Camino Day 1 - Tues 28/5/2002:

27 km today
27 total

"Miles to go before I sleep..."

Had a "continental" breakfast in our el-cheapo hotel in Bayonne with the two Australian ladies and the German bloke from yesterday: most of my fellow diners appeared to be pilgrims. Some already had the scallop shells! Shopped for necessities -- disposable razors and some bottles of water. Caught 9:04 train for the hour-long journey to St. Jean Pied-de-Port "Saint John at the foot of the pass", a small border town (pop 1400, 180m); no-one bothered checking the train tickets. Weather superb, sun-splitting-the-stones kind of thing. On arrival, there are signs directing pilgrims to the Society of St. Jacques de Compostelle at 39 Rue de la Citadelle to pick up the credencial, the passport-like card which "proves" that the bearer is a pilgrim; the card should be stamped by various functionaries en route and is examined when you finally reach Santiago before you are issued with the Compostelle.

In the company of about twenty other pilgrims from the train, I made my way there. No. 39 was towards the top of a small and very picturesque cobbled street. (Alas, I accidentally deleted the photo when I was messing about with the camera that night, so you'll have to take my word for it.) In the cool shade of the house's front room, people of all nationalities were filling out the forms required to receive their credencial. A number of volunteers had most of the major languages covered, although the two Japanese girls with little spoken English appeared to be a bit stuck (though it turned out that one of them could read English fairly well.) A genial Scotsman volunteer directed me. I paid the required two euros for my credencial and donated another one for a scallop shell. A French lady who sells me a hat bids me to "Suivez les fleches jaunes, monsieur, et bonne chance!" ("Follow the yellow arrows, and good luck!": the camino is waymarked by yellow arrows spray-painted on to the road, walls, electricty poles, and, interestingly, manhole covers, which arrows you soon learn to ignore.)
The pair of elderly Australian ladies with me are put off by the Scotsman when they ask whether it's too late to head to Roncesvalles via the Route Napolean, the more scenic of the two routes over the Pyrenees to Roncevalles in Spain (the other one's the main road.)
"It's 11:30 now, ladies -- and it takes a fit person six or seven hours excluding stops. You wouldnae want to be caught up there in the dark, now, ladies..."
They decide to spend the day in St. Jean Pied-de-Port and start early the next morning. I bid them adieu and set out, not without a fair degree of trepidation. I'd been backpacking before, but not at the kind of pace where I have to cover 27 km and climb some 1300m to a mountain pass at 1440m with a 17 kg backpack in a few hours of searing afternoon heat...

However, the beautiful weather and breathtaking scenery soon took my mind of such concerns. I needn't have worried.

Lush greenery

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Distant St. Jean Pied-de-Port

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Circling vulture.

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It was steep going, but I was enthusiastic and well-watered, so I sped through it, passing quite a few people en route. (I walk fairly fast normally -- over 6 km per hour with backpack on the flat -- but I really like walking uphill, so I'm sure I elicited a few comments of "Flash Git" or worse as I ambled past people who looked like they were on their last legs.) I caught up with the retired German guy and hiked with him for a bit: he was hoping to stay in the small refugio -- a very basic hostel for pilgrims, generally provided for free or for a small donation -- in Honto, halfway to Roncesvalles. Judging by the number of pilgrims en route, we thought it'd probably be full. As he was taking frequent rest breaks, I climbed away. As I passed through Honto, I found the hostel was indeed full. I wondered what the German was going to do... but at least the weather was superb.

Many of the sheep and horses in the lower pastures were wearing bells; there was a constant background clanging, but it was oddly musical and almost lullaby-like. Or maybe it was the heat. Apparently I'd struck it lucky weather-wise; I was later assured that it was normally cloudy and misty this high up in the Pyrenees.
I took a half-hour rest, drinking some sugary French yogurt concoction, after which I lay back and basked in the sun -- shortly to open my eyes when I felt fleeting shadows falling on me. There, no more than 20 yards above me, was a pair of circling vultures. I must have looked a lot worse than I felt. Alas, by the time I dug my camera out, all I got was a piss-poor blurry image of one of them, which I include only for completeness. Must be quicker next time!

"I am the way" Wayside Cross

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"Miles to go before I sleep..."

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Spain at last!

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As one might imagine, since the pilgrimage is/was religious in nature, there are quite a few roadside shrines en route. The French Societe de Saint-Jacques have helpfully provided pilgrims with a monument detailing exactly how far it is they have to go (along with a most welcome fountain with the crispest spring water I have ever tasted.) After the worst of the climbing, though, the thought of that distance still to come must make some feel disheartened. But others must feel quite elated -- one Austrian girl I met had started walking in late February from Vienna, some 2500 km away, so she must have been quite pleased to see that there was "only" another 765 km to go.

I eventually crossed the border to Spain just before 3pm, and continued the climb to the Col Lepoeder (1440m), from where you can see the rooftops of the Abbey at Roncesvalles in the valley below. A pair of middle-aged American cyclists were doing their best on the steep incline, but both resorted to pushing. In the afternoon heat, it can't have been much fun...
I took the "safe" route down because I wanted to see the monument to Roland at Puerta d'Ibañeta: I'd read the The Song Of Roland in college more years ago than I care to remember and had always been fascinated by the era. Back in 778, after a sortie against the Arab forces in Spain, Charlemagne was returning (or retreating, I can't remember) and had reached this point when he heard Roland's horn blowing for aid; alas, too late. At least, I'd always thought it was the Arab forces that got Roland, but I recently read an article claiming that it was the local Basques. Hmmm.
Charlemagne had a chapel built here; in former times its bell tolled to guide pilgrims in bad weather. A modern structure replaced the old ruin in 1965, together with a monument to Roldan (Roland in Spanish.) Unfortunately, the monument has been vandalised as it's missing the ironwork...

Roncesvalles Abbey Rooftops

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Roland's Monument,

Puerta d'Ibañeta (720x960, 45K)

Royal Pantheon,

Roncesvalles (960x720, 53K)

Leaving Pilgrim's Mass

Roncesvalles (960x720, 71K)

I arrived in Roncesvalles (925m, pop 75, also known as Orreaga) at 16:45, some five hours after leaving St. Jean Pied-de-Port. This small hamlet contains a 12th-century Augustinian monastery and hospital. In its heyday during the 17th century, it fed 25000 pilgrims a year. Now it sees twenty times that many tourists, and maybe half that number of pilgrims.
The Royal Pantheon contains the thirteenth century tombs of Sancho the Strong and his wife, Dona Clemencia of Toulouse.

I got my credencial stamped and got assigned one of the bunk beds in one of the hospital attics. There were basic facilities available: open-plan showers; approximately 30 bunk beds. Laid out my sleeping bag, had a cold shower, on the bed and went to explore Roncesvalles. I was struck now, as I would be throughout the camino, at how architecturally well-preserved Spain was.
There was a pilgrim's Mass at 8pm in the church; one of the concelebrants was one of my fellow pilgrims, a Catholic Priest from Canada, who was understandably rather jaded after the hike from St. Jean Pied-de-Port. Some 40 pilgrims attended; I wonder how many got to the end? As far as I know the priest and his companion hiker (an earnest young American just back from a year's voluntary service in famine-blighted Africa) made it OK; we kept passing each other en route. Also I was delighted to meet the German guy, who'd hiked the furthest he'd ever managed, arriving very tired indeed at 7:45pm.


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Monastery Church,

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Nice Knocker!

Roncesvalles (720x960, 53K)

What lies within?

"Lorda made me" (1200x1600, 383K)

Had a beer and a bocadillo con jamon y queso (a roll with ham and cheese inside, no butter) at the local bar. It started gently drizzling at 9:45, so I went straight to bed, where I was kept awake for an hour or so by a snorer. Should have brought earplugs. Knees a bit sore, but that's only to be expected, I suppose...