In total, 15 pilgrims must have scuttled out of the train at St. Jean pied de Port. All had bags weighing between between 5 and 15 kilos (11 to 33 pounds) strapped effortlessly to their back. All were on their first night of their pilgrimage.
We all followed an an older gentleman into town. He moved with purpose so I felt comfortable following him. When he came upon the Compostela office, he kept walking (I think he had gotten his pilgrims passport already). Drawn by the light and the stamps strewn about on the tables inside, I paused to investigate. It was indeed the Municipal office dedicated to pilgrims on their way to Santiago. I stepped in and 10 other pilgrims hurried in behind me. After the formalities, including selling me a spot at the 20 person Municipal Refugio (hostel) and the pilgrims passport which needs to be stamped every day in order to receive a Compostela (certificate of completion) for 10 euros, the former pilgrim cum volunteer detailed the route I would take tomorrow. She explained that tomorrow would be one of the harder hikes, as the elevation change would be the greatest of the Camino (1100 vertical meters or 3600 feet).
I met Andrea outside of the munipal Refugio on my way back from dinner later on in the night. A small Italian man, maybe 5 foot 4, he is a holistic therapist. Or I should say was. He used to give massages in his home town near Venice before the hotel shut down in December. Due to the crisis, which apparently is still going on in Italy, many of his friends had moved away. To make matters even worse, his girlfriend then broke up with him. An extremely friendly guy, he delved into his story with gusto. I think he had been waiting to tell somebody his trials since Paris, where he started his trip 33 days and 1200 km ago. He handed me a chocolate bar and insisted that I take two pieces, not just the one piece that I broke off. All of the Refugios in France he had scouted on the Internet before his camino had been closed upon arrival. He had instead slept in the house of good Samaritans, hotels and once, even with a group of 20 homeless people who he then cooked an Italian dinner for the next day.
I thought I would have trouble waking up at 6:30 this morning, however due to the people milling around in the 20 person dorm, I couldn’t have slept longer even if I tried. The only one that was able to sleep in was the guy that sounded like he was sucking rocks through a tube the entire night. Even through my earplugs I could hear him snoring. You have to be a sound sleeper to sleep through that every night.
The breakfast was simple, instant coffee, bread with butter and jam and water, but for 10 euros a night, there was no complaining from any of the fellow pilgrims. I started the day by myself, however within 15 minutes, a group from Australia, New Zealand and England hailed me down to ask me if they should go left or right. Throughout the day, I met pilgrims from Germany, Denmark, Spain, France and the US. Yesterday, I had peeped the sign in sheet from the Municipal Refugio. The ages of eight pilgrims were written down – 24, 25, 64, 73, 31, 30, 50 and 32, the last one being mine. The camino caters to a diverse demographic to say the least.
After talking and hiking with several groups, an older French couple approached myself and the two Germans I was currently walking with. The older couple wanted to know if we could pass the top portion of the trek together, as they heard yesterday that there was snow up top and were concerned about slipping. They spoke no English, so I relied on the translating prowess of my German company. After all was said and done, the petite French woman announced “Ensemble” and circled her arms in the air around us. For the rest of the hike, I came to think of the two Germans, the French couple and myself as “la Ensemble”.
We all arrived together this afternoon in Roncesvalle, a small medieval town with one Cathedral and two restaurants, but I doubt La Ensamble will remain together for very much longer. Each group has their own pace and target to reach Santiago de Compostella. I am shooting for the 18th of April, the older French Couple the 16th and the Germans the 23rd.
The weather was perfect for hiking for the first 5 km
However it became foggy quickly