Reunited with my bag I flew down to Biarritz today and caught a bus to my Camino starting point; St John Pied de Port. Its the cutest little French market town in the foothills of the Pyrenees which separates France and Spain. In St Jean you can buy most last minute items, like sunscreen...or Nutella. Given I was expecting extreme cold and it was 27 degrees today I bought shorts!
St Jean Pied de Port is the traditional starting point for the Camino Frances, and the most popular Camino route. There are so many route guidebooks, maps and Lonely Planet-esque traveller guides for the Camino Frances...not that I have any of them. My plan is to follow the signs, markers and maybe other pilgrims and if I get lost, well its not that big a deal. All roads lead to Rome right?
I've ducked in to check the weather forecast in the pilgrim’s office at the top of the main street, 39 Rue de la Citadelle. Unexpected inclement weather while crossing the Pyrenees has claimed the life of a few pilgrims and (I don't want to get taken by surprise) but it's supposed to be a stunning hot day. I also picked up my pilgrim’s passport and information on the route ahead with a list of alburgues(hostels). The pilgrim's passport is my entry card to stay in the alburgues and, as it's stamped in every location, its proof that I've traveled the whole way on foot and qualify for the Compostela certificate at the end.
I'm staying in Beilari Hostel, which is a private hostel. There are municipals ones in Spain (super cheap and only pilgrims can stay there) as well as private ones. Apparently there can be up to 100 people in a room at the municipal ones eek! Here I'm in a 3 bed room, first time ever I've had a name card and a mint on my pillow in a hostel.
Some Camino-specific vocabulary that I've picked up so far:
peregrino = pilgrim, i.e. me and everyone else on their way to Santiago
albergue = the special “pilgrim shelters”/hostels especially for pilgrims of the Camino
linterna = bunk bed (most commonly what I’ll be sleeping on in an albergue)
aldea = small town/villages in the very rural parts of Spain)
etapa = one stage/phase of the Camino, typically a 15-35km stretch
So far I'm yet to meet any other pilgrims under 60 years of age, I hear the most common age bracket is 50-80. My roommate Laura from USA is a sprightly 70 year old. Surely if they can make it I should be just fine! The other lady in my room, Marie, has a pack that weighs 18 kilos plus 5 various metal water bottles to attach to the outside...I suspect she'll end up ditching most of that. I've decided to skip camping (fear of missing out on the fun stuff in the alburgues) and send my camping stuff on to Santiago. That brings my pack down to a very manageable 7kg.
A little research tells me: The first day on the Camino Frances is the hardest of the whole route. It is the first day, and your body is probably not used to walking all day carrying a rucksack, if you have packed more than 10% of your body weight you will know about it quickly. However you will know after a while anyway as your body objects to this extra burden and begins to adapt. The route from St Jean is steep and climbs from 200 metres above sea level to just above 1,400 meters then descends steeply back down again into Roncesvalles at 900 metres, which can be hard going on your knees and shins. So...big day tomorrow.