When starting out on the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela people’s thoughts often turn to the first day’s walking from St Jean to Roncesvalles. It has almost gained infamous status as a daunting barrier to doing the route at all. As soon as people find out that there is an ‘easy route’ they fix it in their mind that this may be the one to do. The aim of the blog post is to change this!
The first day is indeed tough, it is higher than Ben Nevis (UK’s highest mountain, for our overseas readers) with a 1450m climb. You are walking up hill for the greater part of the day and some of the walking is up fairly steep sections. Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it! Well, there are a few facts missing from this slice of information which many people don’t tend to know.
The 1450m height gain is indeed pretty high, however this is over the course of 20km, so while you are walking up a mountain, it is not quite as short sharp a shock as many mountains are. Also, the terrain is nothing like climbing a mountain. The first 12km or so of the walk is on a small road that climbs up the mountain, so there is no need to look at your feet, you can instead look around you and drink in the stunning Pyrenean scenery. The wildlife is also a major distraction, with large birds of prey circling everywhere and wild horses munching their way through the path side vegetation.
Once you are off the little road, you start along little mountain tracks, with the occasional flat section just to give your legs a well deserved break. This takes you over the border to Spain and after a quick photo opportunity here, you ascend again on stony paths until you reach the summit of Col de Lepoeder, your last uphill footstep for the day apart from the stairs up to your room in Roncesvalles.
However, though the walking is all downhill from here, it is not the most fun you will ever have. It’s a pretty severe descent and on tired legs it can be tough going and of course, being the last couple of miles, it seems to last a lot longer than it should. However, soon you see the spires of Roncesvalles peeking through the trees and before you know it you are back on the tarmac and making your way to a lovely little hotel where you can soak your weary legs.
So, it’s a tough day, but completely do-able, particularly if you have done a little fitness training before you head out to France. I am not the fittest person in the world and even though we did no training, were walking into 100kmph winds and trudged through a foot of snow at the top, we still made it in around 9 hours. I must point out that this was in March and at the Pilgrims Office in St Jean, we were advised against walking over the mountain that day, so if you follow the good advice from the knowledgeable staff before you set off, you should have an unforgettable days walking.