I had pre-arranged a taxi from Biarritz airport (which cost almost as much as my two flights put together) and watched eagerly as we passed by the French landscape. There were mountains on all sides and I wondered which one we would have to cross the next day. The houses are built in chalet style and the land is very green.
It is an hour’s drive to St Jean Pied de Port and it was 9pm when I arrived. Ella had already chummed up with a Danish guy called Søren, who reminds me a lot of Thomas Stilling. I had a quick bite to eat with them at the albergue that Ella had booked us into before going to bed in a dormitory of 14 beds, I think 12 of them were being used by all nationalities. There were two loos and two showers between us which didn’t seem to be a problem. There was a lot or rustling before everyone settled down to sleep and I set my alarm for 06:30 so that I could use the facilities before everyone else was up.
We had breakfast at 07:30 and then I had to go to the pilgrims’ office to get my credential (the pilgrim’s passport that gets stamped at each overnight stay). Ella had obtained her’s the previous day when she arrived. We then set out in search of somewhere to buy something to eat on our journey. There was almost nothing open – what a lack of initiative by the local shop owners – there are loads of people leaving town every day, and I expect most of them need food. We finally found a bread shop and a deli and we set off with Søren on the start of our trek. He is a very useful guy to have around – he is a guide for outdoor activities and so is very knowledgeable about how we should conduct ourselves.
It is 8:15am by the time we leave town and it is literally an uphill struggle that continues for 22km. Imagine la rampa in Cómpeta continuing for 22km and then turning round and walking down it for a further 5km.
The scenery is stunning, mountains in all directions, lots of farm animals close to town and further into the wilderness there were wild ponies roaming at will, all looking very well fed on the abundant grass.
Halfway through the morning we hooked up with a Dutch guy called Peter and the four of us stuck together throughout the walk. Ella found it really difficult to begin with and I gave her my walking poles to see if they helped. I must say that I missed them though. Søren walked slower than his normal pace in order to stay with us and under his instruction we stopped every hour or so for ten minutes and took our boots and socks off to air our feet.
We stopped at 12:30pm to eat some lunch and rested for half an hour in the sunshine before tackling the hardest part of the climb.
There was quite a lot of snow at this height, mostly on the mountain sides but we had to walk through quite a bit of it, and lots of very wet and deep mud. Our boots were well and truly christened. It was however a beautiful day, warm and sunny but not too hot, we were all walking in shorts and short sleeved T-shirts.
After crossing the border into Spain and Navarra We finally reached the highest point at 1,429 metres at 3:45pm and from here it was all downhill, some of it in snow, some in mud, both of which were very slippery. I almost went down in the mud, first of all skidding and then over-compensating and almost falling backwards. I did however end up on the ground whilst walking through a forest of beech trees, but not much harm was done, except to my pride.
Just before reaching our destination we came across the stone that had been placed in memory of the Brazilian pilgrim who had died a couple of weeks ago whilst attempting the route we had just taken.
We finally reached the albergue at Roncesvalles at just after 5pm. The building is an old monastery with accommodation for 180 pilgrims over three floors, with very modern facilities. The beds are in cubicles of four (two up, two down) with very clean and tidy loos and shower rooms.
After signing in and getting our credentials stamped, we showered, did our laundry and wandered over to the nearby bar where we ordered a beer and a pilgrims’ menu for 7pm. There are two sittings, and there were at least 80 people at the 7pm sitting, no idea how many at the later one. But there must have been at least 100 pilgrims who set off from St Jean this morning. I had no idea there would be this number.
After dinner I attended the pilgrims’ mass at the monastery church, not really my thing but I thought I should attend. I then set about writing up my blog but ran out of time to post this one. Wifi shut down at 9:30pm and lights out at 10:00pm.
It is now 10:45pm and I hope I can add photos to this in the morning and post it, so that I don’t get behind with my blog.
Incidentally the guy we are sharing our cubicle with is a very consistent snorer and I don’t know where my ear plugs are!
It has been a very hard day but we made it and hopefully we will get stronger each day.