Tuesday, May 28, 2019

My first steps on the Camino de Santiago

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
On the Camino de Santiago
Having read a number of memoirs and novels set on the Camino, I realised I was drinking in their journeys with a thirst I didn’t know I had for this ancient pilgrimage route. So when Adrian said he had plotted a ride for our Basque mini-break that would take us on one of the marked Camino routes, from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles in Spain, I was excited, until he mentioned it was thought of as the toughest part of the 800km. Walkers will often reach Roncesvalles on their second day, we were planning to cycle there and back in an afternoon.

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
Basque produce from the market in St Jean Pied de Port

Following a wander around the morning market in St Jean Pied de Port, full of local produce as expected, and having sampled pâté, cheeses, gateau Basques and a milk-raised veal cooked with peppers, onions and Piment d’Espelette, I didn’t think we’d need lunch. However, the afternoon ride would see us climbing properly up and into Spain, so a quiche, salad, gateau Basque and strawberries seemed a good idea.

With the bikes checked over and the first aid kit and emergency blanket packed, the sun cream applied, and the last-minute nerves settled, we were ready (as I’d ever be) for the off. Looking back at my journal, at this point it jumps suspiciously from lunch to dinner; the local apero, the flavours, the people watching and the atmosphere. The reality was much harder, and it is a little further on in my notebook that I eventually find the words to describe the challenge of my first real taste of the Camino.

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
The back roads from St Jean Pied de Port to Valcarlos on the Camino

To begin with it was undulating, quiet backroads lined with meadow flowers and beautiful scenery. The route we had chosen (for there are many marked Camino paths) was the one recommended for cyclists in the Cicerone guidebook Cycling the Camino de Santiago, however in places we had to walk as the gradient (both up and down) and the path surface were not always ideal. From Valcarlos, the route joins the road to Pamplona and traffic, bikes and walkers all need to share. This was the beginning of the slow and steady ascent and very soon the higher we climbed the more bits began to hurt. Left calf, lower back, wrists, I could go on, but Adrian would complain about me moaning. I generally find Katie the Tiny Tourer is much more comfortable for me than my road bike and I’m much happier with her size, centre of gravity, geometry and Brooks saddle. However, this ride was a challenge that was testing my comfort zone and I was hurting.

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
Top of the Col d'Ibaneta on the Camino de Santiago

The top of the Col d'Ibaneta 1057m was bleak, cold and windy with no café and no life except for a few wrapped up pilgrims and a couple of tourists sheltering in their car. No one was hanging around and I missed the friendly welcoming feeling from the top of the Col d’Ispeguy. Mentally at this point, one of the worst things was knowing that to get to Roncesvalles, see the pilgrim centre and find some much-needed refreshments, we had a 1.5km descent, meaning the first part of the mainly downhill return to St Jean Pied de Port, would be uphill. Did I have the strength for this final step? I wasn’t sure.

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
Roncesvalles on the Camino de Santiago 

Roncesvalles is a tiny hamlet nestled safely in the mountains, boasting a huge pilgrim auberge where lots of people were already sitting and relaxing in the sun after their day on the Camino. We rolled into the first bar we found, with a sunny terrace, and as we were now in Spain hit the bar together to order our beers. My level of fatigue by this point meant I could barely remember the Spanish for hello, let alone beer. However, used to weary travelers with little or no Spanish, the beers arrived, and we treated ourselves to a warm cheese and ham sandwich. It was obvious we were in Spain, as the availability of food in France, outside of lunch or dinner, is a rare sight indeed. Never has a sandwich dripping with oil tasted so good, even if the peace of the mountain view from the terrace was shattered by a huge digger moving shingle.

It had taken over two and half hours to cycle the 26km and it was gone five in the afternoon when we set off on the return. Despite it being mostly downhill, I was still worried about how long it would take me, not being the most confident downhill cyclist. Sensibly we’d packed long-sleeved tops for the way down and I’m so glad we had. It was windy, as well as being cold and shady in places, and the roar of the wind in our ears was never abating. We both had stiff necks from the combined wind and position of our necks, but thankfully the sun returned in the valley and we were able to gently cruise the final few kilometres in the warmth, tired but happy.

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
Col de Burdincurucheta, Pays Basque

There is a different type of effort and energy required to ascend and descend and both were hard work, but I’m guessing a pilgrimage shouldn’t be easy. In a small way I was disappointed that my fatigue had tainted my enjoyment, burst my Camino bubble if you like, and a part of me felt the full journey to Santiago was beyond my capabilities. A good meal and a restful night, however, gave me the courage to get back on the bike and tackle a larger col, the Col de Burdincurucheta (a fantastic Basque name) at 1135m high. It was also tough, but I’m so glad I tried (and succeeded) so maybe it is just a bit more practice and faith in myself that I am lacking.

Here are a few of my previous posts about the Pays Basque you might like:


  1. Bravo! That utter exhaustion you feel sometimes when cycling is truly draining and demoralising, but a rest and a sugar boost go a long way to restore confidence and morale! Delighted you're having such an amazing trip :-)

    1. Thank you, I'll never be a natural climber, but I'm not ready to give up yet, especially if there is a cake stop involved!

  2. I'm impressed. Very impressed! Bravo Jacqui! You tend to forget stuff like the wind and the elements when you read about a cycling tour, must be frightening as well as unpleasant. The picture of Roncevalles was a bit of a shock, my romantic head still in 'The Song of Roland'...

  3. I'm SO impressed. We took two days to get from SJPP to Roncesvalles and "Never has a sandwich dripping with oil tasted so good"!


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