I stepped off the bus in St Jean Pied-de-Port today and immediately walked up into a small park that overlooked the road. I found an empty bench above the vineyard covered hills and sat down to breathe in the presence of this place I’ve dreamed of coming to for many years.
I watched pilgrims with backpacks of all sizes wander through the entrance to the old walled town center. I know there are several who have walked to get here from somewhere else, but for the majority of folks wandering these cobblestone streets, this town is the beginning.
The ancient pilgrimage way of St James starts here at the foothills of the Pyrénées Mountains.
In many ways I began my pilgrimage long ago. It includes all the walking I have done in years past on this route and all the walking I have done to get ready to come here (both last year when we cancelled and this year). All the steps to get here are part of the way.
I texted my sister who was still en route via train: I am just giddy to be here.
I felt like a kid. I had to pause on the bench because I wanted to feel all the sensation of having a dream become reality. Even on the bus ride through the mountains, I found myself near tears at the beauty. Each fairytale village was perfectly nestled in the curves of switchbacks. There were green hills dotted with sheep among imposing rock faces.
And then the village of St Jean, the haven for pilgrims from around the world, is straight out of confectionery shop. Sweet shop-lined streets and little staircases and pathways that ring the town and take you up as high as you like so you can view the orange tile roofs below. (Which is just what I did next!)
Cafés and albergues (pilgrim’s hostels) fill in the spaces between the shops. If I were not carrying all my things in a tiny backpack, I’m sure I would have stuffed my suitcase with French crockery and Basque country cheeses.
But instead I found our hostel and dropped my pack on my bunk. (Up top for me tonight.)
Then I wandered out to sit in the garden behind the hostel. I am just amazed that this is a place that exists in the world and that I am in it.
After a good while of gawking at the view, I walked the streets a bit more and found where the Camino leaves the town so I’ll know where to walk in the morning.
At about 6, I walked to the train station to meet my sister’s train. Here it came at 6:11 on the dot. Right on schedule, a little two-car train rolled up and out poured a sea of backpacks. Anna was among the last ones off the train.
Delighted to see her and to be here together, I led her back up the hill to our lovely hostel courtyard where we caught up over a box of pastries she had brought from Paris.
Then we went to find some dinner. A few places were closed but eventually we found a cozy spot, a restaurant run by a friendly couple. They recommended the fish and potatoes, which I got and Anna had a salad of local specialties and a small dish of roasted squid. Everything was delicious.
It started to rain while we were eating which is when I thought to mention that it’s supposed to rain tomorrow for our first day of hiking. Anna said maybe she’d like to look into having her backpack transported on this first day.
The first day from St Jean is often said to be the hardest day of the whole Camino. It’s 24.5 km (15 miles) but it’s not necessarily the distance that makes it tough. It’s the long climb up a mountain and then back down into the small hamlet of Roncesvalles. And then maybe it’s also that you’re jet lagged and not used to your pack. Or not in the rhythm of hiking yet.
Or maybe it’s the unpredictable weather. When I bought my hiking poles, the man in the shop handed me three attachments for the bottoms: one for the road, one for mud and one for snow. Hopefully you won’t need that last one. But you never know.
Hopefully soon I will let you know how it is from the other side. I’ve enjoyed my quick hop into France, and I wouldn’t mind a little more time in the charming town of St Jean. But it’s time to begin.
Onward we go.
I’m so giddy that I don’t know if I’ll sleep a wink.