As I kissed Pete and the kids “goodbye” I wondered what I was doing, yet the ferry to Barcelona was uneventful and calm, showing the Mediterranean off at its best. The train ride to Pamplona the following morning was beautiful: lots of rabbits hopping along the side of the track, spectacular storks’ nests topping each electricity pylon and chimney, rolling hills and patches of snow still on the mountains. Slowly the signposts began to have foreign words on them as the Basque language took over. The houses took on a Swiss look and I began to feel “abroad”.
At Pamplona bus station I bumped into my first group of pilgrims: three from Mexico and one from Chilli. I’d been watching the Chillian lady for several minutes because I couldn’t quite work out if she was a pilgrim or not. She was about 60 with an impressive array of jewellry strewn around her in a wonderfully artistic manner, however, the real puzzler was the number of El Corte Ingles bags that accompanied her other pilgrim fare, plus a pair of the most gorgeous varnished walking sticks. The Mexicans got straight to the point and once they ascertained she intended walking to Finisterre began asking her about the shopping bags.
She was totally unfazed about the idea of walking 900km with the extra weight of a load of shopping bags but she was deeply concerned that the new camera she had purchased an hour before was too touch sensitive and would have to be returned when she walked back through Pamplona. “There’s a whole mountain range to carry it across first,” the Mexicans pointed out. “If I get tired, I’ll leave the shopping at a house somewhere and pick it up later.” Nobody could work out if she was for real but she was great company!
When we finally arrived in St Jean Pied de Port everyone poured out of the bus in search of the Pilgrims’ Office. Through the dark wood doorway we were greeted by a row of tables and plastic chairs. I suddenly wished I had paid far more attention in school French classes. My French doesn’t stretch much further than “merci beaucoup, bonjour and au revoir”, so after much sign language and attempts in every tongue I could vaguely remember, I left with a couple of maps and instructions to head to albergue 43 on the corner of Rue de Liberte.
My sign language couldn’t have been too bad as I struck gold. Albergue Kaserna is run by the church, spotlessly clean with a strict protocol on bed bugs which meant I wouldn’t need to unpack my sleeping bag tonight, in fact my entire rucksack and shoes had to stay downstairs. I was shown to a mixed dormitory with five bunk beds in it and given a freshly laundered set of sheets and a pillow case. My bunk has its own plug point which is an incredible luxury. Dinner and breakfast is included all for a donation to the church of around 15 euros! The lady in charge could not have been more helpful offering fruit, biscuits and drinks when I arrived.
Dinner was incredible, in a truly French way. Four courses, robust red wine and Camembert so ripe it was attempting to crawl off the plate. All the food is donated by local grocers. The house itself was given to the church by a lady named Juliene who loved hosting pilgrims. All the church houses are staffed by volunteers and fed by the town. There are 14 pilgrims staying here tonight and two volunteers. Most were French, one Spaniard, me, a guy from California, two German ladies and a South Korean. There were many jokes that nobody would be able to walk when they got to the Spanish side because the only food available was tortilla every day, and the majority around the table alleged that as France had the best wine, cheese and women in the world there was no convincing reason why anyone would want to cross the Pyrenees, unless as a penance!
The town is very quaint but also very full of tourists right now and I’m looking forward to hitting the trail. I was told that the mountains will be cold but probably not wet tomorrow, a forecast which was confirmed by a couple from Galloway who were scouting out the start point at the same time as me. Everyone seems a tad nervous because the first 8kms are known to be the steepest and most challenging of the entire 900kms. One foot in front of the other … hopefully! I’m wimping out a bit and breaking my climb halfway up then doing the next 15km on Thursday, at least that’s the plan.
LATER: This is going to end up being one huge post because I have no wifi until I get back into Spain. Last night was fine and my ear plugs became my best friends as did my new towel which doubled as an extra blanket. I discovered however that I should have washed it before coming if I wanted it to absorb any moisture. Everyone was moving around by 6am and down to breakfast by 6.30. We all left around 7 but soon spread out with some people going in search of sandwiches or other things before heading up the hill. Although it was a perfect morning it was cold, even with a jacket and pack on I was pleased to have gloves.There was far more paved walking than I expected and it was good to finally get onto the track where walking sticks had more grip. After about an hour I met up with the Mexicans again who had enjoyed a good night at the municipal Albergue.They were all going well but the youngest one is going to have to almost sprint to get to Santiago by the 11th May to catch his flight.
From about 900m upwards the Griffon vultures were incredible so I put down my pack and sat on a rock to watch them. Although my photos of them are pathetic, try to imagine birds weighing around 12kg with wing spans of 3 metres. Most of the time there were about 20 of them gliding on the updraughts from the valleys. They were so massive they cast shadows on the hills below, looking like a silent, menacing fighter squadron. The show never ended and eventually I put on my pack and continued to the albergue at Orisson.
I arrived in Orisson soon after 10 and if I hadn’t already paid for dinner and a bed I would have carried on to Roncevaux, I couldn’t even leave my pack in the dormitory yet. After a great cup of coffee I decided I should make full use of the day and, although it may seem a tad batty to go for an extra curricular gander when on a 900km hike, I stashed my rucksack behind the bar and headed off for the statue of the Virgin of Orisson an hour further up the mountain.
The mountains are soul-feeding. They gave me the same certainty of my complete insignificance that I had once before during five days of hurricane-force winds on a sailing boat in the Atlantic. It’s good to know how utterly dispensible I am, how easily squishable, it makes me so grateful for every additional day that I’m not extinguished. Although I wasn’t in danger of being squashed or drowned this time, to see the mountains there, so magestic and glorious made me know that whatever huge mistakes my generation, and the one before mine, have made, these mountains will still be here. Our race may not be, but is that just un-natural selection?
The Virgin of Orisson was brought from Lourdes by pilgrims. By the time I arrived the wind was brisk and icy. I regretted leaving my balaclava and gloves at the albergue. Finding a bit of lee behind a boulder I ate one of my two remaining avocados and planted the stone in a molehill. Admittedly, it will involve a hefty miracle from the virgin to get it to grow into a tree, but perhaps, with a bit of global warming as well, pilgrims may be eating Mallorcan advocados in 20 years time!
By the time I got back to the albergue the Chillian lady and her shopping bags had arrived. Flinging her arms round me she explained that she hadn’t booked beforehand and the staff couldn’t say if she would have a bed. “I don’t care what they say, I can’t walk any further today and they’re not going to lock the door on a pilgrim!” Luckily by mid afternoon a bed had been found which I was secretly relieved about as I thought I was going to have to give up my bed and take to my sleeping mat. I couldn’t very well let an elderly diabetic with an awful lot of luggage sleep on the floor!
After my walk to the virgin I was seriously cold. Two pairs of trousers, three top layers, thick socks, a sleeping bag and a blanket left my hands and toes still numb. The shower token we were given on arrival was for 5 minutes of tepid water. There are six in my room : two kiwis Hannah and Rachel, two Germans, me and a Belgian lady who had knee surgery 3 weeks ago(?!?) everyone had showered and the New Zealand girls assurred me it helped cure frostbite, which they were certain they were suffering from too. Once I had braved removing my socks it did help, but only for about 30 minutes. The sunny scenery is breath-taking, but it masks almost sub zero temperatures.