Day 1 (to Roncevalles): …climb every mountain …

 Last night I spent at least an hour …

… tossing and turning in my bed. I had hard time falling asleep with all the anticipation and the adrenaline.

2014-04-03 12.15.17
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The first Camino miracle I experienced (out of many more to come) is that I haven’t heard anyone snoring, out of 20 people in the room. In the morning I correctly guessed I won’t need an alarm clock, the people started rustling bags and packs around 6h.

This albergue offers breakfast as well. Toast, butter and jam with tea or coffee … served in small bowls, no cups. At the albergue door there is sheet with pilgrim statistics, 42 Croatians started from SJPDP last year (other 58 started from other towns).

I left the albergue around 6:50 and stepped into a sleepy town, walking short distance to La boutique du pelerin, a specialized store, where I got my Ferrino Trekker raincoat and pilgrim’s shell. I forgot to pick it up at the pilgrim’s office yesterday. Pierre, an experienced peregrino who runs the store, showed me how to hold the hiking poles properly and how to adjust the backpack. I asked him for advice … because there are two routes out of SJPDP; route Napoleon (uphill) and route Vacairlos (along the road). Pierre was at the route Napoleon two days ago and showed me the photos … bits of snow along the side of the path, lot of mud … but Pierre says “no problem”. The uphill route is closed in bad weather.
OK, uphill route it is … ah, blessed are ignorant because theirs is a joy of discovery.

Everyone is still firmly asleep as I’m passing through the town … and the suburbs … and the first houses outside the town. Not a soul in sight and the only sound is the soft click-clack of my poles on the road. The route is well marked and the direction is easy to follow. The scenery is idyllic … pastoral … with sheep grazing at the slopes.

And so I’m walking …. and walking … and the climb is getting steeper … and steeper. A first bench is spotted along the road and Churchill’s axiom implemented. The entire time, slight but steady rain keeps me company … but the Ferrino raincoat is up to the task.
Still no one around any farm or a house … and not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The climb is getting steeper … and stepper.

puf … paf
puf … paf
puf … paf

Finally a signpost. Orisson 5 km …what ?!?! … c’mon its gotta to be closer than that … I walked for like … miles and miles already (or at least it felt like it).
Naturally the climb is getting even steeper after this. And since I forgot to buy water in Pamplona the only thing I have to drink is some leftover milk I got in Barcelona … and the first water fountain is at Orisson (or so I thought). After a whole eternity another signpost … Orisson 4 km …

But behind the corner there is my second Camino mini-miracle, the albergue Honto (it means “truth” in Japanese), that I completely forgot about. It has a water fountain … and a sheltered courtyard … with chairs. Wow … now I know what “Camino provides” means. I settled comfortably, took of my boots and socks and let my feet breathe a bit.

The first pilgrims started showing up right on cue. First a pair of Spaniards who tossed me a Buen Camino and smilingly commented… lenetamente (slowly) … slowly indeed. Another group of Spaniards passes by, eyes focused on the road so I manage to toss Buen Camino first….are you all right they ask … sure … lentamente … I say (showing off my new Spanish word).
Next one is Odd Fredriksen from Norway who is not odd at all. I quickly corrupted him with my example so he took a break as well, as did a group of Koreans lead by Nan-Jon (I sure hope I spelled it right).
Another two dozen pilgrims passes us by … let them … my goal for today is to reach Roncevalles last. There is plenty of time and pushing your body too hard results in blisters, muscle pain and other bad things better avoided.

And so I continue … slowly. I even managed to put the raincoat back on by myself …which is not simple as it sounds because of a huge hump formed by my backpack.

The road is getting … (need I say it) … steeper … until I finally hit on a bit of level ground. Behind the corner there is even nicer surprise … Orisson (bar and albergue). But that’s not all  … according to my map the climb is getting less steeper ahead … 16km left to Roncevalles, I passed 10km … yey.
After a break, a sandwich, and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice … I’m a whole new person … practically reborn.
I am soon joined by Odd, who hits the road before I manage to drag myself out of the comfortable chair. But …what is that outside … is it? … why yes it is … the Sun broke through the clouds.
Amazingly enough, the radio inside just finished playing “O Sole mio“.

Fed and rested I continue onwards with a brisk pace that lasted for as much as 3 minutes. Than I started again … puf … paf…. But seriously, this “turtle pace” serves me well. Couple of steps … than stop … rest leaning on the poles … and start all over again. Slowly the number of steps between the breaks increases. The sun provides nice feeling of warmth and a slight breeze wipes the sweat away …. idyllic pastoral scenery all around.
I started chatting with a couple of Koreans,  Jon On i Nan Jon and discover that Croatia is apparently quite popular travel destination in Korea.

After about hour and a half, I come across the statue of the Virgin Mary rising above a huge gorge. Its a bit aside from the road and just a few people dropped by.
Soon afterwards I take another break to air my feet … and attract a lot of … are you OK’s … I try to explain the value of it … but get mostly strange looks in return.

The road goes on, up among the clouds … the highest peak still nowhere in sight. At the section where Camino leaves the paved road, near the Celtic cross, I explain to fellow pilgrim that its not Cruz de Fero (many…many km ahead). There is a peak rising above … is that the highest one … naturally it isn’t. Up and up we go still., passing a bit of snow near the road and a emergency cabin shelter nearby.

Right, at least the climb is getting significantly less steeper … but more muddier … hey one can not have it all. Soon we come across the fountain of medieval celebrity Roland, a knight made famous by the epic poem of his last stand, right here in the Pyrenees.
Another marker notifies us that we entered the Spanish province of Navarre. Finally … down-slope … is it all downwards from here to Roncevalles … naturally it isn’t. Down and down I go … making sure I avoid tripping and rolling down to barbed wire fence to the right. But hey … at least nor more climbs …yupii yee.

I am walking downhill when suddenly there is a signpost. … green house with letter A and 250m !!!! The letter “A”must stand for albergue and its gotta to be Roncevalles … naturally it isn’t. Its another cabin shelter. Now I get a tiny taste of the feeling at the end of SAS training, when the play with your mind.

Felling a bit down  I continue on to the sound of a small waterfall. Coming closer I find a small creek. Its time for a delicate operation that involves taking off my gear, socks and boots and at the same time ensuring that I (or worse the gear) don’t fall in. After successfully completing it, I’m rewarded by the icy feeling of bliss … which lasts for 3 sec … enough to thoroughly ice my feet.

The road goes on … and on … and on … with no end in sight. At the same time one must be careful navigating across the mountain slopes. After passing through a wooden gate  … finally  … there is a  peak ahead (highest part of today’s route, 1400m). It offers a great view of Roncevalles below … you feel you can practically touch it, its looks so close … naturally it isn’t.
The serpentine path down goes for miles … its like a mirage in front of you with no end. About 4 km later I finally arrive at Roncevalles at 18:30.

The Pyrenees routes are also known as Route Charlemagne and Route Napoleon … after two would-be conquerors of Span. Both failed, and its no wonder … after going through this, a troop of  girl-scouts could whip any invading army.

The albergue etiquette requires that you take off your boots and place them on a shelf.  You walk in sandals around the town and the albergue. This albergue has sections of four beds, mine is at the end of the hallway, and a top one. My neighbors are a Swedish couple and a Spaniard.
After a bit of rest I take a shower and go to wash my clothes in the laundry below.

The restaurants here require you to reserve an hour or so ahead. Fortunately I am seated right on arrival, with Hungarian girl and an American guy. Pilgrim’s menu is vegetable soup, pasta, cake, bread and wine. After practically licking my plates clean, I head to the chapel for a mass.

Very medieval atmosphere, and quite a lot of pilgrims come to receive a pilgrim’s blessing.

I somehow managed to get myself to a bed, falling asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

That was day no.1

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