We Begin Our Camino

After a week of vacation in Biarritz and San Sebastian, it’s time to get to the point of this European adventure! For about 30€ per person, we took a four-hour bus ride to Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, the official starting town of the Camino Frances. I say I don’t get seasick, but riding those windy mountain roads on a big bus did make me a little bit queasy!

Saint Jean is surprising scenic, placed on a river, built around an ancient citadel. We got all of our chores done quickly: visiting the Pilgrim’s Office to register for our Credential, or Pilgrim’s passport, mailing a few items ahead to Santiago, and getting a final fresh meal of steak and salad at a terrace by the river.

The next morning started much too early with the door of the inn slamming shut at 6:00 am as the earliest pilgrims hit the trail. Mike and I, on the other hand, took showers, packed our bags, bought coffee at the bakery across the street, and finally walked through the gate to Spain at 8:00.

The folks at the Pilgrim’s office said the first seven kilometers would be the hardest, and they weren’t joking. On too little sleep, too little coffee, and too much backpack, I was definitely suffering. The trail climbed straight up, without any switchbacks or grading for pack animals. Many pilgrims pay to have their luggage shuttled forward, especially for this mountainous leg. But you know us! We like to do things the hard way 😁 The views from the Refuge Orisson were definitely worth the effort. We fortified ourselves with coffee and tortilla jamon there for the rest of the long, mountainous day.

The rest of the hike across the Napoleon Route over the Pyranees was a delight! Perfect weather, no rain, gorgeous views as far as the eye could see! We took a side trip to admire the Basque Virgin – a statue of the Virgin Mary imported from Lordes and positioned to watch over the shepherds in the valley below.

As the sun rose high and brutal, Mike had the opportunity to try out his fancy shade umbrella.

And just before we climbed the path to the border with Spain, we came upon a farmer’s food truck. No tacos or hotdogs here! The French gentleman offered a basket of fresh hard-boiled eggs, homemade sheep’s milk cheese, and hot coffee or chocolate.

At long, long last (18 miles, and about 1500 metres of climbing) and about 5km of step decent, we finally sighted the priory and albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) of Roncesvalles. The old albergue, featured in the movie “The Way” was replaced in 2011 by a modern feat of pilgrim accommodation engineering.

When a pilgrim walks in the front door, a hospitality volunteer in a red vest greets her, figures out which language to use, and explains the drill:

  • Put your backpack here.
  • Fill out this form (Where are you from? What religion? Why are you doing a pilgrimage?)
  • Do you want a bed? 11€. Here’s a ticket with your bunk number.
  • Do you want the pilgrim meal? 10€. Here’s a ticket with the name of the restaurant and time of your sitting.
  • Put your boots on this shelf (no boots allowed upstairs)
  • Wash clothing here. Wash bodies there.

Well there you go! No further questions here! Except how do I drag myself up three flights of stairs right now?

The bunks are clean and functional – think Orange is the New Black with more wood paneling and better natural light.

I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to find anything gluten free at the pilgrim’s meal, but we gave it a try. A short walk up the hill to Casa Sabrina restaurant and the brusque servers funneled us into a crowded room at exactly 7:00. “Tickets please! Boleto por favor!” We were seated with two Italian women, one of whom was walking her 6th Camino! We had vegetable soup, a whole fish with potatoes, and a glass of red wine. Not bad for 10€.

A second glass of wine on the terrace with new friends Michael from Belgium and Stefan from Switzerland, and we were more than ready for bed. Back at the albergue, church music started playing over the loudspeakers just before 10:00 pm and a volunteer walked down the center aisle of the bunk room saying, “Buenas Noches, Buenas Noches!” And the lights went out with a click promptly at 10:00. That was just fine. After our first long day as pilgrims, and after crossing the Pyranees, Mike and I were ready for bed.

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