Valcarlos to Roncesvalles
The last one up! I was so happy. I’m tired of always being the responsible one – up and planning and cooking and packing before everyone else. Today, everyone else was up and out before I even woke up. Iris let me sleep – we had never planned to leave early. She usually had bathroom problems in the morning so we were never counting on an early start.
Although we were aware of it, this was going to be a problem for our entire trip. Most hikers got up at the crack of dawn, or earlier (as early as 4 am we had read) and got on the road. Doing this they could stop for the day at an albergue about noon or at the latest early afternoon – assuring them of a place to stay, a good choice of bunk, and the afternoon sun to dry their clothes from the day’s washing.
We knew that starting late would put us off that ‘normal’ pilgrim schedule. We didn’t realize just how much. It eventually would wreak havoc with our accommodations, clothes washing, and food shopping. We did, however, have more privacy on the trail; good for meditation and reflection (more on that later). Although we were usually the last to leave a town, by late morning, hikers who had stayed further back on the trail were already catching up to us and passing us. By early and late afternoon we were alone again.
We knew this would be our most arduous day, and it was. It was steep and sunny and misty rain and by the time we got close to the top of the mountains in the middle of the afternoon it was muddy and pouring rain. Ponchos were off and on all day long. Iris was in great pain most of the day.
Many hikers passed us on the steep trail, but they were not faring any better. One young French woman that we passed looked like she was going to die right there on the trail despite the fact that two guys had volunteered to carry her pack to the top. We offered help (with our last breath) but she indicated that she might make it. With our slow, breathless plodding we left her in our dust (ok, technically it was all mud, but you get the picture).
At long last we got to the chapel at the top of the mountain. Expecting some shelter we found a solidly locked up chapel with little roof overhang. The rain picked up to a torrential downpour. Our ponchos flapped in the winds gusting to maybe 35 mph.
Of course, there was no bathroom.
On the far side of the mountain – snow. However, the trail followed a road down to Roncesvalles so it was easy walking. We had walked from 9:30 to 3:30 and covered about 19 kilometers – a good pace considering that most of it was uphill.
Roncesvalles was crowded with hikers, tourists (two busses), taxies, cars – and it was so small there was not even a main street. Possibly made entirely of stone, it is famous in history for the defeat of Charlemagne and the death of Roland.
We could not figure out where to stay – the tourist information booth was, of course, closed. I was already able to read the sign. It was the same sign we would find on every tourist bureau: “We are not open today. We are open some other day. If we were open today, we are not open at this time, perhaps some other time. Why are you here?”
The hotel bar was packed with revelers. What were they reveling about? I tried to ask about a place to stay but it was difficult to make myself heard and understood to the bartender. A waitress, seeing my frustration, followed me outside where we could hear each other. She spoke a little English told us the rates for the hotel and showed us where the albergue office was located. The hotel rates were very high. Apparently this is a famous place: high rates and revelry. Why wasn’t I having any fun?
The albergue office was in a walled monastery directly across from the entrance to the cathedral. When we got there the bells of the cathedral started chiming calling the crowds from the tour busses to evening mass.
We paid for the albergue, got directions to find it, got our pilgrim credentials stamped, and shouldered our packs once more to stumble, dead tired, across the square. We found the albergue and walked through the double doors into…Dante’s Inferno.
Our hosts, the man and woman who had the evening shift, spotted us through the crowds. They were very nice and very strict and told us to remove our boots immediately. No packs on the beds. Place out muddy boots on the shelves next to the door and our wet packs on the floor next to the bunks.
We looked around through the din. The church, converted some time ago to accommodate pilgrims, contained on the main floor, six rows of 18 double-decker bunks, most of which were full of wet pilgrims. We had to find bunks and there were two empty ones next to the door where we were standing. The albergue managers told us that these were reserved for “emergencies” – pilgrims who came in late. I thought that’s what we were doing!
We were informed by the guards (I mean the albergue managers) of the time for lights out, the time to wake up in the morning, and the time we were supposed to leave the premises in the morning.
The bunks were lined up so that each set of two abutted each other so when you were sleeping you were lying six inches from your bunkmate. Of course there were not two bunks together. Iris could not have climbed into an upper bunk but she was lucky to find a lower bunk and I found an upper diagonally across from her. We were near the door, and at the end of the room. We were positioned so that all 108 pilgrims who had to use the bathrooms had to pass us.
Downstairs, we found the men and women’s facilities were separate – two showers and two toilets and two sinks each – for 108 pilgrims. They were probably clean that morning before the other 106 wet and soggy pilgrims used them.
By this time I was not only filthy, but hungry and tired. The restaurants in Roncesvalles were closed (apparently ‘after Mass’ dinners were not popular) or fully reserved and there were no groceries in the village. Roncesvalles consisted of, as far as I could tell, two bar & hotel combinations, a closed tourist booth, a very large cathedral, the monastery converted to an albergue, and some other buildings which I could not identify. The grocery was in the next village some kilometers away and all we had to eat were some nuts.
For breakfast that morning we had fruit and yogurt, lunch was nuts and granola bars on the trail, and now Iris was in such pain and so upset at the accommodations that she would not eat anything. Since we had to vacate the premises by 8:30 the next morning, I was afraid that we would pass through the next town before the grocery or café were open. That, in fact, is what happened and it would be 11:30 the next morning before we got anything else to eat.
Iris’ pillow was six inches from some guy she never saw before. Sleeping in the bunk above Iris was a cute young girl who attracted Don Juan’s hitting on her all evening. The guys were mostly wearing t-shirts and briefs, which Iris was able to examine closely while the guys socialized with the young girl above.
Iris rigged her lower bunk with scarves and towels and her poncho as a curtain around all four sides – a little chrysalis of her own. This caused a minor stir and other pilgrims stopped to take photos of her arrangement.
We waited in line in our individual bath areas to take showers. The showers were enclosed phone booth sized rooms with no bench or hooks to hang clothes, glasses, soap, or towels. I got clean even if everything else got wet.
About six o’clock I climbed into my bunk (there was no other place to go) and fell into a light sleep. Pilgrims were milling about all evening.
At 10:00 the guards played a deafening Ave Maria over the speaker system announcing lights out. I awoke long enough to appreciate the religious symbolism.
All night I was troubled. We have got to plan our day better. We need to decide where we want to end up each day; where to eat and what to eat. I cannot let god, fate, or the universe decide for us or we will end up like tonight: in hell with no dinner, no breakfast; tired, miserable, wet, and sleeping with 108 snoring and coughing pilgrims. I need to learn some Spanish phrases so I can ask for the basics. It is clear that Iris is going to depend on me to get what she needs and to be the one to interact with other humans. I’ve got to get control of this situation.
Roncesvalles to Biskarreta
Six o’clock in the morning: lights on, bad religious music blaring, and a very large drill sergeant type walking up and down the aisles saying a very happy but determined, “Good morning”, “Buenos Dias” in twelve languages.
Iris looked bad. Said she had not gotten any sleep at all with all the snoring and people wandering to the bathroom all night. She was in great pain and could not relieve herself. We packed and left by 6:30. No shower, I just splashed some water on my face and brushed my teeth.
My pack was heavy despite having no food in it and my right knee was in pain. It got worse as we walked down steeper slopes. The toes on my right foot were in pain.
We passed through the village before anything was open and could not buy any food. Still traveling on an empty stomach, we walked through farms and fields with lots of mud and manure. Around us was a 360-degree panoramic view of snow-capped mountains with low clouds, fog, and mist. Sheep and cows grazed in lush, green pastures. We stood ankle deep in mud.
Everyone passed us. Even pilgrims starting out in St. Jean today and climbing over the mountains and very intelligently hiking right by Roncesvalles, passed us. Our pace was very slow – less than 2 kilometers an hour.
By 11:30 we were in Biskarreta and found a bar open where I discovered Tortilla Espanola.
Tortilla Espanola is one of the great mysteries of the trip. My lack of culinary acumen will be evident when I say that this is the best food that I ate in Spain. I was searching for something that Iris could eat (no meat, no wheat) and I saw this on the bar under glass.
My lack of Spanish prevented me from understanding what it was. Some other pilgrims assured me that it had no flour or meat in it and consisted only of potato. To this day I don’t know how it is made or how it stays together or even what it is called: tortilla, potato tortilla, frittata, potato frittata, whatever. At least I figured out how to point to it. It was sold in almost every bar we went into. And, it was something that Iris could eat without risk of allergic reaction.
Biskarreta had one hotel, a bar, and a good grocery and a nursery and a lot of houses but that was it. I wondered, “Where does everybody work? We are in the middle of nowhere.” The hotel was across the street from the bar and I inquired about the price not expecting it to be too expensive. It wasn’t – 40 Euros a night for two persons, ‘con bano’ (with a bathroom).
We decided to stay, but we could not get into the room until noon (or perhaps one o’clock – I could have misunderstood the lady). Iris was very impatient and could not wait and would not use the bathroom in the hotel lobby that the proprietress offered. She just wanted to be miserable and lie down in front of the hotel. She even said at one point, “let’s just go on.” This was against all logic.
When we were able to get into the room, Iris was able to go to the bathroom. She calmed down and we walked around the town and had some fun in the grocery store. We used my Spanish phrases to get fruit and detergent and all the food we would need for the next day. We did our laundry in the sink and I hung it on a sunny clothesline provided behind the hotel. It was a bright room in a very quiet town and it was a good decision to stay.
Today we walked from 6:30 to 11:30 and made 11.5 kilometers. That’s a little better than 2 kilometers per hour. There are 740 kilometers to Santiago. At 10 kilometers a day it should take us 74 days. We only have 29 days left before we need to fly back. So we need to make 25 ½ kilometers per day. That seems problematic.