May 13 – 14, 2019
We arrived at St Jean Pied-du-Port via train early in the afternoon. Partially enclosed by medieval ramparts, the small town gives an overwhelming impression of red roofs and clean white walls with tidy red trim.
St Jean Pied-du-Port, France
We followed narrow cobbled streets to the Association les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques (a.k.a. the Camino de Santiago Pilgrim Information Office!) A large crowd spilled out the office door, maybe thirty people, patiently waiting in a ragged line. Jay and I squeezed inside, set our packs against the wall, and joined the throng. All of us were “pilgrims”, seeking a “pilgrim passport” which would enable us to stay at municipal hostels for a small fee on the journey to Santiago de Compostela. In a variety of languages, five volunteers at a long table composedly gave information, treating each person with dignified excitement, seemingly happy to help this horde of clueless people begin their dream.
The man who assisted us spoke English, French, and Italian! He gave us our “passports”, cardboard brochures divided with grids of lines. He explained that we would get these documents stamped at each hostel, thereby proving that we had walked the whole Camino.
When we asked our helper for directions to the Gite Zazpiak, where we had made reservations on line, we learned to our surprise that the hostel was 1.5 kilometers out of town!
“You can easily walk there. Follow the yellow shells marking the Camino. You will make a jog across a major road, keep going, then turn left at the white building with red trim.” He paused to see if we appreciated his irony. ALL the buildings were white with red trim! “Don’t worry,” he reassured us. “There will be a sign. After you turn left, continue about half a kilometer. Your hostel will be the second white building with red trim!” With that, he stamped our pilgrim passport and sent us merrily on our way.
Our first pilgrim passport stamp!
Streamers of sunrise greeted us on our first day of walking. Happily, we ate “petit dejeuner” (coffee/tea, bread, jam) at our hostel, then set off, ready for adventure!
The guidebook suggested pilgrims should hike to Roncesvilles the first day, 15 miles away, over several passes through the Pyrenees Mountains. Though this is a reasonable length on the Appalachian Trail, I felt doubtful of my stamina, even with a light, ten pound, pack. Fortunately, Jay, following advice from former pilgrims in Seattle, had arranged a slack pack for our first two days.
Our path followed very steep, tiny mountain roads, climbing 3,600 feet. Sheep, goats, cows, horses, pilgrims, and cars all shared the same route. The pilgrims were, by far, the most numerous and least predictable denizens of the road!
As we walked, we noticed cow bells ringing almost continuously in the clear mountain air. “It’s a Basque Bovine Bell Choir,” Jay joked. Later we realized sheep, goats, horses, and burros also wear bells.
We’d been hiking for a couple of hours when we came to a small cafe, the Fermé Ithurburia. It’s terrace invited us to stop for coffee/tea and a fabulous view. We also ate sardines and cheese, our staple trail food. Petit dejeuner had been a bit too petite for our walking appetites!
Terrace of the Fermé Ithurburia
We were lucky enough to see three Basque shepherds unloading a whole truckload of sheep. Later, the noisy herd passed us on the road. Yes, sheep, along with everyone else, can walk faster than me!
Our day of hiking ended at the Statue de la Vierge de Biakorri. This statue of the Virgin Mary is said to watch over shepherds and their flocks. From there, we caught our pre-arranged shuttle back to St Jean Pied-du-Port.
65 steep and uneven stone steps along the medieval wall led to the peak of St Jean Pied-du-Port.
After exploring the medieval castle walls, we returned to the Gite Zazpiak where we were served an incredibly excellent meal cooked by a talented chef. Tomorrow the van will take us back to the Statue de la Vierge de Biakorri, and we’ll continue crossing the Pyrenees!
Here is a short video of of the Black-faced Manech sheep passing us today.