Tag Archives: France

Camino Day 1 – Would Have Been Better If It Were Clearer

Wednesday 16 August 2023 – My 71st birthday, by God, and what’s my present? Probably the toughest day of the whole Camino Francès!

This was a long day, and this is a long post.  Here’s the tl;dr version if you’d prefer to go out instead.


For the rest of you, here’s how the day went.

Because of the likelihood of having to do lots of tough uphill work in blistering heat, we wanted to leave the hotel as early as we could, an ambition somewhat thwarted when we couldn’t find the hotel room key to return it as we left. Much swearing and checking through bags ensued before we decided to confess our sin to the manager and hope we might be forgiven.  Turns out that we’d left the key in the outside of the door last night, so he carefully removed it and took it downstairs.

Didn’t tell us, though, did he?

Anyway, the hotel breakfast was pretty good

but you might be able to make out that the distant hills were shrouded in mist. We left our bags to be transferred to our destination (in reception every morning by 8am is the rule) and started out.  The town’s streets were eerily quiet after yesterday’s Assumption Day crowds

and we made our way to the Notre Dame gate for the obligatory “This is us starting off” selfie – one of the very few occasions when I will countenance such self-indulgence.

Off we went along the roads

and it became clear that the mist wasn’t about to disappear.  You’ll have read yesterday’s blog so you’ll know that I have been basically bricking it about this day’s walk and particularly the tough climb to the first and, as it turned out, only refreshment stop at Orisson as part of a long and largely uphill journey to our destination, Roncesvalles (Ronceveaux in French).

The serious uphill started pretty soon

but the blistering hot sunshine I’d feared never materialised, as it was very misty.

There were a few peregrinos out

many of whom overtook us as we started, making me feel like I do out on a bike ride when I get overtaken, which is not an uncommon occurence.  However – hah! – when the uphill going got tough, they all seemed to find lots of excuses to stop and chat and adjust things, so we overtook them in turn.  Not that it’s a race. No. Not at all.

The first few kilometres were a steady uphill pull, but then the road steepened and it became really brutally steep, particularly as we left the road for a track.

It reminded me of the gradient I had to deal with on one occasion during a walking holiday in Slovenia in 2016. Then, I had to cope with 40 minutes up such a relentless gradient, and it nearly did for me. So I was delighted to find that, seven years older, but lighter and much fitter, I could cope with the gradient for well over an hour without my heartbeat going particularly high and, more to the point, without finding it at all daunting. This is a major change for me; it used to be normal for me to really hate having to walk uphill.

This is going to make all the difference to this Camino for me.

Mind you, we were lucky with the weather.  The mist made photography a bit challenging, since only rarely could one see anything through the mist;

but on the other hand it was cool, which made walking uphill much easier.

The day was rather like Walker Family holidays over the years, only more so.  The traditional Walker cry is “It would have been better if it were clearer”. In this case, it might have been better if we could see something.


After about two and a half hours we arrived at Orisson

which gave us a rest as we had coffee and sandwiches.  Ordinarily, the view from the panoramic terrace is a thing of beauty.  Today?

Not so much.

After our refreshment break we walked on and the mists cleared for a bit,

then didn’t,

then sort of did, a bit.

We passed a strange-looking cairn

and then the road split.  There was a choice – go downhill or go uphill. Guess which was the correct option? Correct – uphill we went

to the Orisson statue of the Virgin Mary,

where once again the ability to see the view was a transient thing.

All around us in the mist was the tinkling of bells, indicating that there was a lot of livestock somewhere around.

We reached Thibault’s Cross,

where our info asserted that a food truck operated “in the season”. Today, not. Just as well we weren’t depending on it, then.

After the cross, we once again left the road for tracks

This is not a stile I would care to use, personally

and arrived at the Spanish border.

Just beside it is Roland’s Fountain

(Roland was the Frankish military leader at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in AD 778, by the way).

We carried on into Spain

past an emergency refuge hut

where one could spend the night in extremis – water is provided, and there’s a fireplace and a place to put your sleeping bag.

On we climbed, and, as we did, the mists started to fall away. As we got to the highest point, it was absolutely clear sunshine.

I decided to try to get some aerial photography – video of reaching the top and climbing to pan round to the fabulous view was my plan; I’d even practised it at home.  So I got out the drone that I’d carefully and specifically brought along for this very occasion and whizzed it up.

There was a frisson at one point when a lorry wanted to drive down the path I was standing on, but we carried on – and the clouds came in again so that view was no longer visible.


However, nothing can be done about the weather, so we started down again.

We were above our destination, Roncesvalles, at this point and had a choice of route to get down: the road – less steep but more boring

or the track you see going ahead in this picture – steeper (much steeper, as it turned out) but more wooded and therefore protected from the sun. After some dithering, we took the track, which wound relentlessly and quite steeply downhill

for what seemed like ages, but can’t have been because its total distance was less than 4km.  Eventually it levelled out a bit into lovely beech woodland

which is quite similar to what we’ve seen above the Tillingbourne River on our Surrey walks.

Eventually, we walked sufficiently far down that the mists closed in again.

It seemed to take forever to get down, and we were both feeling that we’d really just like to be there now, thank you very much.  Eventually, we reached civilisation

and walked into a very misty Roncesvalles

Memorial to the Battle of Ronesvalles Pass, apparently

and (eventually) found our hotel, arriving at about 5.30pm, nine and a half hours after we’d left SJPdP.

It became immediately apparent that we’d moved from the ridiculous to the sublime. Inside was very swish,

but actually we didn’t care that much because we were very tired and what we really wanted was a drink. We had a huge room with three beds and a separate lounge area and, importantly, facilities for making tea. Its drawback was that it was on the second floor, and I discovered, when I tried to be a hero and bring both suitcases up all those stairs, that my knees were buggered. It’s happened before after a long walk, but I’d thought that the hundreds of miles we’d walked in prep for this outing might have sorted the problem. But there it was; walking up stairs hurt.

In the end, by the time we’d tidied ourselves up, what we did was to go for a dinner in the hotel, which was a decent meal. I particularly liked the large gins that went with it, I must say.

And that was pretty much it for the day.

The all-important stats (using Relive for the distance and Garmin for the ascent metrics):

Distance walked: 25.3km
Ascent: 1,428m
Descent:  641m
Max elevation: 1,425m

There was no time (or, more accurately, not enough energy) to write things up for these pages, so we basically headed for bed to try to recover in time to do something not dissimilar the next day – fewer kilometres to walk and many fewer vertical metres to ascend (but still some).

I will write about Day 2 at some stage, possibly rolling it into a narrative over several days. Who knows? The only way for you to find out is to keep in touch with these pages, isn’t it?


Arrival to St Jean (or is it St-Jean?*)

Tuesday 15 August 2023 – Farewell, then, to Biarritz, after a very pleasant few days.

The WalkTheCamino team swore that there would be someone to transfer us to St Jean Pied de Port at 11am and so we packed and generally made ourselves ready to leave.  As we were checking out of the hotel a person came in looking for people with a mysteriously foreign-sounding name.  A bit of back-and-forth (very grateful for Jane’s prowess in French at this point) resolved this into agreement that it was us that (it turns out) she should have been looking for (she was mis-reading her script) and so this total stranger walked off with our suitcases whilst the lady managing the hotel at the time struggled to get her machine to agree that our credit was good. But she managed it in the end and we followed our driver to her large Fiat MPV and she set off with us with a great sense of purpose. Thus the drive to St Jean took less than an hour.

On the way over, the surrounding countryside started to remind us what it was that we were letting ourselves in for.

Our arrival at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (henceforth, for brevity, SJPdP) was similar to ours in Biarritz some days before, in that the transport couldn’t get outside the hotel and so we had to lug our suitcases up cobbled streets to reach the hotel – and, it transpired later, up the stairs to our room. In most other respects, St Jean was rather different from Biarritz. This was the start of our luggage-lugging walk to the hotel.

Our hotel here is the Ramuntxo, and, like Le Petit Hôtel in Biarritz, has a two-star rating. The immediate practical upshot of this was apparent by the absence of anyone to greet us and check us in. There were various helpful notices, among which was one telling the reader that check-in time was 2pm.  It was midday at this point.  Jane managed to coax a lady from her lunch to tell us, in a friendly and polite but firm way, that we should come back after 1400 and that, bien sûr, we could leave our bags unattended in her foyer.

So. We had a couple of hours to fill.  So we went for a walk. Perforce. Obviously.

We started off approaching the Camino’s Welcome Office with a view to taking a look inside to see what it offered. But our timing was off – they basically shut the door as Jane approached because it was their lunch time and they, too, weren’t going to re-open until 2pm.

We carried on wandering the town. This was a pleasure, as despite the very steep hills in the old part of the town

it’s a pretty place, with clearly a huge amount of history to accompany the very traditional architecture everywhere.

SJPdP is a fortified town, with nearly-intact walls and a large citadel overlooking the area. We walked to the northern end of the town, to the St. James gate, which is where those peregrinos who are doing more than just the Camino Francès arrive. This left us near the Citadel, so we went to look around it.

It offers some spectacular views over the town and the countryside.

After a quick look around, we were feeling the need for some refreshment, so we headed down through the town.

Cunning spotting of a niche for a business, eh?

with a plan to investigate the start point for our Camino.  There was some extremely popular entertainment going on just by the gate which marks the start (see later video) so, since we couldn’t get through the throng, we diverted out into the newer part of town where we found a place that would serve us drinks.

Today, Assumption Day, is clearly an excuse for the locals to have a good, festivally, kind of celebration.  As we sat with our drinks, a marching band came past and a trio of musicians playing traditional dulzainas (like Breton bombards only different) and drums struck up across the road.  This is a brief video summary of the three entertainments.

Combined, they gave the place an agreeably festive air.

We made our drinks last until well after 1400 and went back to the hotel to check in. At first blush it looks to be decent enough; the room is small but spotless and there’s a great deal more room in the bathroom than we had in Biarritz, and there’s a fan – ! – so I’m sanguine that we’ll have a reasonably comfortable time of it.

We were peckish by the time we’d checked in, so we wandered back down through the town looking for somewhere that would serve us lunch. In most cases, the answer was “non”; lunch is served until 2pm and then nothing until dinner at 7pm.  This doesn’t really fit with our normal eating strategy, which involves having a late breakfast and then a very late lunch as our two meals every day.  For a start, we’re going to have to start early on our walks in order to escape the worst of the day’s heat, which implies an early breakfast. There’s no way we’ll last until 7pm every day, so we’ll have to hope that ways to keep ourselves fed but not overfed evolve over the coming weeks.

As it happens, we were lucky in that the restaurant where the Basque trio had been basquing busking was prepared to serve us lunch even though it was by this stage 3pm.  So we had an agreeable meal and a couple of drinks there.  We think the place is called Anxo, but it bears no obviously visible name, despite being a very prominent establishment in the square.

The lunch (and the drinks we’d had earlier) gave me an opportunity to collect a number of candid photos of some of the locals.  There were some very, very Gallic faces to capture.

After eating, we felt that such a pleasant meal should be Walked Off.  So we ended up doing the signposted circular walk, which actually means walking round the still-intact walls of the old town.  This is a very impressive walk, not least in the number of steps one has to walk up and down.  Garmin tells me that we ascended 59 metres, which doesn’t sound much, but it’s just about 200 feet, which is 18 storeys according to a quick, non-scientific lookup on the web. So our 1.3 mile journey counted as a good constitutional – and gave us some lovely views of the walls and the town.

See what I mean about the steps?

The other thing we did with our free time was to check out some key locations – the Camino’s Welcome Office (now open), the start point of the walk tomorrow and some idea of what the going was going to be like.

The start point is at the Notre Dame Gate, and one heads south over the river.

You can see that the route trends uphill fairly soon after the start.

After a while, you reach a decision point at which the choice is between the “low” road or the Route Napoleon, which goes higher and is thus tougher, but gives better views.

Left is the high route. The blue sign tells if it’s open or not

You can see the Shell and the banded rectangle which act as waymarks for the Camino

The Route Napoleon goes up from there.

It’s not particularly surprising that it goes up, as there is the not insignificant issue of the Pyrenees mountains to cross, and one might as well start sooner rather than later.

There are a couple of helpful, if ominous, signs.

Our destination tomorrow will be Roncesvalles in Spain, which we are told is 26 kilometres away. There are only two refreshment points between SJPdP and Roncesvalles:  an auberge at Orisson, which is 8km away; and a food truck (which we hope will be there) at 15km.  That first 8km is likely to be tough:

The refreshment stop at Orisson is going to be a welcome sight, I think. It is, however, only part of the story,  The total course for the day looks like this.

(The Orisson refreshment stop is at the 5-mile mark and the food truck at 9 miles.)

For some reason, Day 1 of these walks always seems to be a bastard. It was like that when we did the Cami de Cavalls in Menorca, and, much longer ago, it was like that when we did a walking holiday in Corsica. Perhaps the Great Organiser In The Sky wants us to suffer before we’re allowed to relax a bit?

I wonder what state we’ll be in by the time we get to Roncesvalles? Come back and find out, eh? My plan is not to document every single day of hiking – that would likely be dull and repetitive – but to hit the highlights. Or, in the case of Day 1, possibly the lowlights.

See you tomorrow, when I might be reporting from hospital.


* There appears to be no consensus

Last day in Biarritz

Monday 14 August 2023 – There’s nothing like not having a choice to direct one’s thinking, and we found that now having a greater understanding of the hotel’s limitations enabled us to arrange things so we had a more comfortable night and a less jaundiced view of the accommodation. (The night was cooler, which helped a lot.) Actually, within what’s possible in such a sharply delinited space, it’s about as good as it could be, and it’s certainly in a very convenient location.

Today was our last full day in Biarritz, and we had only explored the area north of the hotel in our time here so far. So we went for a walk. in the other direction. Obviously.

There were still plenty of people about, but the town and beach were nowhere near as crowded as yesterday.

We made our way past the stone bridge, which was very uncrowded;

not surprising, given that it was closed for maintenance. The road carries on past a pair of good views back over the Port des Pêcheurs

and one enters a network of paths round the headland, leading to the aquarium and the Rock of the Virgin Mary.

The rock owes its name to the statue of the Virgin Mary looking out to sea from the top of the rock; you can just about make out the statue in the photo above. The statue was erected in 1865. Legend has it that fishermen from the port of Biarritz were caught in a “terrible storm” (is there any other sort?) while out at sea hunting whales. A divine light guided them back to port and the survivors erected a statue of the Virgin Mary in gratitude.

Napoleon III decided to cut a tunnel through the rock and had a bridge built to make it accessible from the seafront. The first wooden bridge did not withstand the onslaught of the sea, so, in 1887, Gustave Eiffel was instructed to design a metal bridge, which still stands today.

Sadly, as we discovered,

it was closed today, whilst men used hammers and other serious tools on it.

Looking over the beach of the old port, now called La Petite Plage, is a very pleasant view, with a striking building on the right, more of which later. Importantly, though, Jane spotted something of significance just below that building – a Bar, which we decided It Was Time For.

Walking round the cove gives a good view over it from above the central building,

and the bar, the Eden Rock Café, gives a nice view over the beach as well.

There are steps down to the water from the café, and it seems that if you decide to climb over the gate and go down them and start drowning in the huge waves, someone with a helicopter will come and rescue you, which is decent of them.

After refreshing ourselves, we carried on round the coast, past that striking building.

It shows one How The Other Half Live.  If it were mine, I’d call it a castle, but no, it’s a Villa, the Villa Belza.  Just along the road there’s a bend where watching the surfers is clearly something of a spectator sport.

The waves here weren’t as dramatic as we saw in front of the town itself yesterday, but there was clearly some fun to be had

even if the inevitable end of it was to crash ignominiously into the water. You have to admire the persistence, stamina and skill of these people even as you question their sanity. At least on skis one can coast to a dignified halt outside a bar.

We walked along the front a little, and then found a path up the cliff, which offered a variety of view back over the Villa Belza, of which this is my favourite.

Then we headed inland towards the centre of the town, where there was a market area called the Halles de Biarritz, which Jane thought would be worth nosing around.

The central halls were surrounded by market stalls on the adjacent roads,

and – ooh look! There’s a tapas bar! There, on the right!

This place runs a surprisingly large number of outside tables from just this small interior and they do a fine tapas selection, which we discovered through sampling.

We then headed back to the hotel, through the streets,

past the (modest but pleasant) Jardin Publique,

more fine buildings

and the very handsome façade of the old railway terminus,

now just the frontage for an event space.

As we’d been walking around, I noticed that there were some cute little buslets in operation.

and I even managed to get a shot of one being taught how to navigate by its mother.

And so we arrived back at the hotel, via a couple more pleasant street scenes.

It’s been a pleasure walking around such a handsome town.

After something of a siesta at the hotel, we went out again, as Jane had discovered that there was an evening market at the Port de Pêcheurs. We partook of refreshment en route, once again at the excellent Dodin bar at the back of the casino, where we once again saw the cabaret of the lifeguard station being put to bed.

The night market was a reasonably small affair within the carparking area of the port.

It didn’t have anything to offer that we were interested in, and once again, the queue for Casa Juan Pedro was at Café Opera levels.

That place must be extraordinary to attract the queues it does. Sadly, we will never find out why.

There was a bit of cabaret going on at one corner of the market, and it turned out to be a troupe of three guys wowing the crowds with some acrobatics.  We missed them at the market, but when we climbed up to the Place Saint Eugénie, there they were again. They were quite impressive, so I grabbed some video {and gave them a small contribution in return).

Our return to the hotel involved buying an ice cream and watching the sunset, alongside a load of other people.  The sunset was quite nice, as these things go

but went completely unnoticed by the bunch of beachcombers on the beach below, hopefully scanning for any valuables that might have been dropped by tourists during the day.

The final act of the day was rather lovely – a candlelit parade with some very good singing passed the hotel, marking the Assumption.

Tomorrow, we leave Biarritz for St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Well, I hope we do; we’re rather dependent upon the driver organised by WalkTheCamino being able to find the hotel. Check back on these pages in a day or so and you’ll find out whether we made it OK.  For now, It’s Time For The Bed, I Think.