Camino Postcard 1: St. John Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

Mistakes Were Made

At 6:45am on 11th April, I set off from the municipal albergue at the top of the Rue de la Citadelle and under the shadow of the late medieval Porte Saint Jacques.

My original intention had been to follow in Martin Sheen’s footsteps (in The Way) and take the Napoleon Route over the Pyrenees but the SJPdP Pilgrims’ Office had told me that it was closed due to bad weather; with a little regret, therefore, I turned right out of town instead of going straight on, and headed towards the Valcarlos route, which would take me through the valleys at the foot of the mountains.

The Camino Francés is marked with yellow arrows, usually on posts or painted onto walls. This chalked arrow was the first I saw after leaving St. Jean Pied de Port.

What about those mistakes? The first was that my backpack was too heavy. I had known this in London but not removed anything as I didn’t know what to get rid of. Instead, I left everything in situ thinking that I could remove anything that I didn’t want or need in St. Jean. In St. Jean, however, I still couldn’t decide so it all remained.

The second was that I drank my water too quickly. I had two bottles. Both were empty after about two and a half hours of walking. No problem, I told myself, there are water taps along the way; I will simply refill the bottles when I get to them.

A good idea, but there was a problem: there were no water taps. Or, did I miss them? Either way, I was in a bit of a fix. A partial solution came when I found a bar where I was able to take a drink. I should have asked the barman to fill my bottles up but was too shy. A miracle occurred: unprompted by me, he kindly offered to fill my water bottles up. I gladly handed them over.

There are two Valcarlos routes. The first follows the road; the second, a beautiful woodland path that takes you through the valleys for the majority of the way to Roncesvalles. I followed the latter.

The country path is not for anyone with weak legs or, for that matter, strong legs and a too-heavy backpack as it continually climbs and falls. At first, this doesn’t matter so much but as the day grinds on and you get more and more tired, the never-ending undulations make a psychological battle of the route – your will to succeed versus the Valcarlos’ desire to grind you down and make you give up and either turn back or stop for the day or – the ultimate shame for a pilgrim – call a taxi from the next hamlet that you come across.

On that point, let me say here that if any part of the Camino grinds you down so much that you feel you cannot continue or causes injury to you there is absolutely no shame in calling a taxi or taking a bus. I don’t care if you are in the Pyrenees or past Sarria or anywhere in-between: the Camino is either a life-affirming experience or nothing. If you need to call a taxi or take a bus, do it. That’s your Camino and anyone who says otherwise can get knotted. As you will read, I travelled by both bus and taxi during my journey and I don’t regret one ride.

Also, people who say it isn’t your Camino as if you are just a cog in the machine of Camino tradition can also get knotted but that’s another matter and I should get back to the narrative.

When I left St. Jean, clouds hung overhead but it was at least dry. Soon, however, rain began to fall. For the rest of the day, it would continue to do so on and off. As I drank more and more of my water, the irony of having less to drink despite the wet conditions was not lost on me. I began to look at the rivers below me with great longing. By the afternoon, I would very much have liked to throw myself into them in order to quench my thirst.

A little waterfall – is it safe to drink?

I made a third mistake: it was to not turn back when necessary. For example, when the woodland path bypassed the village of Valcarlos. When the path crossed a road further on, I should have turned back and gone to the village to either buy more water or look for a tap. Instead, I told myself to keep moving forward; only one thing mattered: getting to Roncesvalles. This was wrong. Yes, I did eventually get to Roncesvalles but in a much worse state than I might have been had I let go of my walking ideology and been pragmatic.

As the day wore on, I took an increasing number of breaks. I must have looked a real mess because nearly everyone who passed me asked if I was alright.

Two people and three things saved my life: the man who let me have a swig of his water bottle after I had finally finished mine, and the American lady who gave me – gave me! – one of her water bottles. Given what a precious commodity water is on the Camino, this was an act of incredible kindness.

The three things: ibuprofen, Kendal’s mint cake, and chocolate. The ibuprofen suppressed the pain in my sore right leg and the mint cake gave me a valuable sugar rush and the strength to keep going.

During the afternoon, I saw two pilgrims taking a break by a roadside crash barrier. A good idea! I wanted to do the same there and then but didn’t want to invade their space or stop so close that they could see I was copying them. Even when exhausted, propriety reigns! So, I walked a little further on and took out my bar of chocolate. Dear reader, I don’t think I ever enjoyed food more!

By two or three o’clock in the afternoon, the clouds were getting lower and lower. I was on an upward path and before long, above the cloud level. The clouds started to close in and I began to worry that I would get lost in them. Just in the nick or time, however, I left the woodland path and arrived at Ibañeta. From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump (if I had had the energy, which I very much didn’t!) to the monastery albergue at Roncesvalles.

I arrived there sometime after three pm, nearly ten hours after leaving St. Jean. I was exhausted. A very kind hospitalera not only sat me down but pulled my boots off for me and gave me in quick succession two cups of tea. Heavenly.

A last drama awaited me: every time I took a break en route, I threw my backpack to the ground. It usually landed on my sleeping bag. At Roncesvalles, I discovered that the bag I kept the sleeping bag in was not water proof. Fortunately, four hours of airing was enough to pretty much dry it out. Thank goodness – sleeping in a damp sleeping bag would have been more than I could bear that night.

Navarrean (?) king Sancho VII the Strong (1157-1234) is buried at Roncesvalles

After tea, I attended Mass at the church attached to the monastery and joined a tour of it. It was a beautiful and peaceful end to a long and difficult day. The good news, though, was that I had survived and that in terms of sheer physical effort it would prove to be the most difficult of the whole Camino. Not that the rest of the walk would be easy but nowhere would be as hard again.