An amazing day! We walk up to 1400 meters to go through the Pass of Roncesvalles and across the Pyrenees into Spain.
Some 100-150 pilgrims leave St Jean Pied de Port early in the morning. It’s at least an eight hour walk so everyone is advised to head out between 7 and 8 AM.
We’re a bit late but we’re not worried. We move along briskly and soon start passing the first stragglers.
The first 8 km are the hardest as we climb steeply up to 800 meters. After that we continue to climb but it’s a little less steep.
We notice the benefit of having done quite a bit of climbing and descending the last few days as we continue to move along at a good pace, all the while passing other pilgrims. For some reason we’re under the mistaken impression that the hard part is yet to come so we’re not at all in survival mode yet...
After those first 8 km, we come upon the last stop before we enter the mountains, a café with a large terrace perched on the mountainside. The other pilgrims, who realize that they’ve completed the hardest climb are all in festive mood. There’s a lot of hugging, and high-fiving; much camaraderie and international brotherhood. I try to accept it and enjoy it, but basically I find it deeply annoying.
At one point I look across the terrace and when some people move aside I am shocked to see someone I thought had passed out of our lives many days and many taxi rides ago! There she sits on her own, eating a little snack and smiling directly at me through the crowd - the Woman of the Woods!
How did she get ahead of us again? But more importantly, what is it that she apparently still has to tell me? Is it that its OK not to get into the spirit of camaraderie surrounding me? Or is she asking me whether I really needed that big piece of Gateau Basque with my coffee? I have trouble finishing it now.
We continue our walk. It’s difficult to find a place in the caravan struggling up the mountain where one isn’t bothered by the large groups of holidaymakers, loudly laughing and chattering away. Americans, Japanese, eastern-Europeans seem to be doing the camino in groups. Or maybe, they’re just a bit louder. Desmond isn’t at all bothered. He gets to give fellow pilgrims advice on how to walk, he explains to them what they can expect but I find myself speeding up or slowing down to keep my distance during much of the day.
Meanwhile, the walk is amazing. The weather is superb - sunny and cool. The views are fantastic -back towards France, to the side along the rows and rows of mountains that make up the Pyrenees, stretching off into the distance, or ahead, where one sees the forests of Navarra.
We climb most of the day, not reaching the highest point until about an hour before our destination, Roncesvalles. We descend down to the ancient abbey and go inside to obtain a stamp for our credencial. We are confronted by the bustling activity of the hostel - Spanish women washing their hair and their dainties, stiffly smiling older Dutch volunteers greeting us in English, admonishing us to take off our backpacks before we go inside. We have to fill out forms stating age, gender, religion, motivation - all to get a stamp. And everywhere the camaraderie and the talking!
We go out the courtyard to visit the church and discover to our delight that our hotel isn’t 4 km down the road but is actually in the oldest, original part of the abbey. The hotel is wonderful - silent, beautifully restored with design furniture and a good restaurant.
We have made it, we have crossed the Pyrenees, we’re starting on our trek across northern Spain!