Camino de Santiago - Brian's Update No 12

In which Brian finally joind 'The Camino Proper'

Days 62 to 65

25 May to 28 May

St Palais - Larceveau

I leave quite early the next morning, but I would like a stamp on my Pilgrims Passport, the Tourist Office does not open until 9.30, so I can browse around. I find the Church, it's open and Mass has already started, the people are actually on the altar, perhaps some society. I kneel quietly at the back, receive Holy Communion, and then head back towards the tourist office. It's 9.15 but there is a lady inside, I go in, she explains that she is actually closing the office for the day, as she is on her own with some group to look after, but she is very happy to stamp and sign my passport. Another coincidence, I wonder?

I know that very shortly I will be on the Camino proper I have about 2-3k of road before I join the GR65, a walking route coming, I think, from Le Puy. I will shortly be at the point where the routes converge from the most of Europe, before joining the Camino into and on through St. Jean Pied de Port, the door or gateway to the Chemin de St.- Jacques, on to the Pass through the Pyrenees.

Now this is walking! Stiff climbs, beautiful scenery, very rustic, a very narrow road. I can see others ahead of me, away up the side of a hill, sun beginning to take the sweat on you, an elderly lady on a balcony over to my left, indicating take the left fork,' Bon Camino, bon courage' is her shout, I wave in acknowledgement and shout 'Merci' in return. It's perhaps strange how little encouragements like that lift you, although this morning I don't need anything to lift my spirits, I am in fine fettle, feeling fit, I've had a great few days with Carl & Anne, & Nuala & family will be here in a couple of days. I press on steadily, soon I'm at what is called the 'stele' I don't know exactly what it means, but it is fairly stiff climbing with full rucksack.

I then reach a small monument, which has been erected at the spot where the routes from Paris, Vezelay and Le Puy are thought to have converged. I can now see where I am to go, the route is very clearly marked, with the coquille shell, I make my way uphill to a small Oratory, Chappelle de Soyarza, I can see several other pilgrims there, among them the ones I had seen earlier climbing towards this spot. Rucksack off, over and shake as many hands as I can get to, 'Brian, from Ireland' Names, smiles, 'How long' 'Where did you start' via such and such a place. I have found that a nod, an occasional 'Oui' and a shrug seems to indicate that I understand what is being said, the smiles are broad, perhaps at my attempts, charade mode mostly, memories of my darling Marilou and the talking in tongues spring to mind, but I manage. There is a gate to enter the Oratory and beside it a small covered area which contains a visitors book, I very proudly record the date, the date I started in Rostrevor and The Pilgrims Prayer, which my cousin Marie Therese Boyle, daugher of Mums brother John and Marie Boyle, had sent me; arriving just before I was to leave from Rostrevor. Here it is, I know I got quite a shock whenever I read the author's name, I will give you his name later and if as you read these musings before you reach his name you can guess what it is I will be amazed!

The Pilgrim
Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope's true gage, And thus I'll take my pilgrimage.

And this is my eternal plea,
To him that made heaven, earth and sea,
Seeing my flesh must die so soon.
Then am I ready like a palmer fit,
To thread those blest paths which before I writ.

Click HERE for the full Poem

Strangely tonight I had my dinner with a very sociable and charming companion, who is also on the Camino, I think I have already mentioned her name before, she is Pat Murphy. I'm not sure which Murphy she is now, but she's not from Tullydonnell, she's living in Canada for many years, happily married, with two children both married and she has just heard that hopefully she will be a granny in the near future, and she's overjoyed. I was telling Pat about writing the above prayer into the book at the Oratory, she didn't realise that you could enter it, and she commenced to recite it to me. She has been planning her Camino for quite a time!

I press on along these rough paths enjoying the ever changing vistas, the sun is warm, I sweat a lot, occasional respite with overhanging trees, but generally it is tough going. Hard enough gradients, I can manage those, but heat gets to me, I'm grateful to see Larceveau ahead, a warm bath, a lie down, let the feet breathe, I'm finished for the day.

Larceveau - St. Jean Pied de Port

An early start and a short day ahead, I'm on the last leg into St. Jean Pied de Port, a beautiful countryside, early morning sun, not yet high enough in the sky to get too warm, and a little mist here and there, very pleasant for walking. It's now all along deeply rutted paths, with gates to open and close, on occasion you have t stand aside to allow tractors passage, always a friendly wave, too much noise to hear the shout. I make good time and soon overhaul a number of walkers, they seem to walk in pairs, people perhaps in their 60's, there might be 3 together all eagerly heading towards this opening in the mountains. I catch up with a lady, who is unsure of her route, she does not have a map, and if you were to miss a sign it would be very easy to take the wrong road, there are numerous branches, so I direct her on to the right path, and we walk together for a while. She is from Belgium, Francoise, a very good walker, she climbs rock faces for a pastime, has reasonable English, tells me she is 65, looks younger than 55, a very charming lady. She stops in the next village to eat but I carry on to St. Jean Pied de Port, where I will stay for 4 nights.

St Jean Pied de Port is a beautiful town, narrow, steep, very steep, cobbled streets. Old buildings, timber uprights and beams, infilled with stone and plaster, balconied out over the street. The Citadel towers over the town and from it, the town walls encircle what is the old town, a new modern town is now built outside the walls. The Citadel itself is now used as a secondary school, but you have access to the surroundings, with beautiful walks, as long as you don't mind enumerable steps! There are several Gateways into & out of the old town, your route out to start the Camino is via 'Porte d'Espagne', over the river Nive and then you start rising towards the Pyrenees, but that's ahead of me, I eagerly await Nuala and family's arrival. They are coming out to walk with me; they have booked into a Camp Site about 2k from the town.

I book into my Hotel, go to find the Tourist Office, and then to the 'Accueil Saint Jacques', where my passport will be stamped, and I will be given information on my first days routes and a list of Albergues, Refuges etc together with Telephone numbers, number of bed places, what facilities, and also distances between each potential stopping off place, this information covers the full journey to Santiago.

The street is crowded with Pilgrims, on foot, bicycle, and on horse. Although for the most part, the horse seems to be used as a pack animal. Most Pilgrims on foot carry rucksacks, but I did see a group of 6 people who had a kind of wheelbarrow. 2 longish poles, to which their luggage was attached coming together with a small axle and pneumatic wheel, probably about 200 mm in diameter. They had a harness and two handles, but it didn't look to be very practicable to me!

All along the street are various hostels offering accommodation from 7 -- 15 euros for a bed for the night. A lot of people start their Camino from here, they may only be able to walk for 7 or perhaps 10 days consecutively, and then return in the following years to complete their Camino. A wonderful atmosphere of camaraderie, friendliness, helpfulness pervades the place. Everywhere you meet smiling, welcoming faces. For the greater part the people are of a fairly mature age, I assume that come the end of June this might change and a younger age group will emerge.

Nuala, George, Sinead and James are flying into Biarritz the following day, picking up a car and they will then drive to St. Jean Pied de Port. They will not be here until late afternoon, so having again met my Canadian friend Pat, I have decided that I will walk with her on the following morning as far as her first stop.

Ferme Ithurburia, about 5-6 k out of St. Jean Pied de Port, but very steep climbing. We leave the following morning, past the Church Notre-Dame, over the River Nive, which incidentally holds a good stock of brown trout up to 300mm, you can see them from the Bridge, through the Spanish Gate, and on towards the pass above the town. We are taking the high route, Route de Napoleon, sometimes called 'Route des Ports de Cize'. The climb is steep but we are taking our time, the views are breathtaking, and the morning is good, we can see out over the valley we have left. It is perhaps 5.5 k but still it took us the best part of 3 hours! Good thinking on my part, George will drop me off where I finish and I will have fresh legs to tackle the rest of the climb to Roncesvalles.

To travel from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles in the one day you travel around 25 k but you climb from 160 m to over 1300m in height with numerous drops and rises in between. Roncesvalles itself sits at something less than 950m above sea level. It is not a steady gradient, it is full of ups and downs, and sharp rises and falls, a testing climb for even the fittest. So, I have reduced my distance by almost 6k and more importantly, I have taken perhaps the steepest stretch out of it!

I walk back into town in around 1 hour, well before Nuala will arrive. I have crossed and re-crossed the Spanish border, and on my way back, I can again allow the memory free rein, stories of Tommy's border exploits immediately come to mind.

Days 65 to 69   

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