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In my last post, I got as far leaving Paris and taking a train down to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. (By way of Bayonne, last Monday, August 30.) Then, after a day off in St. Jean, “we four*” started our Camino hike from its beginning, then over the Pyrenees Mountains. (Shown at right, during our first day’s hike, to Orisson.)
To review, way back in 2016 my brother Tom and I hiked all 33 miles of the Chilkoot Trail, from Dyea, Alaska to Bennett, B.C.* They call it “the meanest 33 miles in history,” and I found out why. (Mostly it’s not a trail at all, but “one big pile of &^$# rocks after another!*”) What that meant for this trip is that by September 2017, I had my fill of mountain hiking.
That presented a problem, because in September 2017 Tom and I planned to hike the Camino Frances. (Which begins in St. Jean, then goes over the Pyrenees, to Pamplona and beyond.*) So I decided that instead of meeting Tom in Paris (and beginning the trip from down in St. Jean), I would fly into Madrid. From there I took a train up to Pamplona to meet him, after he had hiked over the Pyrenees. (And had a miserable time, mostly because of some near-constant rain, and also because some clown – in a dormitory-style auberge so popular with Camino pilgrims – kept getting up in the middle of the night to pee, and turning on all the lights,.)
The point is that although Madrid and the train up to Pamplona were extremely pleasant – the latter including an ice-cold Cruzcampo beer – it’s bothered me ever since that I wimped out of the hike over the Pyrenees. But this past September I finally rectified that shortcoming.
Incidentally, there are two ways to hike over the Pyrenees, from France into Spain. One is the Route de Napoleón – “more strenuous for obvious reasons” – or the Route Valcarlos, where “your ascent will be more gradual.” Another note: “The first walking day on the Camino de Santiago, from Saint Jean Pied de Port … is probably the most challenging of the whole route.” For us the choice was obvious, mainly because one-wimp-out per Pyrenees-project is enough.*
On the other hand, rather than hiking all 15.6 miles from St. Jean to Roncesvalles in a day – like so many try – we (or rather Tom, who made all lodging reservations) chose to break it up.
So the first day’s hike, starting in Saint-Jean, was a mere five miles, but it was all uphill. It ended in Orisson, where we four stayed in a dormitory-style auberge. (The Refuge Orisson, with my picture at left.)
But first, about the rain…
Tuesday, August 31 – the day before the hike started – the weather forecast said heavy rain. (Just like Tom endured during his 2017 hike over the Pyrenees…)
And as usual, the night before starting such an epic adventure, I didn’t sleep well. (A mixture of anticipation and self-doubt I suppose.) Plus there was that heavy-rain forecast, and I had more than my usual two beers per night. (I’d gotten a six-pack of small beers, and Tom only had one, so I had to “dispose of” the other five, in St. Jean, since I didn’t want to carry any leftover beer in my pack.)
As it turned out, the rain started about 10:30 in the morning, 15 minutes after we left St. Jean. At first it was just a drizzle, then it got to be soaking, and it stayed raining until noon. (The rain that first morning “wasn’t really heavy, just constant and eventually soaking.”)
For protection I wore a cheap, 97-cent Walmart-special plastic rain poncho, but over that I had a bad-ass black windbreaker. (To keep the poncho from getting blown all over by the wind.) The jury-rigged combination worked pretty well, so much so that I was able to write later on that it was “kind of enchanting, walking in the rain like that.” (The rain and mist did seem kind of other-worldly.) And Tom made lots of stops, since the going was mostly uphill.
Still, we got to the Refuge Orisson by 2:00 – despite taking many short breaks, as shown at right – and the Refuge seemed very nice. “Located in the heart of the Basque Country,” this place is an “ideal stopover … the last accommodation before crossing the Pyrénées.” Of interest to us four, this auberge “allows walkers to undertake this mythical part of the trek in two stages.” It turned out to be one of those classic dormitory-style auberges, but it looked like heaven after our rain-soaked morning’s hike.
Unfortunately, when we got there we experienced a moment of pure panic. “No room at the inn!”
It turned out that Tom had reserved a room for October 1, not September 1, and the host said the place was booked full up. But after a few minutes – of pure panic – the guy had good news. He found four beds available in a 10-bed dorm-room. So not only did I get to experience soaking rain, like Tom in 2017, I also got to stay in one of those dormitory-style auberges. Another note: No Wi-Fi. “We want our guests to talk to each other.” So as I wrote later (on Facebook):
It’s a classic dorm style auberge, where everyone eats at 7:30 sharp, and at the end you stand up, give your name and why you’re hiking the Camino. (All that pointy-headed liberal touchy-feely crap.) But no WiFi… Which turned out to be a blessing. No getting pissed off at Facebook dumbasses, and so I got a good night’s sleep.
Incidentally, that “Facebook dumbasses” comment got me in trouble with a pissed-off Momma Bear back home, but that little dustup isn’t relevant to this narrative. And as for clowns getting up in the middle of the night, our “dorm room” did have ten beds (five bunk beds), but only two other pilgrims joined us in that room. (They seemed mostly quiet, but then again, I put in ear plugs.) All in all, I slept much better than I did the night before.
The next morning we got up fairly early for the remaining 10.5-mile hike to Roncesvalles. (A “small village and municipality in Navarre, northern Spain.”) On the Route de Napoleón it’s about five miles past the border with France. From Roncesvalles we hiked 13.6 miles to Zubiri on Friday, September 3, and on Saturday the 13 miles to Pamplona.
We started off the “Roncesvalles” hike with breakfast at the Refuge Orisson. The meal-room wasn’t quite as crowded as the night before; no set time for breakfast, and lots of pilgrims had hit the trail before us. But it was still pretty crowded – say 20 or 25 people – and the thing I remember most was drinking coffee out of a bowl. (“Something new under the sun.”)
Unlike the day before there was little rain, but “a lot of up in today’s hike.” Also, lots of merde. As I wrote later, “Rocks, sheep, clouds, fog, cows, horses and sheep.” Quite often your hike was serenaded by bells; cow bells, sheep bells and even horse bells, as the various herds followed their leaders. On a more positive note, “No blisters yet, though the ball of my right foot was rubbing a bit.” Which brings up duct tape. I brought a whole roll of it, “just in case,” and it comes in handy. I put some on the ball of that right foot, and aside from a blister on my right little toe, I had no problems the whole trip. (Compared to the 2017 hike, when my feet ached constantly.)
And now a word about places to stop for hot coffee, cold beer or food. There were fewer such places on the trail in 2021, compared with 2017, because of Covid. Our shorthand for them was “coffee cups;” the Brierly Guide to the Camino Francés shows their location with a little coffee cup on the map. (Pink for open, white with a pink outline if it’s closed for business.)
The Brierly map showed no such coffee cups between Orisson and Roncevalles, but fortunately we found this “cafe movil,” or “mobile cafe.” It was run by a traveling entrepreneur, still inside France, as I indicated in my notes: “The first ‘Cafe Movil’ we hit so far… A place to stop, take off your pack and enjoy a hot café con leche. Or the French equivalent, being still in France.*”
Another note: This place did have a restroom, of sorts. It was behind that big pile of rocks on the left, and from where you “did your business” you could see the operator doing his own business, serving up food and drink and getting his euros in return.
And the pile of rocks didn’t go all the way up, meaning that sometimes you had to duck and dodge. But to get back to the trail…
Those Friday and Saturday hikes – 13.6 and 13 miles, respectively – were a bit tougher than the first day. We ended up making it to the hotel in Roncesvalles by 5:00, and I had the first of many “ensalata mixtas,” or mixed salads. “Tuna, hardboiled eggs, asparagus, tomatoes, o!ives, et cetera. Very tasty, and filling, after a ten-mile hike over the Pyrenees. With the obligatory beer, Estrella.” Which made a big difference, along with the hot shower.
And there was a break in the action vis-a-vis Facebook posting and general note-taking. At one point I wrote, “I can’t believe I haven’t written here since Wednesday.” And once we got to Pamplona I posted: “Yesterday we dragged ass into Zubiri, Spain, after a long ten hour 13.6 mile hike, at 7:00 PM.” Thus the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough stop writing.”
in other words, we left Roncesvalles at 9:15, for 10 hours hiking “real time.” I wrote later, “Pretty tough going, but my feet held out ok. I put duct tape on the balls of both feet this morning… Rocky going there at the last few miles before Zubiri.” But after a hot shower things started looking up. “Four course dinner, a bottle of wine and Tiramisu for dessert. I slept great!” Still, I looked forward to getting to Pamplona, “and a day off. And a chance to do laundry.” That’s what you look forward to when you have two sets of clothes: one to wear in the evening after a hot shower, and one to wash every night – hopefully – for the next day’s sweaty hike.
And on Saturday, September 4, we finally made it after “some rugged going.” I posted:
Buen Camino. We made it to Pamplona… More details tomorrow, a day off from hiking. And finally, a drink at the Cafe Iruna, of Hemingway fame. Except now it’s all filled up, crowded up and touristy. Especially on a Saturday night, in Pamplona… And tomorrow, a day off.
Note the double “tomorrow, a day off.” Which I really looked forward to…
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In the next post I’ll discuss further our day off in Pamplona, including a touristy visit to the bullring that Hemingway made famous. (And as memorialized by the statue of him just outside the bullring, shown below.) From there I’ll discuss the 14-day hike to Burgos – with a day off in Logrono – and eventually making my way back home, via Madrid.
I’ll also talk more about the drudgery of hiking, mile after mile, hauling a 15-pound backpack. From my Facebook posts most people would think all I did was drink beer, have great meals and enjoy the sights. “Tra-la-tra-la-tra-la!” But there was real drudgery involved, which seems to be where the spiritual breakthroughs happen… In the meantime, Buen Camino!
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The upper image is courtesy of Camino De Santiago Over The Pyrenees – Image Results, and/or courtesy of Mark Kelley. Accompanied by a short blurb, including: “Here, Jan [Mark’s wife] walks through a past[o]ral scene of sheep grazing along the trail in the Pyrenees. We started our trek in the foothills of the French Pyrenees and then walked over the mountains into and across Spain for about 500 miles until we reached Santiago.” But there were some rugged places as well.
“We four.” Me, my brother Tom, his wife Carol, and Carol’s brother Ray.
Re: “St. Jean.” For images thereof see St. Jean Pied De Port France – Image Results.
Re: “Tom and I” hiking the Chilkoot Trail. We were joined by his son Matthew, my nephew, fresh from an Army tour. And re: “One big pile of &^$# rocks after another! See 2019’s Remembering the “Chilkoot &^%$# Trail, and links therein.
A note: The Route de Napoleón is the more popular of the two choices, despite being more strenuous for obvious reasons, “as pilgrims feel the stunning mountain views are certainly worth the effort.”
The lower image is courtesy of Hemingway Statue Pamplona – Image Results.