Farewell and the International Camino Packing Champions!

Before I get to the farewell I want to share with you a little about our night in the Albergue.  The Roncesvalles one is the largest I have stayed in on the camino and for that alone it is worth the experience. There are hundreds of beds in a recently fitted out 3 storey dorm.  Last year I had been privileged to be placed beside the Korean national snoring champion you may recall – I survived the night without actually holding the pillow over his head and committing murder!  This year the same person may not have been so lucky!  I was in peak condition.

This year our Korean bunk mates surpassed all expectations by not snoring at all.  However they had another far more annoying expertise.  They commenced packing with torchlights at approximately 4.30am in the morning and you can imagine we were not pleased when 6am came around and they were still packing!!!!!  I was on the lower bunk and was targeted by their torches and tussling to the extreme.   At some point (and I admit to swearing under my breath and probably over it)  I cried “please turn the light on, take your gear and go!” Actually Ill admit it was a little more demanding than this.   Michelle also chirped in telling them the same. Thankfully they turned the light on BUT they continued packing!!!!!   Clearly missing the point of why the light was to come on.  Michelle also let out cries of exasperation and the guys a cubicle over were swearing in Polish I am sure.  In fact I think the Canadians down the end were crying in despair.  The Irish were writing songs.  Stories will pass from generation to generation down the camino about these girls.  I have dubbed these girls not the Korean National Packing champions but, and I truly believe this, they would have to take the international title for Camino Morning Packers –  for taking the longest to pack your bag in an albergue or hostel in the morning.    Have they no shame?  Even the French early risers pack their bags the night before, the Germans never unpack theirs even if they talk loudly as they leave, even the loud annoying people from anywhere in the world (including the Aussies who have drunk too much) don’t start at 4.30 and go for 2 hours.  The Byron bay resort managers that complained about a few whispers when we returned from the bluesfest one night would have keeled over in shock.  My beloved can never again complain about any tardiness I may have exhibited in my camino packing rituals!  Michelle swears she is going back to camping!  I have a few time delay shots to share.  If these packs are in the bunk next to you – take the bed at your own risk!

Well after all this we were awake as you can imagine.  I had to catch a bus a 9.10 am and we went to have our last breakfast together.  Okay, it wasn’t really breakfast, it was coffee and bread!   So we had coffee.  I sent my pack on to Jesus and Maria  in Pamplona and waited for the bus.  Too hard to carry a big pack and wander the city looking for my next nights sleep.  After the snorters and grunters and the international camino packing champions I needed some peace!

I farewelled Michelle and watched her wander off down the camino feeling quite sad and yet so happy that we had started this together.  I took some photos of buildings and people and went back up for another coffee finding it a little too cold to stand out at the bus stop.  I kept wondering how and where we would see each other again.



On the bus a 78 year old Canadian and his nephew sat next to me for a chat.  He was walking bits and pieces of the camino and shared his whole life story in the hours or so it took to get to Pamplona.  Even off the track there are some characters.  I walked them to their preferred hostel using google maps whereupon I bid them farewell as I went to wander the old city and find somewhere close to Jesus and Maria so I didn’t have to carry my pack too far.  I in no way wanted to return to Australia with new injuries now!

I went looking for the bar near the cathedral that my beloved and I had found some great food at last year.  It was closed but as luck would have it a brand new albergue had opened just opposite it.  I went in and asked for a private room but the lady talked me out of it.  50 euros! It’s too expensive and it’s very quiet today she told me.  So I took a bottom bunk in an upstairs dorm for 18 euros with no one else in it.  I had a rest and wrote some blogs and worked out I could change my flight and catch a train the same day if I stayed here two nights instead of trying to spend a night in Barcelona.  I emailed Michelle and told her what I was doing  and headed out to investigate the city.  Again last year I was in too much pain to fully appreciate this beautiful old city.  After ducking into the cathedral opposite, I visited a book fair, Zapaderia Street (shoe street) and discovered a great restaurant around the corner from the albergue with a view over the whole city. I then went back to the dorm and was so disappointed to see someone’s pack in the cubicle next to mine.  But then I looked closely and it was very familiar.

Michelle had done it again almost 50 kms since I had left her that morning!  Lucky she had saved her knees coming down the Pyrenees.  She is an absolute marvel!  We headed out for some food and a look around again.  I could see Michelle was exhausted but I was so pleased to see her.  Everyone else from the Pyrenees wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow.  So we had one nights sleep without any annoyance from snorers snorters or packing champions.  Next morning we had the lady downstairs book us a massage with a specialist camino therapist for the afternoon – I hadn’t done the 50kms but I had done the Pyrenees again.  We went for a wander and booked a reflexology also for the morning.  We ended the day eating Pinxos with a Portuguese friend Michelle had met last year.  He also brought along some Spanish friends and their Spanish water dogs and we ended the day watching the sunset over Pamplona.

Next morning I had a taxi booked for 5.45 so I was up early.  Wouldn’t you know it – a pack of snorers had moved in both sides last night.    I carried my pack downstairs and fidgeted a bit but I couldn’t work out how those girls could fill two hours with the fidgeting bit when it’s already packed.    This time Michelle and I said goodbye for certain and I caught the train to Barcelona ready to head back to Copenhagen to my dear son and to catch up with Mr Wong who was going to pop over from London.

What a great time in Spain again – physical challenges, seeing good friends and meeting knew ones – and don’t forget the mental challenges of sleeping in dorms with friends from all over the world!

Buen Camino!

Just call me Mary – again! St Jean to Roncesvalles – part 2

I failed to mention a very important event in part 1 of this post, I have had a reconfirmation of the difficulties my name causes with many Europeans.   The concept of two vowels with two sounds actually is quite a challenge for some.  When we went to visit the lady who takes bags over the mountain she wanted to know my name so she could write it on the tag.  Simple enough you may say, writing it was another challenge! – it took quite some time before I eventually said  ” Just call me Mary !”  

So the day continued with us going up up up after our brief sojourn at the mountain refuge with its circling vultures.  Maybe they have had some luck there in the past – who knows – we were not going to be their dinner tonight!  Michelle went on for a while and we passed the water fountain where everyone has to have a photo – henceforth so did we.  

By this time we had a little rain on and off and it was quite cold if we stopped for too long.  Shortly after here was the sign for Navarra – we were now in Spain.  No visa checks, no passports, barely noticeable except now every 50 metres were numbered posts which I don’t recall seeing last year and were no doubt for the benefit of rescue workers when things weren’t going so good for the pilgrims.   

I clearly recall this track in the wet last year!

We were able to see the steep drops beside the tracks clearly and the heavily treed risky areas that may prove treacherous for pilgrims when the whether is bad.  I caught up to Michelle and had another short break with shoes off in memory of the Mexican camino Angel last year.  (You know the guy who appeared everywhere with shoes off every hour swearing you can walk forever).  It was a little too cold to stay for long and while we rested a young gentleman from Greenland stopped briefly and looked at us and told us where he was from before engaging in an awkward silence for a couple of minutes.  He may have been catching his breath and needing a rest but we both occupied the only rocks in the vicinity.  After a few moments too long of awkward silence he turned and headed off up the road.    Not everyone on the Camino is good for a chat!

Michelle went on first as we headed to the last steep incline and the highest point of the pass at 1400m.  I eventually passed a full size refuge which had been crowded with pilgrims whence my beloved and I had passed last year.  Today it was empty with only a few belongings inside providing a glimpse into the past and the thousands of those who had gone before.  
After a while I lost sight of Michelle and slowly but surely made my way up the mountain amidst sleet and threatening downpours to find her sitting under the last great monument of the Pyrenees – I seem to recall finding my beloved at this exact spot last year.  Both had no doubt had time for a nap and a cup of tea (in this case with a touch of Scotch) and both feeling refreshed when I arrived. 

I had a couple of minutes breath catching – and we observed an Italian mother on a bike with her young son ready for the steep descent to Roncesvalles.  It was a little difficult to imagine how she had arrived at the top looking so relaxed after peddling her not so lightweight son up the hill.  Maybe she did maybe she didn’t.  I have noticed bikers (and hikers) getting dropped off at different points along the way.  We will never know.  But as we descended on the right side track quite a few bike riders came zooming passed and she was one of them with son in tow.  Likely he is a future daredevil or Ferrari driver!

I recalled the steep descent was closed last year and I had a need to take care of my knees and, after the West Highland Way, Michelle was happy to take the less steep route and give her knee some protection also.  I was feeling a little guilty for slowing her down but she assured me I was keeping a good pace and she was not at all bothered by my lack of speed!  (Well it saved her knees for some later challenges anyway!  Only a very good friend could be that patient me thinks and I will be forever grateful!)

When we eventually reached the bottom a downpour hit again as we headed along the flat into the back of Roncesvalles.  I was so thrilled to be arriving feeling how I imagine others did every day on the camino and I was so lucky to have Michelle as a companion.  We snared a cubicle with two Korean ladies so there was a bit of a language barrier and not a lot of chit chat.  I had a shower and hit the tens machine before heading out for a bit of a survey of the eating venues.  I had suggested we look into things rather than buy the tickets at the checkin point as we had been disappointed last year (with the wine refill not the company).  Anyway we managed a bite to eat in one bar and a drink in the other before heading back for a rest before the pilgrim welcoming mass.  

As expected the mass was crowded and I felt somewhat faint and had to leave before it had finished.  It was unexpectedly hot inside and I realised I had not drank enough water during the later part of the day.  Anyway I headed upstairs to the only real hotel in the town to discover we could eat there and, more importantly I could pay with a credit card.  I owed Michelle some money and we were due to part ways in the morning and I had forgotten the scarcity of ATMS over this side of the Pyrenees!  Whilst I was sitting on the steps outside the mass Michelle also snuck out!  Apparently we did not go unnoticed as there were not too many people around with such light hair it seems.  

We had a nice meal (by local standards) and went to bed reasonably early after such an exhausting day.  I was so glad to have made the trip the second time and, thanks to Michelle’s willingness to walk with me,  I now know how other “normal” people must feel after a day on the Camino.  Tired, muscle ache and a real sense of achievement.  I think I had all those and more last year – the more being excruciating agony after removing my boots in Roncesvalles.  So glad I was in such great company – we had some great laughs and were lucky to have such great weather to catch the views!   I will be sad to jump on the bus on the morrow! Buenos noches!

Like a stroll in the park – Orisson to Roncesvalles – Part 1

Like a stroll in the park for some that is.  While we were eating dinner last night there had been some rain and thunder and,  just as the resident comedian and chef at St Jean had predicted, it was not before we had reached Orisson.  This rain had created the beautiful rainbow yesterday so we went to sleep on full stomachs literally sleeping above the clouds. 

Today we awoke early because of fear of more storms and wanting to have plenty of time to get to Roncesvalles.  As it turned out the synchronised snoring snorting and grunting meant that we were not overly refreshed as we started off but the sun was shining, the birds were singing and again we started up the mountain with smiles on our faces.  Very different to last year whence my beloved and I could barely see 10 metres in front of us, and if I recall correctly, it rained for most of our journey down which of course limited the opportunity for breaks and definitely restricted photography.  This year the views were spectacular.  

Photos of last year

This year 

I’m not sure that these photos give a true indication of how steep some sections are but there was ample opportunity over the next 18km to enjoy some spectacular scenery and actually see the animals whose bells had rung out the whole way last year and had left us mystified as to what they were. 

As you might imagine I strolled along with happy thoughts feeling so lucky to be able to return to the Pyrenees –  knowing how inexpensive the accommodation is and knowing that transport is free (if you exclude any pharmaceutical products and medical interventions required for an injury or two) I was feeling so pleased that my legs were working and my preventative strapping had ensured my feet were actually pain free!  Can you believe it?  After all that pain last year I was actually enjoying the view and apart from being a little slower than others (but not the slugs and snails this time) I was finally feeling how others must have felt going over the mountain into Spain.

It wasn’t all roses mind you.  As we steadily ascended the next 700 metres we would occasionally feel a misguided sense of relief as the path plateaued and even descended at times.  With each step the freshness turned to chill and it wasn’t long before we stopped to put our warmer layers on and I even found my hands too cold for the poles and pulled my gloves onto my hands.  A stark contrast to yesterday when I found myself overheating on the ascent in the sunshine.   We were still on a sealed road when we saw ahead the van that sold hot drinks and snacks.  Whilst he was out of the wind it must have been near freezing where he was located as we didn’t feel sitting there was ideal and Michelle suggested we head further up and find somewhere else to take a break.

 Just off the road a couple of km’s on, and somewhat further up the mountain, was an emergency shelter with some logs outside and we decided this was the ideal place to take a real break and eat our ham and cheese rolls.   Michelle pulled out an avocado and we sat warily as the vultures started circling.  I had just finished telling Michelle that, according to some stories on the Internet, there was a lady who had fallen in the Pyrenees and the vultures had picked her to the bone before rescue workers could reach her!  Needless to say we were not overly impressed with this unnecessary attention!  Thankfully they decided we were far too alive to tackle and headed off to find some other more tasty prey!

A Walk in the Clouds – St Jean to Orisson 7.7km 2hrs walk time ascent 665 m

As luck would have it our first day began without rain – it wasn’t exactly clear sky and sunshine but it wasn’t too bad given that the weather reports suggested thunder and 100 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms.  Our resident comedian and chef informed us that there would be no rain until after we arrived at Orisson.  He wasn’t a German yoda but I had a feeling he knew what he was talking about.  After all he lived at the foot of the pass. We took a few shots of the buildings and of other people taking photos of the buildings, had a bite to eat, and headed down the road to Santiago with smiles on our faces and the cool morning air on our skin.  None of this getting up at 4.30am for our day to begin, clearly that is one of the reasons we became friends in the first place!  We had had a surprisingly good nights sleep in the albergue although I was a little anxious about what the day would bring and Michelle was also a little concerned that her encouragement for me hiking after a stress fracture and a ruptured pf Might result in problems. I assured her Iwas fine and I could always catch a taxi if things went pear shaped.  There was always plan B (until we went off road and passed the point of no return that is) We both had a desire to beat the rain so aimed to be up early and consequently at 7am we were out the gates of St Jean and heading up the hill in a line of pilgrims “on the road again”.

Being the experienced hiker that I am (snicker snicker) I sent on my main pack of course because my feet were being put to the test again and there was no need to prove anything.  The pack was full of Spanish language books and spare shoes and it needed a forklift to raise it into the back of the truck (not really but it was apparently 16 kg when I weighed it in the pilgrims office. Although I later discovered it was actually only 14.9kg). Anyway I wanted to enjoy this hike and not feel like I’d walked through the gates of hell once we went through the wall at the bottom of the street and started going up.  My day pack weighs as much as many peoples packs anyway as I carry emergency everything in case a blizzard comes over and we are forced to find shelter in a mountain refuge for a month (or in case I need to tape my foot or file a torn nail)!  Always comes in handy when someone is injured or something.  Michelle by contrast carries a tent, a cooker and everything but the kitchen sink and probably comes in at 7kg.  Actually Michelle also took a couple of spare jumpers for me as my day pack was clearly too small once I put the chocolate and fruit in! 

So off we went down the hill and out the gate and even before we crossed the road and started the ascent the first thing we came across was a donkey camping ground!  So that must have been where Anthony and Marten (you know the Frenchman with the nice ass) stayed last year!  The memories came flooding back.  

Photo of Anthony and Marten

Thank heavens my memories focussed on the amazing experience that is the Camino and not the pain and torture I had felt in leaving town dosed up on Imodium and feeling like I was carrying a bag of lead across a path that thousands had gone over the ages to reach the wonderful land of Espagna. The Romans had done it and even Napoleon himself had done it I am led to believe ! Surely I could do it again.

The strange thing was that although it was almost a year to the day since I had trod this path last year with my beloved, it felt like only yesterday.  Maybe because hiking with Michelle made it feel so familiar.  I could see that I was a little slower than Michelle but you will all be pleased to know that I was actually faster than the slugs and snails this year.  And when we left Hunto I was literally zooming up that hill.  That was the particular hill whereupon my beloved chastised me for not moving when I had indeed been lifting one foot after the other for some minutes.  It’s seems back then my movement had been so slow that it was not visible to the naked eye!  This year things were different.  Those slugs had no chance!

I encouraged Michelle to go on every now and then as I was concerned I was holding her back but she was enjoying the view and we were both taking plenty of photos as we meandered our way up the first 8km with steepest gradient of 20.3% according to my trusty app.  (My american friend s may need to convert that one).  I was a little sad that many of the friends my beloved and I had met last year were not going to be around the corner.   I was also a little sad that my beloved was 10000 miles away and not able to share this adventure.  On the other hand I was so thrilled to be with Michelle as she started the first few days of her next adventure and I was thrilled to be walking without pain!  (I had taped my knees and was wearing runners compression socks and ankle supports from the outset which helped immensely).

We made it to Orisson in around 3 hours including our breaks (this was only 2 hours walking and significantly faster than last year) and waited a while for our beds.  Three hours may not seem much but this stretch to Orisson is a good warm up for the next day and the little Albergue on the mountain is such a pleasant way to start the Camino.  Today was especially good weather. So much so that I actually heated up a little too much over the last couple of 100 metres. But the crisp mountain air cooled us down quickly when we arrived and we settled into the dorm and dropped down for a bite to eat before an afternoon nap.  We were thrilled that we were allocated a dorm of 6 women as the men are known to be champion snorers – remember the Korean national snoring champion last year?  He was no where in sight – thank heavens! 

While Michelle was sitting out admiring the view I thought I’d have the first nap.  It was at this point I discovered that amongst our companions was both a snorter and a grunter – Both having afternoon naps at the same time.  Tonight was going to be interesting! I was sick last year and drugged myself up that night and slept for nine hours straight.  Not sure how this was going to work now that I was in peak condition!  

After a nice chicken roast We had the mandatory introductions and met some nice people and, this will sound odd, I felt a little sad there were only two Americans there (and Michelle was one of them.). Last year we met some of the nicest people at Orisson and they were mostly Americans!  

After dinner and just before bed, a beautiful rainbow appeared outside our window.  When we went back outside it had doubled and a few others came out with cameras in hand to witness the spectacle.  Tomorrow would be a nice day! 

If you are reading this and you were in our dorm that night, and you didn’t hear anyone snoring, grunting or snorting that night – ponder that thought!