Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Camino de Santiago - Part 1 - St-Jean-Pied-de-Port > Roncesvalles

Camino de Santiago - Part 1
St-Jean-Pied-de-Port > Roncesvalles

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Day 1 / Sunday, May 17, 2015 - Although I had technically begun the Camino the day before, by walking back to the guest house from the village center, on this day I actually started the long-distance trekking.

I made the mistake of ordering the breakfast at the guesthouse without asking what was included, so for 3.50 Euro I had a boiled egg, a piece of toast with jam and a bowl of coffee (yes, a bowl.. I was wondering if this was a French thing). I quickly finished and fell out onto 'the way' at about 7am.. and I started walking.

The first day out of St Jean-Pied-du-Port is quite well known as being the most difficult day of the entire trip. I kind of shrugged this off, because I had just finish a week walking through the Scottish Highlands, and I felt like I was the ultimate trekking veteran at this point. Hills didn't bother me any more, and I no longer even feel the weight of the backpack on my back.

However on this first day, we had an 8-hour, uphill climb that at some points was insanely steep. It never let up. Uphill into the mountains, then into the clouds, then climbing so high into the Pyrenees mountains that we were way above the clouds. Eight hours of steep uphill climbing caused some people to stop and rent rooms at coffee shops half-way through the day.

I was still impress with most of the people on the path. Taking short breaks, as I did on the first days of my Scottish trek, and most people just kept going.

About 2 hours into the uphill climb a guy walking beside me said, "I guess we are in the minority here, aren't we?" I didn't exactly know what he was talking about so I kind of went "Huh?" -- So he continued, "Most people on the Camino are a bit older it seems." Yet another person who thought that I was in my mid-30's. I proudly told him that I am 47 years old and probably fall into the category of 'older people on the Camino'. He didn't believe me for quite a while.

We talked for a while and he told me his name, which I forgot almost immediately, because I really suck at names. He is from Australia and he was here doing the Camino de Santiago with his mother.. who was somewhere behind us having a very hard time with the uphill climb. She was getting a bit frustrated with him, he said, so he decided to walk on ahead and give his mother some private space to conquer the mountain. I suggested that when his mother catches up to him, just let her sit down for a bit and rest her feet. This really helped me when I was trying to accomplish long, uphill climbs in Scotland.

I kept walking higher and higher, into the moist clouds. I didn't know anyone around me yet.

The path through the valley of the Rio Luzaide over the Ibaneta Pass, also known as the Puerto de Roncesvalles, was the most important pass over the Pyrenees in the Middle Ages. Not only because it brought together three pilgrim  ways coming from France, but also because, at an altitude of 1,057m, it was less of a hurdle than the 1640m high Somport Pass.
A battle took place here in 778. After his ill-fated campaign against the Moors in Zaragoza, the army of Charles the Great retreated from Spain. The rearguard, under the command of the knight Roland, was attacked on this pass by a Basque army in order to avenge the destruction of Pamplona by the Franks. Roland and several other knights were killed. In later tales, the Basque attackers were transformed into Moors, Roland then became a courageous hero and Charles the Great then was magically viewed as the 'Savior of Christendom' -- a version which suited the world view of Christian Spain fighting against the Moorish rulers.

I encourage the people taking this journey to pay close attention to everyone you pass on the Camino.. and everyone who passes you. Within the first week of this epic adventure, you will have shared a multitude of experiences with many of them and while you may not know them all by name, there will be a warm, friendly kinship among the people walking along with you. So be sure to take note of who is around you and enjoy this interaction.

By the time I had made it to the highest part of the trek that day, I had bumped into the Australian guy several more times. We met a bunch of French people who gave us part of their lunch and we made it through a mountain pass filled with horses, all of which seemed to look extremely pregnant. The horses were extremely friendly and actually ran up to us. I rubbed the horses cheeks and scratched them lightly behind the ears, and suddenly there was a line of horses waiting for some TLC. I was absolutely in heaven. I love animals and adore horses.. some of the most beautiful animals on Earth.

When I reached the top of the mountain, the clouds opened up, the sun came down and the view was absolutely stunning. I had brought some wine and cheese with me for lunch, and sat on the side of the mountain offering cheese and wine to all who passed and it made me so happy that almost everyone took a sip (or more) of wine.

A few hours more and the path finally opened up to a massive Gothic, Augustine abbey of Ronccesvalles. This was the first of a multitude of churches and cathedrals I would have the privilege of seeing over the next few weeks.

(Basque: "Orreaga")
This Augustine abbey was founded in around 1130 and quickly developed into an important and much praised stage destination along the pilgrim way. The reasons for this were partly geographical, but the proximity to the location of the colorful Roland legend might also have played a significant role. The generous (AT THE TIME) food rations distributed in the monastery were also very popular. Pilgrims enter a the complex off of the camino path, almost through the back door of the hospital built at the start of the 18th century.. which today is a relatively luxurious pilgrim hostel. A passageway from this building connects you to the rest of the abbey complex.

The Gothic collegiate church Colgiata de Santa Maria (13th/14th century). Be sure to see the impressive high altar with a Gothic figure of the Nuestra Senora de Roncesvalles... the Virgin Mary richly clad in gold and silver.

After paying the 12 Euro for the bed in the dorm room, I took a shower and then headed down to catch a free church choir concert with the Australian guy in the Capilla del Espiritu Santo, a 12th century, old, stone fortress-like chapel. This building was alledgedly built by Charles the Great as a sepulcher for the knights who perished in the battle on the pass.

These are just very quick excerpts from the concert
 within Capilla del Espiritu Santo.


Then we were off to our first 'Pilgrim's Menu' which is generally quite cheap and consists of three courses. Usually starting off with a pasta or salad.. then a meat dish.. then desert... all with a bottle of red wine the table shares. Sadly, this was not the best example of the 'Pilgrim's Meal' to start with. The pasta was just boiled noodles with a hint of meat sauce. The meat plate was either average chicken or fish with a pile of soggy french fries.. and the desert was a four-pack of small yogurt cups dropped in the middle of the table.

Another part of the Pilgim Menu tradition on the first night is sitting with people you might not know yet. So the best part about dinner that night was meeting Agnes and Jakob aka 'the Germans,' which is, of course, how I referred to them over the next two days until I learned their names. We had a great time talking about absolutely everything, and by the time we were done with dinner and the bottle of wine it was off to bed.

After a full day of walking uphill, it did not take long for everyone in the building (about 270 pilgrims) to fall asleep almost immediately.

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In the past, a bell used to guide pilgrims on their way through the fog of the clouds, since there was a high risk of getting lost in the wood and being at the mercy of the wolves.

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