Trail Day 1: The Camino del Norte Finds Me


Photo by: J W Foster

The Camino del Norte: Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Urrugne, France – 6.5 km

The plane had landed at 0400 in the city of Marseille, France. I headed for the baggage claim while struggling with the decision to explore Marseille before heading east for the Camino. I studied maps of the city and read about the history, museums and attractions. They even have a hiking trail that weaves through the city and the surrounding outskirts. I’m thinking, “I’m in the French Riviera! I should probably be checking this place out.”

“But, what am I looking for, why am I taking this trip in the first place?”

This question immediately brought back some uncomfortable memories of our first pilgrimage,  the Camino Frances. We were in a dense forests, a severe mountain storm was approaching and Elaine was ask me some tough question about what I wanted out of life.  Back then, I had trouble answering that question. But, today, here in Marseille, I might have an answer. 

I headed for the train station and bought a ticket to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France, a starting point for the Camino del Norte. A day’s jaunt through Marseille would have pleased my senses but not my soul. I was looking for those fireside conversations after a tough day on the trail, those meaningful questions we all pondered together with difficult answers. On the Camino I’ll have a journey and a destination and neither is geographical.

Ten hours later I stepped off the train and into the coastal town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. I quickly went in search of the Tourist Center, I was tired and wanted directions to the nearest pilgrims albergue. I figured I’d find my way to the Camino in the morning.

That’s what I wanted, but apparently the decision was not mine to make.

The receptionist at the Tourist Center directed me to an albergure in the next town over. Judging by the map she handed me, and her breezy attitude, it was just a leisurely walk to the other side of a small bay that separated the two towns. I walked out and headed to the next town in search of lodging for the night.

Several hours later, I was still searching. I had gotten detoured in a maze of meandering streets and lost my way. I walked down what looked like a residential driveway with a Dead End sign. Just before turning around to walk back up the driveway, I noticed a short wooden post hidden within the tall grass. It had a blue and yellow placard attached to the top of it. I walked over to take a look. It was the Camino del Norte. I’d stumbled across it.

I’ve never believed in sign, it’s so unscientific. At least not until Elaine and I walked the Camino Frances last year. To many things happened along the way to be chalked up to just coincidence. I decided to start walking along the path, surely the albergue can’t be far from the trail.

Ten kilometers, three hours, two detours and one thunderstorm later, I was sitting on the doorstep of an albergue; aching, drenched, tired and waiting for the hospitalero to appear. As I sat there, I wondered, “What the heck was I thinking?  I’ve been awake for forty hours! Starting the Camino today was insane.”

It wasn’t all harrowing though. Along The Way, I met my first pilgrim, a Frenchman, named Guy.  I had been walking down a dirt road leading to a small bridge over a creek. I noticed an old car parked under the trees by the bridge. Even from a distance, I could see it was someone car-camping. As I approached, I saw a young man cooking dinner out of the rear of his hatchback. He called to me, “Are you a pilgrim?” I guess I am. I’d already started. I nodded my head a little warily, he was a bit of a rough looking character with long unruly hair and scraggy clothing. “I’m Guy. I just finished the del Norte!” I smiled and walked over to him, feeling instantly relieved. Here was another angel, delivered to my path, to guide my way. He immediately offered me food, water, wine and a lot of advice. It was only after I started drinking that I realized I had not a single drop of water with me. I hadn’t expected to be doing this. We talked and drank, and talked some more, until I finally said, “I have to go find a bed, I’m running on fumes.” As I walked away, I heard my first “Buen Camino.”

I was able to find the albergue about an hour later, but the hospitalero was missing. I waited another hour for him to return. It was cold and pouring rain as I was huddled on the stoop of a stone, arched doorway. Then Gerard came running up the street, saying, “Why didn’t you go inside, I never lock it?”

He spoke with a thick French accent as he opened the door and took me upstairs to a beautiful apartment. It had three beds, a cot and a large, fully-stocked kitchen. It even had its own bathroom.  This can’t be an albergue. I wonder how much it’s going to cost? I asked Gerard, and he answered,  “12 euros. ($16)”
It is an albergue!
I happily paid him and headed downstairs for dinner, feeling grateful for the gifts of this day.

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