Camino Day 1: St Jean Pied-de-Port to Orisson


At breakfast we meet a retired Canadian diplomat named Louis Robert, who’s traveling with his wife.  He is proud of the fact that he’s gotten his pack down to 6kg. (Mine is 7.5 kg with an empty water bottle, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten something). He eagerly plays the role of the wise old man, and he says two things that stick with me. First, he found that giving up books was the hardest part of packing and prepping for the trip. One book he wanted to bring weighed 1kg. “The weight of words,” he said sagely. The other thing, he said, is that he had to learn to give up things that he would carry “just in case.”

“When you carry things ‘just in case,’ you carry your fear with you,” he said. “And that can be a heavy thing indeed.”

Leaving St Jean, our hostel host warns us to take the low road, the Valcarlos Road, not the Napoleon Road. That’s the way that real pilgrims walked, the route used by Charlemagne during his wars of Christian reconquest in Spain, and besides, the rainy weather will make the high road dangerous. He also suggests moving a little further past Roncesvalles, which is where most people stop on their first day. He suggested Burguete, and said we should find a bar behind the church, where the priests drink, and ask around until someone finds us a casa rural.

After seeing the nickel and diming prices going on on the website, we shouldn’t be surprised, but breakfast, at 5 euro, is a big disappointment, basically bread and jam and coffee.

On the way out of town, we meet a grump from Kansas City – Dorcinda had tried to start a conversation with him over the fact that we both had the same book. “Everyone has the same book,” he said yesterday. Today she tries again, asking him if he knows a song from the musical “Oklahoma” about Kansas City. “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City,” he says. He knows it.

We walk out of town and along a roadside, single file and on the left, against traffic. The road is littered with dead frogs and, especially, dead slugs. And living slugs. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.” Especially if you’re a slug. Many slugs have martyred themselves to the feet of unwitting pilgrims, on the road to St. James.

There’s some confusion right away about which road to take – most of us want to take the high road but its not that clear to us.

We stop at Orisson, less than 8km from our starting point in St Jean. It is raining, but not too terribly. We meet a young guy from Sydney and he says he’s pressing on. We decide to stay, hoping for better weather and better views in the Pyrenees. It is a decision we will come to regret for several days as we try to bust our butts to match our planned pace. We stop at 10:15am, and have lots of time to write, read, and reflect.  We are hesitant to give up on the rest of the day, but the forecast is 80 percent rain. We look hopefully outside at a break in the clouds while drinking coffee, but end up staying.

It rains very little and we feel foolish for deciding to stop so soon. All the younger pilgrims move on and we’re left with a room full of retirees, splitting time between a bedroom with six beds and the common area of the bar. We go out for a brief walk up the road and back, but there’s not much to see – everything is covered in cloud and drizzly mist.

We end up sharing a room with Louis Robert and his wife. Louis Robert looks on in horror as he sees us pull books, notebooks, and a laptop from our bag. I’ve got two notebooks, three books, a computer, and a goal of writing at least 1,000 words a day. The weight of words, indeed.

At dinner we sit by an overweight young American, Rachel, an older Australian man who’s been separated from his wife by the chaotic seating, and Kansas City, who actually turns out to be a pretty nice guy, but was probably uncomfortable and self conscious when we first met him. After soup and wine is served and conversation begins to flow, a waiter whistles for attention and ostentatiously shushes us. When everyone is quiet, attentive, and even chagrined, he simply says, Bon Apetit, and everyone laughed as the tension broke. They gave us so much soup that we wonder whether that will be the whole meal or whether we should save room for later. Dorcinda asks, and the waiter points out that we have plates under the bowls, knives and forks, and even dessert spoons.

You must be like Sherlock Holmes, he tells her. These are clues.

In fact, they are very generous, bringing more wine and more of the main course (chicken).

After dinner, they tell us there is a tradition in this hostel, and make us stand up, say our names, where we’re from, where we’re going, and who we’re traveling with, We switch between English, French, Spanish. A little bit in Italian – one man spoke for a long time and I didn’t understand until the end, when he said, in English, “My wife, she push me.” People are mostly from Spain, France, Italy, Canada, Australia and the U.S., but Brazil, Japan, Korean are also represented. One American does his bit in Spanish – the Australians and Americans near us are impressed by his accent, but I am appalled by it.

I went to bed soon after dinner because there wasn’t much else to do. I was glad for my earplugs, because Louis Robert, on the bunk below me, was quite an accomplished snorer. He discoursed at length, asleep or awake.


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