Monday 27 May 2013

Camino de Santiago: A Week On The Way – Day 1

Saturday 11/5/13 – St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

“Do you want to share a taxi?”

These words, emanating from the row of seats behind us whilst disembarking the plane at Biarritz Airport, were our first interaction with other pilgrims. “You’re doing the Camino, right?”

The irony was not lost on us: here we were at the beginning of a walk – a pilgrimage journey, no less: an undertaking so inextricably linked with the ideal of a simple existence and the eschewing of material comforts – talking from the off about taking the easy option, the modern way more reliant on the wallet and planetary resources than on individual hardship and effort. And this before we’d even begun.

Oh, well: there was time ahead for redemption.

By the time we were standing outside the terminal, customs cleared and bags collected, puddles of fellow pilgrims were coalescing on the forecourt, and it wasn’t long before two taxi-loads were winging their way to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small village in the foothills of the French Pyrenees whose population swells umpteen-fold every weekend between April and September with the influx of several thousand nervously expectant, rucksack-toting pedestrians.

Porte Saint Jacques
Of course, the Camino de Santiago is a route associated with the crossing of northern Spain. And, for the vast majority of its 800-or-so kilometres, it does just that. But in days of yore, pilgrims travelling from all over Europe – France, England, Germany, Switzerland – would make their way to St-Jean, nestled below one of the easier crossing points of the great Pyrenean mountain chain, and rest there before a one-day jaunt took them into Spain. If it’s worked for a thousand years, what gain for the modern pilgrim to change things?

Despite feeling more than a bit fraudulent, we figured the best use of the extra time would be to explore the village. Essentially, there are two main streets: a modern one to allow the traffic through, and an older, narrow one – gated at each end, and now pedestrianised – that leads down from the citadel and forms the Rue de la Citadelle: the beginning of the Camino.

Rue de la Citadelle & the Porte d'Espagne
It was a sunny afternoon, and we ambled gently round town, taking in the sights and bumping into pods of other pilgrims loitering around town, including some of those we shared taxis with such as Berlin Student, Russian Ed and the 3 Israelis. We also had some lunch and got our Pilgrim Passports accredited with an official stamp to record our presence at the beginning of the route.

Bridge over the River Nive
It’s an interesting little place, with more than it’s fair share of walking-related importance. The Camino exits to the south, whilst the Route Saint Jacques (the pilgrim route from Le-Puy-en-Velay in France also known as the GR65) enters from the north. The GR10 – the lengthy traverse of the French side of the Pyrenees – passes through on its east-west journey: a major crossroads of pedestrian activity, not unlike the Basque equivalent of Keld.

View from the old walls
Later we checked and re-packed all our gear, and went out for something to eat (Grilled Lamb with peppers, Saucisses Confit, frites, piperade and salad) before getting an early night. Tomorrow is set to be a big day ………

The Basque Banksy?

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