Tuesday 28 May 2013

Camino de Santiago: A Week On The Way – Day 2

Sunday 12/5/13 – St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

25.64km / 1,805m Ascent / 1,037m Descent

Early morning, and we found ourselves on the Rue de la Citadelle, sandwich in hand, with gloomy skies above. Gone were the blue skies and warm sunshine of yesterday, replaced by low cloud shrouding the hilltops and a distinct threat of drizzle.

Setting off along the Rue de la Citadelle, just 800k to go ...
Which is not what we wanted given the day ahead. Not only would we miss all the views as we crossed the mountains, but it would make quite a tough day (16 miles, 6,000ft of accumulated ascent, 3,400ft of descent) that bit more difficult. No matter, we shouldered our packs and set off.

The cobbled street led out through the Porte d'Espagne, and we were on our way. We paused for a few photos, then turned our backs on St Jean and headed for the hills.

Rather unromantically, the beginning of the route is a very ordinary tarmac road, gradually rising into the Pyrenean foothills. Little clusters of walkers could be seen both ahead and behind, whilst overhead the clouds gradually thickened.

Heading for the hills
Rain set in by about 10.00am: steady and persistent. After a quick stop to don waterproofs, we carried on. The gradient became steeper, the rain came down more heavily, and the mist closed in to around 50 metres – and we wouldn’t see anything resembling a view until mid-afternoon. Later, even amongst walkers who hadn’t been there at the time, the day would be referred to as “Foggy Sunday”.

A gap in the clouds
But, with dozens of people about, there was very little chance of feeling alone, and a supportive chit-chat developed amongst the group to help keep spirits up. The hamlet of Honto and the Refuge-Auberge Orisson came and went (the only accommodation options between St Jean and Roncesvalles) and we passed the time with a couple of Scandinavian ladies in Haglofs gear and a young girl from Hereford.

By 12.00 o’clock we had made good progress, with about half the climb and half the distance completed. So we ate half of our lunch. In truth, it was too wet and cold to hang around for long, so we ate quickly and carried on. Soon, we came to a mobile “shop” staffed by an enterprising local – we were still on the road at this stage – where we bought bananas and collected another stamp for our Pilgrim Passports.

By and large, the route was adequately signed

A short while later, the route left the road and climbed steeply on a muddy path to a rocky outcrop, before levelling out to cross the border into Spain.

Entering Spain
We joined an easy path through beech woods, and before long came to the Col de Bentarte at 1,330m, where a large group were picnicking. From here a wide, stony track led steadily upwards towards for a couple of kilometres to the Col de Lepoeder, the high point of the route at 1,450m. Snow patches – some quite extensive – still covered the ground here, but at least the rain had abated and we grabbed a quick stop for the remainder of our lunch.

From the Col de Lepoeder, it was downhill all the way. A steeply descending path wound through the woods for the last few kilometres to Roncesvalles. Conditions improved all the time as we lost altitude, and this stroll through beautiful, mature woodland almost made up for the lack of views on the tops.

Nearing Roncesvalles in almost pleasant weather
Just outside the village, we came across a memorial plaque to a young man who had died on the Camino only two months previously. It is thought he became disoriented in bad, snowy weather, and fell from a cliff – a reminder, if one were needed, of the dangers of walking this route and the notoriously unpredictable Pyrenean weather. In fact we later heard the route had been closed for a while since our crossing (although this is unverified).

For the last half-mile into the village, we walked with Alex the Landscape Gardener and friend, pleased to be nearing the end of the day. Much emphasis is placed on the difficulty of this section, and with good reason: whilst it is a moderately testing day for regular mountain hikers, the fact is that many pilgrims are infrequent walkers, unused to walking in mountain conditions and possibly carrying a much larger load than that to which they are accustomed – something that shouldn’t be underestimated. A lower level alternative follows the N135 road if necessary.

Monastery and Collegiate Church at Roncesvalles
Roncesvalles is a tiny village – little more, in fact, than an extended monastery complex – so it didn’t take long to find our digs in a converted part of the monastery. To our delight, the room was beautiful – rather too good for smelly pilgrims, if the truth be told. After a wash and brush up, we went down for dinner (we had been asked if we wanted dinner at the 7.00pm or 8.30pm sitting: a no-brainer if ever there was one – why would we want to eat after bedtime?). It was good: soup, deep-fried asparagus, trout & fries, chocolate mousse and complimentary wine. We had earned it, and enjoyed it thoroughly!

Foyer of the Casa de Beneficiados - nice!

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