Camino de Santiago, Camino Frances, pilgrimage, Spain

September 1 – El Camino de Santiago: Barcelona to St. Jean Pied de Port

The spirit of the Camino began well before arriving in St. Jean Pied de Port… I left Barcelona on a 7:35a.m. train, after a few hours of sleep at Primavera Hostel. I had enjoyed a tapas dinner with fellow travelers the previous night, picked up a bottle of vino at the local supermarket, and spent most of the evening on the dorm room floor, trying to decide what belongings would be coming with me on my upcoming 500-mile walk. I was ruthless, and ended up leaving the hostel with a 12-pound pack, the other 18 pounds were kindly being kept in the hostel’s storage closet.
I arrived at Barcelona’s Sants station with plenty of time to check in and grab a quick breakfast on the go. I looked forward to the six hour train ride to Pamplona, and knew that the gentle rocking of the train would be exactly what I would need to lull me to sleep. A travel day would equal a rest day and prepare me for what lay ahead…or so I thought.
After boarding the train and stowing the lightest backpack I had ever travelled with above me, I settled in to my aisle seat and we pulled away from the station. Slowly the surrounding landscape changed from city to suburbia to country, but as we gathered speed, an unnerving rattling sound began and it gathered force as we reached peak speed.
Kyara, the German student, Terry and me, en route to Pamplona

Augustin, the lovely conductor was doing all he could to shuffle us into free seats, and eventually, Kyara, a young girl from the Bronx who was sitting next to me, and I were moved two carts up. I sat across from a young German guy who was traveling Europe before starting classes in the Fall in Barcelona. Across the aisle from us were two American women from Arizona and Kyle from Portland. His wife, Jennifer, was one cart away, and they were also Camino bound.

One of the American women was trying to bribe Augustino for free beer due to the “inconvenience” caused by having to move, but he wouldn’t oblige, so she took herself to the bar cart and came back with beers for all of us. It was 9:30am, but the local Spanish canned beer went down well, considering.

Juanita, Kyle and the Arizona ladies

We were all chatting away, getting to know each other, when the train stopped and two others, an older American couple, Terry and Juanita boarded the train and joined our group. They were visibly frazzled after two redirected flights, a medical emergency and a cancelled hotel reservation. They didn’t look like they could take much more and their enthusiasm for the Camino seemed to be waning. We traveled only another 20 minutes before the train stopped, and began traveling in the opposite direction. I could see this, “oh no, what next?” look on their faces, but crisis averted, and we arrived in Pamplona only 12 minutes behind schedule.

As we exited the train, I wouldn’t know that Kyle, Jennifer, Terry and Juanita would be people I would spend my days with over the next five weeks, and that we were brought together long before our arrival in St. Jean due to a rattling train cart. What’s the saying: There are no coincidences, it’s just God’s way of staying anonymous!

We bid farewell to Terry and Juanita who headed to a hotel in Pamplona to avoid the steep climb on day one from St. Jean to Roncesvalles. I walked to the bus station with Kyle and Jennifer, who responsibly already had tickets. I managed to get on the same bus as them. Kyle asked if I had a place to stay in St. Jean for the night, and when I said no, I think he thought I was half crazy. Over a lunch of tapas and vino tinto, he told me I was ‘willfully unprepared.’

I suppose I’m entering into this adventure with a true Camino spirit. I’ve done little research, but I’ve been told the Camino will give you what you need, and I’m going with it! I’ve looked forward to this for a long time, and I know only one thing: this is going to be an amazing experience, like none I’ve had before. And with 350 pilgrims around, I don’t think anyone will be without what they need. So, maybe I’m not prepared in the same way as others, but I believe things have a way of working themselves out.

St.Jean Pied de Port

After lunch, we head back to the station and board the full bus to St.Jean. Less than two hours of winding roads later, we arrive and make our way to the old village, which feels like stepping back in time. Cobble stone streets, window boxes and a sleepy, but spiritual energy fills this town.

The pilgrims office and the wonderful volunteers. Eliane is in the middle.

I leave Kyle and Jennifer at their Inn, which is full, and I head to the pilgrim’s office to sort my passports and credentials and find accommodation for the night. Eliane, an older French woman with the brightest blue eyes I have ever seen, assists me. She has such a pleasant disposition, and we speak in broken French and English about the Camino, specifically the route for the first day which entails crossing the Pyrenees.

Info on the albergue door.

I manage to get a bed at the albuergue for 8 Euro and make my way to check in. My roommates, Dessie and Jivko, from Bulgaria, invite me to walk around St.Jean with them. We spend the afternoon exploring, walking along the city walls and visiting the Citadel, all the while the anticipation for the morning growing.

I buy a jamon + fromage sandwich for dinner and a bottle of vino tinto for us to share, and we watch the sunset from the albergue garden. By 10:30, I’m in bed and listening to the rhythmic snoring around me, willing myself to sleep, knowing a tough days walk lay ahead of me.

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