an idiot in spain

santiago diaries

Friday, 8th September.
Day 1

I awoke at 6am, the train stationary. The other beds in my carriage seemed to be occupied. Where are we? Blimey, what if we're already in Bayonne? I scrambled for my ticket. Phew, not supposed to be in Bayonne until 6:38am.

I got up and got dressed at about 6:30, and left the cabin when the train stopped. It wasn't Bayonne, so I waited until the next station. Not Bayonne. I was a little concerned, to say the least. Have I overshot Bayonne? There was a woman standing near me, but she spoke no English. (My French is atrocious. My French teacher once told me that I speak French as a German-speaker would speak French. Didn't quite know what to make of that.) She managed to communicate to me that Bayonne was not for a few stops yet. So I stood by the doors at the end of the carriage, waiting for Bayonne.

After a while a bloke wanders in, says something to me, I tell him that I don't speak French, then he starts speaking to me in English. He's a student who's been studying in East London, of all places. He tells me that someone committed suicide in front of the train ahead of us, meaning that we're running 1 1/2 hours late. He was less than pleased, he told me as he sucked on his cigarette in the no smoking area, because that meant he had missed his connecting train to Madrid.

I arrived in Bayonne at 8am, and I ate the rest of the biscuits that the French guy gave me. I had to go to the loo, and eventually I found one at the end of the platform. I had to pay! Outrageous. When I got inside the cubicle I was horrified - surely this isn't a squatting affair? Just as I was working out my angles, I discovered a fold-down "seat". Well, a metal bar would be a better way of describing it.

I caught the 9:03am train to St Jean Pied-de-port, my starting point for the Camino. I dozed as we climbed into the Pyrenees.

From the train station I walked into the town centre to find the refugio. A refugio is like a hostel, specifically for pilgrims. At this refugio I was going to get my credencial, or pilgrims' passport. Pilgrims need the credencial to be able to stay at refugios along the way and at the end in Santiago to collect the Compostela (certificate for completion of the Camino).

The multilingual bloke that helped me at St Jean Pied-de-port did his best to talk me out of attempting the Camino. He was shocked and horrified that I spoke no Spanish, and that my French was pretty ordinary. He couldn't believe that I didn't have any maps, although I did have one guide book. He felt the weight of my pack and declared it far too heavy. He was lecturing me on all this, and he said that the people I would meet along the way would want to talk to me about the Camino. "I don't know the English word for it," he said, "it is a, er, domage." I speak enough French to know what he meant: it's a shame. He said he would be surprised if I finished the Camino.

I collected my credencial and walked back down the hill to a shop where I bought myself a Mars bar. All my confused thoughts, buzzing around inside my poor skull, were starting to form into resolve. I now had motivation to complete the Camino: to prove that bloke wrong. I'll finish this damn thing, oh yeah.

Shortly after noon I set off, into the Pyrenees, towards the town of Roncesvalles. A tough 28km, most of it uphill, lay ahead of me. I soon passed an American couple, from Alaska. I spoke with them briefly then left them behind as I powered up the mountain. Soon after I met a German bloke, and we had a weird conversation, which involved me asking him questions in German and him responding in English.

As the hours dragged on, I grew steadily weaker. The astonishing views in the Pyrenees contrasted with the hellish experience I was having. The mountains were too beautiful to describe, the view too big to fit in my camera. Where before I was striding, I was now just putting one foot in front of the other, reduced to a shuffle. Some of the route is along the road. A passing motorist slowed down to see if I was ok. "Ca va?" he asked. I waved. I wasn't quite that desperate, and I was going to prove that bloke in St Jean Pied-de-port wrong. I was going to complete the Camino, this first test of my resolve only coming 15km into a 760km trek.

I came to a pass in the mountains and flopped down, exhausted. I knew that I was still some way from the peak, and even further from Roncesvalles. Then a 4WD passes me, and bounces up the rocky track. That's not fair! I thought, and fell asleep. I soon woke, and resumed slugging it up the mountain. A ram looked at me menacingly. If it charged me now I'd go down like a sack of spuds. I reached a fountain, stopped, and refilled my nearly empty water bottle.

While I rested the Alaskans, John and Sandy, caught up with me. I must have looked a sorry sight. They immediately offered me food, which I gratefully devoured. I walked the rest of the way to Roncesvalles with them.

The remainder of the journey to Roncesvalles was largely uneventful. We crossed the border into Spain, then observed a group of blokes collecting something from the mountainside. They weren't picking mushrooms, and they were looking rather furtive, shall we say.

As twilight came, we arrived in Roncesvalles. The clock chimed for 8pm, and we tried to find the refugio. Despite the signs, we found the refugio, indeed found it to be closed. Fortunately for us I found a youth hostel nearby. More language barrier comedy there.

I had steak for dinner. Steak has never tasted so good.