If I were to list my four or five favourite destinations, then I would include Martigny in the Swiss canton of Valais. I have spent a few days there every year since 2010 and each year when leaving, I promise myself to return one more time.
Martigny is a relatively small town with a population of about 15,000, strategically placed at the junction of the routes from Italy, via the Grand-Saint-Bernhard pass, that from France, via the Route de la Forclaz and the Rhône valley, where the river turns ninety degrees northward, to eventually empty into Lac Léman.
During 1996-1998, I was employed as MD of a Swiss computer services company, with head office in Neuchâtel, and satellite offices in Zürich, Amsterdam, Paris and London. When I had the opportunity, I spent time in the mountains, hiking, scrambling and climbing: in the Jura in the early springtime, in the pre-Alp in summer and in the Alps in late summer, before the snow-line started to descend.
With no Swiss-German linguistic ability, but confidence in French, I tended to the cantons of Jura, Vaud, Geneva, Lausanne and Sion. And on my way to the Alps, I often passed Martigny: on the way up the Rhöne valley to Zinal or Zermat, up to the Col de Forclaz and on to Chamonix, or through Martigny to Verbier or the Val de Bagnes.
Only once did I stop on my way through Martigny and then but for a short time. I had seen a sign for a Roman amphitheatre. I was not disappointed. The site was well-preserved with a plethora of exhibits, photographs and documentation. My appetite for Martigny was whetted.
But it was not until 2010 that I returned to the area. I wanted to attempt the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela in the autumn, but I was not confident that my lame leg could handle 20-30 km per day, so I decided to test myself, by walking from Geneva to Martigny, via the southern side of Lac Léman. The test was successful in that I managed the distance each day with no problem, despite the early July heat wave. As I had two days free before meeting Lotta and my sons in Chamonix, I decided to stay in Martigny and explore the town and surrounding area.
I returned to the amphitheatre and beside it there was now a new building housing the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard. It had been opened in 2006 and in addition to many kennels of Saint Bernard dogs, there was an excellent exhibition dedicated to the history of the Saint Bernard pass, with a theatre showing vintage films. I spent most of an afternoon there.
Close by the amphitheatre and the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard is the Fondation Pierre Gianadda. It is undoubtedly the most important cultural attraction in Martigny and was founded by Léonard Gianadda in 1978. He was a successful local engineer and when his workers started excavation for a new building on the outskirts of Martigny, they uncovered the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury. Gianadda abandoned his original plan and instead built a museum to encompass the ruins and dedicated it in the name of his younger brother, who was killed in a plane crash two years earlier. Today the museum has an exhibition of locally discovered Gallo-Roman artifacts, a large vintage car museum, a sculpture park, classical concerts and three times each year, an exhibition of paintings of a well-known master.
Down the other side of the narrow valley flows the river La Dranse, across which is the covered bridge, the Pont de la Bâtiaz, leading to a group of old houses huddled under the steep cliffs above. A steep path eventually leads one to Le Chateau de la Bâtiaz, towering over Martigny.
It was originally built in 1260 on the ruins of a Roman fort of the first century. In the constant conflict between the Dukes of Savoy and Sion, it changed hands many times until it was finally destroyed in 1518. It was restored in the 20th century.
When in Martigny, one of my favourite walks is to ascend to the Chateau de la Bâtiaz and continue up the steep mountainside to the upper vineyards. From there the path gently descends to the upper valley at Martigny-Bourg. For much of the descent, it is as if one is in a helicopter, such is the view of the town below.
On other days, I head up the Rhône valley through the orchards and vineyards to Charrat, across the valley to Fully and then back along the vineyards on the other side, until crossing the river back to Martigny. And of course, it goes without saying that I have my customary stop for a cold beer en route.
In 2009 the Tour de France passed through Martigny. That was the year my two elder sons cycled from Camberley in the UK to Chamonix, to meet us and their two younger brothers.
On their return to the UK, they decided to cycle over the Col de Forclaz at 1527m and down to Martigny, in time to see the Tour de France pass, before continuing on to Geneva. The descent from the Col de Forclaz is steep and the views are breath-taking, especially on a bicycle.
Once down in Martigny, the two lads somehow managed to find themselves on the wrong side of the barriers. The crowds must have thought that they were two clowns hired to entertain them, while they waited for the main act to arrive.
Having been in South Africa for most of this year, I have not managed to spend any time in Martigny and the Alps.
I set out in high spirits soon after breakfast – the sun shone and the air felt warm. The road climbed out of the town and into the country, past beautiful Basque farms with their traditional houses of white walls and red roofs, doors and shutters. The road climbed and descended without cease.
The way was well marked, or at least it was, until I realised that I had not seen a sign for some time. I could see the sea in the far distance, and rather than retrace my steps, I decided to continue and follow the coast to Hendaye.
Eventually I came to a sign for Hendaye Plage. It was soon after that the wind picked up and I could see a huge pile of black clouds over the mountain, heading directly towards me. The rain started slowly and then suddenly with full force. I was drenched before I could react and get out my poncho. There is not a lot one can do with no shelter, except press on and hope it soon passes.
But it did not pass and I eventually reached the centre of Hendaye Plage only to find out that I should have gone to Hendaye Ville, for which I never saw a sign. The guy who gave me the bad news that it was a further three kilometres, offered to drive me there, for the storm was getting worse. He was a surfer complete with board and I squeezed into the back seat. He did not seem to mind that I was rather wet. He said that he had once hiked around England and had received so much help from local people, often going well out of their way to help him find accommodation. He said that it was now his turn to be the Good Samaritan. He dropped me outside the train station at the Spanish border.
I caught the local Euskotren for four short stops to a hotel in Irun and checked in, still dripping wet.
Friday 12 April, 2013
Irun to San Sebastián – 25 km
I had a schematic map of each stage of the route across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, and from my hotel room I could see what was almost certainly the path cutting across the mountain that stood between where I was and the sea. As the day was going to be somewhat more challenging than the days since Bayonne, I had an early breakfast and set off before 08h00.
I caught the Euskotren two short stops back to Irun, asked in a bar for directions and I was soon on the path, following the familiar yellow arrows indicating the Camino del Norte. The arrows are painted on walls, rocks, trees, posts, pavement etc. all the way to Santiago. The Spanish are rightly proud of their many well-marked caminos and whether one is a genuine religious pilgrim or just a casual hiker, the local people make one feel genuinely welcome. At least that had been my experience over many weeks of hiking in Spain in the previous two years. In contrast, my recent short walk in France did not leave me with such a positive impression.
For the first hour, the going was easy – a flat walk through marshlands, and then a steady climb to a path that followed the contours of the mountain, the same path that I could see from the hotel earlier that morning.
For the next ten kilometres, the going was gently up, gently down, until finally a sharp descent down to an inlet of the sea, at Pasai Donibane. I ended up on a quay, with no sight of the bridge that I had expected to cross to the other side. I spotted a man fishing and I asked him how I could cross the water. He laughed and said that I could walk across, but he did not recommend it. But just around the corner there was a boat that I could take. I did not mention my expected bridge, but I felt rather foolish nevertheless.
Once on the other side, the yellow arrows resumed and led me seawards. Eventually, they pointed towards a steep stair cut out of the rock of the cliff face. The steps were steep with only a low wall and I soon felt my heart thumping. I ascended slowly. The steps seemed to be interminable and I was glad that the rocks were dry; with rain, a strong wind and my bad leg, I would have found it quite challenging.
Once up and away from the cliff, the going was straightforward, with several short climbs and descents. Finally, there was San Sebastián below with its beautiful concave beaches. It reminded me of Acapulco in Mexico.
But I had not noticed the gathering clouds and before I got off the mountain, the rain started. I sheltered under some trees until it passed. It was obvious by the dark clouds that more rain was on the way, so I continued on my way down and to the centre of the town, to find a hotel for the night.
Finding a hotel did not prove to be very easy. Normally I would look for hotel signs, but where I expected there to be hotels, there were none. All I could find were pensiones and sleeping in somebody’s spare bedroom was not my scene. I asked some locals and they did not seem to know of any hotels and recommended that I find a pension. By now the rain had started falling heavily. I tried several pensiones, but all were full. In the end, I found one that had a room available, but the old lady that answered the door would only let me have it, if I paid for double occupancy. By then I was getting tired and quite wet, so I reluctantly agreed to an exorbitant rate for a room with a little bed, no table, no chair and the only socket contained the plug of the only lamp. And of course, no wifi.
But after I had showered and put on dry clothes, I felt better. It was still raining heavily, but I found a McDonalds close by, with wifi, and I caught up on my mail and the sports results.
And despite the crap bed, I slept the night through, without once wakening. The fresh air and the exercise always seem to have that effect on me.
I had not intended on returning to Uppsala until the end of April, but the heavy rains, flooding and unseasonal cold weather in Extremadura caused me to abandon my walking north from Seville to Astorga, and I reluctantly returned to Uppsala to conserve my funds.
But April in Uppsala is not great either. Even though the snow may have largely gone and the hour changed to summer time, the ground can still be frozen, the northern winds quite bitter and the paths thickly coated with grit, that will not be completely cleaned up until well into May.
It did not take me long to come up with ‘Plan B’ – to go to Mundaka to see if there remained any evidence of the Lázaga family, a family history research task that I have had in mind for several years. I have traced my sons’ ancestry through their mother’s ancestors to José Ramón Lázaga, who was born in Mundaka in 1838, but prior to that date I have not been able to verify the information that was passed to me, regarding three further generations dating back to 1736.
I reasoned that gravestones from the mid-1800s could still be legible and that it was possible that evidence of the prior existence of the Lázaga family may still exist. It was also possible that there were descendants of that name still living in the village and perhaps the village priest (if they still had one) would let me look at the church records.
And where is Mundaka? It is a small fishing port in the province of Bizkaia, about 40 km to the north-east of Bilbao. The closest airport to Mundaka from Sweden was Biarritz, so I decided to fly to there and walk from nearby Bayonne, following the pilgrim path (El Camino del Norte), which passes near to Mundaka, at Gernika-Lumo.
So, on 6 April I set off to the airport at Skavsta, about 90 minutes south of Stockholm, stayed overnight at an airport hotel, and arrived mid-morning in Biarritz, to a clear blue sky and a warm spring day.
Another camino was about to begin.
Monday 8 April 2013
Bayonne to Bidart – 14 km
As I sat there in the little plaza of Bidart, with its white-walled houses and red roofs, I could see the Pyrenees, as they descended to the precipitous Basque coast with its cliffs, inlets and beaches. The sky was still blue and the early evening sun felt warm and comforting.
But when I left Bayonne cathedral that morning, the western sky was dark and ominous, and the forecast was calling for afternoon storms. I was tempted to just take a bus to Bidart and avoid another soaking, but as the bus station was close to the cathedral, I decided to check if they really did have a pilgrim desk as stated on their website, staffed between 10:00 and 11:00 during the week. And sure enough, there was a desk and a very helpful girl, who gave me a rather tiny map, assuring me that the path was well-marked. So off I set off down the hill from the cathedral to the river, having overcome the temptation to take the bus and oblivious of the impending storms.
For the first hour, the path followed the river until it came to an intersection. I took the right fork, which led to the Coastal Camino, while the left fork continued alongside the river, eventually splitting into two routes over the mountains to Pamplona, one via Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the other via the Baztan valley.
On my little map, the route was indicated with a broad-tipped yellow marker and it seemed to twist and turn and meander across Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz, like a drunken Irishman returning home from the pub on a Saturday night. There were some signs, but they were often not obvious, and at some intersections they seemed to be missing completely. It was not long before I was lost and asking directions of people, most of whom seemed to have never heard of the Chemin de Santiago, a situation that was to repeat at too frequent intervals.
And when the signage eventually did improve, the first storm suddenly hit, with hail like marbles, followed by torrential rain and strong winds. It did not last long, but long enough to turn the road into a raging river. Thanks to my recent frequent practice in Spain, I managed to quickly don my poncho, covering myself and backpack in record time. I looked like a large green turtle. I huddled under some trees until the worst was past. An hour later a second storm hit, but without hail. When it finally cleared, the clouds disappeared, and the sun shone for the first time that day.
The route skirted the airport and later passed by the Biarritz railway station. The first time I was at that station was in 1968, and it was in Biarritz that I bought my first bottle of cheap wine, in a small grocery store. Later in the hotel room I had to prise the cork out with a pair of scissors; I had no corkscrew. It was the start of my lifelong love affair with cheap wine.
After the station, the path led to a large lake, and followed the shore to the other end, before climbing to the main coastal road. From there a thirty-minute walk along a busy road took me to Bidart, my stop for the night.
There only seemed to be one hotel open – it was still very much off-season, and I seemed to be the first guest that day. The rate seemed very reasonable for France, and the room was surprisingly luxurious, with a beautiful view across fields to the mountains.
But finding a hotel with an available room was only part of the challenge; I now had to find my way from my room out of the hotel. The building contained a maze of corridors and stairs leading up and down. I now understood why the friendly barman insisted in taking me to the room and I should have paid more attention as to the route. For what seemed like an eternity, I went around and around, up flights of stairs and down, ending in store rooms, exits with the door locked, a boiler room. There were no windows and I was completely disoriented. Not once did I even end up at my room from where I had started out. Finally, I went through an unmarked door to what seemed like a large deserted restaurant in semi-darkness. At the other end were stairs which led to the bar and my friendly barman.
The staff had a good laugh at my getting lost.
Tuesday 9 April
Bidart to Saint-Jean-de-Luz – 10 km
As I did not intend to walk very far that day, I went to bed not setting my alarm, and woke up at first light to the dawn chorus. I had a leisurely breakfast of café au lait and croissant and set off in the morning sun, following the path down the hill from the church, as indicated by the Santiago sign. When I arrived at the edge of the village and an intersection with several roads merging, I could not see any further signs, and it was not obvious to me which way I should go. There was nobody around, so I decided to return to the village and get a map.
By that time the tourist office had opened, but no, they did not have any maps. A rather snooty woman said that there was no need for maps, as the paths were clearly marked. Anyway, I was told, most walkers follow the coastal path, as it is much more scenic and interesting. Turn left, then right and follow the path down to the beach, I was told and she started talking to the postman who had just come in the door. I was obviously dismissed, so I left. It seemed that the concept of customer service had not yet arrived in Bidart, but come to think of it, Paris was little different.
For the next couple of hours my progress was repetitive – a steep descent to the beach, a short walk along the sea, followed by a steep climb back up, sometimes to not far from where I started. The steps were made with log retainers holding back the earth, and all was wet, muddy and rather slippery, due to the heavy rain of the day before. And the wind, at times, was quite fierce. I regretted not having persisted with the ‘less interesting’ inland walk along country lanes.
When I eventually came to a new road development, the signs stopped, or at least I did not see them. I had enough of the coastal walk and did not feel like going back to find the sign, if indeed it existed. I decided to just follow the road into Saint-Jean-de-Luz, despite the horrendous traffic jam that seemed to have been created by the road works. It was further than I thought and for the next hour I walked alongside stationary or barely moving traffic. Not very enjoyable.
But what a delightful little town Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be. With its Basque architecture, narrow streets, wide beach and peaceful harbour, it was most appealing. I crossed the bridge to my hotel and extended my stay for an extra night, to allow me to explore the town the next day.
Wednesday 10 April
It turned out to be a beautiful day, and with only a slight breeze, the sea was calm. I walked along the seafront, but there was not one person on the beach. Obviously, there were no sun-starved Scandinavians in the vicinity and it was too early in the year for French tourists, at least for those who lie on beaches.
As evidenced by signs on many buildings and streets, the town’s main claim to fame was the royal wedding on 9 June 1660 between Louis XIV of France and María Theresa (the ‘Infanta‘), the daughter of Felipe IV of Spain. Louis XIV is best remembered as the ‘Sun King’, who built Versailles and ruled France for 75 years. The marriage was a result of the treaty ending 30 years of war between France and Spain.
I went to the church where the wedding had taken place, but I found it locked. It was quite a small church – it was probably a small town in 1660. I guess that only a few of the court could have witnessed the ceremony. Interestingly, after it was over, the main door of the church was bricked up. I have no idea why.
According one notice that I read, Anne of Austria – the mother of Louis XIV arrived in the town about a month before the ceremony and stayed until a week after. She was joined by the Infanta two days before the wedding. The building where they stayed is quite striking, with pink stonework. It belonged to a rich merchant.
In the past few years I have read several French historical novels set in the era of Versailles and the Sun King. I was not aware of the wedding in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and being there somehow seemed significant to me. Perhaps it reminded me of many evenings during my years in Paris, reading Alexandre Dumas novels over dinner and a carafe of wine in a restaurant, and later walking around the old city to see if a building or street I had read of still existed.
In a nostalgic mood, I went to the little central square, found a comfortable table in the sun, and ordered a cold glass of rosé.
After my experience of walking from Ustaritz to Cambo-les-Bains, I did not expect there to be a convenient path or a quiet country road to Espelette. So for five kilometres I walked along a very busy main road, frequently stepping well back and holding on to my hat every time a monstrous truck came hurtling by. And I lost count of how many drivers I saw talking on, or fiddling with, their phones. It was a relief to get off the race track and into Espelette.
Espelette is an attractive town, famous for its production of dried and powdered red peppers. Apparently they are sold at a covered market every Wednesday. As it was Friday, I was quite happy to have missed the market, as I am not a great enthusiast of crowds.
But my objective in going to Espelette was not to go shopping, it was to pick up the Camino de Santiago, which would lead me up the Baztan valley, over the Pyrenees and on to Pamplona. I spotted the typical yellow arrow marking near the church, but I was not able to find a second.
I asked several people for directions, but without luck. Even in a busy bar nobody seemed to know anything of it. Eventually I found a second and subsequent yellow arrow marks at the edge of the town, and started off in what I believed to be the direction of the next village, Ainhoa, which was about 6 km away.
But after ninety minutes of following the yellow arrows, of toiling up and down steep rocky paths, seeing only deserted farm buildings, and not a soul in sight, I started to feel uneasy. In the distance I saw a couple of modern looking houses on the other side of a valley, one with a car parked outside. So I set off down another steep rocky path, across a stream and up the other side. By the time I got to the houses, nearly two hours had elapsed since I left Espelette.
A woman answered my knock. She informed me that she knew nothing of a path to Ainhoa or a Camino de Santiago, but she could direct me to the main road, which involved retracing much of the way I had already come, and following another country road. I was quite lost. I eventually came to the main road from Espelette, with four kilometres to go to Ainhoa. In three hours I had progressed two kilometres towards Ainhoa.
The rest of the ‘hike’ along the main roads, through Ainhoa and on to the Spanish border at Dantxarinea, was relatively uneventful, but quite tiring, as it was a hot day.
Dantxarinea was something of a surprise to me. I expected a small run-down border town, no longer with a function, since the abolition of EU borders. Instead it turned out to be a bustling modern commercial centre stretching along both sides of the main road, with five service stations and very many large stores plus bars and restaurants.
Once across the border, the route was clearly marked, and more than once I was greeted with the traditional – buen camino. It felt as if I had come home. The road gently descended, until 45 minutes later I was in Urdax.
Why did I become so lost earlier in the day?
Until I go back and retrace my steps, I will not know. But I did receive something of a consolation in being told that evening, by my host, that it was quite a common experience among pilgrims starting in France.
And what had intended to be a walk of about 18 km, for me ended up as 28 km.
In former times, those who landed in the port of Bayonne to travel on to Pamplona or further, would go by the Baztan valley across the Atlantic Pyrenees. It was also the oldest path to Pamplona and on to Santiago de Compostella, pre-dating that of the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
So it was on a perfect early autumn day I set off from Bayonne, following the path along the banks of the River Nive. I saw very few people; an occasional runner, cyclist or a local, walking their dog. It was extremely peaceful; only the sound of birds or the buzzing of a bee.
But after 15 km the peaceful walk ended at Ustaritz with the constant roar of trucks and cars hurtling through the narrow streets of the town. I felt sure that there must have been a path or quiet road to Cambo-les-Bains, but according to the locals who I quizzed, the answer was a shrug of indifference.
So with no better alternative, I set off to walk the remaining 8 km to Cambo, along a noisy and heavily traveled road.
But eventually I arrived in Cambo, a delightful little town, and I put my ‘not-so-pleasant’ experience of French traffic behind me.
And the hotel was perfect. The owner, Laurent Rodriguez, his wife and beautiful daughter, made my stay most pleasant and nothing was too much trouble for them. I forgot to ask Laurent if he had played rugby, for he was built like a prop forward, with huge shoulders, massive arms and a neck like a tree trunk.
He was not someone that I would have relished having to tackle.
I had breakfast soon after the hotel opened and was on the road by shortly before 08:00. There was no traffic in the town and there were no clouds in the sky. It was already quite warm.
Apart from the first 100 m, the road climbed quite steeply. Within fifteen minutes I caught up with a couple moving very slowly; much slower and they would have been going backwards. He was a big robust man a bit younger than me, carrying the largest backpack I have ever seen, with camping gear strapped on top and a large sleeping bag below. It was no wonder he was already sweating profusely. In contrast she was young, very attractive and carrying nothing. Was she his daughter? I didn’t think so.
The road wound steadily upward, occasionally passing farm houses, and then branched off onto a steeper dirt path. Ahead and above me, I could see a very extremely large obese man in very tight shorts, with inflated and unhealthy looking legs. He was very pale, like Nordic people are after a long winter. When I caught up with him, he asked in a very strong native Irish accent ‘how much f——g further do we have to go to Roncesvalles’. When I said that we had covered about a quarter of the distance, he swore in apparent frustration, using expletives that would have an army sergeant-major blush. He said that he would never make it and that he had not realized how hard it was going to be. I suggested that it was not much further to accommodation and that if they had room, he could stay there and carry on the next day.
I hoped that they had a vacancy and that he took my advice, for he was not in good shape.
When I reached the crest of the current climb, I could see the Auberge d’Orrison quite a way below at the foot of a valley and the road climbing steeply up the opposite side. My total estimated ascent for the day had just increased by another 100 m.
I stopped at the auberge and had a beer in the welcome shade of the patio. There were quite a few guests and they all seemed to be staying there for the night. The view down the valley was sublime and on a clear night with no light pollution the stars would have been spectacular.
The road out of the valley initially climbed steeply, but soon became more gradual, and for the next three hours it gently crawled up to the highest point, the Col Lepoeder. Everywhere there were huge flocks of sheep. I had never seen such clean sheep; they all looked as if they had just had a shampoo and blow job. There were herds of equally pristine tan-coloured cattle and now and then a band of horses would gallop across the slopes. There were no obvious fences; they all seemed to be free to go wherever they wished.
At some point on this stage of the walk I became conscious of my heart missing beats. It has happened before but not in recent times. Even without taking my pulse, I could feel the missing beats in my forehead. At times it was one in eight or ten beats and sometimes in every three or four. I felt well in myself, so there was nothing I could do except to relax and take it slowly.
Finally I reached the Col Lepoeder, and from there, there were two routes down to Roncesvalles; by road or straight down on a steep path through the trees, the ground strewn with early autumn leaves. I chose the latter and descended slowly and very carefully. Ninety minutes later I was in my room in the albergue.
After a shower I felt somewhat revived, although my legs throbbed as if they had been beaten with a club. On the stairs I passed a Canadian woman, walking down backwards. I was not the only one feeling a bit sore.
A short stroll did not help much, so I went to dinner. And what a bargain that that was – a fixed menu with three generous courses and as much wine as one desired, all for nine Euros.
Afterwards I sat in the bar with a glass of Rioja. As I was about to leave to go to bed, in walked the guy that I had seen earlier that morning, complete with his enormous burden. The walk had taken them fourteen hours and he was drenched in sweat and looked totally exhausted. In contrast his partner/daughter looked quite fresh and relaxed.
I bumped into them again in the morning, as I was leaving. They told me that they were from Barcelona and that they were heading home from a camping holiday in France. The walk from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port had been a last minute decision that they had almost regretted, especially when they had to make the steep descent through the woods in the dark. They caught the morning bus to Pamplona.
But all’s well that ends well, and happily my heart was beating normally once more.
The first day of the ‘The Way of Saint James’ is reputed to be the most arduous – 27km and 1100 m of ascent to the pass, with 500 m of descent to Roncesvalles. And apart from a refugio after 10 km, there is nothing until one reaches Roncesvalles. Given that I had not done anything approaching that in the six years since my illness, it is not surprising that I started feeling some flutters of apprehension. And of course I was not accustomed to carrying all my worldly goods on my back.
There were four trains each day from Bayonne to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and I decided to take that of late morning. It turned out to be a local train that stopped at every station. In the names of the little villages, it was obvious that we were in Basque country – Vasco in Spanish, the language being shared across the border with Spain. En route I spotted many Basque names such as Ustaritz, Jatxou and Itxassou.
The train trundled along a narrow wooded valley, alongside the rapidly flowing river Nive until it arrived at the end of the line, outside Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. From the station it was about a kilometer to the centre of the town. I arrived to crowded streets and packed restaurants – it was Monday and the weekly market day.
The first hotel I tried was closed for the winter, the second was much too grand for me, in the third the door was locked and the reception closed for lunch and then I stumbled upon a bar with rooms above and it was perfect for my needs and inexpensive. I checked in, left my backpack in the room and went off to explore the town.
The name of the town means ‘Saint John at the foot of the pass’ and it has a permanent population of about 2000. It is a well preserved walled town with one narrow cobbled street rising steeply to a citadel. The view from the walls was impressive and everywhere there seemed to be flower boxes in full bloom. From the bridge over the river one could see that the water was sparkling clean and thick with trout.
The original town was razed in 1177 by Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, the English King. It was rebuilt on the present site by the Kings of Navarre.
I found the pilgrim’s office at the top of the steep main street and obtained my pilgrim passport – it is needed to stay at any of the official refugios.
Later I went into the old church by the pilgrims’ gate. It was empty except for an old lady, on her knees with head down, and seemingly deep in prayer. It was cool and serene. Periodically someone would enter, have a quick look around and leave.
I stayed there for a long time. I was not praying like the old lady, but I have no clear recollection of my thoughts at that time. I imagine that I was very focused on the physical struggle I anticipated having the next day and hoping that my crap leg would get me over the mountain and down to Roncesvalles without having to seek help.
Eventually I left the church to find a restaurant. When I looked back, the old lady was still there.