Saturday, May 30, 2009

May 29- Day 2- Roncevalles to Larrasoana - 29 km

Rolling hills, Sunny and very hot, 30 +C.
For - son Jean-Luc, Happy 14th Birthday!

Before going to bed last night, I took a two sniff of Drixoral nasal spray to keep my nasal passages clear, which completely did the trick. I would continue this practice every evening before retreating. With my earplugs in, it was total silence, and I could not hear myself breathing either. It may have taken one hour to fall asleep, but my mind was completely blank of any thoughts. I was in a Zen state, this is as close to perfect mediation as I have ever experience. I woke up the next morning at 6:10. As it was dark, I thought that no one was up until I removed my earplugs. A cacophony of sound caught me by surprise. From people snoring, coughing, whispering, getting out of bed, packing their stuff in noisy plastic bags ..... I got up and was on my way a half hour later with Thomas W. After 2 kms of walking, there was a café where I had a light breakfast of croissant, a banana & juice. During the mid-morning, I walked for about one hour with a young man in his mid-twenties from Switzerland. He had departed from his hometown on March 25, and had walked 1400 km so far. He was barefoot in his walking sandals and mentioned that is shoes were causing him blisters. He had a very laid back attitude that I admired. He was in no hurry to get to Santiago.

There are still some difficult climbs that feels at least 2 kms at a time. By 11 am I had to slide into my sandals once more, as my toes were sore during some descents. While passing through small towns and cities, it is important to be attentive for the yellow arrows, St. James shells, or white and red stripes that indicated the route of the Camino. I got lost in Espinal for about 5 minutes, then took a wrong trail. I knew I was lost, as I could not see any shoe prints on the semi muddy trail. I immediately thought of the TV show Mantracker on OLN, who is always on the lookout for foot prints. Luckily a woman who spoke a bit of English assured me that this road would eventually meet up with the Camino again. Twenty minutes later it did. After a few days on the Camino, you get a 6th sense about where to look for the arrows or when you've ventured off course.

During the early part of the afternoon, I caught up with a mother and son team from Carleton, Québec. Danielle had just turned 50, and this was her milestone gift to herself. Her son 20 was a University student and wanted to be a writer. When I mentioned that my wife Suzanne had also turned 50 earlier this year and was walking the Camino in September, her face just light up.

Stopped at Zubiri for a light lunch. Drank some Aquarius for the first time. This is an electrolyte replenishing drink bottled by Coca-Cola, which is the equivalent to Powerade in North America. This would become my staple drink of the Camino. I drank at least one each day. They are readily available in dispensing machines and in almost every corner store. I said my good-byes to Thomas W. who was stopping here for the day. He had teamed up with three young South Korean women who spoke English fluently. They had the same time frame for their Camino of 40 days or so. He gave me a nice bar of Lindt dark chocolate in recognition of me helping him with communications and our friendship.

I completed my day of walking at 2:30 pm. The guide book said 26,5 km for Day-2, but I had actually walked one hour more than yesterday on a less difficult course. When I arrived in Larrasoana, François the elder from Paris, told me that his GPS indicated 29 kms from Roncevailles. I am referring to him has François the elder, because during this trek I would meet a lot of people with the name France, François and Françoise.

I took a shower when I arrived at the Albergue, my trapezoids (top shoulder muscles) were so sore from the weight of my backpack that in order to lift my arms to shampoo my hair, I had to bend my elbow at 90 degrees and push it upwards with the other hand in order to reach my head.

Walked around town and had a beer (Spanish- Cerveza) with France and François G. before supper. Also had the pleasure of their company for supper with new acquaintances at our table. As I got up from the table to return to the Albergue, my quads felt like cement (Lactic Acid).

Municipal Albergue in Larrasoana - 6 euros.
Supper at Casa Sanglo Reposo y Descanso Del Perigrino - 12 euros.

Tip of the Day - Having proper footwear is the most important piece of equipment you will need to consider for this trek. I purchased a pair of lightweight Northface (summit series) just above the ankle hiking boot with the uppers made of Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex is a material that not only breathe, but is waterproof. I walked about 150km in mine at home, and it was barely enough to break them in. They proved to be the right choice for me. When trying out a new pair of shoes at the store, ask for assistance when possible. You should consider your type of foot ....flat foot, normal arch, high arch....pronator, supinator. If they are noisy when walking, it usually means that they don't fall right when hitting the surface. A proper fitting walking shoe or walking boot is usually silent when you walk in them. I also brought along a pair of Northface walking sandals which also proved to be a good choice. Today was the last time I used Vaseline on my toes, and the sliding action inside my boots would also stop.


May 28 - Day 1 -Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port France to Roncevalles Spain - 26,5 km

Weather- fog/humid , sunny/windy, T: 15 to 25 C
For my wife Suzanne

Last night was my first experience sleeping in a dorm room with others. The rather small room had two bunk beds. I had brought some earplugs in order to sleep soundly in the presence of snorers. They did their job perfectly in blocking the outside noises . My nasal passages were possibly a bit congested, because when breathing through my nose it sounded more like I was snorkeling under water. The sound of the inhaling and exhaling just resonated within me. Earplugs just amplifies every internal sounds. I had a hard time falling asleep, and going to bed with a full stomach certainly did not help either. After a while, I removed the earplugs only to hear all three of my bunk mates were snoring. When I did finally fall asleep, I did a series of bizarre dreams and one nightmare that seemed straight out of a horror movie.

Woke up at 6:15 am and packed my stuff. Breakfast was served at 7. I embarked on the Camino a half hour later with Thomas W. It was very foggy and humid for the first 6 or 7 km. On this first day of walking, we are on a steady climb of the Pyrenees for the first 20 km (12 miles). This is when all of my past experience and training for endurance sports really comes in handy. I have been a runner since the age of 14. For a decade (1992-2002) I trained and ran 22 marathons. I am also an avid cyclist and cross-country skier in winter.

In a perfect world, the most difficult terrain would be near the end of the Camino. After you've grown accustomed to walking day after day with a 10 kg (22 lbs) pack back, and you've become fitter. On this trek, Day 1 is by far the most difficult. The start in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is at 163 m (534 ft) above see level. At Col de Leoeder 20 km later, you will have climbed to 1430 m ( 4690 ft), the last 6,5 km is mostly downhill. During the whole day, there is only one stop for food, at Auberge Orrison at km #8 at 650m (2132 ft) in altitude. Some people opt to sleep here the first night. When the hostel is full, the only other option is to sleep outside in tents that are located behind the building. On days like these, it is wise to always have a day's worth of food in your backpack.

For the first few days, I decided to stop every hour for a 5 minute break. With the high humidity, I was sweating profusely. I only felt winded at times, but I could feel my heart pumping. The very fact that you are carrying a heavy backpack and gravity is pulling you down, makes it a whole different walk.

After Orrison, we had climb above the clouds and clear sky revealed the majesty of the of the Pyrenees Mountain range. With lots of green pastures, sheeps and cows are part of the decor for the first half of the day. Thomas is walking at a slightly faster pace than me at first, and he is a bit more winded than I am. If you feel winded when you walk on steep inclines like this, it is a good plan to slow down a bit because you might be hitting the wall later on when you start to have lactic acid build up in your muscles and your body has a harder time to bring oxygen to your now deprived leg muscles. After a few hours, Thomas had slowed down and I lost sight of him after a while.

I stopped for lunch just before the Fountain of Roland, named after a knight in the army of Charles the Great during their quest of reconquering Spain from the Moors (8th century).

At this point, François and France G., a father and daughter team from Quebec had caught up with me. They had trained hard before coming here, and at 70 years old he was just blazing through this steep terrain. He too was once a marathon runner and his P.B. done during his forties was under 3 hours. I had seen them both the previous day as they were in the same wagon train as me. After a few minutes of talking we instantly struck a friendship. France spoke four languages. French, English, German and Spanish. She had taken Spanish lessons and spent several months in Costa Rica with her husband and children during a extended vacation. She seemed very grounded, was homeschooling her children and a former employee of the Quebec government.

By the time we reached the summit of Col de Lepoeder, it was extremely windy and much cooler. You could see for miles and miles around. At a distance, there are snow covered peaks. I joking mentioned that if my backpack was a parachute, and I was to accidentally pull the cord, I'd be out of sight in no time flat. Roncevalles could be seen 4 km away.

As we stated our descent, I did find it more difficult. As gravity is now pulling you downwards there was some movement inside my hiking boots. As before, my heels felt snug against the back of my boots, now I had a feeling that my feet was sliding a bit and my toes were been crammed in the front. I had applied some Vaseline between my toes, which only seem to enhance the sliding action. As friction started to take place, I decided to stop and put on my only other footwear, a pair of Northface walking sandals. This liberated my toes and stopped any blistering action that had started. I wore socks to avoid direct friction between the skin and the sandal. I would finish the day with a blister on the tip my large right toe, and a tiny one on the 4th left.

On the final long descent of the day before reaching the a paved road, you have the option of either taking a right or a left trail. It is wiser to take the right route even if it indicated that it is longer. The left route has a pitch of 25 degrees. I later heard that evening that some took that trail and found it very scary and dangerous with poor footing doing down. I arrived in Roncevalles at 2:30 pm. Registration to the Albergue only opened at 4:00pm, so I sat at an outdoor café table and got a cold drink, then wandered around to explore the grounds.

The intimidation factor when you enter an Albergue of this size is over whelming at first. A very large stone building with tall ceilings and tiny windows letting only a bit of natural light in. This becomes the setting for this one room, 110 bed dormitory. As I was unpacking by gear, a Frenchman by the name of Robert came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ''Don't worry, this may look intimidating at first, but you will soon get use to it''. It merely echoed my exact sentiments the moment I heard these words. He somehow knew exactly what I needed to hear.

Two bunk beds are stacked once against each other becoming one unit with a narrow passage way between the next. I had the top bunk. The neighbor to my right was an Irish lad in his mid-thirties. He was on a short vacation and was walking the Camino for one week only. He was in fact so close to me that if I had extended my arm, I could have touched him. There is a beautiful hotel only a few steps away which is an alternative option.

By the time I hit the shower, the water was cold, but it felt good anyway. I hand washed my clothes and set it to dry outside on a clothesline. This would become part of the daily routine. At some restaurants, you have to reserve ahead of time for the first sitting at 7 pm. The second sitting starting at 8:30pm. I sat with France, François G., Thomas W. and two other girls at restaurant, La Posada. The fixed menu consisted of a first course of pasta with a tomato based sauce and Chorizo. A main course of poached trout and french fries and yogurt for dessert. A glass of red wine accompanied the meal for 9 euros.

Afterwards, I attended a pilgrim mass in Spanish celebrated by at least six priests. At the end a the mass and before blessing the pilgrims, a priest named all the countries from which the pilgrims had registered at the Albergue. It felt more like a meeting of the United Nations.
An American I had met at Esprit du Chemin the previous day sat in the seat in front of me. He looked exhausted from his day, as he kept dowsing off during the enitre proceedings. I was in bed by 10 pm.

Tip of the day- The most important thing that you can do to prepare for Day-1, which by the way is the most difficult terrain that you will have to walk on during the whole Camino, is to get in shape prior. Depending you your current personal fitness, you should be able to at least walk two hours at a time without feeling too tired, three times a week. You should start months in advance, in order to get a good cardio base. Getting accustom to wearing a backpack should also occur before embarking on the Camino. Any kind of aerobic exercise and cross training will help you on the long run, and it does not have to just be walking. The more your heart and lungs are in shape, the easier it will be. If you are to develop any kind of heart related stress due to walking on this type of terrain, it is better if it happens while training at home, rather than on an isolated path in the middle of nowhere, in foreign country where you don't speak the language. A medical exam with a cardiogram is a must, and you should get the OK from your doctor before heading out.


May 27, 2009 - Toulouse to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France - by Train

I had purchase my train ticket ahead of time and it was delivered at my home address before leaving. I would find out that it was not necessary. There were lots of empty seats on the train as I embarked on a 6-hour train ride to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the starting point of the Camino Francés. Before entering the train, ''il faut composter le billet'', to have your train ticket validated by a punching machine that is located on route to the platform. If you forget, a ticket agent will punch your ticket while the train is moving. I arrived in Bayonne at 2pm. There was a 1h15 min wait for the next connecting train. Bayonne is located just south of Bordeaux. It is at this point that I realized that if I could have landed in Bordeaux, instead of Toulouse, the train ride would have been much shorter (75 minutes).

During this last connection, I became aware that there were many pilgrims on board and being in their presence has already awaken in me a sense of belonging. The sky is overcast as we get a peak of the Pyrenees as we make our way through a dense forest. I arrive as planned at 4:30 pm. From here I just followed other pilgrims for a short walk to 40 rue (street) de la Citadelle, where I stayed in my first Hostel (Spanish-Albergue), named ''Esprit du Chemin'' (Spirit of the Road). Directly across is an office where you can get your credential (pilgrim passport) for 2 euros.

It is with this passport that you will get access to stay in Hostels for pilgrims each night. Upon arriving to an Albergue, the first thing that they will ask you is your credential. You will receive a stamp (sellos). This stamps gives you access to your next stay and so on. The price per night varies from 3 to 12 euros, while others are on a donation or voluntary contribution (Spanish- donativos). It is also the necessary proof for obtaining the certificate of pilgrimage (Compostela) when you arrive in Santiago de Compostela. Along the route, you can also collect stamps (sellos) on your passport in certain churches or café/bars for free. Just keep in mind the amount of space remaining on your passport in order not to run out. You can always have your personal journal stamped in order to save space on your passport. The stamps collected other than the Albergues are optional and for reference or a souvenir of having been there.

At the passport office, I met Thomas W., a 27 year old man from South Korea. He spoke a bit English and no French, so I played the role of interpreter as he sat besides me while we were filling out our passport forms and a volunteer explained how things work. When the volunteer asked us if we had a place to stay for the night, Thomas answered ''No''. I mentioned that there might be a bed available at Esprit du Chemin, as I saw a note on the door stating there was a vacancy. He was very lucky to get the last available bed. There are a few albergues in town, but it is advised to book ahead of time as space is limited. Thomas would become my sidekick for the next 2½ days. We had a very good rapport.

I then visited this charming town. A fortress wall was built around a large part of the municipality. I walked to where would be our starting point the next morning. If you have yet to buy all of your hicking gear, now is the time to do so. There are several shops that cater to the hikers and trekkers. If you have not purchased a rain poncho, some shops sell a variation with a hump that will accommodate extra space for your backpack.

Supper at the Albergue was great and served at 7pm. A local liqueur shot to start, then a hearty soup, potatoes/endives/ham for the main course , yogurt and wine for 9 euros. Unless you are preparing meals yourself, European always eat at this time or even later, which is not the North American norm of 5pm. The total cost for my stay here including supper and breakfast was 20 euros.

Tip of the Day - Before leaving, do purchase a Camino guide book. I had two.

1- Le Chemin de Saint Jacques en Espagne (French) by Jean-Yves Grégoire & Louis Laborde-Balen - Rando éditions. This guide has a very detailed description of the route. Handy when you lose sight of the yellow arrows (Spanish- flecha amarilla), St James shells or red and white lines.

Rother Walking Guide - Canimo de Santiago - Way of the St.James from the Pyrenees to Santiago by Cordula Rabe. This was my true companion during my trek. It's is pocket size, packed with so much infomation. All Algergue have a 1-3 shell rating. The distance between each town is indicated. It is an essential guide to plan your day ahead. To know what services are available in the next town is essential ex: Grocery store, ATM machines, restaurants, bus services, post office (Spanish- Correos) etc.... This is possibly the most popular, as it is translated in many languages.

To find train schedules in Europe, please click on this
Rail Europe link


May 25-26, 2009 -Halifax, N.S to Toulouse, France

Departed from Halifax International Airport at 8:50 am. It was very emotional saying goodbye to my wife Suzanne. She wishes she could come along. As we have a 14 year old son at home, it was impossible at this time. Suzanne will be walking the Camino in mid-September with a close friend of the family. I'll be able to give them a first-hand account of my own experience when I get back so they'll have a greater sense of what to expect when their turn comes.

I arrived in Detroit at 10:50 am, a layover time of 7 hours awaited me before my trans-Atlantic flight departing at 6:15pm. During that flight I sat next to a man from Georgia, USA who was going to Munich to visit his son who plays professional American Football in a European league. He was an ex-player himself. He mentionned that his son was living his own dream of playing in the big leagues.

There was a 45-minute delay with my last connecting flight from Amsterdam to Toulouse. In addition we had to go through customs before embarking the plane. During the finale connection, I sat next to a business man from Holland who was flying to Algeria. He told me that he had gone to Santiago de Compostella on business in April and there was still snow on the ground.

I arrive in Toulouse, France before noon. Upon exiting the airport's terminal door, there is a small ticket office (Tisséo) where a shuttle bus links Toulouse-Blagnac Airport to downtown Toulouse in 15 minutes. Departing every 20 minutes for a fare of 4 euros. The shuttle brings you to la Gare Matabiau (train station). As luck is on my side, I learn that the train strike will be ending at 10:00 am tomorrow morning. My train will leave at 10:10 am as scheduled.

I am staying at Hôtel Le President, very basic accommodations but only a 10 minute walk to the train station. After a half hour power snooze, I headed out to visit Old-Toulouse with my map in hand. It is a very charming city with a rich history in architectural buildings and details.

I first make my way to Saint-Sermin Basilica. Built during the 11th century, it is considered as the world's largest Romanesque church in the world and Toulouse's most famous landmark. It was originally built to house pilgrims on their way to Santiago De Compostela in Spain.

A vast open square, Place du Capitole is lined with shops and cafés. City Hall is located in this block.

From the inside corridor of City Hall, you can access la Salle des Illustes located on the second level. Here the walls are graced by several mural paintings by artists Henri Martin and Paul Gervais. In an adjoining hall, I witnessed a civil wedding taking place while another wedding party was having their photograph taken in front of Gervais's romantic fresco ''Amour, source heureuse de la vie''. Next came Jardin Goudouli (garden) and Wilson Square where there is a beautiful Carousel.

I continued strolling the streets of Toulouse to visit Hôtel d'Assézat, a 1555 building by top Renaissance architect Nicholas Bachelier. Home of the Bemberg Foundation, a display of their beautiful collection of Fine Art that included a room dedicated to artist Pierre Bonnard in which there are at least three dozen pieces. Other artists from the collection include Manet, Monet, Degas, Dufy, Gaugain, Toulouse-Lautrec....

After a walk along the Garonne River and Place de la Daurade, my final stop is a visit at Église des Jacobins. A church built in 1230, a marvel in Gothic architecture that has a row of 7½ columns located centrally holding the vaulted ceiling like branches of a palm tree. At the base of one of the front pillars is a large round mirror creating the illusion of doubling the height of the column while permitting a view of the intricately laid brink work on it's ceiling without looking upwards.

I am exhausted, and it's light out at 9 pm for me.

Tip of the day - Make reservations that are flexible for anything you can before leaving home. Reading, reading and more reading ahead of time will not only prepare you on what you can expect when visiting a foreign country, but it will also save you a lot of time when you are on a tight schedule and you are on foot to visit sites.