In the Biarritz Airport, I recognized my first fellow pilgrims.
Being alone and far from home, I nearly grabbed that first girl I saw. She had short-cropped, sandy hair and a flushed, cherubic face that said “I spend time outdoors,” but I knew she was a pilgrim from her pack. I asked if she was going to Saint Jean. She was and told me there was an Irish guy outside waiting for the bus that would take us to the train. In a whirlwind five minutes, I suddenly had friends and direction!
Nicole was from Colorado and this was her first Camino. The Irish pilgrim was a young priest, just returning from a mission in Africa. We babbled on together, talking about life and the reasons for our trek as we made our way to the train, so idyllically featured in The Way (the movie). I was looking forward to the gorgeous scenery along the route and seeing the lovely interior.
We discovered that the train was en panne and the only way to Saint Jean was the bus they’d arranged. Staff had thoughtfully posted this notice in English, but was confirmed when purchasing the tickets.
We killed time at the bar next door, hanging out and waiting for the bus’ departure. The scenery from the bus window wasn’t bad after all, and it led us up and up and up through the winding roads of the French countryside. Trees — just beginning to bud and blossom — crowded the roadsides. When we could see through them, pastures were revealed full of cows and sheep. I saw southern France’s stone houses, painted white with their wide shutters closed to the night air. I remembered them fondly from a previous trip to Toulouse, having enjoyed the darkness the shutters create for nighttime slumber.
I was glad to not be susceptible to motion sickness. We slowed while passing oncoming cars, only to speed up dramatically and careen around tight corners. Having been awake for nearly a day, my mind was addled from sleep deprivation and the RyanAir treatment. I tried to rest my eyes for the long day ahead, but bumped my head on the glass. Awake I would stay.
The excitement and energy on the bus was palpable when we arrived at last at the train station in Saint Jean Pied de Port. Practically every passenger was a pilgrim and the moment they’d dreamed of had arrived.
Stepping out into the unseasonably warm air, I wondered how to find my bearings. Still sleepy and disoriented, I wasn’t even forming complete questions in my mind. “Where… How… Um. What…” A bed for the night and a Pilgrim Passport were my first priorities. And I noticed pilgrims moving like ants up the hill. “Walk up that steep road?” I wondered skeptically. Oh, how much I had to learn.
The winding, cobbled streets of Saint Jean led up to a stone portal with a heavy, wooden door, thankfully open. This wall marked the former limit of the ancient town, protecting residents from invaders. Ascending further, we arrived at the main street of the old town that in another direction – I discovered later – sloped its cobbled way down to the cathedral at the bottom, and the river and picturesque bridge.
For now, however, the goal was a bed. I’d never before arrived in a foreign city without a place to sleep arranged in advance. It was an odd feeling. Although Carol (my friend who’d completed the Camino 6 years previously) had recommended that I stay at a specific albergue, no reservations had been available online. I was counting on the kindness of those in the know.
An association of pilgrims runs a welcome center in Saint Jean as well as an albergue next door. They checked me in – mostly in French – and I purchased a pilgrim passport, a scallop shell, a bed for the night, and tomorrow’s breakfast all in one fell swoop.
Both primary goals now met, I realized that they were as nice as the RyanAir folks and no less enterprising.