15 April – Vanishing Minutes: Monday morning I woke up to a message on my cellphone that my new ‘pay as you go’ account was down to 5 Euros, from 45 the previous day. Forty Euros just vanished as I was about to head into the Pyrenees and could use the safety of reliable communications. After making it across the mountains and arriving in Roncesvalles I inquired where I could top off the account……..Pamplona was the answer – three days away! (Camino Gut Check)
I looked back to figure out what happened; I knew I turned off my roaming voice before crossing the boarder from Spain into France…..but apparently I left on my data as I was tracking the taxi movement by google maps and subsequently burnt up about 40 euros in 15 mins. There’s an old favorite movie where the lead actor repeats a common refrain “Stupid is as stupid does”. This was not a propitious beginning to a serious undertaking. (Camino Gut Check)
Early Morning Start
I was up early to get a quick breakfast and head onto the trail before the sun rose – walking in a brisk pre-dawn is incredibly refreshing and rejuvenating. Naturally, the breakfast room was closed and the lights were off – our host apparently was having car problems. Upon arriving, she made quick work of our meal preparation, it didn’t take much. When she led us in the room we saw at each place setting a slab of toasted bread, some slices of butter and jam and a medium size soup bowl. I figured the bowl was for cereal and because I wanted to fill up before heading out I accented as she motioned to fill it up.
To my surprise, out of the decanter came steaming hot coffee, which she followed up with a healthy dose of milk. I forgot, in France coffee au lait is served in a bowl. It hit the spot, I had another! I’ve since learned that the typical Pilgrim breakfast is a large slab of toast, marmalade and coffee – that’s it. I’ve since also learned to sneak in a slice of supplementary sausage.
Into the Hills
Little groups of pilgrims flowed from the various hostels and albergues as they clicked, clicked with their walking sticks up their way in the misty darkened street, all headed for the daunting passage over the Pyrenees. I suspect most, like me, suddenly lost all cares and concerns about late breakfasts and vanished minutes when we spotted our first yellow clamshell and arrow that marked the path of the Camino. There was an overwhelming sense of elation to realize you were finally on the trail after months of preparation. We, like so many former invading armies and eager pilgrims left the protective enclave of the St Jean citadel to cross into an unknown future and into the Spanish frontier. The Camino had begun.
By all accounts the first day is one of the toughest most pilgrims will overcome whether they take the ‘Napoleon Route, or the one through ‘Carlos’s Valley’ (Valcarlos). Both take you up over foreboding passages into the Pyrenees. For the most part the trail is not difficult, but it is relentless. After the thirteenth mile when you think you’ve crested your last peak, you’d be wrong. There seems too be no ends to the next crest.
Finally, when you do begin the decent, you quickly miss the uphill walking as the the decent is steep and the trails are strewn with fist sized rocks that with one misstep could twist or roll your ankle and end your Camino before it really begins. The route is well marked with the exception of the mileage (kilometer) markings.
You’ll read how far you have left to travel but your body knows the sign is a lie.
You feel as though you’ve already covered the seventeen miles and then some.
How is possible to still have three to go?
When you finally reach that last marker, you stop and restudy the number just to make sure it really says .5 kms rather than 5 kms. But sure enough when you turn the next bend, the magnificent old structures of Roncevalles stand awaiting your arrival as they have for centuries of previous exhausted pilgrims.
At this point, you’ve past your first test. In some of the schools I’ve been to they call this this ‘Gut Check’, or ‘the Camino Gut Check’. It’s an endurance test to weed out those who truly are not dedicated to the endeavor.
Before beginning, I would read of warnings about the crossing and cautionary tails of fatalities – pure fiction from those who made the trip and wished to make their efforts seem more harrowing to their listeners, or so thought. Along the route you can find crosses and other markings identifying spots where less fortunate pilgrims ended their journey. Perhaps by heart attack, exposure or just bad decision making. But sure enough, they are there and you regain all respect towards the stories you’ve heard. Now I try to recall all the other disregarded stories I’ve heard and read about the trip ahead. Now that the walking is done, the next hard part begins – finding a room for the night.
I previously wrote of the varying countryside as I trained up from Madrid to Pamplona and into SJPdP. The walk through Basque country is magnificent. The country side is like nothing I have seen before with steep craggily valleys and billowing pastures strewn with short fat and feisty, shaggy horses. One doesn’t’ typically think of steep mountains in this part of Europe, but again, they would be wrong. This hills build on top of hills which build on top of more.
There’s one section of the pass where it’s said that you rise high enough to touch the sky. Again, one might find this to be hyperbolic rhetoric….but you would think differently when you see it yourself. Halfway through the journey you cross through and enchanted forest of gnarly short trees clinging to steep slopes with thick bases and curly branches that seemingly glide through the misty clouds that enshroud the countryside. It’s mesmerizing.
Interesting Links (Camino Gut Check)
- Photos along the Camino and throughout the Iberian Peninsula
- Return to the beginning of this Journal Blog
- Enjoy our Journal Blog about our travels throughout Italy