Reaching the top

The stream at Zubiri, freezing and wonderful for tired feet.

Snow on the far mountains

As Rachel put it: “If anyone had woken me up at 6 like that at home, I’d have decked them!”

Nearly there!

The majority of walkers are not young, and some even wear their normal shoes!

Look at the hills between the trees and you’ll see a massive SOS, I wondered who it was meant for.

The icy wind was blowing the ribbons almost flat.

The most unexpected, and welcome, coffee maker!

The monastery at Roncesvalles

The virgin of Orisson, one day there may be avocados beneath her.

Not taking any chances leaving Orisson, that wind wasn’t going to get me twice.

At dinner in Orisson I was opposite the Belgian lady who had had knee surgery. “My name is France, like the country,” she announced before saying she had lived in Germany between Bonn and Cologne for the past 20 years. She was a mining engineer and clearly very good in her field as she had represented Belgium at mining conferences in  St Petersburg and other places. She was involved in helping Syrian and Afghan refugees who had been taken in by Germany and explained how organised the operation was and how good the German people were at seeing the bigger picture and remembering how they had been helped to rebuild after the Second World War. Every village and town, she said, had taken in a quota of refugees and there had been a drive for people to take any furniture they were considering throwing out to centres where the refugees could use them to furnish their new homes. The school system was struggling with the language problems, but every one was pitching in and coping. It sounded like the tales of British people pulling together during the war. It was humbling. It felt so right.

At the end of dinner the albergue manageress had every one of the 40 odd people who were there, get up and give their name, place of origin and a reason why they were walking the Camino. This is the sort of thing that makes me want to disappear into a corner and pretend I’m a small piece of dust, so they only got “I fancied a bit of a wander” out of me, but there were plenty of funny and interesting reasons for undertaking the challenge which included a “deal” between mother and son, but neither would reveal what the ‘deal’ was. There were many Danish, German and Irish among the group plus a few Koreans, Japanese, English, Canadians, South Africans and Swedish … then there were the Americans. Apart from the very last American lady to speak, every one of the others were so loud and brash that you could feel the room cringe. The first one began, “I’m from Texas, not the U.S. of A you understand, a full blooded Texan …” and so it went on. Finally the last lady stood up: “I’m from New York and I would like to apologise to you,” she said softly. Everyone looked a little puzzled. “I’m walking the Camino to pray that all of you survive the next four years and, by the way, I didn’t vote for Trump!” The room errupted in whooping, table thumping and cheers whilst a few of the other Americans looked completely confused.

After a cold night where all my clothes, my sleeping bag, a blanket and my towel were still not enough to warm me up, I set off just before 8am in full balaclava battle dress. The sun was out and Rachel was in shorts, I hoped her confidence was right but I remembered the wind higher up from the day before. I find that using sticks really helps to keep up a steady walking rhythm, I’ve never used them before but I’m a total convert now. In fact the two most useful things in my pack so far have been ear plugs (completely essential and must be the type that don’t drop out) and the nordic walking sticks.

By the time I got to the virgin again the wind was howling and it only got worse as I went higher, so much so that at times my pack was blown sideways on my back. Just when the icy gale had completely numbed my lips a little van parked between two rocks hove into view where a young frenchman was selling hot chocolate, bananas and a selection of eggs and cheeses from his farm down in the valley. Sitting on a log airing my feet for 10 minutes and trying to drink boiling hot liquid without burning my entire mouth, was pure heaven. After that I carried on without a break because the wind was so unrelenting and there was nowhere to shelter from it if I were to sit down. The route is strewn with an uncomfortable number of crosses bearing the details of people younger than me, which is rather sobering. 

At Roldan’s Fountain (Roldan was the guy who lead Charlemane’s rear guard through the Pyrenees in 778 which was jumped and massacred) the wet ground was covered in patches of ice even though it was after midday. Needless to say my balaclava and gloves were still firmly in situ. 

I arrived at Roncevalles monastery around 1 and was given bed 105 and tickets for dinner and breakfast. This is the place Martin Sheen stayed at first in The Way, but the old part of the building with the 100 bed dormitory shown in the film has been largely replaced by a new modern albergue, although the old part is still open in the busiest months for overflow pilgrims. Although the beds are in squares of four, the backs of the bunks form the wall so, as far as snoring goes, there is a dormitory of 150 people on the first floor and another the same above. It looks as if it will be full tonight and there is far more of a feeling of commercialism here than at Orisson or even St Jean. Still, it’s clean and has segregated bathrooms, plus a good cupboard system which allows you to leave your pack by your bunk and go out unencumbered.

At dinner I was seated between John from Port Elizabeth in South Africa, who filled me in on what was going on with the President there at the moment, and a lady from Australia whose daughter was the same age as mine and worked in the same place in Cairns taking divers out to the Barrier Reef. Small world.

After a night of snoring symphonies from the hundreds of weary pilgrims we were roused at 6am by a very enthusiastic Dutch man on a guitar singing “Good Morning, Good morning!” Followed by “Morning has broken” and several other numbers whilst some women danced around him. The singing and strumming dissolved into renditions of the best of Dire Straits. I was already in the bathroom when Rachel appeared: “If anyone woke me up like that at home, I’d deck them!” She muttered. By the time we went downstairs for breakfast, the Dutchman and his band of merry women were yodelling  in front of the sign that said: “please respect the peace of the pilgrims.”

I left Roncevalles without bothering to buy a sandwich. It all seemed too commercial for me and I was certain I would be able to find a normal bar somewhere along the way. Sure enough, in the first village there was a lovely bar and a supermarket selling excellent fruit.  Somewhat strangly the shop was blasting out Handel’s Messiah, I bought my bananas accompanied by “Wonderful! Counsellor! The mighty God, the everlasting father, the Prince of Peace!” Which definitely put a bounce in my step – more than Dutch yodelling anyway! The area was beautiful and, if I had known beforehand I might have walked on and spent the night there instead. Soon afterwards I passed the Knight’s Templar, or as Rachel calls him, Obi-Wan Kenobi due to his dodgy hairstyle. He is a huge German with a bushy black beard who walks the Camino swaithed in a long maroon cape with a stout staff we are convinced has “the force” within it.

Although the path was steeply downward for much of the time, which was hard on toes and knees, it was a beautiful trail mainly unpaved. Bird song, babbling brooks, overhanging beech trees, prickly holly and blackcurrent bushes lined the whole route. 

There are many South Koreans doing the Camino but only one that I am systematically avoiding. My first encounter with him was at the bar at Orisson, soon after I had arrived and was trying to enjoy a quiet reviving coffee. He stood by the centre table on the terrace and turned on his Samsung phone so that it engulfed all pilgrims in religious music. He then proceeded to warble psalms at the same time. For quite a while. At the dinner he announced he was a Samsung salesman and that God had called him to the Camino. There is a possiblity that he believes his Samsung may be a holy relic as today, as I scuttled past, he was chewing the ears off a young Spanish couple claiming that God had told him he should write a book for other South Koreans about the Camino and that he was writing it on his Samsung so he was going to take their picture  so that he could include them in the book’s gallery of “other sinners” who were treading the trail. The young couple were trying their hardest to make him understand that they weren’t walking for religious reasons, which made him quite determined to convert them. I almost broke into a run.

As planned, I met up with Pete at Zubiri and he whisked me off to a hostal beside a beautiful lake where we have a room to ourselves and a bathroom! Tomorrow I will walk to Pamplona while Pete sorts out his errands in Logrono before we meet up for a final night. Do I feel in need of some self-flagilation for this indulgence? Not in a million years! I may even put my pack in his car and give myself a light day.

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4 thoughts on “Reaching the top

  1. Oh how wonderful is this! I hope you’ll copy paste the texts and the best pics into a book – even though there are so many on the subject, yours is the next one I can’t wait to read! (btw am Susanne, I can’t seem to log in under my own name ❤

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