Towns Along The Way – St Jean Pied de Port

I have left this series unattended for quite a while. In fact, the last post from this series was in January when I briefly spoke about towns beginning with the letter R. I have decided to jig things up with the remainder of towns from the Camino Frances. And there are many. I will start with the town furthest from Santiago and walk towards the Cathedral. One day I will get there. Maybe I should have done this from the off 🙂

So..we begin…

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St Jean Pied de Port (map), or “Saint John at the Foot of the Pass” is in the Pyrénées department in Southwestern France close in the Pyrenean foothills. The town is also the old capital of the traditional Basque province of Lower Navarre. It is also the traditional starting point for the Camino Francés. If you start your Camino here, you are 8km from the Spanish border, however those 8km may as well be doubled if you factor the ascent. The town is made up of one long main street, crossing over the River Nive as you exit the town.

Getting to St Jean is not as easy as you think. You can either fly to Biarritz and catch a train from nearby Bayonne. It is the nearest city to St Jean and Ryanair offer regular flights. For those of you who live outside of Europe, you many have to fly to Barcelona or Paris. You can travel to St Jean directly from those places also. There are plenty of places to stay in St Jean once you arrive (Gronze). If you are planning to walk during peak season, it is advisable to book a room in advance as you are not guaranteed a bed on arrival. I have stayed in Gite Ultreia and highly recommend it, however Gite Beilari is well known and well liked. Many of the people you meet here will walk with you for much of your Camino.

stjeanpdp-pilgrimofficeThe old town of St Jean Pied de Port is really one old cobbled street, the rue de la Citadelle which runs down hill from the 15th century Porte St-Jacques to the Porte d’Espagne. The street crosses the River Nive on a old stone bridge and there are many pictures of these views strewn across the internet. Up above the town is the citadel which once held great importance in Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port. St Jean Pied de Port is very geared up for the pilgrims with restaurants offering pilgrim menus and shops selling anything you might have forgotten. A top tip is to visit the local Lidl to buy some snacks for the arduous walk the next day. The pilgrim office will either give you a credencial or stamp your own one, which you need in order to stay in the albergues along the way and also have maps and useful advice. Heed any advice the volunteers there give you, especially if you should cross the Napoleon pass or if you should walk via Val Carlos. The weather plays an important part in this decision.

Your next stop after leaving St Jean is Orisson after 8kms of uphill. But remember to enjoy the views 🙂

Camino Frances 2017 – Day 10 – Santibañez de Valdeiglesias to Astorga

Camino 2017 – Day 10 – Santibañez de Valdeiglesias to Astorga – September 14th
All good things come to an end..

So the day has come. My last walking day. A short stroll into Astorga ended my Camino for another year. And it was a great walk with a few little ups and a walk down to finish off.

 

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My morning started at 7am, they get later every day! After a quick breakfast, I am on the road and almost immediately meet Naomi from Canada. We both casually strolled westward from that point. She had stayed in Villares de Orbigo and couldn’t praise the albergue’s hospitalera, Christina, high enough. It was one of her highlights from her ongoing Camino. I missed out so! She was bound for Santa Catalina or further, so I would say goodbye to her at Astorga.

Daybreak was looming as the sun was peeking over the horizon. However, I enjoyed the conversation with Naomi so much that I did the inevitable and got lost. With no working light, there was no arrows to see and it was my companion that turned to me and said “when was the last time we saw an arrow?”. I have walked these parts twice before but I still have the ability to lose direction. Backwards we go until we see other pilgrims. Luckily, it wasn’t too far..

It wasn’t long before we arrived at Casa de los Dioses and David’s humble abode. He was sleeping in his shelter but his stall was out for all pilgrims. He is a legend of the Camino and I thought we had lost him last year when he posted a video online saying he would be leaving. I took some fruit, leaving a donation, preferring to leave David sleep.

I said goodbye to Naomi and to Casa de los Dioses and wandered on, Astorga being less than 10 km away. It was only half 8 at this stage and the end was coming closer. Thoughts of the flight home and the office popped into my head. But I had another 2 days to the flight so I pushed them back for a little while.

I passed the Cruz de Santo Toribio at the entrance of San Justo de la Vega, a suburb of Astorga. I had another hour or so before arrival. San Justo is a sprawling street mixed with properties, both residential and industrial. During the summer months, there is a gentleman with a guitar at the Cruz who sings to pilgrims. All he asks for is something from your country.

You are well and truly in Astorga when you pass a large warehouse. I walk in the shade and catch a glimpse of the Cathedral. I have just the railroad bridge to negotiate before I make my final climb into the city. Surely there is an easier way to walk into the city? The albergue on Plaza San Fransisco was closed, as expected but luckily enough one of the hospitaleros was cleaning the outside while I passed. He suggested that I leave my bag in the albergue while I go for a coffee and a 2nd breakfast. All was well. I walked into the town, past the main plaza as far as the Cathedral. I took a few photos of it and Gaudi’s Palace. Walking back I spotted Naomi making a pitstop. She was with some friends and I asked if I could join her. One cafe con leche por favor. Possibly one of my last for this year.

Ten minutes or so later, I strolled back to the albergue and there was a queue forming. It was 9.30am. The albergue was to open at 11am. I got to meet some pilgrims while waiting, one who was in pain and was forced to get a taxi from her previous night’s stay. I stayed here previously in 2015 and loved it, although I’m not a fan of large albergues. There is a great terrace for eating cooked food, however there are many restaurants in the town.

The day passes quickly and I gather my things for an early start the following morning. My bus to Santiago was at 7.30am and I wanted to be a little bit early so I could have some breakfast beforehand. One more sleep…

 

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Camino Frances 2017 – Day 9 – Villavante to Santibañez de Valdeiglesias

Camino 2017 – Day 9 – Villavante to Santibañez de Valdeiglesias – September 13th
Penultimate day from one small town to another..

Second to last day of walking. It would be a short day as well. I had already began thinking of returning to work, which is a no-no while on Camino. Sigh. Anyway, moving on. I had yet to reach one of my favourite towns, Astorga, and of course, make my journey to Santiago.

The evening before I had no idea where the following day would end. Hospital de Orbigo was only 5km away. The next town after, Villares de Órbigo is just 8km while Astorga is a whopping 24km. Note my sarcasm there 🙂 So I would walk until my feet told me not to.

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I woke in Santa Lucia at 6.30am…a late start for me! I left the albergue at 7am, after some breakfast. Last night’s sleep was poor. I woke a number of times and at one stage, someone had the cheek to pinch my 5th toe, possibly due to my snoring. The one toe that had a blister on it! The blister didn’t cause me any bother walking however. I was joined by a German couple on leaving the albergue and despite their lack of English (or my lack of German) we still managed a conversation. The sun was rising as we left the small village and aimed for Hospital de Orbigo. En route to Orbigo, you cross train tracks, walk over a motorway before seeing the water tower at the entrance of the town. It was quiet enough at this time of the morning, however. I said goodbye to the German couple here as I wanted to see more of the town. Nothing was open, as expected. Even Albergue Verde, one place that was on my list of must-sees. Another time. I crossed the bridge and moved through the town. It is one long road but seems to go on forever. I’ve walked through here on three occasions; 2012, 2015 and this year. It never changes, that’s the beauty of it.

I arrived at the exit of Orbigo and saw Robert from Germany who I first met in Arcahueja. It was a surprise to see him again however I knew he was having shin-splint problems. I was quite happy to walk at his pace for the day. We chose to take the road to the right, avoiding the main road. Now, we were back on a meseta-type trail until arriving at Astorga. We arrived at Villares de Órbigo at 8.30am and were greeted by a Danish lady who had started her Camino in St Jean. All three of us continued slowly to Santibañez and arrived at 9am. We stopped for a cafe con leche and took in the morning until Robert and our new friend parted company. Their destination this day was Astorga. My destination would be the albergue attached to this bar I was resting at – Albergue Camino Frances, with 14 beds. €20 with 3 course meal included. It wouldn’t open until 11am however so I had another hour to spare. It made sense to stop here. If I continued to Astorga, I would need to find a bed for an extra night as my bus to Santiago was to leave the following day.

This albergue was one of the smaller albergues I have stayed in, but well run. It looked like it was family-run. While waiting for it to open, Riley from the US and her friend from South Africa passed by. I was delighted to see them again. They were also aiming for Astorga and were looking forward to the change of scenery after the meseta.

Checking in was quick and I had my clothes washed and hung out to dry in no time. With temps of 25c, it was a perfect time for it. Dinner was at 7pm and I ate by myself, although I had been keeping in touch with a number of pilgrim friends by email. I was looked forward to moving on the following day.

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Camino Frances 2017 – Day 8 – León to Villavante

Camino 2017 – Day 8 – León to Villavante – September 12th
One last long day..and walking by myself again.

I had a good sleep in Hostal Madriguera. It’s somewhere I recommend if you want a good rest, and I did. The owner, Alba, who has walked the Camino, is very helpful and the hostel is situated pretty close to the main square. Give it a look-up. However, that said, I should have stopped by the albergue. The previous day would be the last time I would see the majority of those I had met. I would walk alone the next day. But that’s not a bad thing sometimes. I know most of whom I had met were aiming for Hospital de Orbigo, a 30+km day. If I could manage it, well and good – I would see my pilgrim buddies again. If not, so be it. There were plenty of pilgrims on the trail…even in mid-September.

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In 2015, I stayed in Albergue Santa Lucia in Villavante and fell in love with it. The hospitality, the owner going out of her way for you, but I need to mention Coco the parrot! She would put a smile on your face if she squawked while you washed your dirty clothes. I remember not being allowed to take photos so that was a little disappointing. So..I would aim for Orbigo but if all else fails, Villavante was there to welcome me. This means taking the less travelled alternative route on leaving León. You have two options: walk along the road passing through small towns en route to Orbigo, or walk on a meseta-type trail through two towns. This was my meseta-Camino, so I’d do what I could to draw it out. Not many walk the alternative route, but I encourage it. It’s quiet, there is a town to stop after 21km – Vilar de Mazarife with it’s 3 albergues and if you feel up to it, there is Villavante after 30km. I felt up to it today. Being alone, I wanted to record some video, and I did (below)

I left León after 5.30am. The darkness engulfed the city, just the way I like it. I stood in front of the cathedral saying my goodbyes knowing that it would be some time before I saw it again. I walked on..alone. It was cold this morning and predictions of rain abounded, but it was dry for the time being. I felt good but thoughts of an ending Camino weren’t too far away. It would be 2 further days before I arrived in Astorga, only hop-skip and jump down the road. I was going to stretch these two final days out – records will be broken. But first, one last long day.

There is nothing interesting to see as you leave León however you climb for a bit and reach a number of bodegas at Trobajo del Camino. Make sure you turn back here and watch the sun rise over the city behind you. I said my goodbyes and moved on into the new morning. The locals were waking up and going to work, I wished each a Buenos Días as I passed. There was no music today, just me and my thoughts. Thinking – it can be bad, but it can be good. Too much of it is a bad thing – I’d argue against that if you are on the Camino. Promises can be made and there were a few promises I made to myself since I left Burgos. I won’t go into them now. I reached Virgen del Camino and stopped for a breakfast coffee and tostado – a regular occurrence at this stage. The cafe was just opening and I chatted in broken Spanish to the owner. A few metres down the main road is the church – Santuario De La Virgen Del Camino. I spent a few minutes here to enjoy its design before I crossed the road and found the start of the alternative route.

It was still dark by 7am. My phone’s torch was brought to the rescue as I worked out where was where. Once I saw an arrow I was where I needed to be. I made my way across a main road and I was on meseta-like trail again. Perfect walking ground. I seemed to pass Chozas de Abajo and Oncina in no time. I arrived at Vilar de Mazarife at 9.30am. There was nothing open, as I expected. I didn’t seem to mind. I took off my pack and found a seat to lie back on. Fruit, a yoghurt and a drink – heaven! Simple pleasures. I had two choices – stay here for an hour or so until the albergue opened or walk 8km to Villavante. The answer was plain to me. Villavante it was.

The 8km walk was slow but not arduous. There was a deliberate lack of pace. I mean, I could aim for Orbigo, but what’s the point? It would make my next two days even more difficult 🙂 I kept looking behind me for pilgrims, but I didn’t see one. This is a great alternative to the busy road after Virgen del Camino. I enjoyed it. Many wouldn’t. I arrived at Villavante at 11am. I took a bottom bunk beside the window and waited for company. It wasn’t long before I was joined by Ian, from New Zealand. He was closely followed by two girls from the US and South Africa. We had dinner at 7pm and a drink after. The parrot got the last laugh however as my request for a photograph was again denied. Hmmph!

I had no idea what I would do the following day. Orbigo maybe? 5km? Records will again be broken.

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Camino Frances 2017 – Day 7 – Arcahueja to Leon

Camino 2017 – Day 7 – Arcahueja to Leon – September 11th
A short stroll to Leon

The shortest day I have walked on any Camino. Barely 8 km was walked before we reached the walls of Leon. But I wasn’t alone. Aga and the Australian women strolled along with me, and boy! did we take our time.

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We left Albergue La Torre just before 7am. The sun was rising behind us as we sauntered into the city. We started to climb for a kilometre or two before it was all descent into Leon. We reached a large bridge and on crossing, you can see the cathedral in the city. We kind of knew that it wasn’t long before we reached the town.

The main albergue wasn’t due to open until 10.30am however I had arranged to stay in La Madriguera hostel about 5 minutes from the Cathedral. We had plenty of time on our hands so we decided on having some breakfast before parting ways. The Australian women were so much fun. I had met them initially in Boadilla del Camino but had bumped into them on and off until the previous night. I got to know them a little bit better over the evening beforehand. Aga, I had met in Boadilla also and it wouldn’t be the last I would see of her.

On reaching Leon, it was 10am, and the church bells were ringing from the Cathedral. We took in the atmosphere and aimed for Cafe Valor. I ordered Churros and Chocolate and it was delicious. Along came June also, who received my message that we had arrived. She was staying in the municipal albergue and was allowed to stay for one more night. We also met Robert and Rosa from the previous night in Arcahueja and a number of others who had met along the way. It was a great morning and plenty of hugs were exchanged.

11am came and some decided to make way to the Albergue. It is a popular albergue and fills up quick. I had received an email that my bed would not be ready until midday so I stuck around with Robert and Rosa who had decided to walk to La Virgen del Camino, the next town. June stayed also. I wanted to buy a few bits and pieces for lunch back in the hostel and went to shop across from Cafe Valor.

12am came and I decided to walk across to the hostal. I realised that I wouldn’t see many again, but I didn’t say goodbye. I simply said “See you on the trail”. I would email June later in the day to see if she would like to walk the following day.

La Madriguera is a fine hostel and I was greeted by Alba who has previously walked the Camino Frances to Finistere. Proof is hanging on the wall upstairs. She has the interests of pilgrims at heart so I would recommend this hostel if you would like a private room.

The rest of the day was spent sleeping and debating where I would stop the following day. I didn’t have alot of kms to walk before Astorga however I had a good few days.

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Camino Frances 2017 – Day 6 – El Burgo Ranero to Arcahueja

Camino 2017 – Day 6 – El Burgo Ranero to Arcahueja – September 10th
A long straight walk, another goodbye and a meeting of new friends…

Another day on the meseta, although we were nearing the end. Many of our fellow pilgrims were talking of walking a big walk today to reach Leon. Many whom I had met had walked longer days previously. From then on in, the terrain gets a little more varied. For me however, I was coming to the end of my Camino for this year and wanted to make the most of my time until I reached Astorga, my end point.

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It was an early morning and before leaving the albergue in El Burgo Ranero, June had made some lunch to keep us going for the day ahead. You genuinely meet good people on the Camino. June was one of them. To start the day, we had a 12 km walk to the next town, Reliegos, but we were in good spirits and we talked about what we would do on reaching Leon. That said, I didn’t think I would make it that far but chose to keep that to myself. 39km is a little too much for one day and I was in no rush. June on the other hand was eager to reach Santiago in 10 days. We were different in some ways. The walk out of El Burgo is long and straight and there is no much to inspire you. We chose to walk on the road rather than on the uneven senda, however the odd car would pass at speed. We were careful however deciding to use our torches on our phones to make the drivers aware of our existence. Within 2 and a half hours we had reached Reliegos, a small town close to Leon. I had stayed here in 2015 but there is not much to write home about, however Bar Elvis is still here. It was closed as we passed, choosing to stop for a few moments to take a photo. I told June about his quirkiness and his liking of Elvis music. A quirky man for a quirky town. A lot of pilgrims tend to walk on by here and aim for the much larger Mansilla de las Mulas. And we did too.

It was getting brighter and I felt good. The sun had made its daily appearance and I felt it on my head, having lost my cap a few days ago. I also lost my buff the previous day. I still had my wooden pole however, but I had lost the metal tip at the base of the pole. I grew to like its company over the days, no matter how battered it was. It is the small things that give you joy on the Camino. Another 6 km to Mansilla de las Mulas and you could sense that you were leaving the meseta…a motorway, more junctions, cars, industrial estates, it was busier. We stopped off at the first albergue in Mansilla for some breakfast..”El Jardin”. June wanted to buy me cafe. We had our sandwiches that she had made and just took in the morning. Mansilla was quiet. The albergue were opening up and we were met by many cyclists taking a pitstop.

The statue of the weary pilgrims is across the street before you enter the town of Mansilla. It is well known to those who have walked the Camino and depicts three tired pilgrims having clearly walked more than they can manage. We rested for a while and took a few photos. Walking through a lane brings you into the town. It is large and there were many locals wearing t shirts with the town’s name across it. There were also streamers hanging from buildings as if there was a fiesta due. I later learned that that evening there was a fiesta that continued to the early hours of the next day! Leaving the town, you can see signs of Mansilla’s Roman history. It was a walled town and the majority of the wall is still there. Keep an eye out for it as you pass through.

I told June that I wouldn’t be able to walk to Leon and would stay in either of the next two towns – Villarente or Arcahueja. Both are tiny, blink-and-you-will-miss-them, towns. June was determined to reach Leon and I knew she would make it, she is such a strong walker. My memory didn’t serve me well as I knew little about these two towns, but from my 2015 Camino, I passed an albergue in Arcahueja, a tiny town 8 kms from Leon. I decided to aim for here. I had no idea now good / bad / indifferent it was – I didn’t care. But we had another 5 kms to go before arriving there. Villarente was busy. I told June of the unfortunate death on the main road and the decision to re-route the Camino around the town as a result. The Camino enters a wood for a km or so before you are brought back on the main road. We stopped at Albergue Delfin for a cold drink and a rest before veering off the main road and aiming for Arcahueja. I arrived at Albergue La Torre at 1pm. I had walked 30km and I needed to rest. The sun had made it a harder day than usual.

It would be the last day that I walked with June. I chose not to say goodbye to her as she would be taking a rest day in Leon. We promised to meet up the following day and I wished her well for her remaining 8 km. Albergue La Torre didn’t look eye-catching and usually I would walk by a town like this. Arriving outside, the owners were busy serving lunch and said the rooms are being cleaned. I had no problem waiting. I had another drink and at 2pm, I was invited in. It’s a smashing little albergue and I was pleasantly surprised and how I was treated. Dinner was at 7pm so I had some lunch and before long I was greeted by Aga from Poland and the 2 Australian women. I had company. I also met Robert from Germany and Rosa from Mexico. Robert was suffering in a bad way with tendonitis and wasn’t walking a great deal each day. Slow and steady wins the race however. We all had a few drinks outside in the terrace sharing stories under the sun and waited for dinner.

It was a great night and we looked forward to the 8km walk into Leon the following morning.

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