These next few posts are meant to share with you (and to document for posterity) my recent walk along the French Way of the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain from mid-September to early November 2022. Even though I am publishing the posts a few weeks after my return home, I have decided to retain the present tense I used when first sharing these stories and photos, day-by-day, during the journey itself. I believe this will help retain the freshness of the experience – the highs and the lows – the surprises and the disappointments – the observations and the thoughts – just as they occurred.
Thanks to all my wonderful friends who accompanied me along this walk: the new Camino friends from around the world whom I met along the way (¡mis camigos nuevos!) as well as those who followed my daily mini-blog on WhatsApp with encouraging reactions, comments and questions. As everyone ultimately does, I walked alone. But I would never have wanted to do this without you!
For the organization of these blog posts, each will describe a section of several walking days between my various rest days – once for as few as 3 days on the trail and others for as many as 9 days. Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoy it!
Day 0: My Entire Life to Saint Jean Pied de Port
As I sit here in Saint Jean Pied de Port (the traditional launch town for the Camino Francés), I am eating my first Pilgrim’s Menu dinner (very basic and cheap). I am surrounded by dozens of other folks speaking so many different languages, but all sharing some nervous anxiety about our long climb tomorrow, with an 85% chance of rain in the forecast, and comparing our packing lists. Those who have already been several days or weeks on their Caminos from around Europe laugh at us newbies like old veterans, then offer encouraging words of support when they realize the angst is real: “You’ll get your Camino legs very quickly…. it might rain, but won’t be so bad…“
Iain and Jane drove me here this morning after three days of wonderful R&R at their holiday home 2½ hours away. Iain had organized my “Camino warmup” on Le Chemin de La Liberté (Pyrenees Freedom Trail) last week which I believe has prepared me well for the next couple of months on my walk.
I entered the old part of the city through the Gate of Saint Jacques. The journey has officially begun!
My first order of business was to get my Credencial (my “Pilgrim’s Passport”) stamped at the Pilgrim’s Office. You can see I wasn’t alone…
The Pilgrim Office staff, available to speak in many different languages, were superb in answering all of our questions.
With business done, but still too early to check into my hotel, I walked about the old town.
Finally, once checked into the hotel, I repacked my backpack so that I could ship ahead those items that I needed last week but that I won’t need on my Camino. For €50, my small duffel bag will be shipped ahead to Santiago de Compostela and stored until my scheduled arrival in early November. The Camino services and infrastructure I’ve witnessed so far are very impressive!
Some of you have asked about the route I’m walking. The Caminos de Santiago are some of of the numerous Christian pilgrimage routes that have existed for hundreds of years, alongside those to Rome and the Holy Land. Many routes of the Camino de Santiago were established in the Middle Ages, coming from all corners of Europe to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. In recent years, “the Camino” has attracted as many adventurers and exercise-enthusiasts as people with religious or spiritual motivations. On the Camino, we are all called peregrinos (pilgrims), regardless of our intentions.
Here’s a map of Europe showing some of the major routes that make up the Caminos de Santiago. They are usually named after their starting points.
I will be walking along the most popular route (measured by sheer number of people), named El Camino Francés, or The French Way, which starts for most peregrinos here in the small town of Saint Jean Pied de Port, France (even though there are a lot of feeder routes from elsewhere in France). By the end of tomorrow, the first of my 39+ planned days of walking, I will say goodbye to France and be in Spain for the rest of the journey.
On my walking days, I expect to walk an average of about 12 miles per day. My longest planned day is 16 miles and the shortest is just over 6. If all goes according to plan, I will get to Santiago de Compostela in 45 days (39 walking days with 6 interspersed rest days). After that, I’ll walk another week out to the towns of Fisterra (and Finisterre, the “End of the World”) and Muxia on the coast. First, however, I need to get through tomorrow: a section that is generally considered a grueling slog in good weather. It will be interesting to see how the bad weather affects it.
All packed, and with a full 2L water bladder, I am carrying a comfortable 11kg (24 lbs) in weight and excited to get started. My guide book and apps say it will be about 8 hours of walking time to my next stop, mostly uphill. My scallop shell and yellow arrow, two common symbols of the Camino de Santiago, are secured prominently on my backpack, along with my hiking poles and my Chacos sandals (for use after hours, when my feet will need a break from the boots).
In researching and preparing for my Camino, I was pleased to see many similarities to another experience in my life that proved transformative nearly 10 years ago: Burning Man. Hoping to find some Burning Man energy, I have chosen to replace the more conventional symbol of the Camino de Santiago (the Cross of Saint James) with the Burning Man icon. Will anyone recognize it? Will I find fellow Burners out here? I am curious.
The inside of the shell is further adorned with motivational thoughts and advice from my loved ones at home. Thank you to Tyler, Joanie, Dan, Alissa, Sue and Bob for your encouraging words!
The small photo that Joanie made of the two of us (with another of Tyler and me on the flip side) are attached to my pack strap, so it’s always close at hand for easy morale-boosting and to share with others!
Time to sleep – I think it’s going to be a very long day tomorrow.
5 Place du Trinquet
+33 5 59 37 03 66
Day 1: Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles
The day started as I expect most will, with a simple breakfast while watching a few other peregrinos prepare for their long day ahead. It seemed to me rather quiet and I later learned that most people got up much earlier and headed out in the dark this morning.
Fortunately, I had found a nice market yesterday to stock up on some healthier fresh fruit.
At the starting point, I was ready to get moving…
I met my first camigos, Nico and Maria: Camino friends with whom I’ve stayed in contact ever since that exciting morning.
The main symbol of the Camino, the scallop shell, can be found everywhere.
My destination today: Roncesvalles (Ronceveaux in French).
On the first climb out of town, I saw a lot of other pilgrims in front of me and a few others behind. (Spoiler alert: the young woman seen here in the orange cap is Sophia from Brazil. She will also appear tomorrow and then not again for many weeks in a great story of Camino magic. Stay tuned!)
Slowly, slowly, we got views from higher elevations.
There always seemed to be higher hills in front of us – all day long!
The questionable weather stayed away, and we had beautiful cloud-filled blue skies!
I couldn’t get the Beatles’ Long and Winding Road out of my head!
After about 8km (5 miles), we arrived at a nice rest stop at Orisson. It is a place where some peregrinos choose to stop for the night, breaking up an otherwise very long first day. After a café au lait and croissant, I continued my climb…
The markers of our route are usually simple yellow arrows, but some get more elaborate.
The view back down into the valley where we started.
Mileage Check – the first indication I’ve seen of the distance still to travel to Santiago de Compostela. It’s a long walk!
The queues at the public water fountains are a fun place to gather and compare notes. So many languages! It’s also fun to see these early photos of people who are strangers today, and whom I will get to know many days hence. That’s Hector in the Stetson hat, although I won’t actually meet him for a few days.
It was interesting to cross the border into Spain, and see only this simple “Welcome to Navarra Region” sign. The strong sentiments of region over country is something I will come to see and hear about more during the trip as we cross several regions of the country. Later, when complimenting a Catalonian from Barcelona about the beauty of his country, he replied: “Yes, Spain is beautiful. But it’s not my country.” This man turned out to be the Chief of Staff of the self-exiled President of Catalonia, now living in Belgium, reminding me that history is always being created around us, every single day.
The environment changed to woodland in Spain.
Surprisingly, the high point is beyond the border between France and Spain, but it still makes a good place for groups to wait for their stragglers before starting the long and steep descent to our destination.
As we descended, the large, iconic monastery (and our destination!) at Roncesvalles came into view. It still took us awhile to get there, but this view gives everyone confidence that we would make it tonight.
Remodeled a few years ago, this famous albergue has more than 200 beds for pilgrims, yet it was filled up tonight. Those without a booking had no choice but to continue walking to villages down the road. A rather harsh way to finish the first day of the Camino – and it has been a very tough day at that.
Impressions from my first day:
- I’m in good enough shape to do this crazy Camino thing. It took me 6 hours and 21 minutes (including a ≈30 minute break at Orisson) to complete what was predicted to take 8 hours. I am obviously relieved that my months of training are paying off. I’m tired, but I feel good.
- Many other pilgrims struggled and caught transport to arrive before dark. I spoke to more than 30 people along the way and most said they did not feel that they were in shape.
- The people I chatted with were from many countries, including France, Brazil, Venezuela, Holland, Italy, Korea, UK, and US. I even found someone from my home town of Santa Cruz, California where we have mutual acquaintances. So it seems quite international – pretty universal. The one country I didn’t see represented was Spain. A Spaniard later told me, “We don’t want to go to France in order to walk to Spain…” so they usually start their Camino Francés here in Roncesvalles. In my opinion, however (so far at least, after just one day), the Camino isn’t truly universal: I’m still waiting to meet my first pilgrims from Africa and much of Asia. Will I ever? Or will the Camino’s Catholic origins contain the pilgrims to just those countries with Christian underpinnings?
The architecture is very pretty in the softening light.
My hotel is the large building on the left, adjacent to the village church.
Daily Stats: 25.7km (16.0 miles) and 1,493m (4,898′) of elevation gain. It was a very full day!
If you’re interested, here’s a flyover video with some embedded pics. Check out Roncesvalles to Zubiri on Relive!
Calle Unico, 14
+34 948 760 105
Day 2: Roncesvalles to Zubiri
It was a much more “reasonable” day, today. Lots of wooded trails, interrupted by small, quiet towns. The rain finally arrived, but it was nothing to worry about with proper gear – I didn’t see anyone having a problem with it. In fact, for the first few kilometers, I didn’t see anyone at all! Found out later that most pilgrims set off from the albergue at about 6-7am, just as I was eating my hotel breakfast. Many were quite anxious that they might not find a bed tonight. While my decision to pre-book accommodation for every single night of my Camino took away some flexibility (and free will!), at least I didn’t have to spend any time making phone calls and running searches on Booking.com.
Mileage Check – or “Expectation Management?”
I had the trail to myself for quite awhile in the light rainfall.
Mileage Check – some are more artistic than others, but are they all calibrated? It doesn’t matter, I guess – I’m going to walk it all, regardless of the distance.
The clouds were low on the Pyrenees over which I walked yesterday.
After awhile I caught up with Sophia and Patrice from Sao Paolo – two of the first people I met at the start of Day 1. Patrice is a police officer and very fit. Sophia did not consider herself an outdoors person. They both agreed that they were worried whether Sophia would make it to the end. After this brief encounter, I didn’t see them for weeks and thought I’d never see them again.
Most of today’s route was through woods, and mostly downhill. After awhile, despite my late start, relative to other pilgrims, I began to catch up with them.
One reason I could easily close the gap to those who left long before me is the time that many spend at the various cafés along the way.
For most of the day, I walked alone.
Occasionally, I’d come upon a logjam through narrower sections.
After a few hours of walking, I arrived at my destination in the town of Zubiri, overlooking this beautiful medieval bridge.
Peregrinos traveling on a budget, or who want a more traditional “pilgrim experience,” often choose to stay in albergues which are run by local authorities, churches, charity groups, or private owners. They sometimes have a few private rooms available, but most people share space in dormitories filled with bunk beds. The Camino stories of loud snorers and “lower-bunk-grabbers” are legendary and never made me feel that I was missing much – except, of course, for the group dinners that sounded quite entertaining and uplifting.
Daily Stats: 23.0km (14.3 miles) and 487m (1,598′) of elevation gain (but a lot more descent!).
Check out Roncesvalles to Zubiri on Relive!
Pension Zubiaren Etxea
C/ Camino de Santiago, 2
+34 948 30 42 93
Day 3: Zubiri to Pamplona
The day started with breakfast in my small hotel at 7am with the 5 other guests: a middle-aged couple from Michigan (he on his ever first visit outside of the US), two elderly women from Paris in the middle of their 5th week/year (they are walking the Camino together in stages, one week per year), and a 30-ish woman from Cape Town who is “sampling” the Camino for 4 days before deciding to attempt it all at some point in the future (she said that she decided after her 2nd day that she wants to return next year). The others were out by 7:30 and I left a bit later, knowing that my normal pace would catch me up to them later in the morning. We are all settling into our own Camino pace.
The views aren’t always bucolic. Sometimes we just have to walk around mines, quarries, and factories…
Now and then we come across locations, like this small hotel, that are seen in the 2010 Emilio Estevez/Martin Sheen film “The Way.” I first heard of the Camino de Santiago when living in Europe, but this movie seems to be how most Americans learned of it.
I love useful entrepreneurs: Juan greets tired peregrinos with a smile, a café con leche or lemonade, “walking meditation” guidance, and souvenir t-shirts & pins. “Know your market!”
I love chatting with folks on the trail, but relish the stretches on my own…
My normal style each day is to walk without stopping, but I’m learning to pause more often and absorb what I can from the unique scenes around me.
Fairly early this morning, I came across a man who was carrying the same brand, model, and color of backpack as I was (a blue Gregory Zulu 40L). A perfect conversation starter, our common packs was the first of many subjects Tomas from Stockholm and I discussed as we walked together for many hours, all the way into Pamplona. At this early stage of my Camino, I expected to run into him (and the others I had met in the last few days) time and time again. Unfortunately, our future paths never crossed and I lost complete contact with Tomas. This is when I vowed to always get contact details from the people I found most interesting on my journey. I surely hope he enjoyed his Camino and is happily back home now.
Closer to Pamplona, the largest city on the Camino Francés, we shift to urban walking.
The cathedral comes into view across nearby fields.
The old city of Pamplona is surrounded on many sides by medieval walls and gates.
Within the city walls are narrow streets, packed with people enjoying their summer afternoon and ready to greet Tomas and me.
Daily Stats: 23.5km (14.6 miles) and 575m (1,886′) of elevation gain.
After 3 days of walking, one of my Camino goals has now been reached: walking the Papá Hemingway Route into Pamplona.
… while sporting my own “lookalike” beard.
Check out Zubiri to Pamplona on Relive!
Calle Leyre, 7
+34 948 228 500
Rest Day: Pamplona
Today was the first rest day of my Camino, so I spent it as an ordinary tourist in the popular city of Pamplona, walking the narrow streets of the old part and occasionally running into people I’d met on the first three days of the trail. Here’s someone I hadn’t met before, but was certainly glad to run into:
My non-American friends are asking if I had found my father. And while his nickname was Papa, no… we are not related.
That is a mannequin of Ernest Hemingway, a famous American author who has been one of my favorites since I was in school. He is famous in this city because of two books he wrote that introduced to the rest of the world the famous encierro (“running of the bulls”) through the streets of Pamplona every July: The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon. Throughout the rest of the year, the city still celebrates this tradition.
The plazas and narrow streets are fun to explore. While they’re often filled with people, sometimes I had them to myself.
Public Art (bicycles inspired by other great artists)
Ultimately, I made my way to the Cathedral.
I came across a group of young people preparing for a traditional dance performance. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend.
A visit to the Navarro Regional archives included an impressive wooden model of Pamplona. The aerial view helped me trace the steps I had taken.
Mileage Check, with “Buen Camino” in many different languages.
I came across the Municipal Alburgue with quite a few peregrinos waiting to check in for the night. Looking at this photo many weeks later, I recognize several friends in the shop before we even met on the trail.
Compared to the previous walking days, I feel I barely went anywhere on this rest day, but I see that I still covered some ground and got some steps in.
All in all, it was a great first few days on my Camino and I am anxious to get more of the trail beneath my feet. The key question is: Will my feet hold up?