Are we ever happy to be here and have one full day to relax and explore in Saint Jean Pied de Port before starting our really long walk (one step at a time). This is such a pretty little French (Basque) town lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. It truly is picture perfect, including the weather. The name of the town literally means “Saint John at the foot of the pass.” The pilgrimage routes from Paris, Vézelay and Le Puy-en-Velay meet at Saint Jean Pied de Port and is the pilgrims’ last stop before the arduous mountain crossing through the Pyrenees and into Spain. Arduous! So that’s what we are in for tomorrow and the next day! Who’s idea was this?! We see pilgrims regularly passing our door who have come from other places in France and who are now joining up with the Camino Frances on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Their pilgrimages are much longer than our 800 km.
St. Jean’s quaint, medieval atmosphere with its old stone gates and buildings and narrow cobbled streets is quite magical during the daytime and was even more magical during the fading light last evening. We felt we could have been dropped into a movie set and wouldn’t have been surprised to see knights in their shining armour atop their proud steeds getting ready for a jousting match. The very old buildings have such distinctive features, many with inscriptions of the date of the building over their doors. One building (a bakery) even lists the price of wheat in 1789.
The rue de la Citadelle is the main street and is part of the pilgrim route. At the top of the town is St. James Gate and the 17th century Vauban Citadelle (now a school) with a beautiful view over the old town and the Pyrenees. We walked up there this morning when fog was still laying in pockets in the valley. It was spectacular and apparently sunsets viewed from the citadelle are gorgeous, too.
This evening we walked around town again and went into the Notre Dame du Bout du Pont church, a fitting place from which to bless the beginning of our journey and that of our fellow pilgrims. Just as Tania did when she began her journey, I also lit a candle.
The B&B where we are staying, Maison Errecaldia, is a three-hundred-year-old traditional Basque house nestled below the Citadelle. The name “Errecaldia” means “valley view” in the Basque language. The house lies on the ancient Chemin St Jacques, the pilgrim route, and is just a few minute’s walk down the chemin to the centre of Saint Jean Pied de Port.
The house has three sunny en-suite guest rooms with modern facilities. Our room is called “Sunrise” and, if we had been awake early enough this morning, we would have seen the sun come up across the valley from one of our two windows. Our simple but delicious continental breakfast was served in the dining room and consisted of very good artisan bread, a pot of homemade jam, cheese, and meat, good coffee for me and hot chocolate for Dave. Tim comes from Britain and has been running Errecaldia B&B for the last ten years.
So, let’s rewind back to Monday morning in Victoria. Whether we would get to Saint Jean Pied de Port without a hitch was questionable for a brief period of time at the Victoria International Airport. Although we breezed through security as we had hoped with our hiking poles stowed inside our carry-on luggage, we soon saw that the plane we were supposed to take being towed away. Not a good sign! The plane that was sent to replace it couldn’t land because of fog. They announced the possibility that our flight might be cancelled and that we would have to rebook. The fog lifted just in time so there was no problem making our connecting flights in Vancouver and Montreal. What a relief that was!
Several planes must have arrived at the Charles de Gaul Airport in Paris at the exact same time as ours. What a madhouse it was! It took an hour to wind our way along the snaking lineup to the border police to show them our passports. We laughed because the read-out on the electronic sign never showed the wait time to be more than nine minutes. They lied! Then to get to the train station at the other end of the airport, we were among a crowd pushing through an even bigger crowd of Arabs, obviously very rich and dressed in their finest whites. With a few colourfully dressed Africans and fully-shrouded Muslims in the mix, it was quite an unusual cultural scene.
After 14 hours flying time, we spent another 12 hours on three trains and a bus to get to St. Jean Pierre de Port. The train from the Charles de Gaul Airport in Paris was awfully crowded at first but thinned out by the time we reached Bordeaux. The trains move along very fast and are so quiet and smooth that it was hard to know we had left the station. The route we took by train was through countryside that was not too interesting. At least I got some much needed napping done. It wasn’t until after Bayonne that the scenery became more interesting with hills, farmland, sheep, horses, and little villages.
We met our first pilgrim while we were waiting to board the train at the airport in Paris. Catherine comes from Quebec and will be walking her first Camino. We kept running into her on the trains and in St. Jean and each time we parted we wished each other a “Buen Camino” as we probably won’t keep up to her pace. She is on her way to Hunto today so is already more than one day ahead of us. The train that would take us from Bayonne to Cambo Les Bains was filled to the brim with pilgrims. What a happy, excited, chattering bunch of people they all were, and they came from all age brackets.
It was so exhausting getting here, that by Tuesday night I could hardly even think! What a difference a day makes or, should we say, a good night’s sleep. It is Wednesday, and we’re feeling fantastic now. Thank you, Tania, for handing the Camino baton over to us because this is sure to be the journey of a lifetime. But we’ll go with no expectations, a clear mind, a clean slate, and put one foot in front of the other.