Day 1: SJPP to Roncesvalles

We go that way…

It’s our first night in an albergue – and it’s a rather nice one in SJPP. After an excellent dinner in a cafe the night before and a moderately effective sleep we are up, 6:30-ish, to head on out.

Llew and I are trying to remember the rules and Diana and Jonathan are getting to grips with them for the first time.


Rule #2: Don’t get up too early. If you do, see Rule #1.

We head on out, in the dark, and hope to find an open cafe. Sadly we find none, but we do come across a nice bakery. We begin the trip with cake and a coffee.

As would be expected in August the pass is open…

…and off we go, on to the Route Napoleon. The sun comes up and the beautiful Pyrennes reveal themselves.

Let’s be blunt. Day #1 is hard. It’s probably the hardest of the entire trip. I think there are higher passes in Galicia, but by the time you get there, you are an entirely different beast from the one that exited SJPP on Day #1.

Today we climb to 1500m or so, on surpisingly nice roads, and walk into Spain.

We try to get used to our packs, with much adjustment and re-adjustment and over-analysis…

We climb, slowly.

I take a photo of my shadow. I think of the old joke – “What’s the best way to lose 10 pounds of ugly fat? Cut your head off…” – as I make a note of my belly and hope that I can reduce it in the next month.

I am very surprised and rather concerned at the hundreds of peregrinos who are on the trail. The camino infrastructure is creaking to cope with the huge post-Covid increase in numbers.

The trail is very busy. I’m worried already about the upcoming ‘bed racing’, where the peregrinos get up earlier and earlier to race each other to the next town, and the next albergue. Either that, or they pore over the guide book and try to book ahead.

This isn’t the way to do it! The ideal is to get up, walk, and find a hostel when you’re tired. Then repeat for 33 days.

Too many pilgrims means we can’t really do this. Sadly, we’ve had to book Roncesvalles for tonight. And later we try and book Zubiri and two further albergues. I don’t like this!

Anyway… time to enjoy the view…

After about 8km of huffing and puffing (Jonathan lives in Cambridge and doesn’t know what a hill is) we arrive at the tiny albergue and cafe at Orisson – one of my favorite places on earth.

They do excellent food and the view is sublime…

Tortilla, orange juice and coffee. I don’t think it ever gets better than this.

I post to the Telegram group:

I phone Jen and say “I’m in heaven, kill me now…” and I can hear her eyes roll.

But, we can’t sit here all day (WHY NOT!?) so we head off, up the hill, and take in more dramatic views and sounds.

The rather odd and somewhat spooky Virgin Mary statue with Spain in the background
Rounding up the horses
Diana’s combined laundry, bread basket and backpack
a 180 panorama
Sheep music

An enterprising gent has brought his van up to near the top of the pass and is selling sensible camino food – eggs, cheese (that he has made himself), bananas and the like.

Time to try some….

The Cheese Shop
I think that’s wrong! It’s at least 799km from here….
…but we’ll take it!

We descend on a rather muddy path through some old forests…

…and, rather worryingly, we start ascending again. I don’t remember this bit…

Llew aerates his armpits

And, finally, way on the middle distance we can nearly see Roncesvalles.

We take the easier route down, the ‘normal’ route is very wet and muddy, and we’re all old people who don’t want to fall down. Plus, we get to meet some excellent cows.

A few more corners and Roncesvalles appears…

… and we make journey’s end.

We check in – and are very glad we had booked. There are 180+ beds in here and it is full to bursting. The hospitaleros try and deal with the unfortunate peregrinos who cannot be accomodated (some pilgrims are unreasonably cross about this. I’m not entirely sure what they expect to happen…).

We eventually check-in and then I have a stupid fight with Vodafone trying to figure out how to call a local Spanish number from my UK phone in Spain. You’d think this information should be easy enough to find, but you’d be wrong. TOBI, the Vodafone virtual, ahem, “assistant” is quite concretely useless. Grrr! An hour later Llew has managed to get his phone working and we’ve got two more nights booked.

There’s an 8pm mass, and, as good Protestants (or Protestant-adjacents), we all troop off to see the Catholics do what they do best.

A well attended service in a beautiful place

We have reservations for the 8:30pm pilgrim meal. As we’re all more-or-less veggies you get what you’re given and that’s that. So a rather good veg soup was followed by a slop of pasta in something red with cheese on top.

But we didn’t care. We’d made it over the big hill and we were all quite OK.

Day 1: Stats

SJPP to Roncesvalles

  • Steps: 31,167
  • Distance covered: 23.85km
  • Apple Watch stats
    • 256 Flights climbed (whatever that means – I’d like some real numbers please….)

Day -1: Paris to SJPP

We checked out of Sacre Couer and I got my first stamp of the trip. It seems that most Catholic churches will have a ‘pilgrim’ stamp, so out it came (eventually – they struggled to find it) and I am now the proud bearer of an almost incomprehensible addition to my pilgrim passport.

Note that I’m still using the pilgrim passport from the 2019 trip. I have unfinished business and it seemed good to just carry on using the old one. More on this later…

Off to Montmattre to sort out the train. I had a message yesterday from SNCF telling me that the Bayonne to St Jean Pied de Port (hereafter referred to as SJPP) had been cancelled. It looked like the best idea was to change our Paris-Bayonne tickets from 14:06 to 12:11. Off we go to the ticket office. After a bit of explaining we got the new tickets.

Now, one of the things I felt I had to do to, ahem, justify taking 30+ days off work was to be kinda-sorta available should Very Bad Things happen at work. Thus my red backpack contains a Microsoft Surface Go which I could use to access the corporate VPN and fiddle with stuff should it be required (and write this blog, come to think of it…). Trouble is I’m struggling to charge the wretched thing. I bought a 65W USB-C charge yesterday on the assumption that this would work. Sadly not. The Surface would charge for 20 mins maybe and then just stop. So, my task this morning was to find a ‘proper’ MS branded charger. I went to the Darty store in Montparnasse station. They didn’t have one, so they sent me to a FNAC store a 20 min walk away. They didn’t have one either, but they assured me that the FNAC in Gare St Lazare did, so off I went tp that on the Metro. Turns out they were lying and no charger could be found. By this time it was 11:30 and I was in a panic. I returned to Montparnasse and discovered that a very large Darty store was about 3 mins walk from where I started. They did have one. I bought it in a great hurry and slightly panicked as the sales assistant took her time extracting the charger from the protective security case. 35EUR lighter I ran, pack and all, and made the train with minutes to spare.

What with staying up all night being religious and philosophical, and then running around town for 90 mins I was completely knackered.

I got out all my electronics and charged everything I could think off and eventually had a small sleep whilst the magnificent TGV whisked me through the countryside at a fantastic pace.

We arrived in Bayonne and sought out a cash machine and some coffee and cake, like you do. The train to SJPP turned out to be completely full so an additional bus was laid on. We were about to board the bus when Jonathan, the 4th member of our group, came into view. He’d flown out that afternoon to Biarritz and was on the same train/bus as us.

Off to SJPP – the start of the trip!

It’s a lovely little town,more or less completely given over to the Camino.

The queue outside the Pilgrim Office

Hordes of peregrinos (aka pilgrims) exited the bus, and the train, which arrived at the same time, and we all raced into town to find the Pilgrim Office to pick up the pilgrim passports. Without these very important pieces of paper it isn’t possible to stay in the albergues. The albergue system of very cheap accomodation and carbohydrate-heavy meals seems to me to be a bit of a labour of love for those involved. Imposters, who try and stay at the albergues without putting in the effort are usually turned away. Note that ‘effort’ could be pretty much anything. Most folks walk, a fair number cycle. There are blokes on donkeys and people who take the bus. It all counts.

Sorting us out at the Pilgrim Office

And now the all-important first step pictures.

This is us. Step #1. Roughly 1,250,000 to go… I am simultaneously sick with worry that I won’t make it and as excited as a 10 year old at the Lego store. Bring it on…

Day -2: London to Paris

Up from my tiny non-descript hotel room where I have to sleep at an angle in order to fit in the bed (and I’m not that tall) and off to St Pancras. I meet Llew and Diana – Llew is a very old friend of mine, and Diana is a very old friend of his whom I have not met.  We exchange greetings and eat properly at Carluccios. 

We’re on the 10:26 Eurostar to Paris.  I like fast trains!  By French standards the Eurostar is a bit half hearted but it is a step above most other trains on the British networks.

We are seated awkwardly and, with the permission of the sole occupant of a nearby 4-seat table, we move and join Edi, a medical student from Manchester who is off to visit her grandmother somewhere south of Paris. She had big and noble plans – joining MSF for example – and was good company for us old folks.

Paris arrived in a flash.

We left the bags in Gare de Nord and messed around for an afternoon.  We walked down to the Tuillerie Gardens and strolled on, doing our best to flaneur to Notre Dame to see how the reconstruction was going.  I understand that it’s not going to be open in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, which I don’t think was a surprise to anyone familiar with the engineering challenges.  It is a most impressive project.

Notre Dame is under here somewhere

Then back to Gare de Nord (note we walked the whole day – need to get in the practice…) to pick up our bags and heat up to Montmatre, to Sacre Coeur church. 

I wanted to revisit a restaurant in Montmatre that I have visited several times. A small Italian place that has a parrot sitting by the counter.

We arrive to find that it’s under new ownership – an Egyptian chap has been in charge for a week. Llew, who use to live in Cairo, starts talking to him in Arabic and the manager is quite impressed.

One night whilst googling things to do in Paris I came upon the ‘Night Adoration’ at Sacre Coeur.  The deal is this: you commit to taking part in prayer or meditation for at least an hour at some point in the night, and you can stay in the Sacre Coeur pilgrim’s hostel for 40 euros. Well… that sounded interesting. Apparently there has been continous prayer in the Cathedral since 1885. All day, every day, apart from Good Friday. So no pressure then….

Long time readers of this blog will recall that my reasons for going on my 2017 Camino was that it sounded like a nice walk across Spain.  Which is, indeed, was.  But it was much more than that, as I completely failed to articulate in any understandable sense.  As Jen’s, my daughter, Masters thesis would put it “I had walked myself into pilgrim”. A destination and not just a noun.

And now we were going back, to retrace the Camino Frances, with me having a much better understanding of the – dare I use the word – spiritual aspects of this escapade. Why not start it with some kind of all night prayer/meditation bash at what must be one of the most spectacular churches in the world.

We arrive at 8:15pm and are checked in by a nun, who is straight out of that Audrey Hepburn film.  I’m not a Catholic so don’t understand the ins and outs of the structures but it was exactly what I’d hoped for.  A very simple white room with white sheets and blankets, no TV, no wifi, no anything. No distractions.

In an attempt to stay awake we went to the 10:30 mass.  Sadly, there was none of the magnificent chanting and what-not.  Just a sermon in French from a jolly priest.  Which didn’t do too much for keeping us awake.

We’d committed to the midnight to 1 am slot.  At midnight we wander into the Cathedral through a rather impressive side entrance.  It is a truly beautiful place.  There are, maybe, a dozen people in the cathedral and we take a seat and have a think.

As I keep saying, I am not a Catholic.  Not only am I not a Catholic, but I come from the Rangers end of Glasgow, which can best be described as vigorously anti -Catholic.  My father was one of five brothers.  Three were pastors, and my father would have been a pastor had he not had a serious stammer.  So, I am steeped in a fundamental mistrust of people from the Celtic side of the city.  And then there’s all the scandals, the child abuse, the cover-ups, the weird attitude to women.  I have a number of ex-Catholic friends for whom the mention of the church induces anger and nausea.

But, but, but…

I have none of that history. I don’t have that visceral response.  My knowledge of Catholicism is minimal.  I do not have that angry nauseus response even if I quite understand those who do.

And yet…

The Catholic church is really good at the mystery of God.  Sacre Couer is a magical place.  When you’ve more-or-less got it to yourself at midnight it’s even more magical.

I think of the Pink Floyd lyric from ‘Time’ – ‘and far away, across the fields, the tolling of the iron bell, calls the faithful to their knees to hear the softly spoken magic spells’.  I used to read that as critical, now I’m not so sure.

I shall waffle on more on this later, I feel.  Suffice to say I sat there until 1:45am and loved it. An ideal start to the trip.

Preliminary waffle

There’s a fair bit of unfinished business for me on this Camino.  Almost exactly 4 years ago, in September 2019, Jen and I had to abandon our Camino in Pamplona (on roughly day #3) and return home.  Muriel’s routine breast cancer scan had produced the dreaded ‘please come in and see us’ response from the radiographers.  So, Pamplona to Madrid on the bus, then home as soon as we could.

It’s been a long story.

It’s now 2023; Muriel is 4 years into an 18-months-to-live prognosis and is most definitely still here.  Hospital trips and chemotherapy are now part of our daily lives, and have become almost mundane.  Chemo day: up early, drive to Edinburgh via Starbucks in Stirling for a porridge and a flat white.  M goes and sits in a comfy chair and is attached to the drips and pumps that deliver the magic blue liquid that makes her life possible.  I sit in the car, with a panoramic view over Edinburgh, a laptop, and a rather good 5g internet connection, and go to work.  Normal.

When M had the 18-month prognosis chat we decided to start doing the things that we’d meant to do, but the real world intervened and tamed our notions.  M had secondary cancer in her spine, so we thought “let’s buy the car with the best passenger seat and drive from the north of Norway to Greece”.  We had some good fun testing out Mercedes and BMWs in Perth.  But this was Jan/Feb 2020 and we all know what happened next.  Covid put the dampers on this and all our other plans. We retreated to our house to wait it out.

Let’s get morbid. If a cancer diagnosis does one thing, it confronts you with your mortality.  Yes, we all know that we can’t avoid death (or taxes), but it doesn’t really feel like that.  We’re all immortal until we’re not.

Reactions amongst our friends and family to this life-changing situation were mixed.  We are part of a large extended family, on both mine and Muriel’s sides, many of whom are heavily involved in religious work, either professionally or voluntarily. Ideas on the efficacy of religion when faced with a terminal illness are many and varied and I’m not going to talk much about that here – there are already too many words spoken on what is a very complicated philosophical position.  I take great issue with the ‘pray for healing’ types and I take great issue with the ‘well, that proves there is no God’ types1.  Both are horribly simplistic.  One of the hopes of this Camino for me will be time to think on these things and to try and articulate a coherent response.  On the other hand, maybe it just is what it is – so shut up and get on with it.

Readers of this blog will be aware that I am most definitely a ‘theist’ and am culturally and pragmatically a Christian (with the complication of a science PhD). Counterintuitively the events of the last 4 years have increased that theistic tendency, albeit that I now hold some beliefs that might disturb a vicar.  But I’m OK with that.  If your faith/agnosticism/whatever-it-is-for-you doesn’t respond to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, then of what use is it?

I’m tagging this post in the ‘waffle’ category, in case you want to avoid future philosophising. Hmmmm.

  1. M, for whom I would not dare to speak, has her own views. It’s one thing to be an onlooker to the horror of cancer. It’s quite something else to be the sufferer. ↩︎

Day -3 Trains, London and purple McLarens

I’m off.  Seat J-10 on the Caledonian train from Inverness to London Kings Cross. I joined the train at 10:15 in Gleneagles. 

What looks like a strange Mexican stand-off at Gleneagles station
Some strange Mexican stand-off at Gleneagles station. Muriel, Jen and Steve

The train rolls into London, more or less on time. I’m staying at a non-descript hotel just off Holborn so I don my walking shoes and amble on down, taking in St Pancras Station on the way. I rather like the big statue under the clock.

‘The Meeting Place’ statue in St Pancras

The detail around the base of this statue is astonishing.

…and the grand old station itself is pretty splendid.

Off to find some dinner, then bed. Paris awaits tomorrow. Sacre bleu…


It’s time to break out the rucksack that hasn’t seen serious duty since we were snowed in a few years back for a week, and I used it to get groceries from the supermarket. Happy days…

Snow isn’t going to be a thing in northern Spain in September. I’ve been watching the BBC Weather app and checking up on the temperatures in Pamplona, Leon and Santiago. Pamplona hit 40°C earlier this week. Yikes. The prediction for when we get there – possibly next weekend – is 25°C and raining. Speaking as a good Scotsman I think I’ll take the rain over the heat.

I’ve been too busy lately with work and life. Today is the first serious thought I’ve put into packing. It not yet noon and I’m quite knackered from all the ‘do I take this, do I really need that, what if??’.

On the other hand, I have done this before and I know the important things.

Because my feet hurt and my knees hurt and my teeth hurt, I became obsessed with those things and ended up packing the evening before I left.  No problem!  It’s encouraging just how quickly you recall your previous adventures and you delight in keeping it simple and throwing things out.

Monday morning, I repack my pack (just in case) and it weighs 8kg.  Result!  That’ll do.

Here’s a pic of me and my stuff.  Nothing much different from previous trips (see here and here).  Other than the small white tub of Spanish Vaseline that I bought back in 2017.  Slather that on your feet as a pre-emptive strike against blisters and all will be well.

The main hiking shoes are by Salewa and the secondary slobbing-about-the-hostel shoes are Merrell Strike (750g -superlight!).

So, all good.  I remind myself of the scene from The Jerk that I referenced last time…  ‘All I need is this remote control…’.