Griffon vultures were circling above as we climbed steadily on day two of our Camino. The swooping birds didn't so much have their eyes on our meaty - dare I say, toned - calves. They were indulging in a playful flyover because they knew something we didn't.
Around the corner, the most frightful rain storm was lying in wait.
Thankfully, I was wearing contacts, because glasses couldn't have coped with the driving wind, rain and the pesky hailstones that came at us, resting defiantly on my eyelids. I squatted down, hastily pulling emergency supplies from my trusty backpack: the new, silver-lined caped poncho I'd bought two days previously in France, when news broke of incoming inclement weather; the giant waterproof pants.
These had been very different additions to my usual clothing buys, but by God, did I cherish them that day. I looked liked Ned Kelly in the Pyrenees.
My friend Katherine had hiked before. I was a casual walker. I'd never been on a Camino, but our aim, over four days, was to follow those iconic yellow arrows across the Cize Passes, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port all the way to Pamplona, some 70km away. Our walk would take in the first three stages of the Way of St James, a 30-stage, 780km Camino that ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, and it was a whole new world to me. Turning to face into the wind, I gave it socks.
A series of tough hill climbs lay ahead, gaining an elevation of 1,240 metres at the Col Lepoeder Hill. Fog came down. My heart was beating loudly in there, under a millefeuille of thin base layers. I was exhilarated.
I'm no thrill-seeker, but this was different. This was not a race to the end. It was about discovering my own Camino and hopefully, a little bit about myself along the way.
Now that I'm home, I appreciate how Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was a perfect place to start my first Camino. Each year the French market town waves off 20,000 pilgrims, and it bustles with a motherly, custodial energy.
When we dropped by the Pilgrim's office to collect our all-important carnet, a woman named Genevieve lifted her dainty hand and brought the stamp down with a slow, deliberate, respectful punch. The first stamp of many to come, I hoped. My heart did a skip. A bucket-list ambition I had squirrelled away until the kids were reared was hours away from realisation. Giddy with anticipation, I flashed Genevieve the biggest "merci" and went to celebrate with a local delicacy: crèpes with Grand Marnier.
A tough new reality dawned the next day after we marched across the cobbles on Rue de la Citadelle and out under the town's historic gate. The climbs on the Chemin de Saint Jacques started almost immediately and it was, I'll admit, quite testing. Half an hour in, niggling self-doubt started to set in. Would the legs have enough firepower and climbing power to keep going? Had I trained enough?
The one consolation was that we had taken expert advice, so our expectations had been matched with the landscape and our abilities. This demanding 24.8km first stage to Roncesvalles usually takes eight and a half hours plus, ascending from 170 metres above sea level to a height of 1,450 metres in the Pyrenees. Then it's back down a tricky descent to 950 metres in Spain. A wise decision was taken three months earlier to split this section, doing it in two days. Bravado was not going to be our badge of honour. We were friends for over 40 years. One, an experienced hiker with tales to tell. The other, a slow coach who normally likes to stop occasionally for a coffee.
Well, there were no latte con leche stop-offs for me as I leaned forward into the Route Napoléon - so named for its strategic importance during the Napoleonic wars. It was the route Napoléon took to cross into Spain following the old Roman road, the Via Traiana.
Our maiden voyage served its purpose. I puffed my way along 12km to Orisson in crisp, cool conditions. Low clouds drifted across the stunning autumn scenery like cotton wool. And then came a rural French traffic jam of sheep making their way down from the mountains for the winter as we headed up. The only hostel at Orisson was closed so the practical alternative was to get a taxi back to the Central Hotel in town for a second night.
How did I feel? It's widely acknowledged that this first of 30 stages across the Camino is probably the most difficult - due to the steep and arduous climbs, the tough descent and, whatever about those legs, the toll it all takes on a body unused to constant hills wearing a rucksack.
I didn't feel a shame factor, like we were in the Tour de France's disgraced 'broom wagon'. Day one was like a taster, an amuse bouche of what was to come across the Cize Passes in the Pyrenees before descending down into Navarre and embracing Basque countryside and culture.
I retired early to organise my backpack. This prepping exercise took on a weird satisfaction over the coming nights, carried out in silence, almost like a meditation in itself, helping me to prepare mentally for the day ahead.
If only I could minimise the requirements of my life into to a small bag like this, I thought - quite something for a mother who has managed to fill a four-bedroomed house with 'stuff' - but these were just some of the crazy little thoughts that drifted through my head as I processed the peacefulness of the Camino and plotted how to bring this clarity and chilled headspace home with me.
In total, we walked 67km over for four days to get from St Jean to Pamplona, but day two for me was the absolute highlight of the trip. An experienced Scottish hiker who offered us a jelly sweet (some welcome sugar along the way) described the conditions as "very challenging". We nodded in agreement, but inside that giant flapping waterproof poncho, I was giving myself and Katherine a slap on the back.
Up and down we travelled, over tarmac and grass, across slippy shingle and springy forest floors. There were inner smiles along the way as we counted mounting kilometres painted on the tarmac. I gave side-eye to the bunch of corporates who jumped out of vans for a team photograph and then scarpered back to drive off.
"Wasters", I mumbled and soldiered on.
I was never so happy to see a cattle grid in my life. It marked our passing from France into Spain, and we celebrated in humble style - with lunch on a rock overlooking a valley in Navarre. It was pure bliss, with only the sound of sweet, tinkling sheep's collar bells breaking the silence. Did a simple ham and cheese baguette made hastily at breakfast ever taste so good?
The descent that followed was quite simply surreal and turned into the most glorious afternoon I've ever experienced in the outdoors . We stepped into one of the largest remaining beech forests in Europe. It was visually and sensorially beautiful. We walked on a carpet of autumn leaves followed by leaves on mulch, then leaves on mulch on mud, with a guard of honour of trees and a stunning forest filled with hanging fog. It was like walking into a Scandi movie. Those images will be seared on my memory forever - I have them on my phone, but the memory is all the more mine because I walked every inch of it.
Hotel-wise, we did well with our choices but again, this was down to Barbara, our consultant at Follow The Camino, who 'bespoked' our trip to suit our tastes. Hardcore hikers may dismiss 'Camino-lite' walking holidays as too 'à la carte', as we follow the pilgrim route by day, having our bags transported between hotels, and then staying in hotels - but I wouldn't agree. How you do the Camino is up to you. The objective is to do it. The early pilgrims had to fight off bears and wild animals as they pitched up at the side of a rock and begged for food along the way. Staying in hostels is slightly safer and more affordable, and there's an added camaraderie in sharing dorms, but many pilgrims find they cannot sleep due to the choruses of snoring. Hotels were our choice.
We got to talk to lots of pilgrims along the way; they were faultlessly polite and wished us 'Buen Camino' as they passed.
There were the fearless young wans who, armed with pairs of walking poles, cleared the rough terrain at speed, like mountain goats. They did their housekeeping en route, washing T-shirts and pegging them like flags to their backpacks to dry. They passed us with guitars on their backs and sang for their supper. There was a girl whose mother died without doing the Camino; she started hers in Paris and it would take her several months. There was an American with a broken romance who wasn't sure who he was most cross with: the ex-fiancée or the lady in the hostel who told him the first leg would take him five hours (it took him nine, and he finished in tears).
Day three of our walk brought us to Zubiri, a pleasant and significantly less physical part of the journey where we could admire the countryside. The pilgrim's dinner in a truckers-type bar was disappointing, but the following night we discovered that our Hotel Europa in Pamplona had a Michelin star restaurant. We dined like queens.
I toasted my one blister, one insect bite and a single fall on my bum. Not bad for a grandmother who had never clocked up 40,000 steps in one day in her life, and who, just four days before leaving Dublin, was out in the Santry Clinic getting a corticosteroid injection between her toes due to a recently diagnosed Morton's neuroma, a condition most commonly found between your third and fourth toes.
Thankfully, the injection kicked in and worked a treat.
I will be dining out on my 70km until I return to the Camino again next year. Question is: which one will I tackle next? My carnet needs more stamps.
We flew with Ryanair into Biarritz which is the nearest airport to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The 55km transfer by car costs €100.
We flew home with Aer Lingus from Bilbao after spending a night in San Sebastian for R&R and a dip in the sea. Our final meal was tapas in its famous laneways.
Bairbre was a guest of Follow The Camino (followthecamino.com, 01-687 2144).
A St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Pamplona Camino with four nights staying in a mixture of two- and three-star hotels and guesthouses in private rooms with private bathroom costs from €406pp (ex. flights), including luggage transfers of 20kg per person.
There are options to upgrade your accommodation, too.