Friday, 30 June 2017

Day 42 - Roncesvalles to Bordeaux

This morning the first alarm went off in the dormitory at 4:30 am. Its owner couldn't locate it, so it kept going at full volume until everyone was thoroughly awake. Since there was no point pretending, everyone decided to get up. We were once again reminded that it always takes a while for people to get into a routine of un-packing and re-packing their knapsacks that doesn't involve 4-5 attempts and utter chaos.

We headed down to a somewhat meager seeming breakfast in the hotel, and then reluctantly bid our new companions farewell and 'Buen Camino!'

We had to be out of the dorms by 8, but our bus back to St Jean Pied de Port didn't arrive until 11, so we sat out front and watched the stream of eager and determined looking pilgrims heading off down the trail to Zubiri and beyond. As a final gift for us from St James, it began to pour and it was only about 10 degrees out. This made it very slightly easier not to simply get up and keep walking towards Santiago, although it still took a lot of willpower not to!

We went in to Casa Sabina for a coffee to warm up, and then visited the cathedral for a bit. It was actually quite magical to be in there alone in the dark for a while, and reflect on all our experiences on the Way of St James. Eventually we went into La Posada for another coffee, and then it was finally time to catch the bus.

At the stop we met a pair of American ladies who we heading back to St Jean to start the hike, and a German man who was busing to Pamplona. We thought we might be the only people on the bus back, but it was more than half full.

After more than a month of walking, the speed of the bus was a little horrifying. The road was even worse. The first 45 minutes consisted of a steep descent down incredibly tight hairpin turns, on a road that wasn't wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other. Several times the bus met a transport on a corner, jolted and scudded to a halt, and proceeded to reverse back up the hairpin turn until the other vehicle could pass. It was a very steep mountain road, and although the forested scenery was beautiful, the frequent brushes with death were a bit distracting.
Going by way of the road did let us see Valcarlos, which is where hikers are directed to cross the mountains in the event of bad weather. Valcarlos is actually quite a large town, unlike Orisson, and it looked quite nice. However, it looked like a fair bit of the path was on the road, which I think would be unpleasant with the constant traffic. This impression might be incorrect however, because we did see the lady from New Zealand in Roncesvalles, and she said the walk by way of Valcarlos was beautiful.

We arrived back in St Jean safely, stopped at a bakery for sustaining croissants, and then boarded our train for Bordeaux. As we sped across the rain soaked landscape it felt like our Camino was over, and our transition from pilgrim to tourist was complete.  As we sped across the rain drenched countryside it was a good time to reflect on all the many things we have seen and experienced over the past 42 days.  It really has been a 'Buen Camino' and we are enormously grateful to everyone who has helped us and followed along on our journey.

Practical Information:

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Day 41 - Orisson to Roncesvalles

The alarms in the dormitory in Orisson began going off at around 5 am, even though breakfast wasn't being offered until 7. Quite a few people had decided that they needed to get an early start and didn't have time for breakfast. Although we can still remember what it was like to feel as though there was a rush to get there, this attitude was never present on the French part of the way. Our decision to head out before breakfast to avoid some of the worst heat was treated as scandalous, and I think some of our fellow hikers on the Le Puy way were worried for our survival.

We stayed for breakfast, and to collect our picnic lunch, and when we finally headed out around 7:30 we were treated to a truly spectacular sunrise!

As we climbed it felt like no matter where we looked there was incredible beauty.

We remembered some of the contours of the path from the fall, but the views were entirely new and stunning.

We also finally saw the Madonna statue that is featured in so many photos, but which we missed the first time around because she was lost in fog. As we climbed it got increasingly windy and cold. It also began to feel more rugged and rocky.

Around mid morning we came upon a snack truck parked in the lee of the mountain, and stopped for a coffee. By this point we had passed or caught up to most of the people who had left before breakfast.

After the short break there was another 1 km stretch of climbing.

After this there followed a relatively flat area, where we came to the fountain of Roland, and the Spanish border.

The descent from the peak was longer than we remembered it, and somewhat less magical without the mist, although it was still very beautful.

When we finally came to the point just above the last very steep descent into the valley, we realized we could look down into the valley and see the monastery in Roncesvalles!

We made the descent down through the steep forested path, and arrived around noon at the monastery. We were not able to check in until 2 pm, so we went to the bar at Casa Sabina and had a coffee, hung out in the courtyard and visited the gift shop. When we finally checked in we discovered that our bunks were in a very similar location to ones we occupied last fall.

While we showered and submitted our laundry it poured rain and hailed enough to leave drifts of ice in the courtyard. How lucky we were not to be among those caught on the mountain!

Later in the afternoon a fully loaded donkey arrived in the courtyard. While his master waited to check in we kept the donkey company. He was very patient and good natured, and had apparently been on the road for 30 days.

We visited the church, and also the cloister, which we hadn't seen before. It was very beautiful, and seemed different, and more Spanish than any we have seen in previous days, althoug it is difficult to explain why.

We had dinner at the Roncesvalles hotel with a wonderful group of English speaking pilgrims, many of whom we had met in Orisson. I sat next to a man who had walked all the way from Slovakia, and who was heading back home. What a journey that must have been!

It was good to be back on the Camino as we remembered it, and we knew this would only make it harder to leave! 

Practical Information:
Distance: 16.2 km
Cumulative ascent: 770 m
Cumulative descent: 333 m
Max Temperature: 15˚C
Accommodations: Albergue de la Colegiata Real

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Day 40 - St. Jean Pied de Port to Orisson

Today was again about perspective – we embarked on a familiar path, yet everything looked different. Armed with the knowledge that the walk to Orisson only takes about 3 hours, we slept in and had a late breakfast. We shared the meal with a couple from New Zealand who were very excited to begin their Camino, but who were going by way of Valcarlos. Perhaps we will see them again in Roncesvalles.

We headed back into town, through the city walls, down the street, and out the other end to begin the climb around 8 am. The town was relatively empty, most of the pilgrims having already set out on their new adventures.
When we set out it was in bright sunny weather, which was a stark contrast to last fall, when we set off in darkness. The climb out of town was familiar, but it seemed like the landmarks came faster than they did the first time. We found the familiar GR markers, as well as the new shell markings and a few yellow arrows in spray paint. We also passed the barn for a donkey we remember well, although the donkey was absent. There were a few other changes as well, including many gites that we don't remember seeing last fall.

Although there were fewer hikers than when we set out in the morning rush before, there were still far more hikers than we have been seeing in the previous days.

Most stunning of all were the mountains themselves! In the fall the whole landscape was shrouded in mist, which was mysterious and magical. This is probably how the Pyrannees will remain in my mind, but the panoramic views we found today were truly stunning.

As we climbed the asphalt road grew steadily steeper. However, what we remember as a very difficult climb last year was not hard for us to manage. It turns out 801 km of preparation on a more physically challenging trail was good training, and served us well!

When we reached the gite at Honto, where we were planning to stop for a coffee, we found it closed. Although this was disappointing, because we wanted to reminisce, we were feeling fine, and happy to continue.

When we reached the stretch of path that leaves the asphalt and goes straight up the hillside as a dirt track it got really windy. We could imagine getting swept off the side of the mountain quite easily, although we were never in any actual danger. As we paused part way up to admire the view and take a few photos we were unexpectedly overrun by a heard of sheep. This was lots of fun.

Although the dirt track was steep, and the road afterwards was steeper, we still found ourselves rounding the corner at Orisson long before we expected to. It felt like a very short hike, and we could have continued on, but as it turned out we avoided a very heavy downpour by stopping.

We sat on the patio under the awning at Orisson and enjoyed a coffee and a piece of Basque cake. The lady from South Africa we met yesterday was already there, and we spent a few hours engaged in interesting conversation with her. It turned out that we could check in early, so we did that around 11:00 am, and then went for a walk along the road.

As we climbed the clouds grew more and more menacing, prompting us to return to the vicinity of the gite. There was a group of horses down the road from Orisson, and we enjoyed their company under the dramatic skies until it began to pour. When we moved inside we joined a large table of English speaking pilgrims and spent an enjoyable few hours listening to their stories. Among the other hikers was a girl from Wiinnipeg, an American high school teacher on her second Camino, a lady from Denmark, and a couple from Quebec whose story revealed many challenges.

As we sat in the dining area we were joined by a large group of local Basque men. They enjoyed their meal and many many drinks over the course of the afternoon. When the pilgrim meal started they were still there, and they began to sing Basque chants. Although this was another unexpected musical treat, it was not the last one of the night. There was an older gentleman from Italy, who was experiencing some serious medical issues, who stood up after the meal and sang several opera songs very powerfully and beautifully. Another wonderful surprise to end a beautiful day.

Practical Information:
Distance: 8 km
Cumulative ascent: 650 m
Cumulative descent: 10 m
Max Temperature: 24˚C
Accommodations: Orisson

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Day 39 - Ostabat to Saint Jean Pied de Port

Well, today we connected the dots by arriving back at the place where we began our first Camino, and where we first heard of the Le Puy Way and its beauty. As always, coming to the end of an adventure was bittersweet, although we still have two days left.

We shared a breakfast in our gite with the many many flies and our fellow hikers, and then headed out into the countryside for the final run into Saint Jean Pied de Port. As we left Ostabat there was a beautiful pink sunrise, although the day was generally overcast.

We left the road and walked along a forested track for a bit. The countryside looked magical cloaked in mist, with the white and red Basque houses, and the flocks of grazing sheep. The sound of bells on grazing animals in the mist, whether they are on sheep, horses, or cows, is something I will always associate with the Pyrannees.

Although there were some very beautiful stretches of path, for a lot of the day we followed the highway, either walking on a trail beside it, or hiking directly on it. This was not really a very romantic approach to St Jean Pied de Port.

Around 11 we came to a small chapel which was open, and we stepped inside. We were able to climb up into the choir area at the back, and we found a small bat hanging from the ceiling. As we left the bells began ringing, and for some reason they tolled 40 times. This was slightly unnerving, and caused the bat to take off as well.

Another random but interesting wildlife discovery was one of the largest earthworms I have ever seen!

Around noon we arrived in the town of St Jean le Vieux. We were in no hurry to end our hike, so we stopped for a coffee at the hotel. As we sat there several hikers we recognized passed us by, and we were struck, as we often are, that one of the amazing things about the Camino is that you can find yourself sitting on the sidewalk in a town you have never been to before, and you know people.

After our coffee we explored the town a little further and stopped at the bakery for a pastry.

It was a short walk through a small town with a cheese farm to St Jean Pied de Port. Just before town we passed the junction with GR 10, which of coarse made us think. We had seriously been considering hiking on GR10 up to Irun, but we didn't have quite enough days left to make it up there before our flight home. It was exciting to enter St. Jean from the top of the hill, having put it in a different context.

As we approached the gate in the old city wall we saw that St Jean Pied de Port has been designated as one of the most beautiful villages in France. We also encountered a large tour group, and a white trolley filled with tourists was just squeezing its way through the gate. Somehow this gave the town a different feel to what we experienced on our first visit.

We made our way down the main street, just as it began to rain. We were struck by how excited and full of anticipation the other pilgrims were. We hadn't made a reservation for the night, so our first stop was the pilgrim welcome office. As we stood in line at number 39 we realized that the conversations around us were suddenly mostly in English. The lady on front of us was from Quebec, and we struck up a conversation with another very friendly lady from South Africa.

After getting our stamps we headed across the street for a coffee and a slice of Basque cake while we tried to decide where to stay. We were partially tempted to try to get a bed in the same dormitory where we stayed at the beginning of our first Camino, but at the same time it felt like this might not be quite right. We walked down the street calling gites as we went to see if they had space, and looking in on others. No one answered, and none of the gites opened their doors before 3 or 4 pm. We didn't really fancy hanging about in the rain with our packs for the next 2 hours, so we took it as a sign and called a Chambre d'hotes we had passed on the way in just outside the city walls. The British couple who run it had a free room, and somehow this felt right. Although we envied the hordes of hikers in the dorms, eager to begin their new journeys, we somehow felt we didn't quite belong in their midst.

After checking in and doing chores we walked through town again, checked out a few bookstores in the hopes of finding a photobook on the Chemin Compostelle that we had been seeing across France, and headed down to the train station to change our tickets for Bordeaux to one day earlier. As we waited in the station we met two of the couples we have been hiking with, who were heading home. We suddenly realized how different this hike is – there is no grand arrival at a destination, where everyone can meet up and spend a night celebrating, and no final mass. Many people walk into town, get the next train out, and are simply gone.

After this somewhat sobering experience we sat in a covered cafe and had a crepe, while watching the world going by and reviewing our many experiences along the way. We spent a quiet afternoon in town, did laundry at the laudromat since it was pouring and nothing was going to dry, and generally just walked around. We also visited the church, and were able to attend the pilgrim mass, which is something that was relatively infrequent along the way in France.

We had a celebration dinner down by the river, which consisted of goat cheese salad and rose wine, and then in the evening we went to listen to Basque chants in the church. This was one of those unexpected things that turned out to be amazing!

The first part was presented by a large group of singers, and the second part was sung by two very talented teenagers. Basque chants are very lively and happy sounding, and many of them seem to involve a chorus that the whole audience sings. It was kind of fun to see the gite owners from the place we stayed at in Ostabat having a lovely time in the audience, and to realize that a lot of the audience were locals who knew the language and the chants.

After the concert we walked around the town for a bit and Sean took photos, and then we headed up the hill to bed.

Practical Information: 
Distance: 22.5 km

Cumulative ascent: 625 m
Cumulative descent: 613 m
Max Temperature: 22˚C
Accommodations: Maison Errecaldia

Monday, 26 June 2017

Day 38 - Aroue to Ostabat Asme

Today we got our first glimpse of the Pyrannees … and what a view! It was a beautiful day, which began with breakfast at 6:00 am. Quite a few people were up and breakfasting, but for the first couple hours of walking we saw only one other hiker.

We began with a short walk down the highway outside the gite, but soon turned off the main road, and then picked up a track which began climbing. As the sun rose pink in the east we were treated to some beautiful views of the mountains.

We spent quite a bit of time enjoying the views from the first hill. As we descended we followed the signs for the Chapel of d'Olhaiby. This turned out to be a few meters off the GR, behind a farm. It was a very nice looking chapel from the outside, but sadly it was closed when we arrived.

After the chapel it was a pleasant walk along paved country lanes through the rolling hills of Basque country, with the Pyrannees in the background. At one point we came to a split in the trail, which offered us the option to take a variant to St. Palais. We learned from the signs that there was an opportunity to meet up with the Camino Norte from St. Palais, but since we weren't aware of that before today, we continued on the main GR.

Around 10:30 or so we arrived in the Basque village of Larribar. Our maps suggested there might be a bar, as well as a chapel. When we arrived both were closed, so we sat outside the town hall at a picnic table and had some water and granola bars. The sun was beginning to come out from the behind the clouds, and it was getting a little warm.

No far outside the village of Larribar we came to a marker where three trails converge – Le Puy, Tours, and Vezelay. This was quite exciting to consider that there were several possible options for continuing on from that point. After all, there was actually nothing other than a sense of duty and responsibility that made us decide to continue on along the Le Puy Way, and not divert onto an entirely new and unexpected adventure.

We stuck to the plan, and continued on the Le Puy Way, which soon began to climb a large and rather steep hill.

The views from this hill were spectacular.

At the top is the tiny Chapel de Soyartz, where we paused to rest, reflect, have a bite to eat, and enjoy the view. It really was spectacular!

Much of the descent was down a forested pathway, which we were thankful for, as it gave some respite from the heat. At the base of the hill was the tiny Basque village of Harambeltz. Its chapel was also closed, so we continued on down the road to the Ostabat.

There was a short but steep climb into the village, and we found a gite that also served as a bar and boulangerie. We stopped for a cold orange juice, and picked up some croissants for tomorrow. We visited the church in Ostabat, which has a rounded wooden roof, and an archway above the alter of striped stone. It was very beautiful.

The gite we are staying at is famous for its Basque chants, and it is located about 1 km after the village of Ostabat. It was a very hot walk down the shadeless road. We arrived around 3 pm, just in time to be let in. There is a nice balcony out front with a view of the valley and mountains behind, and there is also a swimming pool. We relaxed outside for a bit, and then watched a storm roll in across the mountains. This was very entertaining, especially since we rescued our laundry from the line out back before the downpour hit. 

We spent a bit of time playing with a litter of kittens that is outside our room, and then relaxed on the deck out front for most of the afternoon before dinner.

At dinner, which consisted of vegetable soup, a very good omelet, a Basque meat and potatoes dish, and Basque cake, the owner of the gite regaled us with a few Basque chants. He mixed in a few popular French songs so everyone could join in. It was a fun evening, but sadly it left us wondering about the competition these gites face, and how many of them seem to find it necessary to offer a gimmick of one sort or another.

We are only 22 km from St. Jean Pied de Port, and sad the journey is nearly over!

Practical Information:
Distance: 23.8 km
Cumulative ascent: 825 m
Cumulative descent: 774 m
Max Temperature: 30˚C
Accommodations: Gite d'Etape Repas