I woke up to the sounds of Gregorian chanting and a gentle tap on our door. No one can leave before Joseph, our hospitalero at Beilari Albergue has completed this ritual. I got dressed, then walked downstairs, spying a candle-lit dining room table laden with breakfast goodies. We ate outside in the courtyard. It was a fantastic way to start Day One of my Camino journey.
Leaving Beilari on that sunny morning, walking down the cobbled street towards Porte Saint-Jacques gateway and the start of the Camino Frances, I started to feel a mediaeval presence that was more than the shadow cast by the Porte’s tower. I sensed all those, including myself, who had previously passed through here, filled with hope and trepidation.
Over the next three or four days, we will wind our way up through the mountain passes and down into Southern Basque Country and onto its capital city, Pamplona. Then, travelling, depending on your schedule, in Navarre for another four days. This mediaeval Kingdom, which spans two countries, continues to fight to retain its culture and language. The region now known as Northern Basque Country is situated in the southwest area of France.
The only similarity between myself and a mediaeval pilgrim is that I set off on foot, carrying my belongings. I say this because each item of my walking gear has been manufactured using the latest sports technology. Sweat is wicked away from the body, keeping me dry and hopefully free of chafing and blisters. Just in case it doesn’t, I’ve packed a state of the art blister kit. And lastly, I’m holding this slim rectangular device, which with a few taps takes pictures, and acts as my navigator, accommodation broker, translator and communication device.
“It’s a mountain,” he says. “They make their own rules. It’s nice that people climb them, but maybe sometimes they shouldn’t .” – Marcia DeSanctis, Connie Britton’s Hair. (The Best Women’s Travel Writing – Volume 9.)
The recommended route to cross from France into Spain is Route de Napoleon. It starts at St. Jean Pied de Port (SJPP) with an almost vertical climb of 600m up to Orisson, where the terrain slowly undulates upwards to Col de Lepoeder at 1,450m above sea level. It is a strenuous mountain climb – stay focussed because this mountain does “make [its] own rules.”
Camino forums and Facebook groups are filled with praise for the bomberos who have plucked people off the mountain because they left too late and lost their bearings, or they’re dazed and wandered off the track due to lack of food and water. There is no rescue helicopter here, only a team of people from Burguete willing to brave the elements. It’s great that you want to tackle the Route de Napoleon, perhaps just not on those “sometimes you shouldn’t” days.
Day One: Saint Jean Pied De Port – Orisson
It was an overcast, still morning. As I walked, I watched the ground fog rise and waft across the rolling grass paddocks. A slight mountain breeze gathered the mist, which resembled an unravelled bolt of muslin cloth, spread out across the mountain slopes. The air currents lifted the fog then compressed its mass into a dense, smoky haze. I was the only person on the track. My companion the clouds. It was surreal, conjuring up images of simpler times. My mediaeval Kingdom musing was interrupted when I rounded a bend in the road and almost collided with a couple taking a breather. They had also stayed at Orisson. I dumped my backpack on the ground, chatted and stretched. Then headed up the ever-increasing steep climb. Even though I’d only walked 4.9kms, I found the low rock wall of the Albergue Ferme Ithurburia, the only house in Huntto, hard to resist. I reached for my water hose and realised that its rubber tip had fallen off. No doubt at that first stop. I had lots of time but absolutely no will to go back down and find it, so I continued up the narrow vertical road up to Orisson.
Thankfully by the time I got to Orisson, the sun had broken through the clouds. I hung out on the large deck overlooking the mountain range with an expat-English couple who lived in a nearby French village. Sue had walked the Camino in her 20s and now wanted her just turned 80-year-old husband, John, to experience it.
Sitting on this deck, watching the shadows rolling over the mountain valleys, walking up this mountain, had got me through the days when it took all my energy to get to the bus stop.
Day Two: Orisson (France) to Roncesvalles (España)
I left around 7:30am with lunch, a salami baguette, which would later reveal itself to be yesterday’s bread with three slices of salami, unappetising and barely eatable. My ears were still ringing from the raucous symphony of last night snoring as I walked in the lee of the wind before reaching Pic D’Orisson and the infamous Virgin statue.
I began walking over to the statue only to be greeted by a gale-force westerly wind that almost toppled me over. I decided to keep moving. As I walked, the wind currents swirled around me. My backpack and poles anchored me and several times stopped me from being hurled down a steep bank. Overhead there was the odd black cloud, casting shadows over the surrounding farmland. I found a rock to hide under and eat my mid-morning snack, a banana. Then kept moving. The winds were relentless. I was relieved to get to the only food truck of the day, hunkered down with other pilgrims with a hot drink, and enjoyed a brief respite for the wind.
Another Orisson buddy soon joined me. Unfortunately, having ported her backpack, she was unprepared for a storm, the relentless cold wind, and without adequate water and food supplies.
On the last ascent of the day, we were joined by other Orisson buddies for the walk to Col de Lepoeder. Unlike 2014 I reached the summit relaxed, fresh and energetic.
On the often treacherous descent down the mountain into Ronscevalles, the wind ceased, and the sun shone. We entered woodlands, mainly beech trees that lead up to the Col de Lepoeder (1,450m), stopping for a short rest. The descent to Don Alto Simón takes us through the beech words bosque de Irati and into the hamlet of Roncesvalles (‘valley of thorns’). These steep rocky descents require a steady gait and alert mind. Most pilgrims reach this stage of the day with little energy left in the tank, which is why many like myself break the journey with a night at Orisson.
Rosemary had used all her energy and needed a short break. She sank into the thick grass and nodded off. Supported by my backpack, I propped myself up, soaked in the silence and the warmth of the sun. My mind wandered back to 2014. I was ill-equipped with a romantic notion about walking over the Pyrenees. It had been a glorious day then, sunshine, no wind; I walked with a daypack and still arrived shattered. Even after being battered most of the day by the wind, I still felt energetic and was excited to meet up with my new Camino friends. Ten minutes later, I spied a large crowd heading down the mountain track. Knowing Rosemary hadn’t reserved a bed a Ronscevalles, I roused her, we headed off.
I ended up on the ground floor in a cubicle of two sets of bunks. The opposite bed mine was occupied by one of my roommates from last night, Eleanor. I had a shower, sorted out my washing and walked downstairs to the laundry. Paid for the washing and drying, taking the “delivered to you” option. Then went off and joined friends for a late lunch and beers.
Day Three: Roncesvalles – Urdaniz
We woke to sad news; two pilgrims would not be travelling beyond Roncesvalles.
A twenty-something Korean boy was so worried about the shortage of accommodation in Ronscevalles that he ran the steep downhill stage and damaged his knee. We later found out that he had been taken to the nearest hospital. The prognosis; return home for immediate surgery. His story would continue to send shock waves through the Korean fraternity for many days to come.
The second pilgrim, whose bed was on the other side of our dormitory, never woke up. I wondered if he, given yesterday’s strenuous walk, had a heart attack. Regardless of how or why he died, it was a sobering start to the day.
I departed, what still is one of the best Albergue experiences of the Camino before sunrise. I entered the woodland path across from Ronscevalles second Albergue, featured in the movie The Way, Hostal Posada. It was dark, oozed a vibe that flooded my body with those fight or flight hormones. Later, I discovered these woods, Sorginaritz (Oakwoods of Witches), in the 16th century had a secret coven’s where local women, healers congregated.
Footsteps and voices echoed behind me. I froze. Thankfully, it was a couple who I’d walked with yesterday. We walked together into Burguete then parted ways con the outskirts of the village. I was heading across the road to buy fruit, nuts and snacks at the supermarket. Next on the list was coffee. Exiting the woods, we had passed a café. It was busy, looked warm and inviting, but I wanted to revisit the one we went to in 2014. I walked into the village, there were no lights on in the buildings, I couldn’t locate the café, and nothing looked familiar. Thinking it was time to make new memories, I turned around and walked back to the yellow arrow sign.
Five years earlier, I walked this stage with blisters. Throughout the day, the skin on my left heel lifted, then on the following day, I slipped and landed heavily on my backside. My backpack prevented severe damage to my coccyx but not bruising. The fall also damaged a ligament attached to my piriformis muscle. My subconscious mind, possibly blurred by the then daily pain medication, had chewed these two events together, spat them out as a single timeline. Those memories flooded back on the steep downhill path to the Rio Erro, then mocked me when I saw I had to cross this low flowing river on stepping-stones. I had spent hours at Pilates, correcting my balance issues. I silently chanted, “just do it”, and walked across the river.
The tiny village of Lintzoain marks the final ascent to Zubiri. The track continues up to a ridge. The dense woodlands obscured the countryside’s views; however, there is a lovely clearing near Pasos de Roldan’s historic stones. I took a break. Several pilgrims stopped and came over for a chat. I was about to leave when two Australian ladies, Françoise and Hilary, stopped to chat. We walked together, stopping at the food truck at Alto de Erro for a drink and passport stamp. My first Kas of the journey – best Camino refreshing and energy blasting drink. Hilary and I swapped travel incidents as we walked like 82-year-olds down the 810m track, which in reality was a mudslide punctuated by rocks. We parted at Zubiri; they were stopping to eat and have a break. I was booked into the Albergue Acá y Allá at Urdaniz and had another 3.9kms to walk.
The narrow path between hedgerows to Urdaniz soon make way for bleached grasses and an electricity substation. The intensity of the sun increased as I reached a road and a Camino sign that directed me into another country lane. It continued to climb, by which time jetlag and fatigue started to gather momentum. Finally, another signpost diverted me onto a seemingly endless metal track. Urdaniz appeared on the horizon like a mirage.
Finally, I reached the hamlet of Ilárraz. In the centre is a covered pavilion with bench seats. Another pilgrim was sitting in the shadow. I joined her, took off my backpack, drank some water and said hello. It turned out she had taken a wrong turn, and her friend had her phone and money. I offered her my phone; however, she didn’t know her friends’ cell phone numbers. My brain was scrambled mush from jetlag and heat. I didn’t know how else to help her, so I continued my journey.
Within minutes I meet my second Hilary of the day. She was also staying at Albergue Acá y Allá. I was so grateful to have someone to walk the last 0.5kms of the day. Hilary later confessed that she thought I was very dazed and confused.
Albergue Acá y Allá had a pool; I stripped down to my black tech underwear, hoping it might from a distance pass as swimwear and jumped into the cold water. It was a small Albergue. The room rate included dinner and breakfast. Dinner was fabulous; generous fresh salad to start, main course a delicious chicken bake with thinly sliced potatoes. Eleven pilgrims, Korean, Canadian, English, Spanish, German, American living in Jerusalem and myself, a New Zealander, around a table. Despite all the different languages, we had a great night.
Day Four: Urdaniz – Pamplona
We woke to the sound of heavy rain. It ceased while we ate breakfast. However, dark clouds had settled over the hills opposite Urdaniz (Basque name Urdaitz). So, except for the Koreans, two sisters and a husband, we decamped on mass. Wearing wet weather gear, we headed for the pathway which wound around the bottom of those hills. We walked, surveying the sky and hoping the sun would break through. Fifteen minutes later, we reached Hotel Akerreta, the Albergue in The Way, and new friends Françoise and Hilary had spent the night. We took photos then headed off down an overgrown concrete pathway. Torrential rain turned the trickling flow of water on the track into a mudslide.
Hilary marched on. I lagged behind, concentrating on staying upright. By the time the path levelled out, I had re-joined Hilary. Then it was another downhill track. The once hard-earth pathway now resembled a muddy football pitch. The rain eased as we crossed the Rio Arga and spied the first café of the day, Café La Parada. We rushed over to the outdoor stage area. I found a dry spot and changed my socks. Then tried to find some paper to soak up the water in my shoes. Finally, we found a table inside the café, joined our Urdaniz buddies who had just arrived, ate spinach tortillas and drunk hot coffee.
The remaining Urdaniz crew continued to walk to Zabaldika. At the crossroads, Hilary and I bid goodbye to the team. They were off to Albergue Parroquial de Zabaldika to stay with the Society of the Sacred Heart Sisters. We continued to Puente de Magdalena, the mediaeval bridge which spans the Rio Agra and enters the suburbs of Pamplona. We meandered through parks and buildings until we finally reached the city walls and the path which goes up into the historical city of Pamplona. It rises to the drawbridge of the Gate of France (Portal de Francia), where we entered the capital of Southern Basque Country.
Hilary and I parted ways once inside the walls of Pamplona. I headed to the City Hall to get my bearings. Although I would continue to walk in Navarre for another four days, this majestic building in the city’s Old Quarter seemed the perfect place to bid farewell to the Kingdom of Navarre.