I write this in Arre on Sept 2nd, so we are getting ahead of ourselves. Those of you on the Telegram group will have a decent idea of what we’re up to. Those following the blog, not so much…
Apologies for not being productive! I need decent WiFi and peace and quiet to do this. Both are often available, but not so far on this trip. Today we got completely soaked and I’ve spent the last 5 hours trying to dry everything. I mean literally everything that I own on this trip, including this computer and my camera. My camera got so wet that I’m afraid to turn it on until it’s had a chance to dry out properly. Thus, sadly, the only pics I have are from my iPhone…
An, ahem, difficult Camino day.
If you want to join the Telegram group sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and include your full telephone number, including any international dialing codes.
It’s our first night in an albergue – and it’s a rather nice one in SJPP. After an excellent dinner in a cafe the night before and a moderately effective sleep we are up, 6:30-ish, to head on out.
Llew and I are trying to remember the rules and Diana and Jonathan are getting to grips with them for the first time.
Rule #1: SHUT UP AND KEEP YOUR VOICE DOWN!
Rule #2: Don’t get up too early. If you do, see Rule #1.
We head on out, in the dark, and hope to find an open cafe. Sadly we find none, but we do come across a nice bakery. We begin the trip with cake and a coffee.
As would be expected in August the pass is open…
…and off we go, on to the Route Napoleon. The sun comes up and the beautiful Pyrennes reveal themselves.
Let’s be blunt. Day #1 is hard. It’s probably the hardest of the entire trip. I think there are higher passes in Galicia, but by the time you get there, you are an entirely different beast from the one that exited SJPP on Day #1.
Today we climb to 1500m or so, on surpisingly nice roads, and walk into Spain.
We try to get used to our packs, with much adjustment and re-adjustment and over-analysis…
We climb, slowly.
I take a photo of my shadow. I think of the old joke – “What’s the best way to lose 10 pounds of ugly fat? Cut your head off…” – as I make a note of my belly and hope that I can reduce it in the next month.
I am very surprised and rather concerned at the hundreds of peregrinos who are on the trail. The camino infrastructure is creaking to cope with the huge post-Covid increase in numbers.
The trail is very busy. I’m worried already about the upcoming ‘bed racing’, where the peregrinos get up earlier and earlier to race each other to the next town, and the next albergue. Either that, or they pore over the guide book and try to book ahead.
This isn’t the way to do it! The ideal is to get up, walk, and find a hostel when you’re tired. Then repeat for 33 days.
Too many pilgrims means we can’t really do this. Sadly, we’ve had to book Roncesvalles for tonight. And later we try and book Zubiri and two further albergues. I don’t like this!
Anyway… time to enjoy the view…
After about 8km of huffing and puffing (Jonathan lives in Cambridge and doesn’t know what a hill is) we arrive at the tiny albergue and cafe at Orisson – one of my favorite places on earth.
They do excellent food and the view is sublime…
Tortilla, orange juice and coffee. I don’t think it ever gets better than this.
I post to the Telegram group:
I phone Jen and say “I’m in heaven, kill me now…” and I can hear her eyes roll.
But, we can’t sit here all day (WHY NOT!?) so we head off, up the hill, and take in more dramatic views and sounds.
An enterprising gent has brought his van up to near the top of the pass and is selling sensible camino food – eggs, cheese (that he has made himself), bananas and the like.
Time to try some….
We descend on a rather muddy path through some old forests…
…and, rather worryingly, we start ascending again. I don’t remember this bit…
And, finally, way on the middle distance we can nearly see Roncesvalles.
We take the easier route down, the ‘normal’ route is very wet and muddy, and we’re all old people who don’t want to fall down. Plus, we get to meet some excellent cows.
A few more corners and Roncesvalles appears…
… and we make journey’s end.
We check in – and are very glad we had booked. There are 180+ beds in here and it is full to bursting. The hospitaleros try and deal with the unfortunate peregrinos who cannot be accomodated (some pilgrims are unreasonably cross about this. I’m not entirely sure what they expect to happen…).
We eventually check-in and then I have a stupid fight with Vodafone trying to figure out how to call a local Spanish number from my UK phone in Spain. You’d think this information should be easy enough to find, but you’d be wrong. TOBI, the Vodafone virtual, ahem, “assistant” is quite concretely useless. Grrr! An hour later Llew has managed to get his phone working and we’ve got two more nights booked.
There’s an 8pm mass, and, as good Protestants (or Protestant-adjacents), we all troop off to see the Catholics do what they do best.
We have reservations for the 8:30pm pilgrim meal. As we’re all more-or-less veggies you get what you’re given and that’s that. So a rather good veg soup was followed by a slop of pasta in something red with cheese on top.
But we didn’t care. We’d made it over the big hill and we were all quite OK.
Day 1: Stats
SJPP to Roncesvalles
Distance covered: 23.85km
Apple Watch stats
256 Flights climbed (whatever that means – I’d like some real numbers please….)
We checked out of Sacre Couer and I got my first stamp of the trip. It seems that most Catholic churches will have a ‘pilgrim’ stamp, so out it came (eventually – they struggled to find it) and I am now the proud bearer of an almost incomprehensible addition to my pilgrim passport.
Note that I’m still using the pilgrim passport from the 2019 trip. I have unfinished business and it seemed good to just carry on using the old one. More on this later…
Off to Montmattre to sort out the train. I had a message yesterday from SNCF telling me that the Bayonne to St Jean Pied de Port (hereafter referred to as SJPP) had been cancelled. It looked like the best idea was to change our Paris-Bayonne tickets from 14:06 to 12:11. Off we go to the ticket office. After a bit of explaining we got the new tickets.
Now, one of the things I felt I had to do to, ahem, justify taking 30+ days off work was to be kinda-sorta available should Very Bad Things happen at work. Thus my red backpack contains a Microsoft Surface Go which I could use to access the corporate VPN and fiddle with stuff should it be required (and write this blog, come to think of it…). Trouble is I’m struggling to charge the wretched thing. I bought a 65W USB-C charge yesterday on the assumption that this would work. Sadly not. The Surface would charge for 20 mins maybe and then just stop. So, my task this morning was to find a ‘proper’ MS branded charger. I went to the Darty store in Montparnasse station. They didn’t have one, so they sent me to a FNAC store a 20 min walk away. They didn’t have one either, but they assured me that the FNAC in Gare St Lazare did, so off I went tp that on the Metro. Turns out they were lying and no charger could be found. By this time it was 11:30 and I was in a panic. I returned to Montparnasse and discovered that a very large Darty store was about 3 mins walk from where I started. They did have one. I bought it in a great hurry and slightly panicked as the sales assistant took her time extracting the charger from the protective security case. 35EUR lighter I ran, pack and all, and made the train with minutes to spare.
What with staying up all night being religious and philosophical, and then running around town for 90 mins I was completely knackered.
I got out all my electronics and charged everything I could think off and eventually had a small sleep whilst the magnificent TGV whisked me through the countryside at a fantastic pace.
We arrived in Bayonne and sought out a cash machine and some coffee and cake, like you do. The train to SJPP turned out to be completely full so an additional bus was laid on. We were about to board the bus when Jonathan, the 4th member of our group, came into view. He’d flown out that afternoon to Biarritz and was on the same train/bus as us.
Off to SJPP – the start of the trip!
It’s a lovely little town,more or less completely given over to the Camino.
Hordes of peregrinos (aka pilgrims) exited the bus, and the train, which arrived at the same time, and we all raced into town to find the Pilgrim Office to pick up the pilgrim passports. Without these very important pieces of paper it isn’t possible to stay in the albergues. The albergue system of very cheap accomodation and carbohydrate-heavy meals seems to me to be a bit of a labour of love for those involved. Imposters, who try and stay at the albergues without putting in the effort are usually turned away. Note that ‘effort’ could be pretty much anything. Most folks walk, a fair number cycle. There are blokes on donkeys and people who take the bus. It all counts.
And now the all-important first step pictures.
This is us. Step #1. Roughly 1,250,000 to go… I am simultaneously sick with worry that I won’t make it and as excited as a 10 year old at the Lego store. Bring it on…
Up from my tiny non-descript hotel room where I have to sleep at an angle in order to fit in the bed (and I’m not that tall) and off to St Pancras. I meet Llew and Diana – Llew is a very old friend of mine, and Diana is a very old friend of his whom I have not met. We exchange greetings and eat properly at Carluccios.
We’re on the 10:26 Eurostar to Paris. I like fast trains! By French standards the Eurostar is a bit half hearted but it is a step above most other trains on the British networks.
We are seated awkwardly and, with the permission of the sole occupant of a nearby 4-seat table, we move and join Edi, a medical student from Manchester who is off to visit her grandmother somewhere south of Paris. She had big and noble plans – joining MSF for example – and was good company for us old folks.
Paris arrived in a flash.
We left the bags in Gare de Nord and messed around for an afternoon. We walked down to the Tuillerie Gardens and strolled on, doing our best to flaneur to Notre Dame to see how the reconstruction was going. I understand that it’s not going to be open in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, which I don’t think was a surprise to anyone familiar with the engineering challenges. It is a most impressive project.
Then back to Gare de Nord (note we walked the whole day – need to get in the practice…) to pick up our bags and heat up to Montmatre, to Sacre Coeur church.
I wanted to revisit a restaurant in Montmatre that I have visited several times. A small Italian place that has a parrot sitting by the counter.
We arrive to find that it’s under new ownership – an Egyptian chap has been in charge for a week. Llew, who use to live in Cairo, starts talking to him in Arabic and the manager is quite impressed.
One night whilst googling things to do in Paris I came upon the ‘Night Adoration’ at Sacre Coeur. The deal is this: you commit to taking part in prayer or meditation for at least an hour at some point in the night, and you can stay in the Sacre Coeur pilgrim’s hostel for 40 euros. Well… that sounded interesting. Apparently there has been continous prayer in the Cathedral since 1885. All day, every day, apart from Good Friday. So no pressure then….
Long time readers of this blog will recall that my reasons for going on my 2017 Camino was that it sounded like a nice walk across Spain. Which is, indeed, was. But it was much more than that, as I completely failed to articulate in any understandable sense. As Jen’s, my daughter, Masters thesis would put it “I had walked myself into pilgrim”. A destination and not just a noun.
And now we were going back, to retrace the Camino Frances, with me having a much better understanding of the – dare I use the word – spiritual aspects of this escapade. Why not start it with some kind of all night prayer/meditation bash at what must be one of the most spectacular churches in the world.
We arrive at 8:15pm and are checked in by a nun, who is straight out of that Audrey Hepburn film. I’m not a Catholic so don’t understand the ins and outs of the structures but it was exactly what I’d hoped for. A very simple white room with white sheets and blankets, no TV, no wifi, no anything. No distractions.
In an attempt to stay awake we went to the 10:30 mass. Sadly, there was none of the magnificent chanting and what-not. Just a sermon in French from a jolly priest. Which didn’t do too much for keeping us awake.
We’d committed to the midnight to 1 am slot. At midnight we wander into the Cathedral through a rather impressive side entrance. It is a truly beautiful place. There are, maybe, a dozen people in the cathedral and we take a seat and have a think.
As I keep saying, I am not a Catholic. Not only am I not a Catholic, but I come from the Rangers end of Glasgow, which can best be described as vigorously anti -Catholic. My father was one of five brothers. Three were pastors, and my father would have been a pastor had he not had a serious stammer. So, I am steeped in a fundamental mistrust of people from the Celtic side of the city. And then there’s all the scandals, the child abuse, the cover-ups, the weird attitude to women. I have a number of ex-Catholic friends for whom the mention of the church induces anger and nausea.
But, but, but…
I have none of that history. I don’t have that visceral response. My knowledge of Catholicism is minimal. I do not have that angry nauseus response even if I quite understand those who do.
The Catholic church is really good at the mystery of God. Sacre Couer is a magical place. When you’ve more-or-less got it to yourself at midnight it’s even more magical.
I think of the Pink Floyd lyric from ‘Time’ – ‘and far away, across the fields, the tolling of the iron bell, calls the faithful to their knees to hear the softly spoken magic spells’. I used to read that as critical, now I’m not so sure.
I shall waffle on more on this later, I feel. Suffice to say I sat there until 1:45am and loved it. An ideal start to the trip.
There’s a fair bit of unfinished business for me on this Camino. Almost exactly 4 years ago, in September 2019, Jen and I had to abandon our Camino in Pamplona (on roughly day #3) and return home. Muriel’s routine breast cancer scan had produced the dreaded ‘please come in and see us’ response from the radiographers. So, Pamplona to Madrid on the bus, then home as soon as we could.
It’s been a long story.
It’s now 2023; Muriel is 4 years into an 18-months-to-live prognosis and is most definitely still here. Hospital trips and chemotherapy are now part of our daily lives, and have become almost mundane. Chemo day: up early, drive to Edinburgh via Starbucks in Stirling for a porridge and a flat white. M goes and sits in a comfy chair and is attached to the drips and pumps that deliver the magic blue liquid that makes her life possible. I sit in the car, with a panoramic view over Edinburgh, a laptop, and a rather good 5g internet connection, and go to work. Normal.
When M had the 18-month prognosis chat we decided to start doing the things that we’d meant to do, but the real world intervened and tamed our notions. M had secondary cancer in her spine, so we thought “let’s buy the car with the best passenger seat and drive from the north of Norway to Greece”. We had some good fun testing out Mercedes and BMWs in Perth. But this was Jan/Feb 2020 and we all know what happened next. Covid put the dampers on this and all our other plans. We retreated to our house to wait it out.
Let’s get morbid. If a cancer diagnosis does one thing, it confronts you with your mortality. Yes, we all know that we can’t avoid death (or taxes), but it doesn’t really feel like that. We’re all immortal until we’re not.
Reactions amongst our friends and family to this life-changing situation were mixed. We are part of a large extended family, on both mine and Muriel’s sides, many of whom are heavily involved in religious work, either professionally or voluntarily. Ideas on the efficacy of religion when faced with a terminal illness are many and varied and I’m not going to talk much about that here – there are already too many words spoken on what is a very complicated philosophical position. I take great issue with the ‘pray for healing’ types and I take great issue with the ‘well, that proves there is no God’ types1. Both are horribly simplistic. One of the hopes of this Camino for me will be time to think on these things and to try and articulate a coherent response. On the other hand, maybe it just is what it is – so shut up and get on with it.
Readers of this blog will be aware that I am most definitely a ‘theist’ and am culturally and pragmatically a Christian (with the complication of a science PhD). Counterintuitively the events of the last 4 years have increased that theistic tendency, albeit that I now hold some beliefs that might disturb a vicar. But I’m OK with that. If your faith/agnosticism/whatever-it-is-for-you doesn’t respond to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, then of what use is it?
I’m tagging this post in the ‘waffle’ category, in case you want to avoid future philosophising. Hmmmm.
M, for whom I would not dare to speak, has her own views. It’s one thing to be an onlooker to the horror of cancer. It’s quite something else to be the sufferer. ↩︎
I’m off. Seat J-10 on the Caledonian train from Inverness to London Kings Cross. I joined the train at 10:15 in Gleneagles.
The train rolls into London, more or less on time. I’m staying at a non-descript hotel just off Holborn so I don my walking shoes and amble on down, taking in St Pancras Station on the way. I rather like the big statue under the clock.
The detail around the base of this statue is astonishing.
…and the grand old station itself is pretty splendid.
Off to find some dinner, then bed. Paris awaits tomorrow. Sacre bleu…
It’s time to break out the rucksack that hasn’t seen serious duty since we were snowed in a few years back for a week, and I used it to get groceries from the supermarket. Happy days…
Snow isn’t going to be a thing in northern Spain in September. I’ve been watching the BBC Weather app and checking up on the temperatures in Pamplona, Leon and Santiago. Pamplona hit 40°C earlier this week. Yikes. The prediction for when we get there – possibly next weekend – is 25°C and raining. Speaking as a good Scotsman I think I’ll take the rain over the heat.
I’ve been too busy lately with work and life. Today is the first serious thought I’ve put into packing. It not yet noon and I’m quite knackered from all the ‘do I take this, do I really need that, what if??’.
On the other hand, I have done this before and I know the important things.
Because my feet hurt and my knees hurt and my teeth hurt, I became obsessed with those things and ended up packing the evening before I left. No problem! It’s encouraging just how quickly you recall your previous adventures and you delight in keeping it simple and throwing things out.
Monday morning, I repack my pack (just in case) and it weighs 8kg. Result! That’ll do.
Here’s a pic of me and my stuff. Nothing much different from previous trips (see here and here). Other than the small white tub of Spanish Vaseline that I bought back in 2017. Slather that on your feet as a pre-emptive strike against blisters and all will be well.
The main hiking shoes are by Salewa and the secondary slobbing-about-the-hostel shoes are Merrell Strike (750g -superlight!).
So, all good. I remind myself of the scene from The Jerk that I referenced last time… ‘All I need is this remote control…’.
Steve: My train booking is from Gleneagles to Grantham but Muriel took me to Stirling station this morning, the station after Gleneagles. The Solheim Cup is on at Gleneagles Hotel golf course and the tiny country roads between home and the station are shut/diverted/who-knows so we thought we’d be safe and go down the A9 to Stirling.
Golf, as someone famous once said, is a good walk spoiled. The contrast between the manicured-within-an-inch-of-it’s-life golf course ‘nature’ and the tracks across Spain of the Camino is marked (some wilderness purists would argue that the Camino is still a good walk spoiled and isn’t really nature at all but let’s not listen to them). The heavily logo-ed clothing of the golfers almost mirrors the equally heavily logo-ed gear of the long-distance walker but the intent is very different. No sitting around with G&Ts for the peregrino. Dodgy coffee in a dodgy café is a good as it gets – and I can assure you that’s pretty darn good. By the time the 500 miles is done and you collapse at a pilgrim’s mass in Santiago, in a crowd of 1000+ fellow travellers, your gear is fetid and rank and, to use a good Scottish word, minging. But you’ve never been so happy. The stink of eau-de-pilgrim is a thing of beauty.
Jen, Hamish and I did this same walk – the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela – back in June 2017. You can read all about it here…
I started that trip as a moderately fit 56-year-old slightly overweight Type II diabetic who thought it might be fun to stretch things a little. Herbie, my large dog, and I frequently walk the hills around our hometown of Crieff and I thought that the Camino would be a similar sort of thing. A nice long walk in somewhere less damp than Scotland.
Well, the ‘less damp’ part is true. But a ‘long walk’ is not a suitable description for what the Camino did to me. Two years and much thought later I still can’t put it into words. But let’s have a go…
I once went to lecture given by Alister McGrath. McGrath is an interesting chap and a frequent sparring partner of Richard Dawkins in the endless ‘Is There A God?’ debate. Someone asked McGrath how he views the notion of ‘materialism’. Not the Kardashian-give-me-lots-of-stuff materialism but rather the philosophical idea that everything is ‘matter’. Everything is basically chemistry. And I mean everything. Not just the obvious things, like the water in the tap or the air you breathe but also the TV set, your mobile phone, the office stapler – they are all just collections of chemistry. As are much more complex things like trees, the dog, and you. And not just the bag of bones that contains you, but your brain, your soul, your emotions – the whole damn lot of you. It’s all just chemistry. In your brain neurons fire according to paths honed by millennia of evolution – it’s all basically chemistry. Art – chemistry. Music – chemistry. Creativity – chemistry. The fact you love your kids – nothing more than evolutionary advantageous chemistry. The reason anything exists and that anyone does any action is ultimately chemistry.
McGrath posed the question ‘Why does the kettle boil?’. A good answer to this would be to go through the technology involved. The kettle has a resistive heating element that’s connected to the electricity supply, via which the electrons generated in faraway power stations heat up the element, in turn boiling the water. It’s electrodynamics, thermodynamics and good old -fashioned engineering. Chemistry at work. That’s why the kettle boiled.
But, said McGrath, an equally plausible and correct answer
would be to say ‘I want a cup of tea’.
I’m an engineer, I spend my days writing computer code used in high tech aerospace engineering (I sometimes claim – tongue in cheek I assure you – that I actually am a rocket scientist. If any of my co-workers are reading this then my face has turned red). The ‘chemistry’ answer to the kettle question is undoubtedly true. And appeals to my ‘materialist’ default way of thinking.
But, but… The ‘I want a cup of tea’ answer appeals to a quite different set of logic receptors. And I think those logic receptors lit up for me on the Camino. Yes, I physically walked in my 56-year-old bag of bones. I walked around 1,200,000 steps. My feet worked. My legs worked. By the time we were done I had the finest pair of legs in Western Europe. But the change in my head was even more marked. Apparently, I really really wanted a cup of tea. And the Camino provided.
Paul, a very old friend of mine is a physicist, and is sliding slowly but inexorably into Buddhism. He visits every now and then from his home in the US and we take ourselves to the very splendid Mhor84 restaurant in Balquhidder, get in some seriously strong coffee and catch up on each other’s quests to find the Meaning of Life, The Universe, And Everything. Paul is well into the modern interpretations of the old Greek philosophy of ‘idealism’ (again, nothing to do with the commonly accepted use of that word. Go look it up on Wikipedia…) and, what with being a physicist well versed in quantum theory, he makes a good case that the physics of the quantum world indicate that materialism is wrong. At the top of everything, says Paul, is consciousness (and some Christians, including myself, agree). Out of consciousness comes matter, stuff, atoms, you, me, the dog, the trees and everything else. In contrast the materialist would say that material or stuff is at the top of everything. Out of stuff emerges consciousness, and you, me, the dog and so on.
I think most of us sit on the fence that divides the idealists from the materialists. I’ve spent most of my adult life on the materialist side. The Camino has changed all that. Somewhere between Ribadiso de Baixo and Pedrouzo something happened and I vaulted that fence. I think that the grass is greener over here…
Postscript: Paul put me on to the work of Bernard d’Espangat, including his book ‘Physics and Philosophy’. D’Espagnat is an idealist (I think!) and, amongst other things, he argues that the philosophers need to keep up with the physicists. He contends that any constructive philosophical thinking being done these days is by people who understand quantum theory (notwithstanding Richard Feynman’s famous quote that “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”).
Now this book is both French (it’s in English, but seems to be largely a direct translation of the much more flowery French original) and it’s about philosophy. Let’s just say it’s a dense read. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a book with so many ideas per page. After 50 pages I thought I should try an introductory text so I got a hold of another d’Espagnat book. That didn’t really help, either. So, I bought John Gribbin’s “In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat”. Which is a much more accessible tome. I’ll get there in the end… per ardua ad astra, as the Romans would have said.
French philosophers, quantum mechanics and this is supposed
to be a blog on walking?
Steve: I write this on the train from Gleneagles to
York, and then on to Grantham where I’m staying with a friend prior to really
getting started tomorrow.
The art of ‘getting ready’ for a Camino trip is tricky. I’m going to be away for a month and I’ll be carrying everything I need on my back. Which implies a certain level of rigorous planning. But I’ve got a wallet with credit cards – the modern travellers ‘get out of jail free’ accessory – so, really, what’s the worst that can happen? But nonetheless…
I write as someone who has tendencies to, how shall we put it,
overanalyse things. ‘Analysis Paralysis’
is a good phrase. I have done
this before, and I’m going with my daughter, Jenni, who has done three of these
things. I ought to know what’s
what. But the over-anxious part of my
brain – the one that worries if I’ve left the cooker on, or forgotten the dog
in the back of car (yes, that happened once…) – won’t let up.
However, a deadline to catch a train is a proper deadline. And so my bright red Deuter Futura 42 pack is in the luggage rack above my head as we hurtle towards Newcastle on the 10:13 from Gleneagles to London. It’s crammed full and weighs a frightening 11kg. Eeek. I’m not entirely sure how that happened. The only things I can think of that didn’t accompany me on my last trip are a blanket thing made out of sleeping bag material, a truly enormous Anker power pack for all the gadgets, and my raincoat.
Last time around I sent home a pair of shoes, my raincoat, and some other bits and pieces from Pamplona on day three. Sending home the raincoat – a fine Rab jacket that can keep out a hurricane – was a mistake. Once we hit Galicia and the weather turned, I had to buy a cheapish bright yellow thing that made me visible from space and, unfortunately, also made me smell like a chicken farm. Given that this trip is starting in September and we’re heading towards autumn I think the coat will stay this time.
There is something liberating about having just the right amount of stuff. It’s tricky to do and I don’t want to go all Marie Kondo on you, but it’s a worthwhile exercise every now and again. I think of Steve Martin in ‘The Jerk’ – “this ashtray, this paddle game, this remote control – that’s all I need” and fully understand.