“The Camino” is Spanglish for “El Camino” which means “the way”. It can also mean the path. So when you hear that someone did pilgrimage on “El Camino de Santiago” They are saying they walked the path to Santiago Spain, a famous trail with many routes but most commonly, people start in Saint John Pied du Port (SJPdP) in France to Santiago Spain, a distance of 780 Kilometers.
I have hiked many trails across the United States and I usually opt for trails that are less traveled. I like to be alone in my thoughts and walk to my own rhythm. When traveling with companions I prefer quiet evenings of stargazing rather than portable speakers and loud parties that have become more common on traditional trails these days.
However, what does it mean to “do a pilgrimage”, I thought to myself. Is there more magic and energetic momentum on a path where millions have traveled over thousands of years “seeking” answers or some sort of reconciliation? I certainly wanted to explore Spain, a place I had never visited but I was not sure if I wanted to walk and sleep with so many strangers. If I walk as a pilgrim, seeking answers from something in the universe, I really don’t want to be disturbed by crowds of people.
I grew up as an only child and while I had a few friends, a great portion of my time was often on my own. I lived my early years on a 100-acre ranch in northern California. I certainly had no friends within walking distance from my home. When you grow up mostly alone I think you naturally don’t have a sense of loneliness because you don’t know what it is to have constant companionship. So some part of me, still to this day, needs to retreat into that quiet space that feels, for me, safe.
As I boarded the flight for Spain with 3 other friends, we were all silent for a bit. Thinking, as we would discover later, the same things. Will I walk in silence or will I be open to talking with strangers along the way? As a group, we had already decided that we would travel some days together and some days alone and check-in again at nightfall at the same Albergue (sort of a hostel for pilgrims on the trail).
We wanted “control” over our experience so we would get the most out of it. One must plan carefully when starting such an important journey…Spoiler alert. It will not go exactly as you plan. Plans are however wise, but wiser still is the one who “plans also on being flexible”.
Finally arriving in Saint Jean Pied du Port, France we were relieved to be out of public transportation. We had flown into Madrid, then took a long train ride to Pamplona, then you take a long bus ride over the Pyrenees into France and finally SJPdP. It is an all-day affair.
This town is beautiful almost like a fairytale. A Pristine village surrounded by the greenest farmland you can imagine. It is the perfect perfect place to start the journey. All of us were well-experienced hikers and so looking at the great Pyrenees that we would be crossing over the next day was very exciting.
Now, a tip for you my readers, you can walk the whole day and arrive in Roncesvalles by nightfall but it is a VERY VERY tough day. For this reason, those who are less experienced often start in Pamplona and avoid the first mountain pass… But there is a special place that can break up this hard start and I can not recommend it enough (I have done this journey TWICE). Make reservations to stop in Orrison. I promise you will be glad you did.
You must make your reservation in SJPdP at the registration center. If you arrive without reservations they will wish you a “Buen Camino” and send you on your way. However, you can still stop for a nice sandwich, beer, soda, or lemonade at their restaurant before you continue. The view will take your breath away.
If you made reservations take off your pack and enjoy this moment. It is not even close to the halfway point to Pamplona. Those who continue on, without this stop, have an unknown fate. It can sadly be the end for many inexperienced walkers/hikers or your first unexpected delay. It is one of the longer segments that exist without any refuge. Having blisters after your very first day could cause you to stay in Pamplona longer than you may have wished. On the other hand, it is not a bad place to be stuck for a day or two while perhaps wearing some sandals offering time for your blisters to heal a little.
Let me get back to the Orisson experience. Orisson is like the initiation party for your journey. The people you sit with for dinner on your night there are your cheerleaders. You will hear many happy, sad, and tragic stories as to why people are embarking on this journey. It sets the mood for the deeper meaning of why you are all there, at that moment. I feel like it opens the heart for the days ahead. Additionally, because of the varied walking paces, injuries, and days of people taking extra days rest from time to time you are very likely to pass some of these same pilgrims repeatedly on the path to Santiago. It’s always a surprise when you do and also a delight to know you are all “still in the game”.
Your stay at Orisson includes your lodging dinner and a light breakfast and it will be a great way to start the next day (provided the sky is clear). Crossing the Pyrenees into Spain is one of the most spectacular parts of the trail. The view is unreal and you might even travel on a day where the clouds are actually below you. It is magic if you hit the weather well.
When you depart Orisson to continue on the Camino you are also now well ahead of the “newbies” starting up the mountain from SJPdP and this is to your advantage. You will arrive in Roncevalles ahead of the masses and will be able to choose your bed and for that matter, have a bed available at all. This was an old Augustine Monastery of the 13th century. Now an Albergue for the very tired pilgrims surviving either their first or second day crossing the great Pyrenees.
Welcome now to the longest night of your life! I do hope you remembered to pack earplugs? If you sleep in the monastery, there are close to 200 bunk beds. The old monastery, to be honest, was very clean, with plenty of hot water and toilets. Don’t panic it is not terrible by any means but the cacophony of night noises was something I had never experienced.
You will not hear the crickets outside, in fact, you might be fortunate if a good thunderstorm came along to drown out all the snoring, sneezing, coughing, moaning, farting, and the restlessness of one of the larger Abergues on the Camino. I had earplugs…I still heard enough to keep me awake much of the night. By morning you will realize, if you are a cell phone selfie taker ready to share with your friends you made it over the Pyrenees, you may want to wait till you get to your first café before you snap that photo.
My group all looked like we had been on the trail for two months. We laughed through our tired faces and carried on toward Pamplona. Nothing was posted to our Facebook fan page till at least lunch. By then, we had coffee and our very soar legs were loosened up and our enthusiasm regained.
It does get better! Along with getting stronger with every day’s walk, eventually, you will begin to sleep through the nights even while surrounded by strangers and their noises which we probably contributed unknowingly as well. It’s real. Not reality TV but real. Real injuries, real emotions, real tests to your endurance, and real discussions that your “inner-self” has longed to have with you, and now you have to hear them all out. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
You will laugh on this journey, you will cry, you will get angry, and along the way, you will discover yourself. If you follow the wisdom and energy that flows through this trail you will also forgive yourself for being so hard on yourself. You may discover, the friend who is of the greatest value to you on this trip is the one you have always known, the one who has never left you, and the one who will always be with you. You know…YOU.
If this journey appeals to you at all, you need to make a plan and find your way there. I know we are sadly in the time of Covid-19 and this is surely not the time to go. However, it is a perfect time to plan your future trip. If you can encourage a few friends to take the journey with you it can save you money and it can offer comfort. The trail is not always easy and it will test you but travel companions can be the best moral support even if only by a phone call in the times they may have walked ahead or stayed behind on some leg of the trip. Your support team is at least still on the same path. Like I said earlier, plan to be flexible.
This article is only a 2-day sample of the journey I have taken twice…so far. My whole story would span novels and perhaps, I will tell the rest of this story in a book of my own one day. However, it is intended here to give you a taste of the amazing adventure that this kind of journey has to offer.
My journeys have both been amazing and still, I want to do it again! It is a journey that even if you only do it once or even if you only do it for 2 weeks. You will never forget it. There is magic on this trail, there is a reason it is still traveled to this day… Don’t you kind of want to know how your story turns out? It will be one of the greatest stories you have ever told.