Here the French way ends; and here many, for whom the Camino is a Spanish experience, start their pilgrimage.
Maybe the nearby and older site of Saint-Jean-le Vieux was thought less strategic after Richard the Lionheart demolished its fort. (Yes, another English king with claims over south-west France. And Richard, like so many boys from difficult families, would just never go home.)
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was developed thereafter as a defensive town by the kings of Navarre, and defenses have been lost and added over the centuries. It proved strategic. Charles the Bad of Navarre called the town the “key to my kingdom”. (They say that when he finally went back to his day-job as King of Navarre he wasn’t so “bad”.)
The town has long lived off travellers and pilgrims. In the middle ages, the local revenue guys exacted a toll by hitting pilgrims with big sticks. Nowadays there’s marketing and customer service, and it’s the businesses that are terrorised by multiple layers of government. Saint-Jean is a deliberately quaint tourist town, run responsibly enough by all concerned. As elsewhere on the Camino, the mythical “rude, arrogant French” are not to be found here.
The pilgrim office is staffed by volunteers who are often stretched to help so many pilgrims arriving in such a small centre. At this point in my blog I can only say thank you many times over to such people, usually ex-pilgrims.
A day in a comfy hotel, some strolling, some over-eating. One rest day is fine. Two can put you on edge, especially when you’re not sure of the next move. The pass at Roncesvaux was still closed due to weather, pilgrims were banking up, the busy season was here. I decided to end my pilgrimage, to resume later.
The hotel was a well appointed dull affair, serving tired tourist food wherein a smear of capsicum and tomato stewed together makes something “Basque”. And it occurred to me that if I was no longer a pilgrim I was a stranger in a small foreign town with limited sightseeing.
My air ticket back to Oz gave me a couple more weeks. So I bought maps and tried to figure out a little trek to the coast along some other marked walking trail. I regretted not having a a light, floorless tent, such as I’d always used in my youth. As it was, I would need to puzzle out some accommodation…
And as I sat over breakfast at the hotel, poring over maps and feeling a little frustrated, two young women sat down at the table next to mine. You can sometimes nail nationalities by sound on the Camino: German, Dutch, Scandinavian and so on. Of northern appearance, these ladies spoke to each other in a foreign language which was not at all familiar. Something weird like Finnish? Slovenian? In fact it would be very weird.
We exchanged smiles and, trying French, I asked them if they were heading to Roncesvaux. The answer came in English with a very familiar accent. These two Irish ladies were indeed going to Spain over the top, but via the lower road, since there was uncertainty about the pass. After more chatting, they explained that the language they spoke to one another was Gaelic. That was a first! Finally they suggested I might like to go with them, low road and all. Low road, high road, what did it matter?
My God, what a relief! I was a pilgrim still.
How I hate the civilian life!