The Journey Begins

April 9, 2019

Thanks for joining us, my name is Leo and I’m hiking across Spain with my Dad, James! Follow our blog to see our adventures! – Leo


Paris in Springtime

14 April 2019,

Well, we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto……!

What better way to start a European holiday than a few hours in Paris on a glorious spring afternoon?

It had been a 24 hour journey to get here from our home in Australia, including a stopover in Qatar. Our excitement at being in Paris helped us forget our travel weariness. For Leo, it was his first time in Europe, and having studied French at school for a number of years, he could not wait to engage with France and its people. For James, it was a long overdue return to France after a 38 year absence.

Our itinerary was to stay overnight in a Hotel adjacent the Gare Montparnasse train station from which the final leg of our journey to Saint Jean Pied De Port would depart the next morning.  Moving through the airport, and then the streets of Paris, it felt strange yet liberating to be travelling internationally with everything in a single piece of luggage weighing far less than the airline baggage allowance.

Arriving in central Paris on a stunning Sunday afternoon, the locals were turned out in their finest chic outfits as they walked slowly between cafes, whilst we were wearing our clean , but decidedly functional, hiking kit.

Deciding to find out what Leo had learnt in years of French lessons, and to see if our legs still worked after the plane trip, we walked to THE tower.

We then treated ourselves to crepes and hot chocolate in a stylish Parisienne cafe. As expected the price was high, but so was the sheer pleasure of this unique experience.

As the sun began to set we joined the line outside a clearly-popular back street bakery. We bought some freshly baked baguettes for the train to Bordeaux in the morning before retiring for the night, falling asleep to the smell of delicious bread.

Tomorrow we say hello to The Camino Francés!

So what is The Camino? (& how did we get here?)

15 April, 2019

The Camino, or el Camino de Sant Iago, is the name given to a network of trails across Europe, Britain and Ireland that converge on the city of Santiago de Compostella in North-Western Spain. Other names often used include ‘The Way’, ‘The Way of Saint James’ or St James’ Way (Sant Iago meaning Saint James)

The Cathedral of Santiago is reputedly the resting place of the Biblical apostle Saint James. The stories describing how Saint James came to rest in Santiago are complex and varied, but suffice to say that he is the Patron Saint of Spain and has remained of great spiritual and cultural significance to the Spanish for many centuries.

The Camino routes were established early in the Middle Ages as Santiago became the holy destination of choice for Christian pilgrims. At that time Jerusalem was beset by the ‘Holy Wars’ and the politics of Rome had alienated many faithful.

Travelling The Camino was not a safe undertaking, with the route plagued by wild animals, thieves, murderers and treacherous conditions. Wealthy nobles often sponsored subjects to travel to Santiago to obtain a blessing on their behalf, whilst convicted criminals were sometimes offered the choice of making the journey to redeem themselves instead of going to prison.

Many churches and orders, including the Knights Templar, established refuges and shelters to support pilgrims, founding a spirit of support and respect along the routes that remains to the present day.

Pilgrims of previous ages who were fortunate enough to return brought with them a scallop shell, plentiful in the region of Galicia of which Santiago is the capital, as a symbol of their journey. Today the scallop shell symbol is used to mark the Camino route, and modern pilgrims wear them on their backpacks to denote themselves as ‘Peregrinos’.

In the modern era over a quarter of a million people travel the Camino each year, with over half choosing the Camino Francés. Surprisingly, historians suggest that this number is barely half of the number that travelled the route each year in the Middle Ages. The Camino Francés commences in the French town of St Jean Pied de Port and winds its way across the Pyrenees, the Basque region and Northern Spain on its way to Santiago.

By registering as a pilgrim, modern travellers are issued a Credential del Peregrino, or Pilgrim Credential, which allows use of alberges and refuges run by different organisations, expressly to support pilgrims. For a few Euros each night, travellers have access to a bed and shower, facilities to wash clothes, and often a pilgrim meal over which they can reflect their shared experiences with other travellers. Upon the Camino the spirit of travellers, and those who support them, is very communal and generous. Most elect to walk alone during the day, but at night it is not unusual to meet up with others encountered previously, with whom friendships and discussions can continue on an ad-hoc basis. The traditional greeting shared between travellers on the way is Buen Camino.

With such accommodation readily available, and villages and towns offering meals and other support at regular intervals, most pilgrims travel light, taking just a change of clothes, sleeping bag and the all-important blister and foot repair kit.

Pilgrims who walk at least the final 100km and have their credential stamped at aulberges, churches and bars along the way, can present them in Santiago to obtain a Compostella (certificate of completion). For this reason many simply choose to commence their journey at Sarria, located 103km from Santiago. Only 12% attempt the French Way from its beginning point in France.

Apart from the initial journey over the Pyrenees the Camino Francés is not overly difficult technically, its primary physical challenge is its long distance and the often extreme weather conditions. Blisters and leg tendinitis are very common and often bring journeys to an end. However, for many this hardship is little to pay for the opportunity to simply take a long walk in a positive and beautiful place, away from the distractions of day-to-day modern life, and consider the big picture a little. The full Camino Francés typically takes over a month to complete.

I was first made aware of The Camino when studying in Italy in the 1980’s. Living in Florence I was sharing a pension dormitory with university students for all over Europe, including three guys from Spain. It was the year that Spain was hosting the World Cup, and Italy eventually won it.

Like the rest of us, the Spaniards were very patriotic of their own country and the three things they would talk about with great pride were, Spanish football, Julio Iglesias and the Camino de Santiago. The Camino sounded intriguing, but as a teenager, I wasn’t sure I understood the appeal of spending weeks walking hundreds of kilometres, in fact it sounded a bit crazy. At that time our study group usually decided where to eat and drink in Florence on the basis of whichever was the shortest walk, not the longest.

Fast forward three decades and I was living in my home town, happily married with two children and running a business I co-owned. Like many middle aged people my life seemed to have become too busy and too fast. More and more hours of each week were spent in front of a computer, tied up solving challenges and not being active. As one Camino pilgrim nicely articulated it – everyday life becomes very busy fulfilling the roles and responsibilities we pursue and take on. The time and space required to ponder the bigger picture things were too frequently now fleeting glimpses in between more pressing demands.

One Friday evening after a big week at the office I was dozing on the sofa, the tv show I had been watching long finished. I awoke to find a late night movie starting – it was ‘The Way’. I knew nothing about it, but the lead actor, Martin Sheen was a personal favourite and I thought I would give it a few minutes to see what it was like. It was a drama set on The Camino. Two hours later the end credits rolled and I was totally captivated.

It took a day or two, but I eventually the penny dropped and I put two and two together – it was ‘that’ Camino, the one my Spanish study friends had been referring to. Now the thought of walking for weeks on end, away from my dreaded PC and the mental clutter that dominated everyday life, no longer seemed like the act of a crazy person, in fact it seemed like bliss. No matter what the physical hardship might be.

I was soon to discover I was far from alone in both my introduction to the Camino through watching ‘The Way’, or feeling the irresistible pull to down-tools and go and do it.

I soon found myself going down the Camino rabbit hole. I joined the local association, Th Australian Friends of the Camino, followed a couple of Camino Facebook groups, and read 30 or 40 books by those who had walked The Way. With the support of my wife Jennie, I planned to do the Camino Francés solo in September 2018.  Alas, the everyday World intervened and the trip had to be postponed.

At that time my son Leo was struggling with some significant challenges and we needed to make some bigger changes to help him. He started at a new school, which proved to be a very positive move. We also asked Leo if he would like to accompany me to do the Camino, as a circuit breaker and reset from the things in his everyday life that had been affecting him so much. Even though it didn’t exactly sound like the holiday Dad was painting it as, his answer was an unequivocable ‘yes!’

And so it came to be that, with the school’s whole-hearted support, Leo and I arrived at SJPDP in April 2019 to commence the Camino Francés.

We were ready to experience the magic of the Camino for ourselves.

Buen Camino

The end of the line

Paris to St Jean Pied de Port 

15 April, 2019

Today we reached the end of the line as our train journey from Paris ended at the Saint Jean Pied De Port station, the beginning of the Camino Francés.  After journeying for the best part of 48 hours in planes, trains and automobiles we reflected that for the next 5 weeks our travel will simply rely on a good pair of boots, our own steam, and perhaps a good supply of bandaids.

Stepping off the train, and walking past the SJPDP station sign that gave us the first tangible evidence we had finally arrived at this significant place, we passed through an invisible twilight zone portal that would change the nature of our journey. From this point on would not be travelling to a set itinerary and nothing would be pre-arranged or booked months in advance. Even our daily destinations were largely unknown at this stage and we were now free travelling, a prospect that was both exciting and unnerving.

As we walked up the hill to the old town with others wearing tell-tale backpacks and walking sticks, we also began to feel a change in the mood and atmosphere. Arriving to line up to register at the pilgrim’s office, we were no longer racing the clock and other faceless travellers, to get in a line and move on quickly with little awareness of things around us.  We were now relaxing, engaging with the eyes of walkers around us and timidly trying our Camino smiles and greetings for the first time, content to get to the desk in due course.

Our Pilgrim’s Passports duly stamped, and newly acquired scallop shells attached to our backpacks, we wandered the medieval town main street, trying to work out how to determine just the right Auberge to begin our experience as Peregrinos. The old town Main Street is really the starting point of The Camino itself, tomorrow we would walk West along its length, pass through the pilgrims gate, and just keep going. Accordingly the street is filled with accommodation opportunities and shops for last minute small items. In the end it was the invitation of a smiling hostess that tipped our hand, and we followed her inside to register and settle in.

A communal dinner of chilli con carne became a wonderful opportunity to meet our fellow pilgrims, many of whom had already been on the pathway for some weeks. We were all excited for what the new day would bring and chatted well into the night. We were here at last, and tomorrow we would really begin our big adventure.

Accommodation: Auberge du Pelerin

The train stops here
SJPDP at last!
Auberge Du Pelerin – a wonderful initiation to the Camino community
5 Star, Camino style
The First Supper – new pilgrims share dinner and excited conversations around a communal table on the eve of departure.
Our gracious host
Leandro from Brazil
Marsal, a talented illustrator from Brazil – has already been on The Way for a month
To Leo, from Marsal
Laura from NY NY, walking the Camino solo and learning flamenco dancing before returning home to get married

It’s a sign! – on The Way at last

16 April, 2019

St Jean Pied De Port to Refuge Orisson

Today, our first steps on The Way. We felt the excitement of what lay ahead on sighting the very first of the famous yellow scallop shell signs that will show us the way for the weeks to come.

Storms the night before gave way to a beautiful day as the group of new friends, who had shared a night at Alberge Du Pelegrin, stepped out onto the cobblestone streets of SJPDP, passed through the Pilgrim’s gate and set off on Napoleon’s Route up the mountain. A short but steep hike today to get the legs working and get us to the best jump-off spot for The Pyrenees crossing tomorrow.

Accommodation: Albergue Refuge Orisson, Orisson

The first sign of many
Through the Pilgrim’s Gate – it starts here!
Self-serve pathside cafe
Kilometre markers tell you how slowly you are progressing – only 787km to go!
Very soon we were in the clouds and looking down on The World
Getting close
Refuge Orisson emerges through the clouds
Soon the sun broke through and Orisson became a sunny oasis for the afternoon
On top of the World!

A hard day (!!)

17 April, 2019

Refuge Orisson to Roncevalles (km 8 to km 24)

A hard Day Version 2

Today we awoke to the most stunning morning. Gone were yesterday’s grey skies, replaced with golden hues as the sun began rising behind the mountains to the East.

We dressed and ate a breakfast of hot chocolate and toast with our new Irish friends, before collecting our pre-ordered packed lunch of ham and cheese baguettes.

We stepped out with a sense of both excitement and nervous anticipation about our first real day on The Camino, particularly given the reputation of today’s leg for being one of the hardest on the entire journey. Today we would be walking over the Pyrenees mountains, following the footsteps of Napoleon’s army, from France into Spain, a distance of over 15km, with no towns and plenty of climbing and steep descents.

Against this ominous background, however, lay the promise of stunning views, and reports suggested Leo may get the chance to see his first-ever snow on the trail.

Starting up the road dressed in just T-Shirts, we savoured the mild temperature and fantastic views whilst counting off the km markers painted on the road towards the border. Within a couple of hours, however, a cold headwind wind began to build and in a short time was blowing at incredible strength. Soon we were kitted up in jackets, hats and gloves, our eyes streaming, as we struggled to keep moving forward. With the additional ‘sail area’ of our packs it was exhausting going and we found ourselves resting every 100 metres or so.

After three or four hours we came up to a mobile cafe van, parked in the shelter of some rocks, and gleefully shared the small space with other pilgrims and indulged in the hot chocolate and hard boiled eggs that were on offer.

Continuing on we crested the mountains through a narrow pass where the wind was funnelled to incredible force, blowing small pieces of shale stone off the path into the faces of hikers. Smaller walkers struggled to maintain their feet and Leo and I locked arms to help a small woman, who had been reduced to moving on hers hands and knees.

Once over, however, we found ourselves in the lee of the mountain, virtually free of wind, and regained our senses just in time to note the marker denoting the border between France and Spain. After the total absence of trees it was delightful to find ourselves walking through a wooded area, up to our knees in fallen leaves.

To Leo’s delight, we came across a large drift of snow and a prolonged snowball fight ensued until Leo’s frozen hands could take no more.

Eventually we came to the final descent down to our destination of Roncevalles. With the option of two routes, we had been warned to stay away from the more direct one. Its steepness and slippery surface had resulted in many falls and injuries, particularly when tired after a hard day’s hiking, bringing many Camino dreams to a premature end.

As the skies once gain began to darken we veered right, and whilst we walked on a nice wide track, we also found ourselves in the open Again and the wind was even more powerful than before. It was simply unbelievable.

We descended as fast as we dared, and as we came into the trees again, we came across the half buried remains of concrete bunkers and fortifications stretching in a line across the mountains. We later learned that these were the Lineas P border forts built by Franco in the middle of the 20th Century to guard against invasion from France.

At last the giant monastery building at Roncevalles, where were staying, began to be glimpsed through the forest, looking very much like Hogwarts from Harry Potter, much to Leo’s delight.

Despite our slow progress, we found we were amongst the first to arrive, and as we waited for the reception to open, we removed our boots and collapsed exhausted in the courtyard. It soon became apparent that by starting from Orisson, we had had several hours head start over the majority of hikers who normally start this leg from SJPDP. Despite it’s enormous size, the three floors of the albergue eventually filled, and many exhausted walkers arrived to the news that there were no beds available. Our hearts went out to them, we could not imagine having to continue walking as night fell after the conditions of the day.

After washing our clothes and tending to our sore bodies with food and hot showers, we attended a night pilgrim’s mass before climbing into our bunks and falling into a deep sleep.

Accommodation: Albergue Real Colegiata Conv., Roncesvalles

A stunning dawn in the Pyrenees greeted us
On the way – heading out in T-Shirts with the promise of a beautiful day
The wind arrives !
Survival mode
Sheltering from the gale at the roadside café truck – the only food stop on the day’s route. Powdered hot chocolate never tasted so good!
Snowballs at ten paces in the lee of the mountain
Knee-deep Spanish leaves
Commencing the long descent
Approaching Roncesvalles – the remains of the Lineas P fortifications built by the Spanish facing the French Border
Safe at Roncesvalles!
A golden ticket…before long all beds were taken for the night
Home for the night
Pilgrims receive a blessing at the evening Mass before lights out

A day for friends on the Camino

18 April, 2019

Roncevalles to Zubiri (km24 to km46)

After three days on The Camino we find ourselves part of a moving community, a family of friends travelling together.

Bound by the shared hardships of yesterday, today was very much about locating friends, making sure everyone was safe, and taking the opportunity offered by a quiet day’s walking to make new ones.

We departed Roncesvalles under overcast skies, and against the background of green Spanish countryside, and the sound of cow bells, many chats were had, and hugs exchanged at the various meeting points along the pathway.

Arriving in Zubiri it became evident that the Spanish Easter holiday, and the temporary closure of some albergues, had created an accommodation shortage on the Camino. As we crossed the bridge into town we were faced with the sight of a large group of seated travellers, all looking at guides books and talking on their mobiles as they sough to find somewhere to stay.

It was soon clear that everything was full. One option was to continue to walking, as there were rumours that towns down the track still had beds, but after the strenuous walking the previous day we were spent.

Settling down to rest and ponder things over a coffee and bite to eat, we found that our cafe had set up an improvised minibus taxi shuttle service to Pamplona, 20km away, for just a few Euros. Using our guide book we quickly found a hotel in Pamplona’s old city that still had a vacancy and drove off, accompanied by the Dutch family we had befriended during the day. Our plan was now to return by taxi the next day and resume where we had stopped. 

Once again our Camino family had become dispersed over the local region in their quest for a bed for the night, but details had been exchanged to allow contact to be maintained in the days ahead.

Accommodation: Hotel Pamplona Cathedral, Pamplona Old City

Leo with Canadians Barry and Kate
Elizabeth and Leo share a post-morning tea smile
Elizabeth and Leo enjoy a long chat
A Sound of Music moment!
Sharing the hill climb with Luna from Holland
Arriving into Pamplona’s old town a bit earlier than planned!

Goodbye Pamplona, Hello Pamplona!

19 April, 2019

Zubiri to Pamplona (km46 to km67)

Today we found ourselves walking to the city where we had stayed the night before, Pamplona.

After a restful night and a hotel buffet breakfast, we taxied back to Zubiri to continue our Way.

Today The Camino began to reveal its many faces, with the walking trail changing its character all the day, from intimate country trails and forest tracks, to road verges. For the entirety of the day we followed a river valley, rarely out of earshot of the fast running waters.

Stopping for lunch at a riverside cafe with live music, we befriended Raphaela from Germany, who was travelling a few days on the Camino with her parents Ruth and Günter. The next kms sped under our feet as we engrossed in conversation and enjoyed the sun when it emerged.

A recommended detour took us to the chapel of XIII inglesia de San Esteban, and the chance to ring the oldest bell in the Navarre region.

A few hours later we entered Pamplona’s urban area the peregrino way this time, on foot, and soon found ourselves in the outer suburb of Villava where our hotel was located. Pausing to rest in Miguel Indurain plaza, named after Spain’s famous cyclist, we said our goodbyes to Ruth and Raphaela, who had accommodation booked further along The Way, with the promise to catch up the next day.

The surrounding urban area was new, sterile and uninviting and so we quickly checked into our hotel and settled in. Our room turned out to be a suite, which partially explained its high asking price, and we took advantage of the large bathroom and mountain of towels to treat our aching bodies under torrents of hot water.

A quick dinner in the austere hotel eatery was followed by an early bedtime. We very quickly fell into an exhausted deep sleep, with the last conscious thoughts being of a day that had revealed the beauty of The Way, and brought new friends into our journey.

Accommodation: Pamplona Hotel Villava, Villava

Buffet breakfast in a stunning dining room
Entering Pamplona with a new friend

The luck of [Meeting] the Irish

20 April, 2019

A Camino Tale

Today we bid our fond farewells to four of our Camino family, who have reached the end of their time on the Camino all too soon. Brendan, Catherine, Gillian and Peter, Irish Scout troop leaders from County Cork, whom we had met on our first day our of SJPDP.

Within minutes of them joining us Leo discovered his first ever four-leaf clover, so we knew from outset that they would bring us luck and cheer on our journey!

We will carry with us Catherine’s imparted fascination of watching the Pyrenees Vultures soaring on the mountain thermals, their collective cheer, and love of a good tale over a drink, and their many pearls of hiking wisdom, such as wrapping your feet in Gaffa tape to prevent blisters(!)

Alas they only had time for the walk to Pamplona, and so to them we bid Buen Camino and wish a quick return to continue The Way in the future.

The luck of the Irish
Gillian, Catherine, Leo & Brendan
Vulture watching, Irish style
Said vultures…
Breakfast with Gillian, Brendan, Catherine & Peter, there’s a lot of gaffa tape under that table.