Thursday 15 March 2007

Hit the Trail, Pilgrim! The First Day on the Camino de Santiago

Friday, May 24, 2002
Bayonne to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port
66.84 km

Having successfully assembled my bicycle in my not-so-grand room in the Hotel Grande the night before, I had a decent night’s sleep and got up around 8 am to begin my first day of cycling. I immediately discovered that I had forgotten to bring my razor–so much for using a comprehensive packing list. Foregoing the hotel’s 10 Euro breakfast, I checked out, leaving my bicycle case with the hotel. Bayonne is not very large and after only a few minutes’ of riding and checking out tire pressure, baggage loading and brakes, I soon rolled up to the railway station in plenty of time to take the 9 am train to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.

The nice lady at the ticket counter was all set to sell me a ticket for the 15:30 train. My wonderful German railway Website had steered me wrong: the 9 am train (and there are only two trains per day) did not carry bicycles, so it was on to Plan B, which was to cycle the 60 kms or so from Bayonne to St. Jean.

The weather was coolish but otherwise looked promising for my first day on the road. With only limited confusion I retraced my route and headed towards the airport and then onto the D932, a rather busy multi-lane road with quite heavy truck traffic. Luckily, there was a good paved shoulder I could ride on and my initial nervousness wore off as I got used to the traffic and the loaded bike’s somewhat sluggish handling. The D932 soon started to climb and I warmed up quickly. The landscape became quite hilly and was a lush green. Without the trucks it would have been an excellent ride.

Near Ustartitz, I turned off for a break and found a typical French “hypermarché” where I bought a razor and something to drink. Next door was a little bakery and I chose a pain au chocolat from the extremely sparse offerings.

As I continued on the main road, the traffic began to thin out, the sun emerged and I felt finally in a holiday mood. The road ran through the deep and twisting valley of the Nive, a river wild enough that there was camps offering white-water rafting (“Le Rafting”) along the way. The road passed near the resort of Cambo-les-Bains, where the author Edmond de Rostand, famous for “Cyrano de Bergerac,” had had an impressive manor house built in the typical Basque architectural style.

The highway now turned into the D918 and the traffic had almost disappeared as we continued along the path of the Nive. All the signs were bilingual, in French and Basque, and it was some entertainment on the longish climbs to consider how the Basque names might be pronounced. The railroad line also ran parallel to the road but its singletrack was barely noticeable. The scenery was enchanting, with charming little red-and-white Basque farm houses everywhere, forests and lush green fields and the rushing river. I was going through film at an impressive rate already.

Near the crossroads at Ossé, there was a pottery factory but the direction of the sun thwarted my efforts to photograph the enormous pots on display outside. I saw a sign directing travellers to a chateau and thought this would be a worthwhile detour since it looked like the kind of country where chateaux, rather than fortresses, would be rare. I crossed the Nive and continued on the quiet D948.

This seemed like a bad choice as the road almost immediate began to climb and seemed to be going in the wrong direction. There were no settlements and no other signs for the chateau. The road took me through quite dense forest, along a little river and through the Vallée des Aldudes, but I let the spirit of adventure draw me along. After all, this was France and sooner or later you arrived somewhere, unlike Canada. It had become very hot and the sun beat down and I wanted a cold drink.

After a sharpish climb, around 8 kms from Ossé, the road suddenly went gently downhill through a little farm town. I came to another crossroads, with a village ahead and a bridge to the left. Turning left would take me to a gas station, so I rode in that direction and was able to buy some orange juice and a cold mineral water in the adjoining grocery store. It was almost noon and everything in France was set to close in half an hour for the Nation’s Holy Lunchtime, so my timing was ideal. The cashier told me that the chateau was only a short distance away in the village.

Refreshed, I recrossed the bridge and turned left into the fairy-tale village of St. Etienne-de-Baïgorry. It boasted the usual Basque architecture and was spotlessly clean, filled with flowers everywhere. There was a main square with government offices and a pharmacy and as I continued along I turned right to follow a little paved road that rose steeply and which revealed some of the chateau.

Although closed (lunchtime, you know), the chateau was worth the detour. Overlooking the river and the village, it was a jewel, with a little tower on each of the four corners of the main structure. It made me think of the famous Canadian Pacific hotels in their rather ludicrous faux-chateau style, except that this was much smaller, better proportioned and, well, real. The Chateau d’Etchaux was constructed between the 11th and 16th Centuries and is now a bed-and-breakfast, as well as being open, when open, for tours at an exorbitant 6 Euros. But I walked around the outside, took my photos from every angle, and then rode back downhill into the village.

I continued my tour by crossing another little bridge and enjoyed a wonderful view of a superb high-arched Roman bridge to my right. More photos, of course. The a bit further along I came to the large village church, an impressive structure of stone. Although it looks quite ancient and there are records about a church on the site going back to 1263, the current building dates mainly from the 17th and 18th Centuries. The interior is characterized by remarkable wooden galleries running the length of both sides of the church, a feature I had never seen before and which gave the place something of the feeling of a theatre.

On the other side of the river was a four star hotel with a terrace overlooking the water, and full of diners on this summer day, all travel-guide-France. Walking back to the church, I struck up a conversation with a cyclist in his 60s, wearing the colours of Euskadi, the Basque pro cycling team. As I was to find on my trip, many French people are happy to meet Canadians and he called me one of “the cousins.” It seemed to make no difference anywhere that I was not from Québec. He was riding an expensive Look frame and although he had an impressive belly, he also appeared to have legs of iron. We talked about the roads in the district and I asked about the road that ran behind the church and the hotel. He had just come down it and I believed him when he said it was very difficult, running along the Vallée of Aldudes and, after passing the village of Aldudes, climbing even more steeply and crossing the Pyrenees at the Pass of Roland. But I was following the traditional pilgrimage route and wanted to do the famous Pass at Roncesvalles, so after bidding “Adieu,” I rode east and quickly covered the remaining 11 kms to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.

St. Jean was awash in traffic, amazing for such a small town. It is, in fact, Pilgrimville, luckily remaining on the correct side of the line separating quaint from kitsch. I was sweating profusely in the afternoon heat and was thinking it was time to find a hotel and have a shower, but first I visited the local tourism office for a map. They directed me to the Pilgrims’ Reception Centre located in the Old Town.

Pushing the bike up a narrow cobbled street, I just followed a stream of hikers with big backpacks and soon came to the Reception Centre. A man and a woman were scurrying about, assisting the various pilgrims in various ways, and I sat down to wait my turn. The lady immediate came over and offered me a glass of water, promising to look after me once she had shown someone to their quarters for the night.

True to her word, she came right back and helped me with great courtesy and speed. My “ Credencia” received its first enroute stamp, meaning my pilgrimage was now official, and then she arranged for me to have a bed at a hostel. I bought a nice pilgrimage pin to add to my handlebar bag and then rode down the steep hill to find the residence of Monsieur Jean on the Rue d’Espagne.

This was a most entertaining establishment. There was a narrow hallway leading off the busy street, with its little shops, and suddenly one was in a monstrous house from the early 19th Century, with an open central area and a massive wooden staircase circling the walls upwards for four storeys. M. Jean, who was horrified that I called him “Monsieur,” insisting on “Jean” only, was a bundle of Gallic energy who appeared to be restoring this behemoth of a house single-handedly. On the second and third floors, two of the rooms had been arranged dormitory-style and he put me in one of these, pointing out that the next bed was already occupied by another cyclist. There were perhaps ten beds in the room.

The price for the night was 10 Euros and fresh bread, jam and tea or coffee was available after 7 am. I had made the discovery that cyclists usually arrive at their destinations much earlier than walkers, so I was able to enjoy a nice hot shower and get changed in solitude. I organized my stuff, learning once again that when travelling with panniers you have to pretty well unpack everything each night, and then went to buy some postcards and get a new battery for the camera. It had acted strangely during the day and I had used my replacement battery, but it too did not seem to be working properly.

The lady at the camera shop was very nice and showed me that in fact there was nothing at all wrong with my battery and that the indicator showed it was fine. It seems there is a lack of contact with the mechanical link to open and close the cover and I learned to press it back to make it work. Perhaps the little Olympus was not really designed to go through a roll or two of film every day. Luckily I had kept the old battery as they are quite expensive and there was nothing wrong with it either.

Going back to the hostel, I saw that the room was filling up. There was a French mountain biker in his early 30s who was next to me and we were joined by a group of four or five French walkers, a British walker, an older Belgian cyclist named Paul and, somewhat later, an older German cyclist named Siegmar. The language of the evening was French, spoken in a wide range of accents.

Paul joined me when I went to find a café where I could write my twelve postcards and he also bought cards at the camera shop so the lady was rewarded for her battery advice. After we had a pleasant coffee together outside, Paul and I split up as he went to mail his cards and I finished writing my big pile. When I left the café to go to the nearby post office, it must have been over 30ºC.

At the post office, I ran into the French mountain biker, and then I continued for a walk around St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. Much of the traffic had disappeared now in the late afternoon, suggesting the place was a popular destination for day-trippers. The main road ran parallel to the Old Town, which was within the walls of a citadel. Several impressive gates still remained, including the traditional entry for those walking the Camino Santiago, the Pilgrims’ Gate. To the south was a much more impressive gate, surmounted by a clock tower that led to a bridge across the Nive and onto the road that goes to Spain.

There were many little shops selling artisanal items and I bought a bottle of Basque hot pepper sauce and a jar of cherry jam, sweetened with honey instead of sugar, that I was to drag all over Spain with me. One of the problems of cycletouring is that you always keep on paying for any purchases you make.

I had an excellent dinner in a Norman restaurant, enjoying a mushroom crepe, a salad and some excellent Basque cider. I struck up a conversation with two Dutch hikers who had been discussing Basque/French bilingualism and the situation in Québec! They had been speaking Dutch, which I found very easy to follow. They were doing the pilgrimage route as well and after I had told them about the chateau I had seen, one of them said he had stayed at a chateau b&b where the family had done everything possible for him, including washing his sleeping bag at no charge. Perhaps I should organize my next bicycle tour to just go from chateau to chateau...

The hostel doors lock at 22:00, so I was back half an hour before that and ready for bed. There was a long and animated discussion about the proper nourishment for the pilgrimage but the Frenchmen really went all out when the subject turned somehow to coffee. One of the walkers had been a coffee buyer and gave a fascinating dissertation about the differences between arabica and robusta coffee strains which, amazingly, was amplified by his countrymen. It boggles the mind to imagine what the French could accomplish if they could concentrate on details of things other than food and drink. The plumbing at the Lyons airport might be a good start.

Lights out, and before I could fall asleep I discovered the No. 1 Big Problem of hostels–snoring. In our room, the French mountain biker snored with great vigour until midnight. A blessed few minutes of silence followed but it was quickly broken by the next snorer, who carried on until 6 am. I think I must have slept at some point but did not wake up in top condition for the crossing of the Pyrenees.

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