Is the first day of the French Way Camino the hardest?
Having walked the final stretch of the Camino from Sarria to Santiago two years ago and then Logrono to Burgos last year, we continued our Camino all in the wrong order again this year by walking the first part, from St Jean Pied de Port to Pamplona.
Guide books caution that the first day from St Jean to Roncesvalles is the toughest. You have a choice of two routes. Up and over the Pyrenees on the Route de Napoleon or the less scenic lower route, alongside the river and road through Valcarlos. The day before starting we met a seasoned Camino walker, Alan, on the bus to St Jean, who told us he had already walked the Route de Napoleon several times before, always through cloud, and now intended taking the lower route. When we met Alan again in the evening of the next day at Roncesvalles he informed us that the lower route was no less strenuous as it continually descends and ascends, criss crossing the river. After a long Mass at Eglise Notre-Dame, breakfast, procrastination and initially setting off in the wrong direction, we were on our way by 11am. After only a short way, at the edge of town, we had to choose which of the two routes to take. Though it was drizzling we decided to take the higher route as the weather forecast promised late afternoon sunshine. The weather cleared to allow us spectacular views as we climbed ever up from 100 metres to 1450 metres The climb was much easier for us than it was for those pilgrims carrying their luggage, for we had the luxury of baggage transfer. We passed three cyclists, laden with panniers, who could not manage the gradient and had resorted to pushing their bikes most of that day. They explained how they were hoping to get to Santiago in two weeks and now wondered if they could do so. Perhaps the first day, more than any other, modifies over ambition.
The Camino is well marked with yellow arrows, shell symbols, pilgrim 'leave behind' stone cairns, crosses and shrines. At the Pic D'Orisson (1100 metres above sea level), the Madonna and child Jesus look out over passing pilgrims and the whole world beneath their feet. From here the ascent to the high point of the Route across the border into Spain is reasonably gradual. This section is clearly the most dangerous (in terms of weather). The 112 emergency phone number is etched into clearly numbered and frequently spaced posts. We even past a few remains of winter snow. Finally, we reached Col de Lepoeder, the highest point, from where Roncesvalles and the region of Navarra come into view. Here you can choose between a steep decline along a path through woodland (tough on the knees when you are tired) or the asphalt track. Both bring you down 300 metres to Roncesvalles.
We took the footpath to arrive in Roncesvalles at 6 30pm just in time for a beer before the 7pm 9 euro pilgrim supper of pasta, fried trout and chips. We shared our table with two Texans, an Australian and a Korean who were all full of euphoric enthusiasm, satisfied to have successfully completed the first day. They were a little puzzled at our fragmented wrong order method of walking the Camino but, in our defence, the journey is the destination - a destination we hope to return to next year. Bon Camino!