“ The mountain is eight miles up, and eight miles down the other side, and seems to touch the sky. Climb it and you’ll feel you could push the sky with your hand.”
-Codex Calixtinus, ca. 1139
These words come from the Codex Calixtinus, the first guidebook written to the Camino de Santiago almost 900 years ago. They describe what today is considered the first day of the classic Camino Francés route, which crosses the Pyrenees Mountains from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Roncesvalles in Spain, and then continues 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela. In truth, there is no one beginning point for the Caminos of Santiago, which traditionally began at ones own front door, as Medieval pilgrims left the comforts of home and took to the road to pay homage to the relics of Saint James, converging into rivers of walkers. Santiago was one of three main pilgrimage sites in medieval times, and over one million pilgrims walked there.
This rigorous hike climbs and descends over 4,200 feet in 15 miles, and for many serves as an introduction to the Camino via trial by fire. Not only is the terrain challenging, but unpredictable weather can see freak storms blowing in. Sunny days can quickly turn to pea-soup fog. In winter and even into spring, the summit can be buried in snowdrifts. Several modern pilgrims have died in foul weather on this stretch, and no doubt countless medieval pilgrims perished here. In the 2010 Martin Sheen film The Way Emilio Estevez’s character meets his demise on this section of path.
Fortunately, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a quaint medieval village nestled in a valley of the Pyrenees, provides a fitting starting point. The main Rue de la Citadelle cobbles street is lined with albergues,* eateries, and shops for last-minute gear additions. Knowledgeable volunteers man the well-equipped pilgrim office, where visitors can purchase their pilgrim passport,** and receive up-to-date weather information and advice.
In the summer of 2009, on my first Camino adventure, I awoke at 5:30am and slipped out of my lodging, even though the sign admonished us that we must stay in bed until 7. I still remember the mix of anxiety and excitement churning in my gut as I swung my pack onto my back and started walking, my walking poles making a click-clack sound against the cobbled street. The climbing began almost immediately upon leaving the town gate and even the fittest hikers were wheezing within a few minutes. The camaraderie and friendship that so characterizes the Camino began already, with words of encouragement, smiles and wishes of “Buen Camino” coming from walkers from around the world undertaking this challenge together.
The pilgrim lodging of Orisson appeared before me like a mirage and I paused on the veranda to drink in the view and rehydrate. This is the last place to sleep or buy food for the next 10 miles. Many choose to stay a night here to break up the long climb, but I had no such luxury, so I continued the slow uphill slog. Mountain views opened up before me, while Griffon vultures circled overhead and the tinkle of sheep bells floated on the breeze. I came to a statue of the Virgin Mary, known as the Vierge d’Orisson, a tranquil figure keeping watch over the magnificent mountain views. The shrine was draped with offerings from pilgrims, including several pairs of boots left at the feet of Mary. I took the opportunity to remove my own boots (temporarily) and take a rest while enjoying the breathtaking views.
Refreshment came again at Roland’s spring, which remembers the French warrior Roland who died in the valley below in the famous 778 Battle of Charlemagne, and also marks the international border. The path continues less steeply through shaded misty forests to Col Lopoeder, the high point of the day at 4,688 feet.
After an ankle-twistingly steep descent, the welcome sight of the slate roofs of the medieval hamlet of Roncesvalles came into view. I passed a friend who shouted words of congratulations and invited me for a cerveza in a small café, but I pressed on to secure my bed. In 2009, the pilgrim lodging consisted of one huge room in the historic medieval hospital with over 100 bunk beds. The cavernous stone building with immense high arched ceilings exuded a sense of history and invited walkers to identify with those millions of pilgrims walking in the Middle Ages.
I tentatively walked around the immense room, finally decided on a top bunk and unfurled my sleeping bag to mark it as my own, a ritual that would take place every evening for the following 27 days. The next part of the ritual also remained the same: shower, wash dirty clothes by hand, and cook or buy a filling dinner. This being my first night on the trail, and being fully exhausted, I opted for the pilgrim menú*** at a local hotel. I happily inhaled loads of the pasta placed before me, not realizing it was only the starter, so I was already full when the main course of an entire baked trout was presented.
I had no problem falling asleep in the Roncesvalles hostel, in spite of the unharmonious orchestra of snoring, rustling and whispering that 100 bodies in one room produces. Nestled in my bunk that night, I didn’t know then that the Camino would become such an important part of my life. I didn’t know I would return several more times and write a guidebook to this route. I was simply lulled to sleep by the satisfaction of passing the first test of the Camino and the excitement for the challenges that would come. I felt a deep sense of gratitude to the many pilgrims who had gone before me along this route throughout the scope of history, and for the many fellow walkers surrounding me and accompanying me on the days to come.
*Albergue are dormitory-style pilgrim lodging which can only be used by those traveling on foot, by bicycle or by horse. On the Camino Francés, albergues can be found every 5 miles or so. The costs generally range from €5-10 ($7-14) per person, though some retain the pilgrim spirit by asking only for a donation of whatever the user can afford.
**The pilgrim passport or credencial is a document that walkers carry and have stamped along the way in accommodations, restaurants and sites. The passport serves as proof that the walker is actually walking, and thus grants them access to affordable pilgrim accommodations and a certificate of completion at the end.
***The pilgrim menú is a three-course fixed menu dinner available almost every night along the Camino.
About Anna Dintaman
ANNA DINTAMAN has coauthored two guidebooks: Hiking the Camino de Santiago and Hiking the Jesus Trail. She lives in Jerusalem and currently works for the Abraham Path Initiative, an organization that is creating a hiking trail across the Middle East. Anna’s hiking repertoire includes the Camino Francés, the Camino del Norte, the Annapurna Circuit, Torres del Paine and numerous other treks around the world. She loves hiking and loves stories, and finds pilgrimage walking routes to be a perfect marriage of the two.
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