Category Archives: Camino

The French Way of St. James, or Camino de Santiago

Wearing in the boots: Roncesvalles through Pamplona

We left our pristine hostel attached to a stunning 12th century church in Roncesvalles. The signpost at the edge of town says Santiago de Compostela is 790 kilometers away, though by foot it should be a bit shorter.

After crossing the Pyrenees the day before, we spent much of our second day ambling through pine forests and in and out of sleepy farm towns in the Basque countryside. The island of Euskadi (Basque Country) straddling the mountains is fascinating, in part because it’s so tough to find out much about the people who live here. A language resembling neither French nor Spanish in any discernible way presents the first barrier. I get the impression that there’s a secrecy to the culture, a pride that depends little on what others outside think. But this is just a gut feeling, as I’ve done little primary research.

Adding to the air of mystery is an undercurrent of witchcraft and mythology. I’ll try to look up the story about the statue to the right welcoming pilgrims into Roncesvalles.

Aches and pains have started to pop up that either weren’t an issue or were masked by adrenalin and excitement. Still, it’s a privilege to watch the landscape change with each step. After lunch, we climbed through the rather ugly industrial town of Zubiri to one of the countless hillside villages paved in cobblestones with walls lined in rose bushes in full bloom. Often you can smell the villages before you see them.

We spent the night in Larrasoana. Just a few days in, we’ve picked up on a bit of frustration with the pilgrims, which is understandable. In general, we’ve found most of us are pretty respectful, but mob mentality takes over a bit and we can be a selfish lot, descending in huge groups on tiny towns, demanding dinner and beds and then taking off the next day. So I’m a bit resigned to the idea that most of the people we meet will be fellow travelers not locals, with a few momentary exceptions here and there.

Let’s start with the travelers. Speaking English makes walking the Camino easy (and traveling in general, I suppose). But Anne-Claire’s French has opened us up to a larger swath of pilgrims. We had the good fortune to sit next to Patrick from Paris and Claude from Quebec at dinner. Claude speaks English, so we had a nice mélange of that and French and enjoyed sharing a meal with them. They both start from Le Puy in France about a month ago. They’d walked together their first three days, then had been separated until just a few days ago, when they ran into each other at a tiny stopover on the way over the Pyrenees called Orisson.

They passed us on the trail the next morning when we’d stopped for breakfast. This is how the Camino goes, I’m told – you see people, make flickering connections and only providence will allow you to meet again.

Much of the rest of the day was spent hiking up to, through and past Pamplona. After the countryside, the bustle of the town’s cars and people were a little overwhelming to us, so we didn’t linger too long, though once again, I was impressed at how beautiful Pamplona is – parks, monuments and a festive atmosphere beg for another visit.

We stopped for lunch in a suburb 5 km outside of town, only to realize we had little cash and were headed to an even smaller town up in the hills for the night. Even what the guidebook calls an “affluent dormitory community of Pamplona” didn’t have an ATM, so Anne-Claire walked a few kilometers to remedy the problem.

We arrived that night in a tiny town that was little more than the hostel and a massive church to find a near-empty hostel (one of the benefits of going just a bit farther each night than the guide suggests). The two other occupants

were none other than Patrick and Claude. We laughed off the day’s toils and shared a bit about our families over beers and the ham and chorizo that Patrick always keeps in his pack, before embarking on a tedious dinner, thanks to a few late-arriving guests. I’m striving to keep snark and cynicism out of this blog, so if you want to hear the story, perhaps we can share a few beers (and some cured meats) in person.

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First day: St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Here we go! After a marathon train journey and two other connections, we finally hopped on a one-car commuter line with a few dozen other technical fabric- and hiking boot-clad would-be pilgrims from Biarritz to the small Basque village of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which has become the de facto trailhead of the French Camino de Santiago. Whether that’s for historic reasons or simply because it’s the last town in France before crossing the foothills of the Pyrenees into Spain, I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s another painfully charming spot with winding stone-cobbled streets and walls built as much for beauty as defense.

Alas, we tore ourselves from the village at about 8:30, later than most, to tackle one of the French Camino’s most difficult chunks. A lovely hostel lies about 11 km into the walk, but at that rate, we’d need three months for this journey, not one, so after a quick coffee there, we continued to climb. The next waypoint, unless you’re packing your own shelter, lies in Roncesvalles, another 16 km further.

Most of this stage – about 24 km in fact – climbs through pastureland where the Basques pasture their cattle, ponies and black-faced Brebis sheep, but apparently the healthy vulture population spiraling in updrafts like bubbles in a glass makes it necessary to prohibit dumping animal remains.

Temperamental weather can sometimes force pilgrims to take the lowland route, but all we had was sunshine and cool breezes to accompany spectacular view after spectacular view across rolling hills tapering into the ocean to the west and lapping at snow-covered spires to the east.

Roncesvalles is a tiny Spanish town with a massive hostel, necessitated by its position as a bottleneck on the Camino. Across three floors, several hundred bodies bed down every night here at this well-organized modern dormitory attached to a 12th-century church during the summer. Pilgrims almost undoubtedly out-number the town’s residents during the evening hours.

 As I understand it, hotels in small towns like this one often put together a communal pilgrim meal with an appetizer, entrée and dessert for pilgrims at a reasonable price. After enjoying our first of many, and some good conversation spurred on by a thirsty Italian who ordered us all a second bottle of wine, we happily put our weary legs up to rest in the hostel by 8:45.

Just a quick note – I’m going to try to put up shorter posts more frequently from our time on the Camino. Part of it is that I’m pretty exhausted by the time we arrive some where to sleep every night that writing longer posts is tough, and part of it is spotty access to wifi, though so far it’s been pretty good. There’s so much I’d like to share but know my words and Anne-Claire’s pictures, good as they tend to be, can’t capture. Hopefully, I’ll be able to provide a small window into this experience that we’re so lucky to be enjoying.