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An Attitude of Search

“We have always talked about hiking the Camino de Santiago, why don’t we do it now? We can fly to Paris and make our way to Spain from there.” Ol said to me as we were talking about our next adventure. We were scrambling to decide on another adventure since our planned Caribbean cruise on our friend Bill’s boat was failing to materialize as planned due to mechanical and logistic problems. 

“I always knew that leaving on a Caribbean boat trip during hurricane season was a bad idea” I said. “But, I’m not sure that we are in shape for a long hike like that. We trained for months for our last long hike on the John Muir Trail. That was only 230 miles. The Camino is about 500 miles!”

“Its just walking” Ol said. “We know that we can walk. We will build up endurance along the trail. We will just take it slow at the beginning. We will be walking 20 miles a day in no time!”

That was enough to get me started. I quickly began researching and reading about the Camino de Santiago. It sort of made sense. We already had the equipment and gear needed. And, I quickly discovered that airline tickets to Europe were extremely affordable. We would not be able to spend much money on the trail and even with airline tickets we would actually spend less money hiking through Europe than if we stayed at home in Mississippi.

But, walking 500 miles still sounded crazy. I suppose that walking 500 miles always sounds crazy to someone who is not walking 500 miles. Even crazier, I discovered that one of the most beautiful sections of the Camino actually ran through southern France. It is a section of the Camino that most modern pilgrims do not see because of the distance, but it is actually one of the ancient routes taken by millions of pilgrims over the centuries. The problem was that this route would add another 500 miles to our hike for a total of 1000 miles! Walking 1000 miles really is an insane idea!

The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James in English, is one of the great hikes of the world. It is actually a network of trails, all leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great which is located in Spain, in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the Galicia region of northwest Spain. For centuries it has been a religious pilgrimage for millions seeking spiritual growth and penance. In recent years it has become popular with hikers and cyclists. Popular culture highlights the pilgrimage in the film “The Way” starring Martin Sheen.

The pilgrimage has been in continuous existence since the year 812 AD when the remains of the apostle were discovered. The pilgrimage follows an earlier Roman trade route and much of the trail still utilizes the paved Roman stones. At night, the Milky Way seems to point the way of the trail and the trail has earned the nickname “Voie Lactee” or “The Milky Way” in English. One legend says that the Milky Way itself was born from the dust of the many pilgrims walking along the path.

The scallop shell has come to be the symbol of the Camino de Santiago and is seen frequently along the trail. The shell is seen on posts and signs to guide the pilgrims along the trail and are also worn by the pilgrims as a necklace or carried in backpacks to denote oneself as a traveler along the Camino. Pilgrims also carry a “Credencial” or passport. The passport gives pilgrims access to overnight accommodations and food along the way. It is stamped at certain checkpoints along the trail and provides a record of where the pilgrim slept and ate along the way. At the end of the trail, if a pilgrim has collected the required stamps they are awarded a “Composetla” or certificate of completion of the pilgrimage. 

The Pilgrim’s Office gives more than 100,000 “compostelas” each year to pilgrims from more than 100 countries. The requirements for a “compostela” are: 1) Make the pilgrimage for religious or spiritual purposes or at least have an “attitude of search”, 2) do the last 100 kilometers on foot or 200 kilometers on bike, 3) collect the required number of stamps on a “credencial”.

There are actually many routes all leading to Santiago de Compostela. Today, the most popular starting point of the trail is at the French border in the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. From there the trail runs about 800 kilometers or around 500 miles. Opting against the popular wisdom, we decided to begin our Camino in the French town of Le Puy en Velay, about 800 kilometers from the popular starting point. The additional milage will add about a month to the walk for a total of approximately 60-80 days.

Whether you want to call it “miracles”, “blessings”, “karma”, “luck”, or “trail magic” every hiker experiences it. The seemingly random bit of good fortune that turns up when least expected. Whether it is meeting a stranger who becomes a hiking buddy, who turns into a lifelong friend, or whether it is an offer of a bottle of water just when your own bottle is empty, or, a sign that leads to a wrong turn which becomes the place that was exactly right for you at the time. 

While there are various “official” starting points for the Camino, it is said that every pilgrimage begins the day the pilgrim leaves home. The magic for our adventure began on the day we left. Our daughter Liv gave us a ride to the Coast, where we indulged in a bon voyage meal of Chargrilled Oysters with friends and family. We checked in at the Hard Rock Casino and the desk clerk upgraded us to an amazing suite for the night simply because we smiled and chatted with her during check in. Later, Ol’s mom cooked us our last home cooked meal with my favorite marinated crab claws before our dear friend Bill drove us to New Orleans for our evening flight.

The magic continued when Spirit Airlines and WOW Airlines upgraded us to exit rows and let us carry on our hiking poles (okay, we did tell them that we needed the poles to help us walk, which is technically true). We enjoyed wonderful legroom for our flights into the EU where we got a new passport stamp from Iceland and a new country passport stamp is always welcomed!

Later, I will do a post on how I booked our round trip flight, including all of our flight segments, for less than $700 each (New Orleans, Paris, Portugal, Morocco, London, Memphis). I will also do a post about our budget our for the entire trip. So far we are right on target for our $180 a day for Paris (actually $181.92 because of Ol’s crepe habit) this includes, our 3 star hotel, meals, transport, entertainment, and misc. 

I was a little dismayed to discover my bag for all of my clothing and gear for the entire four month trip weighed 5 Kilos ( 9 Pounds). That was 3K less than our last trip, but I was hoping to be at 5 pounds. My hiking weight should be a bit less because I won’t be carrying my hiking poles in my pack. I will do a blog post on our gear for this trip a little later. Ol also paired down from 2 bags to one and cut his weight in half down to just 9 kilos (he has the burden of carrying all of our electronics).

Anyway we were excited to fly over Iceland and visit this remote country even if it was for just a quick 30 minutes to change planes. We will definitely be back. It was amazing to lose 50 degrees in temperature in just 6 hours! 

We landed in Paris at 3 p.m. and were surprised that we didn’t have any trouble taking the metro into the city. The metro was clean, bright and like the rest of Paris filled with art. The weather was perfect and we arrived in time for a nice walk and a wonderful dinner. Our hotel was perfectly situated in the Bastille area of Paris in the 11th arrondissement. We later learned from friends this is the hip place to stay.

This city is meant for walking and we seemed to be staying close to everything. On our outings we stumble across beauty at every turn. Stunning architecture, world renowned gardens, and public art sculptures that are centuries old. I can see why this is the City of Light and the City of Love. It is romantic, beautiful and surprisingly peaceful.

On our first day we walked to Notre Dame, the Luxembourg Gardens and the Catacombs. We explored them all and it was great to see Ol happy taking his photos again. Because we have to see as much as we can in six days we also took a river cruise on the Seine and enjoyed Paris’s beautiful bridges and architecture from the water. 

I knew our training for our hike was in trouble after our first few meals and Ol proclaimed “I could live here”. Everything we have eaten has been the best we have ever had. From croissants, hot chocolate to chocolate mouse, to gnocchi with shaved truffles to beef tartar, wines and yes the baguettes are to die for. Every day meals are prepared beyond exception. I finally figured out that “Ol going down to the front desk” really means going next door to get a Nutella crepe. 

The good news is that we have managed to log over ten miles walking each day, even though we decided on two occasions to take Uber because we were just too tired to walk back to our hotel. I’m just worried that if the food on the trail is this good, we probably shouldn’t have put on weight before our trip. I found myself calculating how much we will lose hiking 15 miles everyday and I’m worried it won’t be enough to cover our daily breakfasts!

And so begins our time in France. Most of our journey will be spent in small towns and villages, but these first few days were scheduled to explore and enjoy one of the great cities of the world. So far, “The City of Light” has exceeded all expectations!

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