I remember it like it was yesterday. I can’t believe it has been two years to the day since I left St Jean Pied de Port in the South of France, to cross the Pyrenees on ‘El Camino de Santiago’, or in English, ‘The Way of St James’.
I had little idea of what to really expect, and if I’d have known what it was really like I probably wouldn’t have gone – but I’m glad that I did. I don’t say that because it is a terrible experience, or the people are rude, or anything like that. It’s just that I suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and agoraphobia and therefore the Camino for me presented a few unique challenges.
So had somebody said to me, “You will be staying in very busy dormitories with lots of other people, sharing communal meals with strangers, and walking through bustling Cities during the busiest times of the day,” I would not have even considered it.
I had seen the film ‘The Way’ and had heard my dad talk of the Camino, but I didn’t really know what to expect. I saw myself walking through deserted hills and fields alone, or with only a handful of others mad enough to attempt the same. Oh how wrong I was.
As soon as I stepped off the plane in Biarritz, France, there were already a few others with backpacks, and I started to notice that they too had the Scallop shell of the Camino hanging from their packs. We all boarded a bus which took us to Bayonne train station. On the platform there were more people with backpacks and those shells hanging from them… I was really getting nervous now and was thankful that I had travelled with my Cousin, Matt.
The train from Bayonne to St Jean Pied de Port was small and not too crowded. The drivers cab was not sealed off like other trains I had been on before, so at first I was distracted with watching the driver. Soon though I remembered I was surrounded by strangers in a different country and had no way of getting off. I felt trapped and started to feel annoyed at how slow the train was going. It must have been around 30mph, it couldn’t have been much faster and if it was it certainly didn’t feel it. I soon realised why though, as the train weaved its way through hills, rocks, trees and alongside beautiful streams. I noticed a few small rockslides next to the track and realised the reason the driver was going so slowly was so that he didn’t come around a bend straight into some rocks which may be waiting on the tracks! At this point I started to relax a little and enjoyed the new scenery just outside the train window.
When I arrived in St Jean, I followed the crowd into the small town and somehow ended up outside the pilgrim’s office. We queued here to get our pilgrims’ credential and a list of all of the Albergues along the 800km route to Santiago de Compostella.
Just opposite the pilgrim’s office was the Albergue which I was booked into for the night, L’esprit Du Chemin. I booked in and tried to relax, I was pretty anxious. That evening I experienced my first communal meal and had serious doubts about whether I would be able to do this. I wasn’t worried about the physical aspect of walking, but I was more aware of my anxiety levels increasing to new highs! I was getting very real physical symptoms and had to try very hard to do anything. I was way out of my comfort zone…
The next morning I woke up, as did all of the other pilgrims, at 6am. Everyone went downstairs for breakfast. Everyone but me. I was far too anxious and couldn’t stop shaking. The hospitalero noticed and gave me some fruit to take to eat while I was walking. Finally, it was time to leave. We headed up into the Pyrenees on what was to be the first day of the greatest adventure of my life!!
The long steep climb out of St Jean Pied de Port was a surprise to me and I struggled! I made the mistake of trying to keep up with others, something you soon learn is not what the Camino is all about! As a result I injured my knee on the first day, not a good start. The Pyrenees were green and damp, with thick fog a lot of the time. However, on the sections where the fog did clear, the views were breath taking! Nothing like what I was used to at home! After what seemed like a life time I arrived in Roncesvalles and checked in at the huge Albergue there where I took a shower and washed my clothes before walking to the restaurant for my first ‘Pilgrims menu’ meal. I was exhausted and had no trouble getting to sleep at the end of my first day as a Pilgrim.