I’m calling this upcoming trip my El Camino hike, but it actually involves more than me and more than the Camino. My younger daughter Allison will be sharing the first 10 or so days with me, and we’ll be visiting non-Camino places of importance to her and to me.
On Saturday September 13th, we’ll fly to Lyon, France, and spend a couple of days in the Massif Central, a little known place that piqued my curiosity in 1975 while I was traveling in Europe. In that year, a fellow named LePen came out of this mountainous region, the Appalachia of France, to national prominence.
The reason few know the area is because the old volcanoes that formed it have created such a badlands of crisscrossing gorges and sharp peaks that it is almost impenetrable. People who live there think differently than the mainstream French living in the big cities.
We’re going to LePuy-en-Velay in the heart of the region at just the right time: In a case of history repeating itself, LePen’s daughter is causing the same kind of political disruption her father did those many years ago.
Le Puy also serves as a starting point for one of the major Camino routes in France. Although we won’t be following the trail there, I will be tempted to say “Le Puy” when asked where we started walking the Camino for the false prestige of suggesting we’ve walked an extra 700 kilometers.
In fact, Allison and I are just planning a couple of day hikes up steep cones and around caldera, with spectacular views of other dead volcanoes if the weather is good.
We will then be visiting the tiny village of Bazian, in sight of the Pyrenees, where Allison spent a few summer weeks in high school. Even that was a quarter century ago, so it’s unclear what or who she might encounter.
Then we’re on to a couple of days in the Basque country of extreme southwest France—the historic coastal city of Bayonne and the medieval village of St. Jean Pied de Port, the stepping off point for our actual start of the Camino.
We’ve booked our first night on the Way of St. James in the Orisson Refuge, the only place to stay high in the Pyrenees, on the slopes above St. Jean. Anyone who doesn’t book there has to walk all the way through these mountains to Roncevalles on the Spanish side in a single day.
That, plus the fact that only by climbing up and over—following the arduous Napoleanic route—may we get spectacular views of both countries prompted us to build our schedule around the availability of beds in this 18-bunk alpine outpost. Now our fingers are crossed against fog and driving rain so common in these challenging mountains.
In Roncevalles, we’ve got individual rooms in a rebuilt monastery to assure a good night’s sleep after our mountain crossing. The rooms in the other two albergues will be full, in part because many pilgrims start their walks here specifically to avoid the mountain crossing.
How far our legs will let us walk the next day is in doubt, so we have booked nothing for the following night neither in Zubiri, the nearer industrial town, nor in Larrasoaña, the farther medieval village.
The following day is Allison’s destination: Pamplona. No bulls in the streets—that drunken fiesta finished in late July. Just three nights in a comfy hotel overlooking the old district to one side and a public park on the other.
In this city of 200,000, we have no agenda and hopefully, we’ll stick to it.
We might manage to putter around, recuperate, visit cafes, have chats, engage in light reading, eat pintxos (the local name for tapas), or, for me, making any equipment adjustments before The Big Walk. Or not.
In any case, Allison’s then off to Barcelona, perhaps, or home to Boston, and I’m off for 50 days of chasing the setting sun on foot.
That’s longer than needed to reach Santiago de Compostella, because I’m actually headed for the ocean beyond Santiago. Twice.
The first time to the west—to Muxia and Finisterre (which means “end of the world.” And here I thought that was in the hinterlands of Maine). Then, after passing back through Santiago, I’ll head off to the north another 200 kilometers across the Cantabrianese Mountains to the northern shore at Ribadeo.
By then it’ll be midNovember, and the fall rains will have set in—an average of a soaking every other day with dreary highs only in the 50s.
I’ll be traveling alone—the few other pilgrims I encounter will be headed the other way, toward Santiago—and I may be mentally as well as physically weary. A bus out of Ribadeo in some homeward direction will probably be most welcome.
But the end might come sooner.
To allow for a longer walk out of spiritual gratification or physical pleasure, or one shortened by weather or weariness, I’ve bought no return ticket.
The beauty of retirement is that deadlines have died.
Que sera sera.
Jill will know I’m coming home when I know.
Hasta la vista.