Camino Arrival Day – Plans Change From Day One


There are two routes over the Pyrenees from St. Jean Pied de Port.  One goes over the mountains from the beginning and then heads downhill towards the end and is known as the Napolean Route. The other goes around the mountain as much as possible, yet has a  steep uphill climb at the end. The usual route, the Napolean, has great views but is often  closed  because of bad weather on these highest altitudes of the Pyrenees.

If you have seen movie, The Way, you’ll remember that the opening premise is that the climber loses his life on the first day on the mountain. Bad fog on the Napoleon makes people do things like walk off cliffs that they did not see. Yes, it really happens.

 I said that, if the weather was bad, I would have no problem walking the lower route. Well, it looks like that is what I will have to do.  

I had made a reservation to stay at a hostel in Orrison, about 8 kilometers up the mountain on the Napolean, and stay there the first night. I planned to make that first day an easy one. But the Napolean has just been closed for tomorrow because of very bad weather (closed means they recommend people do not go that way). 

So, it appears that my plans are changing from day one.

The hostel in St. Jean Pied de Port where I am staying this first day, Le Espirit de Chemin, is wonderful. After walking two Caminos together, the owners decided that they wanted to have a business which welcomed pilgrims. They work at their hostel six months out of the year and spend the other six in the Nederlands where they find temporary jobs. Like many hostels, they have volunteers help with managing the flow of pilgrims during the prime Camino season.

The owners, Roberta and Arno, do all the cooking and, wow, can they cook. Basically vegetarian, luscious food to warm the heart and belly! They made a wonderful homemade tomato soup with fresh vegetables, followed by a sweet pasta salad, a warm potato salad, a fresh tomato, cucumber and arugula salad, and an out of this world roquefort cheese pie. Homemade wine accompanied the meal and flowed non-stop. 

I donated to the charity they are supporting this year in honor of being in business ten years, Save the Children. They also provide a take away lunch for the next day, if desired, so I ordered that also. I can hardly wait. And the coffee is delicious, so breakfast in the morning should be a welcome start.

 I will unpack and get settled in for the night. My bed is a top bunk. You don’t want to know when was the last time I tried to hoist myself up that high.


My Entourage of Saints

Let me tell you about my entourage, some of whom you’ve already met, some who will be new. They are seated next to me on this train to St. Jean Pied de Port.

Big Tess (St. Theresa) has already been introduced. I need her for her determination and for her confidence. She has already helped me in the first 2 hours of this trip and I hope to cover that in a future blog. She sat down next to me first. I pointed out to her that her long dark habit was not the most practical outfit for this journey. She agreed and plans to wear something less conspicuous when we next meet.

She left and Chris sat down next. Chris, (St. Christopher) will guide me on the right paths, or at least help me realize when I go the wrong way and will put me back on track. Putting his arm around my shoulder, he says he will also help carry my load.

Phil, St. Philip Neri, sat down after Chris left. I have not introduced him before. He is known as the “hilarious” saint. I’ve read some of the words attributed to him and I think they are proof that humor does not travel well over time. Hilarious is in the eye of the beholder. However, he does have a light-hearted point of view. He put his finger tips together and smiled. He says he will help me see the good will and humor in situations where they may not be obvious. He also says he likes these high speed trains.I am glad to have him along.

St. Roch seems to want to come along, unbidden. He nudged his way onto the seat.  Roch is the patron saint of people who survived the plague in the middle ages. DS1 took him as his saint for confirmation but I’m pretty sure it was only because he has a cool name. I doubt I will encounter the plague and St. Roch, Rocky, was not a saint I even considered. But ne appeared out of nowhere in a few churches DH and I visited recently.  Rocky showed up in side chapels in cathedrals in Vienna and in Wurtzburg, totally unexpectedly. At first I thought it was just cool, since I hadn’t thought of him since confirmation but twice in two consecutive churches? I’m sure there were many greatful people surviving the plague but I hadn’t found him anywhere else. When he sat down next to me on the train, I asked him why he wanted to come. I want to find out more about him but he hasn’t said a word. Maybe he just wanted to get out.

Last to join me is St. Julian. One of my blog friends suggested him because he is the patron saint of people who provide welcome to pilgrims. He seems an obvious choice, but I want to find out more about him. 

I’ve got quite an entourage. 

Camino minus 1 – Paris to St. Jean Pied de Port

Tired? Yes, we did not get enough sleep last night.

Sad? Yes, I hated to say goodbye to DH on the train platform in Paris.

Anxious? Yes, more than a little. 

Our transition from hotel to train worked out very well. I had packed and repacked last night in the hotel,so this morning was just a quick wash and wear (the same clothes from yesterday). I has been raining for two days so some items are humid, but nothing major. We bought my last set of tickets yesterday, having made a dry run to the train station the night before.

His train leaves in 3 hours for Germany.

On the high speed train to Bordeaux, I know that there is another pilgrim somewhere on this train. She  probably got off the plane last night at CDG, spent the night in Paris, and is more unsure than I am about where she is heading. Although perhaps the other pilgrim has done this before and this is old hat for her. I will recognize her by the big packpack she will have when she gets off the train and rushes to the train from Bordeaux to Bayonne at 1232.

The view outside the train window is as foggy as my thoughts af the future. My pack is so heavy -I know I’ve made packing mistakes but could not see what else to leave with DH to take home. 

I’m hoping for my entourage of Saints to help me get safely through this first day.

Time will tell.

Camino minus 3 – History Jumps on my Shoulders

Mass this morning was beautiful and a little overwhelming.

DH and I arrived at Notre Dame in time for their 10 a.m. Sunday Gregorian Chant Mass.

Gregorian chant is the style of music popular in pre-Renaissance era. It was almost always sung in Latin because it was for the Church. The voices sing a melody together very smoothly and with little “vibrato”, just clean and clear. The song carries nicely through a church because there is only one melody to bounce around the stone walls.

We arrived and waited at the back of a line of maybe a hundred people a few minutes before the Mass was scheduled to start. I was disappointed that we would miss the beginning of Church but, oh, well, at least we would get in.

Surprise! Turns out we were on the line for visitors and not for “the faithful.” The faithful line was faster because they wanted us to get in before Mass started. So, in we flew.

The day before I had scoffed at a church big enough to hold 10,000 people. Then I saw the crowd on Sunday. There were maybe 4,000 people attending this service. The International Mass following at 1130 would attract even more.

We sat and were given sheets which had the main parts of the Mass in several languages, including the readings, and some of the music. We were also given a separate sheet with the Gregorian Chant, written in renaissance music style (come on, you music nerds, refresh my memory, what’s that style called?).

The music was glorious. The choir was small, I think only six people, but what a wondrous sound. Rich and full and pure, the sound went to the top of the gothic ceiling and filled the airspace to capacity.  I was surprised to find that I could actually read the music written in Renassance style and sight read! My music teachers would be proud of me, and amazed.

The Priest greeting everyone, first in French, then in English. And that was the last English for the next hour and ahalf. The Mass was done in French, with Latin added when needed.

As I sat, listening to the French homily (it was Pentecost Sunday, a special holy day), my mind wandered. I thought of a time 850 years earlier when Notre Dame was brand new, how amazing the space would have been to illiterate peasants. I looked around and saw the light bathing the sides from the giant rose windows. I saw the glow from the upper level arches. I saw the chandeliers flickering light onto the heads of those in front of me. 

I imagined that 850 years ago, there was a peasant standing right whe I was sitting. He was getting ready for the trip of a lifetime. He was getting ready to say goodbye to family and friends and would go on a long journey to a place on the other side of a far away mountain. He knew he might never see his home again, yet knew he had to go. 

He was going to start his journey to Santiago de Campostella, the home of St. James.

I realized the immense faith taking such a step must have needed. No cell phone, no internet. No backpack filled with a sleeping bag and extra socks. Shoes, a cloak, a staff, maybe a small bag with some food, that was it. When he closed the door on his home and started down the street, his Pilgrimage would begin. 

How could I dare follow in this man’s footsteps? I am taking very little risk. He would be walking through a land with bandits and wolves. And, if he made it to Santiago, he would have to do it all again, in reverse, in order to get home! 

What right do I have to call myself a pilgrim in light of what my imaginary peasant did almost a thousand years ago?

As my mind wandered back to the French homily, it roamed around the church and went into a small alcove on the right. There, in the dark, one of my saintly companions had waited to surprise me the other day as I had toured the Church. 

Big Tess stood there, lookind down in the shadows, gentle and sweet, polished wood reflecting the candles lit around her. I imagined that her virginal pose belied the tough cookie I hoped she would be on my trip and figured she just didn’t want to scare away the visitors.

My ears returned to the French, then my mind to the peasant, then to Big Tess, and I realized that my eyes were unaccustomly moist. I realized that my Camino could not just be a wonderful walk through the country to pray and discover myself. I had a responsibility to honor that long forgotten and imagined peasant’s Camino.

I would follow his footsteps, as those who come after me would follow mine. 

I found myself blinking quickly and heavily. The voices were loud with song and now an organ joined them. The space was big, the sound was big, there were thousands of people around me joined in prayer. I never felt so small and unworthy of the trial I had so cheerfully talked about hours earlier.  Whatever made me think that I could do this?

After Mass, I got my first stamp on my credenzia. The woman stamped it quickly, without looking up. She’d done it hundreds of times. In fact, the person in front of me had gotten a stamp, also. But not a credenzia. Not for a pilgrimage.

My journey has begun, and I’m still not ready.