good – rain, which meant the Pyrenees Mountains would likely be shrouded in mist. My intention was to hike the high Napoleon route over the Pyrenees but was told it should be avoided in foggy conditions due to the danger of getting lost. It’s happened before and search parties have been sent out to look for people. Thank God the forecast changed. There wouldn’t be any worries of getting lost for me, or so I thought.
Upon arriving in Biarritz I met up with two others, Xavier from Australia and Ariana from Calgary, Alberta. We were all meeting to share the taxi ride to St. Jean Pied de Port to save money. We had connected through the Camino forum – a great resource for first-time pilgrims like me. All of our planes arrived within 15 minutes of each other and the taxi driver was standing alertly by the luggage carousel holding up a sign with my last name written on it.
Everything was falling into place as planned – much easier than I ever imagined and to think I was so nervous about travelling alone that I nearly cancelled this trip. Anxiety? What’s that?
The last stretch in the taxi was approximately an hour’s drive, but it went by fast as the three of us excitedly chatted away and quizzed the taxi driver about this new part of the world I had just discovered. We were all on a renewed high after our long flights with the anticipation of what lay ahead.
The taxi came to a stop on the side of the road in St. Jean Pied de Port. The driver pointed us towards an old stone archway. I hauled my pack out of the trunk, slung it onto my back and buckled it up. Boy, it was heavy! As I walked, wavering slightly under the weight, I studied the worn stone underneath the archway and wondered how old it was.
I followed Xavier up the steep and narrow cobblestone street towards the pilgrim’s office and the albergue where Xavier and I had both pre-booked ahead of time.
In case you are wondering, an albergue is a pilgrim’s hostel unique to the Camino. They are less expensive than regular hostels, but the only way you can stay in one is if you show proof of your pilgrimage – your pilgrim’s passport or credencial.
St. Jean Pied de Port is one of those cool, typical little European towns that I always used to admire in magazines and in photo collections belonging to the people in my life who have been lucky enough to explore the world.
Never in a million years had I thought I would be standing in one of these towns in southern France at this point in my life.
Visiting Europe was something I had reserved for retirement which is still a ways off in the distant future for me. And furthermore, France, Spain and Portugal were not countries on my bucket list of places I had dreamed of going until four months ago when suddenly my life took a sharp turn.
After dropping my pack off at the albergue I wandered across the cobblestone street to the pilgrim’s office where I received my blank credencial, a small card stock booklet, along with some information protected inside a Ziploc bag. It was a small visual reminder of the varying conditions this precious piece of card stock would endure during the weeks ahead. Not only that but what my own body would endure, especially under the weight of my pack.
This precious booklet with the scallop shell symbol on the front wouldn’t look so blank by the end of this journey.
Each day upon arrival at an albergue I will receive a new stamp. By the time I reach Santiago, 800 kilometres from here, it will be full. It will be proof of my journey so I can receive my compostela, a certificate of acknowledgement that I had walked the whole way. A sense of excitement surged through my body as the volunteer in the pilgrim’s office carefully stamped the top left corner of the first blank page.
While I explored the narrow cobblestone streets admiring the storefronts adorned with colourful flowered balconies above, I came to an old stone church at the bottom of the hill. Curiosity led me inside. It was empty, but beautiful with high, colourful stained glass windows and arched ceilings. Several tall, white taper candles burned in front of a statue of who I thought must be Mary holding baby Jesus. Later I discovered she is known as Our Lady to the Catholics.
Quietly, I walked down the aisle and sat down in the second pew before Our Lady and the many softly flickering candles – each one representing someone’s prayers, maybe even those of fellow pilgrims. While observing them in silence for a while and admiring the beauty of what it all stood for, I decided to light a candle of my own. It was time to say a prayer for my journey.
The albergue I stayed in, L’Esprit du Chimin, was very nice, clean and quaint.
Included, was a tasty three-course dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch to take with me on the first leg of my journey.
The hospitaleros were very upbeat and inspiring. They were all volunteers and veteran pilgrims themselves – some having walked more than once.
The Camino de Santiago obviously impacted their lives greatly so they returned and are now giving back by working in the albergue and offering encouragement to all of us first-timers.
They gave each of us a small glass of sweet red wine and then led us in a traditional toast where we each had an opportunity to introduce ourselves and share our reasons for wanting to walk the Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of St. James, an 800 kilometer medieval pilgrimage route beginning right here.
There are many routes pilgrims can take, but this one, The French Way, is the most popular and stretches from here all the way across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, the capital city of the Galician region in the north-west.
Santiago and most specifically the spot where the cathedral is located is known as the resting place of St. James who is one of the 12 apostles of Jesus.
Although the Camino de Santiago is historically a Catholic pilgrimage, not everyone who walks it does so for religious reasons.
In fact, most pilgrims in this circle were not. The hospitaleros translated our responses so everyone could understand each other – not everyone spoke or understood English. No one was walking for the same reason. Some weren’t sure why they were walking, including me. I just knew I needed to. Fate just seemed to line things up somehow to put me here.