St Jean Pied-de-Port … Orisson … Roncesvalles … Zubiri
The official start of the Camino Frances is in St. Jean on the French side of the Pyrenees. We arrived from Biarritz via shuttle to this medieval walled village, replete with citadel at its highest point, and made our way directly to the pilgrim’s office. It’s staffed with volunteers from different countries. Got the stamp on my pilgrim passport and picked up a shell to hang on my pack. I’m a bona fide pilgrim.
We wandered the village until we could check into our hostel, which began “welcoming” at 2:30. There we had our first experience of hospitality, dorm-style living and delicious food. There really is such a thing as a Camino family–pilgrims you meet, travel with off and on, lose touch with and meet again. It started that night. Folks from Canada, Germany, Brazil, US, Netherlands, Australia … And later France, Japan, Cyprus, UK and on. Not as many Spaniards but did notice some on the path once we got to Roncesvalles.
We left St Jean around 8 the next morning. I was surprised when emotion arose, a mixture of excitement and tears. I guess I’d downplayed the enormity of what was ahead.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the first phase of the Camino is described as the “physical Camino.” I can attest to it. We’d listened to advice to only go 6 km the first day and made an advance reservation in a private hostel in Orisson. A good thing because I swear the entire way was straight up. We were walking through storybook-beautiful countryside. But after a short time it was hard to take it all in. Primarily, this was a time of getting used to the pack on my back and the sheer physicality of the undertaking.
I decided I was a tortoise: my home on my back … Slow and steady would do it. Wazifa practice was finally what got me up and down the mountains in these days. Ya Fattah! O Opener! To open the way–attuned my breath, slowed it down. Focusing on the chant took my mind off the strain in my body, the heaviness of my pack. I also saw another woman zigzagging on the trail and remembered there are switchbacks at high altitudes for a reason. Somehow I managed and stumbled into our destination. I’d met a German on the road coming from the other direction who encouraged me saying it was just this last incline…and then Orisson.
That’s a thing I noticed right away: the support people give each other, perfect strangers. Would that the world was so.
Thank the Infinite I was assigned a lower bunk. If I’d had to climb a ladder I don’t think I would have made it. Truly, I barely had the strength to put the mattress cover I was given on the bed. I went horizontal for a couple of hours. Then I was able to join Oscar and fellow pilgrims for another delicious meal and more hospitality. The next morning we awoke to clouds below us. Breathtaking.
Day 2: Orisson to Roncesvalles… 11 km. I was thankful for the 20-25 mile an hour winds that kept us cool on this strong sunny day at 30 to 45 degree inclines. I don’t know how many ways I can say beautiful and breathtaking. An enterprising Basque parks his lunch truck right before the border advising with a sign it was the last opportunity to get a French stamp. We obliged, had a cafe au lait to fortify ourselves. Soon we crossed over into Spain, barely an indicator we had done so. These first two days we went from 200 to 1400 meters in altitude.
This night in a medieval monastery renovated for pilgrims and currently staffed by Dutch volunteers. Quite modern. It holds 300 in open cubicles of 2 bunk beds. That was an experience. Oscar and I went to pilgrims mass and knocked out.
Day 3: Roncesvalles to Zubiri … Approx 20 km. Oscar asked me if the wazifa for the day was Ya Fattah. I said it would remain so until my body acclimated. We entered forest off and on. I was thankful for all the Grandmother and Grandfather trees, as well as the youngsters, that provided what shade they could. I started noticing all the ferns, the young ones with fronds unfurling. I thought about us pilgrims discovering what we’re made of and building strength of body and mind. Then there were all the wildflowers.
We were assured the worst aspects of the physical Camino were behind us. I wasn’t so sure. For the most part we were descending, the path still going up and down, often quite rocky and somewhat treacherous. I learned to watch my feet and noted the walking stick I’d purchased in St Jean not only helped pull me up the path, it stabilized going down. As in much of the world, the weather is unusual. We’re experiencing unseasonably high heat and humid weather. No need so far for the heavier jacket or rain gear.
We’re tucked into the tiny village of Zubiri for the night. Tomorrow… Pamplona.