Lescar Rainbow

My First Night on the Camino

The first pilgrim I met on the Camino was an older man who’d walked years before.  I think.  He only spoke French, and I only spoke English; nevertheless, we talked for half an hour or so.

As a local caretaker of the “hostel,” he’d come to the refuge in Lescar soon after I arrived.  He added my name and stats to the register he kept — I learned that I unusually young, alone, and American — and encouraged me to make use of the beautiful country home Lescar offered pilgrims on their journeys.  Then, he gave me a huge, colorful scallop shell to carry to Santiago.

When he left, I went to sleep, still exhausted from London and the travel.  I was awoken by late-hiking pilgrims — young, American pilgrims!  We were all surprised to see each other and have easy conversation.

As we ate dinner and discussed our love for Bernie Sanders, the skies opened up.  So thankful for a roof over my head, I watched the storm from the windows.

By the time we were doing dishes, Arianna from California called the rest of us to look out to see a rainbow.  Sure enough, over the field next to the house stretched one of the most vibrant rainbows I’ve ever seen.  As someone who’d hiked more than 4,000 miles as “Rainbow Dash,” I couldn’t help feeling that the occasion was auspicious.

Rainbow in Lescar

Rainbow in Lescar

Falling in Love with the Pink City

I’m not a city person.  My general MO in a new city is to get out of it as quickly as possible — or, if that’s not possible, find a happy place in a patch of green somewhere inside the concrete jungle.  However, even in spite of its hosting Eurovision 2016 while I was there, the city of Toulouse, where my journey to Santiago began, promptly won my heart.

I flew there from Heathrow, where I enjoyed operatic arias in the restrooms and the relaxed pace of the terminals.*  The British Airlines’s flight was pleasantly bilingual, but French was everywhere (and often unaccompanied by English) once the plane touched down.

From the airport, I took a shuttle to the heart of the city, where I’d catch my bus to Pau the following morning, unless it had been canceled by the bus strike.  I arrived at the Jean d’Arc station (fangirl moment!) and then navigated my way to the hostel.**

Instantly, I fell in love with Toulouse.  Nicknamed “the Pink City,” it did, indeed, appear as though I viewed it through rose-colored glasses.  The buildings ranged in hue from salmon to ballerina pink, as did the sidewalks.  Plentiful street trees infused the city’s palatte with green.  It felt warm and inviting, especially after the rain and greys of London.

The city’s crown jewel is its Basilique Saint-Sernin, which is a destination for pilgrims on the Chemin d’Arles.  It was stunningly beautiful — but, in my mind, so was the rest of the city, from the winding pink streets to the huge municipal plaza to the banks of the river, where I’m convinced that the city’s residents go to enact Sunday in the Park on a daily basis.

I enjoyed a “takeaway” dinner from in a park, as I watched the sun set across the river.  Then, I retired to the hostel, to sleep amid the evening’s last birdsong before setting off on the Camino the next day.  I made a pledge to myself:  If I ever were to have a European love affair, I would take it to Toulouse.

*Conversational blue blaze:  From what I could tell this summer, it seems that everyone in Europe thinks we Americans are bizarre for removing our shoes for security.

**Another blue blaze:  Pre-downloaded Google Maps saved my life this summer.  Google Translate was helpful, too, but Google Maps is amazing.

A Dabbler of Caminos

In the US, when we talk about the Camino de Santiago, we are often referring to the Camino Francés, the most popular pilgrimage route.  However, Caminos extend throughout Europe, in a network of paths connecting notable relgious sites to one another.  The Camino Frances is tremendously popular, but many other Caminos offer more opportunities for solitude and tranquility.  Some Caminos are more developed than others and have better waymarks, guidebooks, and pilgrim services; others might regularly necessitate map reading and asking directions from locals.

While lying in bed last winter, distracting myself from Lyme by dreaming of the Camino, I planned a Camino dabbler for the summer (having no clue whether I would get the chance to even attempt to walk it).  I knew that walking a continuous footpath across Spain was important to me — chalk it up to my white-blazing sensibilities! — but I knew that I didn’t feel called to walk the most traditional route.  Instead, I wanted to explore as much of Spain as 43 days of walking would allow.  And thus, my “squiggly arrow Camino,” as an Irish pilgrim called it, was born.

My Camino would begin in Lescar, France, in part for the sake of convenience.  I had heard wonderful things about crossing the Pyrenees at the Col du Somport, so I knew that I wanted to follow the Chemin d’Arles/Via Tolosana from some point in France.  Given the higher bunkroom fees in France and my lack of understanding of the language, I thought that spending less than a week in the country would be ideal.  The city of Pau, of which Lescar is a suburb, was easy to get to by bus from any French airport.

From there, my plan was to cross the Pyrenees to join the Camino Aragonés, walk north to the Camino Frances, experience the history of the Camino’s thoroughfare for a bit before taking a right in León, enjoy the mountain scenery of the Camino de San Salvador, and then follow the Camino Primitivo to Santiago.  From there, I knew I wanted to keep walking to see Finisterre, the End of the Earth.

After a new treatment protocol helped me get Lyme solidly in remission on March 20, I decided to fly to Europe and try to walk to Santiago.  I spent two weeks visiting my sister in Wales, and then I flew to France on June 14 to begin my journey.