Day One: 14th July
Camino de Santiago – here we come! We left home just after dawn with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. We felt like a group of teenagers going off on our first holiday, but also feeling a little bit of, ‘what the hell have we let ourselves in for??’ Would we survive, not only the Camino, but also each other?
“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” Mark Twain
We arrived into Biarritz airport at approximately 12.30 to a beautiful warm and sunny afternoon. Prior to leaving Ireland we had arranged for the Express Bourricot taxi company to be waiting to take us the 90 minute journey to St Jean Pied de Port. We had dealt with Caroline Aspherrches from the company and found her to be very helpful. The fare cost 19 euro each and was worth every penny as it saved us the hassle and confusion of arranging transport when we stepped off the plane.
“There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met yet.” W B Yeats
We shared our taxi with Heidi from Austria and felt our first taste of the infamous Camino camaraderie we’ve heard of. We weren’t strangers, but fellow travellers, all in this madness together. Heidi, fresh out of college, and full of enthusiasm, wasn’t hanging around in St Jean Pied de Port, but walking on the 23 km to Roncesvalles. She was going to be walking for at least seven hours. We admired her guts, and we knew we would have similar distances to cover in the days ahead, but we were relieved it wasn’t today. We needed time to build ourselves up to that. And after all we had, at least, twenty years on Heidi!
Exploring the narrow streets of St Jean Pied de Port – no need for hiking shoes yet
A picturesque market town in the heart of Basque country, St Jean Pied de Port is the traditional starting point of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostelo. It is located in South West France and lies at the foothills of an important pass through the Pyrenees Mountains, between France and Spain; hence the name of the town means, ‘at the foot of the pass.’ As we had decided to stay here one night we had plenty of time to explore; meaning we walked around a little and then found a café to put our feet up and have a couple of drinks.
Before setting out on the Camino Way, you must have the all-important Pilgrim Passport to prove you are a pilgrim and to gain access to the albergues, hostels and to avail of the pilgrim menus in restaurants. We received our Pilgrim Passports from the Camino Society in Dublin before we left Ireland but if not we could have picked them up at the Pilgrim Office at 39 Rue de la Citadell in St Jean. The Pilgrim Passport must be produced every time you arrive at a new place and it is stamped to prove you have walked that day. The office also provides the iconic scallop shells which has long been a symbol of the Camino de Santiago.
The yellow shell is a familiar sight on posts and signs along the Camino Way guiding pilgrims in the right direction. There are different myths about why the shell is so important to the pilgrimage but my favourite is this one; after St James death, the disciples were transporting his body back to Santiago when the ship they were travelling in encountered a storm and the body was lost to sea. However, after some time St James’ body washed up on shore, undamaged but covered in scallops.
Of course, it could also be the very practical reason of pilgrims long ago using the shell for getting water to drink which has more truth to it, but the former tale requires more faith to believe and I like that. It’s what the Camino is all about. Pilgrims carry the shell with them as they travel along and we attached ours to our rucksacks, displaying our bond with fellow travellers.
Learning as we go!
St Jean is a beautiful place but on reflection, as we were there early enough and still feeling quite energetic at this stage, we should have planned to travel on to Orisson, which was only 8km away. It meant we added an extra day to our trip and had to factor in extra accommodation and food costs. I’d budgeted for about 40 euro a day but spent more than that in St Jean, with the majority of it going on our restaurant meal alone. We booked into a restaurant for our evening meal but not as pilgrims and therefore did not avail of pilgrim menu or prices. But this trip is all about learning as we go!
Regardless, the craic was great so I suppose you can’t put a price on that. We stayed in a beautiful old town house on the main street, ( not a great image of it below and unfortunately we can’t remember the name of it!!). It was basic but clean, and to gain access we collected the key from a bar and let ourselves in. There were self-catering facilities if we had wished to cook, which we didn’t. We do enough of that at home. Seven of us were divided between two rooms and apart from two other walkers; we had the whole place to ourselves.
Time for bed
There was some kind of street party in the evening and we wandered around it for a while. While the rest headed off to bed, Fiona, Alice and I decided to finish off the evening with a couple of glasses of red in a little bar just off the main street. The bar was empty apart from ourselves. Maybe they heard we were coming!