Day 1 – Saint Jean Pied du Port to Roncesvalles – baptism by fire on the Camino de Santiago
It was still dark out, but the rustling of bed sheets started at 5:30. This didn’t matter as I had already been awake for some time! After nothing by sunshine and heatwave in Croatia, the damp and drizzly morning was a bit of a shock to the system! It didn’t matter – today was day one of the Camino and I was bursting with both excitement and trepidation!
The walk from Saint Jean Pied du Port is one of the toughest days for the pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela. The terrain is unforgiving as it moves ever upwards, the gradient far steeper than I ever imagined. While I felt a little like a cheat, I had decided to have my bag carried for me the first day – delivered to Hostel La Posada, a 12th century hostel and restaurant in Roncesvalles. I carried only a small day pack. It was a tough decision that I did not regret as I watched my fellow pilgrims grin and bear the brunt of a full pack through the climbs, often stopping for a moment to rest. I felt that it was easier to push on, my load not nearly as heavy! Was I cheating or easing myself into the Camino? Before the midway point of the day, I came across one man, happy to stop for a breath, who asked how I was feeling. Guiltily, I told him that I felt ok, but that my big pack had been transported up ahead. The look on his face told me that he was tired, and I was almost afraid to ask. His response, indeed, was that he was quite tired, wished he was done for the day as exhaustion set in. Had there been a place to stop, I am certain he would have, but the first day is tough and a true testament to your strength and resolve. The first day, while beautiful, is long and tiring. There are very few stopping options once you start the trek from St Jean Pied du Port. I knew I had made the right decision about my pack.
The rains and mist were on and off all day, the winds whipping across the unsheltered sections as I climbed, grateful for having purchased a rain cape before leaving St Jean Pied du Port. I met many people on this day, and look forward to meeting up with them along the route, for this is the way of the pilgrim.
When there were views, they were spectacular. The land fell away to farm and pasture land – occasional bursts of sunlight shining as if a spotlight had been lit to showcase a village down below. When the weather came up, I can see how easily one could lose their way. At one stage, trying to take a photo of the stunning scene that lay itself out in front of me, I pulled my camera out of my case only to find the clouds had rushed in and the scene was quite different, almost gone in the time it took to take it out! I took the picture anyway – completely different from what I had imagined it to be, yet a perfect depiction of the conditions that prevailed all day.
Once over the col (highest point at 1,450m), it was a serious descent – so steep that even on foot, I had to zigzag my way down, ever so careful to not turn my ankle on this technical part to the day. They say that may pilgrims are injured here – the fatigue of a long day of walking making them prone to trips and falls. It was a tough descent – once again I was glad to only have my small day pack.
Roncesvalles was a sight for weary bodies and souls. I arrived at the albergue and shuffled inside. It is customary to remove your boots when entering the albergues, and I would have loved to have my sandals in my day pack – the cobbles were hard on my tired feet, with only socks to protect them. The municipal albergue was a dream – built in 2011, it was new and modern, with bunks grouped into small groups of 4, lockers available to house your belongings. I had spent part of the day hiking around 2 other pilgrims, and we instantly became friends, learning the pilgrim process, sharing our bunk space and reserving for dinner. The pilgrims dinner was amazing – a 3 course affair designed to fuel us for the day ahead. One day in, and I feel like a new person – the simplicity of life on the Camino setting into my soul as I walk – one foot in front of the other, a time for reflection and slowing down.
In all, it was 27 kms to Roncesvalles….., however the John Brierly guidebook suggests it feels more like 29 kms when you factor in the climbing. The day took me 8 hours with few stops. The view of the ancient church and town of Roncesvalles gave me much joy when I arrived – I had done it – I had made it through the first day of the Camino. My feet were thankfully intact, as many are plagued by blisters, but a new pain had cropped up in my left knee. Definitely something to worry about as this was only day 1, and I had not even carried my full pack. The pain was unlike any I had had before. The guide books warn of not overdoing it in the early days, as the body adjusts and the muscles develop. I am not sure that I overdid it – with no overnight options past Orisson and no large pack to carry, I felt I had played it relatively safe! Only time will tell as I continue the journey – will I be forced to rest and recover, or will I be able to continue, taking more rests as I walked throughout the day?
While the destination is Santiago de Compostela, on the pilgrimage, it is the journey that counts.
(Editor’s note: sadly, the good camera did not make it through – perhaps the mist and damp getting into the electronics. Photo are limited – thankfully I also carried a point and shoot. A post with the views from day one will follow, but only after the Camino is finished!)
Day 1 of the Camino de Santiago was a baptism by fire – the beauty and the physical test will be hard to beat!