This is the first of several posts on the Camino de Santiago. Some posts cover several days while others, like this one, focus on a single, memorable day.
Day 1 – St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles
On 1 July, 2016, I began walking the Camino de Santiago. Leaving the small town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, I embarked with two others on a trip of a lifetime. A 780 kilometre pilgrimage, carrying everything I needed in a very low-tech backpack that I had gotten for free from my sister the day I left Australia.
The first day was astounding, possibly the most memorable of all. We were originally going to stay a night in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port before setting out the next day. However, when we reached the pilgrim’s passport office at 12.30pm after catching a bus and a train from Biarritz, the general consensus was “why not start now?” So we went.
We walked upward, ever upward toward the French-Spanish border that cuts through the Pyrenees. Heading away from the town, the cobbled streets soon turned into an asphalt road, winding through farmland. The road soon became even steeper with short stretches where we could almost catch our breath, where driveways met the way. The road had been freshly sealed as the grass along the edge of the road had been brushed with black. One of my travelling companions was sorely tempted to touch it but managed to resist.
After about ten kilometres, we came across a private albergue for the Camino pilgrims. Unfortunately due to our rather spontaneous departure, none of us had enough cash for the place. Onward and upward it was.
The asphalt road soon branched away from the Camino, as we followed the markings onto a rutted track of pebbles, stones and sheep droppings. From our elevated vantage point, all we could see was a patchwork of impossibly green French farmland, grazing sheep, goats and cows and the occasional small village.
Up we climbed, talking when we weren’t saving our breath for the climb. The three of us were relatively fit but not used to our packs, all of which weighed more than the recommended 10 per cent of our body weight.
Soon we entered into the mist. It shrouded everything, making it impossible to see further than five metres around us. Herds of goats and horses roamed freely with no fences restricting them, only the sound of their bells, eerily echoing through the mist, letting us know they were near.
For hours we walked, until the chill of the mist slowly started to seep through the heat generated from our physical exertion. During this time, we had only seen two other pilgrims, one girl who was walking back from a detour to a monument along the track and another young man who was sitting on the side of the road, looking a bit over it all. I confess, the events that inspired the movie “The Way” were running through our heads for some, if not all, of our trek through the Pyrenees.
While time had lost all meaning, there was a point when we realised both that we were starving and we actually had some fruit and cheese with us, brought from Biarritz. There is a small hut with some benches and a fire place for those pilgrims brave enough to walk the Camino during the colder months (the track is closed through the winter because of the dangers of getting lost, or worse). We entered the hut, weaving through a herd of horses to reach the door, and gratefully took off our packs. During our short rest inside the hut, a horse came up to the closed door, snorting and bumping and ringing its bell. I think the eeriness of the landscape had gotten to me as I made my companions open the door and check it was clear before I would go outside!
I can’t actually recall when we crossed into Spain. I think there was a sign. As Australians, the concept we could walk to another country was, and still is, bizarre!
After many occasions where the track flattened out for long enough to give me hope that we were descending, before brutally heading back up, we followed the track up over a ridge and onto the road again. A fresh wind was whipping along and after walking along the road for a moment, we turned off and began to pick our way down a narrow track. So focused on keeping our feet, we didn’t realise the wind had blown the mist away until one of us happened to look up and see the blue sky. We all stopped and began grinning like idiots. It’s difficult to explain the elation I felt, realising I had just walked from France OVER THE FREAKING PYRENEES into Spain!
The breaking up of the mist seemed to align with our descent, with the landscape changing from winding roads, sheer drops and animals grazing in the grass, to a ranging muddy path through lush wooded forest.
Meandering downward, we eventually crossed a clear stream with a signpost on the other side showing a map of Roncesvalles. We were exhausted, cold, tired, wired and still somewhat underprepared. We walked around the imposing walls of Roncesvalles and entered the first doors we saw that looked like there might be beds available. Only after we began checking in did we realise it was a private hotel rather than the pilgrim’s albergue which provided cheap accommodation in a dormitory. We really didn’t care by that stage and ended up with a triple room that provided the best night sleep for quite a while.
Honestly, I think it was only the excitement of it being the first day that motivated us to complete that first 27 kilometre day, of which only nine kilometres were not uphill, by 8.30pm that evening – just in time for the pilgrim’s dinner.