I did not rest well this night and morning came too soon. Perhaps it was because of the excitement of fulfilling a long-anticipated bucket list. As soon as the alarm went off I dragged my self out of bed, dressed, slathered my feet in vaseline, slipped on my toe socks, laced my trail runners and put a smile on my face. I then searched out that ever needed cup of coffee! After breakfast, the group was bussed back to Saint Jean Pied de Port where we begin our walk. Saint Jean is a rustic medieval town located at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains in France. The bus dropped us off near the Gate of Saint Jacques, a medieval structure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This spot is one of the traditional starting points of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James). With our pilgrim passports (credential) in hand, we walked through the gate and made our way to the Pilgrim Office to obtain our first stamp (selllos) which authenticates the start and progress of our Camino. The morning was crisp, the sky was blue, perfect walking weather. We will follow the Napoleon route entering Spain via France through the Pyrenees Mountains.
It’s said this first day is the hardest of the Camino, not only because the climb starts with what is close to a vertical mile but also due to the fact the legs are not ready for the work ahead. Some members of our group stopped for coffee before starting the climb. Knowing I needed every advance step possible I started as soon as I left the Pilgrims Office. Within the hour I heard joyful singing behind me. It was my fellow pilgrims on my heels, eventually, they would pass me and disappeared from my sight. Three and a half hours later I had managed to climb five miles and reached the Orisson Auberge. If I was walking on my own I would have made reservations here and continued the climb the next day. Our lodging for the night was still ten plus miles away. The slopes for the next five miles would be a more gradual ascent and the following five miles would be a steep rugged descent.
Not even sure if it was noon yet I had a beer and discussed my options with the guide. The bus/checkpoint/lunch was an hour up the mountain. I made the decision to end my walk for the day in Orrison. Our bus would pass Orrison on the way down at which time I would hitch a ride back to the hotel. During my wait, I enjoyed a café con leche and a slice of basque cake. The view was beautiful, Griffon vultures circled above and a group of cows blocked the road. It was a perfect place to contemplate the beauty God made for us.
The rest of the group conquered the rigorous climb and descent of the Pyrenees which was over 4,200 feet in a 15-mile stretch. Their rewards included a picnic lunch near the Vierge d’Orisson, a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary who keeps watch over the Mountains. They told stories of the griffon vultures, the ringing bells worn by the cows, sheep, and horses. I heard some were brave enough to pet the horses roaming the path. Stories were told of the kindness of one of our pilgrims who came to the aide of a struggling stranger, he carried her pack giving her a chance to regain her strength. There was talk amongst some of our pilgrims of encountering a light mist at the highest peak. The only talk I heard concerning the border crossing from France into Spain was that it was a simple cattle crossing that most had missed. I remember our guides telling a story of the 778 Battle of Charlemagne where Roland, nephew of the emperor Charlemagne died in battle at the border. All agreed it was a great accomplishment and their eyes sparkle whenever the Pyrenees is mentioned.
The day ended with Mass at The Collegiate de Santa Maria a 13-century Gothic church. Due to fires over the centuries, the Church has been reconstructed several times masking some of its beautiful Gothic design. Father Dan Co-Celebrated Mass with the parish priests. The Mass was in Spanish but was very special as it ended with a blessing of the pilgrims.
Our Camino journey will span over the next two years. In August of 2018, we walked from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port France to Sahagun Spain. In the fall of 2019, we will return to complete the last half of our walk into Santiago de Compostela. Spain is a nation that coexists with several language and cultural regions. Over the next two years, Our Camino provides us with the opportunity to experience the unique cultures and foods of each region. The next leg of our journey moves us into Navarre Country.