France, Spain

El Camino: Day 1 (Saint Jean, France to Roncesvalles, Spain)

Posted on 14 September 2012 by christie

Christie climbing the Camino

The first day…Christie climbing the Pyrenees on the Camino

The hardest decision we had to make today was whether we would lunch in France or Spain? We elected Spain, of course! We knew the first day of the Camino was going to be the toughest. We set out early from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to begin our trek through the Pyrenees Mountains. We met many pilgrims on the road as we stepped out of our albergue at 7:30am sunrise. It felt surreal that we were actually doing 800 kilometers on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.

I can’t lie, I was quite nervous about this first day trekking 28 kilometers over the steep Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. The highest point we were expected to reach is 1,890 meters. The initial 8 kilometers ascent led us through green farm pastures with sheep, horses and country homes perched high in the Pyrenees. The refugio at Orisson was the first major stop where some pilgrims decided to stay overnight and tackle the rest of the 20km mountains the following day.

Exhausted Camino

Getting exhausted climbing after 14 km into the Camino

Continuing on another 8km, we found the La Vierge Du Chemin (Statue of the Virgin Mary) with spectacular views of the western Pyrenees. We took a well-deserved break as we ate our pears and watched eagles circle us from above. Along the road we found several rock piles created by pilgrims commemorating the Camino.

Shortly after the Virgin Mary statue we abandoned the paved road and climbed along the dirt path to Leizar Atheka peak. As we reached the French-Spanish border there was a French man with drinks, refreshments and a tally of pilgrims for the day by country marked on the side of his van. There were actually quite a few people from the U.S., more than I thought. Nearly 1.5 kilometers later we reached the border of Spain, as well as the Fountain of Roland. This is the last water source before the last 8 kilometers to Roncevalles. Once in Spain, we walk a few kilometers more before settling down for a rest to enjoy our lunch.

Lepoeder Pass

Crossing over the Spanish side to Lepoeder Pass (1,890 km), the highest point of the day!

We walked through a few flat forested areas on the Spanish side before reaching the steep ascent 1,890 km to Lepoeder Pass, the highest point of the day. As we climbed the steep path, tired with sore feet, we stopped a few times to admire the amazing views. Clouds and fog rolled gently through the mountains. Shortly thereafter, we came to a split in the road where we followed the traditional pilgrim descent (right) down into the village of Roncevalles. The change-up of terrain through the forest was nice, however the descent was brutal on both our injured ankles. Surprisingly, we found ourselves jogging back and forth down the mountain. After 3.5 km we finally reached the small village of Roncesvalles, if you could even call it a village.


Tiny village of Roncesvalles in the Spanish Pyrenees

Roncesvalles is a very small village in Navarre, Spain. It’s famous for its legendary conquest of Charlemagne and the death of Roland in 778. The Roncesvalles Monastery is where everything Camino is happening. Iglesia de la Real Collegiate de Santa Maria which dates from the 13th century is the most used church of the Monastery. May pilgrims attend night mass to receive a blessing at 8pm.

We were ecstatic to have made it to Roncesvalles and checked into Posada Hotel. We immediately enjoyed a hot shower and fresh clothes, while washing our dirty belongings to leave to dry. After enjoying beers and wine we headed to the Roncesvalles Monastery to receive our official pilgrim’s stamp. Shortly thereafter, we dined with three other pilgrims in their 60’s all doing the Camino alone. One was from San Francisco and it turns out we go to the same Podiatrist office at 450 Sutter Street downtown….. small world!

Tomorrow, we awake bright and early to trek another 22km to Zubiri, Espana. Suenos dolces!

See our Photo Album:
El Camino: Day 1 (St. Jean Pied de Port, France – Roncevalles, Spain)

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