After a rushed morning of making it into St Jean Pied de Port and getting ready to go, myself and my very new friend Sharron hit the trail. Finally, the first steps of my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (and with some unexpended great company).
It was a beautiful, although hot day. We were both Australians so a little heat didn’t scare us. We started waking, it was well after lunch and there weren’t too many people heading out but we met a few people here and there… Mostly with much quicker paces than ourselves.
We didn’t really notice where the trail splits into two: the Napoleon Route and the Valcarlos Route (also known as the road route). Apparently both routes are roughly the same distance though the Valcarlos Route is less strenuous as it passes through the valley and the total meters climbed during the day is 400 less. We accidentally took the Napoleon Route which is supposed to be the more scenic route anyway (even if it is the route that the guy died in in the movie ‘The Way’).
We chatted about how we had both come to be on the Camino de Santiago, who had inspired us, how we had prepared. I had worried about being less spiritual and religious than most of the people I would encounter on my pilgrimage on The Camino de Santiago but Sharron made me look like a deep, spiritual being. This girl didn’t even believe in luck (except the luck of meeting me, of course). We got along instantly and any first day camino nerves were settled by having my new friend by my side.
The scenery was spectacular, we were
walking hiking through natural border between France and Spain. It didn’t take long for the track to get steep but we had been warned it would be a tough day and justified all of our mini-breaks as well-deserved after every hour of panting.
It was clear my body was not used to walking all day carrying a rucksack. Luckily I had packed very light and was grateful already. The first day from St Jean Pied de Port involves climbing from 200 metres above sea level to just above 1,400 meters then descend steeply back down again into Roncesvalles at 900 metres.
For some reason that day I had decided to try and be a ‘cautious’ traveller and use a money belt to store my passport. During one of our (many) snack breaks I realised my money belt was wet… I had water-damaged my passport with my own sweat. But somehow it was too funny for me to be too concerned. In the same snack break we admired an ant who managed to overtake us on the camino as we snacked. We were starting to notice too many details of our surroundings. Was it the heat or the workout that was making us crazy!?
We continued walking. The climb seemed to go on for eternity. Thankfully the scenery only got more spectacular as we climbed. We passed the only albergue, Orrison, after a couple of hours which is 8km out of St Jean. The place was completely full and sleeping on the floor was forbidden. After this we had been warned there was no where else to sleep until Roncesvalles. We had passed the point of no return.
We met a fellow pilgrim, Anna, a polish lady who was unsure whether to continue. Seeing two naive Australians continuing walking must have inspired her somehow and after walking with us for about an hour she powered on ahead.
That day we had started to use the greeting of the way, ‘Buen Camino’, but there were no more pilgrims to wish a ‘Buen Camino’…
But we had the Pyrenees to ourselves. And that is not something either of us were going to complain about.
We encountered sheep wearing bells and horses running wild. We stopped to admire one particularly beautiful moment where a horse seemed to be distressed and crying out from the top of a mountain, only to reveal she was calling a foal who bounded up the hill. It was one of those ‘did that just happen’ moments and we were enraptured by every beautiful moment with these gorgeous creatures.
The sun started to get lower. We still hadn’t reached the highest point of the Pyrenees crossing and we were starting to get a bit nervous. We eyed off the emergency shelter along the way both picturing what a night in one of the unwelcoming little places would be like. I was very grateful that I had company.
We passed one shelter that was inhabited! An American and Scottish pair of men had given up. They had started early in the morning and were obviously a lot slower than us (who would’ve thought) and not been able to muster up the energy to continue. They invited us to join them for the night in the little refuge.
The sun was low but our motivation was still high. We kept walking.
As we reached the peak of the Pyrenees the sun set. Orange and purple shades took over the sky and the our first day on the Camino de Santiago ended… But our day was far from over. And we had a steep decent to accomplish in the night.
Just after the sun set we admired the sign that told us we were no longer in France, we had crossed into Spain and were now in the same country as our final destination.
One thing I had failed to pack appropriately was a torch. The small bicycle torch I had considered bright enough to suffice had a dead battery but lucky for me my new friend Sharron had a strong head lamp to lead the way. We defended through a steep forest, which was eerily covered in fat slugs that Sharron started a small game of pointing out. Sharon also ended me one of her hiking poles to stabilise myself as we stumbled down the forest in the dark.
The “2km” we had left seemed to take a lifetime but suddenly the forest cleared – we had made it!
Civilisation never looked so good – even in the form of a super eerie-looking monastery looming sinisterly in the darkness.
Other than the huge monastery we also saw that there were a number of portable caravans scattered around the back of the building… It must be busy…
We searched for an entrance. All of the big doors to the building were very much shut and it was not at all a welcoming sight.
We eyed off the outdoor benched and pondered whether we were exhausted enough to pass out on the hard looking seats.
We knocked on one of the big monastery doors desperately, but no matter how much we knocked and yelled the door would not budge.
We kept walking around.
Eventually we noticed the hotel and restaurant next door still had their lights on… Like moths we were attracted to the light and headed in.
The place was empty besides a few employees cleaning up. They directed us to the hotel reception where we were greeted by a tired-looking Spanish lady.
“We can’t get into the monastery.”
“They have a very strict closing time of 10:00”
It was 10:30…
“Please tell us you have a room free”.
She didn’t look too positive…
“We only have a family suite”.
That definitely sounded out of our price range.
We were tired and desperate for a place to sleep.
“Maybe I could drive you to the next town?”
As kind as this offer was I declined immediately. I had set out on this pilgrimage to walk to Santiago and I intended to do that. I felt slightly guilty declining such an act of kindness but there was no chance I was getting into a vehicle on Day 1.
Although we declined the ride the receptionist was still kind enough to call a guest house in the next town and book us accommodation.
Knowing that the next town was a mere the kilometres away on a flat path it didn’t seem so bad after all.
We set back out into the darkness, this time walking towards a definite bed.
The path followed through the ‘Witches Forest’ which fittingly featured a black cat that lingered around us until darting out across the path in front. Although my companion didn’t think anything of it I always had a slight superstitious streak and that was not something I enjoyed witnessing this late into the evening.
Finally we made it to Burguete, which, according to Ernest Hemingway is “the most wickedly wild and savage territory of the Pyrenees”.
Using our last remaining energy we made it in to town and followed the directions that the kind receptionist in Roncesvalles had scrawled down on a piece of paper for us.
Once we found the right side street we knocked at the door and were greeted by a kind-looking old lady.
She was expecting us and told us to be quiet. We discarded our shoes at the door and were quickly led upstairs to the cosiest room I had ever set eyes on. (Which could have been any furnished room in the world at this point). We even had a private bathroom!
It was much more luxurious than I expected my first nights lodging on the Camino de Santiago to be but then again the days hike had been much more difficult than I expected it to be. And for slightly more money than an albergue bed it was a very justifiable indulgence.
My body was sore and my tummy was grumbling but I couldn’t remember ever feeling so exhausted.
We showered, changed and passed out.
I later discovered that only a couple of weeks earlier a group of naive English women had started the Camino de Santiago around the same time of day as we did from St JeanPied de Port and found themselves lost in the Pyrenees for four days…
I was glad I discovered this after we found our way through that slug-infested forest in the dark…