(If you have never read “Camino Quest” you might want to read the short introductory page.
Valcarlos to Roncesvalles
When I woke up the other groups had already departed. An entire dorm full of pilgrims packed and left without my involvement. Perfect. Irresponsibility is good. I don’t need to awaken first and plan and cook and pack and hit the road. This is a pilgrimage.
We never considered an early start. We planned to leave late because of Iris’ morning bathroom issues.
Most hikers leave at dawn or earlier – as early as 4 a.m. according to the guidebooks. They stop for the day at an albergue at noon or early afternoon. This assures them of a place to stay, a good choice of bunk, and the afternoon sun to dry laundry.
A late start put us off the “normal” pilgrim schedule. We did not realize how much it would wreak havoc with our accommodations, laundry, and food shopping. The last to leave a town, we hiked alone. By late morning hikers who found accommodations further back on the trail caught up and passed us. By early afternoon we had the trail to ourselves again.
Today, we hiked our first full day and our most arduous. Our route took us up and over the highest section of the Pyrenees we would traverse. Then we would descend to Roncesvalles. Initially the sun heated the steep trail but then a light, misty rain cooled us.
Tired and slow, we placed one foot in front of another. Many hikers passed us. Sweat and rain drizzled down their exhausted faces, as well as ours. One young French woman, on the verge of falling, stared vacantly at the trail ahead as she inched upward. Her backpack was carried to the summit by two young men. We offered commiseration and she gestured she might make it. With our slow, gasping plodding we left her behind; one of the few hikers we passed.
The weather changed as we approached the top of the range in the middle of the afternoon. The rain did not let up and the trail turned to mud. Ponchos, off and on all day, now stayed on.
Iris, wracked with pain from the climb, from the weight of the backpack, or from internal disorders, was annoyed in turn by the sun and the heat and the rain and the mud.
We trudged on and reached the shelter at the top of the mountain. Expecting some protection from the elements we found a locked chapel with no roof overhang. The rain increased to a torrential downpour. Our ponchos flapped in the winds gusting to maybe 35 mph.
There was no bathroom.
On the far side of the mountain – snow. Snow covered the ground under the trees. I plowed through a snow bank so I could claim to have hiked over the Pyrenees in the snow. The trail followed a snow free road, an easy walk down to Roncesvalles. From 9:30 to 3:30 we covered 19 kilometers – a good pace considering the steep trail.
Tourists and hikers crowded Roncesvalles; so tiny I could not identify a main street. Parked busses, taxies, and automobiles littered the roads. Roncesvalles is famous in history for the defeat of Charlemagne and the death of Roland. Yet, why the place deserved these crowds I could not comprehend.
We could not make sense of the signage. Where would we stay? The tourist information booth was well marked; and closed. I translated the familiar sign – the same sign we found 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?”
Revelers packed the hotel bar. Why did they revel? I asked about a place to stay but iI could not make myself heard and understood to the bartender. A waitress, witnessing 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 how to find the albergue office. The hotel rates reflected the popularity of the place; and the revelry.
Exhausted and unable to enjoy the celebration I worried about Iris’ various symptoms and counted on some relief at the albergue.
We found the albergue office in a walled monastery across from the entrance to the cathedral. As we arrived the cathedral bells began chiming, calling the crowds from the tour busses to evening mass. Crowds flocked to the mass.
We paid for the albergue, received a stamp for our pilgrim credentials, shouldered our packs once more and stumbled, 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 staffed the evening shift, spotted us through the crowds. Polite and strict they ordered us to remove our boots. Immediately, please. Place our muddy boots on the shelves next to the door. No packs on the beds. Place our wet packs on the floor next to the bunks.
We assessed our surroundings through the divine, decidedly un-monastic din. The dark church, converted in some previous era to accommodate pilgrims, contained six rows of 18 double-decker bunks. Wet pilgrims occupied most of them. Two bunks stood empty next to the door. The albergue managers reserved these for “emergencies” – pilgrims who came in late. I maintained we were those pilgrims. Unsuccessfully.
The guards advised us of the rules. They informed us of the time for lights out, the time we would wake up in the morning and the time for us to vacate the premises.
Each set of two bunks lined up and abutted each other. On your pillow your head rested twelve inches from your bunkmate. No vacant bunks adjoined each other. Iris could not have climbed into an upper bunk but we found a lower bunk for her. I found an upper diagonally across the aisle. Unoccupied because of their position near the door and at the end of the room, every pilgrim passed by on the way to the bathrooms.
Filthy, hungry, and tired we contemplated our next move. Roncesvalles consisted of two bar and hotel combinations, a closed tourist booth, a large cathedral, the monastery converted to an albergue, and some other buildings which I could not identify. Constructed of stone sometime before the dawn of man. I hoped for an ancient grocery store. The nearest grocery, in the next village, was some kilometers away. We had eaten all the food except for some nuts. The restaurants had closed. Apparently they did not service the “after Mass” crowd.
For breakfast that morning we ate fruit and yogurt. Lunch on the trail consisted of nuts and granola. Iris, tired, in pain, and upset at the accommodations, would not eat our remaining nuts. This concerned me. Since the guards required us to vacate the albergue by 8:30 the next morning, we would pass through the next town before a grocery or café opened. That is what happened. It would be 11:30 the next morning before we ate.
In her bunk Iris rested twelve inches from some bearded stranger. In the bunk above Iris a cute young girl attracted many Romeos hitting on her throughout the evening. The guys wore t-shirts and briefs, available for Iris to examine intimately while the owner socialized with the girl above.
Iris rigged her lower bunk using scarves and towels and her poncho as a curtain around four sides – a little chrysalis of her own. This caused a minor stir and other pilgrims stopped to take photos of her arrangement.
The facilities, down a flight of wide stairs and separated by sex, consisted of two showers, two toilets, and two sinks each; for hundreds of pilgrims. Undoubtedly clean that morning they now displayed the results of the crowd of muddy, wet and soggy pilgrims.
We waited in line in our individual bath areas to take showers. The showers were phone booth sized rooms with no bench or shelves or hooks to hang clothes, glasses, soap, or towels. I soaked clean. Everything else soaked.
Outside in the small square I sat leaning against the massive stones of the chapel wall. Few pilgrims challenged the misting rain. I needed a respite from the pandemonium.
About six o’clock I re-entered the inferno and climbed into my bunk and fell into a light sleep. Pilgrims milled 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 doctrinal contradiction.
I fell into a troubled sleep. We needed to plan our day better: to decide where we wanted to end up each day; where to eat and what to eat. I cannot let god, fate, Iris or the universe decide or we will end up. Not like tonight: in hell with no dinner, no breakfast; tired, miserable, wet, and sleeping with hundreds of snoring and coughing pilgrims. I need to learn some Spanish phrases so I can ask for the basics. It has become clear Iris will depend on me for her needs and to interact with other humans. In the course of a spiritual pilgrimage learning to let go is important. However, I needed to gain control.
Roncesvalles to Biskarreta
Six o’clock in the morning: lights on, bad religious music blaring, and a large drill sergeant walking up and down the aisles bidding a happy but determined, “Good morning,” “Buenos Dias” in twelve languages.
Iris claimed she had not slept at all with the snoring and pilgrims wandering to the bathroom. In great pain she could not relieve herself. We packed. I splashed some water on my face and brushed my teeth. We left by 6:30.
Despite carrying no food, my backpack weighed heavily on my back and hips. My right knee hurt. As we walked down steeper slopes it became more painful. The toes on my right foot ached.
We passed through the deserted village and could not buy any food. Still traveling on empty stomachs, we walked through farms and fields full of mud and manure. Surrounding us, a panoramic view of snow-capped mountains framed with low clouds, fog, and mist. Sheep and cows grazed in lush, green pastures. We plodded ankle deep in mud.
Everyone passed us. Even pilgrims starting today in St. Jean and climbing over the mountains and intelligently bypassing Roncesvalles, passed us. Our slow pace clocked less than two kilometers an hour.
By 11:30 we found a bar open in Biskarreta where I discovered Tortilla Espanola.
Tortilla Espanola ranks as one of my great mysteries of the trip. Sancho Panzing for some food Iris could eat – no meat, no wheat – I saw this on the bar under glass.
Other pilgrims at the bar assured me it consisted only of potato. To this day I don’t know the recipe or how it stays together or even what to call it: tortilla, potato tortilla, frittata, potato frittata, whatever. I learned to point to it. Almost every bar I entered offered it: a food Iris might eat without risk of allergic reaction. I loved it.
Biskarreta possessed one hotel, a bar, a good grocery, a nursery and a few houses. I inquired about a room at the hotel across the street from the bar. It wasn’t expensive – 40 Euros a night for two persons, ‘con bano’ (with a bathroom) which I did not expect.
We decided to stay, but we could not occupy the room until noon. Perhaps she said one o’clock – I might have misunderstood the woman. Iris, unhappy and impatient did not want to wait. She would not use the bathroom in the hotel lobby as the proprietress suggested. She reclined on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. At one point she said, “let’s just go on.” She wanted to be miserable.
When we finally dropped our bags in the room and Iris used the bathroom, she calmed down and we walked around the town. We joked about my attempted translations of food items in the grocery store. We used my Spanish phrases to get fruit and detergent and the food we needed for the next day. We did laundry in the room sink and I hung our wash on a sunny clothesline behind the hotel. The room was bright and the town was quiet and it was a good decision to stay.
Today we walked 11.5 kilometers from 6:30 to 11:30. That’s a little better than two kilometers per hour. With 740 kilometers to Santiago, at 10 kilometers a day, it should take us 74 days. We have 29 days left before we need to fly back. That strikes me as problematic.