Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tuesday Voice: El Camino de Santiago, Part I

Challenge and reward

By Valeria Idakieva

[Editor’s note: The author frequently goes hiking or running in the mountains of her native Bulgaria.]

A lot has been said and written about the Camino de Santiago, because a stream of people of various nationalities pass along it. Like a powerful magnet, it attracts about 200,000 people each year. Is their objective to worship one of Jesus’s favorite disciples in his tomb and to obtain remission of sins? Are they drawn by the great cultural and artistic monuments that make the Santiago Route the “first European cultural itinerary” (as it was described in 1987 by the Council of Europe)? Or do they simply want to leave behind the habits and routines of their everyday life? Whatever the reason, visiting the route is a unique experience, a combination of challenge and reward that transforms everyone.
    “How did you learn about the Camino?” a fellow pilgrim asked me. “I don’t know.” I felt as if I had known about it all my life. It had finally called me and I had answered it. But I hated not knowing how to answer, and later I started thinking about when I had first heard about the Camino. Actually, being a hiker, I had been looking on the Internet for information about a mountain trail in Bulgaria, and two or three times I came across the Camino and it somehow got stuck in my mind.
    So, in July, almost three years after I had learned about the Camino, I bought a ticket to San Sebastian with the idea to experience something completely different, a getaway from my everyday life. San Sebastian is a Spanish city a few kilometers away from the French border and a few more from the starting point – Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees [see map, from a Michelin Guide].

And here I am at the San Sebastian airport, after a sleepless night at the Sofia airport and a sprint at the Barcelona airport to catch the transfer flight waiting to take my luggage. But the Camino has decided to start with the challenges. My luggage is not here.
    The discovery was like a cold shower and it woke me up very quickly. I must have had a tragic look at the desk for delayed luggage, because the man there told me they would call me and deliver the luggage wherever in France or Spain I was when it arrived at the San Sebastian airport. I waited at the bus stop, but the bus that was supposed to take me from the airport to the city of San Sebastian never arrived.
    Having walked the arrivals lounge to and fro a few times wondering how I would get to the city, I was back at the same desk again because the man there was the only other person in the lounge who spoke English. “Do you know where France is?” he asked me. “It is over there,” he said, pointing, “and you want to go to the city, which is 20 kilometers away in the opposite direction. Don’t go to the city, go to Irun. It is two kilometers from here. You have come to walk, so walk to the town of Irun, and you can take a train to France there.”
    At least one problem was solved and I could do something – walk to Irun. This nice, tidy town was waking up under the August sun.

    By following the road signs I reached the train station, but no agents were on duty there. Tickets were sold by machines, but no French destinations were shown in the timetable and none of the other people there spoke English. I paced the station again and again and asking myself what I was going to do. At last, here came a woman asking in English where she could buy a ticket to France. I told her there were only machines, and could she try to find a destination in France, because I couldn’t? After some unsuccessful attempts she went to a nearby shop and when she came back it turned out that she was a half-Spanish American from Texas travelling with her daughter, and she knew enough Spanish to find out at the shop that there was another train station where the trains to France depart.
    “So I must be your guardian angel,” the woman said.
    “Yes,” I said, “there should be some balance in nature, and since I don’t have luggage, I should have a guardian angel.”

    And so we continued to France. After several trains and a bus I finally reached Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a beautiful, bustling town, which I did not appreciate enough because I was thinking what to do – whether to start walking or stay there and wait for my luggage.
    Anyway, I had to go to the pilgrim’s office to get my pilgrim’s passport and some more information about the route. I told one of the people working there about my luggage. She sounded really sympathetic and suggested that they could collect some basic things I would need and told me to come back later, after I found a place to sleep. Searching for a suitable albergue – the Spanish term used for hostel on the Camino – took some time, but finally I found one where the owner told me he would look for sheets because the albergues do not normally provide them, you are supposed to carry a sleeping bag.
    Back at the pilgrim’s office I did not get any basic things – I guess they had forgotten about that. But I got an answer to my dilemma. Sitting there was a German woman without feet who was going to start the Camino the next day with prosthetic feet. I felt so embarrassed about being frustrated all day. What was I complaining about? – I had two feet, I was in perfect health. I did not have luggage, but I had everything else. So I bought a few basic things and decided to start walking the next day.

I woke up to a cloudy morning. It had just rained, and moisture was still in the air. The Napoleon route through the Pyrenees was in front of me. It was going to be a steep climb, from 200 meters above sea level to 1,400 meters, but that did not bother me, as I had done a lot of similar climbs in the mountains. What bothered me were the clouds creeping over my head and threatening to pour down not only on the already wet T-shirt that I had washed and put on the clothes line and was now waving in an effort to dry it, but also on the only clothes I had. Still, the mountain has its own weather and you never know. I hoped it would be merciful.
    Actually I was lucky. The views were stunning – peace and serenity all around, together with the fog and clouds, which were moving and showing different pictures in front of my eyes. And as another pilgrim said, not having to carry a heavy backpack along this climb was maybe my blessing. At some places you do not know whether you are on the ground or in the clouds.

    All worries forgotten, I had imperceptibly reached Roncesvalles – a monastery that hosted one of the earliest pilgrim’s hospices and whose surroundings still remember the defeat and death of Charlemagne’s lieutenant Roland. The highlight of the day was the evening service with the pilgrim blessing, which is held every evening – for 400 pilgrims in the summer months or for four on a February evening. No matter whether you are religious or not, it is worth attending since it makes you feel part of something special. The staff at the albergue there – one of the biggest albergues on the route – were really friendly and helpful. I received a sleeping bag for the night and a backpack so that I could continue after I had talked to the airport in San Sebastian and they told me that the plane which had my luggage had to land in Bilbao because there was a storm.
    Early in the morning I started through “The Oakwood of Witches” where some of the many witches’ covens of the XVIth century were held, but the White Cross, a symbol of divine protection, was along the road, so it was not that scary.
    In fact, I was thankful for the shade of the trees and the softness of the earthen track. I decided to turn the disadvantage of not having luggage into an advantage. Since I was walking light, I could walk more, so I planned to walk the 43 km to Pamplona in one day.
    “Buen Camino” is the most frequent greeting along the Camino. I said it to a lot of people during the day, but in the late afternoon I met two women, said “Buen Camino” to the first of them, and the second one asked the one ahead of her, in Bulgarian, “Did you see that beautiful bird?”
    “Oh, yes I did,” I answered in Bulgarian.
    She looked at me puzzled and then we started laughing. That is how I met two Bulgarians whose Camino had also started with a challenge. One of them had lost her documents, money, and credit cards in the Paris underground, but it did not stop them, their Camino was just delayed. They were here fulfilling their dream to walk the Camino together or at least some of it. We talked a little and I hurried to Pamplona to reach an albergue and tell my address to the airport because I had learned by mobile phone that my luggage had arrived in San Sebastian.

I did not see much of beautiful Pamplona because I had to stay at the albergue and wait for my luggage, but what I saw was a lively city with a fascinating old town. Pamplona is believed to have been founded in 74 BC. It has a great cathedral, museums, and a beautiful medieval old town, but is most famous for the Running with the Bulls during the fiestas of San Fermín.

Copyright © 2015 by Valeria Idakieva
When not at work teaching English to Bulgarians and Bulgarian to students from other nationalities, or managing the International Chamber Music Academy in Kyustendil, Bulgaria, Valeria Idakieva [валерия идакиева] likes to go hiking or running in the mountains. And she reads into the night as long as she can remember herself.


  1. Loved reading your wonderfully detailed account of your Camino experience. Looking forward to Part 2!

  2. Valeria! How incredible! The photos are breathtaking.

    1. And check out the photos that go with Valeria's second installment. Click here.