A Guide for Wary Pilgrims
Ups and Downs: St. Jean Pied-de-Port — Roncesvalles
Étape 1: A leisurely stroll over the Pyrenees Mountains and into Spain
(although a few Basque shepherds along the way may object to the geographical designation “Spain”)
April 16, 2013
It’s show time. You have fretted, packed, unpacked, and packed again several times this morning and are still unable to find your Chapstick.
After three weeks of swollen-toed fire-agony, your hiking partner “H” (and the fellow who got you into all this) is largely gout-free and ship-shape to walk. You’ve stuffed as much Basque duck sausage and olive tapenade (from the dreamy St. Jean PdP market) as you can fit into a 36-liter pack.
Congratulations! You are ready to begin your Camino!
Descend the stairs to your hostess Marie’s 300-year-old kitchen. Make no attempt to conceal your crazed eagerness—Marie has seen it before and will smile knowingly. Last night, for example, when you suggested a 6am departure, she kindly noted that sunlight hours are much nicer for walking.
She tells you to relax and drink your damn coffee. Agree with her, laugh at your jitters, and enjoy Marie’s warm homemade bread and watermelon jam. Press a pair of scallop-shell earrings into her hand as a gift and eke out a mangled “pour vous, merci!” Vow to return with better French.
Clomp down the winding cobblestone rue de la Citadelle, as sunrise blushes the tidy whitewashed houses. At the bottom of the hill, fill your bottles with water for the first time from a real pilgrims’ fountain (!). Another pilgrims’ fountain hundreds of kilometers further along the Way will lay bare your vulnerability as a wanderer, but for now you are delightfully unaware of this.
In the first 200 meters of your trek, you will whack your travel companion three times with your hiking poles and drop them twice onto the cobblestones. This is normal.
Note that your hands are trembling. This, too, is normal.
The Michelin guide maps today’s hike at 25.1km (15.6m), while Brierley posits 27km (16.7m). You have no real sense of what a kilometer is, only that you’ll need to string together a great many of them in one day, as there are no available beds between St. Jean PdP, France and Roncesvalles, Spain.
No pressure! But keep in mind: It’s make-or-break day. You’re crossing a mountain range, gaining 1,230m (4,035ft), then making a precipitous descent into Roncesvalles. Today, you’ll likely find out whether your lungs, legs, and will are capable of carrying you and your worldly goods to Santiago.
A lot of people never make it past the medical clinics of Pamplona and Logroño. You’ve told all your friends you’re doing this thing. No pressure.
Pass over the river Nive and under the Porte d’Espagne, and begin climbing the Pyrenees along the Route de Napoleon. It’s clear and cool—a beautiful day for a long hike. This should be a safe and (hopefully) uneventful crossing.
By the time the scene below scrolls into view, your jitters will be gone.
You will meet a 50something Californian—”K”—who is traveling solo. She is struggling mightily with the ascent, whereas wild ecstasy is propelling you up the mountain like a cruise missile. After a lovely 30min chat, is it rude to leave K behind and walk faster? Does she need you to slow down and see her through the painful climb?
This is your first lesson in Camino etiquette: Walk at your own pace.
Your first lesson in hubris will come several days later. K, it seems, has already learned this one.
It is a day of firsts: You pause for your first café con leche at Orisson, the single albergue along the Napoleon Route (which is, hence, booked well in advance). The coffee is delicious.
You see your first Camino de Santiago mileage signposts. They contradict the guidebooks and each other, but plus or minus, they agree that you have a looooong way to go before Santiago de Compostela.
There’s a thing happening with your pinky toe. You are only about 8km in. This bodes ill. Stop to inspect your feet. Discover a hot spot.
Your first blister is gaining a foothold.
Slick up your toe with an anti-blister gel stick and change into thinner socks. Later, this will seem like a prescient, foot-saving (and, hence, life-saving) move.
Really, it’s just a lucky guess.
12:00 Up and Down
Wind up and up and up, through misty, rolling Basque farms and into open moorland, under an egg-blue sky. You cannot contain your shimmering euphoria. Stop on a sun-soaked hillside to eat a pear, amid a snoozy brigade of tired pilgrims.
It’s clouding up. Proceed to the next pilgrim’s fountain on a narrow stretch of path. Rest with two older Irishmen who are lingering by the fountain. You’ve been seeing them all day, as you take turns passing and being passed. One of them is carrying (in addition to his pack) a largish sack in one hand. It contains a heavy-looking coffee mug, among other non-essential items. The carrying of this sack for 800km strikes you as unsustainable.
The bag-carrying Irishman asks you if you trained for the Camino. “I did a lot of walking,” you say, “but not with a pack.”
“I trained for it,” he says, looking ravaged. “But it was useless. Useless. Uuuussseless. UUUUSSSSSELESSSSSS.” With each “useless,” he shakes his head with increasing vigor.
The flagging Irishman will not make it as far as Santiago.
Continue through snow and knee-deep leaf piles to the downhill portion of today’s exercise. Euphoria hasn’t quite waned yet, but tiredness has waxed. “It’s almost like somebody made up an obstacle course, just for fun,” you tell H. “First hills, then bigger hills, then snow. ”
“Iz next, zee leaf pile,” says H, in a vaguely menacing Teutonic accent.
You laugh insanely, madly, disproportionately, gasping and bending over to laugh some more. This should raise red flags.
It doesn’t. You resume slogging through several km of leaves.
Prepare yourself: Iz next, zee mud.
There will be no photographic documentation of this section of the m*********ing trail. To sum up: Down. Leaves. Mud. Snow. Down. H slides down in the mud. You plop down in the snow and have to be hauled out by brute strength. Fortunately, H is in possession of this attribute.
Euphoria has long ago skittered down the inexorable slope. You think this may have occured during the wild laughing fit. Curse the relentless, knee-killing descent. Curse it further. Take heart when you glimpse Roncesvalles from high above. But note: You are still high above.
Curse guidebooks and signposts and mud. Curse leaf piles. Curse olive tapenade, which has grown ever heavier over the kms.
As you near the border (you will take no notice of crossing it), greetings of “Bon Chemin” shift gradually to “Buen Camino.” Although nothing seems particularly “bueno” at this juncture, as far as you can see.
Drag into Roncesvalles. Order your first tortilla española and vino tinto. Join the troupe of gray-haired Aussie ladies staging a laugh riot on the sunny terraza. You will find, in the coming weeks, that it’s hard to miss with Australians as drinking companions, or as companions of any kind.
Feel the sun and wine softening your aching muscles. Feel the euphoria seeping back in. Hug K when she arrives. Toast the Irishmen.
“I can do this thing!” you tell yourself, not yet able to fathom the extent of your overconfidence. You will fathom it starkly on day four, a few km shy of Puente la Reina.
Go to your first pilgrims’ mass in the 13th century church of Santa María. Tell yourself you are immune to the spiritual call of such ceremonies. When the priest offers his blessing to all pilgrims bound for Santiago, discover that you are wrong about the immunity thing.
Eat your first pilgrim’s meal. Skip the pasta and hold out for the fried fish. Realize how ridiculous it was to haul duck sausage and olive tapenade over the Pyrenees. Share it with the Aussies. Receive an ovation.
Perform your first act of clothes-washing in the sink. Marvel at the opaque murkiness of the rinse water.
Sleep hard. You’re not finished.
albergue—a simple bunkhouse for pilgrims
Basque Country (País Vasco / Pays Basque / Euskadi )—A place you thought was Spain and/or France, but isn’t.
“Buen camino!”—”Have a good walk!”/”Safe journey!”/”I don’t speak your language!”/”You are cute!”/”I am a biker bearing down on you very fast!”
credencial—A pilgrim’s passport of sorts; a long, accordion-folded piece of paper issued by Camino-related organizations that allows you entry to pilgrim albergues and refugios; a gathering place for colorful stamps wielded by churches, albergues, bars, and a guy called Pablito; in a few weeks, your most prized possession.
étape—stage (of a journey)
tortilla española—a delicious eggy/potato-y frittata thing that bears no relationship to its Mexican namesake; unofficially, the official tapa of Spain
vino tinto—red wine; an analgesic for weary peregrinos