Getting to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port from Madrid

Ink sketch of St Jean

A few summers ago I took a train ride from Madrid followed by a nauseating bus ride through switchbacks in the Pyrenees to here: St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. A ridiculously cute, charming French village snuggled into the mountains and popular starting point for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. It was evening and I should have looked for a place to sleep but my first order of business was to find a slice of Gâteau Basque—A light, thin buttery crust filled with lemon cream and a few raspberries. (My nausea from the bus ride was immediately replaced with squealing, happy tastebuds.) Then I sat on this stoop here, eating cake for dinner, waiting for the Pilgrim Office to reopen from their dinner break, thinking this was the best damn start to the long walk ahead.

You can’t spit without seeing a bakery in St. Jean. Highly recommend getting a slice (or two) the evening before you begin the Camino, if you plan on beginning your walk at dawn. Since there is only one reliable stop for food between St Jean and Roncesvalles (the bar at Orisson) a slice of Gâteau Basque for snack/second breakfast is pretty great.

How to get to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port from Madrid

I took the train from Madrid’s Atocha station to Pamplona. It was 3 hours, around 50 € if booked on the same day (you could save money by booking ahead on Renfe’s website.) From the Pamplona train station you can walk to the bus station (Estación de Autobuses de Pamplona) or take a taxi. It’s about 2.5 km (1.5 miles).

I arrived during late afternoon, siesta time, and the streets were basically empty. As a solo woman I felt perfectly safe walking from the train to the bus station during the day. (Might as well walk since you’re about to embark on a 500 mile journey on foot anyway, right?) From there catch the bus to St. Jean. (Cost around 20 €) It also passes through Roncesvalles, which can feel a little weird to drive through a town you’re going to walk back to the next day.

If you have a smartphone it’s a good idea to download an offline Google map of Pamplona so you have walking directions between stations, without using data on your phone.

Side note: The bus only runs direct to St Jean in the busier months of Spring — Summer. Check the ALSA bus website for times. I took the bus in August.

Also: I’ve heard about the horrendous crowds of pilgrims beginning in St Jean and the lack of beds in Roncesvalles since one of the big albergues closed. Why not begin your walk in Pamplona instead?

Streets of Pamplona

Skip Santorini, please. Try Paros instead.

When I first booked my flight to Greece, I decided that I wanted a taste of island life and a taste of mountain life. I knew I would go and spend three days hiking in Meteora. But which island to visit out of them all?

There are a shitload of travel blogs out there. And basically all of them list Santorini or Mykonos as THE islands to visit. Milos is getting a bit more attention for it’s moon-like rocky shores, and Ios is apparently the second popular party island next to Mykonos (but for a younger crowd, so I’ve read.)

I hate parties and crowds and that fact that over-tourism is ruining places like Dubrovnik and Santorini….So I went to Paros, a five hour direct ferry ride from Athens. Yes, it still gets tourists. (Hello, these are the Cyclades!) But in early June there really weren’t that many. Early June is still considered the slow season on Paros, though.

This is what I love about Paros: it’s not a party island. It’s not overrun by Instagrammers elbowing over each other for that perfect sunset shot. Locals live and vacation on this island. One bar owner told me that locals can’t even afford to live on Santorini anymore. They just rent out their homes and live on another island. That is insane to me.

Paros is chill. Though it is extremely windy, which makes the temperatures really pleasant. Maybe don’t wear a super short airy skirt here. It also felt very safe, which is a high priority for a woman traveling solo.

Parikia is a lovely port town. You can wander the cobbled maze of streets with white buildings and round blue tops and pink bougainvillea for hours. A postcard view around every corner. And SO many cats. I highly recommend just wandering the streets and getting lost for a while. Definitely have a coffee or lunch at Distrato cafe under the shade of an enormous tree growing out of the centre of the square. Peek into shops selling olive oil lotions, olive wood cutting boards, and handmade jewelry.

The beaches are chill. The people are warm. There’s a tiny produce market in the center square by the ferry pier with an excellent bakery right next door. How many ways can you eat honey-drenched phyllo for breakfast, snack, or dessert? Also, I’m obsessed with Greek iced coffee – espresso freddo!

Craving mountains one day, a friend and I took a bus to Lefkes, a town in the centre of the island. Lefkes is old, beautiful, more cats, tons of little shops, and it’s surrounded by terraced hillsides and scraggly olive groves. There’s also an amazing footpath on the outskirts of Lefkes called the Byzantine Road.

Views on the Byzantine Road

The Byzantine Road is the oldest road on the island. The path, paved from Parian marble, links Lefkes with Prodromos and is about 3.5 km long, mostly downhill. It rambles through the countryside, showing off the white buildings of Lefkes, myrtle, olive and fig trees dotting the hillside. The whole path smells like oregano. At one point there’s an opening between hills that gives you a view of the ocean. Bring a hat and/or sunscreen, plus water since there’s little shade.

Ink sketch from the Byzantine Road near Lefkes

The bus from Parikia to Lefkes takes about 30 minutes and cost around 3€.

I stayed in Paros Backpackers, a hostel only open a couple of years and constantly renovating. A private room with a bath and balcony cost 25€ when I was there. A steal. The rooftop terrace is perfect for watching the sunset.

Santorini is beautiful, yes, I was there as a child many years ago. But seriously, THIS IS GREECE. There are plenty of other gorgeous islands to be explored for half the price and just as much beauty.