Getting on our way
Technically, at its highest point, the “lower” route to Roncesvalles (ron-cess-ba-yes) is 395 meters lower in elevation than the traditional Napoleon route.
This fact leads most people to conclude that the walk is a breeze. It’s not. Not even close.
The reason: An unforgiving 45° angle. Uphill.
I don’t entirely know how I got to Roncesvalles that day. My walking was so slow, it was comical. My legs wobbled. I stopped to rest frequently. And my speed? It took all day to walk 12.2km (7.5mi).
Do I sound whiny? Forgive me. I just want the Valcarlos route to get a little respect.
This route is where Charlemagne’s retreating troops met their demise. And Roncesvalles’ hard-to-pronounce name means Valley of the Thorns. It’s not for wimps.
All that said, the views were stunning. The clouds dispersed early, treating us to vistas of the steep cleft valley, thick with grey branches about to burst into leaf. Well into the day, we could still see Valcarlos receding into the distance. I lingered at these stops as much to enjoy the view as to rest my body.
At lunch, we sat down beside the trail and discovered that heather and gorse make lousy seats. Valley of thorns, indeed. Prickly! I learned to sit on my pack. I popped off my shoes and discovered my first two blisters on my right foot (inside pinky and outside big toe, to anyone who cares for such detail. Past pilgrims, I’m talking to you.).
If you’ve been a pilgrim, you know that this is a totally appropriate activity after a meal.
Katrin was in the best shape of the three of us. We talked a lot less on this segment because it was just too strenuous in places to talk — much less keep walking. One stretch I remember vividly was of walking up a sharp incline in the forest, everything light brown with dry oak leaves. It was so quiet, I could only hear my labored breathing and my tiny footsteps falling on the forest floor.
It was memorable because the path went from impossibly steep — to steeper yet. As I said, I still really don’t know how I got to Roncesvalles. None of my flat-land distance training prepared me for this.
After hours of walking and resting, a glorious moment was had at the tippity top, at the peak called Ibañeta, where we stopped to take in the view. The climb now finished, we basked in the gleaming sunshine, awed by the green landscape below us and the snow-capped peaks above. Taking shelter from the wind, I poked my nose into the tiny chapel at the top, which was locked. Through the clover-shaped notch in the thick door, I could see a brilliant rainbow of rectangular panels inside. Joy!
We stopped to rest a bit, only a kilometer to go. I struck up a conversation with a lovely young Belgian woman named Lies (leese), who was on her first Camino. She would be an important feature in my Camino story later, but you never know these things in advance. We chatted and laughed and then left, all of us, toward our bed for the night.
And arrive, we did — at last! The path popped us out right in front of the town’s massive albergue.
The amazing thing is that once you arrive, there’s a lot to do.
The Dutch volunteers checked us in with amazing efficiency and precision. We stood in line, got our passports stamped and a bed assigned to each of us. Shoes were even assigned their own room, separate from everything else to keep the albergue clean. We went to the basement to wash clothes by hand in the sink, volunteers standing at the ready to help with machines. The albergue in Roncesvalles is a really impressive operation. Immaculately clean, comfortable, modern.
The downside is that there are still 200 people in one massive room, divided into pods of four by “walls” that don’t reach the ceiling. Snore city.
We proceeded to our beds only to discover that we were sharing a pod with a giant, bushy-bearded Russian man. It was awkward, to say the least. Tight quarters. No privacy. With him not speaking English. I unpacked and immediately cleared out to do errands, barely acknowledging him.
Later, I would learn a valuable lesson from this man who I’d judged as “scary” at face value.
A dinner not to be remembered
The evening meal was an interesting affair.
To be fair, I can only imagine what it must be like to manage the logistics of feeding hundreds of people each day, economically and efficiently. But I was still in judgement-mode. Still picky. Katrin’s summary of the restaurant’s offering was accurate: the fish was “mossy.” I’d been excited to see real flan on the menu and baffled when I was handed a cup of yogurt. We were pretty certain that the pasta, served family-style, had been recycled from an earlier feeding.
After dinner, Lies, Katrin, Marisela and I went to a bar for a glass of wine and talked about life, goals, uncertainty, and what to do after you quit your job without a plan (we’d all done it). It was a delightful dessert after a lackluster dinner.
I learned gratitude and humility and graciousness too.
After I awoke the next morning, the big, scary Russian guy leaned out of his top bunk and handed each of us a chocolate candy bar. There is no greater commodity on the Camino than a gift of chocolate.
Surprised expressions on our part, then smiles exchanged. I was humbled. That moment taught me not just how to say “spasibo,” but the value of being the first to offer warmth and smiles. Of receiving unnecessary and unearned generosity.
Thank you, Russian friend, for teaching me humility in such a gracious and forgiving way.