Day One on the Camino – St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncevaux
After a day of recovery and people watching in Paris (land of the chic), Jay and I fly to Biarritz, take a short bus ride to Bayonne, and then a scenic train ride to St. Jean, starting point for our Camino quest. The village is storybook perfect. Cobbled streets, shuttered chalet-style houses with window boxes dripping with flowers, a medieval fortress above it on a hill. We’ve arrived at the magic hour when everyone is home, napping or lunching with family. It seems that the only people on the street look a little like us – sensibly-shod hiker types wearing quick-drying, wrinkle-free clothes (read: decidedly not chic).
Jay and I find our way to the “Pilgrim’s office” to get our official Pilgrim passports – the papers that will enable us to stay at the Pilgrims’ auberges (cheap, dorm-style lodging) along the way. The lady who checks us in gives us some information about the next day’s hike (the majority of which we don’t understand) and then asks us to pick out our shells.
The Way of the Shells
These scalloped shells are the symbol of the Camino de Santiago and will identify us as pilgrims. Why the shells? Some say it’s a symbol of St James, the patron saint of the Camino. Legend has it that when he died and his body was transported to Santiago, his corpse went overboard during a storm at sea. When it washed ashore, it was perfectly intact and covered in scalloped shells. Another story, possibly more believable, is that the shell served as a tool for early pilgrims – a dipper for water, an eating utensil, a way to forage and dig out edible plants. Who knows what is true. All I know is that the shell is an instant identifier, an entre into a club of hikers along “the way.” We tie our shells to our backpacks and head back to our hotel to rest up for the next day.
Into the Fog
We wake early. It’s still dark but word is that you need to start the hike – a grueling 27-kilometer climb through the Pyrenees – by 9:00 a.m. at the very latest. It’s at least a seven-hour hike with a 3,500 ft. gain We head out of the village and into the fog – a good metaphor for what we’re doing. We’ve come relatively unprepared. No guide book. No expectations.
Within the first 50 meters, the climb begins and doesn’t stop. Fortunately, neither does the scenery. Soft light filters through the mist, casting an impressionistic glow to everything – pastoral hills dotted with sheep, honey-colored cows, and the occasional wild Pyrenees pony. Roosters crow and we walk to the clang of cowbells. It’s idyllic, as though someone has dropped a fake backdrop in front of us – and then plopped us on a non-stop treadmill set at the highest grade.
Suddenly the backpack that seemed so manageable, isn’t so anymore. The straps dig into my shoulders, my hips ache, and my legs are starting to whine. “Crosses,” I say to Jay. It’s our signal to each other to suck it up and keep going. The ancient pilgrims carried heavy crosses on their backs. And, as Jay likes to point out, those crosses weren’t made of balsa wood.
Cafe au Lait and Climbing
Nearly 10 kilometers into the hike, we come across the first auberge at Orisson and have what will may possibly be the best cafe au laits of our lives. What’s so good about it? It’s there. That’s all. Doesn’t take much. We meet a lovely Danish woman in her 60s. She tells us that this is her fourth Camino. “It calls to me every year,” she says. She did her first when she realized, after being sick in bed, that it was on her bucket list and she’d better do it now. “And I come this time of year always,” she says as she lifts a lock of her silvery hair. “There are more people this time of the year like me.” She’s staying at the auberge that night. “I have no reason to rush this,” she says. It’s a shame as we both would’ve liked to talk with her more. We bid her goodbye and continue on our way.
For the most part Jay and I walk alone, taking in the scenery, pausing to catch our breath, and then Nick, a young 24-year-old from London, falls into step with us. He’s endlessly entertaining and we fall into a miles-long discussion. In fact, we all become so caught up with the talk and the scenery that suddenly we’re lost. It’s easy to do on this part of the way. There are sheep trails and hidden turns that easily confound and it doesn’t help that there seems to be a strange way of marking the trail that has a logic all its own. Luckily, we come upon two German pilgrims, hardy types, one smoking a pipe and the very picture of Bavarian mountain macho, and they point us to right way.
A short side trip and we’re back on the Camino, winding our way over wind-whipped hills and through a forest with dappled light, and then down a painfully steep descent to Roncevaux, a 17th-century monastery turned pilgrim auberge and our home for the night. Recently renovated, the auberge is, as one pilgrim puts it, it’s a wonderful mix of Ikea meets Goth. Clean, simple, beautiful. This is pilgrim life? Not so bad.
A quick shower, a beer (best beer ever – nothing tastes so good after a long day’s hike), and our first pilgrim meal (three courses, simple fare, wine, and worth every one of the 10 euros we paid per meal). After dinner, I go to mass in the chapel where the priest blesses all the pilgrims. By nine o’ clock, we’re both out, snoozing away in our bunks amidst the snores and shuffling of 60 or so pilgrims. Our legs are still aching, our feet are tender, and we sleep like rocks. Until the next morning…
Day’s wish list:
What we wish we’d brought:
Arnica gel – tired feet, aching shins could use it.
What we’d leave behind:
Any electronics. Not needed and not something you really want to pull out in a dormitory setting. The auberges seem quite safe but the Camino is more about tuning in rather than being plugged in.