Day 1 to Roncesvalles - The first step is the hardest

Fog is still hanging in the streets of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, as I scroll towards La porte d’Espagne, the modest city gate.They say that the first step is the hardest. Here you can take that literally. The first stage to Roncesvalles follows the Napoleon Route, a gruelling 28 km trek through the Pyrenees, 1200 vertical meters up, plagued by treacherous weather.

I’m lucky, today’s gonna be sunny. The morning light is chasing the last mist in the valleys. It’s like walking in a romantic Caspar Friedrich painting. But there’s little time to enjoy the scenery. After just 4 kilometres: Bang! A slap in the face. The little asphalt road goes vertical. Sweat streams out of every pore. I’m hopelessly overdressed, a typical rookie mistake. One by one my North Face gear disappears into my backpack, until I’m down in a soaking wet t-shirt. And we’re just warming up. The road changes into an even steeper dirt track. My backpack now weighs 500 kg. Weird, yesterday it was only 8.

Orisson is the last tavern to stock up some carbs or fill up your water bottle. I don’t want to waste time. Yesterday, in the Camino office I saw some statistics. Last year in May, 15.000 pilgrims left St. Jean. Divide that by 30 days. That means there are 500 pilgrims marching towards Roncesvalles. The monastery only has 385 beds. I need to stay ahead of the pack. Ironic, isn’t it? We do the Camino to escape the daily rat race, only to find ourselves racing each other here.

Thank goodness, the steep dirt track is changing into a smooth asphalt road snaking its way through the Pyrenees. On both sides, semi wild horses are grazing in green alps. A smart entrepreneur has set up a van with drinks. At 2 euros a pop, he’s making a fortune. Pilgrims are chilling in the grass. I’m trying to make conversation. ‘So, what’s up?’ I ask a pilgrim, but the man simply barks: ‘Italiano!’

A little further, the Camino leaves the asphalt road. A dirt track announces the final climb: the Col de Lepoeder. The trail is flanked by trees, straight out of a fairy tale. The view is breathtaking. Some of the peaks are still covered in snow. Houray! The trail finally starts descending. But there’s little reason to cheer. The steep descent is even harder than the climb. I’m all too happy to reach the gothic walls of Roncesvalles, probably the most legendary stop along the Camino. It’s 2 AM. I crossed the Pyrenees in 6.5 hours, 2 hours ahead of schedule. My kingdom for a bottle of water!

The Albergue inside the monastery is a total surprise. I was expecting some kind of Syrian refugee centre with hundreds of beds cramped into one room, like the one featured in ‘The Way.’ But I’m lucky to score a spot in the main building. Open Sesame! The place has been totally renovated and features design-ish beds in warm, wooden compartments. Each one comes with locker. After throwing off my backpack, I take the best shower in human history.

I’ve signed up for the 6 pm guided tour (2 euro). It’s rather rushed but you get to discover the church, the small museum and the cloister. Exceptional heritage with a rich history. Roncesvalles is the setting of the medieval masterwork La Chanson de Roland, sung by medieval minstrels all over Europe. Super knight Roland was the Navy SEAL of Charlemagne’s army, sent out to stop the Arab conquest. As the army marched back to France, their rear guard was attacked by Basque rebels. Roland was supposed to blow his horn to call for reinforcements. Instead, he decided to fight the enemy himself. Hopelessly outnumbered, he and his buddies were soon slaughtered to bits. With his last breath, Roland finally blew his horn to summon revenge before dying a martyr’s death. Poor tactics if you ask me, but good enough to earn him a place into medieval literature. One of the side buildings - the squarish ‘Silo’ next to the tiny pilgrim’s church - is supposed to be the burial place of Charlemagne’s knights.

The tour ends at 7 sharp, just in time for the first pilgrim’s meal at La Poseda. Watery soup, simple pasta, trout with fries and a little yoghurt. It’s not Haute Cuisine but it does the job. My table mates are lucky. I don’t drink so they get my half bottle of wine. With every glass, tongues get looser, stories more intimate. Steve, an athletic British ultra runner is struggling with cocaine addiction. The smily Lauren also carries a dark secret. She’s walking the Camino to commemorate her mom, who recently died of cancer. And me? Well, I’m at a crossroads in my life … whatever. It sounds rather bleak compared to all this drama.

Travel Essentials

In St. Jean, do stock up food and water before you cross the Pyrenees

The Albergue in Roncesvalles

The monastery has 385 beds, spread over 2 buildings. Check in starts at 1 PM, 10 euro. Try to arrive early and score one of the 185 beds in wooden compartment in the freshly renovated main building. When this one’s full, the old dorm with 200 beds is opened. A sleeping bag is mandatory. The laundry room is downstairs. You can hand wash your clothes. A machine wash - handled by a Hospitalero - is 3 euro. Washing lines are outside. WIFI is rather poor. Lights off go off at 10 PM, wake-up is at 6 AM, you have to leave the before 8.

Where to eat?

The 2 nearby hotels - the Casa Sabina with its popular terrace and La Poseda on the other side - serve pilgrim’s meals at 7 PM. Buy your ticket at the check-in (9 euro).

Do NOT buy a ticket for breakfast at Casa Sabina, served at 7 AM (3 euro). There will be an enormous crowd waiting to get in. You’ll lose valuable time. You’re better off walking to the next village. Plenty of little coffee shops, even a super market. I had my first Tortilla y pan in Aurtiz, 2 km down the road.

Buen Camino!

Next episode: 'Day 2 to Pamplona - I believe I can fly'


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