My winter pilgrimage
From Roncesvalles to Frómista
Day 1 – Roncesvalles to Larrasoaña (27.7 km)
On our first day most of us in the Roncesvalles albergue were up early while it was still pitch dark outside. The excitement of the first day’s walk probably was one reason. The bathroom with shower and basin was adjacent to the dormitory and the separate toilet with a skimpy door allowed little privacy for some beds close by. Luckily I was not affected as I slept in the far corner. Both, dormitory and bathroom, had no windows and the air extraction system seemed to have been either switched off, if it ever was electrically operated, or it was useless. The air was stuffy and I was desperate to get going.
When I passed through the arched gateway of the monastery, dawn had barely broken, clouds were low and gray and it was raining. Some pilgrims remained behind under the cover of the arch, waiting for the weather to clear, but it did not look as if the clouds would rise any time soon, and I moved on. Maybe those remaining had to overcome initial resistance to rain.
The landscape was white with snow as far as one could see, but the tarred road on which we walked had been cleared. I had to squint through the rain to find the first marker pointing to the Camino path that runs parallel to the dreary tar, but I missed the sign and continued for a few more kilometres. I then found the second turnoff, but the track was iced-up. Eric, a Canadian, seemed unperturbed by this, after all, he was in his element in these conditions. I, on the other hand, chickened out, did not want to break my legs on what I considered treacherous surfaces. I gingerly retraced my steps and continued on the tar road.
When the Camino zigzagged for the last time over the tar road, the path looked less hazardous and I ventured onto it. The track passed through one or two villages before climbing quite steeply to Alto de Mezquiriz. Here I walked through a low forest, with shrubs on both sides, and my progress was slow. I had to catch my breath every now and then, but otherwise it was pleasant, although still drizzling. Incidentally, when I recently crossed this stretch once more, I could not understand why the first time around I ‘had to catch my breath’, the incline was nothing to talk about. It is all a matter of fitness and endurance.
Iced over path – not for South Africans
On the incline Noelia and Eric had caught up with me and we walked in close proximity to one another until we reached the summit. I felt a blister developing on my left heel and had to apply a blister pad to prevent trouble, so I lost sight of the others on the descent.
The walk downhill was most uncomfortable, muddy in places, or lined with treacherously protruding rock veins in other areas. The path was steep and slippery, made worse by the rain. My guide book refers to the conditions here as “particularly dangerous in wet weather”, and so they were. I nevertheless reached the valley in one piece and crossed the first of many beautiful medieval bridges. This one, like others to follow in the next few days, was over the River Arga. It had a large arch in the centre, with minor arches on both sides. Just past it was Zubiri.
Bridge spanning the River Arga at Zubiri
I had walked around twenty two kilometres by now, which I felt was enough for my first day. After the steep uphill and more unpleasant downhill conditions, I was ready for a rest. According to my guidebook, an albergue with 16 beds was supposed to be open all year round, but unfortunately a sign proclaimed that it only opened in April, and so did the municipal albergue. With so few pilgrims on the way, many albergues close their doors in winter.
On entering a bar, Noelia greeted me with a grin and later Dominique joined us. We had a late lunch and coffee and were on our way to the next albergue in Larrasoana, a further six kilometres west. A large old building on the village square housed the albergue and a wide staircase led to the elevated main entrance with its palatial double-leaf entrance door. It looked quite grand and I could imagine that this building originally had been the town hall. The door did not open, and no one responded to our knocking, so we walked to the rear of the building and were fortunate to gain access through the yard and the kitchen entrance. Later, when the hostelier arrived to collect the night’s fee and stamp our pilgrim’s passes, she demonstrated how to give the front door a hefty pull and kick to gain access.
Except for the superfit Costa Rican pilgrim, who on this first day had pushed on all the way to Pamplona, all of us from Roncesvalles met up again, with the couple from Argentina arriving in the dark just after 7 pm. They had lost their way and had wandered aimlessly around the countryside. They were totally and utterly exhausted. It certainly was not a pleasant experience for them and after this night I never saw them again – perhaps they had abandoned their pilgrimage.