Roncesvalles is still very much a medieval town home to a population of a whopping 30. It has been servicing pilgrims of all kinds since the 12th century. I had never been in a hostel or an albergue (hostel for pilgrims) before. I could not help but imagine conditions that I once watched on the show An Idiot Abroad. Hostels with dirty showers clogged with peoples hair. Underwear drying from any surface it can find and squeaky metal bunks lined full of people snoring from all over the world. This was not the case! Well for the most part, thankfully.
From the moment I walked in, I was taken care of. This particular albergue housed over 180 beds amongst three floors. I never once felt overwhelmed or too crowded. Memories of my girl scout days flooded in, it felt like one huge sleepover. Volunteers worked to help ease the anxiety of finding a bed and getting settled in for what would be the first night for most of us that were on the camino.
It was at this point when I realized how respectful both the volunteers and my fellow pilgrims were. People from all over the world come to volunteer their time to solely serve us pilgrims coming in and out of this albergue. They want to experience the camino in a different way since walking it is a requirement. This was a foreign place for mostly everyone staying here. The volunteers helped make it a warm and memorable place to have proudly stamped down in our passports.
The next morning, I unexpectedly awoke at 6am from the sound of a guitar and loud joyful voices singing Cat Stevens, “Morning has broken.” It had been a long time since I had seen this hour. I remember smiling and trying to capture the moment with my sleepy eyes. I had never been woken up to live music before and it felt good. Just another reason to smile and leave a lasting impression to inspire me for my days ahead.
Pilgrims hurry to gather their gear, clean up as much as they can and get out the door. There is this anxious feeling of knowing you have to walk 8 hours today and wanting to get started as soon as possible. I will most likely never be back to Roncesvalles. I can only hope my next night will be as memorable as this night was. I still have so much to go, 790km. This is only the beginning.
The first few steps out of bed are more like a hobble. I can barely place any weight on my feet and have to use the support of my hands to help me walk. I look around and notice that I am not the only one hobbling up and down the stairs. My knees can not even take another decent down just one step. All I can do is hope that as I walk my feet will warm up again and the pain will dissipate. It’s so early still, maybe my feet, knees and back will get used to this soon.
I really have no clue what to expect each day. As I walk I wonder who I will talk to today. I begin to see familiar faces. The Germans and I walk together for a bit and always say hi when we pass. Most of the pilgrims are on the same path as me. Everyone purchased guide books suggesting similar ways. When walking you are always behind or in front of someone. If I decide to take a rest at a cafe or on the side of the path, it is almost certain I will see a familiar face pass me by. This happens back and forth through out the entire day.
For the most part I walk alone. I make small talk with anyone when it naturally happens, but I don’t want to go out of my way and worry too much about meeting people. I want it to happen naturally and purposely. I can’t help but notice groups forming though. Familiar faces once walking alone are now walking with others. I wonder if people are here together or have found comfort in the space of another.
I stop many times throughout the day. There are many little villages with cafes and grassy areas to sit throughout the day. Every so often I throw off my pack and lay right on the side of the path with my head resting on my pack. I want to soak in and be in the beauty I am surrounded by. I know this is a once in a lifetime trip and I want to be as present as I can. Treating the camino this way has left me stress free and able to take my time walking. This could be good and bad.
For what others take 6 hours, takes me 8-9 to walk. Around 20k is when the persistant throbbing returns in my feet. I can feel my feet swelling and screaming at me to give them relief from the constant pounding against the rocky terrain.
By the time I reach Larrosoana it’s later in the evening and I have no clue where I am going to stay. I am still unsure of how this albergue thing works. As I enter the village I follow signs that are pointing to an albergue. It led me to the municipal, which took me some time to learn, but a municipal is locally run and is usually the largest and cheapest albergue with minimal resources in each village. I was relieved to be done for the day, or so I thought.
As I hobble up the stairs to the entrance a worker sitting on the steps lets me know in her broken English that the albergue is “completo”. My heart dropped, what do you mean completo? Full? Now what? “Where do I go”, I ask. The lady in her Splanglish points down the street, across from supermercado. I didn’t realize until now that there was even a possiblity of these albergues filling up. I pick up my heart and hobble to the next albergue which is a couple blocks away. Each step is torture, like walking on pins and needles.
I arrive and ask for uno cama, one bed. The guy answers, “Yes, in the basement.” “I’ll take it!” Anything. I walk down the stairs to what is a bunk in the basement with 4 other bunks. “The last bed”, he says. “Watch out for the leak in the roof.” Conditions could not have been more polar opposite than my previous night. I now know that I can not hold any expectations and that getting in earlier is more important than I ever imagined. I have a bed, now wash clothes, food and drink.
Pilgrim dinners are always an open table with plenty of wine. Fellow pilgrims unite, no matter who you walk with. It is a time when we are one and no invitations are necessary. Anyone traveling through these villages are also walking on the camino. We are automatically connected in some way and can sit down at any open table and join in any conversation. It is a place of peace and love. I am quickly learning how similar I am to others on the camino. There is a child like hippie in all of us, on a quest for adventure and experience. Everyone is open, happy to finally feel home, free.