Stage 1 - England to Roncesvalles

23-25 August

As far as I am concerned my pilgrimage began on the Monday morning when I caught the bus from St John's Seminary, Wonersh to Guildford in order to get the train to London. At this stage there was little walking involved, but from that moment on my 'life' was contained in my backpack in the same way as it would be for the next five weeks. I chose to get to the start of the walking phase overland (mostly by coach) partly because I wanted that sense of starting at my front door. Mind you the prospect of 24 hours of public transport did not seem particularly attractive on that Monday morning.

St Jean Pied a Port Anyway the journey went fine, and I arrived at St Jean Pied a Port at about 4pm the following day. I met my first fellow pilgrims on the short train ride from Bayonne to St Jean - a group of young Germans including a student for the Lutheran ministry whom I would encounter at several stages. St Jean is a small town on a river at the bottom of a pass through the Pyrenees. It is an attractive town as you can see and a popular starting point for those who want to do the whole of the 'Camino Frances' through Spain.

St Jean was also my first stamp in by credencial. This is a kind of pilgrim passport which you get stamped at each point along the way. Stamps - which can be quite elaborate - can be obtained from hostels, churches and often bars. Generally one stamp a day is enough. I got mine stamped at the pilgrim office in St Jean before heading for the hostel. Her I would spend the first of many nights sharing a room full of beds with other pilgrims. In this case it was with two Aussie couples and an Irish woman. Thee became my travelling companions for the next few days.

The Pyrenees The first day offered us the first major choice. There are two ways to get to the monastery at Roncesvalles. The 'easy route' is a 30km hike following the road up the valley, which is a climb of some 900m. The more challenging 'Route Napoleon' is slightly shorter but goes over the Col Leopard at a height of 1440m which is a total climb of about 1300m As the weather was glorious there was no real choice and we headed up the high route. We left shortly after sunrise (about 8am) and as you can see the views were stunning. This particular picture is taken looking eastwards from about 1100m

Vierge de OrissonIt is at this point that you encounter the Vierge de Orisson, a statue of Mary the mother of Jesus perched on the top of a pile of rocks. Images of Mary are common along the Camino, second only to the Cross in popularity.

765 km milestone

A couple of kilometers past this point the camino leaves the road towards the pass through the mountains, eventually crossing the border (a cattle grid!) at a height of about 1300m. The picture of me on the preparation page was taken there. Near the border is a small hut which we later discovered is used occasionally as a refuge. An older couple we met at Roncesvalles had spent the night there, and described how the eagles, which we had seen soaring over the mountains, stood around in the morning sun warming their wings. Near the border there is also a milestone which reminds the pilgrim of the task ahead! In fact the immediate task is a bit more climbing to the high point at 1440m. and then a steep drop (which you can loop round via an interesting modern shrine at Ibañeta) to the monastery

The monastery at RoncesvallesWe arrived at Roncesvalles - or three of us did - late afternoon and located the hostel, which was in a large converted barn. Basically abut 100 bunk beds in one big room. But it was clean and well maintained (being quite new) and the showers were good! There was a pilgrim mass at the monastery that evening at which the two halves of our group were reunited. The others had booked into the youth hostel and as they had booked a meal also we went our separate ways for the evening. It was at Roncesvalles I had the first of many 'pilgrim menu' meals. These provide three courses, bread and wine or water for between 6 and 10 euros, and provide the staple for much of my journey. The main course at Roncesvalles was some rather nice fish. Then to bed for some much needed sleep after a hard first day's walking which included the longest climb I have ever done and one of the longest days walking. But my feet and legs seemed OK.