I’ve been in Spain for over two weeks, and have been doing a winter hike of the Camino de Santiago for ten days so far. I wanted to walk in the winter to avoid the massive crowds that come to the Camino in the summer (because I’m an introvert).
Getting to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France in the Winter
I flew into Madrid without really researching ahead of time how I would get to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. I figured if thousands of other people did it every year, I could too. I took a bus from Madrid to Pamplona, which took maybe six hours. From there, I had hoped that I would find a direct bus to St. Jean. Alas, there were no direct buses until spring.
Still wanting to start in St. Jean, I took a bus as far as I could go to the town of Roncesvalles. I was attached to starting in St. Jean because so many others begin their pilgrimage there and I’ve never been to France and wanted to cross the border.
After a night in Roncesvalles, I began walking backwards on the Camino towards St. Jean. It was 15 miles, and I made it in a day. However, the downhill to get there was so steep that my legs were sore for a couple days after. The weather was deceptively pleasant. The sun was shining and the temperature was warm. I wondered if northern Spain was always this nice in the winter.
Finally, I was in France and made my way to the pilgrim’s office. The nice couple who volunteered there questioningly looked at my credential (side note: pilgrims carry “credentials” that are a sort of hiking permit that gets stamped along the journey) and wondered why I was going backwards. In my embarrassingly limited Spanish I did my best to explain my reasoning. They told me to come back the next day at noon and they would give me a ride part way back to Roncesvalles, so I wouldn’t have to walk as much of the same thing twice. I happily agreed.
The Winter Albergue Experience
Before beginning this winter Camino de Santiago walk, I wondered whether there would be any other crazy people out doing the same thing. Or would I be the only one?
I went to the local albergue in St. Jean, which is a hostel of sorts just for pilgrims. Albergues are usually a big room with lots of bunk beds. They cost anywhere from a donation to 12 euros.
It turns out I was not the only one with the idea for a winter Camino. There were four other pilgrims in the albergue that night. I didn’t talk to them much the first day, but we’re still walking together now.
It seems the further I walk, the more people I meet who are beginning their own journeys. The Camino doesn’t have a precise start point like US trails often do. You can kind of just start wherever with the goal of reaching Santiago. Nowadays, I often see nearly a dozen people in the albergues in the evening.
Walking in the Rain and Cold
Like I said, my first few days were deceptively nice weather-wise. Then began the real winter weather, which to be fair is still nicer than Ohio weather in January. But having lived in Utah for a couple years, I’m a baby when it comes to the cold nowadays.
So the weather is not terrible, but it still has been raining a bit almost everyday and is often chilly and windy. I’m talking maybe 40’s F cold. It hasn’t been below freezing during the day… yet. I keep hearing the occasional gossip of where on the route it’s been snowing.
I am still trudging on everyday, making the kilometers slowly disappear. It’s been too annoying to constantly convert to miles from kilometers, so I’ve just given up and am giving into the metric system. Please don’t take away my American passport because of this.
After a few days of walking in boots, I got tired of how badly my feet would hurt at the end of the day. In Pamplona, I went to the department store to get a pair of trail runners. Thankfully, they had my favorite brand Salomon. Unfortunately, the price was 150 euros. I probably could have saved about 40 bucks if I had bought a pair at home.
Making Friends Along the Way
I’ve been walking with a group of four Italians and one Spaniard pretty much this entire time. We had a Korean friend in the group for awhile, but he’s fast and left us in the dust.
It’s been cool experiencing the way Europeans do things differently from me. For example, if we reach our destination for the day and want to have a meal sometimes we sit there eating and drinking wine for up to two hours. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a two hour long meal in a restaurant in the US. Also, they eat SO MUCH BREAD. Literally at least three times a day. This group goes through multiple baguettes a day.
Aside from all the delicious bread and wine, there’s the coffee. Coffee in Spain is way better than at home. They add steamed milk to it, and it’s so strong. And a coffee is usually about one euro, so the price is right too.
I was hoping to improve my Spanish while here, but I’m spending more time learning Italian phrases. Out of everyone in my hiking group, two of the guys speak English. That’s been another aspect of the trip is not understanding what people are saying or what’s going on most of the time. I think it’s good for me though.
A Wine Fountain and Van Bread
One of the highlights of the past week for me was seeing the famous wine fountain in the village of Estella. Literally you turn the fountain on and wine comes out. It’s like magic.
Of course I was there at about 10 am, so I just had a few drinks and moved on with my day.
Another funny encounter was walking into a village one day, we smelled the most delicious scent of fresh bread coming from a bakery van. The Italians flagged down the driver. He stopped and opened the back door to reveal baskets upon baskets of baguettes. At two euros for a baguette, we bought a few a made lunch of out it.
Overall, I’m about one-fourth of the way done with my walk. I’m feeling good about it and am still excited to put on my trail runners every morning and see more of the Spanish countryside.
Distance Walked: 233 kilometers/ 155 miles
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