Years ago, while I was living in Elephant & Castle in London, I came across a book that caught my eye in a second hand shop. It was about the Camino de Santiago which, at the time, was something I'd never even heard of. For those who may not know, the Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage across Northern Spain that began in 812 AD when the remains of Saint James were discovered in Galicia, Spain. The idea of hiking along at least some of this centuries-old route amidst the Pyrenees mountains and Spanish countryside appealed to me right away. And as of a lover of the Basque Country, where better to begin than the French-Basque town of Saint Jean Pied de Port?
I arrived at the town's little train station in the early evening with no accommodation booked but this wasn't a problem. There seemed to be more than enough “albergues” in the town to put up those who were starting out their camino. An albergue or 'albergue de peregrinos' is a special type of hostel that specifically caters to people walking the Camino de Santiago and are to be found along the entire route, all the way from the French Basque Country to Santiago de Compostela in North-Western Spain. The one I had found was old; small, charming and historical with a little back garden offering views of the sunset and the nearby green mountains. This was on Rue de la Citadelle just next to the pilgrims office where you are handed a 'pilgirm's passport' which gives you access to the other albergues along the route and proves how far you've travelled.
The next morning I was woken very early by other 'pilgrims'. Some of these guys like to get up at 4am to begin their walk so normally in these albergues, you hear the sound of rustling bags and people moving around every morning way before the sun comes up. I was one of the latest risers in the room full of bunk-beds but was nonetheless out of the door by 7am, ready to climb up Col de Lepoeder, a mountain that stands at 1,429 metres tall. This turned out to be harder than I had anticipated. The route is pretty steep and despite being a keen jogger, I got knackered and had to stop for a rest several times along the way. I met a Finnish traveller on the way up and we encouraged each other to keep on going. I then met a friendly Canadian traveller who offered me a bottle of water when I most needed it. Never has water tasted so good to me.
In what was my highlight of the day, and an experience I'll never forget, I finally arrived at the highest point of the mountain and found myself literally walking above the clouds. The fact that I hadn't expected to see such a stunning view made the experience even more spectacular. From there onwards, there would be a short descent to the town of Roncesvalles where I would eat like a king, go to mass, drink wine and sleep in an old monastery, the 13th-century Colegiata de Santa María. My legs were in pain but they had earned me the right to experience those unforgettable views.
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