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.
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.