Saint-Palais to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, 21st-22nd March
‘He often used to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep and every path was its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.”‘ – The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
My first discovery upon preparing to set out was that I had stapled the pages referring to the French stage of the Camino into the guidebook for the Spanish leg in the wrong order. Even once I had straightened this confusion out the way out of the town was not immediately apparent until Anne spotted a yellow sticker on a road sign. It was a waymarking placed there by a Dutch cycling organisation, but it served the purpose admirably.
We were soon heading out of Saint-Palais, passing as we did so a house lavishly decorated with scallops and other Jacobean memorabilia. A stone propped in front of the proclaimed ‘849km → St JACQUES’. It may or may not have been accurate, but at this early stage in the Camino we had not yet learned to distrust distance markings. As we looked at it a man came out onto the balcony of the house and called ‘Bonne route!’
‘Merci!’, we called back, and continued up the hill.
It was at the top of that first hill that we caught our first glimpse of the Pyrenees. From here there was about 75km of fields and woodland between us and the mountains, and they were little more than a gleam of snow below the clouds. Even from here, however, their beautiful, icy grandeur was commanding. It seemed faintly unlikely that in a matter of days we would be crossing them. As Anne put it, we felt rather like the hobbits, reared among rolling green fields and lush farmland, seeing for the first time the majestic savagery of the Misty Mountains.
At the bottom of the hill we met our first significant landmark: a monument showing where three routes (from Paris, Vézelay and Le Puy) were thought to have met. Its significance was attested by five dogs, one of them lame, who came out from the adjacent farmyard and barked furiously until we had moved on, presumably in case we were thinking of walking away with it. The monument marked the directions of three routes, and also that of the one, combined route: straight up the next hill. This one was rather steeper than the last, and its surface was ruder. We soon established that our personal methods of tackling hills were at variance with each other: Anne plods, maintaining a steady pace, while I prefer to take it in short bursts, moving fast, and then stopping to get my breath back. We each went up in our own way, but reached the top more or less together and stopped at the summit to rest in the Chapelle de Soyarza and admire the view. Now we could see much more of the Pyrenees. The chapel itself, surrounded by a circle of trees with branches interlaced, was locked, but the covered rest area next it was easily accessible. We shared out a ration of chocolate and dried apricots, regretted that as yet our water supplies did not need replenishing, for there was a very tempting drinking water tap next the chapel, and continued down the other side of the hill.
The landscape here began to resemble something more like an English woodland. In Harambeltz it began to rain, and for the first time we struggled with each other’s rain cover. Anne had brought waterproof trousers; I, knowing how much I hated the hot stickiness of such garments, settled for my jacket. We tramped on through the woodland. I was rather intrigued by some yellow flowers that seemed to be some kind of primrose, but which were smaller than any others I had seen. The waymarkings here were yellow plastic arrows, adorned with a yellow on blue, stylised, shell and the legend ‘Roncevaux’. I remember remarking that it would feel very strange when we reached Roncesvalles and the waymarkings would then say something else, Pamplona, perhaps. We passed a few houses; one had an advertisement for a pilgrim hostel in Ostabat-Asme, the village where we were planning to stop that day. We did not, however, pay much attention to it. I was more interested in a large cage of rabbits that stood next the path.
We reached Ostabat via a path that seemed to have got itself confused with a stream, so splashed rather than strode the last few hundred yards into the village. The gîte d’étape was easily located; unfortunately it was also closed, and likely to remain so, it seemed, until April. This was something of a blow. We rather wished we had paid more attention to the advert on the fence… It was getting on for lunchtime, so we visited the village shop and purchased bread, sardines in tomato, and La Vache qui Rit cheese. No sooner had we consumed an acceptable portion of this than a snow shower swept in, which was more than a little perturbing. I went round all the bars the village seemed to possess. Neither of them was open for food, drink or shelter; nor could they provide accommodation for the night. The landlady of the second, however, said something about somewhere ‘huit cent mètres là-bas’. Well, at this point our options were looking somewhat limited: either we walked on another 17km to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (not a tempting prospect, given the weather) or we took a chance on whatever was eight hundred metres ‘that way’. Both options necessitated following the road out of the village, so once the snow had passed we did so. We peered curiously at each dwelling as we passed it, wondering whether any of them could be this mythical gîte. None of them seemed terribly likely; they were either too dilapidated, too obviously something else, or simply lacking in any form of identification. We plodded on. As each building appeared over the brow of the hill we looked at it hopefully. As we came closer each building revealed itself to be impossible. We must have come eight hundred metres by now? No?
We were, slowly but surely, losing hope. The extra seventeen kilometres were looking depressingly likely. It was with a kind of desperation that I walked up the drive of the last farmhouse on the right, just to check that it wasn’t the one. It was. The drive branched off to the left, leading up to what had perhaps once been a barn. It was now most definitely pilgrim accommodation. Lucie, the lady of the house came out to greet us. ‘Vous n’avez pas telephoné?’ Misunderstanding, I explained that we had thought it unlikely that any hostel would be full this early in the year, and this early in the day. It was not full; Lucie waved us into a cloakroom, where we were to divest ourselves of boots and waterproofs, then showed us to a very comfortable room. It seemed that we still had another night of luxury ahead of us. It was €33 for the room, dinner and breakfast – and after dinner we declared that it was well worth it. I finished Sparrow Story, showered, and napped. Anne did likewise, but never reached the end of her theological tract. She was, it appeared, already afflicted with blisters, but then she had never expected her feet to behave for any length of time. The Pyrenees were nearer, now.
Later in the afternoon another party turned up: three French pilgrims. These were the people who had telephoned. The excellent supper included seemingly endless courses of ham, sausages and pâté from the farm, a kind of noodle soup to which we were encouraged to add some kind of fiery spice – ‘C’est un aphrodisiac,’ Michel, the gentleman of the French party was told jokingly – omelette made with eggs from the farm, with red wine. We learned over the course of it that they had reached Saint-Palais at 11am and, deeming it too early to stop, had gone on the 15km that we had thought was a respectable day’s walk. My French came back, and I was able to join in the conversation to my own satisfaction, while Anne said she followed most of it – including the part where I mentioned that she was always the last one out of bed. Bernard, our host, entertained us with Basque song after supper; Anne and I responded with a rather risqué Welsh number about taking Megan to Towyn, which ended abruptly when we realised that neither of us could remember the words of the last verse. Finally we all retired to bed, amid protestations from Anne and Nicole that they would be the first up the next day.
I don’t remember now who was first up out of either party. We left more or less together, Nicole expressing horror at the weight of Anne’s rucksack, then seemed to spend the rest of the day overtaking and being overtaken by them. We were still together when we forded the stream at Larceveau, where I was intrigued by a giant earthworm – the size of an average snake. They forged ahead, but stopped to rest at the Croix de Galzetaburu, where we caught them up. Then they got well ahead again while we rested and said Matins there. All the while the Pyrenees were getting steadily nearer. We overtook the French party just before Bussunarits; it had started to rain, and they were eating their lunch huddled under waterproof ponchos. We sailed on down the hill and found a very inviting little shelter at the side of the road. The remainder of the bread from the day before, spread with cheese, and followed by dried apricots, made a rudimentary but filling lunch. It did not occur to us until a good deal later that it would be much easier to use the penknife than the spork to spread the cheese; I don’t know why. The French trio passed us again and expressed good-natured jealousy at the fact that we had a roof over our heads. We plodded onwards, noticing again how possessive and excitable Basque dogs seemed to be; at almost every house a dog would come out as far as he was able (most of them were tied up) and bark at us until we had passed.
We arrived in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at about twenty to four in the afternoon. The town must be one of the few in the world where the old quarter is the cheapest to stay – at least if one is in possession of a pilgrim passport. The pilgrim path leads one straight into the cobbled rue de la Citadelle, where much of the pilgrim accommodation was and is located. No sooner had we passed under the Porte Saint Jacques than a guide swept us up with great delight and showed us off to a party of tourists. He pointed out our scallop shells (I had fastened one of the gilt shell-shaped buttons to the string of my hat, and Anne had affixed hers to her rucksack) and explained that here were two genuine pilgrims. The tourists seemed impressed; some of them may even have taken photographs.
When they had let us go we headed, as instructed by the Confraternity guidebook, for the Accueil Saint Jacques. The volunteers here sorted out places for us at 55 rue de la Citadelle, gave us real scallop shells with holes punched in them and string threaded through (Anne’s was flat and pink, mine contoured and orange), and also provided us with several useful sheets of paper – a profile map of the Camino, a list of all the known refugios from there to Santiago, and a guide to crossing the Pyrenees. They also gave us some good advice with regard to the latter: on no account, given the weather conditions, were we to attempt the Route Napoleon, the higher, more dangerous, more spectacular route. Three Korean girls had tried it the day before and had been forced to turn back. On leaving the town we were to turn right, not left. It was all rather Excelsior.
The lady from the Accueil accompanied us to no. 55, where we found Nicole leaning out of the window to greet us. ‘Voilà les p’tites anglaises!’ the former said to her. It was rather nice to know that our friends of only a day were looking out for us. We were, however, beginning to wonder whether there was something about us that appealed to French ladies’ maternal instincts, a suspicion that gained weight when Jeannine, the hostess of the auberge, took us under her wing. After scolding us mildly for leaving our rucksacks on the bunks, she noticed that Anne was suffering from a slight cold, upon which nothing would satisfy her but that a certain (revolting, I’m told) compound, followed by a bowl of tea, was consumed. Meanwhile I attempted to ingratiate myself with the resident cat, a beautiful pale-coloured tabby.
Then, after we’d posted some of the heavier and less useful items of Anne’s (the books, an inflatable sleep map and a pair of socks that had proved unsatisfactory) back to York, at the regrettable cost of €29, Jeannine sent us out to purchase milk and butter for breakfast at ‘Champion’. It took us a while to locate this shop, and then when we were there I had to ask a shopper what a ‘brique de lait’ was. (It turned out to be a Tetrapak carton.) We picked up a few items for ourselves at the same time, the most useful of which were chocolate-coated waffles (which kept us going for long after we crossed the border) and a pair of plimsolls – Anne hadn’t brought a pair of light shoes to wear in the evenings, and these served the purpose more than adequately. I had a pair of ancient crochet ballet-style pumps, and was becoming uncomfortably aware of a mysterious pain in my right foot. To this day I don’t know what caused it; there was no obvious swelling or abrasion, and I hadn’t noticed any particular fall or twist. I did my best to ignore it.
We ate that night at Chez Dédé on Jeannine’s recommendation; our French friends were there too, and were rather put out when they failed to persuade the waitress that we should be seated next to them. The food was good, and what we then thought of as cheap: €9 for two courses. We drank only water, however, and retired to bed early in preparation for the great climb the next day. Route Napoleon or, as in this case, no Route Napoleon, there was no way it was going to be an easy day’s walk.