I was in St Jean-Pied-de-Port (translates as St John-at-the-foot-of-the-pass) better known by many as a traditional departure point for the ‘Way of St James’ or the ‘Camino de Santiago’. I was stood outside the Pilgrims Office on the Rue de la Citadelle, the rain pelting my head. Only minutes earlier I had acquired a Pilgrims Passport or Credencial which is a pre-requisite for any committed (verb – to pledge oneself or to place officially in confinement or custody, both seemed so appropriate on this occasion) pilgrim. The document consists of a simple book of blank spaces onto which stamps can be added and it cost me a meagre 2 euros. These stamps can be collected along the route at plenty of places, bars, hotels, churches, town halls etc and is basically proof of your journey. It is necessary if the individual wants to obtain a compostela (a certificate of accomplishment given to pilgrims) to prove you have either walked a minimum of 100km or cycled 200km. I stuffed the papers into my already bulging rucksack and wandered down the bumpy, slightly slippery cobbles, the pretty narrow labyrinthine streets are dominated by Basque style houses with lovely ornate wooden overhangs and expertly arranged window boxes blossoming with vibrant kaleidoscopic colours, scenting the air.
I need to take you back some seven months to explain why I was here in the shadow of the imposing Pyrenees. My father had just passed away after a courageous battle through the darkness that is cancer and instead of plummeting into a downwards spiral of despair and depression, a surprising reaction overwhelmed me, I was filled with a powerful determination to travel the Camino de Santiago as a simple mark of respect. Its sounds slightly clichéd but simplistically I felt compelled, deep down I needed to display my love, not only to the world but most importantly to myself.
As I unlocked my bike I briefly paused in contemplation, clearly visualising the task that lay ahead, my focus to pay homage to St James. I made a promise to myself, to keep the image of me laying my hands on the statue of St James fresh in my mind, especially if things deteriorated, either physically or mentally. Thankfully the weather had started to behave. My excitement was now tinged with growing anticipation, I had to accept my journey had already begun. My immediate focus was the Ibaneta Summit and the monument to Roland, the flamboyant Commander of Charlemagne army. The memorial marks the top of the pass and is home to a small modern chapel built in 1965 and a bell used to guide pilgrims in bad weather. My goal was to deposit a picture of my father somewhere on the pass, I normally chastise the kids for any littering but this was something I felt compelled to do. Anybody questioning my motives would be brushed aside with a typical English approach of pleading a competent ignorance of the local language (which appears synonymous nowadays with our nation).
The clouds had cleared as I set off through the Porte d’Espagne, negotiating the river Nive and its simple atmospheric bridge before glimpsing a sign stating ‘Arneguy 8. Frontiere d’Espagne’, the landscapes dominated by luxuriant towering trees and splashing waters. The views were gallery quality. The ascent was gradual but never a concern. The N135 is a well-established and well maintained road surface and after several kilometres I arrived in Arneguy. The village is modestly appealing with a number of pilgrims hotels and a quantity of shops for the acquisition of provisions and is one of the last French villages on the trail.
Further on, a redundant customs point highlighted the fact I had now crossed the border into Spain. I reached the first town on the Spanish side, Valcarlos, after a substantial trek. Its architecture didn’t appear typically Spanish, it was quiet with a smattering of amenities and people. However its location is stunning, set in a lovely valley cocooned by a rugged and enticing landscape, offering a natural hillside balcony. Actually the only real sign I had entered a different country was the contrast in number plates on the occasional speeding car. Here I found a good selection of small hotels, shops, cafes and a bank, but my thoughts were preoccupied by a local Iglesia, the sun eventually peeping from its slumber. Back home I had read enthusiastically about the Church of Santiago in the town, which supposedly contains a life size representation of Santiago Matamoros, the Spanish name for St James the Moorslayer. The origins of The Way of St James are wonderfully simple. The story began with the death of Christ, this prompted the disciples to disperse throughout the globe and St James (James the great, Jesus’s cousin) eventually found himself in the sunshine of Spain. After years of doing the day to day disciple duties he returned to Jerusalem to be confronted by the rather grumpy King Herod, who subsequently beheaded the poor fellow. His body was then taken back to Spain, where it lay undisturbed for 700 years until it was discovered by Alfonso II, King of Asturias in the 9th century. The enlightened king proceeded to make St James the Patron Saint of Spain and built a church in his memory, it was known as Campus de la Stella, later shortened to Compostela, the name we recognise today. According to ancient traditions the remains of St James are held in Santiago Cathedral and the city owes its popularity and entire existence to this holy shrine and the pilgrims route. It’s one of the most famous, known throughout the world.
I discovered the church in a tranquil enclave, its pale white façade gleaming in the bright sunshine. It was definitely closed, my loud rapping on the door was testament to the fact. However I was slightly confused by the odd sculpture stood outside which I understood is supposedly a representation of a group of pilgrims, it looked more like I had interrupted a drug induced game of chess. I pedalled out of the village, negotiating another cascading river location before whizzing through a rather non-descript hamlet. At this point the climbing increased significantly, the verges dotted with waymarkers adorned with the infamous shell symbol pinpointing the route, which does make it pretty much impossible to get lost. The origins of the scallop shell used as an emblem of the pilgrim is open to many interpretations. It’s often found on the shores of Galicia and has over time taken on a rather mystical and metaphorical meaning, but in reality it may just derive from a pilgrim having a simple desire to take home a souvenir in remembrance of their journey. Metaphorically the groves of the shell converge at a single point which some believe represents the various routes a pilgrim has taken or can take to arrive at St James’s tomb. Practically, it’s the perfect size and shape to collect water or food to sustain a weary pilgrim on the trail.
The bike was behaving well, I had opted for a folding bike predominately as a test of fortitude, I wanted to at least feel like I was experiencing in a minor way the discomfort of the early pilgrims. I wasn’t prepared to stubbornly compromise on certain aspects or attributes, It could not be a top-of-the range version like a Dahon or Brompton, only a cheap slightly weighty alternative would suffice and my budget was a meagre £100. The only downside I later discovered was with the lack of gears, any substantial incline would require me to get off for a period and simply walk which, as you can imagine, did slow my progress somewhat.
My father wasn’t one for religion, he attended church on only a handful occasions throughout the year, more out of duty than any semblance of faith. His reaction to my plans to pedal through France and Spain would have been so predictable. Initially, ‘Why?’, followed by an enthusiastic and safety conscious ‘Good on yer, but please make sure you wear your helmet’ and finally ‘Stay in touch, you know how your mum worries’, but in reality I knew he worried more! Nowadays we unfortunately travel far too quickly, the romanticism of travelling on foot, horse or even the simple bicycle has long been forgotten, replaced by hi-speed metal alternatives. The world has become so easy to explore which can only be a good thing, but it reduces the time available to reflect, especially on the long journey of life and the meaning and purpose within those lives.
The complete desolation as I rode gave me the opportunity to contemplate my life and question could I possibly display any pious attributes or qualities? Or am I just too aloof, selfish and ignorant? To be brutally honest, I was apprehensive about exposing myself to the whole concept of faith and the reason for pilgrimage, especially the feeling of pain, horror and desperation that it can evoke. But on the other hand, I understand that some traveller’s believe that through their personal darkness they will ultimately be exposed to the power of god and his healing or simple spirituality. Recently I have found the concept of faith hard to accept especially throughout my father’s illness and recognised that my own inner strength has come from the unadulterated love and passion I have for my family, they provide my meaning and purpose, especially when I am way from home. But through this experience, I hoped I would start to comprehend the power of religion, or at least face head on my emotions, my thoughts and importantly my memories. I had decided that at a minimum a simple helping hand from above especially as I approached the mountains would’ve been appreciated.
The morning had quickly turned into the afternoon and my ascent was now well established, the scenery was a 360 picturesque ensemble of sheer shadowy peaks and mesmerising greenery, a fantastical landscape. As I closed in on the summit, I noticed an off road route up through the mountain and I hoped for a quicker route to the Ibaneta. With vigour I deviated into the unknown. My first real mistake, the surface was in poor condition, more appropriate for rambling than two wheels, a bumpy track that deteriorated into a grassy boggy trail. As I zipped my fleece I saw my first ice, with trepidation I pedalled onwards and upwards (even slower than previously, if that’s possible). Next I had to precariously cross a lovely cascading stream, the water was a welcome surprise as it ran over my tired shoes. Eventually after much exertion I arrived at the giddy heights of Ibaneta. The visibility was poor, suddenly a cold mist had descended. At 1057 metres the pass affords a remarkable spiritual atmosphere which was probably helped by the eerie weather, but the silence was absolute, my faint breath the only sound. The simple chapel and bell looked slightly forlorn and immediately my spirits lifted. I lovingly deposited my father’s picture amongst the simple makeshift crosses. I sat in remorse, the conditions harsh, there were all kinds of objects used to remember loved ones, simple symbols of hope, in different stages of deterioration. This is the location where Charlemagne had got to when he heard Roland blow his horn, too late to go back to help him. As I rested, I had to finally accept my father had passed, a metaphorical weight had been lifted but more importantly I had to accept how exhausted I was. The infamous ascent had completely sapped my energy, thankfully a substantial descent followed. I was presented with a unspoilt amphitheatre of glorious greenery. The freewheel into Roncesvalles was a blast, a torrent of absolute joy and reckless overdue enjoyment.
I stopped for a brief rest and a spot of lunch in the town, as I chomped on the ubiquitous Haribo, I pondered my dietary requirements for the days ahead. I had intriguingly read that in medieval times, pilgrims were encouraged to eat only fish, rather than meat which was believed to entice to sinful acts and thoughts. Adoption of these dietary limitations of the past was a definite consideration but how feasible or logical would it be, and did I possess the willpower and inner steel? Only time would tell. The town has an illustrious past with a hospital and Augustinian Monastery founded in the 12th century and several shops and places to stay. Everywhere deserted, the winding street and alleys were ghostly quiet.
Next I easily negotiated Burgette and Espinal before stopping once more in the typically Basque village of Erro. My stop was one of tiredness, I lay in repose on the side of the road, my hefty rucksack providing an adequate headrest. I unfurled my map rather tentatively, I still had 34km left before I reached Pamplona, my concern and apprehension were obvious. From my roadside viewpoint the landscape appeared gentler, the harshness of the mountains somehow diluted. The local birdlife serenaded me with a soothing repertoire, so I gathered some strength and pedalled on, stopping again briefly in unforgettable Larrasoanna to stock up on water and sugary snacks. I was still pedalling on the N135, the majority on auto pilot, until eventually I arrived in the outskirts of Pamplona, the first real metropolis since Bayonne.
Pamplona is a typical Spanish city with plenty of hustle and bustle, people and cars everywhere, an energetic sort of place. Thankfully there are some well signed cycle routes/paths which enabled me to easily negotiate the rather busy thoroughfares. The city was much colder than Bayonne, the locals dressed in large overcoats and woolly hats. My accommodation was located on a commercial street set amongst a glut of modern restaurants and cafes. Before I ate, I headed off to explore the heart of city as darkness descended. The City’s strategic location at the foothills of the Pyrenees has allowed rapid growth in the financial, commercial and academic arenas. However, almost everywhere you look there is something of its rich heritage. The old town and Ciudadela are fine examples which are best experienced on foot or bike and offer a wonderful mosaic of culture and history.
The old town is the city’s scintillating underbelly, a completely different atmosphere takes over after dark, its alive with a hubbub of noise, the low lights creating a chilled welcoming environment. The bars heaving, the smells emanating into the busy streets creating an aromatic concoction of beer, tapas and tobacco. The obvious main nourishment is tapas and it appeared normal practice to stand in the street and shout your food orders through a little hatch, whilst then consuming stood in the cobbled slender streets animatedly chatting with fellow diners. It was a joy, simply smelling and hearing Basque life. I can imagine to some the crowds could be overwhelming, especially at weekends and during the summer, but what an experience!
I really enjoyed just wandering through the narrow streets, especially tracking down and then subsequently following the route (conveniently signed) of the famous Encierro (running of the bulls) which has been captivating imaginations for centuries. The infamous run is part of the St Fermin Festival which honours the memory of Navarra’s (region) patron saint, St Fermin (1st bishop of the city) it takes places daily between 7th July and 14th July and consist of a half mile route through a significant part of the old town. Finally my evening meal was adequately provided by KFC. I was completely exhausted so an early night was much appreciated. I had only completed one day of my mammoth trek westwards to the Statue of St James, and maybe I had underestimated the task that lay ahead, so with that worrying thought in my head I feel asleep as soon as my head hit the slightly lumpy pillow. Actually, I think I was already in a state of sleep in KFC, as I expertly dribbled into my chicken.
You can buy Scot’s whole book here