May 21, 2008 St. Jean to Roncesvalles

I slept well at Mdm Camino’s habitation and awoke in the morning to the sounds of boots walking down the creaky wooden stairs of the pension. After a shower I headed to the kitchen where a sleepy but nervous group of pilgrims had gathered for a breakfast of toast and jam. Mdm Camino was obviously having fun entertaining her guests, who I still found annoying — “Why were they intruding on ‘my’ camino?” I thought. As people started to head for the entryway to put their packs on I asked Mdm Camino if she would tie on the sparkled scallop shell Gail had given me for my pack. She agreed and found some twine on top of her refrigerator. Before I left she asked me to be certain I prayed for her when I arrived in Santiago.

It was about 07:30 when I hit the street, which was deserted except for 2-3 other pilgrims ahead or behind me. I found a boulangerie and bought two chocolate croissants — which would be a camino breakfast tradition for the next many years. After putting them in my pack I headed downhill on Rue de la Citadelle and then began the long climb uphill toward my first day’s goal: the monastery at Roncesvalles.

The first stretch of camino from St. Jean’s old city is on a narrow, paved road through the tiny town’s suburbs of large vacation homes. In good weather I’m sure the vacation homes have beautiful views of the surrounding scenery, and of St. Jean itself. Today, though, the clouds and fog obscure much of the view. Walking further, the vacation homes thin out into small farms, or more precisely, sheep ranches. The sounds of grazing sheep — baaaahs and the occasional clanging bell — would be the soundtrack for the day’s walk.

Soon I passed a Frenchman named Marcel who was walking his first camino. We talked first in French and then, when we discovered his English was better than my French we continued in English. Marcel already seemed to know several other pilgrims, and he pointed out an athletic 40-ish Italian couple that was zeroing in on us from behind. As they passed I realized they spoke no English whatsoever, though they were clearly very friendly. Marcel asked me if I’d met the American girls yet. I hadn’t and he said he’d look for them and try to introduce me.

After an hour or so a dirt path veered off to the left an a long thread of pilgrims was making its way up this track. Here the way became much steeper. There was no mud, but the steepness became similar to walking a stairway, ever onward. Many people had warned about the steepness — up and down — of the Route Napoleon. Although it is steep, this way had been taken by invaders from France like Charlemagne and Napoleon over the centuries because of its relatively low altitude, making it free of snow for more months during the year.

Uncertain of whether or not I could complete the entire climb I’d asked the pilgrim office at St. Jean to make me a reservation at Orisson, the modern but cozy albergue about 10 km outside of St. Jean. At about 10:00, back now on the asphalt road, I rounded a corner and discovered the albergue just right of the road. I realized I had plenty of strength and quite a bit of time left in the day, so I ordered a sandwich at the albergue, asked for a refill of my water bladder, and stepped out of the albergue to begin the last phase of the day’s walk. As I came in to the light I saw four young women — the American Girls, they’d be called by many — and I introduced myself. We talked briefly, decided to walk some together, and headed up the asphalt road toward the summits, known as Col Orisson and Col Lepoeder.

As we walked I discovered much about the women. They were recent graduates (Stacy was a soon-to-be-graduate) of St. Louis University and were deeply religious. Ginny, Cassie and Kristen were part of a close circle of friends and the group was funny, talkative, curious, and ambitious. Their plan was to walk 35 km/day to make it to Santiago in a little over 3 weeks. This is about 10 km more per day that I’d planned and I both wondered whether I wasn’t being ambitious enough and whether they were biting off more than they could chew.

We walked up and up through the low clouds, marveling at the occasional vista of hills below and beyond. To the left we saw large vultures, sitting among the rocks, grounded by the thick clouds above us, I’m sure. After a fit we came to a statue of the Virgin Mary with small trinkets and flowers around it, shared as signs of devotion. Finally, one of the girls shouted from ahead, “We’re at the top.” It was true, after several hours we’d trudged all the way to the top and saw, stretched out before us, what must certainly be Spain.

We moved on ahead to the Fuente de Roland, the fountain traditionally ascribed as the water source for Roland, Charlemagne’s friend (more later), but not until after we’d crossed the cattle guard that is the official border between Spain and France.

We’d arrived here, at the top, at about 1:00 in the afternoon and were convinced that we’d be at Roncesvalles by 15:00 or so. The girls decided to take the steep route down and I followed the more gradual route recommended in my guidebook, arriving after a surprisingly long walk at the grey, monumental walls of the Roncesvalles monastery at about 17:00. The American girls were outside the albergue, sunning themselves, but I chose to find a room at the Posada Hotel in order to get a very good night’s sleep after a long and difficult climb. We agreed to meet at the 20:00 pilgrim mass and then shared dinner in the dining room of the Posada Hotel. I went to my room utterly exhausted, but satisfied I’d made it over what is reputed to be the biggest single-day physical challenge of the camino — the Route Napoleon.

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