Camino Trip Notes: Stage 1 (SJPDP to Roncesvalles)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Distance: 24 km

6:45 – I awaken to the sound of angels singing.  At least this is what I imagine angels would sound like – soft female voices singing in Spanish (or possibly Basque) with faint strains of harp music in the background.  It’s playing over a stereo one level below me here at Albergue Beilari in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.  I’m in a dorm with five other pilgrims and today each one of us will begin our near 800km walk to Santiago de Compostela.  When people hear the music and suddenly realize this is the day they’ve long been looking forward to, it’s as if we’re five-year-olds and it’s Christmas morning.  I’ve never seen people get out of bed, in and out of the bathroom, dressed and downstairs so fast!  

8:10 – With a nice sendoff from others who stayed at Beilari, I’m on my “way.”  


Last night I made a decision to travel the lower of two routes between Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Roncessvalles, otherwise known as Stage 1.  There are two routes on this first stage: The Napoleon Route is the older and perhaps more historic route through the Pyrenees.  The Valcaros Route is the same distance (24km) but arguably a bit easier as the total elevation climbed is about 400 m less.  The Pilgrims’s Offfie in SJPDP is advising that the Napoleon route is closed beyond Orisson due to dangerous conditions, heavy snow, etc. However, it’s possible to walk as far as Orisson, stay the night, then in the morning you can take a taxi over to the other route, connecting at Valcarlos which is the halfway mark.  Although you still walk the same distance (albeit over two days) I just couldn’t bring myself to say that I rode in a van after just a half-day of walking.  The Valcarolos Route is the route for me.  It might kill me but I can say that I did it on foot and not in a van.  

8:15 – I pass through the gates of Saint Jean, just as Martin Sheen did in the movie ‘The Way’, and just as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have done over the last 1000 years.  

          10:10  – Just when I thought it would be nice to have a coffee, I crested a hill and noticed a town below me.  It’s Sunday morning and already the old men of town are drinking red wine and telling stories in the local cafe.  I was the only one drinking coffee with my pincho.

   Marcos (left) is from Puerto Rico and Ferdinand (centre) is from Buenos Aires, Argentina.  To help remember their names, I thought of them as Ferdinand Marcos.  Does that make me Imelda?


11:58 – I have walked with about a dozen people this morning and half of them are planning to stay in Valcarlos, the others intent on pressing on to Roncesvalles.   My knees tell me to get a bed in Valcarlos but my heart says keep moving.   

 12:15 – Here Marcos flips a coin for me.  He actually flipped it twice and both times it came up heads.  I had said beforehand that heads would mean press on.

After leaving Valcarlos you can walk on the edge of a busy highway (16km), or shave off a few kilometres and take a winding muddy trail through the Ibaneta Pass (12km).  I chose the mud.  You don’t see scenes like  this from the highway. 
  13:30 – The father and son duo of Scott and Azore Babineau are from Shediac, New Brunswick.  Nice people! 

17:00 – I’m sitting on a rock at the highest elevation of the entire camino when I hear what sounds like Monica Seles in a Grand Slam tennis match.  It turns out to be a 40-ish American named Mike.  He’s lugging a 40lb backpack that contains a tent, three long-sleeve shirts, 3 short sleeve shirts, 3 pairs of pants, a flute and about 25lbs of stuff one does NOT need on the Camino.  He’s clearly struggling with this weight but doesn’t see how he could possibly make do with anything less.  I’m not going to change his mind.

17:55 – Mike and I arrive at Roncesvalles and are a little surprised to learn that it’s not a town but rather a complex known as Albergue de Peregrinos Orreaga.  Here’s a quote from their website: “In order to help pilgrims crossing the Pyrenees along the St James’ Way, around 1127, the Bishop of Pamplona, requested by King Alfonso I ‘the Battler’, founded the Roncesvalles Hospitality Institution. Recent renovations completed by the Government of Navarre means that we can offer shelter between these ancient walls in a hostel equipped with the best facilities and services. Where pilgrims can rest and enjoy this exceptional heritage site after the exhausting initial stage of St James’ Way.”  

The albergue is staffed by international volunteers and I’m immediately put off by the attitude of the Dutch senior who greets us.  We ask some legitimate questions and get only flippant replies.  They have a large display case of items that are for sale (sleeping bags, water bottles, toiletries, backpacks) so I ask if they sell flip-flops or any kind of footwear.  He won’t give me a straight answer.  He has countless jokes about people being unprepared for the Camino.  Eventually I notice a pair of shoes suitable for wearing in a cold stone building where boots must be left at the door and I cut a deal with a second volunteer who is only slightly more helpful.  This albergue is generally recognized as one of the best on the entire Camino so I decide to stay rather than get a room at a nearby private hotel that would definitely be a bit pricier and possibly not as nice.  

20:30 – Four of us get a table in the pub and sit down to dinner.  Well, two of us are eating and two are not, and this creates a lot of tension with the waiter.  I decide not to get involved in this little drama but in my opinion the waiter is just being difficult for the sake of being difficult.  We notice it in the way he treats others as well.  While the albergue itself is a grand old building, the only two staff that I’ve dealt with are both what I’d call dicks.

22:00 – I would like to have been in bed a bit earlier on the first night of the Camino but it’s not a big issue.  I’m pretty sure I’ll sleep well tonight.  

6 Responses to “Camino Trip Notes: Stage 1 (SJPDP to Roncesvalles)”

  1. Jane Rees

    Great first day, Mike. You will never regret not taking that cab! I hope the weight of the hundreds of us travelling on your shoulder doesn’t weigh you down.

  2. Peter Langelaan

    Hi Mike
    You know what they say about the Dutch
    Wooden shoes
    Wooden head
    Wooden listen !
    ps. I’m Dutch!

  3. Grant Reimer

    Too bad about your bad experiences with the volunteer and waiter at Roncesvalles – our reception there was warm and hospitable!
    Also – Mike, the American, with the 40 lb. back pack – hopefully he’ll be sending a big parcel home from the next post office he finds. A pack with more than 10% of your body weight will almost guarantee that you will be unable to get all the way to Santiago de Compestelle. I witnessed that more than a few times…

    • 100Saturdays

      Hi Grant,
      I’ve read lots of good feedback about Roncesvalles so will chalk this up to meeting two people who weren’t having a good day. The last time I saw the guy with the massive lack, he was talking about carrying the pack “as a badge of honor” since so many were talking about it. I agree with you, he’ll eventually give in and Mail items to Santiago, pack it in altogether, or injury himself snd be forced to stop short. I hope he isn’t stubborn!


  4. Grant Reimer

    I hope so too – part of the beauty of walking the camino is realizing that all you really need can be contained in a 17 pound pack…


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