We awake to the sound of pissing rain! I can’t believe it! The hottest summer on record! Yesterday in Toulouse it was hotter than 40°C and now the temperature has plummeted and it is raining horribly! This is just my luck, I tell myself. Outside it is pitch black. I pull on my camouflage rain poncho. I had been so tempted not to bring it, considering that we had not seen rain in so long. Surely it would be a waste of space. Now I am thankful to have it. We head off in search of breakfast and I have a strong desire to murder the whole of humanity. I feel even more murderous when three French girls walk past singing cheerfully. A café au lait and a chocolate muffin soon calm my nerves, however, and we set off on the walk proper, along the “Route Napoleon”. This would be a truly emotional start to our camino under normal circumstances; our guide book has promised us “views of the Pyrenees mountains, stretching in layers to the ends of the horizon, hawks and griffins circling the sky and white and black sheep dotting the green slopes.” My knob! I should have focussed on the next paragraph: “If you embark on an overcast day, chances are good that, once you ascend to the first high point, at the Pic D’Orisson and Vierge de Biakorri, you will have your head quite physically in the clouds and will see nothing but the trail just a few feet before you.” Yep. In fact, it would be nice to see the trail. We can barely see our hands in front of our faces.
The rain simply does not let up and I cannot imagine a worse start to our camino. At a certain point, we cross the French-Spanish border at the peak of Col de Bentartea but we are so desperate to arrive at Roncesvalles that we don’t take anything in. We are cold and miserable and trudge forwards, heads down, barely speaking, apart from a brief conversation with a jolly but foul-mouthed photographer from Basingstoke. Just as we are about to collapse in tears, lie down and wait for death’s sweet kiss, a large van appears out of the murky mist. It is an angel selling hot drinks! Oh joy! Oh rapture! A generous cup of hot chocolate for 2 Euros! In terms of quality, it is certainly not Fortnum and Mason’s but, at this moment, a hot chocolate never tastes any better than this! I will remember the angel in my prayers.
We arrive in Roncesvalles at about 13.30. We check into the hostel and find our little compartment of four beds. We are on one side, Mrs Asinello on top and me underneath, while on the other side are Alessandro from Florence and a spindly oriental who turns out to be Taiwan’s gold medal-winning snoring champion. It is still pissing down so, after a hot shower, we make ourselves comfortable on the bunks and settle down for an afternoon of reading and music. Dinner is to be in one of the local hostelries (the Posada in our case) and there are two sessions, one at 18.30 and the other at 20.00. Alessandro has chosen 18.30 while we have opted for 20.00. At least he will be able to tell us what to choose.
It is raining so hard that we can’t even venture as far as a bar for a beer. However, we spot cans of beer in the hostel’s drinks machine. Too late we discover it is alcohol-free. I really do not know why I am here. Why am I not on the Amalfi Coast or in the Cinque Terre? Whose mad idea was this? Mine, Mrs. Asinello reminds me.
At 19.30, Alessandro returns from dinner. Under no circumstances, he warns us, should we touch the pasta. Much better to go for the pea soup and chicken or fish. It turns out to be sound advice, not because the pea soup and fish are particularly good, but because the pasta looks positively bilious. Our dining companions are a middle aged mother-hen from Bari, two priests from elsewhere in Apulia, wearing civvy gear, a seminarian from Peru, and a mother and son from Modena (the mother looks so young we all think she is his girlfriend until she sets us straight). The son stares at his food for several minutes before scoffing it down in fitful starts. Mother Hen, we discover, is on her third camino. We later discover she is in the early stages of Multiple Sclerosis. “Is this your first camino?” turns out to be the standard opening conversation gambit. “Why are you alone?” the seminarian from Peru is asked. “I am never alone. I am with God,” he replies, which brings tears to the eyes of Mother Hen. “Chicken or fish?” asks the Portuguese waitress. “Is it baccalà?” asks Mother Hen. “No entiendo,” is the reply. The “pescado” is passable.
We go straight to bed but it is impossible to sleep with all the snoring and farting going on. A 12-second fart which changes note three times impresses me greatly and clouds of noxious sulphur fartoxide waft over the partition of our compartment. I give up on the idea of sleep and amuse myself by making shadow puppets of bunny rabbits on the wall. I am feeling truly wretched.
Music: Saxon – Crusader
Audiobook: Charles Dickens – Pictures from Italy