Day 2 – Vierge de Biakorri to Roncesvalles

  • Distance today:               7.6mi
  • Distance Camino 2017.     14.9mi

This morning we had “le petit déjeuner ” at Hotel Itzalpea, settled our bill, stuffed all our personal belongings into our packs and positioned ourselves near the hotel front door to wait for our taxi. Our driver arrived precisely at 7:30 as pre-arranged by the hotel. To our surprise, the driver was Marie, who drove us from Roncesvalles to SJPDP to begin our previous Camino in Sept 2012! The ride to the Vierge de Baikorri was like a reunion and enjoyed by all.

Marie got us to the Vierge at 8:00 a.m. and after we payed our fare and said our goodbyes “jusqu’à la prochaine fois” (until next time!), we took some more photos of the Vierge and began walking toward Roncesvalles.

We missed seeing the Vierge altogether in 2012 because of the weather. All we saw was the road/path and fog and later rain. So the photos we took yesterday were a real treat, but the surrounding views were still, typically, blocked by fog once again. This morning the valley and scenery overlooked by the Vierge were much clearer so we took a few more photos for our collection.

“Vierge” barely visible standing on top of rocks (upper right corner)

The initial walk this morning was not nearly as steep as yesterday and we were able to see much of the spectacular scenery we missed in 2012 as the fog and clouds periodically uncovered the deep valleys and surrounding mountains for us to see.

We also saw a large numbers of horses, cows and sheep grazing along the road and on nearby slopes. In 2012 we only heard bells but rarely saw any animals. Did you know horses wear bells in the Basque Pyrenees?

After enjoying the fresh, cool morning air and relatively flat walking, the Camino veered right off the paved road into the grass pasture marked initially by only a sign with a map (a welcome addition that was not there in 2012). The slightly worn grass path suddenly became very steep and deteriorated into a rocky wash. It eventually morphed into a narrow dirt path, growing wider until it became a narrow farm dirt road. The fog had in the meantime rolled in and the scenery around us was no longer visible. We continued along the road which varied from flat to slight inclinations upward until we reached the Fontaine de Roland at around 10:00 a.m. which marks the entry into 🇪🇸 Spain.

After crossing the border the dirt road seemed inclined to move upward for a while, and then the sun broke through the clouds and revealed the huge mountains around us.

We walked by a small cabin used for shelter in severe weather, which “saved us” as we walked through cold, driving rain and wind on our way to Roncesvalles in 2012. Today, with the sun shining, clear blue sky above us and puffy white clouds hesitantly approaching the mountain tops while we walked, was a very different scene and a brand new experience for us compared to 2012.

The difficulty of the walk today, however, seemed equal or maybe worse than we remember from 2012. As we passed the cabin, the dirt road got steeper and steeper, climbing the side of one slope, rounding a bend only to begin climbing another slope. Nearly exhausted by noon, we finally reached the the high point in Pyrenees, Col de Loepeder at 4751 feet.

We stopped for a brief break and for the first time saw the valley below and terrain approaching Roncesvalles, some 2 miles away. We remembered only the steep descent from 2012 in the rain and fog, the slippery and long, unending knee killing down-slopes taken on without trekking poles. Today, with clear, cool weather, dry walking surfaces and a set of poles for both of us, we opted to take the traditional Camino path through the forest instead of the longer, more gradual sloping alternative route, which veered off to the right.

We goofed! In spite of the apparent advantages over our 2012 experience, we struggled the final 2.0 miles into Roncesvalles, wondering at times if we would ever reach our destination. We used poles, feet, knees, arms… everything at our disposal and were utterly exhausted, sore, fatigued and humbled by the experience. Our legs were actually shaking from the stress of maintaining balance and control. We were further discouraged as an occasional much younger pilgrim would pass us, at a much faster pace, totally ignoring the treacherous walking surface. It took us 2.5 hours to cover 2 miles…walking at a snail-like pace and stopping frequently to avoid exhaustion and fatigue and potential injury that would delay or stop our Camino 2017! We were so focused on preventing a fall or injury, we completely forgot to take any photos during the last tortuous 2 miles. (Maybe just as well as the result wouldn’t have been pretty)

When we mercifully arrived at Roncesvalles at 2:30p.m., we painfully walked to our hotel reception, got a room, tenderly advanced down the hall, struggled into and out of the elevator, entered our room and collapsed on the bed until we recovered to the extent that we believed that we might live and possibly walk again tomorrow.

Our hotel in Roncesvalles

If “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” is true, we are confidently looking forward to the walk tomorrow.

We stayed tonight in the historical “Casa de los Beneficiados” for the third time, first in 2012 and again in 2013. It still is a very nice, upscale, modern place to stay at a reasonable price (70€)

Day 1 – SJPDP to Vierge de Baikorri

  • Distance Today:                 7.3 mi.
  • Distance Camino2017:     7.3 mi.

We Left SJPDP at 6:15 am. thru the Spanish Gate opening onto the main medieval route crossing the Pyrenees commonly known as “la Route Napoleon “.  The paved road became very steep immediately as it passed thru some residential areas and likely discouraged any pilgrim who had second thoughts about taking on the Camino Frances.  The road climbed for what seemed like miles but actually a few hundred yards and then flattened out somewhat as it passed through some rolling hills and small farms.

Along the way we met a young couple from Madrid walking to Burgos… she has a friend attending UNC. Jim walked at their slightly faster pace for few minutes then dropped back wishing them a “buen Camino”.

All too soon, after a big bend in the narrow road the paved road became very steep and began an aggressive climb up into the Pyrenees.

With little or no relief, we climbed upward for nearly 2.5 miles before leaving the paved surface into mountain side pasture land.

The pasture land offered no relief in the climb so we stopped for a breakfast snack after 1.5 hours into the walk, under one of the few trees along the way. We rewarded ourselves (and our tiring bodies) 10-15 minutes to share a nectarine and a small piece of quiche.  (We sat on the same log and rock that beckoned us to take a break in 2012.)

We moved on as the path ultimately rejoined the pavement a half-mile later at a potable water spicket and continuing another 3/4 mile until the road crested and sympathetically leveled and gradually descended a few hundred yards to the Orisson Refuge.

We were not alone as we struggled these first 4.5 miles of the Camino Frances, considered the most difficult of the 500 mile journey. Everyone we encountered this morning, regardless of age, sex or physical conditioning just smiled and shook their heads at the nearly overwhelming challenge we were experiencing.  Our pace and others included a lot of stopping every 20-30 paces throughout the steep climb. But we still averaged about 2 mph. One measure of the steepness was Linda’s Fitbit which indicated she had climbed 251 floors!

When we arrived at Refuge Orrison at 8:45, we picked  a table on the patio overlooking down on and across the Pyrenees. We removed our packs and changed from walking boot/shoes to sandals to let our feet cool and recover a bit. We further rewarded ourselves with cafe con leche, basque cake and then hot chocolate.

A lady from N. California stopped by our table and Jim helped her by explaining her hydration pack operation. She asked about how we found places to stay, reservations, etc and we shared some of our experiences and gave her some suggestions before she moved on with her “group”.

While we enjoyed being off our feet, the ever changing skies clouded up and it got cooler so and we moved inside the Orisson Refuge restaurant area. We charged phones/cameras, made blog/journal entries and otherwise relaxed until lunch.

So far, today’s experience on the most difficult stage of the Camino Frances was hard, without a doubt, but didn’t seem more difficult that our first time in 2012. It may have been a little easier because we knew what to expect. Since we are 5 years older than during our previous trek, we are encouraged about what lies ahead.

We finished our breakfast quiche for lunch and continued today’s walk to the Vierge de Baikorri at 12:15. Though still steep, the walk was not as difficult as the one to Orisson. Occasional level sections gave us some relief and the inclines were about half. We arrived at the Vierge at 1:45 pm, as the clouds/fog rapidly moved in.  We took some photos and then sat and relaxed, while waiting for a shuttle to take us back to SJPDP.

We’re feeling great, for sure tired, but actually relieved, having successfully completed our first day of Camino 2017 and loo

king forward to Day 2.

The shuttle arrived at 2:30 pm and we were back in our hotel room, taking showers by 2:45.

Getting to St.Jean Pied de Port

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Backpack secured in dufflebag

It’s Thursday, July 27 and after months of planning and preparation, we are finally on our way.

This morning we drove to Jim’s daughter’s home, some 70 miles away and on the way to Charlotte International Airport  (CLT).  We had lunch with Beth and her family and left our car at her house to store for us until we return. She then drove us the remaining 20 miles to CLT and dropped us off at the departure area.

After a slight struggle with the ever changing check-in kiosks, we checked our duffle bags which contained only our backpacks, cleared security without incident with no carry-ons, only fanny packs, and by 1:45 p.m. proceeded to our gate to relax and chill until time to board our 4:55 p.m. flight to Madrid.

While waiting, Jim used a recently updated American Airlines app to track baggage and was relieved that it showed both our bags as “loaded” on our aircraft/ flight. This was later confirmed when our bags, in fact were waiting for us in the MAD baggage collection turnstyle.

The seven and one-half hour flight to Madrid (MAD) began with a 5:01 p.m. takeoff. The flight was smooth and uneventful, including a tasty (free) dinner with wine followed by a nice breakfast just prior to landing. We touched down at MAD at 6:27 a.m. (12:27 a.m. EDT) in the dark.

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Ultra-modern MAD

Several other flights arrived with us so it took about 45 minutes to clear customs, but our duffles were waiting for us when we got to the baggage area.

We stashed our duffles into our backpacks, rearranged a few things, donned our packs and made our way to the Renfe Cercanias (C1) ticket area in the T4 terminal, where we obtained free train tickets to Atocha (the main train station in downtown Madrid) by scanning our already on-line purchased tickets for Atocha to Pamplona.

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Renfe Cercanias (C1)

We boarded C1 at 8:30 and arrived at Atocha at 9:00 a.m. and began our absorption into Spanish culture by ordering a brunch of tostada, cafe con leche and freshly squeezed Valencia orange juice.

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Spanish brunch

We boarded the train to Pamplona about 11:20 a.m. which pulled out of Atocha station a few minutes later. The 3 hour ride from Madrid to Pamplona revealed an interestingly, sparsely populated countryside colored tan, gray and brown by dry, scrubby vegetation, washes, canyons and hills and frequent castle ruins appearing in elevated, strategic overlooks. Occasional small rancheros and villages with surrounding vineyards, orchards and livestock dotted the otherwise barren landscape. The countryside became increasingly greener as we advanced in a northeasterly direction entering the region of Navarre and approaching Pamplona.

Our train arrived in Pamplona promptly at 2:40 p.m. We took a taxi to the very nice Hotel Catedral (our third stay since 2014) and checked in (75€).

Once in the room, we triaged backpack contents, collected the duffle bags & warmer clothes we won’t need until Sept/Oct and stuffed them into a laundry bag we found in our motel room.  At 4:00 p.m., typical reopening times for businesses after lunch break, we ventured out into the city to get treikking poles for Linda, mail our “extra” items to our reserved hotel in Leon and buy two bus tickets to SJPDP (2×22€) for tomorrow morning.

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Linda buying trekking poles, etc.

Each task was easily accomplished as planned. On our return from the bus station, we tested both our ATM cards, successfully, confirming a working source to replenish the cash needs for our Camino.

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Pintxos and wine at Bar Gaucho

Before returning to our hotel, we stopped at Bar Gaucho, our favorite place for “pintxos” (the Basque name for tapas) and had two delicious selections and a glass of wine… for a light supper (10€). By 6:30 p.m. we were spent after two long days of travel and not much sleep.

So we headed back to the hotel and crashed for the evening.

It’s Saturday, July 29, the third day of travel to get to SJPDP.  With a much needed good night of sleep, we donned our backpacks, left our hotel at 9:00 a.m. and walked the 20 minutes to the bus station.  Our bus departed at 10:00 for the trip to SJPDP . 

The 50 mile drive up, over and back down the Pyrenees Mountains to Saint Jean Pied de Port, France took 95 minutes.  We exited the bus, put on our packs and walked a few hundred yards to Hotel Itzalpea (70€), our base for the next two nights.

Hotel Itzalpea

Our room, Itzalpea, SJPDP

Our host is a delightful young French lady who had a nice room with a private bathroom ready for us to occupy immediately, 3 hours before normal check-in time!  We took a few minutes to settle in before walking across the street into the medieval town to find a restaurant to quieten our growling tummies. We struggled initially with the menu which was a French/Basque hybrid, but a young lady (with a man old enough to be her grandfather) seated at an adjacent table, helped Linda avoid ordering a local version of chitlins.

Steep walk to pilgrim office

After a filling lunch we walked up the steep Rue de la Citadelle to the pilgrim’s hospitality office to have our credential’s stamped and dated, verifying our official start of the Camino Frances.

Outside pilgrim office

Inside pilgrim office

While we waited in line, in walked the young lady who helped us at lunch accompanied by (as we soon learned) her grandfather. The two had arrived yesterday in St Jean via bicycle from Tours France. Tours is one of three other French Caminos that merge with the Camino Frances. Their bicycle journey from Tours to SJPDP was over 500 miles .

Credential Stamp for SJPDP

We chatted until our turn with the “credentials stamper” and wished them “buen Camino”. An hour or so later we observed them leaving town on their bikes, beginning their return trip back to Tours.

Picking up provisions for the “way”

We spent the rest of the afternoon making final preparations by getting our packs re-organized for the walk tomorrow, picked up some breakfast snacks for tomorrow, napped a bit, had a light dinner and got to bed by 8:30p.m., setting the alarm for 5:30.

Getting Ready

Preparations for our Camino 2017 became serious, when we gave each other Osprey Atmos 50L backpacks for Christmas 2016.  Our new packs are slightly larger than our old ones, but about the same weight.  We got the larger sizes to allow for extra room for packing and easier retrieving and repacking its contents… an issue we struggled with on our first Camino.

 

 

In January we bought new Lowa boots (Jim) and Keen “fishing” sandals (Linda)  to replace identical footware that were badly worn from nearly 1000 miles of walking over the past 4 years.  We continue to break them in and are now walking at least 2 miles every day until leaving for the Camino.

 

 

Taking care of our feet is paramount to avoiding typical issues from walking 5-10 miles daily for 60+ consecutive days.  Building on our experiences with socks & blister prevention/maintenance on our Camino of 2012-2015, we have confirmed and in some cases upgraded socks, foot lubrication and moisturing product as well as bandage material.

We each inventoried everything in our packs upon arriving in Santiago in 2015.  This list became our start point for backpack contents for 2017.  After minor deletions and additions, we’ve packed our backpacks and taken a few walks of 2-6 miles.  Both packs are quite easy to manage and are just slightly over the recommended 10% of body weight at 18lbs and 22 lbs, respectively. Hydration pack water will add an additional 2-4 lbs of weight as we begin walking each day.

 

Even though we purchased a set of poles to share on our first Camino, we assumed they would be inconvenient to carry and not worth the effort to use. As we ascended the Pyrennees in late July 2012, the poles didn’t seem to help much on the steep climbs. But the 8 mile descent into Roncesvalles began to take a toll on our knees and we quickly discovered how to use a single pole to cushion the impact of the steep downhill walk. It rained that day and the single pole also aided our balance and footing. We decided that if one pole could make that much difference, on subsequent walks we would both carry a set of poles to use.

In 2014 we began our Camino in Pamplona each with a set of poles. They were adjustable and made of fiberglass and were bought on sale at Costco. While Linda initially used her poles mainly for balance on uneven terrain, Jim used his not only for balance but soon discovered on especially long walks, fatigue on knees and feet were reduced when using the poles for support. He also noticed that when the pole length was adjusted to cause his arms to form a 90 degree angle as poles made contact with the ground, his walking posture improved, noticeably reducing stress on the lower back.

(Our experiences have been confirmed by several published studies revealing that poles can reduce the compression stress on knees by 5-25% with the greatest impact being for downhill walking.)

After walking about 170 miles, one of Jim’s poles broke. The adjusting mechanism failed and would no longer hold the pole at a given length. Without both poles, the stress of walking 8-12 miles a day was dramatically increased. We kept a lookout for a place to buy a replacement pole and finally found a small store in Castrojeriz. The owner happened to have one set of poles which Jim quickly bought for 39€.

That afternoon, Jim got familiar with the new poles and found them to be superior to the old ones. First, the shafts were stronger but not significantly heavier (alumnium vs fiberglass) and the length adjustment was a better design and faster and easier to change while walking.

The next morning as we continued our walk, with a big smile, Jim began using his new poles and continued using them for the remaing 110 miles in 2014, the final 210 miles in 2015. They show little if any signs of wear and the adjusting mechanism is like new. The poles are Altus brand, but not available for purchase in the US, including the internet. Similar poles are available in the US at a cost of more the $100! We plan to buy a set of these poles for Linda at a store that carries Altus brand in Pamplona on our way to Saint-Jean-Pied de Port, France (SJPDP).

Our original plan for getting to Spain was to take Uber to the Greenville airport (GSP) and fly Greenville> Philadelphia(PHL)> Madrid(MAD), leaving our car at home to avoid long term parking fees (~$500 for 82 days).

Two weeks prior to departure, the baggage handlers, cleaners and customer service agents at PHL called for a strike against American Airlines. At the last minute, the strike was suspended as negotiations resumed.

Uncertainty in our logistics for the beginning of our trip is not a good thing. Most of Europe takes the month of August as a holiday. Thus, Europeans walking the Camino Frances on vacation must start their walk in late July or early August as the normal time to complete the 500 mile pilgrimage is 30-33 days. This creates a surge of pilgrims, overwhelming the limited accommodations for sleeping along the Camino.

Our plan to deal with this potential problem is to find and reserve hotel rooms and purchase tickets for our train and bus trip to SJPDP, as well as reserving rooms for the first 6 days of our walk. We completed this several weeks ago.

Consequently, any delays in our flight or baggage arriving in Madrid on schedule, will have disastrous repercussions on the beginning of our Camino.

So, we took immediate evasive action by calling American and changing our flight to originate in Charlotte(CLT) and to fly direct to Madrid… at an additional cost of $375 in re-ticketing fees. Also, to avoid airport long term parking fees, we will drive to Jim’s daughter’s home in Clover, SC, who has graciously agreed to give us a ride to CLT some 30 miles away and store our car in her driveway until we return in October.

Camino Frances 2017 – Our Way

In September 2015, we completed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela Frances, “Our Way”. But since our return home to South Carolina, the Camino has been gently summoning us to return, by persistently evoking our rich memories of the 500 mile pilgrimage.

So, while we two septuagenarians are still up to the task,  we’ve re-scheduled a planned 2017 Alaska land/sea cruise for 2018 and booked our flight to Spain for late July.