At a key stop on the Santiago trail, our pilgrim realises that the days when it was just him and the mountains are now over

Culture shock. Out of the mountains and into St Jean-Pied-de-Port, key stop on the traditional Santiago trail, and there are pilgrims everywhere, every one laden with rucksack, staff and cockleshell (traditional pilgrim symbol). Every restaurant offers the "pilgrim menu", every newsagent sells pilgrim guides. After the solitude of the Pyrenees, it's overwhelming. Enter town in a daze, cockleshell-shocked.

First stop: Pilgrims' Information Centre. Walk in. Conversation stops. Everyone stares. Then, simultaneously, "That rucksack's too big!" - in three languages. Point out that I've been carrying it for seven months. "Yes, but you've got to cross the Pyrenees!" Point out that I just have. Lengthways. "It's too heavy!" Receptionist launches into a harangue on Packing for Practical Pilgrims. Gosh. Seven months' walking and I never knew that ... Listen numbly - and long for the hills again.

Check in to the pilgrims' hostel. Fifteen pilgrims stare. Housekeeper charges in. "Mon Dieu, you carried that all the way from the station?" This is getting irritating. "No, from England." Withering look. "I meant on foot!" "So did I." Long silence. "Would you like some wine?" asks an American timidly. Best welcome that I have had all day.

Introducing ourselves is like meeting the United Nations. A young New York couple are here to go churchspotting (like trainspotting, but less high-speed). A Finnish family are "on the Camino" (pilgrim jargon) because of a TV documentary. A well-dressed German couple "wanted to rediscover a primitive life".

We peasants are honoured... A young French dancer is here to ponder her future; an old soldier hell-bent on sharing his life story. "When I was in the Legion ..." Laurent of Arabia, I presume. Few are experienced walkers. (Laurent enthralls us with his epic Sahara crossing in 1961.) A Quebecois burger salesman has no water-bottle but carries an aluminium deck-chair. Waterproofs vary from Laurent's sand-camouflaged Gore-Tex (useful in the desert) to the dancer's bin-bags.

Nobody has a compass, but we all carry mobile phones. Everyone's nervous. It's a long way from St Jean to the first refuge in Spain. Everyone has questions: "What are the Pyrenees like? Will it be hard? Will we make it?" As nervous as I was, seven months ago. Nobody sleeps that night.

They leave before dawn. Fingers crossed, I watch them go. Gales blow all day long. I'm nervous: how are they doing? Then the Americans call. "Everyone made it!" Happy voices in the background. They've left nerves behind. "Next stop Santiago! Good luck, pilgrim!"

Welcome to the Camino.

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