Oops, I misread the first walk from St. Jean Pied Pont, France into Spain. I was thinking the pass is 1,600 feet elevation. Not so. It is 1,600 cm and the ascent for the day is almost 4,000 feet. Then it is about 2,000 descent into Roncesvalles and 16 miles.
The plane trip from London to Biarritz, France, took an hour. Then a bus ride across town to catch the train to St. Jean Pied Pont. I explored Biarritz while waiting 2 hours for the train. Walked up to one castle to see another across the river. This charming old town is on a river near the ocean, and there are people surfing. Definitely a place to come back and stay a few days.
After 2 hour train ride, where I visited with a young French woman, Cecelia, and the pilgrims, at least 50 on the train, walked up to the reception building for Pilgrims. After receiving my Pilgrim passport it was 8 pm, most of the hostels were full and I was standing in the street wondering where I was going to sleep. A French woman took me with her to an old building down the street, motioned for me to stay, went up and got an old woman and they took me up to her sitting room. It had a sofa for me the sleep on. The price was 15 Euros. The older woman took her purse out of the desk drawer to get me change for my 20. Then put her purse back in the drawer.
The first woman took me by the arm down the hall to the bathroom, very nice and new. There was much chattering, none of which I understood, but said Decor and Qui. Then she kissed me on both cheeks and left. I went out for dinner, found Cecelia and two other young women from the train ride and had pizza with them. Cecelia kissed my cheecks goodbye and I have not seen her since.
The advice was to start the hike early, as it is 8 hours to cover the 16 miles to Roncesvalles, Spain, the first hotel or hostel or food.
Since I was on an earlier time from England, was excited and couldn´t sleep too long, I got up when the owl kept hooting. It was pitch black, no one was up and out I went. After finding my way across the river and out of town, where it was really dark, I put on my headlamp and putted up the hill and putted and putted. Two hours and there was lightening in the distance. Three hours and it was light enough to see without my lamp.
By now I am up into the common grazing area of the French Pyrenees. There are flocks of sheep herded down the mountain side to a small corral. They look like white water flowing down the steep green slope. Herds of blonde cattle, bands of 7 to 20 mares with foals roam freely. All animals have bells around their necks, so it is a beautiful sound.
The wind becomes more than stiff and straight into my face near the top, often making me stagger across the road. Even my trekking poles don´t hold me and they are so difficult to control, I attach them to my pack. For quite a ways, the path is tar and quite well marked with the sign of the shell, which is the Pilgrims symbol and the red and white bars which is the corresponding Grande Ronde trail across the country. I picked up first a couple of years ago in Geneva, Switzerland, walking 100 miles south into France on it.
I am the only one out, until 7 pm I pass a hostel and see people eating breakfast, so soon they will join me. By 8 am I see one man pass me, there are several behind him. Suddenly a van beeps me to move over, and it is filled with the people who were walking. They get a ride up to where the path goes from tar to trail near the top of the pass. My thoughts are distinctly unpilgrim-like toward them. I try to tell my self Everyone has their own journey. But, of course, mine is harder.
The mountains are well logged and an open view. It is misty and very windy. Finally over the pass, after passing some springs for water for Pilgrims and a big cross, the path heads straight down hill. The Romans put a road here and where there is solid rock, I can see the ruts from their wagons. And their roads typically go straight up and down, no matter how steep. Charlamagne also moved his troops through this pass.
About noon, in a light misting rain, I arrive in Roncesvalles, have soup and a cheese sandwich. There is a huge abbey built here to house the pilgrims with a great book shop for Pilgrims. I pick up a guide in English with history and strip maps which have a plastic pouch to hang around my neck so I can read the days itinerary, have an elevation chart and map of the towns. It is really helpful.
By now it is only 1 pm and there are many Pilgrims arriving to stay. I can´t face the walk being over, so keep going on down the trail through the woods. About 4 miles later in a small Basque village, I see a woman tending her flowers and it looks like she rents rooms. She does and so I stay with her. The building has beautiful wood stairs, floors, renovated bathroom and comfortable bedroom. What a nice find for the end of my first day on the El Camino. The restaurant down the street serves dinner and I am very happy.