Route Napoleon – How I learned what heavy feels like.

Written two nights ago:

I’m in Roncevalles tonight. Coming up to the door of the albergue was like reaching the promised land after 40 years in the desert.

It’s been busy ever since I landed in Madrid, but I’ll focus on today for now while it’s fresh.

I woke before the sun this morning in my albergue in Saint Jean Pied de Port, Gite Ultreia. I dressed and packed in the dark so as not to wake the three Australians I shared my room with. Breakfast was quick — bread and butter and, and milk because I don’t care much for coffee. Up Rue de la Citadelle to the supply store where I purchased a hiking pole and waited a bit to meet the two Italians, Lidia and Francesco, who I planned to walk with. But I was a few minutes late and they’d left already.

Erica, the girl from New York who I met in Bayonne waiting for the bus to Saint Jean, saw me and we decided to walk together. She’s been traveling for a very long time, having come most recently from a long stay in India. She’s an experienced hiker who has walked to Everest Base Camp. We set out on what was meant to be a rainy morning, leaving Saint Jean Pied de Port and roaming out into a cascade of pastoral hills and farms on the Route Napoleon, the more challenging way to Rocesvalles and, some say, the most challenging stage (etapa) of the entire Camino. Around us: cows with bells, lambs, rams, and a dog at Hunto who craved affection but approached everyone with his head down and tail low. For a moment there I thought he’d be walking on with me to Roncesvalles.

After Hunto it became clear that my pack is awfully heavy. On flat terrain I fare fine, but uphill was a terrible battle and I’ve never moved slower in my life. But my photography and this blog and project are important to me, so I don’t regret the weight even though it was pretty brutal. Erica walked a good deal faster than me so for a time I walked alone, though I stumbled frequently upon others I’d met on the trains to Saint Jean.

Among the beautiful hills and steep climbs I found Orisson, an albergue and restaurant some choose to stop at for the night or just for lunch. There I was reunited with Lidia and Francesco who had found a group to walk with. I skipped lunch and filled my bottle with water from the fountain, and followed them (they’d walked ahead a ways already).

Francesco and his group moved quickly, but at the first pile of rocks with the yellow arrow of the Camino at their top, I met with Lidia and another girl from Italy, Chiara. We walked together the rest of the way. The rain held off but the wind didn’t, and the road seemed to go up infinitely. But around us the hills and valleys were lush and green below the low and heavy clouds. Eventually we ascended  into a thick mist along the border of France and Spain, which slowly turned into a light rain as we pressed on.


The path continued to climb and climb until very suddenly it dropped down via an ancient Roman road, slippery and muddy from the rains and snow. The forest grew thick around us in the mist. The way down was in many ways as challenging as the way up, stressing already tired muscles with the act of balancing. I was glad to have my walking staff.

At last, when the three of us were at the end of our rope, the trees parted and we could see the medieval walls of Roncesvalles. We quickly entered and registered. I showered, and then we made a reservation for a pilgrim’s dinner at the only restaurant in town. We attended the mass at 6 in dimly lit stone cathedral with pointed gothic arches, and received the pilgrims’ blessing in many languages from the priest. Then dinner, planning, and now I’m writing in my cozy top bunk.

Lidia and Francesco are from Sicily, walking two weeks to Burgos before they go home. They speak more English than most Italians I’ve met, and otherwise we communicate in Spanish or my awful Spanish-Italian hybrid language that I make up on the fly. I’ve spent much more time with Lidia and Chiara than Francesco — he walked on with another group. Lidia works in ambulance administration for Sicily and her worried mother texts her constantly.


Chiara is from Verona and practices law. A friend of hers did some of the Camino in winter and described the experience to her, and so she decided she would also go. She actually didn’t plan to hike the Route Napoleon, but the bus she thought would take her to Roncesvalles from Pamplona actually took her to Saint Jean Pied de Port. She is traveling to Burgos too.

Editing photos on this tablet really is a challenge, especially when I’m half asleep. It may not be until I get home that I can do the portraits any justice.

More to come.



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