El Camino Weekend
Matthew Harmon: AU Engineering – International Engineering Internships in Pamplona, Spain Summer 2022
During the second weekend of my program in Pamplona, Spain, a group of us decided we needed an adventure. One of the things we learned about Pamplona while we were on the walking tour the first week was that it was one of the first major stops on El Camino de Santiago. El Camino is a pilgrimage walking trail that goes from Southern France all the way to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, which is over 515 miles away. The route has a lot of Catholic and Roman history behind it, with the earliest recorded pilgrims walking the entire French Way in the 11th century.
This being said, we only had a weekend. Most people take around 2 months to walk the entire route. We just wanted to walk the first leg of it, from St. Jean Pied de Port in France back to our dorm in Pamplona, Spain. This first leg of the route is known to be the most difficult, but also the most scenic as it goes over the Pyrenees Mountains. We got our bus tickets and left for St. Jean Friday afternoon.
The bus was awful. We were all in the very back of the bus, it was completely full, and we getting tossed around the curves and bumps of the Pyrenees for two hours. I think everyone wanted to throw up, luckily everyone held onto their lunch.
Finally, we arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port. At this point, we had decided on having two groups, one that wanted to hike the entire 41-mile route that weekend back to Pamplona, and one that wanted to hang out in France for the night and walk the first 16 miles to Roncevalles tomorrow morning, and bus the rest of the way back to be home Saturday night. The three guys walking the entire route ate a quick lunch and immediately started up the mountain in the heat of the day. I took the easier option of walking around St. Jean in a beret trying to act French.
St. Jean was a gorgeous little town at the bottom of the Pyrenees. It felt like the little town in Beauty and the Beast. The six of us that stayed thoroughly enjoyed a fancy dinner on the river. The food was one of the best steaks I have had in my life. My only gripe was that they never said Bon Appétit. We also were scarfing down the bread, so much so that the waiter was a little concerned and would wave at us when he was delivering bread to other tables because he knew we wanted it.
Staying in the hostel was fun and interesting. The girls didn’t find it super appealing because it smelled of hikers and we were given what felt like a dryer sheet as a blanket. The man at the front desk gave us a long narrative about what was the true meaning and purpose of the Way, and how we should come out of it a changed person. There was one other guy not in our group that we hung out with at the hostel from Scotland and he was hiking all of the Pyrenees. No one got very great sleep as people were in and out snoring and we could hear kids playing in the street. Oh well. We got up at 5 in the morning to start the hike as the sun rose.
As we left the town in darkness we sure were skeptical. None of us were 100% sure we were on the right route until light came out. We walked this little country road up that seemed to get steeper and steeper. Everything was perfect, it was just cold enough that we didn’t need a jacket and we weren’t sweating down our backpacks.
Sun came up just as we reached the near top of the front side of the Pyrenees. Everything was perfect. We had just gotten above the clouds, and the orange rolled in from the french valleys through the clouds below and landed gently on us. I have never taken more pictures of a sunrise in my life.
From there it was honestly just a lot of walking on a trail that never seemed to level off. We reached a small restaurant and a few of us used the bathroom and ate a snack. I took a Baguette and two apples from the hostel and that was my fuel for the hike. We passed a lot of animals.
A quick note I wanted to make was how silly we looked doing this. Most people on the French way have a huge pack on them with camping supplies and they are using walking sticks in both hands to keep pace. All we had were our normal school backpacks, and we were just flying past the other people on the route. We were walking like we were late for class.
Eventually, we reached a peak. Previously we had thought that every corner was the peak, but each trail just got steeper. Here though, there was a small statue of Mary holding baby Jesus, covered in Camino memorabilia and hiker’s treasures. We walked up to it and saw a Sheppard and his dog sitting and admiring the view, with flocks of sheep surrounding the mountaintop. It was like a scene out of the Alchemist, which a few of us had recently read.
From there we kept walking. We had around 6 miles left, and we ran into more old wells and plaques telling the history of certain spots. At one point there was an extreme weather shelter, for winter hikers that get caught in a storm. We kept walking. Eventually, there was a fork in the road, and there sat a Finnish hiker who gave us a brief description of the two paths we could take to Roncesvalles. His story and the way that he laid out the options to us felt like it was out of a movie. Very nice man, but a strange interaction to say the least. We decided to take the forest route, which was felt like falling down the mountain with extra steps. It was so steep that it really made our knees sore, but we were almost done.
The last half mile before Roncevalles was fun, we started playing Freebird on the speaker I had brought as we strolled into town. It was only 11am. The total time for the hike was 5:35 hr over a distance of 15.2 miles. We all had a blast, and called a taxi to Pamplona. Everyone slept on the taxi and showered when we got home. War Eagle!