Travelling to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port
Short videoclip about my journey from Stockholm, Sweden to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (The first couple of stages have video-collages. They are without comment I recommend you watch them after you’ve read the text.)
February 28, 2011
I had chosen to start my Camino in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. That’s the most common starting point for us who want to walk the full 800 kilometers. In medieval times people walked from their front door, all the way to Santiago. On the later stages of the trek I would actually come to meet a dutch couple who had walked all the way from Amsterdam.Three of the main, old pilgrim routes from the rest of Europe, convened in St-Jean. However you chose to travel today, you somehow need to get to Bayonne i southern France. If you are flying in to France, the closest airport is in the neighboring town of Biarritz. A cab ride from the airport to the railway station in Bayonne costs around 25-30 euros. If you’re on a tight budget, there is also a bus service.
I flew with British Airways from Stockholm via London Heathrow to Paris. On the classic Orly airport (a bit of a faded beauty, nowadays) I changed to a Air France flight to Biarritz. The taxi ride to the train station in Bayonne took under half an hour.
When I stepped out on the platform of the little train station I saw two other men with the same backpacker outfit as myself. To save on precious packing weight most people travel in their hiking clothes. I went up to them and said ‘hi’. As expected they were on the way to St-Jean and the Camino as well. The younger man was called Erik He was from dutch and had just turned 30. Jürgen was from Düsseldorf, Germany and 46 years old. They didn´t know each other until they had met on the train to Bayonne. The railcar growled into the station. As we boarded the train, it was like the three of us suddenly realized that now it was for real. The thought that 800 kilometers and a full month of hiking was waiting for us was a bit awe inspiring. It was impossible to imagine how long 800 kilometers by foot, actually is.
The train set off on a constant uphill track through ivy-clad valleys. Both daffodils and dandelions bloomed already , which gave us false hopes that spring had arrived even in this mountain region. We were both excited and a little humbled to be so close.
The train ride lasted for an hour and a half. It was pitch dark when we got off the train in St. Jean. Jürgen had a map of St Jean and quickly took off down the village streets. I just followed the other without taking any responsibility of which way we were going. An unusual approach for me, and an attitude that would hurt me seriously, a couple of weeks further down the road.
We went into a small supermarket and bought muesli bars to have as a snack the next day. The village was quiet and seemed almost deserted. It was quite cold. A dog barked nearby. After a while we ended up on a field. We saw the silhouettes of cows, but otherwise no other living creatures was to be seen. We were lost in record time. After a while we understood the map a little better and found our way back into the town centre and found the city wall that surrounded the medieval part of St-Jean-Pied-de -Port. Soon walked on the cobbled narrow main street where the Pilgrim office is situated. If we had we just calmed down a bit after stepping off the train, instead of running along as restless bull calves, we had found the right place at once.
The office was sparsely decorated on the ground floor of one of the medieval buildings at 39 rue de la Citadelle. Behind the desk sat a nice Frenchman in his seventies . A television was showing soundless images in a corner. On a small table stood basket with scallop shells. The man spoke very good English and had quiet humor. He filled in our pilgrim passes and entered our names and nationalities into a ledger of pilgrims.
I bought a scallop shell for a voluntary donation of two euros. By ancient tradition, the shells are one of the three symbols that pilgrims to Santiago carries. (The other two are a walking stick and a calabash to carry water. ). I immediately tied the scallop shell onto the cover of my backpack. We felt a bit solemn and proud. Then the man had some bad news to tell us.
– The Police have forbidden me to allow pilgrims to go up in the mountains tomorrow. The snow is deep up there and the visibility is very poor, he said.
The three of us looked equally disappointed. We all knew there are two routes between St. Jean and Roncesvalles (the most common first stop on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees). The route most pilgrims want to walk is the ‘Napoleon road’ high up in the mountains. It’s said to be a strikingly beautiful road, albeit a bit of a tough uphill climb to start of the the long walk to Santiago . The second, lower route, is somewhat less of a challenge since it largely follows a the car road to Roncesvalles in a valley along a winding river .
– Even some passages on the lower road is blocked by snow, the man continued and rose from his chair.
He went over to a map that was leaning against the stone wall and quickly pointed out a number of segments of the lower route that we should avoid. We nodded as if we were understanding, but none of us were really following his rapid stream of information on the numerous hazards of the lower route. We took pictures of the map with the cameras on our mobile phones in a vain attempt to bring his instructions with us the next day. I could feel how the others, like myself, were considering to ignore all the warnings and take the mountain route despite his warnings. But as if the man could read our minds, he stressed that disobeying the police instructions could very well be the last thing we did in this life. The year before a man had died falling of a cliff in a thick fog. And even though I would come to ignore a whole range of warnings and good advice in the coming days, I decided to obey this one.
When the paperwork and short lecture was completed, the old man guided us to the municipal pilgrim hostel a few houses up the street. It seemed newly renovated, with new bunk beds mad of of red-lacquered steel. We joked and said that that probably had made the hostel so comfortable to fool the pilgrims that the trek would be an easy and luxurious experience, though the truth was the opposite. The joke was not entirely false we would learn the coming days.
The first room we entered in the ‘Albergue’ was a kitchen with a low ceiling. Among the simple tables and wooden benches stood an old woman, who looked as old as the house. She smiled gently and welcomed us. We would be served breakfast in the morning she told us in French. In the dormitory there were plenty of beds to chose from. Just one pilgrim had arrived before us.
– Un américain , said the lady.
The American was out. Probably to eat. We decided to do the same. The lady told us about a small restaurant further down the street. She warned us not to be back later than 10 PM or we risked to be locked out. In books about El Camino I’d read that those were not empty threats.
We found the restaurant on the ground floor of one of the old medieval houses. The tavern was small but trendy and modern. We ordered fish soup for starters followed by rack of lamb with potatoes. We could not resist a couple of glasses of red wine with the food, and during the meal our conversation became more personal. Even though we had only had known each other for a few hours, we already talked like we’ve been friends for ages. Our different stories about why we would embark on this somewhat insane adventure share the common element that we have all in different ways were in turning points in our lives.
– I’ve sold the family business, Jürgen said, and I need to think over what I should do now.
Eric, who was a musician and lead singer in a cover band, also felt that he needed to sort out how he wanted his life would to evolve and if he would dare to believe in his own music.
Many of the pilgrims I would going to meet on the Camino described the strange feeling that the road was sort of enticing them to come to Spain. The three of us had that feeling in common. Not in the religious sense, maybe but still. When we had made our decisions to walk to Santiago , we had also felt that it was necessary to leave our loved ones at home and experience the journey on our own. Jürgen hoped his wife and two daughters would meet him in Santiago. I also felt a sting in the heart of homesickness for my partner, who had had to put up with a lot of sorrows and separation anxiety before I left Sweden. Despite our need for solitude, it now felt good to have a few others to rely on during the first stages of the trek. We were back at the shelter on the stroke of 10 PM. The American had also returned. A guy in his thirties called Nick. Otherwise, the beds were empty and we thought that there would be few other hikers on our Camino. That was not going to be the case.