Crossing to and across France, 19th-21st March
“The man, therefore, read it, and looking upon Evangelist very carefully, said, Whither must I fly? Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, Do you see yonder wicket-gate? The man said, No. Then said the other, Do you see yonder shining light? He said, I think I do. Then said Evangelist, Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto: so shalt thou see the gate; at which, when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.” – The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
The Solent ferry was called Saint Cecilia, which was, we thought, rather appropriate for a pair of choral singers. It was a vehicle ferry; the foot passengers walked on via the same gangway. Anne and I could well have been the only foot passengers, and the only vehicles were a few cars and a couple of lorries. The cabin was all but deserted and we spent the crossing grinning nervously at each other and making banal remarks like ‘Well, this is it’.
Once in Portsmouth we were obliged to walk to the railway station in order to find a taxi. It was a chilly night, but we were too excited for this to affect our spirits; besides, walking was what we were planning to do, so why not begin early? We had allowed plenty of time to reach the continental ferryport. Anne got her walking poles caught in the top of the door and fell rather than climbed into the cab, but sustained no damage either to herself or to the poles in so doing. With hindsight I would have advised her to make the most of her undamaged state; it was not to last more than a week.
Five pounds’ worth of taxi ride later we were checking in. Our sailing was delayed by well over an hour, so we raided the vending machines. A man nearby commented that my hat had something of the Indiana Jones about it. He had a point. We then settled down with the books Anne had brought for the train. (I had excised such fripperies from my bag ruthlessly – weight again – but she was planning to post them home once finished.) Both were religious in subject: I had Sparrow Story, a retelling of the Gospel set in present-day Palestine, while hers was a theological work by a Roman Catholic monk. The latter had some reference to God in the title, a fact which attracted the attention of the Irish family sitting opposite. (‘You’re not religious, are you? You are? Are you Catholic? No? It’s all about the priest, isn’t it? The difference is, only the priest is allowed to drink the wine…’) Their sailing (to Bilbao) had been seriously delayed, and they had evidently been compensating for the monotony of the intervening hours with copious amounts of Stella Artois. The grandmother of the party was enchanted to discover that my name was Kathleen (as was hers) and almost equally disappointed to find that I had absolutely no Irish blood in me – a reaction I was to encounter more than once along the Camino, although never again with so much Stella involved. I earned the undying gratitude of the whole family by donating a hair bobble for the granddaughter. The little girl’s father was also very taken (‘I’d carry your rucksacks for you any time… I’d sit round your campfire with you…’)
They were still waiting for their sailing when we went off to see where ours had got to, when we found ourselves a quiet corner to say Evening Prayer, when we were finally called, and, for all I know, when the Normandie departed. It was well past midnight by this point, so we decided immediately to hunt for our accommodation. Being young, free and poor we’d gone for the cheapest option: the ‘reclining seat’. These turned out to be in the on-board cinemas and to be upholstered in a particularly hideous floral velour, not that this bothered us particularly by this time. I ran through my footcare routine by way of an experiment: wash feet thoroughly; apply Vaseline; wash socks; hang socks to dry over nearest suitable object, which in this case was the luggage rack in the cinema. Then I retired to bed or, rather, to seat. It very shortly became apparent that I was unlikely to get any sleep in this monstrosity, so I unpacked my sleeping bag and stretched myself out on the floor. This proved more conducive to slumber, and I got a reasonable amount of rest before being woken by the announcement that we would be disembarking at Caen-Ouistreham in approximately an hour’s time. I stuffed the sleeping bag back into its drawstring bag, safety-pinned my (still damp) socks to the back of my rucksack, and waited for Anne to do likewise. I then shovelled the remainder of my English small change into the RNLI charity box (no sense in carrying extra weight), and we hovered around the ferry’s main passenger doors until she was secured in the harbour, the gangway was in place and we were able to walk out onto French soil. Phase One complete.
Caen ferryport is not, in fact, situated in Caen; it’s in Ouistreham, a village a few kilometres to the north. We caught the bus into town (I had bought the tickets, €3 each, in the port, while Anne reminisced about continental family holidays when all she and her brother would eat was jambon frites). We were the only passengers on a 53-seater coach; the driver was very friendly. I should have asked for the gare, not centre-ville, but I either did not know or hadn’t remembered that the bus and railway stations were as good as neighbours. It was not a problem, in any case. I knew Caen fairly well, having spent three weeks there on a French exchange in 2002, there were maps dotted around the town, and we had plenty of time. We ate breakfast (satisfyingly French: café noir, pain au raisin; té, pain au chocolat) in the station café, then passed the time by buying postcards, the first of which got sent from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, enquiring of a station attendant how the tickets worked, and saying Matins. A passer-by seemed to object to this, but we didn’t understand her complaint, nor did she speak English, so the incident passed off quickly.
The train journey to Paris was uneventful; Anne spent most of it asleep and I spent most of it looking out of the window and thinking how nice French trains were. We had the luxury of a compartment to ourselves, something that I’d assumed had passed with the age of steam. We passed through Lisieux, which prompted a discussion about which Saint Theresa Anne’s cousin was named after, and more French exchange reminiscences. When the train pulled into the Gare Saint-Lazare (a name familiar to me from the bus destination blinds that clutter up my house, but like the rest of Paris a place I’d never been to) we applied ourselves to the question of crossing the city to the Gare Montparnasse. The Métro, contrary to my dire premonitions, proved relatively easy to navigate with the help of a friendly gentleman in the advice bureau, and we emerged unscathed and in time to consume a leisurely sandwich and watch the sparrows at the Gare Montparnasse. From there we caught the TGV to Dax – again a not very interesting journey, although I was gratified to notice that we passed through Poitiers, even if it was by chemin de fer rather than chemin de Saint Jacques. Saint Rhadegund, I thought, would understand.
We emerged into the glow of evening sunshine at Dax. The railway from there to Saint-Palais is long gone, but its one-time existence is attested in a couple of surviving, useless, level crossings and the coach service that ties itself in knots meandering through the towns once served by the railway. We caught the coach, and I was at last able to stop worrying that we would miss a connection: this was the last one.
Night had fallen by the time we arrived in Saint-Palais. We were turfed out into a rather bedraggled looking car park, followed the lights into the town, and then fell to wondering what to do next. I knew what street our hotel was in, but where that street was in relation to the rest of the town I had no idea. We wandered around a little, noticing in passing the opening times of the tourist information office, but the Rue de Jeu de Paume was not immediately apparent. Fortunately a passer-by noticed us, enquired what we were looking for, and pointed us in the right direction. It was just around the corner. Phase two completed.
I would recommend the Hotel de la Paix, Rue de Jeu de Paume, Saint-Palais, to anyone. The proprietor was very kind, the beds comfortable and the food excellent – a wonderful vegetable soup, tender lamb and exquisite chocolate mousse. The room contained several helpful little ledges, over which we draped our damp socks from the day before, and our sopping socks from that day. Since the disappearance of the Franciscan house had made indulging in such luxury as a hotel a necessity for us we resolved to enjoy it. After all, it was very likely to be the last such luxury for a while.
That being so, we did not set the alarm for too early the next morning. A proper bed is not to be sneezed at. Besides, we had agreed not to leave Saint-Palais until the tourist information office was open, for we needed to get our credenciales, our ‘pilgrim passports’, stamped, and we thought that they would be able to tell us there where would be the place to go. I sat on the balcony and dusted my feet with talcum powder in the morning sun, calling back ‘Praise him and magnify him forever’ to each verse of the Benedicite as Anne presided over Matins. We lingered over breakfast – croissants with butter and jam, and excellent French coffee – then paid up and left. The proprietor and her assistant wished us well.
We headed for the tourist information office, nipping into a nearby shop to buy a map – a fairly large scale representation of the French Pyrenees, with the Grande Randonnée 61 (in other words, the Camino) marked on in a line of red dots. I noticed a box of fabric badges in the glass counter and asked to buy one. The process was made rather difficult by the fact that I had no idea what the French word for them was, but the shopkeeper worked out what I wanted, and I at least – Anne, I think, regards my obsessive decoration of my grey woollen blanket with such souvenirs with a sort of benevolent tolerance – proceeded to the tourist information office with a distinct feeling of gratification.
Getting our credenciales stamped proved, in fact, to be very easy indeed: they had a stamp in the office. The girl there was quite excited to see that this was the first stamp in our books, but not as excited as we were to have our first stamp. This was it. This was the real beginning of our pilgrimage.