25 November 2015

Camino de Santiago--Preparation and Journey to St Jean

Every other post in this blog has been about motorcycle travelling; while I've gone on a few non-moto trips over the years, I didn't see any need to add them to this blog, which is more focused on moto adventures.  That said, I had one (sort of) adventure this year which I thought it would make sense to write about:  the Camino de Santiago.

In May of this year I was flying somewhere and read something in the seatback magazine about the Camino de Santiago, an 800 km, 1,000 year-old pilgramage route in Northern Spain.  I thought it sounded interesting and looked into a bit more over the next few days.

I haven't been into hiking for a long time, but this sounded like hiking-lite--a long way, sure, but through thickly-populated Europe, with cafes and shops every few kilometers, a developed network of pilgrim hostels, so you don't have to sleep outside, and groomed paths through some pretty flat terrain.  I thought it sounded fun enough, and decided that I would try to do it in October, when it would be cool enough in Spain to be bearable, and cool/rainy enough in Moscow so that I wouldn't miss it for several weeks.

I decided all of this in May, so had all summer in Moscow to prepare and train.  I decided not to read any guidebooks or websites about the Camino, because I figured it would be more of an adventure if I didn't know what to expect.  So the only thing about the trip that I really researched was about packing lists, how to get to St Jean, the starting point for the Camino, and where to end it--in Santiago or in Finisterre.

I won't bore everyone with the history of the Camino de Santiago--you can look it up on Wikipedia or where ever, but basically it is a thousand-year-old pilgrimage route across northern Spain ending at Santiago de Compostela, where supposedly the body of St James is buried (after floating from the Holy Land in a boat made of stone...).  Anyway, supposedly the pilgrimage route is based on an even older pagan pilgrimage route which continued on past Santiago to a spot on the Spanish Coast called Finisterre (or "End of the Earth" in Latin).  Finisterre is at the base of a rocky peninsula out into the Atlantic, so out at the tip (which now hosts a lighthouse) you are surrounded by water on three sides--it is a pretty cool spot.  Ultimately I decided that it seemed kind of silly to hike for 800 km and then stop at Santiago, which is kind of in the middle of nowhere, rather than pushing on another 100km and reaching the ocean, which would provide a better ending for the hike.

For packing, one of the main things I decided very early on was that I wasn't going to buy a bunch of new gear for this trip--I would use the mountains of camping gear I'd bought over the years and never/rarely used.  In particular I had  a big military-style backpack I'd bought years ago and never used, so I decided to use that.  I also had a goretex rain jacket I'd bought in 1997 had hardly ever used...  I also had some cotton safari shirts I'd used on the Zambezi trip back in 1998.  Anyway, I definitely had to buy some boots, so I bought some light Salomon boots.  That was pretty much it for gear purchases, although I also bought a camera that could charge from a USB cable and transfer photos wirelessly to my smartphone, because I thought that both functions would be pretty useful.

For training, I did about five hikes of about 10 kilometers in Moscow; I thought about doing something longer but didn't ever get around to it.  On all of the practice hikes I wore my full pack and boots, to make sure that everything more or less worked.  The boots were very comfortable, and the bag wasn't too heavy, so I figured I was in good shape for the hike.  I also didn't really see any big reason to train for the hike, I figured I'd get in good shape once I started, so there was no need to train up before--it's not like it is a race.

It is not that easy to get to St Jean, a small French town at the foot of the Pyrenees, so I did some research online about how to get there.  Ultimately, I booked a flight from Moscow to Paris on October 1, then a train from the Paris airport to Bordeaux, then switch trains to Bayonne, then switch trains again to St Jean.  I hoped to reach St Jean on the 1st, although it would be late--probably 22:30 before I got there.

So very early on the 1st I left my apartment with my backpack and took the metro and train to the airport.  The trip to Paris was pretty uneventful, and then I had to wait a couple of hours for the train.  When I arrived, I noticed that I had seat 88 in car 8, pretty cool!  Unfortunately, my train from Paris left about 30 minutes late, and I only had about a 10 minute layover in Bordeaux between trains, so I was afraid I'd miss it...when I asked the French conductor, he said that they would hold the train...  Anyway, when we got to Bordeaux, the train to Bayonne had already left, and I had to wait about two and a half hours until the next one--not a good start to the trip!

Here is the train station in Bordeaux:

I got to Bayonne about 22:30, and everything was closed.  The first two hotels I went to were both full; the third one was right across from the train station, but it was a real dump--45 euro for a room with no bathroom or shower.  The next morning I woke up early and got the first train (07:45) out of Bayonne to St Jean. Although I thought I'd be taking the train all the way from Bayonne to St Jean, I guess there is something wrong with the tracks, so we took the train halfway, then we got off the train and took a bus the rest of the way.  The bus dropped us off at the train station in St Jean at about 09:00.  I got off the bus, put on my backpack, and started heading through town with the other pilgrims from the bus.

No comments: