Day Zero: To St. Jean Pied-de-Port

When I get up in the morning, it’s raining. A sharp wind comes up from the nearby sea, and dark clouds are moving southwest, towards my first stop, St. Jean Pied-de-Port.

Unlike Paris, the coffee is stale and weak, the breakfast listlessly slapped on individual plates and brought to my table. This will be the last time on this Camino that I pay 20€ for little food and bad coffee. The hotel staff is unfriendly, mirroring the weather outside, and I want to leave, badly. But first, there’s the issue of this hotel not taking credit cards and being unable to muster change for a 100. So, off to find a bank, money from machine, back, pay. Yay, off to St. Jean we go.

Bayonne Train Station is a small building, two benches, a ticket machine, and an information booth, unmanned. I draw my ticket and walk outside, lighting up a cigarette, and sit down at the bench on the tracks. “Miiiiikaaaaaaaa,” the smiley Swede is back. Her friend still tries her best to ignore me, but seconds later Inga, kiss left, kiss right, hug, hug, tells me all about her, the Camino, and her friend.

It’s her second time, first time she walked in 2009, after graduating from nursing school. This is her divorce celebration, taking her friend on the Way she learned to love eight years ago. Her friend doesn’t like me, because I have a beard and a US flag on my backpack. The train arrives, we board, and Inga, despite dagger-eyed silent protests by her friend, turns left into the cabin I am headed into as well. We ride to St. Jean in rain and silence, only interrupted by audible huffs coming from Inga’s friend, whose name seems to be Lilly.

Wind and rain batter the doors and windows in what I’ll come to learn is generally known as SJPdP among pilgrims. Water runs into my shoes and down my neck, and the 30 or so pilgrims on the train hurry to get into the Rue de la Bastille, heart of town and start of the Camino. Here we are supposed to fetch our pilgrims credential, a passport to be stamped at every albergue and, if one were so inclined, optionally at many cafés and bars along the Way.

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port after the rain.

The pilgrims office serves in waves of ten, Inga and Lilly make it in, I have to wait outside. Rain does not stop pilgrims, it seems, and so I am passing the wait getting to know more of them. Rainer from Germany, a retired surveyor, who stretches his words into an endless drawl, emphasizing random parts of a sentence so as to add gravitas or levity to every proclamation. Hu from Japan, who speaks two words in Spanish, “Si” and “Non,” and no English. And Alissa from Sicily who tells me she is here to look for sex and maybe love. “But, don’t worry, you’re not my type,” she concludes before flying off to see if the two tall Australian newcomers are more to her liking.

We are, finally, beckoned inside. Stern warnings about straying along the Route Napoleon over the mountains are followed by an avalanche of papers, each explaining one aspect of the Camino or another. Then the pilgrim passport and, after a small donation, a Concha, the shell worn on almost every pilgrim backpack.

One of the papers has a list of albergues along the Way, sixteen of them in SJPdP itself. I try the first, get invited inside, and (ten Euros and a stern “shoes off” later) shown my bed. No eating in the sleeping quarters, no talking after ten, and no staying longer than until 7:30am. No worries, I wasn’t planning on doing any of those.

The Porte Notre Dame

It is almost 2pm before I am settled and unpacked, my bed made, and my wet clothes exchanged for dry ones. I hang the wet ones on a clothesline in the kitchen which, seconds later, is used by a Romanian couple to cook garlic soup. At least that how it smells, and that’s how my clothes will smell as well. Better than BO, I guess.

The rain has let up, and so I am exploring around town. Few pilgrims seem to take the time to walk to the castle and around the city walls, making it the perfect relaxing walk. The air smells of grass and mountains and rain, the sun sends a few cautious rays into the valley, and a stray cat follows me around, begging for treats. I return at six, muddy and exhausted, grab a quick bite at the butchers, and head for my bunk. My Camino has begun.