Day 0: Ready, get set, …

This is a story about my Way of St. James or … El Camino de Santiago. It sounds much more exotic in Spanish, doesn’t it.

If some freak wave of Internet surfing brought you to this page … and you have no idea what on Earth am I talking about, here is a brief introduction.

Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route. Here is a bit more on Wikipedia, and a interactive map of the route I took (Camino Frances) and a trailer of a movie about it – “The Way” starring Martin Sheen, as well as some YouTube videos about it …  video no.1video no.2

I started my Way at  St. Jean Pied de Port (a.k.a. SJPDP for Camino addicts).
Getting there is a bit complicated, since the tiny town doesn’t have an airport. I flew from London to Barcelona, boarded a train to Pamplona, took a bus to SJPDP, boarded the boat to … right … boats where the only means of transportation I didn’t use to get there.

I found the Spanish trains to be quite comfortable, which for me means plenty of leg room. The train arrived to Pamplona at 11.15 and that’s where I met my first peregrino (Camino pilgrim). We are not that difficult to recognize … backpack, hiking boots and jacket, and generally a funny look. This Spanish pilgrim is a spitting image of the actor who played Geronimo in the western movies. He is doing the Camino by bike from Roncevalles. He first mistook me for Frenchman, than Italian … and was surprised to learn I am Croatian.

Understandable, since in 2013. only 100 of us got the Compostella, and 73 the year before. After my very first exchange of Buen Camino (pilgrim greeting) I started walking towards the city center and got my first shock.
Those mountains rising above he city look big, much bigger … and higher … than on Google Maps,  where they are flat … imagine that. Following the river,  I approached the old town and got my second shock … the old town rises on a pretty steep hill … well now … if this is a hint of things to come …
Fortunately smart locals dug a hole in the base of the hill, which I’m betting contains an escalator stars of some sort …. oh, its an elevator….even better.

The elevator exit opens to the old town … nice city … a bit wider streets than typical Mediterranean streets back home, but similar concept.
A few streets later there it is … The Camino …
One small step for mankind, one giant step for a man.

my first view of the Camino

Yellow arrow and a shell sign clearly show the right direction to the Camino.
Naturally I went in the opposite direction. But no …  I wasn’t lost (that will come later), I was heading for Caminoteca shop to pick up some supplies. Owned by Hungarian couple who did the Camino several times, its a specialized shop for Camino stuff.

After leaving Caminoteca a small ferretiera caught my eye. In Spain these stores sell different electric stuff as well as pots and pans….that I barely avoided tossing all over the place. Narrow aisle and hiking poles sticking out from my backpack, put me in slight danger of acting like that Police Academy character who leaves havoc in his path. The gent who runs the store had all I needed, and best of all I managed to make myself understood in Spanish.

Thanks Duolingo!

Almost fully equipped, I go looking for a bus station. Bus leaves at 17,30  … when I approached the counter I didn’t have to say where I’m heading. As soon as she saw me, the lady started printing a ticket to St. Jean. She also pricked my newly acquired bubble of pride (related to my Spanish skill), by writing down on a piece of paper … 17:30 and 20€.

Right, now the only items remaining on my list are a Spanish SIM card and spare food.
They say (and by they I mean the extra nice people on this forum ) the best prepaid deal is on Movistar. According to Movistar website they have a few shops or tiendas nearby. The first one is in Corte Ingles, a large department store. The shop is on the 6th floor, but what do I care … there are escalators. At the top of the escalators Vodafone and Orange counters .. right, they all probably have similar prices … let’s see. Not quite, both are 20€ for 1Gb. Around the corner there is Movistar with an inconvenient surprise … “we have it but its expensive, you have Orange and Vodafone around the corner” … hmmm…“don’t you have your brand for prepaid Tuan someting” … “oh yes Tuan Moviles, but we don’t have them here, there is our other shop nearby”.

OK … I go looking for this other store … (managing to pass by the perfume stands on the ground floor without breaking anything) and while I’m looking for that address, I spot another Vodafone store at the corner … but I’m not tempted. After 10 min I manage to find that Movistar store … and naturally there is a crowd inside. They are all making some complicated contract deals where the fine print needs to be explained in detail. When I finally reached the head of line the guy says … “oh yes we have it …  usually … but we don’t have any on stock at the moment … however there is Miguel’s store nearby that might have it.”  Right o’ … take 3 aaaand action …
While I’m looking for Miguel there is another Vodafone, and then another Orange store to tempt me … but hey … now I’m determined. Miguel has a tiny store, speak good English and has a prepaid Movistar 10€ for 1Gb. He even set it up for me and shows me how to top it up. I guess it pays to be stubborn … errr … persistent.

Intoxicated with my success I decide to treat myself to a meal. I sat down in small bistro without taking anyone’s eye out or tossing the dishes from nearby tables … another success. I ordered spaghetti bolognese, other options included duck and something I didn’t feel like typing to translate.
Typing ?! …  you might ask.
I downloaded Google Translate app (here are links for iPhone and Android) with offline Spanish, it can even speak the translation.

Around the town there dozen or so peregrinos, we’ll see how many will be on the bus later. The weather is great, partly cloudy, though the tomorrow’s forecast is rain in the mountains. I settled at the bus station waiting area, reminded of Churchill’s advice … never stand if you can sit, and never sit if you can lie down … something tells me that I’ll fully embrace this on the Camino.

I had a brief chat with a Bavarian gent who starts from Roncesvalles, and who bought the return ticket from Santiago 52 days from today… he is either a pessimist or I am an optimist estimating it’ll take me 4-5 weeks … we’ll see.

Arrived at St. Jean in a bus with 20 or so pilgrims. Boy … those mountains sure look even higher close up.
Managed to find the pilgrim’s office after a short but steep climb up the old street ( a preview of things to come), where I managed to impress the lady inside with my two  word French vocabulary, (lot of nodding interspersed with Oui and bon ) got my Credetial and was assigned a place in the albergue.

Tomorrow I start my journey.
In retrospect I expected it to be good, but had no idea at the time how absolutely fantastic, great, spectacular, magical, enchanting … (words fail me ) the whole experience will prove to be.