Camino de Santiago: Phase One, The Body

Days 1 through 18, Saint Jean Pied de Port, France to Burgos, Spain, ~283km/176mi

Phase One of the Camino de Santiago is reputed to be all about “the body.” This is where one supposedly works out the sore muscles, toughens the blister-prone areas, and increases their endurance to walk ever increasing distances.

Initially, I thought the Camino sages got it wrong, though. It wasn’t the physical aspect at all that was plaguing me on those first couple of weeks. It was the mental aspect. I considered U-turning many times. Waiting on my flight to Paris, I wished for an air strike. Waiting on my train to Bayonne, I wished for a rail strike.  Too old, too tired, too washed up, too soon after a loss, too..too..too…looking for any reason to blame for my apprehension.  I realize in retrospect I had a lot of fear starting out…fear of injury, fear of getting lost, fear of not being able to get any sleep in the albergues, (the small hostal-type inns tailored for pilgrims.) But I think my biggest fear waging a war in my head was that of just saying “Meh…this isn’t what I thought it would be. I’m bailing out and heading to the beach instead.” The Camino is a long commitment….really long. And commitment has not been my forte. If something doesn’t feel right, I stop doing it.. Sometimes, these “DNFs” (did not finish) have come back to haunt me. I didn’t want that to be the case with the Camino, something I have dreamt of doing for decades.

My greatest mental angst came of course from the recent loss of my Mom. While I am not religious, she was extremely so, and lived her life according to “the Good Book.” So every time I went into a church, lit a candle, or heard an evocative song, I cried. Consequently on the Camino where one encounters a church or cathedral multiple times throughout the day, from the smallest stone hut to the massive gothic cathedrals, I cried a lot.

The Pilgrim Office in Saint Jean Pied de Port, where pilgrims go to receive their walking credentials. For the first time in history, South Koreans are in the number one spot, edging out the USA. I was told this is due to a 2019 reality TV show, “A Korean Hostel in Spain.”

I special-ordered one of these ponchos from this Pilgrim shop in SJPP. It is more like a hybrid between a raincoat and a pack cover, but it is reported to be fail-safe in keeping the rain out. (A mannequin, if you couldn’t tell)

Saint Jean Pied de Port is a beautiful little mountain town.

The beautiful church in Saint Jean. Most churches use small votives for offerings, so the candles in this church were especially beautiful.

Leaving Saint Jean early on my first morning, it was a bit foggy.

Thankfully, the fog lifted, and it was a beautiful walk through the Pyrenees mountain range in France.

The trail was very crowded. I had to yield. 😉

Leaving Saint Jean Pied de Port, I was an emotional wreck. Prepping for my trip back in Texas, I had run out of time after I learned a storage building I had been on the wait-list for the past two months had opened up. In the week prior to my trip, I had to find a way to move the contents of my 10’ X 10’ storage shed while finalizing the last bit of prep to secure my Mom’s house, since I had no idea what the status of the farm would be when I returned. Would we even still own the farm? Those last few weeks I had allocated for sorting my gear, trying out my clothes, paring down the bare necessities, and weighing my backpack were spent on calling around for movers, begging for favors, and doing my best to secure the farm. Consequently, I went to Walmart and bought a giant duffle bag, stuffed everything in there, and thought, “I’ll sort it out when I get to France.” Needless to say, this did not go as planned.

The evening before I was to start, I had a meltdown trying to make it all fit. I couldn’t do it. I was jet lagged, physically exhausted and mentally spent. I went downstairs to ask the “gite” owner (French term for small pension or inn) for bus schedules back to Bayonne. I had decided I was U-turning before I had even started. I will always be grateful to Sondrine, the owner, who sat me down and told me to quit would be a decision I would regret the rest of my life. She convinced me I needed to do this for all the same reasons I was trying to quit. So I went back up to my tiny room once again, took a deep breath, and began sorting.

On the advice of those who went before me, I broke the climb up over two days, and spent the first night at Le Refuge Orisson. There were a lot of “false summits” to reach this point, so once I saw the beautiful outdoor deck, I was thrilled to have made it.

This was one of my most favorite parts of the Camino, as the mountain views of the Pyrenees were so beautiful!

Walking through the Pyrenees, this sign was my only indication I had crossed the border into Spain, as the “You are here” bubble was in Spanish, with the French translation being secondary.

One of the beautiful outdoor cafe/bars along the route where the “human slinky” of pilgrims caught up to each other once again for lunch.

Arriving Pamploma, at last. I took a “rest day” to tour the city, famous for the annual celebration, “Running of the Bulls.” The city is quite lively, with lots of outdoor cafes and meeting places such as the Plaza del Castillo.

Pamplona’s cathedral was built during the 14th and 15th centuries. The cloister, completed in 1472, is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe.

I also decided I was not going to look at this as a 500 mile walk, but rather I was just going to walk to Pamplona. On the advice of Nina, I had pre-booked my first four nights because in these smaller mountain towns, availability is limited. So I would just walk as far as I had paid up. If by the time I reached Pamplona I still wasn’t feeling it, I gave myself permission to head to the nearest beach town.

The last thing I did the night before my walk was to visit the small church in St. Jean Pied de Port to light a candle for my Mom. It was cold that evening, and sitting there alone on the front pew next to the hundreds of flaming tapers, I felt warm and comforted. I didn’t want to leave. I think I might have fallen asleep there had the janitor not come in to close up.

Leaving Pamploma, I came upon my first canola field. I first saw a crowd gathered atop the hill, and wondered what was happening until I saw the field, and gasped at the beauty. People were crowded around taking photos in the field. This would be the first of many, prompting Sting’s song “Fields of Gold” to run through my head.

Walking through the small villages offered so many quaint stops.

Romanesque bridges are common all along the Camino, this one known as the Queen’s Bridge, named for Queen Muniadona, wife of King Sancho III, who built the six-arched Romanesque bridge over the Arga River for the use of pilgrims.

At the highest point of the Sierras de Perdón on the trail this day at 2,480 feet we came to “Alto de Perdón” (Hill of Forgiveness,) a series of silhouettes made from sheet metal of the various types of pilgrims over the ages.

Coming in to town was always an exciting event, as it typically meant refreshments and a rest stop.

Many pilgrims follow “stages,” which are recommended distances published in the most popular Camino guidebook. In order to get some relief from the crowds, it’s best to stop “off stage.” This was one of my most favorite off stage albergues, “Casa Magica.”

Upon arrival, they offered a foot soak in Epsom salts.

Casa Magica offered an excellent pilgrims meal of fresh made Paella.

My only option for training for the Camino was the highest incline on the treadmill at the local gym or the concrete path around the Community Park….not exactly a match for the 4,600 ft elevation gain I would encounter the first couple of days in the Pyrenees. Yet I somehow managed to sail up and over on sheer adrenaline alone. Yes, it was steep, the “up” starting before I had even left St. Jean. Aside from many frequent stops to catch my breath and take a few photos, it would take a few days for the “high” to wear off before I began to feel the physical aspects.

Upon reaching Pamploma where I had planned my first rest day, I quickly realized one of my first Camino mistakes, booking a hotel across town from the Camino. In planning for my rest day, I wanted a little splurge from the dorms, so I booked a private room at a cute hostal with high ratings on Trip Advisor, never giving any thought that it was on the opposite side of town, far from the Camino. At 25 km/15.5 mi, this would be my longest day yet. Finally the “physical” had kicked in (every pun intended.)

Camino Wisdom says it takes two weeks for the body to adapt to long distance walking. That’s just about the time when my pain kicked in. Though I was fortunate to avoid blisters, knee braces, bandaged ankles that plagued so many of my fellow pilgrims, I was not able to escape the dreaded plantar fasciitis that has come and gone throughout my adult life. The constant pounding day after day, often times on paved roads, was causing my heel to throb.

While I spent hours in the gym strengthening my glutes to protect my hips, strengthening my quads to protect my knees, there’s just not much you can do for the heel aside from a few stretches. So my first stop in Burgos was the farmacia where I spent €30 on KT tape, cushioning pads, and gel inserts in hopes of easing the pain. I also began taking advantage of the daily luggage transport service to take some weight off my foot. For €6 per day, you can have your heavy backpack waiting for you when you arrive at your albergue. It is a service to which I all too readily became accustomed.

Entering the Navarra region, an area renown for its local wine, you come to the Monasterio de Irache and its attached winery. It is home of one of the most popular stops along the Camino, the famous Bodegas de Irache, or wine fountain. While the winery was established centuries ago, the Fountain of wine wasn’t opened until 1991 for the purpose of pilgrim refreshment. Daily provision is 100 litres per day, and when it’s gone it’s gone, so get there early.

It’s tradition for modern-day pilgrims to drink from their scallop shell, symbol of the St James Way.

The agricultural crops created such interesting patchwork throughout the countryside.

The fields of yellow and green continue to be a a visual delight, and today we have Vineyards mixed in! We are approaching La Rioja, the wine region of northern Spain. Alternating with the vineyards are orchards of olive trees.

Every day, there seemed to be some little “Camino Magic” waiting for us along the trail. This man played beautifully. When he played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” I was moved to tears.

Some days, there would be refreshment stands along some isolated country road selling coffee, sodas, fruit and snacks.

But then a town would appear up ahead with the promise of “second breakfast,” or lunch in the outdoor cafe.

I loved approaching these little outdoor cafes, because there was invariably someone I knew seated there, also stopped for a break, inviting me to join them.

It was a great way to see old friends, meet new ones, and being outdoors, sometimes even take off our shoes to give our feet a rest.

I also quickly learned the benefit of using two poles, and using them properly, hands resting on the straps, each pole in sync with the opposing leg.  This was out of necessity, even on the flat roads, as it kept me from feeling so tired.  I would often head out in the morning with my poles stowed,  By midday when I began to feel weary, I would switch to poles.  They would give me a “lift,” reportedly taking 25% of the weight.  I was always a one-pole person in the past, but I am now a two-pole convert, particularly on long distances.

Next major town after Pamploma is Logroño, capital of La Rioja, Spain’s most famous wine producing region. It’s best known for Calle del Laurel, a street of continuous restaurants selling tapas and pintxos.

While tapas are just a smaller version of an entree eaten with cutlery, Pintxos are small snacks eaten on skewers or toothpicks.

Each shop along Calle del Laurel has a special offer, this one mushrooms sauteed in garlic butter, chased down with one of the many varieties of vino on offer.

A group of us “Pinxtos Pals” met up for a pinxtos crawl along Calle del Laurel. As we sat down to enjoy our Pinxtos and wine, one of the women remarked that we had just passed the 100 mile mark! I had yet to realize this, reason enough for a toast!

Once leaving the mountainous regions, the roads began to flatten out, and you could see ahead for miles.

I couldn’t seem to take enough photos of the beautiful poppies, trying to capture them all.

Coming into the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, I unexpectedly come upon the Feast Day of Santo Domingo, aka “Blessing of the Bread.” There is so much going on in this town (including live roosters in the church!) it would take me an entire blog post to explain it all.

As if walking 20 km this day was not enough, I decided to climb the 134 stairs to the top of Santo Domingo de la Calzada’s bell tower. Somehow in the grand scheme of it all, it wasn’t all that bad.

So much of northern Spain reminds me of all I love about Mexico, but none so much as this “Blue House,” albergue owned by an artist.

Belorado is known as “the route of murals.” At every turn is a beautiful work of art painted on the walls. I must have taken 50 photos of them all. That, along with the abundance of outdoor cafés gives this small town, one of my favorites along the Camino, quite a festive ambience.

Finally, I arrive into Burgos, one of the larger towns along the Camino. I am ready for some “city living!” Cafe Pancho is known for traditional tapas and extensive wine list.

Burgos has a stunningly beautiful cathedral. Construction began in 1221 and was completed in 1567. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. The Cid, a native of Burgos, is buried here.

El Cid was an 11th century Castilian military leader and national hero of Spain. He was a champion of Christian Spain against Muslims (though he was known to work both sides.)

The cathedral interior with its twelve naves of white limestone and extensive artwork and carvings was brilliant.

As I mentioned in my previous post, due to weight limits, I had to do this trip without my laptop, and without my favorite camera, my Canon G7X. I bought a new iphone 13 mini in the weeks leading up to my trip in hopes that I could make the transition from traditional camera to iphone photography. But I never was successful in getting my music to upload to the new phone, one of the many tasks that got derailed in my final push for departure. This meant my only “soundtrack” would have to come from my own head.

For each of the phases of the Camino, a specific theme song seemed to emerge. One that played on continuous loop, and I couldn’t stop singing it no matter how much I tried to switch to a different song. It was uncanny how these songs seemed to form as a result of each of the three phases.

Before leaving SJPP, I had invested in one of the fancy Atlus ponchos. This is a hybrid model with sleeves and zippered front like a raincoat, but a big billowing back pouch to completely cover the pack like a poncho. I paid $70USD for this “insurance.” But by now, I had made it through the mountainous sections having encountered only about 10 minutes of rain one afternoon. By the time I got the poncho out, the rain had stopped. I never pulled it out again for the entire walk. Meanwhile, with the mountains now behind me, overtaking pilgrims were sharing horror stories from horizontal rain to snow showers. I had thankfully experienced none of that, which somehow summoned a song way back from my college days in 1979, Creedence Clearwater’s “Have you ever seen the rain?”

On or about Day 40, I was in some small café in a remote village having my usual breakfast of fresh OJ, a croissant, and Café con Leche, when this same song from 1979 began to play over the loudspeaker. What are the odds? The coincidence froze me in my tracks, as if there was an “Alexa” in my head that said “Play this song.” I took it as a sign.

I never did see the rain however….comin’ down on a sunny day.

Have you Ever Seen the Rain
~Creedence Clearwater Revival

Someone told me long ago
There’s a calm before the storm
I know, it’s been comin’ for some time
When it’s over, so they say
It’ll rain a sunny day
I know, shinin’ down like water

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
Comin’ down on a sunny day

Yesterday, and days before
Sun is cold and rain is hard
I know, been that way for all my time
‘Til forever, on it goes
Through the circle, fast and slow
I know, it can’t stop, I wonder

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
Comin’ down on a sunny day

35 thoughts on “Camino de Santiago: Phase One, The Body

  1. so nice to see you posting again. The Camino walk fascinates me. I have a friend who just finished it and her postings on Facebook were amazing. It was life changing for her. Look forward to more of the story. So sorry to hear about your mom.

    • Thank you so much for the kind comment, Judy. I hope you enjoy the rest of my “series.” haha! I too love following pilgrims on Facebook and Youtube, even after having completed it. It truly is a remarkable experience like no other.

  2. What a great trek to make, processing and transitioning from the loss and pain of the past year(s) to whatever comes next. It is a journey I would also like to take. Your pictures and narrative are interesting and beautiful, as they always have been. I am glad you are finding your way.

    • Thank you so much, Kathy. The more distance that grows since I finished the walk, the more I realize there couldn’t have been a better way for this processing you mention. It was such a healing experience! Thanks for the kind wishes.

    • Hey Terri! Thanks for sticking with me over the years! I hope you get back to it again one day too, as I always enjoyed following along. Thanks for saying hello.

  3. Definitely two hiking poles! Although it does make it harder to take pictures, your photos are great as they show not just the trail but the lives along the way.
    You’ll enjoy that beach town even more after finishing the pilgrimage.

    • Thank you so much, Kelly. I hope you and Al are enjoying the summer. Just FYI, Mom was 93 when she passed last November, and up until the day she went into the hospital, she was still reading Al’s blog every day! It was her favorite.

      • Oh, so nice to know that your Mom read the blog.
        Al has a “music box” at the end of each blog. The other day he had CCR doing ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain”

    • Thanks, Jim and Barb. I promise the next post is my last “whine.” haha! I finally stopped trying to quit after that, and just enjoyed the stroll!

  4. Sondrine is clearly a wise woman and I thank her too because you took heart and did this. Which means sitting here in my comfortable lounge chair I am getting to see a bit of the beauty and read your, I expect life settling, narrative of this walk that I will never be able to do. I can’t wait for your next installment!!

    • Marti, you are such a great supporter from that lounge chair! Thanks for following along. Yes, “life settling” is a good way to put it.

  5. How wonderful that you did not U-turn immediately. It’s a beautiful walk. It’s a great sadness to me that Jim and I did not do this before we aged out. Did you find your GX7 or buy a new one? In either case I’m glad your friend is back with you. Looking forward to the next stage.

    • Hey, Allison! It’s not too late! You have not aged out! If you could have seen some of the others along the walk, you and Jim would have SMOKED them! Being the “shoulder season” with most of the kids still in school, the path was full of “geezers” like us! If you have regrets, just go do a section! Many rent ebikes to ride the flatter sections. Sooo many bikes on the trail!

      I did find the G7X, but opted not to take it due to weight. Taking the phone was non-negotiable, of course. But taking the camera would have meant spare batteries, a charger, and a device that would not have easily fit in my pocket. So I just went with the iphone this trip.

  6. WOWZA! I have seen other friend’s posts but yours is exquisite and beyond anything I have ever seen before.
    Thanks for letting all of us “tag along”……

    • The thanks is on me! I love having you tag along! Working night and day trying to prep for an estate sale, but I haven’t forgotten that email I promised!

  7. So glad to read your wonderful descriptions and see the great pictures chronicling them. The I phone may not give a 16×20 print but they dazzle on this medium. And the weight difference! Did you cut the handle off your toothbrush?:)
    Not only is it GREAT to have you back, it is even better to feel you are coming to grips with your sorrow and grief. That period is longer and difficult for each of us in every way. I wont pretend to tell you what works in the process, it has been different for me in every family member and loved one who has gone.
    I can tell you with EVERY certainty that they are smiling at the thought of you doing something for you and enjoying it.
    Wendell Berry wrote a poem titled A Meeting
    In a dream I meet
    my dead friend. He has,
    I know, gone long and far,
    and yet he is the same
    for the dead are changeless.
    They grow no older.
    It is I who have changed,
    grown strange to what I was.
    Yet I, the changed one,
    ask: “How you been?”
    He grins and looks at me.
    “I been eating peaches
    off some mighty fine trees.”

    • Thanks, Jim. I didn’t cut the handle off, but I did squeeze the tube extra hard. haha!

      Thanks for the beautiful poem. It reminds me of a dream I had after one of my great loves died. In the dream, I was upset at his best friend cracking jokes about him after he was gone, but he told me not to feel bad, as people grieve differently, and humor was just the friend’s way of coping. I said “Oh, this means your ALIVE!” and he said “No, silly! If I were alive, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” I’d like to think he is also eating some mighty good peaches.

  8. What beautiful scenery! It would’ve been hard for me to move on from each of those cool little towns. Paella?! A wine fountain?! I never would’ve left!
    I agree – 2 poles FTW!
    And as usual, I have questions: you mentioned the weather was good – what were the temps like?
    And what about potty breaks? (Yes, I went there, but you wouldn’t expect less from me, right?) Do you just dart over the hill? Behind a bush? (You know I’ve been there, done that while out birding) 🙂

    • Oh, you know how I love answering questions from one of my favorite characters! Oh, I mean cousins..sorry. 😉 I agree, it was hard to leave, and some of those places haunt me to return already. I’d like to go back and do it all over again, staying in the places I missed!

      Temps were cold in the mountains. It was 38° on my coldest morning, and 85° on my hottest afternoon. But the greatest majority of the time, it was the “sweet seventies,” just like I like it! I truly was lucky with the weather.

      And yes, I did have to hide behind a tree, but I think probably no more than three times, as I recall. People just kind of accept it’s got to happen, and try not to look. The disturbing part was the amount of TP left behind the bushes, though. What’s wrong with people?? Thankfully, there seemed to almost always be a cafe or bar nearby that had restrooms, (and a good excuse to stop for a beer.) 😉

  9. So glad that you are again sharing your magnificent adventures with your fans.

    I could rattle on in praise of every photo. You really have the knack!

  10. You have the unique ability to write with color and emotion, Suzanne, a rare talent. I have to say that I am not sure that my body could make this trek. You are amazing in so many ways! I look forward to a day when I can meet with you face-to-face and visit.

    • LuAnn, always so nice to hear from you. Knowing you had mentioned before about your interest in the Camino, I thought of both you and Gayle several times along the way, and wished for your company. But then I would have likely only been able to keep up with you two gazelles for about 10 minutes. LOL! But yes, definitely, I will look forward to a visit before too long! Thanks for saying hello.

  11. So enjoying being able to “go along” with you on your journey both mentally and physically. Love that I am sharing the countryside, people, towns, and food. Glad you had the right host that first night when you almost turned around. Sounds like you found what you needed to make this journey a wonderful positive experience. Now I’m on to the next part of “our” journey! Thanks for allowing me to come along.

    • Pam, it is an honor to have you! Thanks for following along! I am sad to tell you that I had to pour down the last of that Polygamy Porter I have been carrying around for you for the past 7 or 8 years, though. HAHA! I figure sitting out in the Texas heat likely cooked it. Oh, well…next time.

  12. I waited until I really could read your post with no interruptions. What a lovely afternoon respite I have had, reading and marveling. As always, your photos with the captions capture at least a thousand words. I just don’t have the words, but I am sitting here smiling and satisfied.

    I’m so sorry about your mom.

    Congratulations on the walk.

    Warmest and best to you!

    • Frederika! How nice to hear from you. How are you and Pete doing? Still at Jojoba? Hope you are both doing well, and life is good!

      • We are well and yes still in Jojoba. I saw LuAnn’s post below on my way to reply to this, I just ran across a photo of you, LuAnn and Terry from Idyllwild when Pete was gigging at Cafe Aroma. Sweet!

        And LuAnn captured my thoughts exactly, on your writing and photos.

        Hugs from afar.

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