May 12, 2011 Over the Mountain

A long and eventful day. We awoke at 07:00 and went to the pilgrim office (opens at 07:30, closed for lunch and dinner, closes at 22:00), then back to Maison Bernat for breakfast of bread, jam, orange nice, coffee. Back upstairs after playing with six month old Fiji (likes to teethe), then packed and headed out at a late 09:00. Stopped at boulangerie for chocolate croissants and bananas. On the road at 9:05.

Long climb to Orisson. Met Martin of Leeds. He speaks French and German well. Currently unemployed and thinking of TESL as next career.

At Hunta met three Israelis, one Quesbecoise. Names are: Gal, Yael, Doron of Israel. Lila of Quebec. Luke instantly bonded with Gal and Lila and pulled out his guitar and played for them at Hunto. Kept walking and met Roberto of Monterrey, Mexico and his cousin, Karen. Robert is a fluent English speaker and has business in Mexico City for package identification and ticketing. Met back up with Robert and Karen at Orisson and waited with Martin there for Luke and Rocky. Luke arrived with Israelis twenty minutes later, and Rocky arrived one hour later by herself. Had good, long conversation with Israelis as we rested from the climb. Clearly making good friends and am delighted to find these liberal Israelis ready and willing to talk geopolitics.

Before Orisson, fog had set in. Visibility was only about 20 meters. Left Orisson with Luke and Israelis, but quickly outdistanced them. Met Roberto of Mexico again, who had replaced his socks, and walked 1-2 hours with him until the emergency hut between Col Orisson and Col Lepoeder. Waited there for Luke and Rocky. Luke arrived with Israelis and his guitar case protected in a poncho. Is Luke bonding with Gal? She showed photo of him with guitar in poncho. At hut also met Roberto of Italy and 2 French (Philippe and Anna) with dog who began at Le Puy en Velay. They stayed overnight at hut that night, I learned later, and Roberto showed me beautiful photos of the bright blue sky when the fog had lifted). I waited with them there for Rocky and Luke. The fog was very thick, almost rain-like, and it was impossible not to get wet.

Daron and Yael arrived and wanted to take the easy way down, so I directed them to the path Roberto of Mexico had mentioned which turned out to be bad advice. Began walking to Roncesvalles with Roberto, but turned around after deciding to wait for Rocky, who was now quite delayed.

Rocky arrived after two Brazilianas and was all smiles for having completed this difficult stretch to the top of the pass. She was out of water and had begged a bottle off two Germans. I refilled her water bottle from my Camelbak. We set off together but she encouraged me to go ahead since she is slow on downhills. Walked by myself approx 2 hours to Roncesvalles.

Luke, Gal and Lila were already at the bright, new albergue at Roncesvalles. Luke had purchased tickets for third floor beds for him, Rocky and me. Beautiful, double rooms with half walls and comfy new beds.

Waited and waited for Doron and Yael. Finally went to the hospitalera and asked for her help to find them. After explaining the situation went to Cafe Sabina and called bomberos to go get them. Just after calling, Yael and Doron showed up in back of a red pickup. The path to which I had directed them was incorrect, dead-ending in a reservoir. The driver of the red truck had found them and brought them to Roncesvalles — thank heaven.

We all had a happy reunion, then we sent them to the albergue to get their beds. I stopped at 20:00 pilgrim mass in time to hear Gospel (John 6) and consecration of the elements. Went to dinner at Cafe Sabina and bought dinner for Doron and Jael as my way of apologizing. Had a long conversation with them about Israeli politics. They are both liberals and very enlightened about Israeli/Palestinian issues.

Back to albergue. Showered, did not wash clothes tonight. Lots of snorers. I’m back on the camino!

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.

May 20, 2008 St. Jean Pied de Port

I arrived on the train from Bayonne in the late afternoon, after flying from Seattle to London, then London to Bordeaux. At Bordeaux I had caught a train to Bayonne and then the St. Jean train. At the train station there seemed to be a mad dash for the old city of St. Jean, where the albergues are located, and I realized soon each person was hoping to get a bed at an albergue before they were all gone. As I made my way through the gate to the city walls I decided to find a room, rather than stay at an albergue. I happened on the pension of Mdm Camino and took a single room with a bath at the top floor of her ancient home. The room had west-facing windows, giving a views of the homes and hills surrounding St. Jean.

After settling in I headed to the pilgrim office to get a weather report for the next day and to get a stamp on my credential. A helpful French woman with long black hair stamped my passport, gave me a list of upcoming albergues, and asked me whether I felt I could make the walk all the way to Roncesvalles the next day. I said I wasn’t sure, so she made a reservation for me at the albergue at Orisson, about 10 km up the hill from St. Jean. After finishing at the pilgrim office I headed out to enjoy this delightful, Basque village along with many other tourists who’d obviously arrived at St. Jean for its charm rather than to use it as their camino launching pad. I had a generous dinner at a restaurant outside the city walls, then headed to bed at Mdm Camino’s.