Camino de Santiago Day Zero: Getting to Roncesvalles
I’ve been doing a lot of wanderlusting lately. My life this past year and half has been an adventure. We packed up our life in Chicago and shipped it off in a PODS unit to Portland, Oregon (where I had never been before) save for our backpacks filled with a minimal amount of items to get us through the next month in Spain on the Camino de Santiago.
I wrote some blog posts leading up to our trip, a couple during the trip, and a handful more after returning to the States. But since Alex proposed to me at the end of the Camino de Santiago, so began the flurry of wedding planning and settling into our new life in Portland, so for the next year-plus of my life, I was consumed with wedding planning, unpacking, and finding my place in my new home.
But I’m starting to feel that pull for adventure again. The Camino de Santiago was one of the most amazing experiences of my life (heck, I even got a tattoo to commemorate the trip), and yet my blog is strangely lacking in detail of this amazing journey. So, over a year and a half later, I’m going to pick back up this story and fill in the details.
Getting to the Start of the Camino de Santiago
This post actually starts on Day 0: Our arrival to Madrid. As with every country, there are some airports that are easier (and cheaper) to get to, and unfortunately the start of the Camino is not one of those cities. Many people choose to start the Camino in Sean Jean Pied du Port (which is just one day’s journey before Roncesvalles and is also the reason the particular route we chose is called the Camino Frances), but for the sake of simplicity we decided to keep the whole trip within one country—we were both already familiar with Spain and it just felt more comfortable.
So we planned to arrive in Madrid and catch a bus to Pamplona and then another bus to Roncesvalles (there are no other direct modes of transportation to the small town). Alex had done it this way when he walked a portion of the Camino four years earlier, so we knew the method was tried and true.
Our first travel disruption
However, our first leg of the flight (Minneapolis to Chicago…we had gone back to Minnesota for some family time before our trip) was delayed because of weather and the layover we would have in Chicago was already going to be short as it was. But we couldn’t do anything about it until we were sure we’d miss our flight, which meant that we had to get on the delayed flight once it finally came because we had not technically missed our flight yet. Our instructions were to get to Chicago and then once we were there we could go to our next gate and get on a new flight from there.
We arrived in Chicago and ran to the new gate, half hoping that our plane would somehow be waiting for us…but we had definitely missed it. There were no other direct flights to Madrid that day, but we were able to get on a flight that connected through London, so we grabbed our tickets and headed straight to the gate, grateful that our trip wasn’t ruined, but apprehensive that our stress levels were so high as we boarded our overseas flight.
We arrived in Madrid the next day, exhausted and slightly disoriented, and headed straight for the bus station to make our way to Pamplona. Alex had done some research about bus times before we left, but all of that was now out the window with the delays so we had to hope for the first bus available.
To get to the bus station, we had to take the metro and transfer to a city bus. Here’s the thing you guys, Madrid is BIG. We were lucky that we had both used the Madrid metro before and that we both spoke Spanish because this would all have been a nightmare had it been otherwise. We knew which trains and buses we needed to take and which stops we needed to get off at. All went smooth with the metro portion, but when we got on the city bus to take us to the bus station…we missed our stop. Luckily our bus driver was keeping tabs on us because he let us know at the next stop that we had gone one stop too far, so we got off and backtracked a couple extra blocks (great practice for what would be coming over the next month, right?).
The next ALSA bus to Pamplona was not for another hour and a half-ish, so too paranoid that we’d miss another part of our travel journey, we waited in the station, making a half-hearted meal of vending machine food, triple checking that we hadn’t lost our passports, and taking advantage of open power outlets.
For the record, we could have taken a train from Madrid to Pamplona, but it would have been more than double the cost of a bus and we still had plenty of time left in the day to get to Roncesvalles. Once there, we wouldn’t have much to do so there wasn’t much sense in spending that much money for a few more hours of shuffling our feet…or so we thought.
Our second travel disruption
The bus to Pamplona offered broken sleep and beautiful views that wove themselves into half-dreams for just under 5 hours.
Once we arrived in Pamplona, we thought we were home-free, but the ticket counter for the bus to Roncesvalles with closed. We hadn’t taken into account that an early evening bus wouldn’t be running because it wasn’t that late yet. But Roncesvalles is such a small town that the only reason you’d ever go there is to start the Camino, so the bus runs twice per day and because of our travel delays, we had missed the last bus.
Bus Schedule from Pamplona to Roncesvalles:
1 hour, 10 minutes trip to Roncesvalles from the main bus station in Pamplona
Winter season (September 1st – June 30th)
- Monday-Friday: departs at 6:00 pm
- Saturdays: departs at 4:00 pm
- Sundays and holidays: no service
Summer season (July 1st – August 31st)
- Monday-Friday: departs at 10:00 am and 6:00 pm
- Saturdays: departs at 10:00 am and 4:00 pm
- Sundays and holidays: no service
Alex suggested that we spend the night in a hostel in Pamplona and catch the morning bus to Roncesvalles. We had budgeted a little extra time into our Camino plan in case something happened to delay us or in case one of us got sick or injured and needed to take a rest day. But the thought of delaying our journey just one more day was enough have me in a state of sleepy/angry/frustrated/overwhelmed hot angry tears threatening to make you look like a fool in public mode. So we decided to spring for a taxi knowing that it was probably absurdly expensive—it wasn’t as much as it would have cost to just take the train to Pamplona, which would have gotten us there in time to catch the bus to Roncesvalles, but it was still a bit of a punch in the gut.
But in the end it was worth it. Looking back now, if we had been a full day delayed in our Camino, we never would have met some of our amazing friends along the way…but more about them later.
Finally arriving in Roncesvalles
Our taxi driver was a sweet man who enjoyed the fact that we could carry a conversation with him in Spanish. Exhausted and overwhelmed as I was, I was grateful that Alex supplied most of the conversation on our end so I could lean my head against the window and watch the beginnings of Sanfermines flooding the streets of Pamplona.
As we drove up into the mountains our taxi driver began pointing out the Camino markers along the way—the path that we’d be walking over the next two days back to Pamplona. It seemed almost a waste that we were going through all this trouble to add two more days of walking to our agenda, but I knew I’d feel like a fraud if we didn’t do it.
By the time we arrived in Roncesvalles, the sky had been stained dusky and the butterflies we full force in my stomach. I stepped out of the cab and took stock of our surroundings—a cobblestone path, a stone chapel, a large barn (which I knew was now an albergue), a single pub, and a 12th century monastery (which I knew now held the newer albergue facilities)…that was all that made up the small town of Roncesvalles.
We walked straight to the monastery to check in and purchase our Pilgrim Passports, by now closing in on less than an hour until they closed their doors for the night. We had heard stories of pilgrims arriving after the albergue doors were closed and having to camp out under the stars, and we knew we might be cutting it close.
The newer albergue facilities in the monastery were already full, so we were assigned a bunk in the old barn which had been the traditional albergue. I was actually excited about this because it made the experience feel much more authentic. In my research I did prior to our trip, I had been disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to stay there, so at least that was one silver lining for all our delays.
We unpacked our sleeping back liners on the mattresses of the bunk beds and turned in for the night. I popped in my earplugs to drown out snorers (this is a serious problem on the Camino), late night whispering, and squeaking bunk beds as pilgrims shifted in their sleep.
I closed my eyes but my mind was restless. This was easily the most difficult night on the Camino—I was not yet physically exhausted and the excitement of our adventure was prickling my skin.
I did wake up several times that night. At one point it was to the sound of loud knocking on the barn door. I drifted off again and dreamt that I was a late night pilgrim, arriving to the albergue after the doors had closed and camping out under the stars.