Author Archives: Mikal

‘The People We Meet…’ Nationalities

“The people we meet along the way…” -My answer to a casual question – “What about the Camino have you found most memorable?” – asked over a Pilgrims meal.

There were so many interesting folks we got to know along the way. As soon as I would comment on one person, another would pop up from memory. Instead of editing out certain persons, a difficult proposition as they all had qualities I wanted to mention, I opted to break them into groups. Even so I had to let some go. The first is Nationalities, simply because that was invariably the first question asked was “where are you from.”

The Camino was an international walkway where we met South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Dutch, Austrians, Swedes, Belgians, Spaniards, Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Australians, New Zealanders … so many that we lost track. And even though most spoke some limited English (not surprising), fewer spoke any Spanish. Which was very surprising to me, since most cafe & albergue staff had little English or any other language skills*. Still we managed to communicate.

The character who posed the question was a Galician Spaniard. He grew up near Santiago and was walking the Camino because “for years I’ve seen people from all over the world with backpacks on, entering the square of the Cathedral at Santiago, some crying, some laughing… others collapsing and just sitting… all after walking this thing called ‘the Camino’… SO I thought maybe I should try it to see what it was all about.” He had walked 110 km in a week ( all the vacation time he could spare) and was heading home via bus the next morning. I asked If he had discovered anything. He responded “No… not really”, with a laugh.

img_5813-1“Mik-hile” (he gave himself this nickname because his real name was too difficult to get westerners to pronounce properly), a twenty-something South Korean man, was the only other person at one of the first albergues we stayed in. As we unpacked I watched as he wandered the rooms holding his smart phone up over his head then down to check it… took me a few minutes to figure out that he was looking for … I asked, “No WiFi?”… he looked at me puzzled- so I said “INTERNET?” and he replied “NO Weeee Feeeee… very sad.” A laugh and shrug… As we enjoyed the evening meal using limited English & pantomime, we teased him about being young enough to be our ‘grandson’. Along the way over the next weeks we would suddenly hear “GRANDFATHER… GRANDMOTHER” as Mik-hile jogged up to give and receive a hug… We were always as pleased to see him as he was us.

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Olivia was another South Korean. She became known along the trail as the ‘Buen Camino Girl’ because of her exuberance when meeting or even seeing other pilgrims; yelling “BUEN. CaMEEEENO!”. You could hear her from blocks away.

Sel-Soo (phonetically spelled because I have NOT a clue how it should be) was a Brazilian man we kept passing and being passed by. We would smile, he would smile…and then exchange a “Buen Camino”. One evening being the only ones at the restaurant, we shared a table and a meal. Broken English and pantomime sufficed for our conversation. TWO weeks later we were approaching Palas de Rei and saw Sel-Soo waiting for a taxi. He was going into the next largest city because his legs hurt BUT, more importantly so he could eat some “pulpo” – pronounced POOL POE – a local delicacy. Apparently Palas de Rei is famous for it. Tilly asked “what is that?” Sel-Soo responded, “pulpo, pulpo… poooool-POE!” as he searched his memory for the English word… I laughed and then- having seen it mentioned on the menu – say ‘octopus?’… “YES – PULPO!”, he exclaimed and we dissolved into laughter.

Bern, an Irishman made my memory list when after learning about the Las Vegas mass shootings said “The whole world is broken.” We all shared a moment of silence at the table and nothing more could be said about it.

The Canadians we met were dominated by British Columbians (and mostly Vancouver Islanders) but we met the odd Québécois, Albertan & Manitoban.

Americans came from all over… Massachusetts, Georgia, Oregon, Washington (state & DC), Colorado, California, Texas are a few of the states I remember. OH yeah and we all avoided speaking about politics and ‘you -know-who’ back home.

p1030820Rich, a young American, was walking the Camino as a break from his volunteer work as a school counselor in Ghana. We remember his smile and positive manner. He walked fast and quickly out paced us so, we were surprised to catch up and pass him a few days later. Until, we saw how he and his new walking partner Katerina were interacting… I don’t think either of them were in any hurry to finish the walk….good for them.

Other nationalities I have not listed here include Swedish, Austrian, Polish because they fit better into one of my other groups.

*HINT – Learn some basic Spanish IF you are going to walk the Camino – you’ll wish you had learned more!

Albergue Nights – Sleepless on ‘THE WAY’

 One of the first scenes in the movie “The Way” takes place in a large, crowded albergue (pilgrims accommodation usually open rooms with rows of bunk beds and very little – mostly none – privacy). Martin Sheen lays awake as the multitudes begin to snore and snore… IT is funny. UNTIL it is you laying there… 


Almost every morning I/we awoke to some fellow pilgrim complaining about the SNORING and not being able to sleep. Just to be clear: EVERY albergue has a ‘snoring problem’ and with rare exception, EVERYONE snores… YES LADIES – even YOU! People snore LONG & LOUD – first, when they are TIRED & second after they have had a few drinks. Combine a large group who have walked a 20+km day, then consumed the cut rate “Perrigrino Menu” which usually INCLUDES lots of WINE… AND the RESULT will be a LOUD & most cacophonous concert that night. Rather than complain, I thought about solutions. After all we were warned.

Every Camino guidebook stresses the need for ear plugs when planning to stay in albergues. From my perspective they are an ESSENTIAL – CRITICALLY IMPORTANT piece of gear. So important that I would even say 2 pairs are advisable – just in case. GOOD EAR PLUGS – NOT some cheap foam ones that the airlines hand out; BUT high quality – GONNA let you sleep through WWIII EAR PLUGS. Before we left the states, Tilly and I purchased 2 pairs each of silicone earplugs  that deadened the snores so much you could hear your own breathing. Only problem, for me – comfort.

I would usually wake up in the middle of the night take out the uncomfortable ear plugs  and lay awake for a while, exposed to the full intensity of the noise. The first night, I braced myself for a sleepless few hours… wondering why I consented to sleep in one of these places. Sure enough there were dozens snoring! But, before I could manifest my frustration, I perceived a rhythm. Some of the snores were synced with others. Patterns began to emerge. Then one section of the room seemed to reply to another section. It was a symphony of nasal obstructions that I was hearing. Instead of being aggravated I became fascinated. Soon I fell easily back asleep. 

Most nights in albergues, I seemed to be hearing different concerts. The snores, puffs, squeaks, sighs, humps, whooshes, all blended … I began to name the nights… The Somnambulist Symphony, The 40 Wink Opera, The Snorers Sonata, but the best and most memorable performance was in the public albergue in Leon -The Barnyard Concerto. I awoke to the sound of a cow. ‘Humpf…moooooooooooo’ -‘Humpf…moooooooooooo – then a pig joined in ‘huck…eeeeeee’ …. ‘huck…eeeeeee’ …. ‘huck…eeeeeee’ … chickens clucked… dogs barked… cats meowed …. climaxing with a tractor starting … sputtering ‘puh’ … ‘puh’ …. ‘puh’… the farmer muttered something unintelligible … AND then the cow started the sequence over again. I swear it went on for an hour or more… but who knows… I fell asleep smiling. 

But before I make sleeping in albergues sound idyllic, as is wont to happen there was the occasional concert crasher. The Irishman was one. When he snored it was as his neighbor said the next morning, “like a bloody 747 at full throttle pulling an 8 hour long freight train”. I was three beds away and even the super-duty earplugs could not entirely stop the roar. And there were the nights of raucous partying by the locals in the bars located directly beneath our accommodations… one lasting until 0430… On those occasions I thanked the makers of our ‘industrial grade’ ear plugs…. 

So, if you are planing a Camino walk… pay attention to the warnings of the movie and guidebooks… take some darned good ear plugs. It will help to throw in your imagination and sense of humor.

Blisters, colds and rest days … 

As you walk the Camino there are two topics of conversations that crop up continuously… one is BLISTERS… the other REST DAYS… everyone has a story … this is ours…

35 Years!… It has been over 3 decades since I had a blister… Hell I thought I was immune. We hiked and hiked and hiked our butt’s off in preparation for the Camino… I had nary a hot spot. BUT Day 9 – I’ve got a painful blister on the ball of my foot… caused by sheer arrogance. I noticed the hotspot when we stopped in a little village 3 km from our ‘destination’… a quick fix and off we went. Could have stayed in that village but, no… had to press on. So, my reward for being pig-headed was a dime sized blister. The fix was to pierce the blister with needle & thread… leaving the thread in to facilitate draining as it healed…. build up the area around the site with moleskin – taking the pressure off the blister. 
Even with the ‘fix’ we had to cut the next day (day 10) short. By noon I was in enough pain to know I needed to rest my foot. The tiny village we stopped at had no Farmacia. When the hostess of the Albergue learned of my problem she left with a “momentito” and came back quickly with 3 feminine pads… in broken English she explained that other peregrinos had used them on the insoles of their shoes to cushion the blistered area. I was skeptical but foregoing my ‘macho’ instincts I took them with a quick “gracias”. Although skeptical, the more I thought about it the more it seemed like a good idea. I could modify the pad by cutting a ‘my blister’ sized hole, further relieving pressure. After several attempts at proper placement – i.e.- the hole was centered under the blister… it worked, brilliantly and would remain in my shoe until the blister was completely healed. I was back on track… a few km warm up and then I could work through the discomfort & into a regular rhythm.
All seemed on track as my blister healed. Day 12… Tilly walked while complaining of a ‘minor cold’. That morning 3 fellow peregrinos had taken the bus to Burgos ( the next large city) in order to get one of them to a doctor because her ‘minor’ cold gone major. Now it was Tilly’s turn…over the night she went into full blown suffering (as bad as any ‘man-flu’ I’ve ever had). It made no sense for her to walk 18 km into Burgos. Without objection (yes I win a few on occasion), I decided to reserve a hotel and then take the bus to Burgos. Only thing as we soon discovered, there was no bus service. Thanks to the charming & lovely owner of the local panderia [bakery] who offered to call a taxi from Burgos – a 20 minute wait, we arranged transport. Although I knew we would pay for both directions of travel it did not matter. Hell, we had paid through the nose to for a taxi in Paris to catch a bloody train … this was about Tilly … her health first, budget later. The driver arrived promptly. His skill and deftness at navigation had us to our hotel within 20 minutes. 
Arriving at 0920. I spoke to the receptionist… explaining that we were early, that Tilly was sick and I asked to leave our backpacks until we could check in. The receptionist looked at our reservation, said there was a bigger room available immediately for 20 euro more AND it faced the cathedral. 20 euros seemed a small extra to get Tilly into rest mode. Tilly was quickly ensconced in the huge master bed and asleep by 10:00. The outer room had a second smaller bed where I could sleep without concern of waking/disturbing her. She slept all that day and night only waking to have dinner. I took the time to wander the plazas around the cathedral… 
Next morning I was expecting a good recovery. Only a few minutes passed and I knew another day of rest was needed. The hotel was fully booked – a holiday weekend it seemed. I hoped on the iNet quickly booked another room in a highly rated hotel 1/2 a km away. Although it was not as big a room, it had two beds, comfortable and had the added benefit of being 1/3 less. Another day of rest.
Today was day 16 and with Tilly feeling better, we set out. The pace started slow, picked up and within 3 hours we had cranked out 10+ km. We stopped for a brief snack and refreshment. I could tell Tilly was not yet up to snuff. Even tho’ it was 70+ F she moved into the sun and complained of being cold. I knew it it was time to stop… we will walk again tomorrow…. increasing our distance in small amounts daily.  

6 DAYS OF WALKING

6 Days of walking, 115 km plus or minus a few, approximately 20 km/day. Here is a photo gallery of the best these 6 days had to offer.

Roncesvalles to Zubiri:

Elevation map

Breakfast at the pub.

Leaving Roncesvalles after breakfast just as the sun was rising.

Cows in the mists of early morning.


Day 3 Zubiri to Trinidad de Arre

Day 3 was a rainy day. We experienced a lot of “slippery slopes” and heard later that some poor soul had broken an ankle on said slippery slope. 

Always pretending but actually this time Michael was suffering from a sore knee.


 

I love cats. Michael doesn’t. When we stopped for coffee and to get out of the rain for a while, this cat popped up onto Michael’s lap looking for a handout.

These people were taking pictures of two young Korean men, one in a wheelchair, the other carrying a fully loaded pack, pushing the wheelchair. Our first lesson on the Camino…DON’T JUDGE! Imagine our surprise when later, the trail narrowed and became muddy, the young man in the wheelchair popped out of the chair and helped carry it quite a distance, walking quite nimbly. Apparently they are making a documentary about the accessibility of the Camino (or something like that.)

The bridge into Trinidad de Arre. We saw a 12th or 13th century convent/church and decided to stay there. Asked if they had a private room – they did. It was a beautiful building and we made some new friends who informed us that there was to be a fiesta that evening and bulls running in the street the next day.

Sure enough, there was a fiest that night with fireworks, music, food, and carnival rides. Before that though, we encountered this young man chasing an excited, screaming group of kids with his bull on wheels.

Day 4 Trinidad de Arre to Zaraquigui

Nearing Pamplona we walked around the walls of the old city.

….and through the gate into the city to search for a coffee.

Lunch break.

Day 5 Zaraquigui to Cerauqui

Our first taste of grapes – the harvest all around us.

At the top of the pass at Alto del Perdon. Spectacular!

Cerauqui where we stayed the night at the top of the hill!


Day 6 Cerauqui to Estella

The sun rising and illuminating the hills in the direction we were walking.

Such beautiful countryside. Constantly new vistas.

UP… UP … UP… AND FINALLY – OVER! Day 1 Camino de Santiago

05:45 the alarm chirps … SERIOUSLY?  I chose a bloody cricket sound for the alarm?… no matter… This is THE DAY …. the first day of our “camino” experience. THE DAY we have spent so much time preparing for. We know from reading and discussions with camino veterans that THIS – the SJPP (Saint Jean Pied de Port), France to Roncevalles, Spain – segment will be the hardest.

Yesterday we organized out packs, went shopping for b-fast (bananas & yogurt) and lunch (ham sandwiches, apples and mandarin oranges). All is ready … First light is an hour away and sunrise is at 07:50. We want to get an early start since on the route de Napoleon, we have 15 miles to walk with a vertical change of more than a mile (5742’)…. most is UP (4200’) and at the end 1542’ down. 

The vertical profile…


Our research reading and discussion with a Camino ‘veteran’ informed us that it would not be “EASY- 6 – 7 hours’’ as one local told us. Still we were confident in our preparations even tho’ the last ‘veteran’ we spoke with said, “IT is the HARDEST THING I/WE’VE ever done… you should hire a luggage transport to haul your packs…”. 
Truth is I expected something in between… I was right… Thankfully, our experiences in Switzerland on the Jacobsweg (the Swiss Camino) and two months ‘conditioning’ in Wyoming mountains would serve us quite well.
It is 06:30 and we are out the door & wandering our way along the Rue de Citadelle to the Porte D’Espagne… 


…we see someone ahead of us (a young Japanese girl who periodically stops – waits and then confirms the direction markers with us and rushes ahead again… UNTIL it is light… she no longer needs us and off she goes. Behind we see a ghostly figure following …

Immediately out of SJPP we start to climb from 557’ heading up to 4757’ before we descend. In the first 8km (5 miles) we climb 930m (3051’). It is UP & UP & UP … BUT we manage to crank it out by 9:30 … 3 hours! Not bad… 


NOW we have only 10 miles… and 1100’ to climb… We stop for a coffee at Orisson, visit with a couple from Winnipeg and had a great chat. We leave before them but later they overtake us and don’t see them again. From Orisson, the road continues constantly up and up providing unbelievable vistas and phenomenal views of the Pyrenees. The leaves are starting change and the colors are much richer than we are used to in BC and WY….a lot of vibrant rusty reds and burnt oranges. 


We didn’t expect so many pilgrims. We are never without their company, some friendly and wanting to connect, others loud and obnoxious and others wanting quiet and contemplation. We pass 2 fountains along the way and discover that’s where people congregate. It is hard hard work today but we both are feeling so very proud of ourselves. Along the way I (Mikal) turn and thank Tilly for insisting that we “TRAIN” … carry our packs, fully loaded up and down the hills and mountains of Wyoming… 
All the hard work/conditioning over the past 2 months is paying dividends. Over and over again we say to each other, “I’m so glad we worked so hard this summer and did all the hiking we did.” 


We are not among the fastest but , not all of those folks were carrying their full packs. Many had opted for the “send your pack over to the other side of the mountains” option. Those who were carrying full loads were of the younger crowd and they were moving much quicker. We met a young woman at one of our stops, from Norway who had just completed her PhD in veterinary medicine and had gotten a job as a scientist researching the brains of humans and animals. What a great young woman… then she left us in the dust…
It takes us another 5 hours to reach the high point, the Col Lepoeder. We take off our shoes to air out and relax our feet after all the exertion. We witness a couple in the midst of an argument – she is very tired and angry with her partner…. the very same couple will share the 4 bed cubicle with us at the monastery. They are from Oregon and turn out to be very likable… but at the moment she is not liking much. 
We rest for 15-20 minutes and head down the hill. We choose the most direct route which is straight downhill (the other route is ‘longer’… by about 1.5 km… we are not interested). The first kilometer is very steep with lots of loose rocks but, then levels out. We walk through beautiful beech forests … the path covered with the fallen leaves of autumn. It is a quiet walk as most of the others chose the easier, much longer path. 


We suddenly break out of the woods and finally arrive at the monastery of Roncesvalles. It is now 10 hours since we left SJPP. What an experience! We are weary… have sore muscles – calves and quads mostly but, NO blisters. We check in… 8 Euros each for a bed… Yes we want dinner (10 Euros each) … YES and breakfast too (5 Euros each). 36 Euros for the two of us well under our $95/ day budget. Our ‘credencials’ are stamped (proof that we actually walked over the Pyrenees as though our pictures and descriptions and weary demeanors aren’t proof enough). Once paid we are told to take our shoes off (thankfully we have our crocs to change into) before heading upstairs to find our beds. We shower and then decide to wash dirty clothes in the laundry room. We are pleased to find the monastery crew will wash, dry and fold our laundry for 3.50 Euro ( about $5). The siren call of a beer and wine makes the choice to have them do our laundry easy…. Besides which we are well under budget for the day.
Our dinner (replete with wine) relaxes us… which means we are ready to crash, literally. Once we make it to the bunks I am out within 2 minutes; Tilly about 10, even though a group of obnoxiously loud Italians are arguing (or maybe they just talk load all the time). 
This has been a day I will remember… and don’t think I will ever want to repeat. 

ARRIVAL! St. Jean Pied de Port, France

We arrived at St. Jean around 230 ish. Found “Villa Esponda” easily.

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The train was packed full with pilgrims!

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Our first view of St. Jean as we walked from the train to our hotel.

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The first “scallop shell” direction finder.

First things first – laundry – shower – food. Always check what you’re paying for your room!! We booked on Booking.com which has always been great. Got to the Villa Esponda and checked in. I was reading the amount they were charging us upside down. It looked to me like they were charging us half of what booking.com and said the room was worth. Signed the charge card and went up to our room only to discover they had charged us one half more! We had a copy of the receipt on our iPads and were able to show what we had agreed to pay. No problem but they couldn’t credit the card and couldn’t give us the refund in cash until the banks opened tomorrow – or at least, that was what we understood from the conversation in French. We liked the room, were exhausted, and decided to stay a second night so that took care of the refund. It was a beautiful room with a marvellous view of the mountains from the windows.

Next order of business was dinner. We didn’t want to walk too far and soon found a nice little outdoor restaurant which had been recommended. After 2 sips of wine, I was almost cross-eyed! By this time we’d been travelling and awake for 30 hours and so were pretty tired but wired with excitement about finally being in St. Jean, which we’d talked about for so long. While we were at dinner we started a conversation with a couple sitting at a table close by. They spotted our “Brierly” book which started the conversation. They were celebrating their tenth anniversary of doing the Camino by doing a one week trip this time. They told us that the first time they’d done the Camino, they’d reached the top and then sat down and couldn’t go any farther. Of course, eventually, after a rest, they made it but didn’t get into Roncesvalles until 10pm! We staggered home and were in bed by 8 and asleep by 8:01!

We were woken up by a particularly persistent insurance agent (Medicare Supplement) who called to see if we’d gotten our insurance cards etc. I can barely remember answering the call and can only hope I tried to be polite but…the good thing was it woke us up enough to turn down the heater which I had turned on earlier – we were swelteringly hot. After that we slept like the dead until 1030 am the next day. There’s nothing more sleep-inducing than knowing you have nothing pressing to take care of that day. Every time I woke up, I fell back to sleep again.

The Villa Esponda was a bit pricey for the budget we’d set ourselves but we are so glad we chose to stay a second night. In all of the hostels and alburgues, you have to be out by 8 or 9 in the morning. Here, we could come and go as we pleased. We saw so many people wandering carrying their packs today all over town – we were happily pack free.

We are just across the stree from the old citadel, an old fort dating back to before the 16th century. It was fortified in the 1600’s. The Camino goes right through the heart of the citadel, the Rue Citadelle. This street is lined with tourist shops and pilgrim boutiques. Later in the day it was teeming with tourists and even had an old auto/train loaded with elderly & juvenile passengers, giving guided tours of the old city. Very entertaining.

We explored the citadelle and environs, took pics, wandered into and out of shops until we found the Pilgrim Welcome Office where we got the first stamp in our credential for this trip. Next stop was a deli to get sandwiches for the walk tomorrow – the toughest day apparently as we climb the Pyrenees from France into Spain. In the deli where we bought our sandwiches, the proprietor declared, “[the hike over the Pyrenees] – EASY …. 6 maybe 7 hours!” We are hoping she’s right.

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This is our route. Tomorrow we start! St. Jean to Roncesvalles, 27km, elevation change 170m to 1400m (558 ft – 4593ft).

DONE WITH PLANES BUT NOT TAXIS AND TRAINS

Arrival at CDG airport north of Paris 05:50. We’d been flying for 11hrs including a short layover in Atlanta to switch planes. While not uncomfortable, it was difficult to get much rest (sleep was fitful). NEXT we had to get ourselves to Saint Jean Pied de Port (SJPP) France (on the eastern side of the Pyrenees). Our first hiking day would see us crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. BUT for now we had to find the most efficient (and hopefully cheapest) way to get there. I can hear it now “Dummy – why didn’t you reserve ahead… and save yourself the headaches. After spending numerous hours on varied websites ( travel agents, French railroads, Airlines etc) I found it too complex… and had a sneaking suspicion that it was much easier than what I was seeing online… SO I opted for the ‘let’s just get there and then …’ approach. Having worked in the past, I had faith it would once again. Besides which, the approach has always led to spontaneous , interesting and exciting adventures… which have become some of our most cherished memories… me squatting along a roadside, map in hand trying to communicate with an Omani local about the best road around the desert… pointing at the map and scratching a better map in the sand he points to a road, then his truck – shakes his head YES, then points at my rental car and shakes his head NO. Til sits in the car and takes photos. We still laugh about how crazy we were.

Anyway… after securing our baggage we head off to the nearest train station. The representative was incredibly lovely. We could wait until 12:58 pm, take the train from the airport, make two changes and arrive in SJPP around 7-something pm that night. OR if we left right away we could catch the local train (“20 euros” she said, “but you will have leave immediately to make it”) into Paris then catch a Fast train from Montparnasse in the middle of the city… arriving at 2:50 pm OR we could “take a TAXI (“maybe 50 euros”, she said, “ would get you there faster – 30 minutes drive and is easier than making changes on the local trains”). Tired and starting to feel the weariness we opted for the more expensive BUT “easier” Taxi option and booked the Fast Train from Montparnasse, headed off to find the taxi. We realized that the taxis all use meters.. and the ‘50 Euros’ was an estimate with a reasonable range of variation (maybe 10%?). With confidence we boarded a taxi with a French-African lady driver … disdainful at first, she warmed to us as the trip progressed (and the meter climbed to new and higher amounts also).

It was 8 am. We had until 9:58 to reach our destination and board the train. Our driver got us immediately into the left, fastest lane… piece of cake. As we approached Paris, the traffic built and slowed … and slowed … and – shit! We did not think about RUSH HOUR… BUT what the hey!… we had almost an hour and a half to get there. Soon the white-lining motorcycles and scooters were whizzing by us on the right… THEN the first of a half dozen police cars lights and sirens blaring woo-ahh woo-ahh squeezed through the space between our lanes. I was thinking “ accident, be a little delay … BUT what the hey!… we still have an hour and 15 minutes to get there”. Traffic slowed again… people were jumping lanes… and our lady driver started to nervously pound on the steering wheel. She programed her GPS to find a way through. I could see that it was taking us to a very large roundabout… and suspected it was the Arc de Triomph – the quintessential TRAFFIC MESS and terrifying FRENCH TAXI RIDE – I’ve seen pictures and movies, AT THAT POINT we got the EXPERIENCE. AS the meter climbed past the 50 euros mark, I thought “what the hey we get a hell of a ride, too!”

With Til’s broken French and our drivers broken English we made jokes about her courageous driving and the stupidity of other drivers… She knew that we had a train to catch and as time counted down, her driving became more and more aggressive. We careened into the Arc de Triomph roundabout… slashed across five or six rows (although there are NO rows just a gaggle of drivers going every which way but, generally counter clockwise around the Arc) of cars to the center… drivers from other roads doing the same… (they don’t look at the oncoming traffic, as though what they don’’t see will avoid them) .. then at the 2nd or maybe 3rd road we slashed across traffic again to exit the roundabout onto a narrow street. A delivery truck was taking up almost 3/4’s of the street and our driver quickly slid alongside and passed. I wondered – what if the driver of the truck opened the door!

We were now down to 40 minutes to go and still 15km from the train station.
The GPS in the taxi not only told us how far but, also the eta… I saw 09:44 then 09:46 then 09:48… barely 10 minutes to find and board our south bound train… The next train would be the one we could have waited for at the airport. I was not the only one nervous about getting to the station on time. Our now HIGHLY motivated (evident by her driving & I am sure driven by a desire for a big “AMERICAN TIP”) driver was by this time whipping through small narrow side roads, cutting off other cars, taxis, and motorcycles/scooters. The eta began to fall… 09:45… then 09:42… then 09:40… then 09:38… twenty minutes to spare! We didn’t quite make it with 20 minutes but 17 was close. As we pulled up to the station, I checked the meter. As Tilly was congratulating our driver on an exciting and amazing ride, I quickly calculated a 10% tip then added 5 euros (she did get us there AND with enough time to find the train) and handed her 95 euros (so much for the “maybe 50 euros”) and bailout.

The train station at Montparnasse was not too crowded but we still floundered a bit until we asked an attendant for directions… Spur 5 she said … YES we found it … then we looked at the train – it didn’t say any thing about SJPP. Confused we asked another attendant nearer the train. Turns out there were two trains traveling together and they would split at a stop along the way. Our train was the first one. We hoofed it down to the first train, located the first car with a #1 on it… yes we bought “first class tickets” … more space, more comfort, less people, less noise – therefore what two weary, approaching grumpy travelers needed. We barely had enough time to get seated, put our backpacks away, sit down, and the train was moving.

As it accelerated, our ears would plug up and unplug as we entered and exited tunnels… I realized the speed of the train compressed the air in the tunnels… my phone boinged … a message from SNCF (French railroad – I had down loaded their app months before) “Congratulations you have broken the 300 km per hour barrier”.
The country side whizzed by … tired we settled in, read our iPads for a bit (1st class also includes inet – not great but, functional)… soon we became drowsy and set an alarm for 15 minutes before we were to arrive at our transfer station. We managed to grab a one hour catnap before the alarm awakened us. We are arrived at Bayonne and had about an hour to wait.

Perched track-side on a bench, we began to notice all these backpackers with hiking poles gathering on the siding. Seems, we were not the only ones starting a long walk. Soon we were engaged in conversation with a lady and her husband from Washington state. Having spent time traveling in Washington we were able to keep the conversation going almost until time for departure. As the train approached, backpackers started to appear from all directions. Luckily we were able to board quickly and secure seats. By the time we departed it was almost standing room only for the rest of the passengers.

There are three stops between Bayonne & SJPP… one person got off at each stop and a few more boarded the train. We arrived at SJPP with a full load. Departing the train, Tilly looked at me and said “which way?” Laughingly I responded, “follow the pilgrims.”