Camino Day 1: St Jean Pied Port – Pamplona

By | June 11, 2006

Woke up late – 6:45 – still felt early! Set off for the first days riding, pootling along nicely on a warm morning. Three blokes in a car flagged us down. I stopped but Lou very nearly didn’t, almost crashing into me. The blokes started to laugh and couldn’t stop. We rode on eventually with them still laughing in the car.

The climb out of St Jean Pied Port wasn’t bad. We got to Argenry and didn’t see any sign of being in Spain except the (closed) petrol station shop was called ‘tienda’. After that the climb was steep. It seemed there were plenty of flags and red/white/green on both sides of the border, so we were squarely in Basque country.

I found that I was struggling to breathe fast enough to keep going. Lou had early trouble with her gears changing down and her knee was feeling sore so she walked much of the 17km to the top. My blisters only hurt when I walked, not while cycling, so that kept me on the bike, even when I hit 5mph.

The shops on the way up were all closed and there were still revelers of all ages around from a fiesta the night before. I was half crazed with hunger and earned a few cuts and scratches gathering blackberries by the road. I also tracked down some tiny wild mountain strawberries, which were divine. Altogether we probably shared around a cup of fruit – not enough!

The higher we got, the wetter we got. What started out as drizzle soon felt like a downpour and I was soaked to my skin. As we got higher it got really misty.  That was nice though as it kept us cool but it did get tiresome after a while, we were cycling within a cloud. We bumped into a French couple on a tandem and with each of us taking different rest times we kept passing each other. I filled up a water bottle at a fountain by the road as emergency back up, but I wanted to avoid drinking dodgy water.

Our guide book said the last 3km got extra steep and whilst the going had been relentless, it was a constant, rather than steep gradient that was wearing us down. I kept going, stopping each time I lost sight of Lou behind me taking the opportunity for a drink and a rest. I wasn’t looking forward to the extra steepness, but then I saw a cross in the mist – the church at the top. I shouted a few “woohoo”, “go us” and “it’s the church” behind me to Lou to encourage her on and stepped on the pedals.

A Spanish guy in racing gear called out stuff to me as I rode. The best I could offer was “C’est fini?” He said “Si, vamos, vamos!” and laughed his head off. We took some photographs of us in the mist with a hill of crosses and a tor with a monument to Roland.

We’d been up to taking 25 minutes per km, but we came down the hill at 36mph, one kilometre in one minute 20 seconds. It felt incredible, but very, very cold. It was just 3km down to Roncevalles where we went to a bar at the monastery. We recognised a Dutch couple we’d met on the mountain. They’d already been on the road three weeks, travelling 2000km and having a great time.
We ordered coffee to warm us up and some sandwiches. Lou very nearly ended up with fried ham after a translation error – I was trying to order ham with chips. I scoffed lunch down like it was the last food on earth. If they had been able to liquidise it, that would have been great.

We met an interesting Australian chap there, he was travelling a trans Pyrenees route on his own so was glad to join some English speakers. He was tempted to join the Camino purely because he liked our passport stamps.  He gave us a pice of advice that proved very useful – if you see fruit, eat it.  There will be days when you struggle to get any fruit or veg at all.

We set off again, this time with the sun out. We went like Billyo, then pumped up our tyres at a petrol station, speeding us up a lot. The air machine took some getting used to. More Tokke bars and water helped us on our way. People who had seen and heard us at the petrol station shouted encouragement in English from their car.

We weren’t looking forward to a 12km climb out of Erro, but it turned out to be just 4.5km up to Alto de Erro (Alto is clearly a bad word – 810m high). Picnickers scoffed Corona and didn’t offer us any. Lou celebrated the peak with a fag. We carried on down the mountain at high speed to Zubiri, our target for the day.

The refuge looked sad and having asked where the entrance was a deeply unhelpful and smug walker explained that it was full, but we may be able to sleep on the floor and must come back two hours later to get a stamp for our passports. I thought “bite me” but said Buen Camino. There was a black cat with dodgy eyes – an instrument of the devil. We scoffed a Tokke bar to cheer us both up and carried on.

The next town, Larrasoana, also had no room at the inn, and some cheery Spaniards said we could probably sleep on the porch. Cheesed off we decided to bite the bullet and charge on to Pamplona. Directions to get into town weren’t easy. In a suburb I spotted a Camino sign, but it was a tease. Although we could see the Cathedral it was further still, by the bullring – not at all like the one in Birmingham.

Disaster struck just as we were congratulating ourselves on being way ahead of schedule and planning to stay in the schmanziest hotel in town. I got a rear flat, not slow, a full blow out. The garage we passed was closed so no help there. I transferred my luggage onto Lou’s bike so as not to damage the rim and we walked into town. We found an un-fancy hotel, La Perla, which had bizarre old fashioned furniture and a cheery chap who insisted on stamping our passports rather than giving us directions to the Cathedral!

We found a policeman met my “Buenos Tardes” and gave us directions at warp speed, which caused us much amusement. After all of that, the Cathedral was closed! We opted for a couple of beers in the square – very popular with everyone, including lots of old ladies with overly styled hair. We then ordered dinner – squid, chicken strips, tuna sandwiches, patatas bravas, onion rings, chicken breast, salad, chips and croquettes. Not surprisingly we didn’t finish it all, but had it bagged up to take home along with some wine.

I’m really starting to ache and discover new bits that hurt every time I stand up.

Forward to Pamplona to Estella Back to Getting to SJPP

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