The first day is strenuous. El Camino spirals up from St Jean along a route chosen by Napoleon and his troops as they entered Spain. It is now known simply as the Route Napoleon. A thirteen-mile, 4,160ft climb has many walkers, or pilgrims as they are affectionately known, doubting their sanity. In fact many drop out on the climb, fearing this first foray onto El Camino is a taster for the rest of the route.
Thankfully, it isn’t. Reach the summit at the Col de Lepoeder and the way descends to Roncesvalles, after which the hardest part of the Spanish section of the Camino Francais is done.
It was my third time on El Camino and the climb up never disappoints. Glance back and the Pyrenees rise majestically through a low-lying mist brushed across the valley. As the sun climbs into azure skies, it paints patterns on the clouds and the shadows recoil. The dark greens of the Basque countryside gradually lighten. Dogs bark, and cowbells toll as a steady stream of pilgrims wind their way up to the summit.
After the Col de Lepoeder the way plummets and arrives in Roncesvalles. The Augustine abbey founded in 1130 AD dominates the valley and can accommodate 180 pilgrims in a purpose-built wing, plus 120 more in the old monastery itself. When I first walked El Camino in 2002, I stayed in the old building; and although historic, charming and wonderful to roam around, it doesn’t hold the best of memories. Everyone was wet from the rain and the room turned into a musty, sweat-filled sauna.
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After the lush, vibrant greens of the French countryside, it always amazes me how the scenery changes once in Spain. Over a few days, the terrain merges into a landscape more in keeping with
Spain. Greens melt into browns, the soil becomes parched, and further still it resembles a Mexican landscape.
However, much of the section from Roncesvalles still revels in greenery. Wonderful, shaded woods and forests temper the mid-day inferno and provide a sorely needed respite. Temperatures in Spain are 25°C and I cower under sunglasses, a hat and several very generous layers of sunscreen. I don’t mind heat – I always deal with it, although my sweat-streaked T-shirt confirms that light grey was not the ideal choice for hiding my perspiration.
I pass through Roncesvalles and after only sixteen miles the legs have plenty of life left so I carry on. Through Auritz Burguete, making sure I take the right turn off the main street, which is easily missed. Skipping over a few crystal-clear streams after a short section in the open, I relish returning to the shade. I’d forgotten to fill up on stove fuel so as early evening draws near I stop for a meal in Aurizberri Espinal. My legs tire before I pull off the trail, staying secluded behind a hedge where I pitch my tent out of sight.