Archive for the ‘I. THE BASQUE COUNTRY’ Category

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!


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I had one day of walking to get to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and there was a tickle of expectation. At that town, I would complete the Via Podiensis, the Voie Du Puy, the Camino in France. Whether I went further was to be decided. There’s an advantage in getting the Pyrenees “done” and crossing into Spain: one can come back in a cool season to complete the Spanish section without having to worry about the weather at Roncevaux.

And speaking of weather…

That final day of walking in France was solid rain. And cold. There was no point in stopping, looking about, or taking snaps. The dawdler had to stride out, with eyes down. Even the snow of the Aubrac permitted little pauses, but the cold, incessant  rain – in late spring and close to sea level – allowed only relentless walking. Oh well, some people do that all the time.

I’m sure there was lots of country that looked like this.

But the snap was taken the day before.

What I was able to glimpse through the rain curtain makes me think this is one of the loveliest of all the stages.

I’d like to say that I used the conditions to contemplate pilgrimage. Sadly, my mind was full of the usual flickerings of coloured rubbish that keep it weakly entertained in free hours. Rugby League opinions, odd combinations of food and sex involving Nigella, people I should have told off better, Krispy Kreme donuts…

A brief and simple mental prayer in the morning is the best I can do to mitigate this condition of perpetual and trivial distraction. People who don’t believe in mental prayer must either have very high thought processes, or a very high opinion of their thought processes. I suspect it’s the latter.

Let’s pretend I’m walking along, my thoughts elevated, my mind on the Way, believing like a theoretical medieval pilgrim. (An actual medieval pilgrim was probably thinking about food, sex, resentments etc.) Let’s say my thoughts are directed toward the saint himself.

Most portrayals of James have him looking piqued. Rembrandt shows him subdued – but you can never tell about evangelists when they’re praying. They talk soft to God but yell at everyone else.

St. James was, indeed, the most fiery and physical of the apostles. Little wonder he was able to get all the way to Spain and evangelise there for some time.

He got back to Judaea where he was martyred. But our story is only starting!

His followers got hold of his corpse, loaded it on to a boat and sailed it along the Mediterranean, past the the pillars of Hercules, into the Atlantic, then round to the coast of Galicia. Some local pagans tried to kill them on landing, but they were able to take to the sea again, with the corpse, by using a large scallop shell as a vessel, and come back when the coast was clear, literally. That part of the story may not be strictly accurate, however.

Anyway, they got James ashore, and a sarcophagus formed on the spot where they laid him and left him. Which may not be strictly accurate.

There’s more, far more!

Some centuries later, Charlemagne, Emperor of the West, was doing that kind of lofty thing emperors do: contemplating the stars and asking his scholars about the composition of the Milky Way. The scholars couldn’t tell him much.

That night, James the Apostle appeared to the emperor in a dream, and told him that the Milky Way was a road of stars leading to the tomb of James, far in the West. When asked how to get there, James rolled his eyes – he was a notoriously impatient type – and said to Charlemagne that he just needed to follow the Milky Way, like he’d already said! Get it?

The emperor got it. He advanced along the way indicated, the Field of Stars, conquering, massacring, liberating and all that, till he reached the Atlantic shore, and personally discovered the tomb of the saint. Perhaps.

The body was later taken back inland to a place that became known as Campus Stellae, or Field of Stars. (Some doubt: Campus Stellarum would have been more accurate, but maybe Latin had gone sloppy by then.) Anyway, Campus Stellae became Compostela…unless pesky etymologists are right, and the town’s name just means “well-built”.

In any case, Charlemagne came, and, after Charlemagne, the pilgrims.

And thinking – perhaps – these thoughts of history, faith and pilgrimage, I arrived through the rain at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port…

…entering through the Porte de Saint-Jacques, the Gate of Saint James.

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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.


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It’s raining, you’re not so young, not so rich.

But you’re walking through and past the things you’ve only seen in the books people leave on coffee tables. Right now.

It’s officially the Pays Basque…

… and you’re walking past châteaux


…past sheep grazing in fat meadows…

…past curly-horned cattle on plush slopes, by farmhouses made of riverstone…

…and a gave is rushing…

…and the little mairie has its coat of white, with sparkling maroon on the shutters.

And you are there.


I spent the night at Uhart-Mixe, in a caravan out back of a big relais. I met my first Basque speakers, ate my first pipérade. One young guy at our pilgrim table was a local, and spoke Basque as a first language. He knew the name of every basketballer who matters in the world, the Aussies included. The Basques love just about everything you can play or do with a ball.

These are just blurry recollections of my first night in the Basque Country. I was tired.

But something has stayed with me from that night, or rather that afternoon, just after I’d arrived and settled in my van. A knock on the door.

It was one of those old, robust French pilgrims you see so often, with the red Lafuma jacket, the hefty moustache…He looked excited.

So what did he want? He wanted to tell me how much he liked his caravan, how he’d already showered and shaved, how comfy and quiet it was in his caravan, how he was looking forward to a night’s sleep in his caravan…oui…enfin

And that was it. Still excited, he walked away.

I’d just had a conversation with the wisest man on earth.

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The departure from Navarrenx takes one over its famous bridge. This part of the Béarn is the Béarn des Gaves, the last word meaning “torrents”. There are plenty of them and they usually bolt along.

The day was spent dodging the rain so common near the Pyrenees. But there was plenty to charm:

A cute bridge in a forest…

Forest dovecotes, probably for local hunters…

On a bit of wet grass, during a break in the rain, the chance to sample a famous local specialty, the andouille sausage, tasting of what seems to be tripe and paprika.

At some point, crossing a river near my destination in Lichos, I entered the Basque country. That evening I enjoyed the company of a number of pilgrims in the home of M. and Mme Routier. The jamón was specially, even fanatically, selected across the border, and our hostess insisted it was better than any jambon de Bayonne available closer. Hard to argue, as I gobbled my fourth or fifth slice!

The Béarn was now behind me. Adixatz, sweet region.

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