Walk This Way: Camino de Santiago, Part 1

Updated: Jan 23

Hola everyone! I’m writing from the Camino Frances, worn out and blistered but smiling hugely (seriously... big smile). My first few days on the road have been amazing. The Way has lived up to its name (and more) since I've started out.


Quick disclaimer : I'm not a vulgar person but my vocabulary can be colourful. My life is R-rated and my website occasionally reflects that. Be aware of some frank language. All my photos are PG, but please read blogs before sharing with kids.



Day 0 - Saint-Jean-Pied-De-Port

Camino de Santiago, chemin de Compostelle, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, French Pyrénées
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, The Camino's traditional starting point in the French Pyrénées


After flying into Madrid, I take a train to Pamplona and from there, ride a bus up to the tiny, charming village of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (in France). The driver is handing out barf bags before we step onto his bus. BAD sign. A few people are sick on the hairpin turns; the ride is made even more challenging by the lack of air conditioning in the 35-degree heat. One woman is so violently ill that she must be laid down on the gravel and revived with splashing water. Poor girl. If you tend to get car sick, take anti-nausea medication the night before, and the morning of, your bus ride to SJPDP.


In the pilgrim's arrival office, I am given my first Camino Passport stamp and a dorm bed in l’Auberge du Pèlerin (hostel or albergue). I also meet 3 awesome guys: Micheal from San Francisco, Leïf from France and Yaïr from Israël. One patio supper and many glasses of wine/beer later, we decide to kick off the Camino together the next morning. I LOVE those surprise moments when unexpected friendships begin.



Day 1 - SAINT-JEAN-PIED-DE-PORT to RONCESVALLES

27 kms - 1, 350+ m gain in elevation



I had slept relatively well in my dorm bed at l’Auberge de Pèlerin. The four of us meet in the main square and start out at 5am. A beautiful morning sunrise greets us along the steep mountain pass, then we get caught in pouring rain for the remainder of the day.




Les magnifiques Pyrénées françaises

Click on arrows to view 3 photos of the beautiful French Pyrénées Mountains:


Leïf, myself, Micheal, Yaïr (sitting) and a lovely girl we just met on the road, Marie.

On the Camino, multiple paths can lead to your point B (guidebooks will describe these options well). The night before, we had chosen the recommended but grueling Route de Napoléon for our first day. It climbs over stunning mountain passes, and allows for gorgeous views of the French Pyrénées Mountains. A beautiful way to start the walk.


The steep path eventually gives way to moorish fields and vast expanses of fog. So much for the views. Cows leisurely munch on grass by the footpath and farmers wave at us as they drive up and down the hillside.



Auberge Orisson. A welcome break from the rain.

After a few kms, our first respite is Auberge Orisson; some pilgrims choose to sleep here on their first night. We stop for a snack and a break from the downpour, then push on towards Roncesvalles (still 20+ kms away in Spain).


Over the course of that first day, we walk over high mountain passes, through hauntingly beautiful groves and into one of the oldest beech forests in Europe. All are stunning sights.


About 18 kms in, after gaining over 1, 300 m in elevation, we reach the Spanish border (province of Navarro). Only 9 more kms to go now, mostly downhill.




Walking through France and Spain (Day 1)

Click on arrows to view 4 photos :

We arrive at Albergue Roncesvalles with sore feet, pumped for hot showers and cold beer. We had walked for 10 hours and had climbed from 170 m to 1, 450 m in the pouring rain, with 20-lb bags on our backs. The walk had gone fine, but the rain had made conditions tricky. Yaïr’s boots have snapped apart and the wet duct tape wasn't holding them together very well. I have a large blister (from water running into my shoe) on my left heel.


We celebrate our successful first day with Leïf’s Le Petit Écolier chocolate cookies and supper in the hostel dining room, chatting about today’s route with other pilgrims. In retrospect, Day 1 is the day with the highest climb in elevation of the entire Camino ; we didn't know we had just finished one of our toughest, and most beautiful, days of the month.


And man, did we sleep well in our dorm beds that night.


Day 1 down - 26 days to go !

 

DAY 2 - RONCESVALLES to ZUBIRI

22 kms - 500m elevation loss (rolling hills with several ascents)


There is something to be said about sticking your swollen feet (and your red, angry blister) back into your running shoes at 5am. Vitamin I (ibuprofen) helps dull the pain after about 20 minutes.


After a spartan breakfast of bread and jam, we set off from our beautiful hostel in Roncesvalles toward Zubiri. Today’s journey would be mostly downhill and most importantly : SUNNY !!!!

Just a short jaunt until we land in Compostela. (Yeesh!) Love Yaïr and Leïf's photobomb. Thanks to Micheal for taking this shot, which would become one of my faves from the entire trip.

There are so many signs pointing out The Way, it would be difficult to get lost. Unless you’re distracted by all the fun you’re having.

Of all types of roads to walk on the Camino, dirt trails are almost everyone’s favourite. There will also be paved paths, rough mountain trails, concrete sidewalks and the dreaded highway shoulders.


The path today leads us through peaceful woodland and fields of dried grass. The sound of our feet crunching on the gravel and tramping through the wind-blown grass blends so well with Yaïr's and Leïf's harmonicas. My head is still full of pleasant sounds and smells from that day.


There are also tons of public water fountains at which to stop and fill up our water bladders, so it's a chilled-out, relaxing walk with plenty of stops.







Now, a word about blisters; I will never again underestimate one of these suckers. Water seeping into my shoe yesterday caused one to form on my left Achilles tendon. I covered it up this morning, but it certainly didn’t heal after walking all day today. The key is prevention; I should have patched my heel up immediately when it started to burn yesterday. Once a blister really gets going, the chances of it healing inside your shoes, during your month-long trek on the Camino, are very slim.


Leïf and Yaïr made new friends everywhere they went.


We arrive in Zubiri and the hostel search begins (you can’t reserve dorm beds; they are first-come, first-served).


Several options are described in my guidebook; we head to the highest-recommended one and thankfully, they have exactly 4 beds left. I don’t have photos of it, but Albergue El Palo de Avellano is awesome. We have a fantastic pilgrim’s supper (provided for a small fee by most albergues on the Camino), along with copious amounts of wine (also stocked by most albergues).






Approaching Zubiri, we’re pretty happy with today’s walk. Lots of singing, dancing and goofing off, since conditions and elevation gains today are much more «chill» than yesterday.

________________________________________________________________________

Day 3 - ZUBIRI to PAMPLONA

21 kms - 360m elevation gain (mostly rolling hills, two ascents)


On Day 3, we meet an awesome guy named Roland from Hungary (bottom left, with shaved head) at a water fountain. He lets us try on his fun aviator goggles and explains the logistics of hiring a donkey to walk the Camino (something that’s been done for centuries by pilgrims). That would have been very cool. But we never find out if Roland has fulfilled his dream, as we lose sight of him after a few days.

Channeling my inner Jeff Goldblum. Tickled by the fly look.

I enjoyed being that girl who could keep up with this gang of gentle giants. I kept getting my bandages dirty trying to twist and bend down to clean my Achilles tendons. This was just before Leïf discovered my Miracle Boots.

My rugged Solomon trail runners, which had served me so well back home, are total rubbish on this walk; thanks to wet socks on Day 1, they have completely blistered my feet. Gaiters would have been good here.


Yaïr, who has spent time in the Israeli army, insists on disinfecting my two blisters and patching them back up in a distinctly Israeli fashion (although it looked the same to me) !






So here's the story of my Miracle Boots: For two days now, the boys have been imploring me to buy new shoes, but I’m concerned that walking 25 kms/day in brand-new shoes will cause a whole new set of problems.


As we're walking today, we spot a new pair of hiking boots sitting on top of a garbage bin. Who would throw those away? Yaïr asks what size I wear, and the boots are indeed my size. A heck of a coincidence. But wait, it gets better.


Inside the heel of each boot, the previous owner had glued two U-shaped foam pads, to keep blisters from rubbing up against the back of the boots (as the blisters would «float» in the middle space of each U). The guys are yelling excitedly, ''Try them on, try them on!!!'' So I slip my feet in - instant relief! I start prancing around, the guys are laughing and clapping, Leïf is jumping around doing a happy dance with his hands raised in the air and christens them My Miracle Boots.


I wore those boots every day for the next two weeks. They did eventually create a nasty problem with one toenail and gave me a bunch of smaller blisters, but those U-pads allow my two huge Achilles tendon blisters to actually close up and heal completely, no infection whatsoever. Amazing. The Camino provides exactly what I need, just when I need it.

Most of today’s walking consists of crossing and recrossing the same river, the Arga. At one point, we walk on a path along a busy highway (photo on right, above). A few times, we cross beautiful, old stone bridges. Often, we stop next to the water to chill out and eat. It's a beautiful day.


Approaching Pamplona (Day 3)

Click on arrows to view 5 photos below :


Albergue de Jesus y Maria in Pamplona. Absolutely fantastic.

The scenery retains its loveliness even as we approach the city of Pamplona. The Running of the Bulls is Pamplona's biggest claim to fame, but we are attracted by the prospect of a hot shower, a full glass of wine and a soft warm bed.


Micheal and I will sadly be saying goodbye to Leïf and Yaïr at Pamplona's train station tomorrow morning. Our two friends must branch off The Way to walk their own paths in their home countries (France and Israel).


Roland will stay in the city to search for that perfect pack donkey. (There's a sentence I never thought I'd say! ) Micheal and I will continue walking the Camino together for a few more days.



Au revoir, les gars! Je vous ai adorés; quel privilège de pouvoir débuter mon Camino en votre compagnie. Bisous xx

 

DAY 4 - PAMPLONA to PUENTA DE LA REINA

24 kms - 350m elevation gain, then 350m elevation loss


Micheal and I have said goodbye to our beloved Leïf and Yaïr, and Roland has stayed behind in Pamplona to find a donkey with which to complete the Camino, as medieval pilgrims once did. I think it's really cool, and perfectly fitting for Roland, who's a bit of an old soul. I hope to cross paths with him and his load-bearer later on.



We have a fine bunch of uphills ahead of us, so Michael and I set off early. There is a lot of open space and very little shade today, but I love the sun and the quiet dirt paths.


We can see 30+ wind turbines on the horizon straight ahead (on the summit of the Mount of Forgiveness, or Alto del Perdón). There’s something so calming about the crunch of dry sand under your boots and the hypnotic beat of your footsteps. The climb up to Alto del Perdón rewards us with a great view and wrought-iron statues of ancient pilgrims to play around on. But not for too long: the town of Puente de la Reina is somewhere down there and Micheal and I must reach it before day's end.



Try to spot me - I'm trying to blend in. Cool monument to pilgrims throughout the ages (note the donkey!)

I don’t remember much about the rest of today's trek. It is mostly peaceful strolling downhill until we arrive at Albergue Jakue (below), which is easily one of my favourite hostels here. I remember sitting on garden chairs, sipping refreshingly cold wine and listening to other pilgrims’ reasons for walking the Camino.

Every evening, I must take time to carefully disinfect both heel blisters, because fine dust has seeped into the bandages throughout the day.


Every morning, I apply iodine before dressing them with Compeed bandages and medical tape. It takes roughly 30 minutes to prepare both my feet for the day’s walk.


 

Day 5 - PUENTE DE LA REINA to ESTELLA

22 kms - 300m elevation gain, mostly gentle hills


Getting up at 4:30am isn’t always easy after the previous day's walk in the heat and loud snorers in your dorm. But a nice surprise awaits Micheal and I in the breakfast room; we are happily reunited with Marie (from Day 1) ! This little French charmer would appear and disappear sporadically in the first week of The Way ; we eventually lost sight of one another. You do run into the same people almost every day, since everyone is using a comparable itinerary. But she is harder to catch.


Below: You meet so many different kinds of people here! This is Ivor from Manitoba, Canada. We met after I saw him struggle to climb onto his top bunk and I offered him my bottom one. He is honestly the sweetest little gentleman I think I’ve ever met. He filled us with awe as he talked about his 3 hip-replacement surgeries - and that he intended on finishing all 800+ kms of the Camino. Super inspiring.




The charming little town of Puente de la Reina owes its name to a Spanish queen who ordered that the bridge be built to ensure pilgrims’ safe passage over the Arga River.






The town of Cirauqui (note the stunning cliffs in background) was not our destination, but a very delightful stop on the way to Estella.

This Roman bridge has stood here for nearly 2,000 years. I wonder if our highways will look this good, or even be usable, in two millennia.

Years later, I still recall the anticipation of walking toward the city of Cirauqui. Strolling through vineyards and rows of olive trees, it looked like a beautiful, far-away mirage that never seemed to get closer. I remember buying an ice-cold orange juice there, then diving out of the store because the merchant started flirting in Spanish and I had no idea how to react. I’m a notoriously incapable flirt; foreign languages don't seem to help, it appears.






Micheal and I arrive uneventfully in Estella and decide to sleep in the hospital that night.


Just kidding.


Albergue Hospital de Peregrinos is actually a refurbished hospital, and the dorm beds aren’t gurneys. Good enough for us.


Supper, red wine, pilgrim chitchat, the usual.

As great as my Miracle Boots are, I am still breaking them in. New bubbles and small welts now cover my feet here and there. I suppose that's normal, except that all those Compeed plasters are getting expensive!


Despite the width of my boots, my left baby toe has 2 disproportionally huge blisters on it. One blister has inflated itself under the toenail. Lovely. A pharmacist advises me to carefully clean/cover my toe, since I am likely to lose the toenail (!) and infections have occasionally called for toe amputations on the Camino. Hmmm. I’ll take that advice seriously, as I have no intention of quitting over a few blisters. So I buy the darndest, cutest little toe sock for it.


Below right: Lying down and raising your legs straight up seems to be everyone’s favourite resting position. You can literally feel the blood (that is causing your feet to swell up) tingling back down to your hips. A cool sensation and a big relief from the heat. Below left: My little toe sock, helping to keep my toenail on. Can't believe they actually sell these little things.

Buen Camino !


Read the next bit ! Walk This Way: Camino de Santiago, Part 2


Read Walk This Way: Camino de Santiago, Part 3


Read Walk This Way: Camino de Santiago, Part 4


Photo Collection: Camino de Santiago


A Brief History of the Camino de Santiago



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