Camino de Santiago, Camino Frances, pilgrimage, Spain

September 2nd, Day 1: St Jean to Roncesvalles – ‘Don’t Stay Stuck’

The walk out of St. Jean Pied de Port

I’m awake by 6. It’s hard not to be, as everyone is up and preparing to leave. I eat a breakfast of bread and milky coffee and I’m on the road by 7. Surprisingly, I’m one of the last to leave, but I intend to take my time today. I leave town alone, and the majority of pilgrims are ahead of me. I’m comforted when I see a few people on the path and I’m reassured I’m going the right way.

The morning fog is so think leaving St. Jean that my eyelashes are actually wet with dew after only a few minutes of walking. The sun takes a long while to break through, but when it does, the morning light is beautiful. The fog hangs low in the valley below and the trees look like islands surrounded by this thick, dense fog.

St. Jean below

I walk by farms and fields and pass two cars, at most. The only sounds are my own footsteps. The inclines are steep, but not unmanageable, and two hours pass quickly. I pass a rest stop around 10:30, but feel strong enough to keep going. I walk with no one nearby for at least the next hour. The temperature drops and the terrain begins to change. The lush vegetation and farmland from this morning, has turned to rocky, craggy pastures, where sheep are grazing and wild horses roam.

Wild horses en route to Roncesvalles

The wind picks up and my mind drifts to my travels, my past four years of adventure and what brought me to the Camino. I think back to Christmas two years ago, picking up a copy of ‘The Way,’ watching it with my family, and telling them, “I’m going to do that one day,” them not being too surprised by this proclamation.

I’m lost in these thoughts for at least an hour, but I’m jolted out of my daydreaming by the wind. It is officially cold, and when I stop to put on a pullover, I feel hunger setting in. I see a camper van in the distance and the excitement of a snack and a break increases my walking pace. I manage to buy a banana and a granola bar and sit down behind the van, so I’m out of the wind. Here, I meet Helena from Holland. She is on her 65th day of the Camino and has already covered 1200 kilometers (after starting from her hometown).

Sheep grazing the craggy pastures

It isn’t too long before I pass Porte de Cize, marking my entry into Spain. One person is ahead of me and one trails me. I wonder where everyone went.

Tree tunnels en route to Roncesvalles

The terrain changes yet again, and I’m back in forests and protected from the wind. My legs are beginning to feel tired. I have already covered the 1000 meter climb up, but a 400 meter descent still awaits me. I see a sign indicating I’m 5 kilometers away and, moments later, another sign saying 3 kilometers. I am totally alone now, and I fear I’ve taken a wrong turn, but the path is clearly marked. And I know I have to be getting close to Roncesvalles, because the trees are taller than me, I’m no longer above the tree line. I’m willing the path to come to an end, when I see a sign that says I’m five minutes away… Then, I see the church.

I check into the albergue, get my stamp and pay 10 Euros for my room – the last bed in the new wing. The volunteer tells me this like it’s a good thing, but then I realize I won’t be staying in the old cathedral hall (which I had seen a beautiful picture of). Still, upstairs is new, clean and semi-private, and I’m to share a 2-bed cubby with Johan.

The new albergue

First things first, I ask where the ATM is and I’m a bit dismayed to find out that there is in fact no ATM in Roncesvalles. The document that was issued to us in St.Jean (indicating in which towns we would find albergues, cafes, ATMs and supermarkets – is wrong.) I kick myself for not topping up my cash before leaving St. Jean. I have 3,50 Euros to my name, which isn’t going to get me far. After visiting the vending machines, I work out that I can get a sandwich for 2,10 and a coffee the following morning for .80 cents.

Roncesvalles Cathedral

I begin chatting to Ray, who I had passed on the summit earlier, and he tells me that the rooms in the old wing are only 6 Euro, not 10. The cogs are turning and I know what I need to do. 4 Euro is the difference between a satisfying meal  or going without entirely Рnot something I want to do after trekking 28 kilometers.

I queue up at check in and when it’s my turn, I try to explain my predicament to the female volunteer. She’s having none of it, and tells me it’s a “big problem” to move. I’m totally surprised and shocked by this. It’s not really about the 4 Euro or that I’m losing what’s turned into an argument, it’s that this isn’t the spirit of the Camino I was expecting. I try to explain further, now sort of begging, and after telling her I have no money for dinner, she reluctantly agrees to move me.

Ray sees me on my way out of the check-in area and asks if I need to borrow some money for dinner, but I feel rich with the 7,50 Euro now in my pocket! He says, “Don’t stay stuck.” As in, ‘don’t be too stubborn to ask for help if I need it.” Lesson one of the Camino, maybe?

The old Cathedral albergue

I find my new bed in the old wing, and a young group asks me if I’ll switch beds with them so they can all stay together. I’m happy to oblige, and realize I will pay it forward all I can – and live the spirit of the Camino.

The cafe in Roncesvalles

I head to the outside cafe, and Ray joins me for a beer and we spend the afternoon talking life. Ray only has a week on the Camino before he heads back to Ireland. He has put his notice in at work and is using this time to decide if he will follow through and leave his job. At sunset, he leaves for dinner and I head to the vending machine. My cold, soggy chicken and salad sandwich is actually delicious and I calculate that my change will get me a breakfast of coffee, yogurt and granola.

Shoe cubby in Roncesvalles.

I head back to the sleeping hall at 8 and it is freezing. It’s like it turned September and someone switched a setting from Summer to Autumn. I get my things ready for the morning and unwrap my sleep sheet. As I lay it out on the bottom bunk, I realize that the bunks are so close to each other, they are more like double beds than two separate bunks. And then I see this bright smile from the boy in the bed next to me. Pedro, from Brazil, speaks no English but we try to converse a bit in broken Spanish and Portugese. He asks me to wake him up at 6a.m. and wishes me a Buen Noche. It’s a cold night’s sleep, filled with an orchestra of snoring — even through earplugs, but after 8 hours, 1400 meters and 28 kilometers, sleep comes relatively easily.

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