Anna’s Camino: Day 4 – Roncesvalles to Zubiri

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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There are several weird things that I remember most about my time at Roncesvalles: how difficult it was for me to crawl up into the top bunk without bumping my shins on the bed frame, how very hot the hot water was in the bathroom taps, how loud the toilets were when they flushed, and the feel of my bare feet on the dormitory floor as I walked downstairs to rescue my boots from boot storage. There was warm wood, cold stone, and also a place where the floor was nubby and hurt my feet a little. The floor in boot storage was dirty. I also remember borrowing one of Natalie’s skirts while all of my clothes were in the laundry, and looking through the huge pile of throwaway items that pilgrims had left on a table downstairs in the main corridor.

That pile of left-behind stuff at Roncesvalles was an eye-opener, for sure. There were so many weird and random things in it from all over the world. My favorite was an entire set of foam hair curlers, left by someone who’d given up beautiful curls in exchange for less back pain, I supposed. I’d packed rather sparingly, only bringing 14 lbs of gear with me, including my pack. Still, by the time we hit Roncesvalles, I’d figured out that I could get rid of my hair conditioner, and I was calculating what else could go at some point. While I tried to find ways to make my pack lighter, Claire, who had packed on a budget and was always keeping an eye out for new and better gear, found a couple of nice clothing items in the pile and actually ADDED things to her pack. Natalie, who was a hiking pro with plenty of experience in her native Canada, had a heavy pack but also exactly what she knew she wanted and could carry all the way to Santiago. She’d even brought a “going-out” outfit with her, including comfy dress boots!

In the morning, we retrieved laundry from the nuns, packed up, and moved down to the dining hall, where Claire cooked up a quick batch of oatmeal. I’d intended on just waiting while she finished her meal, then heading out on an empty stomach (I’m not much for breakfast), but Claire insisted on feeding all three of us, and we had a hurried breakfast together as the volunteers shooed lingering pilgrims out the door to start getting ready for the new batch of wanderers who’d be walking in in a few hours.

It was chilly and just getting light out when we left the albergue, but by the time we made it to the edge of town, it was fully light. Terry and Phyllis were taking pictures by the Camino distance sign on the edge of town, so we stopped and got into a few shots, then walked on together. Terry and I got to know each other a little better, and found that we both had a penchant for reading Camino journals and related stories. Natalie, Claire and I quickly outpaced Terry and Phyllis, but exchanged hopes that we’d meet up again down the road.

 

The walk out of Roncesvalles led us through an oak forest that was said to be inhabited by witches, as well as through a small town famous for its witch trials. I didn’t realize it until later, but once we reached Burguete, we were in Hemingway country. This part of Navarre was where Ernest Hemingway used to love to vacation with his family. It’s famous for being a great fishing spot, though I mostly admired the lovely architecture. I was still new to the Camino, so I hadn’t really grasped that the architectural styles would be changing drastically as I crossed Spain. In hindsight, I wish that I’d have taken more time to admire the buildings and historical markers as we passed through, since they were very different from anything I’d be seeing down the line. Burguete was the first place we stopped at that morning, since I needed to use the bathroom and we were all interested in finding a snack. I’ll always remember the cute little pub where I tried a delicious slice of spinach pie, as well as my first bite of tortilla (Spanish omelet). There was also a new and exciting find – a Jai Alai court! I’d always thought of Jai Alai as a strange ballgame from the 1960s that is typically only played in American casino towns, but it turns out that it hails originally from Spain. Burguete’s neighborhood Jai Alai court reminded me of any municipal basketball court in the USA, with a few small differences.

 

After our bathroom and snack break, we were off again. I had to laugh on our way out of town as we witnessed a rare sight, indeed – a group of cyclists in spandex and aerodynamic helmets was cycling down one lane of the road, when they were suddenly passed by a group of motorcyclists, clad in black leather and looking like hell on wheels! It’s not every day that you see biker gangs’ worlds collide in such a manner. After we left Burguete, a lot of the rest of the walk was rural, through lovely stretches of farm fields and woodland areas. At one point we passed a field with a bunch of fat, farting horses. We stopped to pet one of the horses, and in getting closer to the paddock, I grabbed at a weed to move it out of my way. And that, children, is how I found out about stinging nettle. I can tell you what poison ivy and poison oak look like, but until Spain I’d never seen a stinging nettle. For the next five minutes or so, both hands and one of my shins burned like crazy! I even took a picture, in case I needed to tell a pharmacist just what I’d gotten into.

Up until now, I’d had relatively little pain, other than the normal muscle aches and sore feet from walking more than I was used to. This was the afternoon that the lactic acid buildup started to get to me and I started to get into real muscle soreness territory. By afternoon, my calves were done for the day, and were not afraid to let me know it! Luckily, I hadn’t experienced any blisters or serious foot pain, mostly because I had taken one big lesson very seriously: whenever I started to feel a little bit of “heat” from friction in my shoes, I stopped immediately and treated the issue. I was wearing socks with built in liners, and also applying an organic petroleum jelly substitute (Alba’s Un-Petroleum Jelly) to my feet every morning before putting on socks. I also took breaks to take off my shoes and socks and give my feet air, put on more jelly if I felt I needed it, and address any hot spots with a piece of moleskin. On top of that, I had two pairs of shoes that I’d switch out as the mood hit: a pair of New Balance trail runners, and a pair of Teva Tirra sandals. Spoiler alert: I walked for 35 days, and never got a blister or any serious foot injury. Each peregrino has their own method of foot care, but mine worked perfectly, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

 

Natalie walked ahead of us that afternoon, since she had some health issues that needed care and Claire and I were taking our time. Before splitting up, earlier in the afternoon, we had stopped for a break in a little town before Zubiri. We were looking for a place to grab lunch, but nowhere seemed to be open. Finally, we lucked across a tiny cafe with a little picnic table outside. We grabbed cold beers and ordered bocadillos, then went out to the picnic table to take off our shoes, drink our beers, and figure out where we were going. There were several kittens running around in the parking lot, and I tried to coax them over with scraps. Meanwhile, the girls looked over our various guidebooks and we decided to meet up in Zubiri at the municipal albergue. I wasn’t excited about going to the cheapest albergue on the list, since I’d heard it could be dirty, but I also didn’t want to split up from my ladies, so I kept my opinion to myself. It turned out to be just fine. I hobbled into town that afternoon just behind Claire, and we grabbed beds in the same dorm as Natalie’s, just a bit farther down the room.

The municipal albergue was pretty bare bones, with shaky metal bunk beds that made me scared to have the top bunk. I was quickly getting used to the first come, first served rule as far as beds went, and even though I am not fond of heights or shaky beds, I resigned myself to the probability that I’d be sleeping on the top bunk for the next 30+ days. This night was the first time I remember making the conscious choice to get a bed by the door, since I knew I’d be getting up at least once during the night to use the bathroom. To my dismay, the bathroom wasn’t in the same building, but in a smaller outbuilding across the courtyard. I remember grabbing my things and heading to the bathroom to shower, and my legs being in such pain that what should have been a 20 second walk took a couple of minutes. Other pilgrims lounged in the sunny courtyard, journaling, chatting, and hanging out laundry, and several gave me looks of pity as I slowly made my way over towards the promise of a nice, hot shower and clean clothes. By now, my quads had seized up, too.

After taking a shower and washing my clothes, I regrouped with the girls, and we decided to find a pilgim meal somewhere close by. We walked back into town center to take a look at various available menus, and eventually chose a sports bar with a lot of locals inside. I can’t remember all of that night’s dinner, but I do remember that I ordered steak, with some amount of trepidation (steak in a sports bar? eek). However, I shouldn’t have been worried. It was one of the most tender and delicious steaks I’ve ever eaten in my entire life, and it cost about $5 US. All I could think of was all of the fat, happy, free-range farm animals I’d walked by over the last couple of days, and that fair treatment certainly pays off in the end. Over the course of the pilgrimage, I’d start to think more about the animals I was meeting, and have second thoughts on consuming meat, but for this day, I was very satisfied with my perfectly cooked piece of cow.

As wonderful as dinner might have been, I was exhausted, and almost fell asleep before dessert. I decided to leave the girls and head back to the albergue to see if my clothes had dried on the line yet, and get ready for bed. What awaited me was a mini nightmare for a new pilgrim: the clothes line was empty. My clothes were missing!!!!

I was so exhausted and confused that instead of taking a second to consider what might have occurred, I jumped right to worst-case scenario. Sobbing, I walked into the communal kitchen and announced to all of the pilgrims there that my clothes had been stolen. The people who could speak English popped into action, asking what I’d had on the line, where it had been hanging, and if I needed anything else. A few non-English speakers comforted me with kind eyes and pats on the back. I’m sure a few people rolled their eyes (as I’m doing in hindsight) at the sight of an over-tired, emotionally distraught woman in blue elephant pajamas, sobbing over a few things that could be easily replaced. I was mostly worried about a special t-shirt that I had worn that day, and intended to wear when I reached Santiago de Compostela. After a minute or two, I regained my sanity enough to stop the waterworks, and a helpful peregrina helped me retrace where my laundry had been. As it turned out, a married couple had washed their laundry earlier and hung it close to mine. The wife had sent her husband out to grab their things off of the line and throw them in the albergue’s only clothes dryer to make sure they were dry for the morning. He’d grabbed anything that looked vaguely familiar, including all of my clothes. I apologized for being a head case, and she apologized for sending her husband out to grab the laundry in the first place. He joked that he wouldn’t need me to pay rental space in their clothes dryer, and all was good. We hugged, the communal kitchen was once again a tear-free zone, and we all went to bed soon after, with nice, dry clothes.

Getting out of bed that night to hobble to the bathroom was torture. I resolved to pick up any and all available drugs as soon as we reached the next pharmacy. Other than that, though, no bed bugs and no excessive snoring from anyone in the dorm, so life was pretty good!

Click here to read about Day 5.

Anna’s Camino: Day 3 – Orisson to Roncesvalles

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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For much of the morning’s walk, all I could hear was the wind and the chiming of the tiny bells the sheep wore.

The trek from Orisson to Roncesvalles was, without a doubt, the most beautiful and emotionally-jarring leg of my Camino. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some stunning vistas to come, but this little slice of the world is shockingly beautiful on a good day, and it was the perfect day to cross the Pyrenees on foot.

I walked away from Orisson alone, and was on my own for about an hour before I heard a pair of pilgrims walking up behind me. I’d met the two the night before at Orisson, and remembered that they were from Chicago. Andy was in his mid-20s, and had just finished up a teaching gig in Asia. He wanted to walk the Camino before moving back to the States, and his dad, Peter, had decided to join him for a portion of the walk. The three of us chatted a bit as our paces allowed, and walked together for small times throughout the day.

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The first of many beautiful horses I was to see along the Camino.

I got the feeling that Peter thought I was unprepared (which was fair – I was). The father-son duo were very outdoorsy, and, along with Andy’s brother, had traveled quite a bit when the boys were younger. Learning from my experiences the day before, I decided that since the day was gorgeous and I didn’t have any set time to be in Roncesvalles, I’d take my time to sit and take my shoes off whenever I felt like it. There were sheep EVERYWHERE, and the trail was often littered with sheep and horse dung, but every now and then you’d find a rock that was just perfect for sitting on to take a break.

It was also perfectly quiet out. The wind was blowing, but you could hear the bells the sheep wore tinkling from a mile away across the mountains. That first day, my ears were actually ringing from the silence! But as I sat there on this particular rock, admiring the landscape, letting my feet breathe, I heard Peter mention me. He and Andy were far down the mountain. He couldn’t have known I’d be able to hear him, and I know he wouldn’t have wished to hurt my feelings. He was criticizing my shoes (New Balance trail runners – perfect choice for the Camino if you have hot feet and you’re prone to ankle blisters from high ankle choices like hiking boots). I heard Andy shushing him in what I was to learn was his characteristically kind and easy-going manner. A minute or two later, I saw them approaching from around the bend and down the mountain. As the song says, voices carry.

Everyday Anna would have been deeply hurt at the thought of being criticized. Camino Anna took into account the cold, damp feel of the stone beneath her tech-fiber covered butt, the amazing breeze wafting across her sweaty toes, the rich smell of grass, mingled with sheep dung, the sound of those bells tinkling across the mountainside, and the sincere tone in Andy’s voice as he had asked his father to stop being so critical of a stranger…and I let it go. Of course, not enough that I’d forget it, but that moment seems set apart from many others, in that it was one of the first major learning moments of my Camino. It was a time when I had a choice – confront someone for being (unintentionally) jerky, or refuse to escalate a stupid conversation and go back to enjoying the hell out of this little slice of heaven. I made the right choice. I hope that I can continue to reflect on that for the rest of my life, and let it guide me into continuing to reject unnecessary drama.

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A hint at the mud that was to come later that afternoon!

Two or three hours into the day’s walk, there was a special treat waiting for us on the mountain – a little food truck with the last credential stamp in France! There was also hot coffee, tea, and chocolate, juice, boiled eggs (to become a favorite on the Camino), fruit, and this amazing local sheeps’ cheese that was made by the farmer/food truck owner. I ended up sharing some cheese with Andy and Peter, then buying my own wedge for later.

As we happily drank coffee and ate our revitalizing snacks, Natalie and Claire walked up. We chatted briefly, then I walked on.

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The Virgin of Orisson (Verge d’Orisson)

Most of the rest of the day was walked alone and with various people. Andy and Peter and I crossed paths a few more times, and I walked a while with Natalie and Claire, but once we got into Spain, the path got muddier and more difficult, and I found myself growing weary and retreating into myself a bit more. I took frequent breaks to nibble on the sandwich that I’d brought with me from Orisson and catch my breath.

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Taking a break. I could hear the waterfall, just couldn’t see it!

At one point in the day, I was sitting close to a waterfall that I could hear but not see, letting my feet dangle over an embankment, eating the end of my sandwich. The trail in that area is a popular walking trail for nature enthusiasts, so every now and then a biker or walker would pass me going the opposite way. To amuse myself, I’d say “Hey, you’re heading the wrong way! Santiago’s that way!” Most of the time, the hikers would laugh, but one time, a couple of middle-aged Brits laughed, then stopped and asked me what everyone was doing. They’d seen all the pilgrims, but didn’t know anything about the Camino. They asked me how much farther I had to go, and when I told them, “Oh, about 30 more days or so,” the man shook my hand and wished me luck, lol!

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Only 765 more kilometers to go – piece of cake!

 

Heading down toward Roncesvalles, you walk through a dimly lit forest that seems almost magical if you’ve been living in the city too long. Along with all the trees, there was also ankle-deep mud that threatened to suck off your shoes, and a thick covering of slick leaves, just to add a little extra excitement. I saw a few people slip and fall, and if not for my trusty walking sticks, would have surely met the same fate. One thing I found out about mud of this type is that my innate reaction to squelching through mud is to get the uncontrollable giggles. A fair number of pilgrims must have thought I was absolutely insane as they passed me on the trail, because I laughed uncontrollably for at least an hour of muddy trail, squelching all the way!

Claire and I caught up just before Roncesvalles, and I asked where Natalie was. It turned out that she’d hurt her knee before starting the Camino, and was nursing the injury still. The pain had come back in the afternoon, so she was taking it slow on the descent into Roncesvalles. There was a waymarker noting directions to the albergues and town center when you first leave the trail and enter Roncesvalles, so I offered to stay there with our packs and wait for Natalie while Claire walked to find the main albergue. A few minutes after Claire walked off, Natalie appeared at the woods’ edge. She was pleasantly surprised to see me, and I felt proud to have made a helpful decision. It seemed like Natalie, Claire and I were becoming an item, which was both a surprise and a relief. Even though it had been really easy to meet new people thus far, much easier than I’d anticipated, I couldn’t believe I’d had the good luck to meet these two kind strangers at the very outset of my journey. Without even meaning to, I’d found my first Camino family.

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Thank goodness for Scotch (and the kindness of bartenders).

Claire was eager to get a bunk and get her affairs in order, but Natalie and I were both much more eager to find a drink and let a day on the Camino roll off our backs. We walked together down to the nearest pub, where Natalie got the closest thing they had to a brandy, a Spanish liqueur called Pacharan, and the bartender gave me a double Ballentines on the rocks with an espresso chaser. We sat in the sun, sipping our drinks and getting to know each other a little more, stopping to say hi to various pilgrims we knew from Orisson and the day’s walk. Andy came along and pulled up a chair. Terry and Phyllis soon straggled over. Claire found her way to us, along with a couple of women she’d met earlier. It was a gorgeous afternoon on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, and we were all quite content with the task that life had offered us – enjoying the company of our fellow pilgrims.

The main albergue at Roncesvalles is quite impressive. It’s a huge old monastery that’s been repurposed to give pilgrims a place to bed down for the night. I loved the sturdy, well-made bunks, each with its own private locker, and thought it was particularly nice that each set of four bunks makes its own semi-private pod. In many of the other albergues I was to experience on the Camino, you can see most of the room from your bunk. Here, each set of four beds had a modicum of privacy, which is nice when you’re getting eased into the idea of sharing a room with a hundred other people. Natalie, Claire and I were sharing one pod, with the fourth bed belonging to an Irish cyclist who was traveling the Camino with his brother.

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Statue of the dying Roland, as Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) is where Charlemagne’s nephew, hero of “La Chanson de Roland” took his last stand against the Basques.

After we moved into our bunks and got things settled, I took our laundry down to get washed and dried by the nuns in real washers and dryers, since hand washing the night before hadn’t gone splendidly for any of us, and we were all feeling in need of sparkling new duds. Claire decided to go on a tour, while Natalie and I went to dinner (my first pilgrim meal – spaghetti, fried fish and french fries, rice pudding, and lots of wine). Midway through the meal, the table launched into a half-English, half-Spanish conversation about current Spanish politics, which I found very interesting and enlightening. What really got me was that of three Spanish pilgrims at the table, each had a strikingly different opinion on the current political climate, but they all got along quite well (they were best friends taking just a few days to walk on the Camino) and managed to keep their political ideals separate from their personal interactions. In other words, they were much more civilized than Americans fighting over politics.

Dinner over, we went to the pilgrim mass at the local church, where the priest blessed all of the pilgrims and wished us a good journey. After such a long, tiring day, I was touched by the ceremony, but also just exhausted and ready to hit the hay. I went to sleep feeling very thankful for everything that had befallen me thus far, though a little scared of bed bugs, as Natalie had told me earlier that they typically live in the wooden bunks. Still, I was asleep within minutes and slept soundly until the lights went on the next morning.

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The moon from the albergue window when we woke up the next morning and prepared to leave for Zubiri.

Click here to read about Day 4.

 

Imagining The Road To Roncesvalles

Click thru to find out more about the path from St. Jean to Roncesvalles.

Click thru to see a larger version of this image, plus find out more about the path from St. Jean to Roncesvalles.

When I first found out about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I remember being most excited about hearing that you had to cross the Pyrenees to get there. Of course, this technically isn’t true – you don’t HAVE to cross the Pyrenees on your Camino. However, the most popular route, the Camino Frances, kicks off in St. Jean Pied de Port in France, and takes peregrinos across the famous mountain range on the way into Spain. I definitely plan to start my journey in St. Jean Pied de Port, but it still gives me a little bit of worry.

From what I’ve read, those who elect to take this route find that the first day on the trail is one of the most challenging. The road is straight up (and then straight down) a mountain, with a vertical incline of almost a mile. The surroundings can be treacherous, and I’ve read accounts from different times of the year with problems ranging from heavy fog to torrential downpours to blizzard conditions that call for trail closures. In the movie “The Way,” the main character’s son dies on his first day on the Camino. It’s implied (or at least I always thought) that he lost his way and fell over a cliff, but I’ve also read that pilgrims can get lost and die of hypothermia. This list of people who’ve died on the way to Santiago de Compostela includes a few people who passed away during this first day of the journey.

However, that’s not really what scares me. I’m planning to spend this first part of the trip with other pilgrims (I’m sure I’ll find someone to walk with), just to make sure I don’t fall off any mountains. What makes me nervous is the more mundane “killer” on the journey – many people don’t train adequately for a walk of this scope, and the first day is an incredibly demanding hike. People don’t correctly gauge their energy levels, forget to eat or drink enough, and generally have no concept of what it takes to walk for 27 kilometers (almost 17 miles) up a mountain on Day 1. I’ve even read that some people get so worn out that they’re delirious and disoriented by the end, which makes me think of how I felt when I ran my first (and last) marathon.

Sure, I’m planning to get in some training, but I know myself very well, and I know that there’s no way I’m going to get in enough time on a StairMaster to be adequately prepared for the incline. If we had some mountains around here to practice on, then maybe I’d get in the practice, but spending hours in the gym every day is not my cuppa. But that’s OK. The best part about the first day on The Camino will be meeting new people – and that most likely means commiserating with the other folks who’re just as ill-prepared as I’ll probably be! As strange as it seems, I’m really looking forward to the challenge.

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