Roncevalles to Burgos – Camino de Santiago



On the edge of a wheat field, rich green, the mud ankle deep, a deep red clay, the track led uphill over trodden down fresh wheat stalks. We’d left the main trail to go up onto a bank, hoping to get out of the mud and slush. It wasn’t looking like a good decision, the track getting higher from the main trail. I could see where people before us had cut their losses, slid down the bank to get back to the main trail. That wasn’t going to be pretty. We pressed on, but I was beginning to feel guilty. A couple of pilgrims had followed us. As if we knew what we were doing. But it was that kind of walk, really. A trail where people follow people, had done for centuries. We were day 3, Camino de Santiago – on the Spanish section known as the Camino Frances.


We’d taken a bus out of Barcelona a few days earlier, to Pamplona, Navarra, Spain. We made a connection to Roncevalles, near the French border in the western Pyrenees. The idea was to stay the night in the Albergue there, a system of dormitories for pilgrims on the road to Santiago. But the bus was full of pilgrims and as we filed into the church and filled out forms about who we were, where we were from and why we were there, it was announced there were only 11 beds left and they were on offer to whoever got up to the front of the table first. It wasn’t us. I was unsure enough about why we were there anyway. I hadn’t ticked religious, spiritual, even cultural or fitness for my reasons but other. I didn’t feel like I was a legitimate pilgrim. Or at least not enough of one to be rushing up to grab the last of the beds.

So day 0 became a day of walking. We had the option of staying in a hostel or heading several kilometres down the road to a camping area. It was after 7pm but there was plenty of light, an ominous road sign, Santiago de Compostela 790km, as we went into the trees. We didn’t have to put up our tent, slept the night in a dorm with only the two of us, and set off early up a slope through Burguete, passing, and being passed by, other pilgrims, up into a beech forest, a dappled light tumbling down on us through the trees. The trail was wet, but little of the mud that was to come. We made it to Larrasoaña early afternoon and checked into a makeshift dorm that looked like it was straight out of WWII hospital. The town was being remade, there was little open, a haphazard sort of place, with only one bar/cafe, full of pilgrims. That night, the snoring started, something I was just going to have to gt used to.

The rain was coming down in the morning, but we walked on anyway, nothing open. We went through several small towns, still couldn’t get a coffee. We reckoned Spain had one of the best coffees in the world. But it has the worst opening hours. Day 2, we stopped early in Pamplona, staying in an excellent albergue, by the river, for only €3. We went into town and acted as if we weren’t pilgrims at all, just walking across Spain, which is really how we saw it. We had to be back in the room by 22.00 but that suited us, the 20km with our back packs hadn’t been easy. We were in a room with 5 German men who took turns in snoring throughout the night, making it doubly hard to get up for breakfast but since we’d paid and had to be gone by 8am anyway, we didn’t miss out. The 6am wake up had been a knock on the door followed by a playing of The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music.

The walk out of Pamplona was arduous, through the outskirts of town on asphalt roads and footpaths for 6km, hard on the calf muscles, especially with 12 kilos on your back. We were already sure our packs were too heavy but we had camping gear for when we eventually got to Galicia in a months time. They were easy enough to carry, just put a lot of stress on the feet, knees, calves, shoulders and backs. We were feeling pretty rough.

And that was when we made it to Day 3 and the mud. We’d been lucky with the rain, watched other pilgrims head out when it was tipping down. We’d bought bin liners for our backpacks, felt confident about staying dry, but we weren’t leaving in the rain earlier than we had to. And the rain had eased by 8am. But the pilgrims ahead of us had churned it up. We were walking through a quagmire.

So what were we doing there? I suppose it was a natural progression in travelling. Instead of taking buses, trains, we were walking. Like going back in time, to how people travelled centuries ago. It was about history, amongst other things.

We dropped back a little, started meeting more than the Germans. A young pair of American girls, studying some kind of religious thing were talking about writing about their trip, maybe something political. But they couldn’t think how to do that. But to me, it was nothing if not politics.

The Camino de Santiago found its beginnings during the reconquista (reconquest) of Spain after the Moors invaded in the early 8th Century. A shepherd discovered the remains of Saint James (Santiago) around 830AD. When a church was built in honour of the tomb, word spread across the Christian world and the pilgrimage rose in numbers over the next five hundred years, before declining in the 14th Century. The tomb was hidden from pirates and only re-discovered and declared genuine by the Pope in 1879. Franco declared St James patron saint of Spain, but it wasn’t until after Franco’s death that the route began its rise in popularity once more, reaching a peak since 2001.

It’s nowadays a route for fitness freaks, cyclists, joggers and hikers, a convenient way to travel thanks to cheap beds and plenty of towns with fresh water and excellent architecture.

From Santo Domingo de la Calzada, we had lost a lot of the groups of walkers, and found the path more isolated, some of the albergues more inviting. The rain was shocking, it was cold, but we were feeling better, the packs easier to carry, and when the sun came out by day 12, we were just hitting our straps. We still had some 500 kilometres to go, but that seemed like an achievable place, unlike two weeks earlier. And the snoring; after a couple of bad nights, I’d found the cure – the La Rioja reds.


~ by Drifting, Rambling on June 10, 2008.

One Response to “Roncevalles to Burgos – Camino de Santiago”

  1. Hi Tim,
    Your experience is so unlike any of the so called pilgrims we’ve had visiting Sydney recently ie you’ve been doing it hard. Love the photos – beautiful.

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