Friday, May 20, 2011

The Camino Day 0: Bonne Courage

OK, so I thought I´d start my story of the Camino by talking about my journey to the start line, as it were. I´d kick off with the moment I left Alan´s house (my lovely friend in London who put me up for a couple of nights), but apart from the epic hug we had before I left it was pretty unremarkable – London overground, London underground, Stanstead Express and an aeroplane… Having said that, the boarding queue at Stanstead was the first sign of trouble…

You see, I am disappointed to report that I am not a lone pilgrim, striding out over hills and mountains and musing at the heroism of my journey… I am instead part of a steady line of pilgrim ants, following the yellow arrows and scallop shell signs to various destinations. I am, on the other hand, pleased to tell you that the disappointment was short lived.

I could just tell you that I wrote the following in my diary: “I love myself for bringing me here”… but I´ve never been one for putting in 20 words what can be said in a thousand, so I´ll explain more.

I flew to Biarritz in the South of France, but I stayed overnight in Bayonne, which is basically the same distance from the airport as Biarritz itself. And the train I needed leaves from there.

Bayonne is stunning. Set on a river in three sections that meet each other across bridges, it´s an old French town, with old French charm. I wondered the cobbled streets and tested out my French (rusty, but workable) to get myself a lovely dinner on the riverside. I was booked into a shitty hotel, but I just used it to sleep in and spent the rest of my time wandering and trying not to buy anything gorgeous… there was a lot to buy!!

I´ll confess to a little self-congratulating on the fact that I seemed to be the only one of the heaps of pilgrims on my bus from the airport who wasn´t dashing straight to St jean Pied de Port… Smug? Yes thank you. Smugness wiped off my face on the train the following day? Yes indeedy.

The train was a little two-carriage affair and I think it´s fair to say that the stops at two stations along the way are entirely for show – no one gets on or off, because no locals use the train. It is a Pilgrim train, let´s be honest, people.
I saw a man get on in a kilt. His backpack said Pilgrim. His kilt said nutter. I have decided the two may be closely linked.

During the very leisurely and un-hurried train journey (more Train Grande Chillaxed than Train Grande Vitesse) a few things happened: I named my backpack since we will be so intimately engaged over the coming weeks. Her name is Juniper and she is a sturdy girl with a little too much weight, a little like me. I picked myself a theme song for the walk (not one of yours Megs – I didn´t get the CD in time) – Flaunt it, by Missing Supergirl (totally check them out) for the lyrics “You´ve got it, go flaunt it. Stop waiting for the moment. Let your feet start walking, don´t you know it´s only you that´s gonna get you somewhere”… appropriate no? And I made myself known to the other pilgrims on the train. Or rather, Juniper did when she threw herself at great volume from the luggage rack to the floor… They all noticed.

So once we arrived in St Jean Pied de Port we made a long and lovely line to the Pilgrims´ info office where they set each person up with a map of the first stage and break the devastating news that your first day of walking must be the full 27kms to Roncesvalles in Spain. This includes an ascent of 1300m over about 20kms and then about 1100m descent into Roncesvalles over the last 7kms. To be honest I think I went a little pale. I booked into the Albergue, which is a hostel for pilgrims run by the local Friends of the Camino. I was in a dorm with about 20 others… including three snorers, one sleep talker and a guy who thought it best to use the dorm to make phonecalls, loudly. It went well, I think. I´ll fill you in on the first day´s walking when I get to Pamplona tomorrow, but in the meantime, I´ll leave you with a lovely moment: On the way into town from the train station I nearly cried. A little old lady watched the wave of pilgrims coming up the street. She must see it every day. As we got close, most crossed the road, but in my ever-vain efforts to be a wild individual I stayed on her side of the road. As I passed her she smiled at me and said “Bonne Courage”, which is the French phrase used to wish pilgrims luck. I felt a little bit special.

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