First day: St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Here we go! After a marathon train journey and two other connections, we finally hopped on a one-car commuter line with a few dozen other technical fabric- and hiking boot-clad would-be pilgrims from Biarritz to the small Basque village of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which has become the de facto trailhead of the French Camino de Santiago. Whether that’s for historic reasons or simply because it’s the last town in France before crossing the foothills of the Pyrenees into Spain, I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s another painfully charming spot with winding stone-cobbled streets and walls built as much for beauty as defense.

Alas, we tore ourselves from the village at about 8:30, later than most, to tackle one of the French Camino’s most difficult chunks. A lovely hostel lies about 11 km into the walk, but at that rate, we’d need three months for this journey, not one, so after a quick coffee there, we continued to climb. The next waypoint, unless you’re packing your own shelter, lies in Roncesvalles, another 16 km further.

Most of this stage – about 24 km in fact – climbs through pastureland where the Basques pasture their cattle, ponies and black-faced Brebis sheep, but apparently the healthy vulture population spiraling in updrafts like bubbles in a glass makes it necessary to prohibit dumping animal remains.

Temperamental weather can sometimes force pilgrims to take the lowland route, but all we had was sunshine and cool breezes to accompany spectacular view after spectacular view across rolling hills tapering into the ocean to the west and lapping at snow-covered spires to the east.

Roncesvalles is a tiny Spanish town with a massive hostel, necessitated by its position as a bottleneck on the Camino. Across three floors, several hundred bodies bed down every night here at this well-organized modern dormitory attached to a 12th-century church during the summer. Pilgrims almost undoubtedly out-number the town’s residents during the evening hours.

 As I understand it, hotels in small towns like this one often put together a communal pilgrim meal with an appetizer, entrée and dessert for pilgrims at a reasonable price. After enjoying our first of many, and some good conversation spurred on by a thirsty Italian who ordered us all a second bottle of wine, we happily put our weary legs up to rest in the hostel by 8:45.

Just a quick note – I’m going to try to put up shorter posts more frequently from our time on the Camino. Part of it is that I’m pretty exhausted by the time we arrive some where to sleep every night that writing longer posts is tough, and part of it is spotty access to wifi, though so far it’s been pretty good. There’s so much I’d like to share but know my words and Anne-Claire’s pictures, good as they tend to be, can’t capture. Hopefully, I’ll be able to provide a small window into this experience that we’re so lucky to be enjoying.

Upside Down Take

Anne-Claire and I have both commented on how backward this trip feels, touring around at the beginning and seeing people and places in Europe before getting down to what we expect will be the hard work of hiking every day for 500 miles.

But our frequent flier tickets worked best to fly into Paris and out of Lisbon, so we’ve made do. When life gives you lemons…

We spent a night with Anne-Claire’s former host family in Aix-en-Provence, about a 20-minute bus ride from the airport in Marseille – that is, the one that we flew into (MSP2). Anne-Claire raves about the meals Amable puts together.

Born in central Spain and raised in southern France, she brings highlights from Castilian and Provencal cooking to every meal, emphasizing fresh ingredients, balance (down to the colors of the food she prepares), and variety. I was surprised to learn that she doesn’t like to eat strong cheeses, but she says she loves buying them because there are so many to choose from.

Her long-time partner Michel is as curious as ever, proudly showing off pictures from a bike trip for a week or so last summer on the Camino de Santiago. He’s hiked the length we’re doing, from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago, twice, and has endless stories about the people he’s met along the way. Once, while he was talking about his time on the Camino, his voice began to crack and he had to wipe his eyes.

That’s one thing I didn’t expect – the importance that people attach to this pilgrimage. As I’ve said earlier, I don’t have a strong spiritual motivation for this hike. I’m here largely for the pleasure of walking a few hundred miles uninterrupted. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at its importance as pilgrims have been making the trek for hundreds of years. I’ll write more on all this later.

From Aix, we rented a car to get to Cahors. I mentioned how expensive it is to drive in France, and this is particularly true if you’re not traveling up one of the spokes of the bicycle wheel of thoroughfares radiating out from Paris but rather trying to hop between them as we were. Private companies have obliged drivers trying to avoid Paris, but at a high cost in tolls. We drove west to Cahors, which took about six-and-a-half hours.

Again, we were visiting one of Anne-Claire’s former host families. We’d spent a few days with Cecile and her daughters at the end of our trip last summer. I had told them I had blogged about our trip, and of course they asked to see it. Forgetting what I’d written, I plugged the address into Google Translate, and – at least in this instance – it provided a particularly good interpretation of what I had written.

As Cecile and her oldest daughter Maylin read it, I sat shifting nervously in my chair – first, because it’s never fun to watch someone read what you’ve written, and second, because I started to remember what I had included about Maylin’s father. It was only a sentence and wasn’t untrue, but it’s never fun to read something negative about your parents.  Maylin wasn’t upset with me, though both she and her mother cried at points, and Cecile gave me a loud kiss on the cheek after she finished.

Though a lot has changed in their lives – Maylin is finishing up her first year at university and set to spend the summer in Spain, and Elora has started high school – the girls and their mother are still as close as before, and we had a wonderful visit.

Ryan Air and Tribulations

Since leaving Bruges, our travels have been a whirlwind, leaving me little time to write. Even though our time until now has felt like a prequel to the main thrust of our trip, I’ll try to hit a few of the high points in the next post or two since coming back to France and setting out on our hike. Visiting Anne-Claire’s friends was, as always, a pleasure.

Flying into Marseille with Ryan Air was easy, though seeing how a cattle call boarding system flushes away people’s consideration and manners is demoralizing (and more than a bit humbling when you yourself get caught up in the pushing and shoving). It’s a bit like the Southwest Airlines system used to be in the States, except that you can only bump yourself up to the priority line by paying more, not by checking in earlier. I’m convinced Ryan Air’s staff deliberately make the path wide enough for four or five people, and that they snicker when the real elbowing begins as you approach the jetway and hand over your ticket.

Anne-Claire carried her bag on, so as soon as she saw people begin to queue up to board, she politely went around the barriers and would’ve been third or fourth in line had a few fellow passengers not slipped under the lines. It’s an interesting psychological experiment: the barriers for the line are set up well before a flight takes off. I suppose if the boarding time does approach, Ryan Air’s ticket takers would call for everyone to get in line, but I doubt this has ever happened.

It’s sort of like game theory, in that each passenger is balancing their comfort waiting for the flight with their desire to have a good seat and overhead space for their bags. But as soon as someone decides the latter is more important and grabs the first place, his/her fellow passengers cascade into line. It might be interesting some time to pick an arbitrary Ryan Air flight, wait until there’s a critical mass of people and then jump into line at a ridiculous time just to watch the line form quickly.

But as I said, we arrived safely in Marseille, just like everyone else, whether they were first or last in line.

Beautiful Bruges

A common thread to our travels is that we try to let our limited budget open doors instead of close them. Left with a few free days between our time in Paris and our rendezvous with Anne-Claire’s former host family in Aix-en-Provence, we had originally hoped to go to Arles to visit the Roman ruins there and in the surrounding countryside. But we expected that to be difficult without a car, and the train ticket from Paris to Aix on the TGV was very expensive.

So, with some creative itinerary engineering and help choosing a location to visit from a good friend, we decided to head to Bruges in Belgium. With a cheap last-minute TGV fare from Paris and a bargain flight from Brussels to Marseille a few days later, we figure we saved about €20.

Getting to Bruges was fairly straightforward. The trickiest part was the half-kilometer walk we had to make between stations in Lille, France. Once in Bruges, a (what-should-have-been) short bus trip to our hostel turned out to be longer than expected. Traffic, even early in the afternoon, was heavy around the moat-encapsulated town, with cyclists whizzing by on their dedicated bike boulevard running parallel and traffic-free to the outer belt.

Our hostel was clean and basic, with lots of college-aged backpackers, its own bar and included breakfast for €26 a night per person for a private double room. Had we to do it over again, we would have done a bit more research and booked one of the town’s many bed-and-breakfasts – probably a bit quieter accommodation for just a few euros more per night.

Still, we didn’t spend much time inside. For a smaller town, Bruges is packed with sights, but Anne-Claire and I spent most of our time just enjoying this stunningly preserved medieval walled town. As Anne-Claire said, it’s so cute, it makes your teeth hurt. Not that it’s saccharin sweet – it’s all real sugar. But if you visit Bruges, prepare yourself for Disneyland-esque charm.

The main town square is anchored by a huge bell tower with concerts every 15 minutes that seem to last about 20 minutes each. Middling restaurants edge the periphery, with better fare, service and prices in the streets and satellite plazas spiraling outward toward the wall.

A few canals slice through the cobbled streets, once useful when Bruges was a hub for trading cloth, but now plied by crotchety guides with packed boats of tourists. While the bilingual spiel (English and French) wasn’t scintillating, the tour was fun and it got us first-rate access to some of the town’s most elegant and relaxed visitors.

The De Halve Maan brewery turned out to be an interesting and reasonable tour, especially when you figure in the beer included at the end. I watched a friendly Dutch-speaking guide take a group in just before ours and was a bit disappointed to see a mousey guy dressed like a mechanic quietly lead us into the first room of the brewery. But hopefully you can tell from the following video that the smell of wort and hops energized him a bit:

After a delicious lunch of Belgian sausages and the obligatory basket of fries, during which we saw a purse snatcher get run down by three bicycle cops right past the terrace where we were sitting, we rented

bicycles for the afternoon. Bruges is a perfect town to get lost in the winding streets. If you can’t figure out where you are, ride until you can see either the bell tower or the spire from the Church of the Holy Blood. A quick aside – I haven’t had time to do the research yet, but this church was clearly built at two different times at least. The older appears more Gothic and the newer looks almost Moorish with what looks like a minaret. If I get a second to poke around about this difference, I’ll try to post something later.

As I mentioned earlier this week, cyclists are given almost limitless right-of-way here, and bikes get access to some of the streets that are too narrow to accommodate vehicles. The town is dotted with hidden parks, and you can get a good idea of the layout in about half a day.

It’s definitely a good thing we’re hitting the Camino de Santiago soon, because I don’t think my waistline could take more days in Belgium. In addition to french fry stands, vendors selling deliciously dense waffles (made from bread-like dough rather than batter) beckon constantly. And I failed miserably in my attempt to try all of the 500-plus types of beer. I came to Belgium thinking I didn’t really like Belgian beers, but I left the country with a new appreciation for the complex-yet-refreshingly light brews that pack a punch when it comes to alcohol content.

We had a few hours to spend in Brussels before heading to the Charleroi airport for the night before our flight to Marseille the next morning. Much larger than Bruges, Brussels doesn’t have the same charm, though the King’s House and city hall in the Grand Place are superb in their gothic splendor. We took in the Manneken Pis, the statue of a small boy with a man’s body peeing that was first a source of clean water and later became a symbol of Brussels itself. And on the Grand Place, just next door to city hall is the Swan House, which used to house a bar where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked on the Communist Manifesto in the 1840s. Our guidebook pointed out the irony that it now houses a fancy bourgeoise restaurant.

With a bit more time, we would have taken in the modern parts of this “capital of Europe” that so many foreigners call home. But we had to get out to the airport on a shuttle bus before it got too late. Ryan air flies out of the secondary Charleroi airport an hour outside of town, which makes Newark and SFO look like downtown airports. It wasn’t difficult, but just took a little time.

It’s hard to argue against the charm of this country, especially when you take into account the hearty food and tasty beer, and we were happy to have taken this 3-day detour.

Bicycle Heaven

No matter how many times I’ve visited cities in Europe, I’m always impressed at the conventions in place for bicyclists. This is especially true in Bruges, Belgium. We took a short detour there between Paris and Aix-en-Provence. It’s out of necessity, to be sure. Driving is so expensive – parking, tolls and the cost of gasoline (some would say the true cost) add up quickly, as we found out on a 500-km trip from Aix-en-Provence to Cahors on Saturday. Highway tolls for the journey added up to roughly €35, and even in our fuel-efficient, manual transmission Corsa hatchback, we spent about €65 on gasoline – that’s more than $7.50 a gallon, even with the declining value of the euro. Only a weekend special at Hertz (one day for €25) made it more economical to rent a car instead of buying two train tickets.

But to get back to the question of bicycles, cycling is often the most practical way to get around. Cities like Paris and Bruges (which we visited after Paris) are mostly flat; Montmartre in Paris is of course a big exception. Tightly concentrated city centers often make it quicker to pedal than get behind a steering wheel for short trips. Undoubtedly, the role cycling plays in mobilizing all segments of the population makes it easier to justify concessions to cyclists. Paris is dotted with ingenious bike rental stations – just swipe your

credit card and you can ride to anywhere else in the city where there’s another station for a euro or two an hour. In the States, well-established bike lanes and “sharrows” indicating that bicyclists can “share” the road with cars are heralded as pinnacles of bike friendliness. But what often happens is that sharrows are ignored and drivers often see the white line as a restriction to keep cyclists from impeding vehicle progress, rather than as a protected space for the cyclists, which they’re allowed to leave if they need to turn or there’s something in their way. Drivers in the U.S. show little consideration for bikers, I think because they’re seen as more of a nuisance rather than travelers on the road with equal rights.

To be sure, cyclists as a group bring a lot of this frustration on themselves. When bikers don’t follow the rules of the road – for example, ignoring stop signs, weaving in and out of traffic, riding the wrong way – drivers have little choice but to expect the worst from every two-wheeler they see. I wrote an article several years ago about an experienced cyclist who made a fatal mistake in not leaving his bike lane when he should have.

To deal with the ambiguity in how bicyclists behave and drivers react to them, Paris has detailed markings on the road to indicate exactly where cyclists should go. In the picture at the left, the arrows continue, leading bicycles into a safe left-hand turn at a busy intersection.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s difficult to retrofit streets designed expressly for cars with bicycle lanes, but this doesn’t hold much water when you realize that much narrower streets in Europe built centuries before those in America now support many times more cyclists than those in the U.S. probably ever will. In Bruges, they’ve managed this by giving cyclists more rights than drivers. On narrow, one-way (for vehicles) streets, cyclists zip in both directions. When things get clogged up and there’s no room to pass, drivers just wait. Outside the walls of the city, cyclists have a dedicated section of the sidewalk and their own lights to allow them to cross busy streets.

Obviously, this is something I feel strongly about, perhaps for a couple of reasons. One – cycling is just plain fun and great exercise. It’s no coincidence that Europeans, who rely more one walking and biking for transporation, have lower rates of obesity than we Americans (though this is changing). Two – few forms of transport are as egalitarian as cycling. For a fraction of the cost of an automobile, most of us can buy a bike that we can ride to work and use for errands. That means, with the right support system in place including good public transporation, the bicycle can be a tool for upward mobility between classes.

I think there’s a tendency when traveling to want to believe that everything new and different is better than the way you know. I certainly fall into that trap from time to time. In fact, exposure to new ideas one of the reasons I love to travel. After some reflection, you decide what practices are worth keeping and which you can do without. But in their approach to bikes, I think Europeans have it right.