Camino de Santiago 5: Excelsior!

Over the Pyrenees, 23rd-25th March 2007

NB. I quote extensively from Longfellow’s poem Excelsior! in this section. The complete work can be found here.

‘High are the hills, the valleys dark and deep,
Grisly the rocks, and wondrous grim the steeps.’
The Song of Roland

Breakfast at 55 rue de la Citadelle

Breakfast at 55 rue de la Citadelle

Jeannine presided over breakfast the next morning. Our French companions were going no further; they would return when the weather had improved enough to make the Route Napoleon feasible. Michel presented everyone in the refugio with a little medallion of the Virgin. Meanwhile, Brantz (I regret that I never knew how this was spelt), a Slovenian with dreadlocks and a magnificent leather hat, asked if he could join us for the day’s walk. We agreed readily.

Jeannine

Jeannine

The shades of night had not entirely departed by the time we left, at around a quarter to eight, and a slight drizzle was falling. We went wrong almost immediately, having mistaken the left turn that we were on no account to take for the road upon which we should continue for a while until we came to the dangerous turn. Fortunately for us the gentleman from the Accueil Saint Jacques had come out, either for an early morning walk or else specifically to warn unwary pilgrims, and he pointed the right way with his umbrella. Unlike the foolhardy young man in Excelsior! (‘Try not the pass!’ the old man said,/ ‘Dark lowers the tempest overhead!/ The roaring torrent is deep and wide!’ And loud that clarion voice replied: ‘Excelsior!’) we listened to the local knowledge and took the right turn.

Leaving St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Leaving St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

I must admit to not knowing exactly where we crossed the border. It was, I know, somewhere after the duty free shop where we stopped for more bread and sardines (with lemon, this time) and somewhere before or perhaps in Arnéguy, but we saw nothing to mark it. The signs here pointed pilgrims down two equally likely looking roads; after some debate we took the right-hand road and continued, facing the oncoming traffic as per the Highway Code, to Valcarlos.

Anne and I had meant to stop at Valcarlos, thinking that it might be somewhat foolhardy to attempt the entire pass in one day. We did take a longish rest; it was now raining hard, and I discovered that the lid had come off my tub of raisins, so I was obliged to pick dried fruit from the remotest corners of the pocket. It was, however, only 10.45am, and we were in no mood to stop. (‘O stay, O stay,’ the maiden said,/ ‘And rest this weary head upon this breast.’/ A tear stood in his bright blue eye/ But still he answered with a sigh,/ ‘Excelsior! Excelsior!’) Above the spectral glaciers shone – well, we had just seen the first patch of snow on the ground – but we kept going along the road.

The mountains, seen from Valcarlos

The mountains, seen from Valcarlos

The Confraternity guidebook claims that ‘close to Km 61 the camino leaves the road and uses paths and tracks to the Puerta de Ibañeta’. So it does. After the first off-road venture, however, we decided that the paths and tracks were too unnerving given the snowy and icy conditions, and we stuck to the road. This probably added several kilometres to the day’s walk, but at least we knew where we were. We stopped to eat our lunch in a layby; it was cold, and windy, but at least we were not getting run over.

Brantz, in one of the less terrifying parts of the off-road section

Brantz, in one of the less terrifying parts of the off-road section

Nice place for a picnic

Nice place for a picnic

This consolation wore increasingly thin, however, as we toiled ever onwards and upwards round unending hairpin bends, occasionally being forced off the road and into a snowdrift to get out of the way of the traffic. As the altitude increased so did the depth of snow, and the precipitation grew ever thicker, and the visibility ever poorer. Worst of all, however, was the complete lack of any form of sign or, in fact, any indication at all as to where we were. All we had was a post every kilometre; they told us how far we had come, but we were unsure about how far we had yet to go. My trousers were soaked through, a situation worsened by the fact that the water ran off my rucksack cover and straight down the backs of my legs. Anne knew that her blister was getting worse and worse, but there was nowhere to stop. We were almost glad to hear another gang of dogs yapping away ahead of us: surely that meant we were nearing civilisation? Apparently not. It was the only house in sight. There was further to go still. Brantz kept forging ahead. Anne kept lagging behind. I drifted between them, straining to see if there was anything ahead that might be a village, a settlement, a house, anything.

We came to the end, of course. At the top of the road a huge cross loomed out of the mist. A brown road sign next it said ‘Ibañeta 1057m’. ‘Ah,’ I thought confusedly, ‘we’re only a kilometre away from Ibañeta. Good.’ It took me a while to realise that 1057m was the altitude: we were already at Ibañeta and the cross was attached to the chapel. At the foot of the cross – now, this was bizarre – was a man building a snowman. Do angels build snowmen? We certainly couldn’t have been more glad to see him had he been an angel. He cheered us up immeasurably by informing us that there was no way it was more than a kilometre, a kilometre and a half at the outside, to Roncesvalles. His girlfriend, it seemed, worked in the village and he was amusing himself up here while he waited for her to finish for the day.

At Ibañeta

At Ibañeta

We staggered on the last kilometre into Roncesvalles, then resolved to find the tourist information office. We were saved the trouble, however; a monk with an umbrella swept out of the Casa Sabina and gathered us up. (‘Peregrinos? Vamos!’) He led us into the monastery, booked us into their refugio, and showed us to the dormitory. This refugio was the first – and only – one that had had the sense to install a heated towel rail. We managed to squeeze a fair number of our sopping garments on there along with the other pilgrims’. Both my pairs of knickers were now wet, so I was forced to do without for the rest of the evening. The dormitory was quite comfortably warm, due in part to the sheer number of bodies that had somehow been fitted in there. We braved an expedition to the Casa Sabina to book places for supper, and filled in the intervening time drinking lemonade and watching a Western on the TV. I expended some mental effort in trying to work out whether it was one I’d seen. I don’t think it was. The food was very good indeed – fish and chips (after all, it was Friday), but not as we knew them. The fish were still in their scales, with heads and tails attached, not battered lumps. The wine was good, but the pudding was not exciting by any manner of means – a sort of wobbly pink yoghurt. As a whole we found that Spanish puddings were not usually exciting.

Anne and I had chosen to eat at 7pm (although we achieved this more by luck than judgement, as I had thought ‘a las siete’ was referring to the price of the meal) in order to attend the pilgrim mass at 8pm. Even in our exhausted state we were able to appreciate the serenity of the service and the beauty of the monastery chapel and of the monks’ singing, which we compared favourably to that of the monks at Buckfast Abbey. Further on in the camino we would become slightly discontented with the exclusivity of Catholic mass, but at Roncesvalles we were satisfied simply to experience the sacrament at second-hand, letting the peace and stillness wash over us. We had much to be thankful for that day.

The monastery at Roncesvalles

The monastery at Roncesvalles

Capilla de Santiago at Roncesvalles

Capilla de Santiago at Roncesvalles

At break of day, as heavenward/ The pious monks of Saint Bernard (though I’m not sure that they were)/ Offered the oft repeated prayer, we were getting ourselves together ready to leave. We really were not planning to go very far, after the previous day’s strenuous passage. Brantz was going on to Zubiri, 22km on; we thought Burguete, the very next village mentioned in the Confraternity guidebook, and only 3km down the road, sounded a better bet for us. On this reasoning we managed to persuade Claire, a Korean lady who was having trouble with her feet, not to catch the bus to Pamplona but to walk with us.

A depressing and inaccurate distance

A depressing and inaccurate distance

It turned out to be another ‘stopping at Valcarlos’ scenario, although happily with considerably less dire consequences. We reached Burguete well before any shops were opened, and the only logical course seemed to be to keep walking. The alternative was to sit around in the cold, and my trousers were already soaked. We were still disinclined to leave the road, which, a glance at the map assured us, would take us through all the villages in its own sweet way, so we trudged on. The wind was, if anything, worse than the day before, and it was snowing. Anne and I, now mindful of the terrible feeling of isolation possible in such conditions even when only a few tens of metres apart, took it in turns to go in the front and at the back. Claire declined to lead the party at any time, and professed herself quite content to follow us. We stopped at the campsite outside Espinal and sheltered for a little while under its awning, then retraced our steps to the road and continued to the village itself. We saw several hostales, but again nowhere seemed to be open.

The next village, Viskarret, was another 4.5km on. More importantly, it was the last settlement listed before Zubiri. If we were to stop anywhere it must be here. We knew that there was no refugio in the village, but we spotted a hopeful looking sign on the door of an otherwise unremarkable house. I stepped inside and called ‘Hola?’ An old gentleman in a black beret emerged. I attempted to explain, in my poor Spanish, that we were pilgrims and were hoping for a bed to sleep that night. He summoned his wife, who explained that yes, she had beds, a twin room would be €26, with dinner for €11 and breakfast for €3.50, all of which sounded good to us. The rooms were well-equipped, and – what I cared most about at that moment – in close proximity to a hot shower. My legs had gone a wonderful lobster shade of pink. Both my pairs of trousers now being wet, I borrowed Anne’s spare pair and draped mine over the radiator. Then I zipped myself into my sleeping bag and went to sleep.

When I woke up again it had stopped snowing. In fact, the sun had come out and it was looking distinctly appealing outside. Given that we needed to stock up on food and also to obtain a sello (stamp) for our pilgrim passports, venturing outside the house seemed like quite a good idea. We thought that a sello would be available at the church. The church was locked, so we gave up on that idea and looked for the shop instead. This solved both our problems: besides chorizo slices, chocolate and pan de leche we also found the all-important stamp. Claire considered buying a pilgrim staff , but thought better of it. We bought our provisions and stamped our books. Then the lady shooed us out; it was closing time. We returned to the posada and lazed away the rest of the day.

The next day there was still snow on the ground, but the wind had dropped. We decided to risk the camino for the first time since Km 61, and left the road. Just after we passed through Linzoain we saw some large, brown birds. ‘Eagles?’ Claire asked. Anne was intrigued: they were too large to be anything but birds of prey, but there were far too many of them. Most birds of prey hunt alone or in pairs; they need a large territory in order to be able to find enough food for themselves. There were six or seven of these. They could only be vultures.

The landscape had been Tolkienesque a few days ago; now it was more like Narnia. We were walking through coniferous woods where melting snow dripped from the trees and ran along the paths. It was good to be off the road; we no longer needed to worry about the traffic, to keep a constant ear out for approaching cars. Somewhere near the Alto de Erro there is supposed to be a rock called Pasos de Roldán, marking the length of Roland’s stride. We kept a careful lookout for this – I had, for family reasons too obscure to go into, long been called ‘Roland’ myself, and Anne had studied the Chanson de Roland in a History module – but failed to find it, and concluded that it must have been buried under the snow. At the Alto de Erro we joined the road again, and followed it as far as Zubiri. There were armed policemen in green uniform at the entrance to the village; we did not know what they were doing, inspecting the traffic, perhaps, but they waved at us in a friendly manner.

The bridge at Zubiri

The bridge at Zubiri

It was Sunday; fortunately we found a cashpoint to which one could gain access by swiping one’s card, a bar in the leisure centre that was open and selling coffee, and an open shop, where we bought some lunch. We sat on the (medieval) bridge to eat it. After Zubiri, the guidebook says, the camino goes round a large magnetite plant but is well waymarked. Indeed it does, and is. On the pipes of the magnetite plant.

Santiago - 715

Santiago – 715

We continued to Larrasoaña, crossing into the village by way of another splendidly antique bridge. Here we found the refugio despite the waymarkings – of which there were plenty – rather than because of it. No one looking at all authoritative was present when we arrived; someone advised us just to bag (literally) a bunk each and to wait for the hospitalero to turn up. We did so, and passed a pleasant evening experimenting with instant noodles, chorizo sausage and the microwave, and playing Spite and Malice with a pack of disturbingly psychedelic playing cards. There was a curious, bulky machine that claimed to offer internet access, but we were being virtuously Luddite and ignored it.

Playing Spite and Malice at the albergue in Larrasoaña

Playing Spite and Malice at the albergue in Larrasoaña

It was the first day since we had crossed the border that I had avoided getting drenched.

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