Towns Along The Way – St Jean Pied de Port

I have left this series unattended for quite a while. In fact, the last post from this series was in January when I briefly spoke about towns beginning with the letter R. I have decided to jig things up with the remainder of towns from the Camino Frances. And there are many. I will start with the town furthest from Santiago and walk towards the Cathedral. One day I will get there. Maybe I should have done this from the off 🙂

So..we begin…

StJean

St Jean Pied de Port (map), or “Saint John at the Foot of the Pass” is in the Pyrénées department in Southwestern France close in the Pyrenean foothills. The town is also the old capital of the traditional Basque province of Lower Navarre. It is also the traditional starting point for the Camino Francés. If you start your Camino here, you are 8km from the Spanish border, however those 8km may as well be doubled if you factor the ascent. The town is made up of one long main street, crossing over the River Nive as you exit the town.

Getting to St Jean is not as easy as you think. You can either fly to Biarritz and catch a train from nearby Bayonne. It is the nearest city to St Jean and Ryanair offer regular flights. For those of you who live outside of Europe, you many have to fly to Barcelona or Paris. You can travel to St Jean directly from those places also. There are plenty of places to stay in St Jean once you arrive (Gronze). If you are planning to walk during peak season, it is advisable to book a room in advance as you are not guaranteed a bed on arrival. I have stayed in Gite Ultreia and highly recommend it, however Gite Beilari is well known and well liked. Many of the people you meet here will walk with you for much of your Camino.

stjeanpdp-pilgrimofficeThe old town of St Jean Pied de Port is really one old cobbled street, the rue de la Citadelle which runs down hill from the 15th century Porte St-Jacques to the Porte d’Espagne. The street crosses the River Nive on a old stone bridge and there are many pictures of these views strewn across the internet. Up above the town is the citadel which once held great importance in Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port. St Jean Pied de Port is very geared up for the pilgrims with restaurants offering pilgrim menus and shops selling anything you might have forgotten. A top tip is to visit the local Lidl to buy some snacks for the arduous walk the next day. The pilgrim office will either give you a credencial or stamp your own one, which you need in order to stay in the albergues along the way and also have maps and useful advice. Heed any advice the volunteers there give you, especially if you should cross the Napoleon pass or if you should walk via Val Carlos. The weather plays an important part in this decision.

Your next stop after leaving St Jean is Orisson after 8kms of uphill. But remember to enjoy the views 🙂

Weekend Watch #25 – Radio Buen Camino

Hi folks and here is another weekend watch for you all..the first of February. My offering to you this week is fairly old in comparison to my other videos but it is high in quality. The uploader has put a massive amount of work into this series. Gunnar Walgraeve, a pilgrim from Holland, has put together a great collection of clips from his time on the French Way. Here is the first clip from St Jean to Zubiri. It is in Dutch, but it is subtitled in English. It brought back great memories of my time climbing the Pyrenees in September 2014. You can browse through the rest of his collection afterwards on his home page. Enjoy!

Weekend Watch #22 – Navarran Timelapse

Guys, I’ve stumbled on gold!

I’ve found this gem of a video and I wanted to post it so you can see what I mean. I am a big fan of time lapse videos but when you find one created on the Camino, it is extra special. The maker of this one has put in a lot of work into this video with shots from St. Jean Pied de Port to Pamplona. I’m sure you all recognise these scenes if you have walked the Camino but it takes patience to sit in the same spot for hours on end while time passes.

Watch for yourselves…

Camino de Santiago. from Dominika on Vimeo.

Camino 2014 – Day 1 – St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

September 4th 2014 – Day 1
St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles, 27km

I’m sleeping in a room of eight other people. I think they are part of the film crew working on the documentary but I’m not sure. It was pretty late when I arrived back the evening before so there was no time for introductions. The room is dark so I hastily put my things in my backpack ready for the next morning. I am out like a light.

I awake to the sounds of sticks hitting against the cobbled street below. I rush to my watch to check if I am too late but it is 4.50am so all is well. People like to leave early, I think to myself. Andrea and myself had agreed to meet outside Gite Ultreia at 7am so I had plenty of time to get ready. My stomach was like a roller-coaster with excitement and my head was throbbing from last night’s wine. I needed food…and coffee!! I drifted to sleep again and woke at a more convenient time of 6am. I got up, washed and ventured downstairs for some breakfast. Yumm. Bernard and Fafa, the owners, had prepared cereals, bread, toast, fruit and coffee, so I was going to take advantage of it all. There’s not a lot of places to buy food on the hills.

I left Ultreia at 7am and met Andrea who was waiting outside. She had been staying in another albergue further up the road. It was dark and cold but that would change shortly. I stopped off for some croissants at the bakery which had just opened. I had some fruit, and some yogurt also. There were other pilgrims making their way so we tagged along with them. When you reach the outskirts of St Jean which isn’t too far, there is a gradual climb and this continues for the next three hours. I knew it would be tough but when I needed to stop after ten minutes, I knew it would going to be a hard day. Over the next 5 km, we climbed 300 metres and I had discarded my fleece. At this point, the sun had crept up from the horizon and a new day was upon us.

It was great to be back on the Camino however. I had been looking forward to this day since May of last year, and I was eager to meet new faces, and see some new places. The next few days would have to wait until I got this day over however! After 7km, the Camino goes off the road for a while and it begins to get steep. Terra firma gave away to rock and gravel and I found this tough. We reach Refuge Orisson shortly after 9am..an oasis in the desert. I ordered a tea and inhaled my croissants in no time. It was buzzing here, and is a great spot to just stop and look over how far you have climbed. I felt a great sense of achievement but that was just 8km walked. People often stay here for the night but the refuge only holds a limited number of beds and you need to be quick to book.

After eating our snacks, taking in the stunning views, and gathering our breaths, we moved on. The climb continues but it is not as steep, which is good news for my calves which were crying at this stage. My wooden pole I bought in St Jean was doing tremendous work for me and I would be lost without it. After Orisson we arrived at Biakorre where there is a statue of the Virgin Mary. We took our time here. I also noticed a group of cyclists from Venezuala who were recording what seemed to be a documentary with a hand held device. I was asked for my name and where I was from so I assume I will be on some film. I wished them well and we moved on.

Slowly but surely the trail continues to rise, until we reach our highest point of 1450 metres at the Col de Lepoeder. I have never climbed this high and I take a few moments to savour it. It is all downhill from here to Roncesvalles. I read before starting out that there was a choice of two paths at this stage.  One path goes straight down the hill side and is steep and can be dangerous, the other to the right is much easier but slightly longer.  I had no hesitation in taking the second option and we were joined by others who wanted to avoid injury to their knees. The second option is longer and I was lost for a while but I got to Roncesvalles in the end….tired, hungry, with aching legs. I was blown away by the views though. It is an amazing part of the world. We finished just before 3pm.

I checked in to the huge albergue where I was given the last of the beds in the new building. For €10, you get a bed, shower, a cubicle for your stuff and I would compare it to a hotel in all honesty. Dinner started to be served at 7pm so myself and Andrea went to one of the restaurants across the road “La Posada” and had the “Menu del Dia”. Ah..it is great to be acquainted to the “Menu del Dia” again!! After dinner, there was mass in the church beside the albergue which I decided to attend. I would consider myself Catholic but don’t go to mass, but I promised myself I would go to this. All the readings and prayers were in various languages so I didn’t understand what was being said, but I knew where we were in the Mass (if that made sense)! Everything was perfect, the music, the blessing at the end of the mass and the atmosphere. It just felt right!

The next day, I decided to aim for Zubiri. I had Albergue Zaldiko booked before I set out so it was going to be a relaxing day. I got a message from a friend before hand that it was a lot easier than day one, but there are alot of descents. I looked forward to it!

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Camino 2014 – Day 0 – Dublin to St Jean Pied de Port

September 3rd 2014 – Day 0
Dublin to St Jean Pied de Port via Biarritz

I didn’t sleep much that night. Excitement, anticipation, apprehension..you name it…I had it. I had walked the Camino before but it felt like I was doing this for the first time. The flight from Dublin Airport was due to take off at 9am so I was up and out the door close to 8am. After a quick drive, I was at Dublin Airport ready to board the plane. I had my bag packed for the last number of days and even after 3 previous trips, I was looking for room for improvement. I had it down to 7kg which was more or less average for a distance of 230kms. I wanted to walk to Burgos or as far as possible but my last day of walking needed to be September 14th, which was a Sunday. I had chosen Burgos as I had been there before and I loved the Cathedral. It blew me away to be honest. Being a major city, it seemed like an ideal place to stop. It would mean me walking a few 30km+ days, but I had done that before and I knew that it was in me.

I had been in contact with Andrea from Lisburn a few weeks earlier (via the Camino de Santiago forum) and we agreed to meet in Bayonne and venture to St Jean Pied de Port. We had also agreed to meet some other forum members in St Jean for a few pre-Camino drinks and some food. I was looking forward to that.

The flight to Biarritz was made up of pilgrims and businessmen going about their day. It was delayed by 20 minutes due to low cloud in Dublin but weather in Biarritz was next to perfect so I was eager to get out there. I checked my bag in, sat on the plane and waited for the flight to take off. After close to an hour and a half, and a near-faultless flight, we arrive in Biarritz. The sun was splitting the stones as I stepped off the plan. Phew!

After a quick trip on a shuttle bus from the airport, I arrived in Bayonne Gare and I meet Andrea. I apologised for the delay and make my way to buy my ticket for the trip to St Jean Pied de Port. The ticket costs less than €10 and we both wait on the train to bring us to our destination, After a quick wait, a one carriage train arrives, which is far too small for the crowd waiting to board. We get on and manage to get a seat, hoping that this train will move shortly. Not to be. Ten minutes later, a man jumps on the train shouting in French. I had no idea what he was saying but after a while we found out that there was a bus also travelling to St Jean, and that some of us could take that instead. Myself and Andrea agreed to take that which was probably a better choice. The train stood still in St Jean as the bus pulled off.

After an hour, we arrived in St Jean Pied de Port. There is a bit of a walk to take to get to the main village but when I got there, we are greeted by large crowds. It is busy. People are dining, viewing the sites and basically wandering around. I also notice a film crew on Rue de la Citadelle where both my hostel and the pilgrims office is located. We are told to stay put for a few moments while a scene is being shot. The whole street is at a standstill. I find out that the crew is from Germany and is shooting a film based on a popular book by a German author. Hmm..that should bring more people..I think to myself. It is busy as it is. The stagehand looked exasperated at being asked the same question over and over so I was glad when the scene was over. Myself and Andrea agreed to visit the pilgrims office, collect our credentials and check in to our respective hostels which were booked before. This didn’t take long and I found the volunteers in the office extremely helpful. The weather forecast was for plenty of sun, but there may be some rain so I was aiming for the Napoleon route the next day.

I checked into Gite Ultreia for a fab €15 per night..brilliant value. I buy a few things for the next day including a wooden pole, and meet Andrea, Trevor and Jason for some food before we called it a day. We were pretty tired but excited. The restaurant named “Cafe de la Paix” served the best pasta and spaghetti and it is recommended. Trevor and Jason weren’t due to leave St Jean for a few more days so we bid them goodnight and goodbye. We may even meet them on the way further down the line. I decided to leave at 7am the next morning so ventured back to the hostel to get some well earned rest.

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Returning from Spain..

I am back home in Dublin about 5 hours as I write this. I have returned from walking about 11 days of the Camino and the last few weeks have yet to sink in. It will take me a few days to update my blog to tell you about my time there but at this moment in time, I’m feeling sad that I’ve left an incredible place. I am also happy knowing it is just a matter of time before I will be back.

I have walked from St Jean Pied de Port to Belorado from September 4th to 13th, just over 230km. I had the intention to walk to Burgos, another 40km, but it was too hot to walk more than 6 hours a day. I was going to blog en route but I didn’t want to commit to something that I may not maintain. I met many people from all over the world; from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Estonia, Spain and many from back in Ireland. So stick with me as I update this blog over the next few weeks.

May becomes September…

Just thought I’d update you all on my plans for next week’s Camino.

I’m postponing it unfortunately. I’ve pushed it back until the start of September which takes me past the busy period in Spain. My toe, while getting better, is not 100% and I don’t want to leave anything to chance if I go. While I am disappointed, it leaves me with 3 months to dot the “i”‘s and cross the “t”s. Plus I can start planning my trip to the Camino Portuguese in May 15. Hopefully, I can bring one or two folks along with me then.