I dreamt and talked about it for years and finally at 67 years of age, I grabbed my bag, caught the bus to the airport, boarded a plane and landed in Biarritz in the South of France on my first step on the Camino de Santiago.
I arrived in beautiful sunshine and the first people I met were Ann and Sean Meehan from Donegal Town and an Aussie called John. All were heading my way so we shared a taxi to St Jean Pied de Port. Warning; If you are going to do the Camino, don’t take a taxi to St Jean, it’s over €100 and the train costs €7.50. Bus and train services are easy to access.
The first stop was the Camino Office where you can find out everything you need to know.
I knew very little before I arrived and made the silly mistake of taking a case with wheels. The streets are cobbled and steep, not ideal for pulling a case along. Most people carry their belongings in rucksacks on the climb but I had mine sent on from Alberque (hostel) to Alberque costing €5 - €7 each time but well worth it.
Knowing so little about the Camino I booked into a B&B the first night which was outside St Jean. I wouldn’t advise this, there are lots of hostels which cost from €5 to €10 per night, you may not be able to book online but there are usually rooms available. I was lucky with the B&B, as the owner collected me in St Jean and delivered me back the next morning at 7am. Otherwise I would have had to walk 3k.
I was warned before I left to begin the walk early so I would be finished each day before the sun got too hot. When I got out of that car on the first morning I looked at the hill in front of me and thought; “What have you let yourself in for, you daft auld biddy?” It rose steeply in front of me and didn’t look as though it was going to level off at any time soon.
“Okay,” I thought “One foot in front of the other.” That became my mantra for the next five days.
As I came to the first rest stop, a little café, Ann and Sean Meehan were there and we had coffee together and then it was on to the next rest stop, in the middle of nowhere.
We climbed 1,400m that first day to Roncesvalles which is 25k from St Jean by road, that’s not allowing for the altitude of the mountain. That evening my MiFit said 44,861 steps. Over the next five days we travelled 150km which is nearer 200km when you calculate in the altitude.
Each afternoon I prayed for the hostel to come into sight and many times vowed I would never do it again, but the next morning I was up with a smile and ready to go with very few aches or pains and not a blister in sight. We left each morning in the dark, most of us with flashlights on our heads, the atmosphere was lovely, everyone with great attitudes.
I met some wonderful people along the way, from all corners of the world; Korea, Japan, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, the US, France, Germany etc. I spent time walking and chatting with a young woman, Jackie, from Korea, who had spent time in Bundoran learning to surf, another woman, Angelica, from Guatemala, Miok, a pharmacist from South Korea, really interesting people. I had dinner the first evening with five others; a French couple, an English man, a Polish man and a Korean man. Most people spoke some English.
All really nice people but nobody could beat the Irish for the craic. When you arrived at the rest spots you usually got a shout, “Hey Ann, ham and eggs on the menu,” or something similar, and they usually kept a seat for you.
Two guys from Keady, Armagh, were mines of information about the Camino. One of them had already walked the Camino a few times. Hilarious company! They were also very au fait with Ballyshannon and Creevy, where they spend free time when not working or walking the Camino.
It was a tough journey but so enjoyable, despite sore feet. I’m not religious but there’s definitely something spiritual about it. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the battle with yourself to complete the journey or the euphoria when the strain and pain ends each day, as someone suggested. All I know is I’m going back and hope to do the full 1000km in the next few years.