It felt surreal to arrive in Biarritz, a small coastal city in the south of France, two and a half years after the first time I landed there. Back then it was September of 2013 and I was on my way to walk my first, and very life-changing, Camino along the French Way. Now it was early May of 2016 and I was looking forward to walking my second Camino, but this time on a different route called the Camino del Norte which runs 825 kilometers along the north coast of Spain from Irún to Santiago de Compostela.
Familiar feelings of excitement and magical memories of my first Camino flooded my heart. I almost expected a taxi driver to be standing at the luggage carousel holding a cardboard sign with the name “VEITCH” written on it, but there wasn’t. This time I was on my own to find my way, not to St. Jean Pied de Port like in 2013, but to Irún, a large town situated on the French-Spanish border.
It was a sunny afternoon the first time I landed in Biarritz, but this time it was dark. At 9:30 p.m. crickets chirped while I sat alone on the curb waiting for the bus. The airport was strangely empty.
At this time of night I was told I had to flag the bus down. The driver didn’t speak English, nor was my Spanish good, but she understood where I needed to go. An hour and a half later, the bus stopped. Being the only passenger left, I knew this stop was for me. The driver pointed towards a dark train station. It didn’t look promising. I thanked her and stepped into the dead quiet street. I was in Hendaye, a town located on the French side of the border. That’s as far as the bus could take me. In order to reach Irún I would need to take the train across the border.
“Great,” was my first thought. I was regretting my choice to book a later flight out of Paris in order to enjoy more time there. The train station was closed. Three people sat quietly outside. One looked transient. Dirty, ragged clothing hung off his body. His hair was a tangled mess and his beard mangy. The two others appeared to be a couple. They had bicycles with saddle bags. I approached them hoping they spoke English. Thankfully, they did. They were from northern Europe, although I can’t remember which country. They said they had cycled the Camino Frances in seven days. They were on their way home and ended up at the train station in Hendaye. They said there was no vacancy anywhere so they planned to sleep outside the train station until it opened. They added that I could stay with them if I wanted to.
Normally, I would think because they had experienced the Camino that they would be trustworthy comrades, but there was something about them that made me feel uneasy. Maybe it was that their eyes didn’t smile when their lips did. Maybe their bicycles made me suspect they could easily rob me and ride away while I slept. Or maybe it’s just because I have become paranoid of possible hidden agenda’s after being robbed three times while backpacking in South America. Maybe I’ve become jaded, but definitely my senses are more aware. When my gut says no, I have learned to trust it whether right or wrong. It’s better to be safe, they say, than sorry.
I bade the two cyclists farewell. The wheels of my suitcase rolled and skipped over cracks in the sidewalk as I pulled it up the hill into the more inhabited part of the dark border town. Many places were closed up for the night. Two places still had activity, so I went in, but was turned away. They were full.
The only other option was to walk across the border alone. Irún, I knew, wasn’t far. It was just on the other side of the border from what I observed of the maps I’d studied, if the distance noted was accurate. A pang of nervousness fluttered in my chest. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into by crossing over at nearly midnight and alone. Would there be border personnel? Armed guards? I didn’t think so. There were open borders between European countries from what I knew. But, I feared there could perhaps be a thief, or worse, lurking in the shadows.
It’s the “what if’s” that scare us isn’t it? It’s the unknown on the dark and obscure side of “if”. It’s why I shied away from sleeping next to the cyclists. My gut said there was something amiss and I trusted it. I’ll never know for sure. It may seem strange to many, but somehow attempting a midnight border crossing seemed the safer bet and so I did.
The bridge was dark. There were no lights and a dark figure stood by the railing up ahead to the right. Loaded down with my backpack, I pulled my suitcase forward along the rough concrete. The vibration of it’s wheels made my hand and forearm feel numb. I buried my fear and greeted the figure with, “Hola! Buenas Noches.” It was a Spanish man who, thankfully, responded the same. Without any trouble I continued rolling my suitcase toward the lights of a town, Irún.
It took me ten minutes to walk to the outskirts of Irún in Spain from Hendaye in France. I was shocked at how quickly I got there, however walking into the centre of the large town took much longer. Eventually, I found a pension and settled in for the remainder of my short night, but not before sitting at the bar and devouring a Spanish tortilla.
The next day, I would begin following the yellow arrows.