I’ll be honest. I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen photos and read books, but leaning on the wisdom of poet, Seamus Heaney who once said, “I’m a firm believer in learning by heart”, I settled with leaving the unknown, unknown. In retrospect, nothing could have prepared me for the beauty and awe that I felt walking the first section of the Camino Francés from St Jean Pied de Port to Pamplona.
Like most trips that take me away into the wild and wonderful, I always have ‘the best time ever’ but don’t let that discredit the truthfulness of my words when I say that this was well and truly one the best experiences I’ve ever had.
Our seamless journey from the tarmacked runway of Biarritz Airport to the brass doorstep of the Central Hotel in St Jean Pied de Port, was sewn together with a laid back bus journey to Bayonne and a scenic train journey up the mountains to St Jean. What was to be a very wet weekend started off as a blissfully warm afternoon. We had nothing less than a magical evening in St Jean, sunbathing and eagle spotting at the citadel and bat gazing along the riverside. The crickets sang their evening chorus and the narrow, cobbled streets welcomed the fresh faced camino-ers looking for an equally fresh baguette and a souvenir scallop shell for their poncho covered rucksacks. As we made our way back to our hotel for a good nights sleep, a chorus of evening hymns echoed from the nearby church as the soundtrack to our pending adventure.
Our first walking day along Route Napoleon was nothing short of a washout. The first 7km to Orrison boasted spectacular views but after that the heavy curtain of fog and rain did its best to shield any views of lush hillsides and steep sloping valleys. It was a tough days walk with the first 18km being mostly uphill. With our light backpacks and encouragement from our kindred spirits we made it past Croix Thibault and down a sharp descent into the forests of Roncesvalles. After a long hard day of hill walking, the steep slopes were a torment on the knees but aided by walking poles, the welcomed first sight of the Collegiate Church in Roncesvalles, gradually poked though the tree tops.
Roncesvalles is a strange and wonderful place. Casa de Beneficiados, our nest for the night, greeted us like your open armed mammy, who has the hot water on and food in the oven. After a long, wet day of walking, we would have been happy with anything but Casa Benificiados was more than we ever expected. Not only was the water hot , food tasty and wine plentiful but the hotel itself was almost reverend and truly relaxing. Reflecting on its former glory as a Monastery, the authenticity was strong in every corner slab.
Leaving Roncesvalles with a belly full of protein and coffee, we set off on a rather wet path to Zubiri. The fog cleared but the rain was persistent. We marched through forested paths and local villages right into the good weather down into Zubiri. The cosiness of Hosteria de Zubiri, the quality of the food and the appearance of the sun made up for the sparseness of Zubiri itself but made us reflect sadly on the fact that we only had one more days walking.
We set off on our last day, with our bellies full of croissant and a sense of wonder at what lay ahead. As the sun shone high, we promised to take our time and savour every moment of the final stretch to Pamplona.
The eagles watched from high as we coursed our way through the Valleys past green fields and forest lined paths into the urban streets of Villalva. The Basque culture became more apparent as we followed the yellow arrows through the streets to Pamplona. It was strange at first, transitioning from days of blissful solitude to an urban jungle but the medieval walls of Pamplona and the decadence of Palacio Guendulain abetted our spirits on the last day of our journey. With an extra day in Pamplona, we ate, we drank and we solemnly bid farewell to our fellow pilgrims continuing the journey along the Camino.
For such a short trip, the value of experiences is incredible and likewise, very difficult to express in such a short space. The only true way of understanding is experiencing and that is the true heart of the Camino. It is a personal journey where people with unique motives come together and bond through shared experience and appreciation of something humanistically simple but deeply meaningful.
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