What is it about starting a pilgrimage with an ordeal by mountain? Is it a test of resolve? Or is it to give us a glimpse of the reward for our efforts in the majesty of the scene laid out before us?
I wrestled with these thoughts as we climbed towards Orisson and then on the high road to Roncesvalles in mid April 2018.
We made the climb after waiting five days in St Jean Pied de Port for the torrential rain and snow on the mountains to stop. We finally got a forecast for good weather over the weekend, re-booked a bed at Orisson Refuge — the mountain hostel — and sure enough the road was open.
The climb to Orisson Refuge was brutal and steep, like an 8km staircase of 237 floors, in some parts strewn with sharp rocks, and in parts with water and clay mud to make things interesting.
In the dormitory, we quickly negotiate arrangements for sleeping in a common room, and are immediately tolerant of our differences and sensitive to our concerns.
We share stories over dinner and wine, and introduce ourselves publicly. There were some moving stories. For me, this pilgrimage is about gratitude and a sense of awe that we are walking in the footsteps of a thousand years of pilgrims and the thought that that history walks with us.
As I looked around that room, I knew that even just one day in, with all our diverse backgrounds, we would — and could —depend on any one of them for help if help was needed, and they on us. Shared adversity brings us together at a basic human level as we are confronted with our strengths and weaknesses stripped bare.
We looked out over the mountains, sobered by the realisation that we had another 600m still to climb, before descending into Spain.
Dawn over the mountains breaks as an explosion of colour, the darkness pierced by the most vivid orange. In the valleys a purple mist hangs, muffling the sound of cow bells. And the mountains roll away in layers of folded rock like a discarded blanket. It is what artists would call ‘sublime’.
It is here we learn that if you have your head in the clouds you are not reaching high enough. If you aspire to anything, your aspirations must be high enough to be able to look down on the clouds. Up here I felt that even if everything is not sorted yet, the details will resolve in their time. Perspective matters.
In the meantime, to reach our goal requires us to place one foot in front of the other on solid ground. We were grateful for our trekking poles — our pilgrim staffs, ensuring three points of stable contact before taking the next step.
Above and around us countless vultures circled as though waiting for us to falter.
We had been emphatically told by the pilgrim office in St Jean Pied de Port that under no circumstances were we to take the forest track despite the arrows and markings leading that way. It was too treacherous, and we must take the road. But when we got there, we found the road covered in several inches of snow, making it a smooth slippery surface on a steep hill.
And the road was nowhere to be seen.
So we were forced to take the ‘more dangerous’ route. And just to get onto it meant negotiating a considerable embankment with the help of others.
And in this day and age, learning to ask for help is a difficult but necessary lesson.
Water streamed down the path and we picked every step carefully, watching for the rocks that might be more stable than the otherwise soft mud.
That day, nine people had to be rescued from the path — some had finished their Camino on their first day due to injury.
The mountains presented us with extremes. On the one hand, we struggled to keep our footing in the snow and mud, and on the other, to see the snow covered peaks stretch out into the distance was truly sublime. So by the time we reached Roncesvalles – a C13th monastery – we pilgrims, including we atheist pilgrims, were in need of rest in mind and body. And pilgrims we indeed were.
And so the first ordeal is over, and we are able to continue our journey. It was time to have a short day to strengthen mind and body for what lies ahead.
Yesterday we bought our walking poles in St Jean Pied de Port – our final piece of equipment for the Camino de Santiago – the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostele in Spain. Today we should have been walking, but have decided to take a couple of rest days to get over the last of a bug caught en route to Paris from a fellow traveller. It is also a ‘snow day’ – meaning the high path, or Napoleon route, over the Pyrenees is closed due to snow falls.
So it’s time to explore the town – and we encountered a museum housed in what was once the Bishop’s jail. It was interesting to reflect on the importance of the walking pole or pilgrim’s staff in the history and iconography of the Camino.
Ergonomic studies on the use of trekking poles show that they can take up to 20% of the load off the knees. This enables hikers and walkers to cover greater ground with less strain than without using them. They provide stability in uneven or slippery terrain, and act as ‘brakes’ when walking down hills. But I notice that many pilgrims still prefer to walk with a traditional wooden staff or stick – perhaps to keep time and maintain the walking rhythm, and to test the depth of streams before fording them.
In the museum there was a bit of a write-up on the use of walking poles or trekking poles. As a device to support walking and provide stability, the staff has come to symbolise the axis of the world, around which we all perambulate to a greater or lesser extent.
In biblical representations, the staff of Moses guides the people to safety, even driving back the sea to enable safe passage. In this sense the staff is seen as the soul transformed by the divine – a symbology related to the redemptive power of the cross of Christ. To do a million step walk is also to lift and carry that staff a million times – so perhaps there is an element of carrying one’s cross or burden.
When you consider that the staff is at once support, defence, and guide, the stick has become the king’s sceptre, the Marshall stick of the brigadier, the caduceus of our doctors and the crozier of bishops, as well as the eyes of the blind.
For all these reasons, the staff has become the main symbolic attribute of pilgrims – not only for pilgrims on the Saint James route, but since the dawn of time, pilgrims have been using a staff for support, guidance and defence against robbers and thieves.
In medieval times it became quite an icon. So much so, that they appeared to be used even by pilgrims who went by sea. So its symbolic value was always high regardless of the mode of travel. Indeed the Ergonomists would probably agree that if you are lifting something like that a million times, it had better be useful!.
So next time you see a hiker, trekker, or pilgrim walking with trekking poles or a stick regardless of whether their sticks are made from carbon fibre, aluminium or wood, spare a thought for that humble trekking pole!
Trekking poles come in a great variety of shapes sizes and materials.
Lightweight carbon fibre ones are light and durable, but can be expensive. Aluminium ones are a little heavier, and can be sprung or unsprung. Wooden ones, might appear traditional, but give the least ergonomic advantage.
The value comes from the straps which take your weight as you bear down on them. So wider straps are better.
Always insert your hand from beneath the strap so that the strap passes over the back of the hand. That way, if you drop the pole it will just hang there on your wrist. Also you won’t break your thumb if you fall.
There are several styles of use. I prefer to place them in opposition to the walking foot – as though you are crawling, but upright. You can establish a good rhythm in line with your walking and natural swing of your arms.
Just tapping the sticks might make a nice audible rhythm, but will give you no help with the weight you carry. Bear down on the strap and just guide the stick with your hand, don’t grip it. You will save a lot of fatigue that way.
Trekking poles can be fixed or extendable, sprung or unsprung, and some telescope into themselves, while others fold up like tent poles. I certainly prefer them to be adjustable for height. The fold up ones can be less secure as there is only a small overlap between segments, allowing a lot of play. I don’t recommend those for use on uneven ground where they may be called upon to provide real stability or support.
Where to buy
Where to buy
The best places are usually dedicated hiking or outdoors shops – make sure you get them fitted properly for your height and that they show you how to use them properly.
First off, Paris is a wonderful and pretty safe city, but it has its share of shady operators, as most cities do. The following are mostly ones I’ve encountered or have been made aware of. One way to stay alert is to play the ‘Spot the Scam game. It’s a bit like office bingo, but one that can save you a lot of heartache.
1. Airport taxi touts
When you arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport and clear customs, you may want to find a taxi. As you approach the taxi area you will be approached by people, some in a kind of uniform, offering to take you to a taxi. These guys will take you to an unofficial taxi and will overcharge you substantially, either by using the meter and driving a long circuitous route, or by claiming the fixed price is somewhere around 70 euros. Actually the official taxis have a fixed rate of 55 euros to anywhere in central Paris. So ignore the touts, and follow the blue line on the floor or the airport signs and head outside to the marked official taxi rank.
2. The old ring trick
This is where you are walking with your wife and either you hear a metallic tinkle or someone will pretend to find and pick up a gold ring (it isn’t gold) and will ask if you dropped it. When you say no, they will offer it to you, but for a price (finders fee). Someone did try this on us on a previous visit, and being wise to it I just laughed and called out ‘Scammer!’ And they ran off to find another mark.
3. The friendship bracelet or ring
This is where a smiling friendly looking person comes up and tries to tie a string on your wrist to make a friendship band. If they get the string on you, they won’t take no for an answer, and they will demand money for it. I’ve been fortunate so far in avoiding this one, but it seems to be a popular trick – especially on the steps of Montmartre Cathedral. Take the side steps, or just barge on up the stairs with your hands in your pockets or held against you so that they can’t get a loop on you.
4. The dodgy pedicab
Pedicabs can be a fun way to get around, but just this morning I watched police pull one over, and I overheard them explaining to the rather disturbed American passengers that the pedicab failed to display the proper fixed fares, so he was likely to overcharge them – perhaps by a substantial amount. It’s good to see that the police are looking out for this kind of thing, as it just gives the city a bad name.
5. Trinket and water sellers
Not so much a scam, but these guys hunt in packs, and run like crazy if they see a police or security officer – most likely because they are unlicensed traders. But I’ve seen them become real pests if they spot a victim. The Eiffel towers are most likely made in China – along with the selfie sticks. The latter they try to sell for 20 euros, and perhaps you can beat them down to around 15 or even 10, but at that price they are still double what you would pay in a cheapie shop. I bought mine in Australia for AUD$6 – which is about what they are worth.
There may be genuine hard luck stories, but I admit I’m getting cynical about them. France has a social security system which is one of the best in Europe. I have seen the same beggar with a dog on one day, a rabbit on the next, and a small child on the third. Sometimes they seem to work in shifts, with the same signs being swapped over at shift handover. And the other trick is to have their money in a clear plastic jar and place it out in the footpath where unsuspecting people will kick it over, then feel guilty and give them some apology money. My advice is to save the guilt for Confession and walk on.
NB: Don’t confuse buskers with beggars. I’m serious about this. Most of the buskers, whether musicians or circus performers are quite highly skilled in their discipline, with many trained at the conservatoire or the national circus academy. I know via the circus professionals that those training in circus are doing a university level degree, but their third year assessment is based on them making a living doing street shows for their graduation year. Do something for the arts, and give generously if you’re enjoying their shows. And street shows are a great way to develop performance skills and skill in showmanship and working an audience. And yes, I was a full time musician for 10 years, and I learned my performance skills with street shows before working in a band. But do be aware, that pickpockets can operate among an audience while you are absorbed in the show.
7. Do you speak English? The petition scam
I’ve encountered this one a lot, four times in the last few days. A couple of young women looking harmless and holding clipboards approach you with ‘Do you speak English?’ Then they try to get you to sign a petition, perhaps about getting education for girls in Africa. While you are trying to work out what they are asking, their partner is going through your bag or pockets without you realising, because your attention is focussed elsewhere. Or, once you sign they ask for a donation to their cause. My favourite way to respond: I use the best English accent I can muster, and say ‘Do I speak English? Dreadfully sorry, I don’t speak a word of it.’ And keep walking. I do speak Australian though, but they never seem to ask me that…
8. Being asked for directions
We all get ourselves lost sometimes, but there is a sleight-of-hand trick where you are sitting at a cafe, perhaps with your phone on the table and you get approached by someone with a map looking lost. They place the map over your phone and while you are orienting them on a map, they or an accomplice are stealing your phone from underneath. It is a distract and steal method that takes several forms.
9a. ATM distract and steal
We all need to get cash out from time to time. So we find a teller machine, and start the process, but then someone comes up and engages your attention – then while you are distracted they quickly type in an amount, perhaps 300 euros and they or an accomplice snatches the money as it comes out before you are aware of what has just happened. My advice – find a bank and use the machines inside.
9b. ATM electronic skimmers
These are devices placed over the keypad or inside the card shroud to record your card’s details and your PIN number. I always -even on the indoor machines, do a wriggle test on the card shroud and the keypad. If it’s loose then don’t use it. And always cover your hand when keying your PIN.
10. Pickpockets – keep it chained.
The light fingered brigade can be found everywhere it seems these days. There are even signs inside Notre Dame Cathedral about pickpockets operating even during mass. And other services. Nowhere is sacred these days. I’ve had my backside felt up out in the street to see if I had something in my back pocket worth taking. Here’s what I do. I have my wallet AND my phone on chains attached to a belt hook on my trousers on either side. Each is long enough to enable the phone to be used as a phone or a camera while still being attached, likewise the wallet chain is long enough to permit me to take it out for a transaction. I don’t carry a backpack for day-to-day use, but if you do, wear it on your front. In a crowd it is easy for someone to unzip it on your back and reach inside for your valuables. I use a shoulder bag with a wired strap so it can’t easily be cut. Even the sight of a chain may be enough to deter a thief as they will be going after easy pickings, and you are showing that you are alert to their activities.
There are no doubt other scams around, it’s a good idea to read up on them before you travel, and play spot the scam to keep yourself alert – but not alarmed.
Leave a comment below regarding any others you’ve encountered, and help keep others alert and above all, have your stuff insured for travel insurance and enjoy your travels. In most cases we are dealing with petty operators, so even if they manage to sting you, just chalk it up to experience, and don’t let them ruin your amazing holiday or vacation.