St Jean Pied de Port to Orisson – 8 kilometres
Climbing the Pass
We woke to a gorgeous sunny morning. Most of us had slept OK, beds were comfy and there wasn’t too much snoring. Unless you are a deep sleeper, earplugs are a must on the Camino, and not the cheap ones I had with me. They were useless and blocked nothing out. Some people sounded like Mount Vesuvius erupting! (Of course, I’m not referring to any of my companions!) I would advise anyone planning on doing this trip to invest in a good pair. They will be worth their weight in sleep.
After having breakfast in a small patisserie we set off about 9am to walk to Orisson Refuge. We had been warned walking the pass from St Jean Pied de Port in France through the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in Spain would be the steepest and most difficult of our journey. Not wanting to kill ourselves we decided to split the journey and stay at the Orisson. We booked it a few months in advance of our trip as it does not hold a huge capacity and we wanted to be sure of a place. Only two brave souls from our group, Pauline and Fiona, decided they would carry their rucksacks. The rest of us weaker (and wiser!) souls decided to send them on to the Orisson. This cost roughly 5 euro and for me, personally, I thought it was well worth it. I had a smaller day rucksack to carry the essentials for the day.
The pass was very steep but we were walking on tarmac country roads so the terrain was not difficult. We took our time and kept reminding ourselves that this was not a race and we would get there when we got there. We also had the added luxury of knowing we were sure of a bed at the Orisson. Our legs ached from climbing the steep inclines but on the plus side we were rewarded with stunning views unfurling beneath us. My guide-book describes it as Paradise…. it is. There is nothing but valleys of green fields and mountains rolling out for miles below us. Every few steps we stopped to take photographs, as each view seemed nicer than the last, but no photograph could do justice to the stunning scenery.
No strangers here, only friends
Joonho, a 21-year-old South Korean boy, (I say boy when technically he is a man but he looked all of sixteen,) who hoped to walk the entire 769 km in 40 days, walked with us until the Orisson. After his trip he was going home to do national service. He looked so young to be out there on his own, never mind to go into an army. I couldn’t help thinking of my own sons and the freedom they take for granted.
We stopped after a couple of hours and sat on a grassy verge to eat our lunch of crusty bread, Parma ham and water. This also gave us a chance to get our shoes and socks off and let our feet breathe. The food was simple, but eating it in such beautiful surroundings, with the sun shining down on us, it tasted nicer than any gourmet meal served up in a fancy restaurant. And we had the privilege of sharing our lunch with a young lad from the other side of the world. Despite the language barrier, (and that was our fault, not his, as he had some English, whereas we didn’t have any Korean), we chatted about his family, and what he hoped to do when his national service was over; teaching as it happens.
“Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” Ibn Battuta
This is the beauty of the Camino, regardless of differences in age, gender, nationality, we all have the common bond of being a pilgrim on this journey. It connects us to people we wouldn’t normally get to have a conversation with. And everyone has a story to share.
We were relieved to see the Orisson come into view, because although we had only walked about 8km to get there, it had been a strenuous climb to reach it. We were even more relieved to see it was as quaint and charming in reality as it looked in photographs. We loved it! It was converted from an ancient shepherd’s house in 2004 and it has a capacity of 28 beds in dormitories of 6 and 10 beds. Bed, breakfast and three course dinner with wine costs 36 euro. The priciest of all the places we stayed but worth it. They will also pack you a lunch the next morning before you leave for 4 or 5 euro.
We wished Joonho good luck and said goodbye as he continued on to Roncesvalles. I think he had been glad of our company for this part of his journey. Or maybe I am deluded and he was glad to see the back of us! Either way, I felt he struck a lonely figure as he walked on, but maybe that was just the Irish mammy in me being over protective.
“Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.” Francis Bacon
We had arrived quite early and everyone had a chance to disperse and do their own thing. Showers work on a coin system which allows you five minutes to wash. This was to ensure that despite the limited availability of hot water in the mountains, there was sufficient water for everyone and no one hogged the cubicle! I’ve read complaints on Trip Advisor about this system, but I thought it was fine. After all, we were not staying in a five-star hotel and I didn’t expect luxury. The Camino is about doing with less, not having more. We washed out our clothes and hung them to dry on the clothes line in the garden of the refuge. That is the advantage of travelling during summer, as there is no problem in getting gear dried.
“Don’t listen to what they say. Go see.” Chinese Proverb
We ate our three course pilgrim meal around 6pm with the entire group of people staying at the Orisson. They had come from the four corners of the globe to walk the Camino; Heather from England who has lived in Greece for the last 30 years, (in fact she lives on the island where the movie Mama Mia was made, apparently Pearse Brosnan was the friendliest of the lot), Ga Ga from China, (yes, that was her real name), Max from Germany who played the ukulele (he definitely fancied Gaga), grandparents Debbie and Mike from Texas who were walking their second Camino, grandfather and granddaughter duo, Tom and Brianna from Pennsylvania, Tammy and Oshie from Japan and lovely Daniel from Quebec. They are just some of the names which spring to mind. But there were others from South America, Chile and New York.
We were the only Irish contingent there. The food was delicious and homemade wine was included. I have never tasted wine like it before or since. I tell you the Orisson is worth staying at if only to taste the wine. We had also asked for water but we were told we could have one or the other….strange! Well, what can I say; we had no choice but to choose the wine.
“Wine is food, and food is life, and life is about the connections we make.” Evan Dawson
The bar man encouraged each of us to stand up and say where we were from and why we were doing the Camino. I usually hate doing that sort of thing but in the spirit of this place it didn’t seem so daunting. Or maybe, the wine had loosened my inhibitions. (I swear I am not a raging alcoholic in case all the references to wine makes me appear so.)
Of course, being Irish it wasn’t long before one of our group started to sing. Obviously not myself, as I think people would prefer snoring to my singing! But no such worries for our friend, Fiona. Coming from a long line of traditional Irish musicians, she broke out into a ‘diddley aye’ piece called, ‘Loving Hannah’. I have never heard it before, nor indeed, have I ever heard her sing before, so it was an experience all of itself. It kick started a sing-song and before we knew everyone was singing a party piece. It was a brilliant atmosphere of relaxation and friendliness.
“Where words fail, music speaks.” Hans Christian Anderson
And you know the saying….one drink is one too many and ten is not enough. OK, we didn’t go that far but we did enjoy the wine and we asked the bar man to sell us another bottle. He did, reluctantly, but told us to take it outside and to keep the noise down, as most people were retiring to bed. And it is worth pointing out that most of the hostels and alburgues do not allow any noise after 10/11pm.
So we took our glasses of red outside, and wrapped up against the evening chill, we sat in the fading light, having the craic. What more could you want on a beautiful evening in France? I’m afraid to say the bar man did have to tell us to quieten down, (we thought we were whispering) and then he got quite rude. Maybe our laughs did get a bit too loud. So we gathered ourselves up and were tucked up in our bunk-beds before 11pm. Ga Ga was sound asleep by the time we got in. No night owls here. Hopefully she had good ear plugs!
For me staying at the Orisson was one of the highlights of the trip. Some pilgrims walk the whole way from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles, without stopping, but I think they are missing out on a unique experience. We felt a great sense of camaraderie and it was a lovely way to get to know everyone. The connections made with fellow pilgrims in the Orisson helped us to feel we were part of a community. And hopefully we would bump into them again along our route.