The transition from Béarn to Pays Basque is sudden and dramatic…just how you want it on the Camino.
Steep green country and lofty conifers: it’s not surprising that a certain Kiwi friend found a bit of home in the Pays Basque.
And I’m told there are a few of these over the Tasman, in Middle Earth.
My day was due to end in a relais at a spot called Larceveau, but the trail first took me where millions of pilgrims stopped in the middle ages. The town of Ostabat, which may mean something like “valley of hospitality” in old Occitan, was able to house up to five thousand pilgrims at a time. There were major hospitals and hostels, as well as many inns and other commerces to meet the needs of the jacquets. Now the town can fall quiet, even in May, giving the local Basques time to indulge one of their great passions: hitting and catching balls in a variety of ways.
Because the Way of St. James is undergoing such an enormous revival, we may soon be able to grasp the general scale of pilgrimage in the peak centuries simply by observing the modern Camino. Today, however, we’re scattered along the track with numerous choices for accommodation; many pilgrims do a portion only, and return annually to continue; some even dawdle shamelessly.
The old pilgrims were huge walkers, covering very large distances and converging on fewer centres. There was no turning back via Ryan Air, and not much dawdling. A medieval pilgrim made a legal will before leaving home, for good reasons. So a place like Ostabat was not just a quaint tourist stopover, with a healthy number of pilgrims. These streets and houses would have been thronged in the warm season as pilgrims approached the Pyrenees.
An examination of a sketch on my pilgrim’s créenciale will show one reason why the scallop is popular as a symbol of the pilgrimage. The ridges of the shell’s exterior converge at the base in the way that three of the four main French routes converge…right here at Ostabat.