Wednesday, September 18, 2013

El Camino de Santiago - Registration Day in St Jean Pied de Port

The Camino de Santiago, aka The Way of St James, is actually a collection of traditional pilgrim routes through Europe all ending at Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. My decision to walk the most popular of these routes, the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port (SW France) to Santiago, was made in July this year, and I left for Europe about six weeks later.

Sylvie and Jacques Baylaucq on Rue de la Citadelle, St Jean Pied de Port, after looking after me for a day in Biarritz and driving me to the start of the Camino. They could not have been kinder and more welcoming hosts for my first visit to the south of France. Thank you both, and I hope that one day I'll be able to repay the kindness.

Satellite view of part of south-western France and northern Spain showing the route of the Camino de Santiago, from St Jean Pied de Port on the north-eastern side of the Pyrenees, to Santiago de Compostela, and then on to Finisterra on the Atlantic Coast, a distance of some 880 kilometres.

This is what happens when a Frenchman comes across a New Zealander who doesn't play rugby. Registering at the official Camino/pilgrim office acceuil pèlerins in Saint Jean Pied de Port.  Thanks Jacques for capturing the moment.
I came away from there armed with my Credencial del Peregrino, an official passport or carnet for all the facilities available to pilgrims on the Camino.

The municipal albergue (or hostel) in St Jean is in this three-storey building with a quiet, unassuming entrance in Rue de la Citadelle, a few doors up from the Camino office, and very close to the Porte St Jacques, through which French pilgrims arriving from further afield enter the town.

My first introduction to the "standard fare" of pilgrim accomodation on the Camino - metal frame bunk beds in a clean, but spartan, dormitory.
After registration, and a goodbye to Jacques and Sylvie, I explored the charming buildings, narrow streets, ancient doors, gates and walls of St Jean.  This bridge over the River Nive is not far from the mini-supermarket where I bought some food supplies for the following day.

A couple of tourists pass through the town wall by way of the Porte St Jacques.

A delightful wander through the medieval town with its well preserved houses from as far back as the early 16th century, with many striking motifs and patterns on the doors and walls.
This drinking fountain decorated with the scallop shell motif that has become a symbol of the Camino de Santiago is the first of many en route that I would drink at, or from which I would fill my water bottle.  Attached to my backpack was a similar shell fortuitously collected from Papamoa Beach some years ago.
A walk around the walls of the town reveals tantalising clues to its history. I guess this piece of carved tile originally came from above some long forgotten doorway, perhaps even a merchant selling tourist mementos to medieval pilgrims, but is now just a fragmentary reminder in pink schist that this town has been at the "pied de port" (foot of the pass) and an important stop on the Chemin de St-Jacques-de-Compostelle for many centuries.
This panoramic view (in a southerly to westerly direction) faces the foothills of the Pyrenees.  The Citadelle sits on the highest point, standing guard and overlooking both the town and the first stretch of the Camino, which wends its way from the right foreground up the wooded knoll in the middle distance, and then up the hills on the horizon to the left, almost obscured by the ramparts of the castle.
The oldest, quaintest and possibly best preserved building that I saw in St Jean was, according to Jacques' brother Dominique, whose friend lives there, formerly the home of a saint!  According to Caminoteca: Maison Arcanzola was the birth place of Jean de Mayorga "The Blessed" in 1531, a Jesuit priest martyred off the Canary Islands by a Huguenot privateer. Not sure if martyr = saint.
Later that evening I attended mass and moving pilgrims' blessing in the eponymously named Eglise Notre Dame du Bout du Pont, at the bottom of Rue de la Citadelle close to the bridge. As most of those who know me will realise, the religious or spiritual pilgrimage aspect of the Camino is not important to me (and I haven't had a sudden revelation!), but I am interested in the reasons other people walk the Camino.

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