the Way, part one

days one to eight

On March 22, 2014, my father and I started walking from St. Jean Pied de Port, a small town in the French Pyrenees near the Spanish border. We were bound for a destination roughly 800 kilometers to the west: Santiago de Compostela. This was The Way of Saint James, El Camino de Santiago, and we were peregrinos: pilgrims. Now, one year later, I’m inclined to recall my experiences. With journal excerpts, travelogs, and reflections, this is part one.

Day 1

St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

24.7 kilometers

starting in St. Jean, clad in our raingear
“Easy at the start, light rain off and on. Left around 8:30 after a good breakfast.”

The day dawned cloudy and cool, and we made good time towards the border. The pastoral countryside was verdant and the path was easy, winding its way through the rolling hills. The border crossing was a non-event, and suddenly we were in Spain. A snack in Valcarlos spurred us on, but the real walking had yet to begin.

Because of the weather, we’d been told to take the lower route through Valcarlos instead of the traditional Napoleon Route over the mountains. Snow covered the high path, and more was on the way. Though I would have relished the opportunity for a good long climb, the views would have been nonexistent from the top, so it was just as well that we stuck to the road.

That didn’t keep us out of the weather, though. As we climbed into the clouds they in turn dropped their contents on us. Rain, then a bit of sleet, then snow at our high point for the day: Roncesvalles (or Roncevaux, if you’re French) Pass. We rested beneath the overhang of a closed chapel, out of the elements for a moment. This is where the Battle of Roncevaux Pass was fought in 778, when Charlemagne’s rear guard was defeated by the Basques. The legendary Song of Roland tells the tale of this conflict, but all this was far from my mind as I sat there catching my breath and my warmth. Perhaps on a clearer day I would have been more inclined to historical reflection. But then again, the whole Camino is a chance for historical reflection. The overwhelming weight of history is ever-present, with you as your steps retrace those of millions before you. It’s a lot to process.

We descended from the pass to the welcoming albergue at Roncesvalles. The converted monastery was a marvelous mix of modern hostel and ancient architecture. The beds were nice, the showers warm, the dinner delicious, and the church beautiful. It was a good end to our first day, with its baptism by cold and wind.

Day 2

Roncesvalles to Larrasoaña

28.5 kilometers

a typical marker along the Camino, much needed in this snowy landscape
“The town and the mountains were gorgeous in their white blanket of the night’s accumulation. Quiet, serene, pristine.”

Three inches of snow absorbed our first steps the next morning. A good three fourths of the day was spent in the white woods, rambling through forests and fields, losing the way very briefly. The scene was reminiscent of winter in the Southern Appalachians, yet every town was a reminder that we were far from home. The centuries-old churches, the quiet main streets, and the little bakeries punctuated the longer spells of rural walking. This would prove to be the norm for the length of the journey.

We passed Alto de Erro and began descending, losing the snow in the process. White trails turned to brown, and the path occasionally doubled as a stream, draining the higher elevations. In Zubiri it was raining, and we paused in a cafe, running into friends we’d made the day before.

One last push brought us into sunshine and Larrasoaña. Here were more friends, some a day old and some brand new. It was a fantastic evening in the albergue with company hailing from five countries: Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States. While I appreciate the services provided, this was easily the lowest-quality albergue we stayed in, with creaky beds and musty rooms. However, looking back this was easily one of the best nights on the Camino. A long day is made all the better with an evening of new friends, bonds forged through the commonality of a shared experience.

Day 3

Larrasoaña to Cizur Menor

21.2 kilometers

in the streets of Pamplona
“No rain, even a few bits of sunshine, but as we approached the walls of Pamplona the drizzle began again. Time to go inside.”

A foggy morning along the road delivered us to Pamplona by lunch, and we escaped the new precipitation in the Catedral de Pamplona. This was the first of a handful of dazzling cathedrals we’d encounter, but also one of the most stark in its interior decor.

We had lunch in the heart of the old city, walking along the colorful streets where bulls run. This was where Hemingway spent time, yet again the appreciation eluded me. How do you properly process such things when you’re still processing a whole new day-to-day life? There’s meaning in every kilometer, but it takes some time to settle in enough to notice.

Cizur Menor was our destination, a suburb just a few kilometers removed from the city. Some friends from the day before stayed in Pamplona for the night, and that distance was enough to separate us for the rest of the walk. Others, though, joined us in Cizur Menor. We fixed a communal meal and relaxed. Lucky for us, English is the common language on the Camino. My Spanish is far from conversational, so I am always grateful to our fellow pilgrims who endeavored to learn a second language. The experience was made all the richer because of their bilingualism. I need to work on my Spanish.

Day 4

Cizur Menor to Cirauqui

30.8 kilometers

Alto de Perdon
“… a sloping, winding walk leading up to Alto de Perdon, where a monument and pilgrim statues stand below windmills and above the valleys below. It’s a wonderful view, a rich reward for a long time going uphill.”

This was an inadvertently long day. After reaching the vista at Alto de Perdon and making a side trip to the (unfortunately closed) octagonal church at Eunate, we walked into Puente la Reina earlier than we thought we would. Based on the stages set forth in our guidebook, this was where we’d intended to stop for the day. But we were restless and on a roll, so we pressed on.

More rain fell as we crossed fields of green and yellow, past stacks of hay bales seven layers high. Now the scenery reminded me of the American west, with scrubby hills that looked like parts of Colorado or New Mexico.

The next town, Mañeru, had no albergues open this early in the season, so we were now forced to carry on once more. Extending the original day’s length by about 50%, we at last walked into Cirauqui having posted our first 30+ km day. Fruit, bread, and cheese from the market were filling, but the sleeping left a little to be desired that night. Some pilgrims, as many others will tell you, really know how to snore.

Day 5

Cirauqui to Los Arcos

36.2 kilometers

climbing to Villamayor de Monjardin
“Ambitious day.”

We continued in the same style as the day before, arriving at the supposed endpoint far to early to stop. Estella was nice, but it wasn’t even noon yet. Onwards, through the Irache vineyards, oak forests, and hills cut with red dirt paths. The sun came out as we climbed to Villamayor de Monjardin, where we contemplated calling it a day. The path was tempting, though, and we returned to it, pushing west once more.

The subsequent 10 km were beautiful but challenging. The fields we walked through seemed endless, one fading into the next, each hillcrest yielding a view the same as the one behind you. It was surely beautiful, and on a clear day the walking would have been a breeze through this landscape. Today, however, was not to remain clear. The wind and rain picked up, and for the first time we were truly exposed to the elements. The forest was far from the path, and the detour was unjustifiable. Eventually, the weather abated, and we walked in the dry into Los Arcos.

For such a small town, its church is a wonder. High ceilings, great tapestries, sculptures, and a massive, ornate, gilded woodwork behind the altar. I went to mass with Marie, a German student and the only person I’d met so far who was younger than I was, and we were two of maybe 40 congregants. It was a great sanctuary, and it was less than a quarter full. Lovely mass, though, and all the pilgrims were summoned forward at the end for a blessing. I thanked my three years of attending mass with my Catholic girlfriend for allowing me to follow the proceedings when my Spanish let me down.

Day 6

Los Arcos to Logroño

28.2 kilometers

snow that we didn’t have to walk through
“The mountains capped with snow to the north and south, the fields of green rolling on and on, groves of pine and groves of olive, vineyards and arroyos, nature in splendor all day.”

They say there are three parts to the Camino. The first part is a physical trial. You and your body are not accustomed to the stress that comes with hiking 20–30 kilometers everyday while carrying all your possessions on your back. This first part made itself well known today.

All the ups and downs, mostly the downs, of the terrain had taken their toll. My knees hurt, and my knees never hurt. They were fine in the morning, as we walked with stellar views of the mountains on the horizon. They were a little less fine in the midday, as we approached Viana perched on a hill beyond the outskirts of the nearby city. But the last 10 km, past the border of Navarre and La Rioja, that was tough. With stiff legs, we arrived in Logroño, took the first albergue we found, had dinner, and did little else.

My apologies to the city. It seemed lovely, with much to offer. I’ll have to save the exploring for next time.

This was the first albergue that broke the norm of European and (very few) North American pilgrims. For the first time, we were among South Koreans, and not just a few. Apparently a recent book had inspired pilgrims from east Asia, similar to how the film “The Way” introduced and inspired us to make our own Camino now.

Day 7

Logroño to Ventosa

20.2 kilometers

“Off at 7:45. Slowly

Rest was the theme of the day, or at least as much rest as you can get while still walking 20.2 kilometers. We took it easy, responding to the protests from our knees, and made it a short day. Easy walking to Ventosa and a very nice Albergue San Saturnino.

It’s interesting how groups form. There was our little group: me, my dad, and Marie. Then there were the Germans, bound by common tongue. A unique quartet was comprised of a Korean, two Germans (I think…), and a Dutchman who called me “Tennessee.” People you’ve known for less than a week and see sporadically day to day, circumstances that in most situations would produce only casual acquaintances, are familiar and welcomed characters, friends and fellow pilgrims. The connections forged through the experience are quick and strong. It’s nice to see them, to check up and chat, and to share a meal at the end of a day’s walking. I would hesitate to call myself a people-person, but I loved the people along the Way. Indeed, they were probably the best part of the whole journey.

Day 8

Ventosa to Cirueña

25.5 kilometers

“It was like everyone had just left. Nice houses, clean streets, no one to be seen.”

We walked into an eerie scene at the end of our day’s walk. The morning was normal enough, still making our way through the rolling hills that had been the norm after descending from the Pyrenees. We passed through Nájera and Azofra, and found ourselves alone on the Camino, all our friends from last night ahead of us now. We kept the day short (relatively speaking) again, and headed for Cirueña, which turned out to be an odd destination.

It would appear that this was real estate speculation that didn’t pan out, a casualty of the economic downturn. There was a golf course and rows of nice but repetitive houses, wide streets and fenced lawns, and no residents whatsoever. It was a bit disarming, but we knew there was an albergue here somewhere.

In the older part of town, things became a little more lively, but not much. There was little in the way of diversion here; one restaurant and a closed market were all we saw. Luckily, the albergue was open and, turns out, very nice. It was a converted house, and we were all-time customers numbers four and five: it had just opened the week before. We had the place to ourselves, and we relaxed in the uncommon silence of an afternoon free of fellow pilgrims.

With two “short” days and good rest behind us, we passed on through phase one of the Camino. We had endured the physical trial, the initial adjustment to a life of walking. There were over 200 kilometers between us and St. Jean, but that still left nearly 600 between us and Santiago. The next phase would soon begin to make itself known — the mental trial.