John Brierley‘s guide and maps plot the route between Orisson and Roncesvalles as (more or less) like this:
Elevation Gain: 750m
When I woke in the hostel at Orisson in the very early a.m. I knew that all of this lay ahead of me for the day. It was still dark outside (and inside) so my roommates got good use out of their headtorches while they packed up their sleeping bags and got ready to go.
I don’t remember my reaction but I imagine it was a shock to my system: I am not a morning person and being woken by bright, bobbing LED torches in such a small space is not my ideal way to wake up. It doesn’t exactly bring out the best in me. It’s part of the Camino culture that people are out the door by 6am, so nocturnal people like me are at a bit of a disadvantage. I lay in bed for another few minutes, trying to mentally prepare for the day ahead.
I’m not in the habit of walking 15km on a given day but I know I can do it. I’m also not in the habit of climbing up 750m and/or down 500m but again, I know it’s within my physical capability – I’ve done it before and know I’m able.
In some ways, the prospect of climbing up and over the Pyrenees was less daunting to me when I crunched the numbers re: distance, elevation gain, and descent. I realised it wasn’t impossible. But I had to factor in the gradient on the way up and down (very steep), which adds strain to the body and tires out the legs more quickly. The gradient can determine whether the 15km feel like only 8km or more like 37km, and even in the early morning half-light I realised that these 15km weren’t going to be the breeziest of my life.
Like many pilgrims, I carried too much weight in my backpack despite my best efforts to keep it to a minimum. I had about 7kg worth of ‘stuff’ but carried another 2L of water, which added an additional 2kg to my load. 9-10kg is not a lot by regular everyday standards but carrying it up the side of a steep mountain, over distance, in mid-30-something-degree heat made it a lot more “challenging”. It was too much but I didn’t know that then.
My breakfast in Orisson was brief and consisted of strong, bitter coffee in a bowl (first time I’d ever done that) and baguette with butter and jam. I was half asleep while I ate it but realised my body would need the sustenance later, so I ate and drank as much as I could comfortably manage.
All around me, the bustle of pilgrims filling up their water bottles and lacing up their boots added noise, laughter, and an excited tension to the room. Today would be a big day – today was crossing the Pyrenees and making our way across the border from France into Spain. It was important to get on the road early so we could beat the heat of the sun.
Added to that, I’d heard that the hostels didn’t /don’t allow pilgrims to stay later than 8am so there was no option of sleeping in and starting the day later: I simply had to get out the door.
On top of that, the people around me had some concern about “getting a bed” in our destination later. Many of the hostels run on a first-come, first-serve basis so once the beds are taken, any late-arriving pilgrims have to make alternative arrangements.
At the beginning of the trip, the fear of being without a bed was real and regularly spoken about. While I’m not an early-morning lark, I realised that the sooner I left Orisson then the sooner I’d arrive in Roncesvalles, and the better chance I’d have of getting a bed. I felt I couldn’t walk further, so going on to the next town or village wasn’t an option that day.
I was also on a budget for the whole trip, and foregoing the hostel for a more pricey hotel was beyond my price point for that stage of the trip. There was no where else to stop off en route and I didn’t feel like sleeping outdoors that night. So, I felt I simply had to make it to Roncesvalles in time to get a bed.
Whether we ever admit it, that means walking to a set pace instead of having a leisurely stroll, and it changed the emotional energy of the hostel in the half-light at Orisson.
The Pyrenees were far more grassy and open than I had expected. For hours, I pottered along putting one foot in front of the other, with a chorus of bells sounding on the wind. They sounded like Swiss cow bells but all I could see were horses and sheep – dozens and dozens of them, munching the grass and running across the open landscape. It was one big advert for “Black Beauty” with cowbells, and it was a romantic bliss.
The early morning light cast golden shadows across the hills and to this day I remember the expansiveness – so much horizon, so much sky.
I found the walking steep that day, but the incline and decline were both managable. They weren’t easy breezy but with the weather, the good company, and some strategic breaks, I’m happy to report that I managed just fine.
In advance of my Camino I’d read forums with countless people wondering and worrying about how bad it would be, and always wondering whether they’d be able for it. I wondered the same thing – after all, some people say that it’s truly terrible but are they the exception or the norm?
It’s hard to tell.
I went into it knowing that my body, while generally unprepared, was strong.
I also went into it knowing that I really, really wanted to cross the mountains and see the views from a height, so my mental and emotional fortitude was strong too.
I knew the weather would be dry so I wouldn’t have slippery paths underfoot or any dangerous winds to contend with, but I’d have to be careful to stay hydrated and not get sunburned.
My body was only sort of prepared and I knew there was no going back and there was no way out – there was only one option and that was to go forward. Lack of choice in the matter was a great motivator!
My highlights included “banana man in a van”, whom appeared like a mirage on the side of the road and provided timely sustenance to weary pilgrims like myself. This enterprising man drives up into the mountains each day, parks his little van on the side of the road, and sells coffee and fruit juice to passing pilgrims. He was a pure delight to our day.
He also sold Lidl-brand chocolate at a highly-profitable price, bananas, hard-boiled eggs, and locally-made cheese. The bananas were welcome freshness.
Even in those very early days of the trip I felt I was deprived of fresh fruit and veg compared to my usual routine, and I was thrilled to eat something fresh, other than bread. The eggs in particular, struck me as a mark of genius!
I was impressed by his insight – boiled eggs are very portable so it’s easy for pilgrims to buy a few and eat them later.
They don’t even need refrigeration, which was a “win” for everyone in that heat.
They’re packed with protein (handy for long-distance endurance), and they’re cheap and quick to prepare.
From a business perspective, he was on to a definite win-win, and even had salt and pepper to hand for flavour.
I toasted his business excellence with coffee, bananas, and chocolate, (but no eggs) and sat on the grass to take off my socks and air out my feet.
Big thanks to Canadians Barb and Dave, who kindly collected my socks after they blew across the grass in the breeze – it wouldn’t have been fun to lose them down the side of a mountain so early in the trip!
Crossing from France into Spain was also a highlight, though I’m not sure exactly when it happened that day. We crossed under a makeshift-looking iron archway of sorts, with plastic flag-like bits attached to it. It wasn’t fancy or formal but rumour had that it was the official border line between the two countries.
Some non-EU pilgrims around me wondered if they’d be asked to show their passports but there was no one there to show them to, and I didn’t see any marker to confirm that this was indeed the boundary line.
I took a photo of it but I might have taken a close-up if I’d known for certain that it was the boundary line. Maybe someone more knowledgable can confirm either way?
I enjoyed the decline to Roncesvalles through the woods and relished the cool shade. I walked in hiking sandals and didn’t relish the steep gradient, so I walked slowly, mindfully, and with a lot of weight on my walking poles to help me keep my balance and stability. Thankfully the preceeding days had been equally dry and bright, so the ground underneath was stable (though my calf muscles still had some complaints to make).
In the end, I made it to Roncesvalles in enough time to secure a bed in the hostel, wash my dusty clothes in the sink, hang them out to dry, and find new friends for a glass of vino and dinner.
I was sore and spent, but delighted that I’d covered the distance without breaking any bones, and was still intact.
For the second time in three days, I wasn’t in time for the full pilgrim mass but I heard afterwards that it was emotional and moving. I’d managed to attend a bit of a mass in St. Jean (by happy accident rather than any pre-planning) so I didn’t feel so bad that I had missed one in Roncesvalles. I hadn’t thought about attending mass at every stop, or even at all. I had only planned to walk my best each day and let the rest unfold. Sometimes, that meant being open to a mass. Other times, it meant spending my time differently.
Roncesvalles gave me a hot shower, great laundry facilities, a safe, secure bed, and friendly people with whom to share wine and food. As days go, it had been a good one.