Saturday, November 01, 2014

Thoughts from home

Now that we have had time to recover from jet lag, we would like to share our thoughts and feelings about our walk, and perhaps give a few tips to help people who are thinking of doing this route. We will focus on preparation and training for the walk, accommodation, food and transportation.

Preparation/Training: Overall, we thought that this route was more challenging than the Camino Frances. We had done some hill training, and I think it really helped us in the first two weeks. Because of the amount of climbing in the first few days, we chose to do shorter stages (15 km) and it worked out well. We opted to take the Cele Valley variant (GR 651), and were surprised at how challenging it was physically. We had been walking for two weeks by then, so had no problem with the hills, but it came as a surprise to us as we had somehow expected to walk along the river. Instead you are high up on top of rock bluffs, looking down at the valley, and sometimes make multiple ascents (and descents) in one day. The scenery is dramatic and well worth the effort! We did meet someone who opted to walk on the road to avoid the hills on one day, but she was disappointed that the road did not always follow the river either! Regarding equipment, our boots were mid height lightweight goretex, and we were thankful to have the ankle support, as there were many sections of the trail with loose rocks. We also recommend walking sticks, to help out your knees on the steep descents, and just make even the walking on flat terrain easier. Our backpacks were Osprey 36L and 38L, weighing about 7-8 kg not including water and food. We had ponchos for rain, but luckily only had two days where we really needed them. We did not take sleeping bags, but had our silk liners to use in gites. One thing that I would recommend looking into is lightweight gaiters, as we found we had to stop to remove debris that was kicked up and worked its way into our boots and socks. They would also help if you were walking in mud, but luckily we didn't encounter too much of that!

Accommodation: Before leaving home, we reserved our accommodation for the first week, and we recommend that since there are quite a few people on the trail. Some of the places required confirming one or two days before arrival, so we did that by email once we were in France. We used the Miam Miam Dodo guidebook, and it was essential for the lists of accommodations, and contact phone numbers. As our iPhone is unlocked, we purchased a SIM card from Orange once we were in France. Once we were walking we soon discovered that emailing for reservations was not feasible, as it was impossible to get an immediate reply, and of course we had no wifi or cell service on the trail. We used the iPhone to call one or two days ahead of time. Even with our limited high school French, we were able to make ourselves understood. Sometimes it was difficult to understand the reply on the other end, but we became better at that the longer we were in France! The main thing was knowing we had a place to stay, so as long as we heard "oui" and gave our name to hold the reservation, we were happy! One warning about the MMDD guide- be aware of the numbering of the accommodations, as in many cases the first listing is not in the main town, but can be several kilometres away. We missed that twice, and made reservations at the first place listed, only to discover later that it was not in the town! It is easy to be so focused on what facilities they have etc. that you can miss it. I believe the guide should use a different system for numbering, but that's just my opinion. The Tourist Information offices are wonderful at helping people reserve rooms, however their offices are not in the smaller villages. We also had our hosts call ahead for us a few times, and they are very used to doing that. We preferred to do it ourselves though, as the hosts are usually busy. We stayed mostly in Chambre d'hôtes, and less often in gites and hotels. One thing to be aware of is that often the Chambre d'hôtes have check in time later in the afternoon, whereas the hotels frequently can check you in much earlier, assuming the room is ready. That is not a factor if you are walking longer distances, but we were usually finished by 1 or 2 pm, and sometimes found it tiring to have to wait, not to mention the fact that there may not be a restaurant or bar open.

Food: We found that having enough food while walking required some planning, as typically the shops and restaurants are closed on Sunday and Monday, as well as in the afternoons. Usually we could find food in the larger towns, but if we were going to be passing through smaller villages then we made sure we had some lunch items with us. Sometimes your host will sell you supplies, if you are really stuck. Also, we always tried to have emergency rations such as trail mix, nuts and chocolate in our packs. We usually chose DP (demi-pension - includes room, dinner and breakfast) when booking accommodation so that we didn't have to worry about dinner, and some of the meals were wonderful! Checking the guidebook for facilities in the towns is a good idea, as some of the smaller towns have no restaurant at all, so the only option for eating dinner is your Gite, Chambre d'hotes or hotel. Some of the gites have kitchens, so making your own dinner is an option, provided you have somewhere to purchase ingredients! Another thing to be aware of is that many of the bars provide beverages in the afternoon, but not food. This was quite different to our experience in Spain, where you could always get something to eat at the bars.

Transportation: Getting to Le Puy was a bit of an adventure, as we had purchased our train ticket from Paris to Le Puy online from Canada, and it wasn't until we were on the train that we found out from some fellow passengers that the train would not be going all the way to Le Puy, and that we would be taking a bus from St. Etienne. We were not charged extra for the bus, but it was a very cramped and unpleasant ride, and lasted about 1.5 hours. We are not sure if this bus is temporary due to work being done on the rail line.

During the walk we needed transportation a couple of times, and had no problem getting taxis. Usually your host or hotel will call them for you. It is also possible to get a ride with the luggage transport companies, but that has to be pre-arranged, as they have limited space. Many of the French tourists transport their bags, and it seems to work very well.

We highly recommend this walk - the scenery is breathtaking, the food wonderful, and the locals very welcoming and kind. There are enough people on the trail to make it enjoyable, and if you are willing to have fun and try speaking a bit of French, all the better!

Bon Chemin..........



Sunday, October 19, 2014

St. Jean Pied-de-Port and Pamplona, Spain

The last two days have been pretty wonderful.....walking on Friday could not have been more perfect. There was some hill climbing, and the weather was sunny and hot, but nothing could dampen our spirits! We had a couple of close encounters with sheep on the road which was great fun, and also met a few more pilgrims along the way. One of them was a young Dutch fellow who had finished university and was walking to Santiago from Holland, to spend time thinking about his future.

Leaving Ostabat
Russ found me the most perfect fig!!
Sheep on the move
We arrived at SJPDP mid-afternoon, and went to the pilgrim office first, which was across the street from our gite. It wasn't too busy at that time, so we enjoyed chatting with the volunteer, who happened to be from Ontario. She added us to her list of pilgrims arriving in town, and we were the fourth Canadians that day, so were ahead of all the other countries at that point! Some tourists took our photos, which we thought was quite amusing, as we were sweaty and tired, so not looking our best!

Gate into SJPDP on Chemin Le Puy
Beilari, our gite
River in SJPDP
Our gite,"Beilari", was formerly "L'Esprit du Chemin", and we had spent one night there in 2012 before starting our Camino. We found that not much had changed in two years, and it is still being run very efficiently. There were twelve guests, and the countries represented were England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Germany and Canada. We had a social time before dinner, with little games to break the ice and get to know each other. Several of us had completed our walks, so we were asked to give tips to the people about to head out. Dinner was vegetarian and very good. Russ and I were in a room with three beds, and our roommate was a young Spanish lady from Pamplona. She was only going to walk for two days....easy to do when you live so close to the Camino! When we got up yesterday morning (Saturday) it was such a great atmosphere in the gite, with people eating their breakfast and preparing to start their Caminos. Soft music was playing, and there was laughter coming from downstairs. We remembered so well how we felt two years ago, excited and also a bit apprehensive. We were thinking of our friends Caroline, Brenda and Brian, who had been our roommates there. Both of us felt envious and quite emotional when we peeked out into the street and saw all the pilgrims heading out. It will always be a special place for us.

Early morning in SJPDP
We had made contact by email with an Aussie couple that we had met in Cahors, and were surprised to hear that they were also in town, as she had pulled a back muscle and they had been forced to stop walking. We felt badly for them, but were happy we had the chance to spend more time together. They had mentioned that they were going to Pamplona by taxi later that morning. To make a long story short, we tagged along and shared the cost of the taxi. We had always regretted not spending time in Pamplona on our Camino, so this was an exciting opportunity!

The drive to Pamplona was along the Valcarlos route, which is the route walkers take on the Camino if the weather is not good enough on the higher Napoleon route. The road was very windy and hilly, and there were a few pilgrims walking right on the side of the road, which had no shoulder. There were many pilgrims on bicycles also. I was thankful that we had been able to do the higher route, as the highway route did not look particularly safe nor enjoyable to me. We were so excited when we drove through Roncesvalles, then Zubiri, and saw the Camino several times where it crosses the highway, until we finally reached Pamplona.

We agreed to meet our friends later on for a tapas bar crawl, and after checking into our hotel we headed out to do some sightseeing, and also deal with the logistics of taking the bus back to France. On a Saturday afternoon Pamplona was the main square we watched some folk dancing by men and women in their ethnic costumes, and the square was packed with families enjoying the nice weather. A bit later we heard music and came across more dancing, but this time it was just anyone doing it, adults and children, and there was a live band accompanying them. It looked a bit like line dancing except they were doing it in a circle, but they had certain steps that they all knew. It was wonderful to see everyone having a good time, and obviously the children were learning the steps too. Apparently they do this dancing in a huge circle in the main plaza during the week, but on weekends it is in a smaller square. I can't explain how happy we were to be back here, and finally spend time seeing this city. It is so vibrant!

Circle dancing
This bar has ham on the menu!
Linda, Margo, Ian
Our tapas later on were so much fun. We went to three different bars and just picked out a variety of items. Tried some red wine from this province, Navarre, as well as some good Rioja. The streets were packed as we headed back to our hotel around 9:30. Their evening was just beginning! We certainly noticed the liveliness of this town, after the sleepy little French villages we have been spending our last month in! We felt like we had been transported to a different universe.

Pamplona street in the evening
Little girls having fun
Town Hall
This morning we met our friends at the famous Cafe Iruna, which has been in the main square since 1888. It is very ornate inside, and we enjoyed our cafe con leches and scrambled egg bocadillas. Russ and I then did some sightseeing, walking the route of the Running of the Bulls, and visiting the museum. It's now siesta time, and I am hoping to get this blog entry posted.

Interior of cafe
The men pray to this saint for their safety before the bulls are released.
Entrance to the bullring, where all the bulls are corralled.
We will leave here tomorrow morning (Monday) and take the bus to San Sebastian where we switch to another bus to Bayonne. From there we take a train to Paris on Tuesday.

Oh, one more thing. Russ's boots are now on their way to Santiago.......the young Dutch fellow needed to replace his boots, and Russ offered them to him. He tried them on and they fit perfectly. The Camino does provide!