First day

Trip Start Sep 03, 2012
Trip End Oct 07, 2012

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auberge du pelerin

Flag of France  , Aquitaine,
Sunday, September 2, 2012

Auberge du Pèlerin25 rue de la Citadelle64220 Saint Jean Pied de Port - FranceTél : +33(0)
Its has been a couple of months in the planning since I took the decision to walk El Camino, and suddenly it has started and I'm on the 8.29am train from foggy Paris towards Irun, with my stop being Bayonne.
These TGV trains are as fast as I want them to be, or even a bit too quick for comfort, taking only 5 hours to get to its destination while the French countryside is ripped in two halves giving me nano seconds to look at any detail. To its defence, the seats are very comfortable and the aspect generally clean and quiet. (GBP 81 via internet).

The "pre-Camino" has involved a fair amount of meditation about what I would need to carry, where I would stay each night approximately and what physical condition I would need to be in to walk this without that been the challenge.

The search for information lead me to start writing this Diary Guide, as I simply struggled to find a simple book or source of information which directed a Camino novice to the basics without attempting to convert the experience into a mystical and "uber" religious one.
Even the books described by their authors as "non-spiritual" had some hidden treasures of self discovery, and revealed tips of ecclesiastical icebergs.

I fully respect believers who undertake El Camino as path to clear their sins, or to get closer to their evangelical convictions, and as such this Diary is no attempt to criticise or challenge them.
This Diary is simply a recollection of walking experiences of an atheist. Hopefully there will be plenty of discoveries along the I have always found in any long distance walk. If I do become a believer by the time I reach Santiago, please request a refund if you paid anything for it!

During the previous month I gradually put together a lightweight, long distance kit, trying to keep it at a maximum of 8kgs. I certainly will not be looking like Paris Fashion Week model, but every piece of clothing or equipment has its obligatory use. There are no luxuries to be carried except one - my electronic book with 5 books in it and the possibility to buy more when I hit WiFi spots. The latter is included after my Coast to Coast walk, where I found plenty of rest time in the afternoon, but no reading material except local newspapers and the occasional tourist guide. I'm sure it will be worth the extra weight when I hit the bunk bed after a long walk.

I put all the gear to the test during my thirteen day walk across northern England (the Coast to Coast trail). Apart from minor changes to the stuff I took, I survived the 370 km without much complaint or shoulder pains.
The main reason for walking the C2C was to prepared myself physically for El Camino and enjoy it as much as possible.

Distance wise most of the C2C days were longer or same as El Camino, while difficulty levels appear to be lower in all cases, although some of the mountains will be as challenging. I will soon find out, as the first walking day takes me over the Pyrenees and into Spain.

I had a good one week rest in between the C2C and the start of this adventure, and I should theoretically have been in perfect fitness. However the moment I arrived in Paris, a mix of a potential allergy to Parisian trees and a light flu brought in muscle pains and reduced my quality sleeping time to about four hours per night on the two previous evenings. Nothing that would stop me from commencing the walk, but certainly not the best way to start it after all the preparation. Sod's Law I guess...

Veronika and myself enjoyed a good couple of days in Paris and the hospitality of our old friends Maya and Patrick. Even though we were both exhausted with the flu, we managed to have at least three excellent meals, and extend out "world sorting" conversations until 4am on Friday night.
I'm convinced that I will find great food along walk next month, but the weekend food bash will keep me happy for a few days. I'm sure it establishes a level of quality which will be difficult to beat.

The train ride to Bayonne was uneventful and gave me some sleep and read time which was very welcome.

Bayonne is quite a small station, but it was packed with backpackers, who were all waiting on my same platform and who will most probably be heading to St Jean Pied de Port. I have to admit it is a bit of an anti-climax in comparison to the previous walks where there was a maximum of five to ten people at any given point. I'm assuming there will be many more at St Jean and other places and therefore the route will be busy. I heard at least four different languages along the platform.

Its good on one hand as it means company if needed and entertaining characters sooner or later. However it also means competing for beds at the end of each day - something I will have to learn to sort out (misleading other pilgrims to wrong destinations, confusing them if they don't speak Spanish, etc...)

The final part of my trip today was the train from Bayonne to St Jean. I knew it was a regional mountain route so did not expect a great train (GBP 9). My shock was when a really nice carriage arrived. But before you jump to conclusions, the "carriage" was new and clean...but it was one!

The platform sparked with a frenzy of backpackers with huge packs, tourists, blind people with guide dogs, an assisted old lady in a wheel chair, and a chap with three mountain bikes, all running to the carriage which had passed us all and stopped at the start of Platform B.

Quickly two cues formed at the front and the back, except the French who did their own pincer movement knowing fully well that it was nearly impossible for everyone to fit in. I followed the wheelchair couple and in some "tetris" strategy managed to slip myself towards a seat and hold a corner.

People continued to pile in, a New Zelander started arguing with the man with three bikes, and general stress spread as people realised in horror that the trip takes at least one hour.

After a ten minute wait the conductor arrived and advised (in French) that people standing up needed to get off for safety. He informed that a bus would take them. Being used to latin ways of doing things, I quickly realised that the bus replacement probably would take hours not only to arrive, but also to get to St Jean. So this clever author slowly but surely started sliding downwards on to the wall chair which was propped up at the time...achieving full sitting position before the conductor started directing people out of the train.

Once seated I did translate the French instructions to English, clarifying that there was positively nicer bus service to take anyone standing up...what a b'stard translator. The funny thing is that the conductor kept say "oui, oui, l' autobus, oui", and smiling while waving his right hand towards the outside. Good luck to them...the Camino has started earlier!

We started our ride only 12 minutes late and soon all the carriage "survivors" started chatting to each other. Most conversations were obviously novices like myself trying to sound out if their preparations and plans were realistic. Topics were generally about how long one was going to take, the weight of the rucksacks and when they had booked their flights back.

Although light and friendly conversation mostly, given we were all sitting in rows opposite each other, and that the train was moving quite roughly from side to side and upwards and downwards I suddenly got a flashback from the film "Saving Private Ryan" (the famous Normandy beach disembarking part). I giggled thinking of walkers vomiting into their "helmets" (sun hats), and exchanging letters to their loved ones before they hit St Jean.

The arrival at the station of St Jean was followed by the sixty or so pilgrims rushing around trying to find where they needed to go. For myself it was an easy walk as I had booked the first night at the "L' auberge du Pelegrin" (16 euro night). Its right in the centre and next to the Information Office where everyone registers to get the Camino Passport.

The idea with the Passport is that you get stamps as you stay in the different pilgrim places. Its also obligatory if you want to sleep in one and you can only get it in St Jean, Roncesvalles or Leon (or your local St James association if you join them for an annual fee...)

The information place has several dozen people cueing outside from 3pm until well into the early hours of the night. I decided to have my dinner, prepare everything for tomorrow and then cheekily arrive at the end.

I was aiming to buy some fruit for breakfast and dinner, but there are zero shops open on a Sunday apart from the tourist ones, ice cream parlours, cafes or crepe restaurants. Typical!

St Jean is effectively a tourist trap, with even a small Disney type train plodding around the centre. It immediately made want to got to bed early and rise with the sun. It might actually be good for the planning!

After lots of looking around and trying 3 different creperies who don't serve crepes on Sunday, I luckily found a shop that sold baguettes with ham, cheese, sausisson, etc. Loaded with a saussison baguettes and a "gateau basque" (basque cake) I considered my dinner covered. I also managed to get my Passport (2 euros) in less than 5 minutes as everyone had gone.

Most people apparently were having their dinners in the hostels. As I was quite tired I preferred to lie down in bed with some cake!

Let's see if people snore tonight. Its 6 of us in each room (all men) so I expect some sort of concert. My ear plugs will go in the moment I get drowsy.

Sleeping bags are essential by the way. The bunk beds have on sheet buy no other means of warmth.
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