Friday, 1 October 2021

Camino de Santiago 1 - Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port to Roncesvalles (Electric wheelchair style)

Back in October 2019 I made a blog post about a little mountain town in the French Pyrenees called Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port just north of the Spanish border. What I was actually doing was checking out the possibility of starting the Camino de Santiago on my wheels. This has been a goal that has sat with me for many years, since long before I used my wheels


The Camino is an ancient pilgrim path across the North of the Iberian Peninsula, starting in the lovely little town of Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port and finishing 790km away in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela 

The route is the red line at the top of Spain

The start of this pilgrimage crosses the picturesque bridge (photo) before ascending 1430m to the pass and down 650m into Roncesvalles 25 km away and across the Spanish border. This route commences  with a constant climb which is a big challenge for walkers. For me on my wheels it was relatively easy apart from some sections of the ridge at the very top. My challenge was trusting the capability of Genny and myself to take this committing leap

Attempting this crossing is no mean feat for a 2 wheeled battery powered wheelchair carrying everything you need for your journey. In October 2019 with a standard set of Segway batteries I didn't have the confidence to start this adventure. The Guardians at the pilgrim information office told me there was no possible way I should attempt this even by the easier tarmacked road alternative. People had died on this route and I doubt it has ever been attempted solo on an electric 2 wheeled wheelchair. I carried this doubt

Note: Since writing this I have discovered that Roberto Moretti has traveled 350 km of the Camino de Santiago aboard his Genny Mobility wheelchair as detailed HERE and HERE - how cool is that?

I need to say that although I use an electric wheelchair I am still able to walk to some extent and that I can get off and push when required. I am not trying to compare this to anyone else's journey, nor am I trying to promote my undertaking or the wheels I use. My posts have always been about what I am able to do with my wheels that I just wouldn't attempt without them

I left my VW van in a small campsite in Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port having paid for 2 additional nights. I set off carrying everything I needed for myself and my wheels including some refreshments, sleeping bag, towel, tools, Genny charge cable, passport etc. and what felt like a lot of courage but could have been bravado. I guess this is the spirit of a pilgrimage. With any goal, making the decision is actually a big part of the process and having that made, you're already on the way

Rising views of the French side

Setting off was a great relief and the initial 16 km constant climb was ok for me and I passed a stream of other pilgrims on the route. The views increased in aspect as I climbed. I deviated from the usual walked route in one section where I chose a longer hairpin on tarmac rather than a steeper but rougher off-road section. This was a strategy I would use in several places over the next seven days of my journey


Approaching the pass into Spain the  road  turns to tracks and eventually a single rough footpath which was more challenging on 2 wheels. The hardest part was at the very top of this French side where the steepness and terrain was too hard to ride mounted and even too difficult to guide Genny in rider less mode

It is possible after dismounting to put Genny into the Segway rider less balance mode which is designed to be used as a bit of assistance going up ramps etc.. It kind of self drives and you can direct it with a push. I will learn to perfect this technique over the next period but even clearing the worst of the rocks from the path by hand was not enough for me to pass on my own. I was overtaken by many walkers I had previously passed who all offered help. I eventually said yes to a lively pair of Spanish pilgrims who weren't hearing no and picked Genny up, setting it down at the top 

Genny fully loaded with Spain ahead

This spirit of kindness was ever present on the Camino and a joy to encounter. Although I was able to manage in most instances there were a number of places I just couldn't negotiate without help. I am fiercely independent however the acceptance of help was humbling and a gift

This wasn't the best way down
Entering Spain the route changes into high mountain woodland and you eventually reach the summit of Lepoeder at 1,430 meters which is the highest point for the day. My batteries were still showing just under half capacity at this point, well beyond the capacity of standard Segway batteries

From here there are two ways down, an incredibly steep rough footpath descending 650m over 4km or a long winding track that does it in about 8km. I took the easy track via a difficult path but soon it was a cruise to the bottom

This long winding track goes on to Roncesvalles at the bottom of the valley where you reach the pilgrim hostel. Unfortunately I dropped my phone and had to retrace my route 2km up hill to the point where thankfully, I found it by the side of the track
Albergue Colegiata in Roncesvalles

The beautiful Albergue Colegiata in Roncesvalles is a big and impressive old complex and sleeps 200 people. It was here that I met the fellow pilgrims I had been encountering all day and had the chance to sit, eat, talk and share a glass with

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