Friday, January 1, 2016

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Camino Gazetteer
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.....Camino 1-2004:September 26, 2004
.....Camino 2-2005/2006:October 3, 2005
.....Camino 3-2007:February 5, 2007
.....Camino 4-2008:January 16, 2008
.....Camino 5-2009:January 22, 2009
.....Camino 6-2010:January 6, and October 6, 2010
.....Camino 7-2011:October 10, 2011
.....Camino 8-2012:October 15, 2012
.....Camino 9-2013:October 15, 2013
.....Camino 10-2014:October 14, 2014
.....Camino 11-2015:October 13, 2015

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September 26, 2004


Today I began my Camino, a hike alone across northern Spain from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. Fulfilling a dream held since university days, now at 65 I was setting out alone. This pilgrimage route to the catholic cathedral and burial place of St James, Christ’s Apostle, has been in existence for over 1000 years. Over the centuries multitudes of pilgrims had followed the trail known in Spanish as the Camino or path. I, too, wanted to experience what so many had done across time and to see what had been built along the way.

Bill, my husband, was off to the US for a month so we closed our French Bed & Breakfast to follow our separate journeys. Good-byes were said in the Gare Montparnasse as I awaited the TGV train going southwest to Bayonne. Sad at our parting, yet so excited to be going at long last I boarded the train. Packed, my knapsack weighed about 10 kilos or 22 pounds. In it were a sleeping bag, poncho, thin waterproof jacket and pants, muffler, woolly hat, gloves, and lightweight polar jacket. A walking stick, change of hiking clothes, underwear, basic toiletries, towel, notes, diary, tiny flashlight, camera, food bag, water bottle, utensils and cup made up the rest, plus Mo. (Mo is a toy stuffed moose, which I long ago gave to my father for his 90th birthday. After my father’s death Mo came back to me. Now he was traveling in his own blue sack within the knapsack disguised as my ‘pillow’, but in truth my silent confidante.)

Travel time on the TGV passed quickly. At Bayonne I changed to a slower local train going east to the Basque town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, named such because it is the foot of a pass crossing the Pyrenees. It is also one of the two main entrance points on the French border to the Camino; the other is further east at Somport.

At Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port I hoisted the pack, walked uphill and through the old fortress walls to the office of the welcoming Amis du Chemin de St Jacques to apply for my pilgrim pass and find a bunk for the night.

During the Middle Ages the Camino had been the third most important pilgrimage route in Christendom after Jerusalem and Rome. Thus throughout the centuries lodgings were built to house the hoards of pilgrims. Some were in monasteries, others in hospitals. The tradition still continues. Today towns along the route provide simple shelters for pilgrims. These Albergues de Peregrinos are generally priced at 6 or 7 euros a night for a bunk bed in a mixed dorm. In order to use them you need a pilgrim pass or Credencial del Peregrino. Stamped each night it provides proof of your trip when you arrive at Santiago. More than 70,000 Credencials were issued during 2003! To obtain the pass you must state your intention as either a religious pilgrimage or a spiritual journey and not just tourism. Since the hagiography of St James recounts that his dead body miraculously washed ashore in Spain, scallop shells from the sea are his symbol. Hence, from time immemorial pilgrims have worn scallop shells (in French, coquille St Jacques). Along with the necessary Credencial I obtained my shell.

Nearby a restaurant served the basic menu de peregrino, a simple three course set meal for pilgrims for about 7 euros including wine. Most restaurants along the route would provide such meals. My bunk was in the refuge run by the Amis. Sleeping in one of eight beds in a mixed dorm, I spent my first night with 7 men. Six had hiked down for two weeks from Puy in central France and would continue their pilgrimages in future years; the other from Holland had just arrived on the train. He and I nervously discussed potential stamina for the route that lay ahead. All would snore loudly during the night. After rolling out my sleeping bag and patting my ‘pillow’ I fell asleep wondering about the route and days to come.

Pilgrims must vacate each albergue by 8 am! Nearly everyone wakes around 6:30. After waiting in a few cold lines to use the toilet facilities I quickly learned to rise by 6:15 and beat the rush! The Amis provided a simple free breakfast of bread, butter, jam and tea or coffee, plus welcome conversation; all these volunteers had walked the Camino. Although they welcome so many thousands of pilgrims every year the Amis were attentive, caring hosts who took a personal interest in each guest. They asked and remembered names and offered a multitude of tips. Standing at the exit door they shook each hand and wished “Bon Camino” as we pilgrims left.

October 3, 2005


Exactly one year after completing my first Camino I decided to re-walk the pilgrimage route to try and recapture its special spirit. This time my pack would be lighter; from 8 kilos I was able to cut back to 6.5 by using a smaller knapsack and a more compact sleeping bag ecumenically named Little Buddha as well as wearing lightweight runners’ tights and technical tee shirts. The rest of my kit remained the same, but Mo stayed home. One trip is enough with a stuffed moose!

Bill drove me to the TGV in Paris. We said our goodbyes on the quai and I was off on the morning train to Bayonne. After a few minutes of emotional shock and slight depression at being alone the five-hour trip went quickly. At Bayonne I changed to the tiny two car local train for Saint- Jean-Pied-de-Port. It was easy to spot other pilgrims. All had knapsacks, wore hiking boots and looked slightly apprehensive. I sat next to a woman from Tahiti who was also redoing part of the Camino since she had found her first journey so unforgettable. We compared memories.

At Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port I revisited the offices of the French Amis du Chemin and obtained my new Credencial or pilgrim pass and scallop shell. The Credential allowed me to stay at pilgrim albergues and would be stamped at each stop. The shell is a symbol of St James and visually identified me as a pilgrim. I hung it with pride on the back of my pack. Many carved shells decorate doorway lintels and latches along the old streets of the town. Three Italian pilgrims and I went to the Amis’ albergue, had a simple supper and would sleep in the same co-ed dorm. The three repacked their heavy knapsacks several times once they realized how small mine was!

February 5, 2007


Today I began my 3rd Camino with as usual mixed emotions of excitement and trepidation. Bill and I spent last night in our Paris apartment so that I could get to the TVG easily. My pack weighs 6.4 k without food. It was sad to say goodbye for the next 2 months. For a few hours on the train I felt "lost", but little by little I relaxed. Once I arrived at St Jean Pied de Port and climbed up to the rue de La Citadelle the magic of the Camino prevailed. Mme Jeannine as always was most kind. She cooked me a simple meal and turned up the heat in my tiny room. I was the only pilgrim.

January 16, 2008


Riding aboard the little train to St Jean Pied de Port I met two nice men, one is French and 61 the other Italian and 51. We have already become a Camino family. Madame Jeannine, the gracious hospitalero, liked her photos from last year and was as generous as ever making us dinner and breakfast. What a women!

January 22, 2009


Today I took the TGV from Paris to Bayonne and then the local train here. I am staying in the wonderful albergue run by Mme Jeannine. Entering the front door begins the new adventure!Ultreia!

January 6, 2010


Bill and I got up well before dawn to drive to Paris and my TGV. It was minus 7 celsius when we left home. After our saying goodbye and a cold delay the train eventually left. All went well through the frosty countryside until an unscheduled stop at Poitiers!

Either gas or ice was frozen on the tracks so the train waited for 1 1/2 hours until the all clear. Needless to write many connections were lost including mine! I missed seeing the rolling hills between Bayonne and St Jean Pied de Port in daylight.

Luckily the albergue was open until 10. The last bus from Bayonne SHOULD have arrived at 7 or so but finally arrived at 8pm.

I stayed at 39 rue de la Citadelle with the Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques. Unfortunately their regular Albergue is under renovation so Mme Jeannine, the famous hospitalero of the past years was not on the scene. St Jean Pied de Port just wasn't the same without her.

Four other pilgrims were there; all guys from Austria, England, France and South Korea. We shared the common dorm and breakfast this morning offered by the volunteer hospitaleros.

October 6, 2010


After Bill drove me to the TGV I set off. The train was late arriving in Bayonne so three other pilgrims and I missed the little connecting train to Saint Jean Pied de Port. Luckily the Station Master was able to produce and pay for a taxi which took us on our way!

The other three passenger/pilgrims were an interesting mix of two Koreans from Seoul and a Los Angeles movie wardrobe coordinator. None spoke French nor had ever walked the Camino, so I was kept busy explaining logistics. In Saint Jean Pied de Port at the office of the Amies du Chemin they received their necessary Pilgrim Credencials and we all found bunks.

The newly renovated albergue looks great and is now VERY comfortable; it was completey full with thirty-two pilgrims. The wonderful Hospitalero, Mme Jeannine, is back once again; she remembered me from past visits which I found extraordinary since thousands of pilgrims have passed during this current Holy Year.

I wished Buen Camino to my new friends. They planned to follow the classic Route Napoleon directly up to Roncevalles monastery today while I have followed Charlemagne's path of retreat stopping today in Valcarlos and aiming for Roncevalles tomorrow.

October 10, 2011


I have only just begun yet already am ahead of schedule! Today, October 11, the date I long planned to begin the French National Railroads recently decided to hold a nationwide strike. Thus I quickly changed plans and left yesterday by TGV for Bayonne and eventually Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a major starting point for the Camino.

SJPdP is a picturesque Basque mountain town in the French Pyrenees. Beneath brilliant sun and clear cobalt sky I climbed the ancient rue de la Citadelle to the welcoming Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques. Outgoing and generous these volunteers provide pilgrims with necessary documents and info. Nearby was the famous red door of the municipal albergue. Pushing it open begins each new Camino adventure. Mme Jeannine, the wonderful hospitalero greeted me with a big hug saying You again! What is it now ? Seven times? Other pilgrims arrived; we all shared tips, tribulations, and a simple supper.

October 15, 2012


For me the Camino Frances could ONLY begin at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the picturesque Basque mountain town in the French Pyrenees. Excitement built up while riding there on the local train from Bayonne. After hoisting my pack, walking uphill and through the old fortress walls to the 39 rue de la Citadelle office of the welcoming Amis du Chemin de St Jacques to obtain a Credential and bunk, I walked on. Nearby at 55 was the famous red door of the municipal albergue with its welcoming shell. Opening that door as always began my new Camino adventure. Mme Jeannine, the tireless hospitalera greeted me and serendipity prevailed.

Such shared serendipity is a continual precious gift. This extraordinary flourishing of human spirit helps make the Camino incomparable.

October 15, 2013


First my sincere thanks to all the many past guests at our b&b, old friends, readers of my blogs and pilgrim Forum members who have kindly sent me good wishes for this my 9th camino. One Forum member met my train with a welcoming bottle of the most delicious wine! What a gracious gesture; new pilgrim friends and I happily are sharing it tonight at the municipal albergue in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. New Camino arrows now lead directly to number 55, this comfortable albergue where Mme Jeannine, the energetic hospitalera still reigns.

It is always hard to switch gears and actually set off; each time what to then has only been an immagined dream suddenly becomes vibrant reality as I step aboard the train. Bill waves goodbye and suddenly I am alone in a new physical and mental space. Solo a new adventure then slowly unfolds from home to Paris, to Bayonne, and then into the Pyrenees.

Every day from now on there will be further camino arrows to follow.

October 17, 2014


Whenever I start to walk once again a multitude of camino memories return of places, objects and, of course, people. Over the years I have learned never to assume but always to hope that which was good will still remain so. Happily Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port where I have always begun is still a picturesque Basque mountain town in the French Pyrenees and the volunteers who maintain the Pilgrim office of the Amis du Chemin de St Jacques are as ever most welcoming.

However at the municipal albergue which is always my first night stop Mme Jeannine, who served for so many years as the tireless hospitalera, has now retired. For me the absence of her presence was most poignant and her caring kindness so well remembered. How lucky I was to have met her in her prime!

October 13, 2015


For me the Camino Frances could ONLY begin at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the picturesque Basque mountain town in the French Pyrenees. As always excitement built up yesterday while riding there on the local train/bus combo from Bayonne; the dozen other pilgrims in aboard were also beaming in anticipation. For all a long-dreamed journey was about to begin.

After hoisting my pack, walking uphill and through the old fortress walls to the 39 rue de La Citadelle pilgrim office of the welcoming Amis du Chemin de St Jacques to obtain a Credential I walked on. Nearby at 55 the famous red door of the municipal albergue with its welcoming shell was ajar. Crossing that special threshold symbolically always begins my new Camino adventure in the same way that the children in Narnia move from one world to anther through a bedroom wardrobe. That small dark space behind the red door at 55 is my magical entrance to another way of life, the Camino way.

Mme Jeannine, the tireless hospitalera who had served pilgrims for so many years is once again in charge at the Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port municipal albergue. She greeted me happily with a big hug, fond recollections and many kind wishes. Thus serendipity prevailed as that special threshold was crossed.


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1 comment:

  1. I found your wonderful blog while I was looking for our dear Mme Jeannine; my Camino was on 2001 and I am planning to be back next year. Now that she has retired, hopefully I will be able to meet her al least to say Bonjour et merci!

    ReplyDelete