It was raining lightly as we set out from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to cross the Pyrénées on the first day of our pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. We had rain gear, though; we had come prepared. Or so we thought. In retrospect, I’m not sure anyone can be prepared to cross the Pyrénées unless they’ve already crossed the Pyrénées. But at least we stayed dry.
We walked uphill out of town and took the turning for what they call the Napoleon Way, because he had once had his troops use that pass through the mountains. The lower, supposedly less scenic route is called the Charlemagne Way, because that’s how he took his troops. However, he also took them the Napoleon Way, but I guess you only get one way named after you.
There were many other pilgrims setting out at the same time and most of them passed me up. This was a scenario that would play out time and again because, as I discovered, I am slow going uphill and even slower coming down.
After some time of climbing steadily but not too steeply, we came to the Refuge of Orisson, a neat little hostel and restaurant about a third of the way along the day’s route. The place was crowded with pilgrims who had stopped for lunch. Some were getting rooms and staying the night, preferring to break the crossing up into two days.
We ate lunch there and filled our water bottles, secure in the knowledge that we were still pretty close to the projected schedule of a 7-8 hour crossing.
We should have bought extra food to take with us.
Now began the really grueling part. It’s hard to explain the combination, when you come around the corner of a hill and think you’ve reached the top, of the crushing disappointment to find that there is still higher to go and the awe-inspiring, description-defying beauty of the Pyrénées.
Eventually we reached Pic d’Orisson, a high spot with a statue of the Virgin that had been brought from Lourdes by local shepherds. A little over two miles later, we came to the Spanish border and walked into a thick fog. We had experienced sunshine, strong winds, rain, and hail and now it was eerie to step into Spain and see the mists rolling about.
We climbed seemingly endlessly. It was getting late and we were getting hungry and weak.
“I just need some calories!” said Ian.
A moment later, Ian suddenly pulled a mint out of his pocket with an exclamation of delight. It had been left on his pillow as a mark of welcome at the albergue in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
He ate it.
“Are you full of energy now?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
At length, we reached the peak at Col Lepoeder, which wasn’t even amazing-looking in recompense, and then we started down, step after painful step.
All the while I was miserable and weak and hungry and in pain, I couldn’t help thinking how lovely the landscape around me was.
We walked through patches of beech forest with fallen leaves soggy from rain and I could hear streams running alongside the road.
We did get to Roncesvalles after all and found a place to sleep and a restaurant to eat at. And as I went to bed, I thought: we are still alive and we have made it over the Pyrénées.
After a breakfast of toast and juice, we started off, feeling less stiff as we began moving about. Once again, we traveled through intensely green landscape – farmland and beech forest, with lots of clouds and cool temperatures that were perfect for hiking.
The difficult part of the day was Alto de Erro. This was a steep, at times rocky, path that became slippery with rain on the way down. It must have taken me an hour to do what most people could do in twenty minutes.
When we got to Zubiri, all the albergues and hotels were full. That is when I learned to make a reservation well in advance.
We ended up at the Pensión Usoa, which was full, but the lady in charge kindly offered to call another hotel in another town a little farther along. Through her generous efforts, we ended up staying at the Hotel Akerreta, featured briefly in the film, The Way. The proprietor of the Hotel Akerreta was friendly and accommodating, and he had a sense of humor.
We set off on a trail not far from, but out of sight of, the highway. We came upon the Río Arga and ended up following it for much of the day. We felt pretty good considering our previous ordeal and looked forward to toughening up over the next several days.
We passed through several medieval villages and crossed Romanesque bridges. A highlight was the 12th-century Iglesia de San Esteban in the village of Zabaldika. An old woman was at the portal and she invited us to remove our backpacks and come inside the church. We spent a few moments enjoying the cool shade and admiring the altarpiece. Then we thanked the woman, and she gave us a pilgrim’s blessing printed in English.
We arrived in Pamplona, where we had the foresight for once to make a reservation to stay the night. We crossed the 12th-century Magdalena Bridge over the Río Arga and came to the Portal de Francia, the best preserved of six gates into the old city. There was a drawbridge there which is down except once a year on 5 January, when the Three Wise Men come into Pamplona on that day in celebration of Epiphany. This gate has served as access to the city for Camino pilgrims since medieval days.
As we walked to our hotel, we passed down one of the streets where they have the running of the bulls. I have nothing to say about people who run with bulls.
We left Pamplona, passing the 16th-century Citadel, which is now a park. The path rose fairly steadily, but not too steeply, through fields planted in wheat, rapeseed, and some kind of grain I didn’t recognize.
Eventually, things got steeper. The trail climbed and climbed and climbed until we finally reached Alto de Perdón with its pilgrim sculpture and windmills.
The path down from Alto de Perdón was just plain evil. It was exceedingly steep and exceedingly rocky with many loose pebbles and stones. Even though I was going as slowly and carefully as possible, I turned my ankle twice and that was my undoing, as I was soon to find out. But you can’t stop in the middle of a rocky road and so we continued on to Puente La Reina.
We left Puente La Reina by crossing an 11th-century bridge paid for by the wife of Sancho the Strong. She had the bridge built to help pilgrims avoid exorbitant ferry fees. I wondered, as I looked back at the bridge, how many pilgrims had crossed over it in the last thousand years.
This day we walked through five towns, and in between there were vineyards and wheat fields and other crops. We climbed up to the medieval towns and then down into the fields and then up and then down.
Upon leaving Cirauqui, the Camino follows a stretch of old Roman road. This, as you may imagine, was in pretty bad repair after 15 or 16 centuries of neglect. Although I loved the historical aspect of it, I despised its uneven rockiness and what it did to my feet.
Finally, after a very slow descent down a steep stretch, we crossed the beautiful Río Ega and followed it into Estella.
We had dinner at an Italian restaurant where we ordered a Pizza Navarra from a friendly waiter. It was delicious and Ian rated it in the top five pizzas he’s ever eaten.
When we woke up this morning, my left foot hurt so much, I could hardly walk. And I had two blisters on my right foot from having my toes crammed into the front of my boot while going steeply downhill from Alto de Perdón. But with Compeed and some duct tape, the blisters hardly bothered me at all.
We came to the Irache Winery. There’s a fountain built into one of the winery walls that dispenses water out of one spigot and wine out of the other. A dozen or more pilgrims were gathered there to sample the wine and to have their photos taken while doing so. We got water there and moved on. It was hard to walk, and Ian was having some trouble with his hip, which has been bothering him off and on. We began devising alternate plans for completing the Camino from a spot closer to Santiago – like León – and taking it a little slower so as not to stress our injuries more.
For that reason, we decided to stop at the halfway point today, in Villamayor de Monjardín, instead of going on to Los Arcos.
Just before arriving in Villamayor, we came to the Fuente de los Moros, a Gothic structure from the 12th century with two arches that open in steps leading down to a pool of water. Although it is called the Fountain of the Moors, the Moors likely had nothing to do with it.
We were almost the first ones at the albergue in Villamayor, but it filled up very quickly after opening. At dinnertime, all of us sat at three tables, ten to a table. We all toasted each other for making it this far.
Because of our injuries, it took us about six hours to get to Los Arcos. Of course, we stopped to eat a snack at a roadside stand in the middle of a vineyard and we stopped to rest one other time.
When we got to Los Arcos, we stowed our stuff at the albergue and took a walk around the neighborhood. We came to the main plaza, with the Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción on one side and several restaurants on the other.
In the midst of the plaza were tables and chairs full of mostly pilgrims enjoying what the restaurants had to offer. We had our dinner there and enjoyed our first taste of paella. We thought it was pretty good – all but the mussels, which tasted a bit too much of seawater lapping against a barnacle-laden pier post. I guess I’m just not a mussel person.
With the pleasant atmosphere and the church bells tolling the quarter hours, and couple of kids running rampant, and a few beggar dogs (that we didn’t feed), it was a very nice dinnertime.
And thus ended our first week on the Camino.