“Let’s go back downstairs to hang out with everybody. I feel like we are part of the group”, Jaida said to me from our hostel beds. And we WERE part of the group of amazing individuals from all over the world that we shared this 80km adventure with.
I am thrilled that Jaida and I decided to hike the first section of the Camino trail in France and Spain. This has been the best learning experience in so many ways.
The Camino way is a 30 day walk (about 800km) across the northern part of Spain. Thousands of people make this journey each year calling it a pilgrimage. There are several Caminos around the world but the original one starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port in France. On the first day there is a choice to walk along the river trail or walk along the mountain trail called Napolean Route. The Napolean Route got it’s name because this is the path taken by Napolean when he snuck back into France after being exiled.
On our short trip to Europe/Africa, we decided to try the first 3 days, 80 km from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France to Pamplona in Spain. It is set up so that you hike through small villages along the way with many of them hosting the hikers in their albergues (Spanish hostel). I was a little nervous about taking Jaida to an Albergue because I wasn’t sure how she would react to sleeping in a big room with 30 other people in bunk beds (unisex). I wanted her to experience this type of travel because it is certainly more affordable and it is so easy to meet other travelers this way. I think she is hooked.
Hiking in November
We wanted to start on the Napolean Route because it goes over the top of the mountain with an amazing view of the Pyrenees. It wasn’t until a week before the trip that I discovered Napolean Route was closed for winter. Upon arriving we were advised to hike on the road instead of the riverside trail because the weather was unusually snowy. We did not think there would actually be snow – we were wrong! So for most of the first day we hiked on the road. After some time we got tired of worrying about cars zipping by and we kept passing the riverside trail that crossed the road. So we decided to take the trail. It was so beautiful. We didn’t mind walking through a bit of snow and slush that day. We were not prepared for the hike in winter conditions but we finished happy (mostly).
We climbed 1000m over 28km to our resting place at Roncesvalles Spain. It was an amazing feeling to share the experience with all the other people who hiked that day. We were assigned to a bunk pod with a gal from Germany and a man from Spain. We ate dinner with several other people who after the three days became our group of friends.
The next day had us hiking for 5 hours in the snow and slushy riverbeds. I’m talking our feet were constantly dipped to the ankle in slush and the snow continuously came down. We both had trail runners on, so in a way it was OK because the water immediately drained and our wool socks kept the thin layer of remaining water warm-ish against our feet. We were so lucky that we purchased a backpack cover the day before we left because we needed it. We had a ukulele (of course) and that was hooked to the outside of the backpack but kept dry under the cover as well, but it was very awkward.
That night at the albergue, several different people expressed their concern for our feet in that slush. They said they worried about us all day. Most people had waterproof hiking boots, water proof pants or gaters and really large ponchos that fit over their bodies and their backpacks and covered below their knees. We had trail runners, running tights and a small thin rain shell. We spent some time that evening filling and refilling our shoes with newspaper to dry them. In the morning they were mostly dry but within 1 minute outside on the third day they were soaked again!
The third day was the most difficult for me because it was 3C and raining the entire time. 28km and 5.5 hours in the rain. Our rain shells did not do their jobs and we were wet to the bone. Within the first half hour of that hike I crossed a river but took the wrong path and stepped up to my knee (splashing my pants above the knee) in an icy river. But it was OK. I was still in good spirits. I think my disbelief of the conditions had my laughter sporadically bursting. The ends of my wool sweater under my jacket got wet so I kept pulling them down to have my hands against the dry part. By the end of the day I had about 6 wet inches hanging out of my jacket. I would have stayed in a good mood had we been able to stop at any indoor location to warm up but nothing was open. It wasn’t until the suburbs of Pamplona that we were able to sit in a cafe. By that time I was too wet I wanted to be done. So the final 2 hours of this adventure were not so fun.
We were told by some locals that November is never this cold or rainy. It was very unusual weather. You could tell it was premature snow because the spectacular orange and yellow leaves were still on the trees. I think if I did this hike again, I would choose a dryer month.
Carrying a Backpack
Jaida and I have minimal experience lugging around a backpack. We didn’t practice before we left on this trip. We both bought the Osprey Fairview 55L which has a day pack that can be removed. This is more of a travel rather than hike backpack and I understood why during our hike. The first time we actually put the pack on our backs was the morning of the Camino.
It was interesting to get used to wearing it but it worked out very well. Our packs were double the recommended weight (we both carried laptops). My waist belt was tightened so much I felt like the number 8. I was leaning a little bit forward (especially up hills) because my centre of gravity had shifted. When the wind blew I felt it more because of the pack. Our backpacks are wider than a typical hiking backpack which might have been the reason I bumped into the side of buildings a few times. Plus when Jaida and I were walking side by side and I turned to look at something quickly I would inadvertently knock her sideways. Speaking of the centre of gravity, Jaida ended up slipping a twice on the snow and landed on her backpack like a face up turtle. She couldn’t get up until she unbuckled the back. It was halarious. Good times!
I’m pretty sure half of my first day was spent thinking about what the heck I put in the backpack that made it so heavy. And what could I possibly mail home. Before we reached our destination in Pamplona, I stopped at a post office and mailed home our sleeping bags!
But putting on my backpack after the first day, I felt safe. It was like a shield, a heavy jacket, a seat belt on a roller coaster. I felt like I was really in control because I was carrying everything I needed for several weeks.
I wanted to mention something about the hills that we hiked. When you register to hike the Camino at the office in Saint Jean Pied de Port, they give you a piece of paper that has recommended day distances with an elevation profile for each day. I want to clarify something here for people that may be reading this post because they are going to do the hike. That chart that they give shows the elevation at the villages (red line), it does not show what goes on between the cities that are on the chart (gray shape). So it doesn’t show the amount of up hills that are actually hiked that day. 372m according to Strava. We were so confused everytime we reached the never ending uphills on that day!
Sleeping in an Albergue
Probably the most special thing about hiking the first three days of the Camino trail was the people we met. We could have stayed in hotels along the way but we opted to get the full experience of an albergue.
When you arrive at each albergue, you put down your pack, take off your shoes and go to check in. You get your Camino passport stamped and pay for your night. Usually it costs about 15EUR plus an optional 5EUR for dinner. Most people find their way to their bunk and then shower and change into cozy clothes and flip flops. Several people took a nap and mostly there is a quiet time before dinner. Since we were only hiking 3 days, we paid for the dinner which worked out well because we sat at the same table with other hikers. We had the opportunity to play cards and simply chat for hours with the other hikers. Jaida was really impressed with how easily she was included in the group discussions. We were part of the group even though we weren’t hiking to the end.
In the morning, the breakfasts are included and you need to be out of the albergue by 8am. At first I thought that to be odd, but it makes quite a bit of sense to get started on the hike first thing in the morning.
An Epic Adventure
I loved the hike. I loved passing through small towns (it would have been nicer during the season that things were open). I loved walking along the rolling hills, the golden forest paths, the rushing river, the snowy patches of grass. It was so great to be outside all day with my teenager, chatting about nothing and everything. Enjoying the silence together. Stopping for snacks from our backpacks. I loved attempting to speak French and Spanish with locals. I loved watching Jaida overcome very difficult situations with a forced smile and breath. I loved hearing “Buen Camino” as we passed strangers. I loved walking over the French / Spanish border. It was amazing to be part of a group of active people from all over the world sharing the experience. I look forward to taking the time to properly hike this trail in the future. I highly recommend it.
It was an absolute pleasure to enjoy that journey with my 14 year old daughter. I hope she remembers this as a special time for us together like I will. I can’t wait to do something similar with Blake too 🙂
Check out this same adventure from Jaida’s point of view on TravelsCool.com.
We didn’t take many photos in the terrible weather because my hands were too cold but we took many on our first few hours of the first day. Enjoy the photos.