Day One: SJPdP to Roncesvalles

I wake up to clear skies and the rustling of two Dutch pilgrims two bunks over. Slipping out of my bed, I grab my backpack, loosely push my fleece cover into it, and leave the room. Outside, I change into my hiking clothes, pack my cover nicely, decline coffee, and open the door into what promises to be a wonderful morning start into my Camino.

It is five AM, and the city is still quiet, except for the “clack, clack” of someone’s hiking sticks ahead. A few pilgrims are awake, two men are standing in shorts and loosely wrapped towels outside an albergue and smoke, and my shoes are slipping on the still-wet cobblestone as I descend towards the Porte Notre Dame, the archway that officially starts my Camino.

The Nive de Béthérobie and Porte Notre Dame

Crossing the bridge over the Nive de Béthérobie, I run into two Germans arguing, which way to take: the more scenic and slightly more strenuous Route Napoleon or the less scenic, less strenous, Route Valcarlos, which leads along the mountain, not over it. I pass them, and begin my ascend shortly thereafter.

It feels easy for most of the first two hours. The hills roll and gently lift me towards the Col de Lepoeder that looms 700 meters of altitude above me. Three hours later, the sun now gently warming my arms and neck, I pass Orisson, a popular stop for pilgrims. I could have booked my first night here, the evening meal is legendary with introductions of each pilgrim, but I wanted to make it to Roncesvalles in one day.

Behind Orisson the way begins to pull upward. I pass a number of pilgrims resting in the fields, and some bikers carrying their bikes uphill. Now sweat starts dripping a bit, followed by the first, dull, aches in my calves. This is day one, I am less than trained, and the mountain is showing its resistance.

Refuge Orisson, 9 km up the hill.

Suddenly the sky darkens. Black-ish clouds are pulling in, rain begins to fall. Not uncommon up here, and the cold is somewhat soothing at first, but the further I walk, the colder it gets. Hail enters the scene half an hour later, I am wet all the way through, despite having unpacked my poncho. I would like to stop under a tree but fear earlier hypothermia. Get through, get done.

My avalanche of paper from SJPdP mentioned a warming hut, which I pass half an hour later. Inside, around a small fire made from wood and paper, sit nine or ten men, clearly not pilgrims, their belongings stowed as if this was more than just a temporary stop. Putrid stench, fear of CO poisoning, and lack of space drive me onward, until I hit a bend behind which someone parked a food truck.

Under its awning, warming my hands on coffee and eating stale croissant, I put myself together enough to realize something even worse than rain and hail: I am not wearing my glasses. The permanent fog, rain, and hail must have distracted me enough to not notice them missing. I don’t remember taking them off, but dimly recall moving them to the top of my head after fogging up an hour ago. Somewhere along the path they must have fallen.

I can function without them, but distances get challenging. When they told me, that the Camino would take from me, I didn’t expect it to be my glasses.

The rain lets up as I finish my coffee, and I make space under the awning for the next wave of pilgrims. Through muddy tracks, upward, the sky clears a bit as I reach the Col de Lepoeder and, slipping on wet stones, make it to the descending part of the day. It is 3pm and I am almost there.

The path continues downward, first along a ridge, then through forest, and suddenly… Roncesvalles.

The town is dominated by its church, Santa Maria, and the attached albergue. A memorial to the (mythical) death of Roland during the battle of Roncesvalles seems to be the prime spot to have a picture taken, so I trade camera duties with a couple from Canada, only to notice that the picture taken of me has a massive thumb in it.

I am not in the best of moods, the cold and wet having taken its toll. A sudden voice, however, manages to conjure a smile: the Germans from this morning are here, wet and muddy as I am, still arguing. And Lilly, sans Inga. Her looks might actually kill, so I refrain from asking, and walk on. We’ll meet again. Somewhere.

Behind the complex, a small hotel and two restaurants line the path further on, down the hill towards Zubiri, but for today, this is it. I briefly fight my inner financial planner and decide to see if the hotel has a free room. It does, and for twice the cost of a bunk bed I get to walk around in my undies for a bit, take a hot shower, dry my clothes on the radiator, and take food into bed with me, eating it while watching a French sitcom that, apparently, revolves around two girls chasing a dude on a moped for 45 minutes.

I fall asleep at seven, dreaming of snow and my glasses. Not bad for my first day, here’s hoping tomorrow will be as much fun but less wet.