September 13, 2002

9/13/02 Roncesvalles, Spain


It was difficult to get to sleep last night. But sleeping in a real bed, and not worrying if my snoring was bothering the other pilgrims was a real treat. But about 5:30am I awoke and never really got back to sleep. Went down a little early for breakfast and unfortunately woke up my host. She was so nice and gave me the attention a mother would. I had to use my Spanish because she didn't speak English. But we understood each other pretty well. Every time I got up to leave she insisted I needed more if I was going to get over the mountains.

St Jean-Pied-de-Port

Somehow I missed Angela and Mark but ended up joining a group of Italians, Benedetta and three of her friends. The town and whole valley were blanketed in a dark fog as we quickly started to climb up farther into the mountains. The road was very steep but the view of the valley below was incredible.

Islands of mountain tops surrounded by a sea of fog

Caught up to Angela and Mark at the gite (a French camping hostel) near Hunto, France. Helped Mark adjust his backpack a bit and filled up on fresh water. Eventually well above tree line, we left pavement and continued up over the Col de Bentarte, an old Roman road used by pilgrims for hundreds of years. At the col, we watched in amazement as four cyclists, two from Germany and a couple from Bend, Oregon, road their loaded bikes up the rough trail.

Angela climbing among a few woolly friends

Finally approaching the top

Soon after, we all congregated at a fountain spigot (fuente in Spanish) just a few yards away from a cattle guard, which happened to be the only thing that separated the border between France and Spain. The group was a wide assortment of nationalities: Italy, France, England, one Spaniard who walked all the way from Denmark, and a whole slew from the USA. It was a festive atmosphere as we rested our bodies and washed our feet in the frigid mountain spring water.

A party atmosphere around the fountain

The weather was beautiful, a sky full of sun with the occasional cloud, and just enough cool breezes to stop you from getting hot. For me, my sandals were working perfectly and I'm glad I chose to wear them instead of my boots.

Crossing into Spain

Most of us got spread out as we continued to climb into Spain. I continued to walk with Angela as we talked. She was a Spanish teacher before leaving to work at Levi's. By the time we reached Col de Lepoeder, we had climbed 1249 meters in 21 kilometers. As Angela and I rounded the corner at the col, we suddenly heard Heavy Metal music coming from the heavens. A couple of kids were out hunting mushrooms and had taken a break with the music coming from their car speakers. While Angela started the steep descent to Roncesvalles, I sat and talked with Benedetta. It seems everyone speaks a few words of English and I hoped my few Spanish words were similar to the Italian.

Oh, but what a beautiful day!

While the walk up was very strenuous, the walk down was a killer on my legs. Near the bottom, we passed several concrete bunkers that were used during the Spanish Civil War. The German Air Force perfected their bombing techniques helping Franco destroy the Basque in these mountains. The final walk to the Abbey at Roncesvalles reminded me of the Appalachian Trail, a single dirt path following a mountain stream with towering trees overhead.

This Augustinian Monastery was founded in the early 12th century and has a long tradition of taking care of the pilgrims headed for Santiago. The monastery also runs a 'posada', an inn of sorts. To me the buildings are huge. The refugio for pilgrims has enough room for 110, located on the top floor of the monastery. In several rooms full of bunkbeds, we have showers, bathrooms and a wash basin for washing clothes. In the foyer, the pilgrims have strung up a dozen clotheslines full of damp shirts, shorts and socks.

After a beautiful pilgrim mass, we headed to one of the two restaurants associated with the monastery for a pilgrim dinner. At first I thought we would be separated from the other customers, but at 8pm they only served pilgrims. For 6€ (about $6) we had a hearty bean and potato soup, baked trout (the whole fish - head, tail and scales), a bottle of red wine and for dessert, ice cream. Sitting with Angela and me were an older Spanish couple. While I could only answer a few questions with simple phrases, I was able to follow all of the dinner conversation.

By the time we got back to the refugio, it was almost lights-out at 10pm. Angela, Mark and I quickly exchanged back massages before heading off to bed.