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)