Today began another awesome adventure - I started cycling the Camino de Santiago.
Well. I say cycling, and yet I spent Day One mostly walking. Why? Because I have trouble reading maps and I went the wrong way.
All my preparation, all my little notes, all irrelevant once I realised what I had done. But you know what, I just went with it. And it worked out fine.
But I digress. Back to the beginning.
I flew from Dublin to Biarritz yesterday, then took one train to Bordeaux followed by another to St Jean Pied de Port.
I was expecting a tiny little town - quiet and quaint.
It was quaint, I'll give it that, but by no means was it quiet.
Throngs of people gathered inside and outside bars and restaurants in every alleyway and every street corner. The place. Was. Hopping.
Down the road a bandstand had been set up and various Rock 'n' Roll acts were playing, while further on there were three separate amusement areas, complete with water slides, hook a ducks, you name it.
Being a sensible pelegrino, I made my way through the crowd and to the Pilgrims Office.
There I picked up my Compostela, which cost €2. This is the Pilgrim Passport you need to obtain and get stamped at various places along the route so you can get your certificate in Santiago at the end of your travels.
I picked up my first stamp at the office. I also picked up a shell - the symbol of the Camino. The shell was obtained by making a monetary donation of your choice.
After this, I went to my hostel, where my rented bicycle had been conveniently delivered, and attempted to get some sleep despite the fellow pilgrim snoring in the bunk below me and the throngs of people making merry on the streets outside.
The next morning I woke at 7am, relatively rested, to discover I was the last one in the dorm. Everyone else had left already.
Panicking that they knew something I didn't, I threw on my padded ass cycle shorts, threw my things in my backpack and hit the road.
The wrong road, as it turns out.
I had been advised to take the Valcarlos route. This route runs largely through a valley in the Pyrenees mountains and is used by cyclists and by walkers when there is adverse weather conditions. It's still taxing, but not as taxing as the Napoleon route. Which is the one I, of course, accidentally ended up taking.
Since I have never taken the Valcarlos route, I cannot compare the two. But the Napoleon route... It's hard. Very hard.
For hours I trudged up and up and up. The slope seemed never ending.
At the start I could cycle it, in a low gear, and then it simply became too steep to cycle.
Adding to that, once the highest points were near, the route became stone and rubble. Difficult for walkers, near impossible for those lugging great big mountain bikes by their sides.
Spurred on by the thoughts of the inevitable downhill slop on the other side, I trudged on. Only to find myself on a severely downhill slope riddled with large stones, mud patches, and exposed tree routes.
Only someone with a death wish would cycle down a path like this one. So I walked. And walked, and walked, and walked.
The total distance I travelled the first day was a mere 40km - from St Jean Pied de Port to a town on the other side of Roncesvalle. But that 40km was so steep that it took me almost 10 hours to complete.
But, having said that, it wasn't a torturous as it might now sound. It was actually, perversely, kind of enjoyable.
At one point I was high in the Pyrenees with five eagles flying overhead and five dozen sheep grazing all around me. The mountains extended as far as I could see in any direction and the only sound was the light breeze, the clanging of the sheep's bells, and my own laboured breathing.
It was... Beautiful. Serene. And breathtaking.
Tomorrow takes me onwards towards Pamplona, so watch this space.
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