Although I had set the alarm for 7:30 to make sure that we would be up for breakfast at 8:00 there was no need. Our fellow travellers, probably due to jet lag, were up and making enough noise to wake the dead by 6:00 or so. During the night I was woken by a massive clap of thunder and I lay awake waiting for more but none was forthcoming. Apparently it had rained heavily but I wasn't aware of that. Breakfast was a jolly affair with everyone keen to get moving and we were all down at the bus, backpacks loaded with warm and wet weather gear by the appointed time. A slow drive over a steep mist shrouded mountain road took us to St John Pied-de-Port on the French side of the border where the weather has cleared to patchy clouds. Here we are given instructions to meet at a certain point at11:00 o'clock for a ride up a mountain to begin our walk. Since we have more than an hour we explore the quaint little town, walking past a delightful bridge and town portal and up to a citadel which overlooks the town. We are already getting in some practice for our walking as there are many steps to the top. Returning towards the appointed place we stop to buy a walking pole for Maree and then to sample a basque cerise which is a sort of cherry tart, speciality of the region, with a couple of coffees. The coffee is not a patch on our usual from Whittlesea or Black Rock.
A minibus and seven-seater taxi take us up a very steep, narrow and windy road past many genuine pilgrims who are walking, mountain biking and, in one case, unicycling uphill. I feel kind of guilty at the ease with which we are ascending and imagine the contemptuous thoughts of those we are passing. It would be tough but interesting to do this climb on my bike and the descent would be thrilling. By now the clouds have started to close in and as we ascend the view disappears. By the time we reach our dropping point where the road finishes we are back in dense mist. A quick switch to waterproof jackets and we are off heading uphill on a grassy path. Our group started together but it was soon clear that some are fitter and better climbers than others and we formed a long straggly line. After a while the going underfoot becomes rocky and from then on it varies from loose stones to hard packed earth and even, at one section beneath some trees, to a thick carpet of fallen leaves. Our group is now made up of 16 strongish walkers and 7 weaker ones. Maree and I were at the head of the first group. Garry stayed with the lead group while Deb and Pablo brought up the rear. Eventually, after about an hour or so we reached the highest point (1438m) where we regrouped for the third or fourth time.
Just past the peak the trail split into two, an easier, flatter but longer way and a steeper, harder but shorter way. The flatter way was also easier because, at the point where the track meets the road, the bus would be waiting to take people back to the hotel. Seven people chose to go the easier way so Deb and Pablo went with them while Garry led the rest of us down the steeper path. This path was shown as 3.6 km and gave a time of 1.25 hours to reach Roncesvalles. Garry asked Maree and I to be the sweepers and to stay at the rear of the group. It soon became obvious that one of the walkers, Fran, had chosen badly and she struggled from the start of the downhill section. Mindful of our task Maree and I stayed with her but we had some difficulty adapting to her slow pace. The only advantage was that we got to see lots of the surrounding vegetation which we may have missed if we had walked at our usual pace. Somewhere about 2 km from the finish Garry came back up the hill to us and gave me his spare mobile phone so we could contact him in case of emergency. As we continued slowly down the trail Maree was attacked by a strange, lime green caterpillar which misjudged its pounce from a branch above her and landed at her feet. We photographed it for posterity. At this point I might mention that Maree was really glad that we had bought the walking pole as it helped a lot with stability on some of the loose surfaces. We finally made it back to the hotel after more than 2 hours. Garry had again come back up and walked with us for the final half kilometre. Why Fran chose this route and why her friend Iris, who had talked her into coming on this walk, did not walk with her is still a mystery. As it was the picnic lunch which we expected to have at 3:00pm was served at 4:00pm because Deb got back late as she had been walking with Fran and another slow walker, Esther earlier in the day. At least Esther had been sensible and had taken the easy path. Later on Garry expressed his concern over the difficulty that Fran was having.
The first thing Maree and I did when we returned was to head to the bar to get a nice, hot cup of tea. Sarah and Stacey will appreciate how much this meant to Maree. After this we joined the lunch queue for a tasty mix of salads, cheeses, ham and crusty bread. Unfortunately, due to our late return we missed out on visiting the museum but did get a chance to wander through the lovely local church with it's 8th century crypt. The walls of the crypt are decorated with some painted friezes which are fading badly but look very authentic. A quick peak into the Alberge where the real pilgrims spend the night and a bit of a walk around the very small village rounded out the afternoon. Today's walking temperature has varied from the high teens to the low twenties. It hasn't really been cold but it was certainly nowhere near the temperatures in Portugal. The mist finally cleared but we missed all of the fine views that we were told about. I think that we walked about 11 km but, as I left my Garmin in the suitcase, I can't guarantee that.
Some correspondents have commented on the frequency of my trip journal updates. The reason is fairly simple. After a day of cycling, sightseeing or walking we are usually tired out by about 6:00pm but we can't get to dinner before 8:00 (or even 8:30 in Spain) so, after showering and washing clothes, there is plenty of time for me to download our photos and write up the journal.