This is the first post of my Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage. I intend to write at least one for each day of the Pilgrimage. In this post I decided to include also something about “Day Zero” of our ride. I am calling day zero our journey from England to France by car. Other people in England might benefit from this experience (if not then I just wasted my time). Feel free to scroll down straight to Day 1 if you want. I am also trying something new for me: Doing “voice-overs”. This is definitely taking me out of my comfort zone, so please be kind.
Day 0, Sunday, 24th of May 2015
The 4 of us… – Fernando (who did the Pilgrimage with me), Mara and her daughter Luize (who I met through BlaBlaCar), and myself – … left Bracknell at around 5:30 in the morning to get the 7:30 Eurotunnel train. All the details are in the video below, if you are interested:
It took us an entire day to reach Saint Jean. We arrived in Biarritz short before 8:00pm and in Saint Jean around 9:00pm. A drive of more than 15h. Even though my friend Fernando drove most of the time, I was exhausted when we arrived. Driving is no longer the same pleasurable experience now as it used to be in the past.
Saint Jean Pied de Port is the start of what is called the French way (route) of the Camino which became the main route few hundred years ago because of conflicts and unrest in the northern most part of Spain at the time. The ancient route is known today as “Camino Primitivo“. The French way is about 820 Km long, depending on the route you take and not accounting any distance if you get lost.
We stayed at the Gite Ultreia. The hostel was simple, but friendly. Bernard, our host, made us feel quite at home. The beds were comfortable, had clean sheets on them and the hostel offered a blanket (not all do, hence the reason you must take a sleeping bag with you, even if you are not camping). The overnight price of the hostel, booked from the UK, was 22€ incl. Breakfast. Except for the hostel we stayed for 1 night when we arrived in Santiago, this was the most expensive we paid in the entire Camino. The hostel closed at 10pm (as most do), so we left our bikes and luggage there and went to find a place to have a quick bite. Thankfully there was a bar right in front which was still open, but their kitchen was already closed. All we got was a Bayonne Ham sandwich and beer and, honestly, the Sandwich wasn´t very good and the ham had a lot of hard bone in it, but it was enough to calm down the hunger. Our bedroom had 4 beds and we shared it with a Brazilian lady from Rio and a gentleman from Australia.
Day 1, Monday, 25th of May 2015
If you saw any of my previous posts you will know that I usually leave the camera rolling, taking pictures at 5 second intervals and then compile them all into a short movie of the ride. This was my intention with the Camino also and I´ve managed to successfully capture every day, except the first day. Well, I did actually capture the pictures, but due to an oversight on my part end up losing all for this day 🙁
The video below is a compilation of the few pictures I took with another camera (and my phone) as well as some clips Fernando recorded with his GoPRO.
On this day, breakfast included coffee, various types of bread, Jam and a few pastries (no ham, cheese, eggs, bacon or anything like that, but you can cook them yourself if you buy them the previous day). Whether you are walking or cycling the Camino I would strongly recommend not to really just on breakfast and take food with you, especially if you are going to take the walkers route/track.
As we were going to leave the car parked in Saint Jean for 3 weeks, we were advised by our host not to leave the car parked in the town centre. He told us, however, about a quiet residential street nearby where, he said, we could leave the car and that it was quite safe and problem free, so the first thing we did after breakfast was to move the car to that place. He was right! As we
returned 3 weeks later the car was exactly as we had left it (with the exception of the huge amount of leaves accumulated on the bonnet as I parked it under a tree – Probably good to avoid, but I was thinking about shading it from the sun).
With Breakfast, parking and packing done our early start ended up turning into a 10am start, but we had to go to the pilgrim´s office first to get our official Pilgrimage credentials. There was a small queue in the office, so 10am became 11am including a quick stop for a prayer in the church.
Finding our way out of Saint Jean was easy.
The town is small and the streets are well sign-posted. We had a few hills to climb straight away, but mostly was relatively flat for the initial 5 Km or so and then you start to climb. Having seen the accounts of people who cycled the walkers path we knew this wasn´t a route we wanted to take. The path up is riddled with rocks,
sand and obstacles which, even if you are strong enough and had no load on the bike, would still be very challenging to ride. Even harder for amateur cyclists like me (perhaps “pros”
would manage it). The video below is something I found in YouTube of someone who has walked the walker´s path (used with permission).
So we took the road, which I presume was easier from that point of view, but that doesn´t mean it was easy.
After the initial 7 Km from Saint Jean, as I mentioned before, the route is essentially a continuous climb of about 20 Km with gradients that very from 5% to about 15% in some places. I´d estimate 80% was “rideable” and in 20% we decided to push our bikes up.
We did not meet a lot of bicycle pilgrim´s that day. Turned out the Monday the 25th of May was a bank holiday in France, so there was little traffic of all sorts on the roads, which was probably better. It was also a grey and wet day with some light rain throughout. There was a large group of cyclists on road bikes and no luggage (they were probably dispatching the luggage to the next location by taxi). In one of those climbs we met Michael that was already more than a month on the road, cycling from his home in Germany to Santiago and further. We all had dinner together that night and also met Michael on many other occasions afterwards, during the journey.
According to GPS data it took us just under 5 h to do 30 Km. That appears to be very typical for crossing the Pyrenees. I must confess, I was expecting to be able to ride a greater distance on the 1st day, but the climb is very demanding and by the time you get to Roncesvalles you will be already pretty tired.
The hostel in Roncesvalles (or Albergue as it’s called in Spanish), is an experience you should not miss. It’s essentially a 12th century building, which was recently renovated. It contains large halls with a capacity of 120 beds in each hall, or 60 bunk beds divided into “alcoves” with 2 bunk beds in each alcove where 4 people (or pilgrims)
sleep. Each pilgrim has a small locker (requires a 1€ coin), but there are only 2
power sockets in each alcove. Challenging when 4 people want to charge their phones at the same time. It was likely the biggest hostel I stayed in the entire Camino. The staff on duty that day was composed mainly of Dutch volunteers. The groups of
volunteers who run the hostel change from time to time, so you may get different groups at different periods of the year. At the end of the hall there are male and female toilets/bathrooms. In the male section I could only see 3 toilets to the left with a set of 4 sinks in the middle and 3 shower rooms on the right. I have not had to wait long to use any of these facilities that day.
Although I have not used them, I am aware the Albergue also has a fully fitted kitchen and a large dining area.
One thing that was a bit annoying, was that every hour or so, one of the carer takers of the hostel would walk the full length of the hall. Probably to see if everyone was behaving appropriately. The noise of his steps have woken Fernando up a few times that night and a good night sleep is an important factor for those that will be walking or cycling all day next day. If you easily wake up with noise during sleep I would strongly advise that you bring ear plugs with you as with so many people sleeping in the same place, Albergues are not really a silent place during the night (think of snorers and other types of noises people make when they are asleep).
We had dinner at the Pilgrim´s restaurant and the pilgrim´s menu was 10€. I had pasta as a starter and fish as main meal with some yogurt as a desert. All served with plenty of water and wine. It was delicious. You have usually 3 choices on pilgrim´s menus. Roncesvalles is a tiny place and there are not many options, but there are a few more places you can get a meal.
After dinner we walked to the chapel to attend the catholic mass, which is celebrated in several different languages.
The hostel also closes at 10pm and around 11pm everybody is already asleep. Well,I was anyway.