1: St-Jean-Pied-de-Port – Roncesvalles (25)
Video clip from day 1
1 mars 2011 – tisdag
I woke up at seven. After an hour of spinning in the tight sleeping bag I had finally fallen asleep. Through the window of the dorm we saw St-Jean -Pied -de-Port for the first time in daylight. It looked like an alpine village. After taking a shower , we sat down at the kitchen table. The old woman gave us breakfast as promised. An apple, slices of toast with jam and a large bowl of instant coffee.
Although a bit unaccustomed to the routines of pilgrim life, we managed to gather our belongings in our backpacks and then left the shelter. The weather was good. Perhaps 10 degrees Celsius (50 F). Opposite the albergue door was at tap with good spring water. Or possibly municipal drinking water. Whatever it was it tasted good and fresh. Functioning taps with safe drinking water would prove to be scarce during the trek. Many had been closed the last few years as a result of agricultural activates that polluted the springs that used to provide the pilgrims with water. (It should be said that most of the time there are other options to find water, so it’s not much of a problem). At the tap I filled my “camelback” with two liters.
The clock on a church tower showed ten past eight when we set off down the street in St. Jean. In the wake of millions of pilgrims who had gone the same way over the centuries. In almost solemn silence, we passed through the city gate. None of us had any intention to defy the police ban on hiking on the upper ‘Napoelon route’. The lower road would prove to be challenging enough the coming afternoon.
We kept a high walking pace and in a surprisingly short time, we arrived at the Spanish border. In fact we thought we would be in Roncesvalles too soon. At the border, an absurd shopping centre, was placed in the middle of the forest. Elvis music pumped out from the speakers. Viva Las Vegas. I don’t know what I had expected, but it felt strange to walk through civilization. The inner journey and collided with the outer, as it were.
The walk continued through the valley where everything shifted in moss green. The trees were still leafless. In the first Spanish village we found an open café. Otherwise, most of the villages seemed to be devoid of human life. It was as if all the residents pulled down the window shutters and left. The only humans, except us and the café’s proprietress was a couple of police officers who sat in their big Range Rover outside the cafe. It all felt very Twin Peaks. After a piece of tortilla and cups of café solo, we continued. Mostly along the curvy road with at times, non-existent shoulders to walk on. We had to be careful not to get in the way of the frequent Land Rovers that were passing un in high speed.
Both Erik and Jürgen seemed to like fast walking. Both were very well trained. Erik was fifteen years younger than me. He seemed to be fueled by pure adrenaline. Jürgen was almost four inches taller than me and his equipment was highly advanced and state-of -the-art. Something he gladly and often told us and quickly became a standing joke between the three of us. Of course, I too had been practicing before I left Sweden, but without understanding the importance of training with my packed backpack on. You balance your body in a completely different way with a backpack than on a regular walk, which in turn use different muscles. Personally, I had not traveled to Spain to rush to the finish. Even less to compete. Still, I drove up my pace to keep up with the two other men. Competition instinct got their claws into me as if my manliness was at stake. My forced behavior caught me off guard and exposed a part of my personality that I was quite unfamiliar with. Properties that would severely hurt me, further down the road.
The road kept going upwards and it got more cloudy. Almost imperceptibly the bare ground disappeared under a thin layer of snow. Neither of us remembered the good advice we had been given at the Pilgrim office the night before. Nick and Jürgen very sensibly lowered their tempo. Erik and I continued with the higher pace. Suddenly we found ourselves on a narrow forest path. Probably one that the man in the pilgrim office had banned as too dangerous. Unfortunately, we realized it only after a few kilometers on the steeply uphill path. The snow had gradually become deeper and now we stood at a crossroads where all road markers were hidden under the snow. There was no point in digging since we didn’t know where to dig anyway. One road turned uphill to the right and another downhill to the left. There were footprints no footprints to follow in the snow. We simply had follow our instinct and chose the uphill path. It became a long and worrisome hour before we were sure we had chosen the right path. The drama was accentuated by the fact that vultures were circling over us, while we strived higher up in the mountains. A species of vulture called griffon, is common in the area.
At last, Erik and I came back on the paved road again. Now both tired and soaked. I’d no more water and the tap that was conveniently placed on the side of the path had frozen shut. We paused and studied our all too schematic map. After a few minutes Jürgen caught up with us. Nick had fallen well behind. We could not be that far from Roncesvalles, we thought, and looked over to the regular Camino path which was now completely snowed in, and then to the winding asphalt road. In hindsight I can’t figure out how our reasoning went then, but despite our recent experience on the snow-covered forest paths, we decided to continue on an equally snowed over path instead of the snow free highway. At first, the snow cover weren’t more than a few inches, but the higher up we got, the deeper it became. Finally we had to force our way through well over a fot of snow. On the strong uphill inclination it was terribly hard to force through the heavy wet snow. We took turns in going first and thus let the others follow in the footsteps. It became tough kilometers that never seemed to end.
But in the end we came out on a shoveled parking space. A small chapel out of the thick fog. It wasn’t really fog. We were up in the clouds by now. Only few minutes later, we walked into Roncesvalles which is not really a village, but more a number of buildings around the monastery, where also the albergue is located. Despite the hardships the time was only three in the afternoon. The shelter had not opened yet so we sat down in the only open bar and ordered a pint of beer each. Later joined by a glass of local brandy. It was an incredibly good reward for the strain we’ve just endured. Safely inside the warm bar, the hardships in the snow of the Pyrenees changed into the memory of an exciting adventure.
Gradually more pilgrims entered the small bar. Many had arrived in St Jean the same morning and then had started their Camino immediately. We were not going to be alone on our way to Santiago. One of the newcomers was Jenny. A young German actress from Cologne who quickly became a member of our small entourage. She had only eleven days of vacation so she had decided to walk as fas as the city of Burgos, before returning home.
Finally the shelter opened. Again it was of good standard and offered both washing machines heated drying racks that was fought over as most of our clothing was soaked after the first snowy stage. Both men and women share the dorms in the shelters of the Camino. One after another the beds in the room were filled, but even though we had been in Roncesvalles for over two hours there was no sign of Nick. It was dark outside now and with the rough walking conditions in mind, we began to worry.
– He has a blanket of aluminum foil in his backpack, so if he has stumbled and broken his leg , he can at least keep warm, said Erik.
We informed the manager of the shelter that Nick was missing, should a rescue operation be necessary.
Dinner was served in the bar as we had the beer in earlier. There was a larger dining room in an adjacent room but for some reason it was closed. Instead, the food was served at a long table in the bar. 12 people could sit at the table so half of the pilgrims had to eat before the evening service in the abbey and the other half after mass. We chose the first option. For the first time we got to try a so-called pilgrim menu. The majority of restaurants along the Camino offers a three-course menu where pilgrims can choose between a few simple starters and and main courses with a yogurt or similar for dessert. All for just about ten euros (2011). There is also a generous amount of red wine included in the price. Just as potato soup arrived at the table Nick came through the door. We all applauded and felt relieved. He had taken it easy, he said . An example I should have followed.
After dinner, a few of us thought it would be nice to visit the abbey and see the evening service held by the monks of the monastery to bless us on our journey. Both Jürgen and Nick were Catholics,as many in the crowd of pilgrims who had accumulated in Roncesvalles during the afternoon. We were maybe a dozen souls who gathered in the beautiful abbey. I’m seriously interested in spiritual matters but I’m not tied to any particular church or religious faith. The monks’ chanting and singing felt so sincere and that I got tears in my eyes .
After Mass we reconvened in the bar for another glass of wine before bedtime. We got acquainted with a few of the ‘newcomers’. I, Erik and Jürgen had only known each other 24 hours, but right now it felt more like a lifetime.