Madelyn Given visited the Roncesvalles Monastery on her first full day of hiking on the Camino de Santiago.

The el Camino: Walking the trail with Michael, Part II

It was sunny and warm, and I was hot and tired as I began to descend into the valley on my way to the Roncesvalles Monastery. I passed a few hikers who had stopped at the site of Charlemagne’s Cross, a spot where his army had crossed safely and prayed to Santiago for help in their battles with the Moors. Further on I came to a choice of two routes to the abbey: I took the shorter, steeper descent and arrived at my destination before 1 pm.

As became my daily routine I signed in, paid the fee, and the official stamped my el Camino passport. I left the office, took off my hiking boots and put them in a cubby in the hall along with my trekking poles, went upstairs, found my assigned bed, dropped my heavy pack, and sat down. To sit down for five or ten minutes does miracles after hiking for 6 or more hours. Then I took a shower and was preparing to hand wash my clothes when a volunteer said they wash the clothes and dry them for 3 euros. That sounded great to me!

I changed to sandals to give my feet some relief and headed for a place for something to eat. Just as I went around the corner in front of the monastery, there was an outside café with the tables filled with hikers and cyclists. A woman stood up and beckoned to me. I did not know her but she thought she knew me and asked me to sit at their table. Most of them had already eaten, and it was a long time before I could get my order, but as I waited I talked with an older couple from Florida. They told me how they had arrived at Refuge d’Orisson yesterday and there were no beds: they had to sleep outside that night with no tent or gear and only light sleeping bags. He was limping and she seemed too fragile to walk very far. I wished them luck.  There were two tables full of cyclists from the Canary Islands; I talked with several of them. They had trained together for a year to take this journey to Santiago by bike.

I went back to the abbey to write in my journal and study my guide book for the next day. The Roncesvalles Abbey, pictured in my photo at the top of this blog post, is a large, ancient, and partially restored stone building which includes the albergue, church, and museum. Charlemagne’s soldiers including Roland and many pilgrims are buried in front of the monastery. In the museum are ancient artifacts including Roland’s ivory horn Olifant, maces, and a chessboard of Charlemagne.

Each evening there is a Pilgrim Mass: at the close of the ceremony, the nationality of each pilgrim is read and the Pilgrims are invited to the front of the church for a blessing of a safe pilgrimage to Santiago.

For me it was a moving ceremony, especially as today was exactly one year since the passing of my son Michael. He had lived in Madrid for two years and taught English to Spanish businessmen. He was also a great hiker, sportsman, and adventurer. This journey was ours together.

After the Mass the pilgrims were able to walk through the grand old church, including the crypts and belfry, and then we ate a pilgrim meal. Later, in my partitioned-off sleeping section with four bunk beds, across from me was a mother and her fourteen-year-old son from Sydney, Australia. They were leaving behind the rest of the family to take this very special pilgrimage together. She was very tired from the first day and her son was relaxed catching up on his texting. I wished them a safe journey and I crawled into my sleeping bag excited about my many days ahead. It felt like the beginning of an awesome journey and this was only day one.

(posted December 2, 2014)