Camino de Santiago Day 1: Catholics, Misfits, and Lost Souls

I must have read a dozen books about the Camino de Santiago over the past few years. Every single one of them painted a picture of what to expect: from the road, from the towns, to the albergues, and to the people. After spending my first night in the albergue in St Jean, it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve already met most of the characters you may have read about.

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The Italanio bed stealer was the first person I met. After registering with the albergue, I was assigned a bed number. I found my bottom bunk near the window — which I would later regret once I discovered there were no curtains — quickly rolled out my sleeping bag and left to explore the town. Upon return, I discovered my sleeping bag was on the top bunk, and an Italiano man munching away on crackers. Not a problem I thought, I’ll still sleep well — until the snoring starting.

Oh, the snoring! I’ve read the stories, and I am sure that I snore at times too, but someone last night sounded like a 2-stroke motorbike firing up to do battle with the devil and Saint James himself. I contemplated recording it for proof in case the windows rattled out of the albergue, and I was blamed because I was the closest to the windows, but eventually I drifted off into a fitful sleep. I’m not sure if it was the noise in the room or just excitement about starting my camino, but eventually I slept. Until the bag rustlers started….

The bag rustlers, hidden in the early morning darkness, attacked their gear with wistful abandon. I’m pretty sure it was the group of Koreans I saw making love to their packets of camp rations last night. They were up very early and apparently eager to share their love of 4:30am with everyone else in the room. Perhaps I really need some salvation through the camino as I gained a perverse amount of enjoyment opening and closing the bedroom door on them throughout the evening, drowning them in light from the common room. Oh, I have some sins to resolve…

By 7:30am I was out the door. I checked in at the pilgrims office one more time to check if the Napoleon route — the route that traverses the high peaks in the Pyrenees — was still closed to pilgrims. It was, with about 2’ of snow making the pass too treacherous. My only option was the Valcarlos route which I had read was dangerous at times as parts of the route required pilgrims to walk on the nonexistent shoulder of a very windy road. I have to say, that even the parts of the route which required you to walk on the road was beautiful with a quiet picturesque beauty unlike anywhere else that I have been. It reminded me of parts of Switzerland, but felt untouched by the modern era.

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I couldn’t help but smile when the Italiano left at the same time as me. We walked together for about 8km communicating through broken english and my poor attempt at Italian that I still remembered from 6th grade. He turned out to be a nice guy despite his proclivity for stealing beds. Like many of us, he is walking the camino for a break from a busy life. A month of walking is definitely good for the soul. We will wait to see how it is on the feet though.

We crossed through fields with the occasional interruption of bleating sheep and barking dogs protecting their territory. At some stage Sam, from South Carolina, dressed in slacks and a business shirt walked past. I would have sworn he was on his way to a meeting dressed as he was. He had the vibe of a christian on a mission. I let him pass, disappearing over the horizon, no halo in sight.

Apparently pilgrim attire can take all forms. Sam’s business chic was no match for the top hatted, bearded man who left the albergue just before the sun rose. I have my suspicions that he was a vampire, but he left too quickly for me to grab a pilgrim staff and ram it through his chest. In my defense it was 7:30am; my first cup of coffee was hours away.

By the evening however, I had discovered that the tophat man’s name was Paul. He was a joiner from Hamburg and is completing the camino in tradition of German laborers dating back 800 years where tradesman would travel to different parts of Europe to learn different styles of work. Again, first impressions prove totally wrong. Paul turned out to be a great guy.

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Sam and the top hatted man, now a distant memory on the path, I left the Italiano to find tobacco in town, and continued on upwards. I read as I walked, humming to myself, the miles melting away until I reached the halfway point in Valcarlos. I stopped in a small cafe for a coffee, and sipped my way into bliss. A quick 10 minutes later I was back on the path scanning for the ever present flecka to guide me towards Roncesvalles.

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I cut back off the road along forested paths with snow clinging to the ground. The path continued up through the mountains until cresting at the site of Roland’s grave, where he was ambushed by the Basque. The wind whipped around me as I took a quick picture before descending the last few kilometers to the Roncesvalles. Chilled, but elated for completing my first day on the camino I checked into the albergue in the ancient monastery collecting my next stamp with a satisfying thud. I couldn’t help think that out of the Catholics, Misfits, and Lost Souls that I met today, which one am I?

Total Distance: 25km