Getting to St.Jean Pied de Port

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Backpack secured in dufflebag

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.

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Ultra-modern MAD

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.

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Renfe Cercanias (C1)

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.

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Spanish brunch

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.

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Linda buying trekking poles, etc.

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.

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Pintxos and wine at Bar Gaucho

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.

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Our room, Itzalpea, SJPDP

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.

Steep walk to pilgrim office

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.

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Inside pilgrim office

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 .

Credential Stamp for SJPDP

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.

Picking up provisions for the “way”

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.

Getting Ready

Preparations for our Camino 2017 became serious, when we gave each other Osprey Atmos 50L backpacks for Christmas 2016.  Our new packs are slightly larger than our old ones, but about the same weight.  We got the larger sizes to allow for extra room for packing and easier retrieving and repacking its contents… an issue we struggled with on our first Camino.

 

 

In January we bought new Lowa boots (Jim) and Keen “fishing” sandals (Linda)  to replace identical footware that were badly worn from nearly 1000 miles of walking over the past 4 years.  We continue to break them in and are now walking at least 2 miles every day until leaving for the Camino.

 

 

Taking care of our feet is paramount to avoiding typical issues from walking 5-10 miles daily for 60+ consecutive days.  Building on our experiences with socks & blister prevention/maintenance on our Camino of 2012-2015, we have confirmed and in some cases upgraded socks, foot lubrication and moisturing product as well as bandage material.

We each inventoried everything in our packs upon arriving in Santiago in 2015.  This list became our start point for backpack contents for 2017.  After minor deletions and additions, we’ve packed our backpacks and taken a few walks of 2-6 miles.  Both packs are quite easy to manage and are just slightly over the recommended 10% of body weight at 18lbs and 22 lbs, respectively. Hydration pack water will add an additional 2-4 lbs of weight as we begin walking each day.

 

Even though we purchased a set of poles to share on our first Camino, we assumed they would be inconvenient to carry and not worth the effort to use. As we ascended the Pyrennees in late July 2012, the poles didn’t seem to help much on the steep climbs. But the 8 mile descent into Roncesvalles began to take a toll on our knees and we quickly discovered how to use a single pole to cushion the impact of the steep downhill walk. It rained that day and the single pole also aided our balance and footing. We decided that if one pole could make that much difference, on subsequent walks we would both carry a set of poles to use.

In 2014 we began our Camino in Pamplona each with a set of poles. They were adjustable and made of fiberglass and were bought on sale at Costco. While Linda initially used her poles mainly for balance on uneven terrain, Jim used his not only for balance but soon discovered on especially long walks, fatigue on knees and feet were reduced when using the poles for support. He also noticed that when the pole length was adjusted to cause his arms to form a 90 degree angle as poles made contact with the ground, his walking posture improved, noticeably reducing stress on the lower back.

(Our experiences have been confirmed by several published studies revealing that poles can reduce the compression stress on knees by 5-25% with the greatest impact being for downhill walking.)

After walking about 170 miles, one of Jim’s poles broke. The adjusting mechanism failed and would no longer hold the pole at a given length. Without both poles, the stress of walking 8-12 miles a day was dramatically increased. We kept a lookout for a place to buy a replacement pole and finally found a small store in Castrojeriz. The owner happened to have one set of poles which Jim quickly bought for 39€.

That afternoon, Jim got familiar with the new poles and found them to be superior to the old ones. First, the shafts were stronger but not significantly heavier (alumnium vs fiberglass) and the length adjustment was a better design and faster and easier to change while walking.

The next morning as we continued our walk, with a big smile, Jim began using his new poles and continued using them for the remaing 110 miles in 2014, the final 210 miles in 2015. They show little if any signs of wear and the adjusting mechanism is like new. The poles are Altus brand, but not available for purchase in the US, including the internet. Similar poles are available in the US at a cost of more the $100! We plan to buy a set of these poles for Linda at a store that carries Altus brand in Pamplona on our way to Saint-Jean-Pied de Port, France (SJPDP).

Our original plan for getting to Spain was to take Uber to the Greenville airport (GSP) and fly Greenville> Philadelphia(PHL)> Madrid(MAD), leaving our car at home to avoid long term parking fees (~$500 for 82 days).

Two weeks prior to departure, the baggage handlers, cleaners and customer service agents at PHL called for a strike against American Airlines. At the last minute, the strike was suspended as negotiations resumed.

Uncertainty in our logistics for the beginning of our trip is not a good thing. Most of Europe takes the month of August as a holiday. Thus, Europeans walking the Camino Frances on vacation must start their walk in late July or early August as the normal time to complete the 500 mile pilgrimage is 30-33 days. This creates a surge of pilgrims, overwhelming the limited accommodations for sleeping along the Camino.

Our plan to deal with this potential problem is to find and reserve hotel rooms and purchase tickets for our train and bus trip to SJPDP, as well as reserving rooms for the first 6 days of our walk. We completed this several weeks ago.

Consequently, any delays in our flight or baggage arriving in Madrid on schedule, will have disastrous repercussions on the beginning of our Camino.

So, we took immediate evasive action by calling American and changing our flight to originate in Charlotte(CLT) and to fly direct to Madrid… at an additional cost of $375 in re-ticketing fees. Also, to avoid airport long term parking fees, we will drive to Jim’s daughter’s home in Clover, SC, who has graciously agreed to give us a ride to CLT some 30 miles away and store our car in her driveway until we return in October.

Camino de Santiago de Compostela

The “Camino” pilgrimage began in the Middle Ages with first written accounts recorded in 950 AD. One non-written version says that in 778 AD King Charlemagne had a dream in which St James appeared and told him to clear the path from Navarre to Santiago. He is said to have done this and thereby became one of the first pilgrims. The path he took is called the “Camino Frances”.

It is said that tens of thousands of pilgrims suffered the hazards of the Camino each year, throughout the Middle Ages. Today, over 200,000 pilgrims from all over the world walk the Camino during the year with nearly half making the journey during the summer months.

There are many “camino” routes originating from various locations in Spain, France and other European countries, all converging either with the Camino Frances or leading directly into Santiago near the Atlantic coast.


In Spain, one is called the English Way, and starts in Santander and passes through Asturias along the northern coast to Santiago. The Camino Plata is from Seville in the south and heads north to Astorga where it joins the most popular route known as the French Way or Camino Frances.
The traditional beginning of the “Camino Frances” is at St. Jean Pied De Port, France and passes through Navarre, La Rioja, Leon and Galicia, forming a Camino of over 790 kilometres (475 miles). The route is often a single track through the countryside and over mountain ranges, but at times joins the main roads.

At every 5-15km along the route are very affordable ‘refugios’ or ‘albergues’ (pilgrim hostels), located in small villages and towns.  A typical albergue will supply basic shelter for the night in dormitory (bunk beds) style for 2 to 100 plus persons in a communal mixed-gender room with shared toilets and showers. Places to hand wash clothes and clotheslines for drying are typically provided.  Many also have kitchens, machine washers/dryers and internet facilities.  Alternate accommodations can also be found along the way, including rooms rented at private homes, small hotels and even an occasional upscale hotel in more populated areas.

Food can be obtained along the way at Spanish “bars”, generally open all day, offering drinks, sandwiches and light foods.  Some villages and most small towns have a small grocery store offering fruits and vegetables and other food items.  Small restaurants catering to pilgrims are frequently attached to or close to albergues and offer typical Spanish breakfasts (coffee & toast) and evening meals featuring a pilgrim menu (menu peregrino). The typical pilgrim menu includes a hearty appetizer, main course, dessert, wine, water and bread for 8-12 euros.

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is the site where, it is said, you will find the bones of St James The Apostle and is the third most holy site in Christianity, after the Holy Land and the Vatican.
St James was the 4th apostle and, along with his brother John the Evangelist, was asked by Jesus to follow him and he would make them fisher’s of men. It is said that Christ later told James to go west to the end of the earth preaching the gospel.
In those days, Spain was the furthest point west before the discovery of the Americas, and Finisterre in Galicia is the most westerly point of the peninsula. James’ trip was largely unsuccessful and he returned to the Holy Land where Herod Agrippa later beheaded him in A.D. 44.

Many legends have developed to explain the appearance of St James’ bones in Spain and the development of the pilgrim routes in the middle ages. The most consistent are that the followers of St James carried his body by boat to Galicia and buried him there.

Around 800 years later a hermit is said to have seen a bright star with a glowing light that fell to earth at Compostela (possibly from Campus Stellea, starry field) where the bones of St James were subsequently found.

The legend also says that during the reconquest of Spain, St James appeared on a white horse and slayed the moors, encouraging the Spanish Christian troops to fight harder to regain their country.

For those that don’t know, St James is the patron saint of Spain and there is a national fiesta on 25th July dedicated to him.

Camino Frances 2017 – Our Way

In September 2015, we completed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela Frances, “Our Way”. But since our return home to South Carolina, the Camino has been gently summoning us to return, by persistently evoking our rich memories of the 500 mile pilgrimage.

So, while we two septuagenarians are still up to the task,  we’ve re-scheduled a planned 2017 Alaska land/sea cruise for 2018 and booked our flight to Spain for late July.