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Pilgrim's diary #1

Walking the Camino de Santiago was a spontaneous decision. Mark and I had just returned from working together in Italy and apart from family and friends, we didn't have anything waiting for us in the Netherlands. No home or a job to return to and to be honest, we both wanted to spend some more time on the road. It took us no longer then three weeks after Italy to be on our way to Santiago.

August 17, 2016 / The Hague

'I sold my huge 65 liter backpack. From this point I will only travel with a much smaller backpack. I'm sick of carrying too much weight or dealing with suitcases. I've tried both ways and my conclusion is: Travel light all the way! Slowly getting my equipment sorted and doing some last investments to make life on the road more practical (and lighter).'

August 25, 2016 / The Hague

'This is probably my personal record on "travelling light" so far. This is all I'm bringing on el Camino. The only thing not visible on the photo is a cowboy hat and a back-up pair of sport shoes. The total weight of my stuff (including backpack and empty water bottle) is about 7,5 kg. I will continue to improve my pack and would love to go even lighter, but that would take more finances to invest in compact and lighter equipment. For now I'm feeling content with what I'm bringing with me.'

It took us a while to decide between the two different routes: the Camino Frances and the Camino de Norte. The first one is the most populair and authentic route to Santiago the Compostella, which is the official destination of the pilgrims route. Camino de Norte however goes along the coastline and offers much more wild paths, vitamin sea and is more physically challenging. Both routes end in Santiago the Compostella, but the starting point for both routes are different. In the end we opted for the Camino Frances as we hoped it would offer us a wider range of scenery and small authentic towns along the way to Santiago. Or actually Finisterre, translated as 'end of the earth' and our planned final destination for the pilgrims journey that lay ahead of us.

August 27, 2016 / The Hague - Paris 'It has become a tradition that every time I arrive or leave the Netherlands, my Dad is the first or last one I see. This morning my dad drove us to the border of the Netherlands where Mark and I began our journey towards El Camino. It took us lots of thumbs up while waiting in the burning sun and four more rides, but we made it safely to Paris. While writing this I'm lying on a bed in a little hotel room in the center of the city, with some chocolate that melted during the day and a not so cold beer. My feet are not at all looking forward to be a pilgrim, but my heart can't wait.'

My dad drove us to the south border of the Netherlands from where we would continue our journey hitchhiking to Paris, our first stop on our way to the starting point. After hugging my dad goodbye we were able to catch a ride fairly quickly. The Dutch couple we shared a fun and talkative ride with were supposed to drop us off more south down the road. Unfortunately due to road work we ended up in Maastricht, still in the Netherlands. It felt like time wasted, but also made things more difficult as it was less easy to catch a ride from here and the sun was burning hot as we stood on the asfalt road with our thumbs up.

A second driver brought us to Mariadorp, where it was even more quiet. Finally we got picked up by a French couple who drove us to Luik. From here we were only one more ride away from our destination of that day, Paris. Two men from west Africa drove us to Paris in exchange for some cash. The men were on their way to pick up the ashes of their dad and got us in no time, with a speed of 180 km per hour, to Paris. Thankful and relieved to have made it after a bumpy start.

For the last stretch we walked, took a train and walked some more until we reached our hotel for the night 'Hotel Antin St. Georges'. Simple and small, right in the city center. I winded down in our room with a bath, two beers and some melted chocolate before resting my head on a pillow at 4 am. Feeling slightly worried as my feet already hurt and we hadn't even started the Pilgrims route yet.

August 28, 2016 / Paris

'El Camino officially starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port, but mine seems to have started in Paris. I started this day in tears, feeling shocked, angry, confused and lighter in my wallet after being tricked by gypsies on the street. A most unpleasant experience, scary mostly, to loose your clear mind and get sucked into their 'game'. I feel mistreated, but also learned a great deal today.

Mark and I visit The Notre Dame and it becomes my first spiritual visit on this journey. My eyes catch the letters carved in the stone that holds the holy water: "el Camino", directly translated as "the Way". I'm not walking this pilgrimage because of religious reasons, nor am I a Christian. However so, I believe. ''God, the Universe, Allah, Love''.. Since I never expressed my believe with words, I never had the reason or need to "name" it. I still don't feel like I should. Therefore I continue my own path doing the things that feel right to me while respecting whatever feels right for other, as I've always done. I dip my pointer finger and middle finger into the holy water. Around me people move their hand in a cross over their body to bless themselves or ask for protection. I simply touch only my forehead, for that is my way at this moment in time. Further down the hall I burn a candle in front of the image of Jean d'Arc, a historical figure who has always held my interest. In silence I sit down and listen to the men and women singing during the mass. Goosebumps.'

Towards the end of our first day in Paris we took a short nap together in the grass at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and later that evening treated ourselves to a delicious dinner at the little terras on the corner of the street, close to our cozy hotel room. As always we shared everything and indulged in all kinds of flavours together. After a red wine, chocolate mouse and creme brûlée as the cherry on top we strolled back, took a bath and watched 'Lady and the Tramp' on the bed. Having transformed my horrendous morning into a romantic and relaxing night.

August 29, 2016 / Paris

'In front of the Sacre Couer Basilica after our visit Mark gently kisses my forehead. In this very moment I feel loved, respected and honored.'

The next day we woke up late, checked out of the hotel and with the bags ready we were up on our feet. We visited the Sacre Couer in silence, but unfortunately many other tourists did not share the same intention to withdraw from speaking. A beautiful angel with big strong white wings caught my eyes and yet another painting of Jean d'Arc. It was a beautiful visit.

After our hitchhiking experiences on the first day we decided to take a little bit more control ourselves and travel faster, safer and healthier. We booked a night bus to Bayonne from where it's easy to get to St.Jean Pied de Port. Before we leave Paris we stock up on blister bandages which were unfortunately already needed for that moment.

August 30, 2016 / Paris - St.Jean Pied de Port

'The night bus isn't bad at all! Mark and I have good spots where no one can sit behind us so we can put our seats back without bothering anyone. We mostly sleep.'

We arrived with our first fellow pilgrims around 8:45 am in Bayonne and took a train to St. Jean Pied de Port, the gateway to the Camino Frances. Our initial intention was to walk our first couple of miles right away, however we soon learned that albergues (hostels for pilgrims) along the way in the Pyrenees are expensive and it's therefore better to get to Roncesvalles in one go.

'St.Jean Pied de Port is a charming town with it's old stone walls and steep streets. On the foot of the hill there is a river and a bridge where Mark and I find a place to sit down on the stones with some collected foods from a local market for a picknick. We have fresh baguette, brie, cherry tomatoes (washed in the river) and some tiny cakes filled with all kinds of flavours. Chocolate, caramel, olive and mozzarella or feta. I'm loving our picknick and look forward to many more on the way.'

At the bottom of the street there is the beautiful 14th Century church of Notre Dame du Bout du Pont (Our Lady at the End of the Bridge) and it sits beside the gateway onto the bridge over the river. Inside we donated and burned a candle to symbolize a good and safe start of our travels as pilgrims. Many tall white candles already burned in the back of the church and made for a magical sight to see.

In the main street leading up the hill we collected our passport for el Camino and our first two stamps. One at picking up and one from 'the cat lady'. As we were spending the night in town we needed a place to rest. We found a guesthouse owned by a lady who soon became the 'crazy OCD barefoot-walking cat lady'. The house was filled with her rules to the point of insanity and the ground floor smelled like cat piss. Truly everywhere you looked were copied pages of 'NO shoes!' and 'NO wake up before 7 am!'. Other guests, especially three Italians, seem to struggle with her. I wondered if one of the guys was blind as he still brought his flip flops up stairs into the room, disregarding the many signs hung all around the house. Mark and I had no trouble with her and could lightheartedly laugh about her particular behavior. Although she might have crossed a border when she discovered the flip flops and started hitting the owner with it. That night I crawled out of the top bunk bed when everyone was sleeping and snuggled up next to Mark in the bed below.


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