At 6am someone’s alarm went off in the room where we were sleeping.
No. Shhh Shhh Shhh..
I heard a man say to his alarm as he turned it off and went back to sleep.
Now awake after a fitful night of sleep, I stuffed my sleeping bag liner into it’s tony pouch and climbed down from the top bunk for what felt like the millionth time that night to go to the bathroom. Then I started getting ready and packing up my things.
I woke Anna up and told her it was time for breakfast at 6:30. Soon we found our way to coffee and croissants. We had toast and hard boiled eggs. Orange juice. We each grabbed an apple for the road.
Then I asked the man who ran our hostel if it was too late to send a bag ahead, and he said that it was certainly not. It would be 8 euros in cash, correct change of course, and to bring the bag to him when it was ready. So we quickly adjusted by tossing as much as we could in the bag to be transported. Anna had a small bag she carried instead with her raincoat and just a few necessary items.
We filled our water bottles, got our pilgrim’s passports stamped, handed over the now very heavy backpack and headed out.
The cobblestone streets were wet from the night of rain and there were heavy clouds hanging low, but it was not raining yet.
It’s always good to not have to start out a long walk in the rain, I think. It feels less daunting to have rain predicted than rain falling.
We walked down to the river crossing and up to the town gate that led towards Spain, and to the Chemin de Saint Jacques, or St James Way in French.
Lots of other pilgrims were already walking as well, many first steps of a long- anticipated journey. The joy in the air was palpable, even through my jet lagged haze.
The route begins climbing immediately out of the gate, steady uphill for the first 8 kilometers to Orisson.
The clouds turned to drizzle as we walked up into them. We got out our raincoats and I pulled out the rain cover for my pack.
We picked blackberries on the side of the road for second breakfast, then marched on up and up.
If you want a shorter first day, you can pay for one of the 16 beds at Orisson, an intimate experience some say is not to be missed.
We stopped there for coffee at 10, and as they are known for their delicious food, we also had shared soup and a sandwich.
We sat longer than most inside the refuge, watching one man take orders, make coffee, serve food and bus the tables during a rare pause in the traffic.
From my first two experiences of hiking the way, I learned from fellow pilgrims and hostel owners that it’s best to not be in a hurry. Take your time and live the way. These were the words we heard on my very first day on the Camino six years ago, and I have never forgotten them.
So after a long pause, we began again.
This time the uphill was not as steep but more of a steady, rolling incline with occasional harder stretches. Mostly on a small road, we walked the rest of the morning away. Now above the clouds, it seemed that maybe we were leaving the rain behind.
Sure enough, where we could not before see anything but clouds, green hills started to appear out of the mist. Sheep and horses dotted the hills on both sides of the path.
For a while we could see brighter spots of sky and then bits of blue, and finally even sunshine.
So unexpected, we sat on the side of the road to drink our water and eat our pilfered apples in the sun, delighted that the 90% chance of rain seemed behind us now.
We met a few folks who joined us in our sunny spot, everyone commenting on how lucky we seemed to be with the weather today. And on how beautiful the views were now that we could see them.
Further up and further in, past many fields of sheep, we came upon a roadside stand where a man was selling drinks and snacks. We bought local bread and sheep’s cheese from him to have a bit further down the road. We weren’t hungry again yet, but Anna said it seemed like buying some food from someone who has driven a truck out to the middle of nowhere to serve pilgrims hiking was the thing to do.
A few miles later when we broke into the bread and cheese, we were happy with our decision.
Late in the day the trail started to be more down than up and we wondered if we had reached the high point. We would climb over a hill and then down into a forest path, and then come up upon another hill. High up now, the hills rolled by instead of being achingly steep, which was fortunate as I was moving slower.
We crossed the border into Spain late in the day, near the Fountain of Roland.
Soon afterwards the trail broke off from the road and became a steep dirt path through a forest.
I had been using trekking poles since Orisson, but Anna doesn’t normally need or use them, so she didn’t want to get any. But after a long stretch of downhill, with still miles to go, she began to try out walking sticks she found on the forest floor. She commented, not for the first time, on how grateful she was not to have her pack.
Some moments the clouds seemed to swirl back down or up from the valley again and we felt just the spit of a rainstorm that mostly passed us by unscathed.
Then in the last couple of miles the sun came back as bright as ever and sprinkled light through the trees onto the trail.
The descent was rough on the knees but soft on the eyes. Heather and moss made me think of Scotland or Ireland. We walked the last mile or so with a man from Ireland who lives in the states, and we talked about lots of favorite parts of the beautiful world we live in. And then we discussed how the pandemic has changed so many things, including travel.
Before we knew it we were coming around the bend to the imposing hostel and church in Roncesvalles. Attached to the church, the hostel is housed in an old monastery that has been welcoming pilgrims since at least the 13th century.
It was nearly 5pm, and folks were already being turned away at the hostel so we were grateful we had made a reservation ahead of time for both beds and dinner. We threw out things on the bed and walked to a sun-drenched terrace around the corner to celebrate our arrival with a couple of beers and the rest of our bread and cheese.
We sat there a long while, watching other pilgrims. Some were setting up tents in fields or hanging up laundry. Soon every table and chair was full with folks having drinks.
We wandered back to the hostel to shower and get ready for dinner. There were two seatings and I had chosen the later one in case we really took all day to arrive. So at 8pm we went to mass in the grand church.
While we followed the others’ standing, kneeling and sitting, I tried to pick out a few words the priest was saying in Spanish. But soon I just closed my eyes and began just thanking God for our beautiful day.
At 8:30 we headed to dinner and were seated with two other American pilgrims, a father and son who are doing all 500 miles together. We chose between soup and pasta for a first course, fish and chicken for a second and yogurt or ice cream for dessert. And red wine to wash it all down.
We enjoyed chatting to new friends, comparing notes on plans and sharing the basket of bread. As tables began to clear, we realized it was time to head back as the hostel closes its doors and turns out all the lights at 22:00.
Anna asked at the front desk about sending her bag ahead again tomorrow. Then we quickly got ready for bed and crawled into our bunks.
After that the world went silent but for the sound of snoring pilgrims and the creaks of my climbing out of bunk to tiptoe to the bathroom every few hours.
I know tomorrow will be all downhill and sunshine. Tonight we rest our tired legs so they will be almost new again in the morning.