After a good night’s sleep and early morning discussion with our new friends about the highs and lows of the Camino, we departed, eager to be on the move. We were soon to discover that getting from SJPdP was no easy task and definitely not for the faint-hearted! All we seemed to do hour after hour was climb. We stuck to the roads which often ran parallel to the walkers’ path. Sometimes their path disappeared from view as we stuck to the road and occasionally we’d see people on a higher level than we were. Although the ascent for them looked much steeper than ours, we still found ourselves having to walk more than ride. More than once we both thought of turning back.
If we had done, we would not have been alone, as we had heard that quite a few who started on the pilgrimage would give up after the first day. This was no route for the faint hearted, that’s for sure, and occasionally we were passed by taxies ferrying pilgrims to Roncesvalles and beyond. Sorely tempted as we made our way up higher and higher, we realised that piling into a taxi with the bikes was not an option for us. Definitely, this first day was proving to be very arduous. It was, however, the thought that so many people throw in the towel at this early stage, that kept us going. Plus the fact that we had put our faith in other people’s observations that, once you are over the Pyrenees, it gets easier. We prayed desperately that they were right.
Three times I turned to John and said miserably “Let’s turn back”. Each time he replied “don’t worry, we can’t be far from the top, and it’s probably just around that next bend”. After yet more climbing, both trying to ride and giving up to walk the steeper bits, John turned to me this time and said “Ok, I give in. Let’s give up”. But I retorted “I’m sure we must be near the top by now”.
The temperature had been steadily climbing as we were, and our journey, progressed. Feeling, and no doubt looking like wet rags, we constantly swigged water and our stock diminished quickly – we had made the first rooky mistake of not carrying enough with us. Every now and again we would stop to either climb back onto the bikes, or get off and walk again, all the while waving to other cyclists as they passed, looking as frazzled as we felt. Occasionally, we would hear the sound of water as we passed yet another stream gushing down the hillside. John stopped once to fill his water bottle by one of these streams but I was more wary and decided not to take the chance. We are used to hills, having ridden – granted in our earlier days – through parts of Cornwall, Wales and the Cotswolds in the UK. But never before had I, in particular, had to tackle a hill that continuously ascends. After some hours we did reach the summit. What a welcome relief. We had climbed from 200 metres above sea-level to 1,400 metres in one day.
We were hailed by a lovely French lady who, no doubt amused by this apparition of weary souls, asked us if we would like some coffee. This was quickly followed by a slice of delicious apple cake – both of which were very welcome. Their smattering of English together with our stilted French had us all laughing and comparing notes about the terrain, the weather, and so many other things. It was an annual tradition for this group, with two or three of them walking while the others spent their time sightseeing and driving from place to place. It was hard to leave such delightful company but eventually we realized that we had to or risk navigating strange roads in the dark. Suitably rested and revived, we were very grateful for the descent into Roncevalles – all three miles of delightfully scenic downhill road.
The newly purpose-built municipal albergue in Roncesvalles has numerous large dormitories that house sectioned-off bunkbeds with their individual lockers. We joined a line of other pilgrims to book ourselves in and were asked to leave our shoes in a separate area designated for them, shown where to store the bikes for the night, and queued for the communal washrooms to take a well-earned shower. After looking around the grounds, and having a bite of supper, we wondered what to do next. Deciding not to join the guided tour of the small area surrounding the albergue, as it was conducted in Spanish, we did a tour on our own.
At this point, I need to mention that neither John nor I are particularly conversant in the Spanish language – although I had spent the past few months listening to a school-girl version of Spanish downloaded onto my MP3, and trying fruitlessly to knock some of the words and phrases into my 65-year-old head – not an easy task! So, no, it probably wouldn’t have done either of us any good to go on the tour.
Having said that, we happened to come across this tour group when the excursion was almost complete, and the priest who was conducting it summoned us to join them. We sheepishly followed and found ourselves in the Silo of Charlemagne, the oldest building in the village. It is an unusual structure, square and low, and surrounded by iron railings. Inside we were guided to a pit with a mass of human skulls and other bones. Wishing now that we could understand what was being said, we mused over this rather macabre spectacle long after the group has walked on. Only when the priest rushed back into the building motioning to us to once again follow him, did we understand that we had been in danger of being locked in for the night!
Later that evening, one of the other pilgrims told us that he had heard that the skeletons were the remains of some pilgrims – a likely story. Another tale was that Charlemagne is reputed to have used the building to house his fallen heroes from the nearby battle in 778. The old French poem “Chanson de Roland” recounts this battle.
Before bedding down for the night we decided to look in on the local Church, and were lucky enough to walk in on a service that was about to start. The service was in Spanish – short and sweet, with a blessing for the whole congregation who consisted entirely of pilgrims about to embark on their own journeys. The priest walked through the throng of onlookers and encouraged us all to shake our neighbour’s hand. After such a tiring, yet in some ways, enjoyable day, we both agreed that we were in for a unique journey.