“We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky’ (Leonard Cohen)
The 27 kilometre section from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Roncesvalles in Spain through the mountain pass, Col de Lepouder, is the most brutal and the most majestic of the Camino route from Le Puy to Santiago.
From Honto to Orison, the track climbs 400 metres within about two kilometres, a heart-stopping angle when going uphill.
A billboard soon after Honto instructs ‘walk like an Indian’. ‘Not your kind of Indian’ says WB (Walking Buddy). The St Jean Pilgrim’s Office issues printed protocol for hikers in this area. It says, amongst other things: stick to the side of the track and walk in a single file. Apparently in mid-summer 400 pilgrims marching up the road each morning, can cause quite a pandemonium amongst sheep. These roads belong to the cattle. Pilgrims are merely tolerated. Anyway, being Indian, I just assume I am doing the right thing. Others can copy my mode of perambulation.
Accommodation between St. Jean and Roncesvalles is sparse. Many pilgrims end up walking the 1400 meters ascent and then a sharp and rocky 3 kilometres of descent into Roncesvalles, all in one day. Those who are lucky manage to find a bed in the ‘highest’ Albergue on the Camino, Refuge Orisson.
For them, the heart-thumping climb is over for the day. The dormitory accommodation (and there is nothing else until you get to Roncesvalles, 20 kilometres later) is spartan. But spectacular views in every direction.
Panoramic mountain views and picture perfect sunlight accompanied us through the eight kilometres from St Jean Pied-de-Port to Refuge Orison. Crisp cool of autumn morning with a gentle breeze eased the pain of the climb.
A slow morning. Not just because the ascent was sharp. But when every turn reveals yet another sun-drenched valley, you have to stop at every turn for just one more picture post-card shot.
Now time for lunch. Ordered ‘pottage legumes’, from the French menu, because ‘vegetables soup’ on the English one sounds prosaic. WHAT? No Bread? This is the first time we’ve ordered anything vaguely resembling lunch in France and not got a basket of bread. You pay extra for bread, says the very efficient waitress. But the view’s for free. Feast your sense on the Pyrenees, in the al fresco seating of the cafe, absolutely free of charge.