Madelyn Given took this photo in the Pyrenees, on her first full day on the Camino de Santiago trail.

The el Camino: Walking the Trail with Michael

August 27, 2014 was my first full day on the el Camino. I had stayed the night before at Honto and that was my first albergue experience. It was a small building in the middle of a pasture on the foothills of the Pyrenees, set up with rooms of bunk beds for the pilgrims on the el Camino.

Across the narrow country road was the small accompanying restaurant where the hikers had their first pilgrim meal on the trail. The same meal is served to all at the same time each evening. It ran like clockwork: as soon as the hikers were seated at one long table, a stern and efficient Basque matron began to serve the food. This woman earlier in the day had cooked all the food and to my amazement did this task seven days a week during the busy season.  We were served soup, then a large salad, then the main course of lamb with large bowls of vegetables which were passed around. There were jugs of Basque vino and baguettes. This was followed by plates of queso de Roncal, creamy flavored cheese, fruit, and more jugs of a different Basque wine. Our meal was competed with a flan for desert and café.

At dinner, as I became acquainted with some of the other hikers, I discovered that some had trained and were well prepared, while others were concerned about the strenuous walk for many days. I met Michael, a young priest working at the Vatican, who often had breakfast with Pope Francis. There was a couple from The Netherlands: she had wanted to come for years and she told her spouse if he wasn’t interested she was going to train with a friend and go without him; he changed his mind and they had trained together for a year. A couple from Norway was very excited to begin and had trained by taking long brisk walks. A tall slim man with white hair from Barcelona looked like he was in good shape for the adventure. There were two men from Germany and a young woman from Poland—these were a few of the great, friendly people I met the first night.

I woke early and skipped breakfast, opting for a glass of orange juice, and was on my way in the dense fog, headed straight up the incline of the trail. I was unfamiliar with the trail and a bit nervous about missing trail signs. From the beginning I was in the clouds or above the clouds and walking through unfenced pastures of sheep, cows, and horses. It was calm and beautiful, as you can see from that day’s photo, which is at the top of this blog post.

Since I knew nothing about the el Camino a year ago, every day was a learning adventure. For instance, I learned that there were organizations in different countries that held meetings about the el Camino and supported the pilgrimages. There are books and information about the el Camino on Google. When I signed my official documents at the office in St Jean Pied de Port, there were four boxes to choose for the reason why you were walking the el Camino: spiritual, church, sports or other. I checked the box marked spiritual, as this was a pilgrimage in memory of my son Michael.

The trail was easy, but it was hot, and the elevation was steep, and I was adjusting to carrying a pack. When I left St Jean Pied de Port I had to make an important decision almost immediately. There were two trails: the Napoleon Trail, which was steeper and more difficult, and the lower route via Valcarlos, the easier trail.  I made the decision to take the Napolean Trail although the guide book gave warnings of getting lost in bad weather.

I hiked to Refuge d’Orisson before I met anyone on the trail. There I saw a few hikers leaving the albergue preparing to hike. A while after this I met up with François, a young man from Ontario. We hiked a few hours together.

This is a great area to spy birds and I saw red kites, a golden eagle, and griffon vultures. There are crosses along the way and the beginning of concrete bollards marked with a scallop shell, which are common markers on the trail.  The view of the peaks and valleys is spectacular as you can see for miles and miles. The trail reaches the cols (mountain passes) of Bentarte and Leopeder. After crossing a cattle grid a sign welcomed me into Spain. After passing a few farm buildings and following the yellow Camino arrows I saw the first view of the ancient Roncesvalles in the distance. This was my destination for a place to sleep  that night.

(posted November 25, 2014)

Madelyn Given took this photo in Bayonne, France before starting the Camino trail.

Beginning the el Camino

I was anxious to begin the walk on the Path of St. James in August 2014, and to get there, the first step was a five-hour train trip from Paris to Bayonne. I planned to stay here one night to see a part of France new to me. At the top of this post is one of the photos I took in Bayonne, a lovely small city situated on a large river in southern France. It was so peaceful and clean after leaving Paris.

After arriving in Bayonne, I walked from the train station, across the long bridge, to the city center where I found my hotel. I registered and was ready to settle in when I asked about taking the train early the next day. To my surprise, I learned that I needed to get the ticket now, pronto, before the station closed—as the train station office would not be open tomorrow!

I hurried to my room and set my pack down (which had by now become a routine), locked the door, hurried out of the hotel, down the city streets, and across the bridge to the train station. I purchased a train/bus combo ticket to Cambo-les-Bains then St Jean Pied de Port, France. I was now very confused about my ticket and getting to St. Jean!

In planning my trip, getting to St. Jean was the most difficult part. I heard stories that the trains were not running, or there was construction on the railroad tracks. It was a long roundabout way to get to this small town, but I knew that if many others had arrived there I would too. The woman in the ticket office at the railway station counter was very pleasant; she assured me that this one ticket was good for the train and the bus trip needed as my final steps to arrive at the beginning of the el Camino trail.

Next morning I was up and out of the hotel before dawn, going across the bridge to the train station, ready to board the train to Cambo-les-Bains, France. When I boarded, I noticed immediately that the train was practically empty and those on board were all carrying back packs. Reserved strangers slowly began to introduce themselves and soon I found that a young woman sitting near me was from France, across from me were Irishman John and Priest Michael from England, two German men, a Korean couple, and a young Australian man. Later all of us met again on the el Camino, spent some time walking together or staying at the same albergues, and became part of the el Camino family.

In Cambo-les-Bains, a bus was waiting for us and I jumped on for a forty-five minute ride to St. Jean Pied de Port, France, a small town at the base of the Pyrenees. This is the beginning of the French el Camino, one of the most popular el Camino trails. I was happy to be here.

I was planning to spend the night in St. Jean, but it was still morning after I registered with the officials of the el Camino headquarters. I walked around the small town, mailed a package at the post office, sat at an outside café, and had a coffee. It was a lovely warm, sunny day and I was anxious to begin walking on the trail. I went back to the headquarters and asked if they thought it was sensible to start walking this late in the day on the trail.

In the beginning of an adventure it is the unknown and taking that first step that is most difficult. The official who was so pleasant and helpful to check me in earlier said let me call and see if there are any beds still available on the trail ahead. The first place was full but another albergue only 3 kilometers up the hill on the trail had available beds. That was all I needed to know.

I thanked her and went out the door, then cheerfully headed through the streets and out of town. I felt so free, so excited, and so ready to be on my way. It was early afternoon and I had already had an early train ride, a bus ride, registered at the headquarters, and received my Camino passport—so the bonus was to get a start for the next day!

It was a short walk for me but I was out of the town with all the tourists. It wasn’t far but just enough to know it would be a great beginning the next day. I was a happy pilgrim walker.

(posted Nov. 17, 2014)

Madelyn Given visited the Sacré-Coeur basilica on her trip to Paris before the El Camino.

Onward towards the el Camino: Paris

I enjoyed my few days in Belgium, as it was the break I needed to bridge between Europe and home, and then I continued on to Paris. As I left Brussels, I took the subway to the train station. Oh my, quite a fast learning experience for me, alone. Somehow I got there and out of the station without my ticket—I soon learned you keep your ticket to exit! Then on to the train station to find the right terminal (there are many) and to wait for the right train. Next, it was time to board, then find the right car and the right seat. The express trains in France are so comfortable and clean. I enjoyed an espresso and bought a Metro ticket at the bar on the train:  a good idea as it saves waiting in long lines at the Metro station. It was quite cool in Belgium, but for the rest of my journey it was much warmer as I headed south.

I walked out of the train station and had my first glimpse of Paris. I asked for directions to my little hotel; it was a long uphill walk with twisting streets, and every so often I would stop and ask directions again. My landmark was Montmartre, high on the hill. Finally I found the little pension, a narrow building set back and squeezed between larger buildings. I signed in with a young man at a small counter; he informed me that musician Louis Armstrong and artist Toulouse Lautrec had once lived here. There were only a few small rooms on each floor and an antique elevator that would probably not pass inspection in the USA. I walked up the narrow stairs to my tiny room, dropped my pack there, and left the hotel.

I was ready to see Paris! I headed to Sacré-Coeur. As you can see from the photo I took (at the top of this post) the weather was sunny and many people were sitting on the many steps to this great cathedral, high on a hill, with a magnificent view of the city below. On the way down I passed through narrow streets with venders selling the cheapest junk heaped in piles and in great disarray; in 1969 I had walked these same streets and the venders were selling paintings and lovely art and everything was neat and tastefully arranged. I walked about until after dark enjoying the grand sights of Paris.

I took the Metro and went to the Arc de Triomphe. I climbed the 187 steps to the top for a great view, with the 12 main avenues of the city radiating out from the arch; one of the avenues is the Champs-Elysées. I walked along this famous avenue looking into the windows of the world’s fashion designers. One interesting store display was Citron, the French car company. The store was small—just large enough to put one car, on a rotating platform, on each floor level. Each car was a bright color, with the pedestal and entire floor the same color, and there were many floors. To view each level you took an escalator. It was neat!

I walked to the Place to Concorde, then on to the Louvre.  It is a grand museum but to see the Mona Lisa is an exhausting adventure. The painting is easy to find: just follow the crowd from the entrance to the right wing, through halls and rooms, until you get to the room with this famous painting. As you enter the room you are automatically thrust along by the room-size crowd, step by slow step, towards the wall with the small painting of the Mona Lisa. Some people are pushing to get back out of the room after viewing the single painting they came to see.  You are pushed until it is difficult to not fall across the restricted, corded-off area protecting the painting. At the same time, dozens of cameras are going off all around you as people take selfies with the Mona Lisa in the background. Arms are outstretched to take one last photo and you are so distracted that the least important thing seems to be the poor famous Mona Lisa. Fortunately, many years ago I saw the Mona Lisa without a single other person in the room. It was quiet and stress free. Other places in the museum are quiet and peaceful.

Later I walked along the Seine and over a bridge to reach Notre Dame. Inside the cathedral I sat and listened to Bach being played on the organ. I lit a candle in memory of my son Michael. It was very spiritual.

Although it was getting late, I decided to walk back to my little pension instead of taking public transportation. It was a good distance but I safely found my way. Before I knew it my visit to Paris was over. There are many reasons to go back to Paris and someday I may be there again.

Posted November 11, 2014