It’s Thursday, July 27 and after months of planning and preparation, we are finally on our way.
This morning we drove to Jim’s daughter’s home, some 70 miles away and on the way to Charlotte International Airport (CLT). We had lunch with Beth and her family and left our car at her house to store for us until we return. She then drove us the remaining 20 miles to CLT and dropped us off at the departure area.
After a slight struggle with the ever changing check-in kiosks, we checked our duffle bags which contained only our backpacks, cleared security without incident with no carry-ons, only fanny packs, and by 1:45 p.m. proceeded to our gate to relax and chill until time to board our 4:55 p.m. flight to Madrid.
While waiting, Jim used a recently updated American Airlines app to track baggage and was relieved that it showed both our bags as “loaded” on our aircraft/ flight. This was later confirmed when our bags, in fact were waiting for us in the MAD baggage collection turnstyle.
The seven and one-half hour flight to Madrid (MAD) began with a 5:01 p.m. takeoff. The flight was smooth and uneventful, including a tasty (free) dinner with wine followed by a nice breakfast just prior to landing. We touched down at MAD at 6:27 a.m. (12:27 a.m. EDT) in the dark.
Several other flights arrived with us so it took about 45 minutes to clear customs, but our duffles were waiting for us when we got to the baggage area.
We stashed our duffles into our backpacks, rearranged a few things, donned our packs and made our way to the Renfe Cercanias (C1) ticket area in the T4 terminal, where we obtained free train tickets to Atocha (the main train station in downtown Madrid) by scanning our already on-line purchased tickets for Atocha to Pamplona.
We boarded C1 at 8:30 and arrived at Atocha at 9:00 a.m. and began our absorption into Spanish culture by ordering a brunch of tostada, cafe con leche and freshly squeezed Valencia orange juice.
We boarded the train to Pamplona about 11:20 a.m. which pulled out of Atocha station a few minutes later. The 3 hour ride from Madrid to Pamplona revealed an interestingly, sparsely populated countryside colored tan, gray and brown by dry, scrubby vegetation, washes, canyons and hills and frequent castle ruins appearing in elevated, strategic overlooks. Occasional small rancheros and villages with surrounding vineyards, orchards and livestock dotted the otherwise barren landscape. The countryside became increasingly greener as we advanced in a northeasterly direction entering the region of Navarre and approaching Pamplona.
Our train arrived in Pamplona promptly at 2:40 p.m. We took a taxi to the very nice Hotel Catedral (our third stay since 2014) and checked in (75€).
Once in the room, we triaged backpack contents, collected the duffle bags & warmer clothes we won’t need until Sept/Oct and stuffed them into a laundry bag we found in our motel room. At 4:00 p.m., typical reopening times for businesses after lunch break, we ventured out into the city to get treikking poles for Linda, mail our “extra” items to our reserved hotel in Leon and buy two bus tickets to SJPDP (2×22€) for tomorrow morning.
Each task was easily accomplished as planned. On our return from the bus station, we tested both our ATM cards, successfully, confirming a working source to replenish the cash needs for our Camino.
Before returning to our hotel, we stopped at Bar Gaucho, our favorite place for “pintxos” (the Basque name for tapas) and had two delicious selections and a glass of wine… for a light supper (10€). By 6:30 p.m. we were spent after two long days of travel and not much sleep.
So we headed back to the hotel and crashed for the evening.
It’s Saturday, July 29, the third day of travel to get to SJPDP. With a much needed good night of sleep, we donned our backpacks, left our hotel at 9:00 a.m. and walked the 20 minutes to the bus station. Our bus departed at 10:00 for the trip to SJPDP .
The 50 mile drive up, over and back down the Pyrenees Mountains to Saint Jean Pied de Port, France took 95 minutes. We exited the bus, put on our packs and walked a few hundred yards to Hotel Itzalpea (70€), our base for the next two nights.
Our host is a delightful young French lady who had a nice room with a private bathroom ready for us to occupy immediately, 3 hours before normal check-in time! We took a few minutes to settle in before walking across the street into the medieval town to find a restaurant to quieten our growling tummies. We struggled initially with the menu which was a French/Basque hybrid, but a young lady (with a man old enough to be her grandfather) seated at an adjacent table, helped Linda avoid ordering a local version of chitlins.
After a filling lunch we walked up the steep Rue de la Citadelle to the pilgrim’s hospitality office to have our credential’s stamped and dated, verifying our official start of the Camino Frances.
While we waited in line, in walked the young lady who helped us at lunch accompanied by (as we soon learned) her grandfather. The two had arrived yesterday in St Jean via bicycle from Tours France. Tours is one of three other French Caminos that merge with the Camino Frances. Their bicycle journey from Tours to SJPDP was over 500 miles .
We chatted until our turn with the “credentials stamper” and wished them “buen Camino”. An hour or so later we observed them leaving town on their bikes, beginning their return trip back to Tours.
We spent the rest of the afternoon making final preparations by getting our packs re-organized for the walk tomorrow, picked up some breakfast snacks for tomorrow, napped a bit, had a light dinner and got to bed by 8:30p.m., setting the alarm for 5:30.