Homer's Travels: Camino De Santiago - Getting To Saint Jean Pied De Port … Is Half The Battle

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Camino De Santiago - Getting To Saint Jean Pied De Port … Is Half The Battle

I never dreamed that getting to the beginning of the Camino Frances would be so challenging. It started on 11 May. I'd packed my luggage the night before. I stared at it on the floor thinking "Am I really going away for seven weeks with this little luggage?"

Baggage for seven weeks ... Really !?!
The blue duffle is my backpack, my clothes, and toiletries. The small red bag is my carry-on with my camera, GPS, hat, documents, and other small items. It all looked amazingly small as it sat on the living room floor.

My mom took me to the airport. I got there two hours before the flight like they tell you to do. I went to the self check-in kiosk and entered my information. It spit out two boarding passes. One said Omaha to Chicago, the other said Chicago to St Louis. *sigh* I showed the guy behind the counter and he asked “Which machine?” I pointed it out and he said “Oh yeah, we need to get that one fixed.” You think?!? He gave me a new boarding pass from Chicago to Madrid.  I made sure the tag on my bag (the duffel) said it was going to Madrid.

I flew through security without issues or pat downs and the flight to Chicago was uneventful. I made my Iberia flight with time to spare as it left late. I took an Excedrin PM to help me get some sleep on the flight to Madrid and dozed off. I woke up at 3:30 AM and noticed that my pinkie and ring fingers on my right hand were numb. I shook my hand thinking I’d slept in some weird position but the feeling didn’t come back. The plane landed about forty-five minutes late. My fingers were still numb. It was a little hard to grip things with my right hand. *sigh*  (The sensation in the fingers would slowly return over the next three days.)

I made my way to the baggage claim and waited … and waited … and waited … *sigh*. The baggage conveyor stopped and I walked over to the Iberia luggage office to report a lost bag. The guy behind the counter was nice. He took my information. He asked where I was staying. At first I was a little flustered as I thought I might have to stay in Madrid until my bag arrived and I had no address, but I had a flash of sanity and gave the guy my Saint Jean Pied de Port hotel address. He gave me a claim number along with phone numbers for both Spain and France. Nice guy.

I left the airport via subway. The Madrid Metro is pretty nice and easy to navigate, especially when you have printed out directions from both Google maps and the Metro page. Even with all these directions I managed to leave the Metro through the wrong exit and was turned around a bit. Signage in Madrid is a little sketchy in places and it took me a while to figure out where I was but, with help of my GPS, I made my way to the Plaza Mayor and to the tourism office where I bought tickets to a tourism bus.

I walked to the nearest bus stop and waited for the bus. The bus would take me around the city and would allow me to get on and off to take pictures. The bus arrived, I got on, the bus started moving. I handed the receipts I’d received at the tourism office and I was told that these weren’t tickets. I asked for the bus to stop to let me off. “No”, the driver said, “Not until the next bus stop.” *sigh* I was dropped off back where I’d emerged from the Metro. I walked back to the Plaza Mayor where I received the actual tickets from an apologetic ticket lady. I waited for the next bus, got on, and gave them the tickets. The bus was standing room only. By this time I no longer had enough time to get on and off the bus so I just road it around the complete seventy-five minute route. The windows were so dirty you really couldn’t get good pictures through them. *sigh*

I got off the bus back at the Plaza Mayor and followed my directions and GPS to El Botín. El Botín is reportedly the oldest restaurant in the world having been opened in 1725. I’d made a reservation for 1:00 PM and I was seated promptly. I ordered their specialty, roast suckling pig. I usually don't like eating meat on the bone - too messy - and I was especially careful now as I only had one shirt ... that I needed unstained for the next seven weeks.  It was delicious and expensive. Many complain that the restaurant is a little touristy. I thought it was interesting and worth the expense … the first time. Not sure I would go back again though.

After lunch I found the nearest Metro station (Thank you again GPS) and rode to the Chamartin train station. When I got there, about two hours before my train was supposed to leave, I stopped by the information desk lady to confirm that my train was coming in on Via 3. She gave me a resounding “Si”. I walked around the station looking at my time-killing options. I stopped at an Internet place, bought some time, and sent a whiny email back home. I just re-read it and it’s pretty pathetic. (That email set a lot of things in motion that I was not aware of until I got home. The Wife was going to find my bag come hell or high water, bad telephone menus be damned. That’s why I love her.)

I went to Via 3 about a half hour before the train was scheduled to depart. Trains came and went but they were going other places. As the clock ticked I grew more apprehensive. Something felt wrong. Finally I went back up to the station, found a departure sign, found my train … leaving from Via 16. I ran like hell to Via 16 (Thank God I didn’t have my bag …). I got there. The train was there. I couldn’t board. It was too late. *sigh*

I bought tickets for the Spanish train the next morning and crossed the street to a hotel I’d seen while I wandered the station. I checked in and went back down to use the computers. I still had to buy the train tickets in France. The computers didn’t work. Of course they didn’t work. *sigh* It took a while but I managed to get someone to reset the computers and to give me a credit for the Euros I’d already plugged in them (the lady behind the front desk was very helpful). I bought the train connections I needed and sent yet another pathetic email home. The night ended with me eating at Burger King (I needed comfort food, Damn It), washing my skivvies and shirt in the sink (using body wash), and trying to call baggage claim. The baggage claim recording kept asking me to enter my claim number, which contained letters, but the hotel phone did not have any letters on the keypad so, after hitting a few key combinations that didn’t work, I gave up. *sigh* I had a restless nights sleep.

I managed to catch the train in the morning. The trip to Hendaya was relaxing and went through some beautiful countryside. The train arrived around noon and I crossed the street and bought a sandwich as I had a few hours to kill. I walked around the area and found little of interest - residences and hotels (If I’d caught my original train I could have found a place to stay the night, something I’d worried about when planning the trip).

I got on the train going to Bayonne and waited with the others on the train until we realized that it wasn’t going anywhere. No engine. We all got off and found someone to ask questions of. “Oh yeah”, he said, “that train's not going anywhere. You need to take the next train that leaves in an hour.” I had a ninety minute layover in Bayonne, I could make it ... until that train left thirty minutes late. *sigh*

The train arrived in Bayonne and I was surprised my connection was still there. Of course it was there. They were on strike. *sigh* I would have to take the 9:05 PM train instead. Oh look, the restaurants are all closing. I ate my first ice cream bar of the Camino. It was good.

I wandered around for a while until I heard English. I approached the couple who were talking and introduced myself. KV and MC were from Virginia and they were on their way to do the Camino. We chatted it up for awhile until the train arrived (It only had two cars). I figured some good karma wouldn’t hurt so I offered to help them carry some of their bags.

We spent the train ride talking about Camino packing lists. We got off the train in Saint Jean Pied de Port and followed the herd downtown where the pilgrim’s office and Alburgues (pilgrim hostels) were located. KV and MC spent the night in a hostel while I checked into my hotel. I asked if I could stay an extra day at the hotel and, thankfully, I could.

The next morning was a dreary rainy day. I was surprised to find KV and MC waiting for me outside my hotel. We ate breakfast (Well, it was a ham sandwich but it counted) and I helped carry some of their stuff to the post office (more good karma). They were sending some stuff they didn’t need for the Camino to a friend.

Just before 10:00 AM I walked them to the edge of town, wished them luck, and saw them leave on their Camino. I went to the pilgrim’s office and borrowed their computer. I plugged in the baggage claim number and found out the bag was found and was out for delivery. The first good news I’d had since I left home. I picked up Alburgue and Camino information (my “bible”) and my pilgrim's shell. The Pilgrimage of Saint James uses the shell as its symbol. All pilgrims carry a shell attached to their backpack. I also received my pilgrim’s credential with my first stamp in it. I spent the rest of the morning in my hotel room watching Southpark and the Simpsons … in French. Not quite the same.

At noon I decided I needed to eat so I went downstairs and … there was my bag sitting on a chair in reception. I grabbed it and ran up to my room to confirm that everything was there … and to jump around a bit, yelling joyously in a soft voice.

The rest of the day I walked around Saint Jean Pied de Port, ate a plate of pasta carbonara (the yellow egg yoke on top of the pasta made me pause a little), and took pictures of Saint Jean Pied de Port, the church and the citadel overlooking the town. I bought some food for the next day's walk and a t-shirt to sleep in (the one thing I’d forgotten).

After all of that, I was only a day late. Not bad.  I'm proud how I handled all this.  I only had one moment of fluster when the baggage guy asked for an address.  After that I took things in stride.  I think I poured my frustration out in my emails instead.

And that’s how I got to Saint Jean Pied de Port.


  1. Great reading...can't wait until the next post.

  2. This is great Bruce, thanks for sharing it with everyone. I look forward to reading more!


  3. Love!

    You had such a great attitude! I would have completely panicked if I had lost my bag, and had so many miscommunications, so it's always nice to think "And then he ended up okay!" :)

  4. So freaking familiar!! Although I didn't have the misfortune to lose my bag...but oh the sound of English when it's been a few days!! That I remember so well. And the sandwiches at the Hendeya station! Karin (we met in Ponferada!)

  5. MiL: Thanks! Now you get to read stuff you don't already know.

    Biz: Thanks!. I hope you enjoy it all.

    Miss McC: I was surprised by my attitude. I was a lot calmer than I expected.

    Karin: Ain't it though. Every time I heard English my ears perked up and my mood improved tremendously.

  6. Note to self, get off the plane and just wing it, it's gonna happen anyway...:)

    1. Allen, Something else to note: most small backpacks are small enough to carry on. On my next Camino I will carry on my bag and check a small bag with things not permitted on the plane (Hiking poles, knives, liquids, etc.) This way, if they loose the checked bagf it won't be a potential disaster.