My first full day in France was a rest day. Almost vacation-like. I wanted to get oriented, rested, and heart-nourished before beginning the biggest walk of my life. That exact intention revealed itself and the day filled up with myriad blessings.
When the sun was barely up, everyone at the albergue was on a tear to get out. If you’ve read anything about the Day 1 route, you know it terrorizes many in anticipation. The facts: a very steep grade, the highest elevation on the entire route, changeable weather, and a remote 23km path with no rest stops along the way. For some, Day 1 to Roncesvalles makes or breaks the pilgrim (or at least dents the pride) crossing this mountain pass over the Pyrenées.
As they left in small groups, I sat at the breakfast table drinking hot chocolate from a bowl and eating bread rounds with jam and butter. Not exactly an American breakfast, but food nonetheless. By 6:30am, all the pilgrims had cleared out except myself and two others.
Finding a bed for the night
Acting on a suggestion, I made my way to the albergue that my friend Carol had recommended to see if they had a bed for the night. Indeed they did, I was told, and I paid at once for the room, communal dinner, the next day’s breakfast, and a sack lunch to take with me on my first day on the Camino. Because my bed wouldn’t be ready until much later, I spent the morning discovering the delights of Saint Jean Pied de Port.
Exploring the town
This ancient town (Saint John the Foot of the Mountain Pass) is steeped in Camino history and surrounded by a fortress of smooth, dark gray stone on all sides. Although the modern town now extends beyond it, the walls are in impeccable condition. I walked around through them, further uphill, to get a view of the town and of the garrison building (now a school) that overlooks it all.
On the walk, I talked with a young man from Austria that I’d met at breakfast. As we walked around the garrison, we swapped stories. He shared how he’d worked as an Auto-CAD designer until he said “f— you” to his boss, and was now searching for what was next (as a result of the epithet or not , I wasn’t sure).
Wandering back alone, I proceeded back through the town, past the place where I picnicked with Louise to discover where the bridge path led. I walked along leafy back roads lined with old white houses on spacious lawns, beautifully kept, their burgundy shutters open during the day.
I passed cottage gardens and a town park on the river then strolled down a long lane between two pastures, admiring the green fields lined with early spring wildflowers. I discovered delicate clovers that were imprinted with a red heart in the center of each leaf. Occasionally the Pyrenées revealed themselves in the distance, snow-peaked and gleaming above the lush countryside.
As the walk unfolded, I enjoyed the sensuousness of being outdoors without an agenda. My journal is replete with observations like “Cowbells ringing across the hillsides, shaggy-maned ponies, white-rumped bumblebee pollinating a purple flower, waterfalls over an old stone mill, black/white/yellow finch, wild yellow primroses, four white, shaggy sheep with curled horns.”
As I admired his sheep, I noticed a old man standing in front of his barn with a black beret and a hand in his pocket. The farmer returned my wave from far across his field. “A wave of greeting as universal as a smile.” I felt in love with life.
Settling in and meeting new friends
In the afternoon, I returned to the new albergue to settle in. I went through my pack a bit and found some things I knew I wouldn’t need, deciding I’d stop at the post office before leaving the next day. The back of the property had a lovely high garden overlooking the town, so I ascended to write in my journal and pause to set an intention for my journey. I prayed for peace within me, for forgiveness for past wrongs. I felt peaceful and snoozed on the park bench there before going in. So restful. It was just what I needed.
Because the hosts took pity on me from my tiring journey to France, they assigned me to a small and quiet room with only 3 single beds. There I met a friendly woman who would add so much to my journey. Together, Marisela repeated the unpack-purge-repack process together for her own backpack and we resolved to walk together the next day. Being from Colombia, I promised to practice my Spanish with her.
We went down to the cathedral and attended the Pilgrims’ Mass. I couldn’t follow a lot of it, but at the end, all the pilgrims were invited up for a special blessing before the small congregation. It was so beautiful, I felt a little misty being honored in this way. Pilgrims have been coming to this church for much longer than I’ve been alive.
The day’s blessings continued as we joined the albergue dinner. Before we ate, the hosts asked us to share where we were from and why we’d decided to walk the Camino. Some of the reasons were very powerful. I loved encountering so many people who were clearly searching, challenging themselves, and open to connecting.
The meal was amazing. Two dozen people were seated at two long tables and the food was passed around family-style including a spicy bisque (in Basque!), a nourishing dinner, lots of bread and wine, a yummy dessert, and a special digestif afterward. It felt as though we were being hosted in someone’s home, not just taking a bed. All of the hosts had walked the Camino before and were doing this work out of love for the journey.
After dinner, I met my other roommate, Katrin from Austria, and found another soul sister who would share much of the journey with me. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Katrin would be one of the very first people to hug me upon arriving in Santiago.
I slept like a dream that night, nourished at heart and from head to toe. Trusting my intuition to stay in Saint Jean one more day proved to be wise. So much lay ahead on the path, taking care of myself was the best possible choice. As the pilgrimage unfolded, I would learn to listen to and trust that voice more and more.
I slept peacefully in our quiet room with my two new friends and dreamed of the exciting journey ahead.