It is rare that you get to walk into your dreams. But today Ninesh, my husband, and I have taken our first steps into ours.
26 kilometres of steps to be precise.
We have just finished the first very uphill day of El Camino, the ancient pilgrim route from St Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compestello in Spain. We are neither of us religious nor particularly spiritual people but there is something about the Camino that caught our imagination years ago while our children were still young. And we promised ourselves then, that our first holiday as re-free agents, without our children, would be to begin the 800 km journey and see who we meet and what we find along the way. We’ve dreamt it so many times, it’s hard to believe that we are actually here, sitting in a bar at the end of our first day. In front of us, the imposingly beautiful convent of Roncesvalles, stands guard, it’s ancient cream walls bright against the deeply green wooded hill that rises behind it.
But we are here. Footsore, muscle- weary and secretly triumphant that we have made it through the, apparently, ( I hope they’re not just saying that!) most difficult day of the walk.
We have followed the blue and yellow Camino signs and made it to where we are meant to be.
And that is what it feels like…. for now, at least, we are where we are meant to be.
We have meandered along mountain roads and clambered up mountain trails until we glimpsed the horses that gallop across the Pyrenian mountain tops.
And I am sure that if we had just stood on tiptoe, we could have touched the clear deep blueness of the sky.
We have slid and almost-tumbled down steep woodland paths.
Not that the day was rain-free. But it was perfect for a first day.
At 6.30 this morning we had a simple breakfast in the warm and welcoming gite we were staying in, watching a damp, misty morning dawn over the mountains we were about to climb.
Fortunately that was the last we saw of any mountain summits until we were walking on them. Shrouded in mist and cloud, they stayed hidden as we climbed steeply and exhaustingly upwards.
” Isn’t it lucky,” said one of the gite guests when we bumped into him at dinner at the end of the day ” that the clouds and mist stopped us seeing how high and far we had to go.”
And he’s right. It definitely helped us not-so-fit-unwillingly-named-middle-agers not to know the enormity of what we had to overcome.
Strangely, though, it was not the ascent as much as the descent that caused the aching muscles. The first 23km seemed to sail by. It was the last , steeply declining 3.2 km that felt as though they would never end.
But they did end in a bar with 2 of the most incredibly thirst -quenching, poured – from-a-great-height glasses of 1 Euro cider I have ever tasted. Who knew that cider could ever tasted good?
And the truth is, we are not playing the real Camino pilgrim game because we are not spending our second night in a simple gite like yesterday or in the communal dorms of the convent where you bring your own towel and sleeping bag liners. We are not yet the through- and-through pilgrims that we should. Instead we are staying in the beautiful hotel next to the convent. After our 11 euro 3 course pilgrim dinner in the hotel restaurant, we are allowing our aching muscles to luxuriate on a comfortable feather bed mattress in a room with polished wooden floors, a power shower and a TV.
But hey. … there was nothing in our dream about having to rough it all the way.
Quotes of the Day
” Up is the new normal,”… Ninesh
” Just when you think things are on a level, life throws another hill at you,”….. Becky
And if you are interested in walking the Camino, here are some of our preparation and today’s top tips…
Pack as lightly as you can – remember everything you pack you will be carrying on your back.
Invest in a good ruck sack.
Look after your feet – make sure you have, good walking boots with ankle support ( definitely worth it for the descent) and light weight, good quality, socks with some padding. Nothing can turn a dream into a nightmare more quickly than blisters and the wrong shoes.
Girls- I would definitely recommend investing in a good quality ( and of course very beautiful) well fitting sports bra. No ruck sack strap-chafing that way.
Top tips from our journey to St Jean Pied de Port and our first day
To get to St Jean Pied de Port we flew to Biarritz, stayed the night there. But the train for St Jean Pied de Port leaves from Bayonne (. 40 – 50 minutes bus ride from Biarritz, cost 1 euro, bus no. 8). We stayed in Biarritz but Bayonne looked like it would be a cool city to spend the night in.
The train from Bayonne to St J P de P takes about an hour and is only 1 long carriage so get to station early to make sure you get a seat ( ticket costs 10 euros and 10 cents).
El Camino passports can be got from 39 Rue de Citadel, cost 2 euros. You need your passport or ID card number
First day of walk
Eat a good breakfast
Leave early ( 7 am) so you have done a lot of the climb before it gets too hot. It took us 6.5 hours but can take 7.5.
There are 2 or 3 places to fill water bottles en route and several places to get snacks if you want them.
Bring some dried fruit e.g. Figs, apricots. They are a good way to get sugar into your bloodstream quickly if you find you are losing energy.
You can order a pilgrim’s dinner at almost any hotel/ restaurant you stop at. The menu is set and includes starter, main course and dessert as well as a bottle of house wine. Cost: 11 euros.