It’s official. I’m taking a stand. There are several issues regarding the Camino Frances for which there are different camps. One such issue is yea or nay to splitting the Pyrenees crossing into two days. Me, I say (loudly and resoundingly), YES.
I took the Napoleon Route on April 20, 2013. It was a glorious day, beautiful temperature and clear skies. But the trail (mostly pavement), it was a killer. As a rule, I hate hills. Hate ‘em. I live in a valley so I never have to walk hills in my daily life. But that meant that the first eight or so kilometers of the Camino Frances was a love-hate situation as I climbed up and up and up. Did I mention I hate hills? But what I did love was the fan-tabulous views. It was stunning: pastoral quiet, black-faced sheep, and because I started later in the day very few pilgrims around.
The knowledge that I was splitting my Pyrenees-crossing into two days allowed me to not only start later in the morning but also to take my time. When I needed to catch my breath after taking a few steps up tears-inducing steepness with my backpack (day 1 – your backpack isn’t quite your friend, yet), I was able to stop. I didn’t have to worry about losing time or daylight. I was able to be excited about starting my long-awaited walk rather than focusing on conquering a mountain before dark. I took my sweet time admiring the vistas, laughed at the antics of a gamboling lamb, and munched a sandwich while relaxing in the sun. By the time I reached my pre-booked lodgings of Orisson, I still had energy left but certainly not enough to continue when I realized I had only just done about 1/3 of the way to Roncevalles.
Orisson is the fantastic auberge in which I spent my first Camino Frances night. It is an old shepherd’s house sympathetically renovated. The most important thing to realize about this place is that you need to book in advance in order to guarantee your spot. It is highly popular and only has about 18 beds so you should definitely book early – I booked in January for my April stay! Apparently they do keep a couple spots for injured/late arrivals but in my mind, it would be rather risky to count on one of those spots for your use. When booking your place at Orisson, you will need to specify if you want to pay just for a bunk or demi-pension (dinner and breakfast).
Upon arrival at Orisson, you sign in at the bar and you’ll be shown to your bunk. You should also take this opportunity to put in your order for a sandwich or two to take with you the next day – there are no restaurants or stores between Orisson and Roncevalles. Remember, you’re on a mountain. There are washing facilities and laundry lines for your use. There are several areas where you can take a seat and chill, the most scenic being the panoramic terrace. That terrace is exactly where you’ll find most pilgrims in the afternoon – chilling with the first of what will be many glasses of vino tinto over the upcoming weeks. In the evening, there is a communal dinner that is quite good. It was the first opportunity I had to taste the Tarta de Santiago, an almond cake named for St. James and it has its origins in the Middle Ages.
On the Route Napoleon, there is also an auberge in Huntto and one just before Orisson called Kayola (owned by the same folks that own Orisson). Along the Valcarlos route, there are places to stay in the small communities of Arnéguy or in Valcarlos itself. So there are plenty of options from which to choose if you decide to do what I did and split the Pyrenees crossing into two. Whatever you choose, Buen Camino!