Day 1: St Jean Pied de Port – Orrison

There’s a reason why it’s called the Pyrenees!
’cause you bloody well need a ‘pair of knees’ to cross this mother.
A pair of balls will comes in handy too.

I got up around 07:00, and left St Jean Pied de Port at 08:30. Though I knew I only had about 8km to walk for the day (I’ve heard so many good things about the albergue at Orrison, that it’s always been my plan to stay over there on my ‘1st’ night), the mere knowledge that I had the start of the Pyrenees to get behind me, made me desert my initial idea of exploring St. Jean a little more before departing for Orrison early afternoon.

Though I’m a little sad that I did not get to spend some more time in St Jean, in hindsight I’m actually quite pleased that I got underway earlier.
While 8km isn’t much, in my current physical condition, I really struggled with the incline today, and my overall emotional state and mood (already quite negative to start off with) deteriorated even further as my physical power and energy drained. I really found the day extremely difficult – in every way.
I cannot even start to imagine what it would have been like if I’d have to carry on to Roncesvalles today.

Emotionally, I really got chucked into the deep-end today.

Long-haul flights aren’t my favourites.
I suffer from a, at times, debilitating OCD, which I mostly ‘control’ by sticking to a set routine. Too much change and you’ll see me fall apart – like the time I simply had to leave my shopping trolley in the supermarket after they had moved the ketchup, and my whole world just collapsed (it took me nearly a week to muster the courage to go back to that store).
And, for me, my OCD presents itself in nothing as much as in my personal hygiene routine: if I cannot have a morning shower, it triggers all the wrong things, and can end up having me completely unproductive for the remainder of the day.
So, a near 24 hour trip, in which my routine is completely disrupted, have the potential for disaster.

For this reason I planned to spend my first night, in St Jean Pied de Port, in private accommodation – just in case, as to not scare my fellow pilgrims (who may have to walk with me over the coming weeks) with any odd behaviour.
I’m glad to report though that I coped really well. I was nevertheless extremely grateful when I could finally take a shower, having checked into my accommodation at Maison Simonenia.

Maison Simonenia is (from the look of it) a brand new ‘hotel’ in Rua Citadelle – a stone’s throw from the pilgrims’ office, and also literally ‘on’ the Camino. My room, though small, was very neat (with a good ensuite bathroom), overlooking the street below. It was a good decision to spend my first night in private accommodation – the long journey to St Jean, and all the time I had on the plane and train, gave me too much to think about, and I arrived in St Jean extremely emotional. The mere knowledge of the physical distance between me and my life back home accentuated the fact the it was a life that was ‘no more’. I missed my boys, and I missed my wife terribly – she had for so long been not only a constant in my life, but also someone in whose presence I felt incredible comfort and safety (especially in new or unfamiliar surroundings).
Upon my arrival in St Jean I really had to resist the urge to confirm my safe arrival to her – I still find it difficult to change this all so familiar ritual of previous trips.

It took less than a km today to realise in what terrible physical condition I am. Leaving my accommodation, heading through the gates at the Porte D’Espagne, the climb started right away as I headed for the Napoleon route (it’s always been my plan to take this route). I immediately (literally) knew that I would have a physical struggle today.

Not far out of St Jean (gosh, it may have been only a km into my walk) I stopped at a small wooden cabin with a vending machine. I stopped to catch my breath (ironically while enjoying a cigarette), and ate one of the bananas I had packed.
Much to my relief a couple from Virginia, USA (Bob and Lucy) made it their first stop too, introduced themselves, and after a sip of water headed off again.

I caught up with them again about 500m later – they saw me approaching from behind and Bob waited for me to join them. We walked together for the next few km’s, and their company made the walk much easier. Bob’s retired, and Lucy will retire soon, and they’ve got two weeks to, in their words, walk as much or as little as they want to. As they failed to get a reservation at Orrison, they were going to stay over at Hunto, about 3.5km’s from St Jean.

When we reached Hunto I joined them for a cold drink at their albergue, and felt sad when I had to leave to continue onwards to Orrison. Their company really did make things more bearable.

Shortly after Hunto I left the tarmac to follow a narrow path through the fields and grassland. The gradient started to get a lot steeper, and I struggled. As I had no idea of my walking pace, I also had no idea what distance I had already covered, and how far I still had to go. I became extremely depressed, and totally doubted my ability to get to Orrison, let alone complete the Camino. The trip of a lifetime, having been on my ‘bucket list’ for so many years, suddenly seemed like the biggest mistake ever.

As much as missed Bob and Lucy’s company, in some way it suited me to be alone on the stretch from Hunto. The physical exertion (and my overall mindset, I suppose) got me extremely emotional. Once or twice, as other pilgrims passed me, I still tried to hide my tears, but as I struggled to continue I cared less and less. I had, to some extent, expected the Camino to do this to me – to be honest, I think it was part of the reason I decided to go on the Camino as I wanted to be able to deal with my circumstances away from the prying, curious eyes at home.

Last night, I attended a choir performance at the Church of our Lady at the end of the bridge in St Jean, and there too I became extremely emotional. The poor choir must have thought that I considered their singing either very good, or very bad.

After getting onto an asphalt road again, the way seemed to level out. I still had no idea how far I had walked, or how far I still had to go.
I walked around a bend in the road and saw the edges of a structure, but as it did not resemble anything on the pictures I have seen of Refuge Orrison, I thought that I therefore still had some way to go. It was only once I got much closer that more of the structure presented itself, and I indeed recognised it as Orrison. It was an extremely welcome discovery.

Upon my arrival I immediately ordered a beer, and plonked myself down on the woonden deck overlooking the valley below. Only then did I check the time and realise that it took me only 3 hours to walk from St Jean to Orrison – bang on, according to the info I got from the man at the pilgrims’ office yesterday, who told me it’ll take me between 3 and 4 hours to reach Orrison.

I had another couple of beers, before checking in, and having a shower. I hand washed my clothes, and then retired for a nap. I was woken when another group of pilgrims checked in, and by that time it was already around 16:30, and overcast (rain seemed imminent).

Dinner is at 18:30, and I’m now having another beer on the deck. While I’m writing this I’m looking at probably the best view I’ve ever had in my life, but if you’d give me the choice, I’d give it up in a flash if I could have my ‘life’ back.
It’s not to be, though.
The view will need to do.
I really miss my family.

Day 1 of 43 done and dusted.

Buen Camino!

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