Just to make it clear to anyone joining this post without reading my first post (see here) I’m not actually walking the Camino. I’m undertaking a virtual challenge to commit to covering the distance of the Camino. Now while that’s a motivation tool to make me get on the exercise bike it’s still a bit boring. So I decided to fully immerse myself in the experience as if I was actually walking it.
I suspect the biggest challenge will not actually be the mileage (famous last words), but making these posts interesting and trying to give an authentic impression of the Camino. But like most things in life, if it’s meant to be it will work out – see I’m getting into a more spiritual/philosophical mindset already. I’ll try and set the scene, provide info about the places and I’ll have a little help from other walkers along the way. So best foot forward (or should that be pedal?), here we go.
The start of the journey is St Jean Pied de Port, and it’s a bit daunting to think about all the miles ahead. I’m not as fit as I was (which isn’t saying much) but I’m no stranger to undertaking a challenge. I actually added about 5km onto the total to start just before SJPP (we peregrinos love an abbreviation) so I could approach the town from the north.
Many of the pilgrims in SJPP have walked through France, along Les Chemins de St. Jacques. As with the Camino de Santiago, there are differing routes depending on where you started from. Of course every pilgrimage starts from your own doorstep, providing you’re undertaking the journey under your own steam eg walking or cycling. So anybody hopping on their bike, or putting on their walking boots at Le Havre or Cherbourg (other ferry ports are available) will be starting their pilgrimage at that point for example, but they’ll pick up a formal route later on.
Having spent many happy holidays in the area around Perigueux and further south, I’d often seen the way markers for the Chemin but never fully appreciated what they represented in terms of routes, history and undertaking.
Approaching SJPP from the north meant I’d be covering the same path as 3 of the French routes, so a fairly busy route. Anybody starting in Paris would have already walked 1000km by this point, and those from Le Puy 736km. The Le Puy route aka Via Podiensis is a popular starting point, not only because of it’s relative shortness, but also because it offers the best views amongst all Caminos in France.
About St Jean Pied de Port
Saint Jean Pied de Port, nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees has been a meeting point for Camino pilgrims since the 10th century. Entrance is via the Porte Saint-Jacques, the city gate, which entered the UNESCO World Heritage register in 1998.
The town was built in the 12th century, as part of the Spanish Kingdom of Lower Navarra, after the original nearby town of Saint-Jean-le-Vieux was razed to the ground by Richard the Lionheart’s troops in 1177.
It was formerly the capital of the Basque region of Base-Navarre but ownership of the town changed numerous times over the centuries until late 18th century when the Kingdom of Lower Navarra was abolished and the town remained in French hands.
It’s situated strategically on a meeting of the River Nive and roads that extend into all parts of the Basque Country, making it an important place for traders and pilgrims alike.
It’s medieval cobbled streets are lined with beautiful and unique red and white buildings inside the old town walls. The cobbled Rue de la Citadelle (northside) and Rue d’Espagne (southside) both slope down to the river and are notable for their buildings with ornate wooden overhangs and balconies, which are carved with inscriptions, designs, and religious symbols.
At House No. 9 on Rue d’Espagne, there is an inscription that records the high price of wheat in 1789, which was the same year as the Storming of the Bastille.
Pilgrims begin their journey from the church Notre-Dame du Bout du Pont, but not before they’ve got their hands on a pilgrim’s passport.
The Pilgrim’s Passport
The pilgrim’s passport, otherwise known as a créanciale in France or a credential in Spain is a requirement if you want to stay in the municipal and parish albergues or refugios (pilgrim only hostels) – providing there is space.
The passport originated during the mediaeval times, when it served as a letter of introduction and sometimes as a true passport to get into Spain in times of war. The custom was revived in the 1950s after several pilgrims were charged with vagrancy as they made their way through the countryside, and needed a document to prove that they were not a threat to the local citizens.
The passport has spaces for sellos, (stamps), that you pick up along the way at the hostels, tourist offices, town halls or even bars and cafes. All the stamps are different and provide the proof you need of where you’ve stayed and passed through to show you have indeed walked the Camino.
Walking or cycling from earlier in the Camino (ie approx more than 100km or 200km respectively) only requires 1 stamp per day, but anybody undertaking a shorter Camino requires 2 per day.
In SJPP there is a dedicated pilgrim’s office, but their are various pilgrim associations around the world that you can apply too before you arrive. This guarantees no queueing and the security of knowing that’s one thing less to worry about.
Keith ‘Fozzie’ Foskett, started his solo journey in Le Puy, In SJPP he ran into Jeannie who he’d met a few days earlier on the route. She’d discovered a ‘fantastic’ place where the elderly, female proprietor would gather up everyone’s food and cook it for them (whether they wanted her to or not!). He decided to give it a go:-
The gite Jeannie was staying in was a cracker. It was right on the Rue de la Citadelle. Traditionally built it fell away on a severe slope, so that you could walk in the entrance at ground level, go down three flights of steps and emerge at street level again …
I squeezed myself into the basement kitchen with Jeannie. There were about twelve of us in there, including a couple of faces I recognised. They had all brought down their own food to cook but the old woman cordoned off the stove and cooked it all, letting no one else come near. Some found this amusing, as I did, but others scowled. As it turned out, not only was she a damn fine cook, but she knew what everyone had been intending to prepare, and produced it for them…
It was one of those meals where everyone shared, where food kept coming from nowhere, and the wine flowed freely… We ate whatever was going, drank whatever was offered. We laughed, talked, joked, told stories and enjoyed the atmosphere. I remember most of the Camino, but certain situations shine more brightly in my memory. That evening was one of themThe Journey Inbetween by Keith Foskett
Stage 1 : St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles
So we’ve started from the church Notre-Dame du Bout du Pont, crossed the River Nive via the Pont Saint Jean (bridge) and walked down the Rue d’Espagne to exit the town through the Port d’Espagne. The big decision now is whether to take the Napoléon Route across the mountains or go via the valley through the village of Valcarlos. Both routes are roughly the same distance though the Valcarlos Route is less strenuous as it passes through the valley and reduces the metres climbed during the day by 400. During the winter or even spring, the Napoleon Route can be treacherous due to snow and other hazardous weather conditions.
The first day is the hardest of the whole Camino. The Napoléon route from St Jean is steep up quiet tarmac country lanes. We’ll climb from 200 meters above sea level to just above 1,400 meters then descend steeply back down again into Roncesvalles at 900 meters – pretty hard going on the knees and shins!.
It needs a very early start for this route as the expected walking time is between 7 and 9 hours. You could start halfway through the day by breaking the journey at Orisson, which is 8km out of St Jean. The Refuge Orisson is the last accommodation before crossing the Pyrenees. For early risers, the views in the morning sun are spectacular as you look down on the clouds floating below in the valleys.
The Route Napoléon
Named after Napoleon Bonaparte, the route was of strategic importance during the Napoleonic Wars in early 19th century as a means of crossing into Spain. Although, Emperor Charlemagne is recorded as having crossed this route approximately 1000 years earlier during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. Given that Charlemagne united the majority of western and central Europe in the Early Middle Ages, it is thought that he served as a source of inspiration to Napoleon in his own quest to rule Europe.
Whilst an arduous mountain crossing over the Roncevaux Pass, the pilgrims have for many centuries been using the route due to its lack of trees and limited places for bandits to hide; unlike the heavily wooded valley route through Valcarlos.
Beginning with a constant ascent for 20km, the Napoleon Route promises mountain meadows and spectacular mountain views interspersed with country houses. Just outside of Orisson you will come across the statue of Virgen d’Orisson (Virgin of Orisson) reportedly carried from Lourdes by shepherds and if you listen carefully you might hear the sheep bells ringing in the countryside.
How I covered my miles/kms
- 19 April – 8km
- 20 April – 8km
- 21 April – 8.5km
- 22 April – 14.1 km
- 23 April – 11.3 km
So that’s my first (virtual) stage done, only another 31 to go. Here’s a little video that will give you a flavour of crossing the Pyrenees.
See you for the next stage? Buen Camino!!