Europe 2017 – The Camino de Santiago – Part One

September 23 – 24, Montpellier to Orisson

Our adventure on the Camino de Santiago started early Saturday morning as we left Francois’ house at 5:30 am to catch the tram to Montpellier’s main train station for our 6:17 am trip to St. Jean Pied de Port, the historical jumping off point for the route we would be taking. We changed trains twice, in Toulouse and Bayonne, arriving at our destination around 3:30 pm.

Train Schedule in Bayonne

Our lodging for the night was Gite Makila at an elevation of 600 feet for 65 euros a night including breakfast. Our first day of hiking, just 4 miles would take us up roughly 1,800 feet to 2,400 in elevation, a tough day’s hike by anyone’s definition. We had decided to split this first section of the Camino, one of the longest and hardest of the journey at 16 miles, into two days with 4 the first and 12 the second in an attempt to ease our selves into the rhythm of hiking each day.

Those Full Packs

Our packs were jammed full and heavier than we had anticipated; but having gone through them a couple of times the night before at Francois’ place we couldn’t find any thing we could leave behind. As we walked uphill to the hotel from the train station, our heavy bags informed us that for us our best option would be to take advantage of the bag transport available for 8 euros and send a whole bunch of weight ahead to our first night’s stop.

Our Room and the View

We checked in, dropped our bags in our room, and with map in hand strolled down Rue de Citadella, the Main Street in the old town, to see the sights. We stopped in briefly at an outfitters store to view the merchandise for sale, quite a good selection of items from backpacks to shoes to socks and beyond. We descended to one of the town’s gates at river’s edge, and then ascended a steep path to the top of the hill to the Citadel.

The Citadel

Formerly the headquarters of the fort that defended the city, it is now a private school whose grounds offer breathtaking views of the city, the valley, and the hills that surround it. We walked back down Rue de Citadella and outside the walls to a small shop selling regional specialties and purchased a bottle of local Rose for 6.5 euros, taking back to the gite to sit in the common room (no food or drinks in the room) for a bit, enjoying the wine and using the wifi to explore options for future days.

View From The Citadel

Around dinner time we walked back outside the walls to a restaurant we’d passed by and that was recommended by the staff member at the Gite, SAS XOKO. We’d noticed that the one of the specials of the day was Penne Chorizo and thought that would be an interesting selection to try. We were seated outside and informed it would be another 25 minutes until dinner service, so we gladly ordered a bottle apiece of the local cider and enjoyed the warm evening as we watched people passing by the corner.

The Cheese Appetizer

When it came time to order ur decision was simple, split a first course of Camembert cheese (with toast and bacon) and the main of Penne Chorizo. We demolished the cheese appetizer (along with a basket of bread) spreading the cheese on the toast or bread and taking a bite of bacon along with it. I ordered another bottle of the very good cider which came about the time our main course did. We’d asked to split the main and so were shocked when two large plates of food came out.

The Chorizo

This Chorizo treatment was different than any we have encountered, essentially pork roast baked in phyllo dough. It was delightfully good, the pork a little dry but nice against the cheesy/creamy penne that accompanied it. We polished off the meat, two good sized portions per person and most of the penne and then began to wonder what we would be charged. When I went inside to pay I was delighted to discover that we had indeed been served a split portion and were just charged for one. I can’t imagine how one person could eat the entire entrée by themselves but apparently some do.

Back at the Gite we finished the bottle of wine and turned in, prepared for our initial hike the next day. Arising at 6am we showered, stretched, packed most of the bags and made our way to breakfast, a nice selection of yoghurt, cereal, bread, rolls, and hard boiled eggs. Done eating, we finished packing, dropped the spare duffel bag off at the luggage service and before we knew it stepped out onto Rue de Citadella to start our first official day on the Camino.

Start of the Day

This would be a hard day, featuring nearly vertical ascents without end, almost as if you were walking up a flight of stairs. Each step of the way reinforced the wisdom of our decision to sent a bag ahead and after 2 ½ strenuous hours, we reached our destination, Refuge Orisson. We would have liked to hike a few more miles that first day, putting a dent in the next days mileage, but this is the only option on the way to the next stopping point, Roncesvalles.

Yes, You Go Up There

After checking in we shared a piece of Basque cake (dense with an almond paste filling), had a cup of coffee apiece and waited for the time we could go to our room. We struck up a conversation with Paul from England and would end up talking with him for much of the afternoon and evening. Once in our room, we discovered that we would be sharing it with two other people, our first albuergue type experience and one that will is a part of every pilgrims Camino.

Refuge Orisson

After doing some laundry in the sink, we repaired to the common room of the main building and spent the afternoon working on the blog and reading. About 30 minutes before dinner, in a quandary about what we might want to drink thinking we’d have to purchase something I figured I’d buy a glass of the house white wine at 3 euros to check it out. When I went to order I noticed a large bottle of Ricard behind the bar and asked how much for a serving. At 2 euros it was a must have, accompanied by a small picture of water to dilute it.

When I returned to order a liter of beer to split with Joanna I noticed that along with all of the table set ups for dinner there was a liter of red wine for every six settings. So much for needing to make a choice. We sat down at long tables with three woman from Australia, Paul, and Monique, from the Netherlands. Dinner was served family style, starting with the same lentil soup I’d had for lunch, a generous amount that could give each of us two helpings, then roasted chicken thighs and legs in one pot along with peas, carrots, and potatoes in another.

Along with refills on the liters of wine we received second servings of the chicken and vegetables, more than enough good hearty good to satisfy all of us. For dessert there was the Basque cake we’d had earlier and then to follow, a tradition of the

house, each person there asked to stand, give their name, their home country and the reason for walking the Camino.

We’d heard a number of stories already about origins and motivations, and this simple session provided us with more. We’re certain that we’ll continue to hear many more as we continue our journey, and come to understand the many reasons that folks are compelled to take on this challenge, to walk some number of miles, as many as 500, to complete the Camino.

For some it is the physical challenge, others the opportunity to disconnect from life and pursue a simpler path. For a number there that night, it was to honor a deceased love one, two folks having recently lost spouses, a simple but effective way to mourn and come to grips with loss.

Our first day had been hard, but not brutal and we’d finished early enough to kill an entire afternoon doing nothing but talking and reading. Our next day, on to Roncesvalles at 4,200 feet, the bulk of the climb in the first six miles out of a total of 12 would be our first real challenge of the hike and more fully inform us of our physical condition. Stay tuned to hear how we did as we continue on this journey of discovery and adventure.

View from Refuge Orisson


Gite Makila:

Refuge Orisson:

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