Orisson or Roncesvalles on Day One?

The author and her husband, bedraggled but enjoying the view after a chilly, rainy arrival in Orisson. Grateful for a warm, dry bed, and delicious French family style cooking.

The author and her husband, bedraggled but enjoying the view after a chilly, rainy arrival in Orisson. Grateful for a warm, dry bed, and delicious French family style cooking.

Our team gets this question a lot from future pilgrims making plans to walk the Camino Francés, via the Route Naploleon. “Should I plan to walk all the way over the Pyrenees the first day from St. Jean Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles? Or should I stop for the night in Orisson? It doesn’t seem very far to go if I stop over.”


On separate Caminos we have walked all the way to Roncesvalles in one day (a total distance of about 25k, with an ascent of nearly 1500m to Col de Lepoeder at the peak, then a steep descent for the final 5k to Roncesvalles), and we have stopped over in Orisson. We have talked to many, many returning pilgrims about this, too. From our experience and casual survey we will always break for the night at Orisson, and recommend considering this to our friends and clients. Yes, we know Orisson is only about 8k from St. Jean. But look at the elevation change on a map and you will start to understand why we advise breaking it into two days. The walk is steep, and in those few kilometers you ascend almost 1000m. 


Crossing the Pyrenees is one of the most challenging physical activities pilgrims undertake, and even if you have trained at home most people we talk to agree with us that nothing can really prepare you for the first few days of walking the Camino. Take the long view into consideration and recognize that after one VERY challenging day, you will get up the next morning (after only a few hours recovery time) and set out for more hours of walking. And the day after that, and the next, and so on. Many overuse injuries occur in the first few days on the Camino, often because pilgrims set out to follow an itinerary set forth in a guidebook, or because they think they “should be able to do it.” 


A recent blog by Hunter Van Wagenen addresses learning the Camino lesson of listening to your body, and I commend that to you, but to the point of setting yourself up for the best chance to remain injury-free in those first few days by breaking your Pyrenees crossing into two days, we will mention the “seasoning” process pilgrims go through. For those traveling from my home in the USA or another far-flung location to get to SJPP, we face the fatigue from our journey to St. Jean, as well as the accompanying jet lag which combine to take a toll on us before we even get onto the Camino. If you can, take a day or two to recover from your travel and acclimate before setting out on the Camino.  


As a Camino “newbie” you can learn a lot from other pilgrims gathering in SJPP. Lightening your backpack may be something you are convicted to do, and we cover how to send belongings ahead to Santiago in our Guidebook, and another blog. You will also have the opportunity to walk up and down the streets of this pretty mountain village with your gear, which might reveal weaknesses you might want to address before tackling the challenge of getting over the Pyrenees. If you realize your pack may be too heavy for you to carry over the mountains, consider using a pack transport service for these days. Our Guidebook contains these details, too.


The other point to consider is that you will be seeing some of the most beautiful landscapes we have ever encountered, and seizing the opportunity to take in this beauty as you walk is beneficial. In other words, “What’s your rush?” As a photography enthusiast, enjoying travel and new places comes through the lens of my camera as I record what I am seeing. Even if you don’t take a single picture, we suggest not rushing through the crossing. 


We realize that by suggesting you stop for the night in Orisson, we are in effect recommending the albergue there, since there is only one choice. Refugio Orisson (i.e., the French auberge to Spain’s albergue) is a favorite with many pilgrims. That said, we acknowledge that on any given day, even good places we recommend highly might fail to impress. But we have had very good experiences with the comfort of the accommodations (albeit albergue style), and the evening meal is remarkable. This family-run private auberge prepares delicious food, and sets the stage for good interaction among the 30+ guests. The view of the Pyrenees foothills from their deck is incomparable, and gives you a glimpse of more to come the following day. We recommend reservations. http://www.refuge-orisson.com/en/


Whether you choose to go all the way to Roncesvalles or stopover in Orisson, we wish you a Buen Camino!


Helen and Wick Van Wagenen attribute many life lessons to their Camino experiences which began in 2007. Since then they and other family members have walked many Caminos, and are grateful for the lessons learned and friends made along the Way. With the goal of helping others plan and complete their Caminos, Helen wrote and published Camino de Santiago Guide to Preparing Well & Saving Money in 2016. Simultaneously, the VWs launched an online business called Camino Provisions, as a resource to inform, encourage, and empower others to walk the Camino, and as a source of funding donations to non-profit groups helping pilgrims on the Camino.