HRP Chapter 3: Sheep. Everywhere.
Our time in Roncesvalles is both restful and intriguing. The Camino de Santiago (one of them, anyway) comes through here, and the monastery itself has buildings that date back to the 11th century.
We accidentally catch a glimpse of what looks like a mass grave beneath one building before the archaeologists working there shoo us off. The story is that this is the burial site of Charlemagne’s slain forces, but who knows.
Our hotel room is quiet and peaceful thanks to the three-foot-thick stone walls that border us. In the evening we have a good dinner of sea bass, salad, and a delicious creamy sheep’s milk pudding called mamia.
Striking out from the monastery, we first have to retrace our steps back to Col de Ronceveaux. The rain has passed, and it’s setting up to be a nice hot day. We climb and climb.
On the far side of the hill, we drink from a spring that waterfalls over the entrance to a mysterious dark tunnel of unknown origins before reaching a paved road.
Large crowds of day hikers and bikers are milling about, and cars are parked haphazardly in the grass. We soon find ourselves in the middle of a lively agricultural fair complete with traditional dancing, food vendors, sheep shearing, and horse auctioning. Hence all the traffic.
Here we encounter Sophie and James for the first time. We don’t speak to them at first, but I can tell they’re our people just by looking at them: they have a lot of ultralight gear and the godlike calves of long-distance hikers.
I resolve to talk to them, and we get the chance about an hour later when we find them resting alongside the road. They’re from New Zealand and have also hiked the PCT and Te Araroa – ha! I knew it – and spent time touring Scotland this summer before starting the HRP.
It’s lucky we stopped because the route leaves the main road here. It follows a faint path down to the valley bottom and then up, up, up the other side. I would have blown right past the junction if we hadn’t stopped to say hi, but I try to act like I knew where I was going all along.
We strike out ahead of Sophie and James, pausing at the valley bottom to cool down in the stream before the long climb. It’s a beautiful hike through lush, grassy hills. At the top, we meet two westbound HRPers closing in on the finish line. I wonder whether we’ll actually make it to the finish line ourselves.
It’s sunny and hot by now, and we eat our lunch huddled in the thin shade of a solitary tree. We know from the guidebook that our next climb, Egurgui, will be completely off-trail.
The way is steep and overgrown. There’s no trail, but we’re constantly tempted by a multitude of cow paths that crisscross the slope. Following any of them would make the going easier, but they all lead down to the valley bottom, whereas we need to stay high. Thorns tear at my legs as we struggle upward.
At the top there are sheep. Everywhere. We want to avoid them, but the flock is so vast that there’s no skirting it. Eventually, we have no choice but to plunge right through the herd’s fuzzy and adorable heart. The sheep don’t even spare us a glance and no dog accosts us, so I guess it’s fine.
By now a fresh layer of fog is threatening to engulf us, so we pick up the pace. Neither of us wants to get socked in again, especially not before we regain a proper path. But even though we’ve finished climbing, it’s still a tough hike.
I have the ankle stability of a newborn foal. Fifteen minutes into the traverse and already my ankles are killing me from the uneven footing! But in the end, we contour around two peaks and find the trail while there’s still decent visibility.
Sadly, the creek we were aiming for is dry, and who knows when we’ll find another? There’s nothing else to do but press on, so we cut across a barren field and through another large herd of sheep. Eventually, we camp without water at a somewhat slanted site beneath a giant beech tree.
It starts to thunder. We lay in the tent listening to long rumbles and watching as lightning brightens the sky again and again, the bolts coming in quick succession. This goes on for hours until a steady rain begins to fall.
It’s still coming down when we wake up in the morning. When I reach out the tent door for my shoes, I find that one of them has a giant, glistening black slug stuck to it. I shake it off in disgust and wipe the slime away with a handful of leaves.
Starting downhill, we soon reach Col d’Iraty, where there are a couple of restaurants and a car campground.
Suddenly, there are teenage girls everywhere: in the valley, on the road, popping out of the bathroom stalls, and they’re all singing “Let It Go” from Frozen but in French. “Libérée, délivrée, je ne mentirai plus jamaaais,” they warble, and the tune lodges itself in my brain and plays on an endless loop for the rest of the day.
We stop at the campground bathrooms to poop and refill our water. The sun is peeking out intermittently, so we also spread out our tent to dry. We lounge about for 45 minutes, eating, drinking, and lazily watching a slender yellow cat stalk beetles in the low grass.
By the time we pack up, it’s cold and grey again. Our energy level is low today; even relatively mild climbs feel hard. We grind out a few tough miles to Col Bagargui and decide to get a bite at the restaurant there. It’s raining in earnest by now. We both order a plate of delicious lemony trout and lima beans and crusty bread.
The weather is deteriorating, and tomorrow’s forecast looks no better. This is a dilemma because we’re supposed to go over Pic d’Orhy this afternoon. Tom Martens, the guidebook author, warns that Orhy could be a real shitshow in poor visibility, so we make the somewhat painful decision to bypass it.
Instead, we walk down the road toward the charming village of Larrau, which is on the GR10. We stick out our thumbs every time a car goes by (not very often), and eventually, someone picks us up and takes us down the road to town.
Larrau is like a ghost town, but the quaint stone buildings are all neatly maintained, with hydrangeas blooming in the gardens and fresh paint on the shutters.
We wander around helplessly, looking for someplace to stay the night. Eventually, a nice woman named Claire spots us and comes to our rescue. She even goes so far as to call a hotel on our behalf. After confirming there’s a room for us, she sends us on our way. When we find Hotel Despuey, I deliver one of my few French travel phrases to the woman at the front desk: un chambre pour ce soir?
The woman –I think she’s the owner – seems to understand me, which is thrilling. But then she says there’s no vacancy, which is distressing. Didn’t Claire just say she had a room for us?
Unsure what to do, I resort to just repeating the same words over and over again in the hopes that one time they’ll get a different response. Un chambre pour ce soir? Un chambre pour ce soir? Un chambre pour ce soir?
The woman starts looking irritated. This is when I get the bright idea to switch to Spanish. She doesn’t speak Spanish either, mind you, but her Spanish is better than her English, and my Spanish is obviously better than my French because how could it not be? Somehow it works out.
Once she understands that we are Claire’s helpless American friends, she says she has a room for us after all. How this fact was not immediately obvious is unclear to me, but whatever.
We’re thoroughly bedraggled by now, so just being inside is a relief. The hotel is full of ornate antique furniture, including a mammoth floor-to-ceiling armoire in our room. The one restaurant in town is closed tonight, so we wander down the road to Pizza Snack, a self-explanatory food truck in the campground on the outskirts of the village.
The campground has a hippie vibe that I dig. There’s a tiny epicerie on site where we buy apricots and local goat cheese and chat with the friendly owners while waiting for our pizza and our snacks to be served.
I regret missing Pic d’Orhy, but it was the right call. Anyway, Larrau has been an adventure in itself; I’m not sorry we came here.
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