The refuge at “St Jean Pied De Port.
Route segment: 1
Tuesday 26th September 2000
This was in fact a taxi ride to “St Jean Pied De Port” from “Pamplona” where I arrived, by plane from “Madrid”, the night
before. I stayed in a hotel in the center of “Pamplona” that would prove to be luxury in comparison with the Albergues (refugios des peregrinos) or pilgrim’s hostels that I will stay in for the next three weeks.
When I left the hotel this morning I spent some time walking around looking for the bus and train stations. Both are normally
found in the centers of cities, but not in “Pamplona”. The train station is right on the outskirts of the city.
There seems to be no way to get to “St Jean Pied De Port”, they have never heard of it, even when I wrote out the name. It seems that you have to get a train to Bayonne and then local trains from there and it will take all day. There are also no more buses, I missed the only one which was early in the morning. So a taxi is the only option. The surprise is that it only cost £30 for an 80 KM trip, which is incredible. Everything is so cheap here, less than half that of the UK.
The taxi driver is very friendly. He knows about the Camino and points out items of interest on the way. I am passing through all the towns and villages I will walk through on the way back. We stop for a coffee at “Roncesvalles” which is the starting point for the Camino in Spain itself. I was to meet many people later starting from there rather than “St Jean Pied De Port”.
Strange that no one has asked for a passport when crossing the border. There won’t even be an obvious border when I walk back. The taxi pulls in to “St Jean Pied De Port” and I pay the taxi driver. We shake hands and part as friends, which I have never done with a taxi driver before. I will find that all the Spanish people I meet, with only one notable exception, will be exceptionally nice people.
At St Jean, the full impact of what I am going to be doing hits me. I am in a foreign country where I do not speak the language and I have to find a particular address somehow. I look around for a sign and see one, which says something like “table de orientation” which I assume to mean somewhere to get your bearings. No such luck. Every direction out of St Jean is straight up!
I start walking and after two miles of climbing I begin to realise I am actually walking the road “Camino Napoleon” that I will
take tomorrow, without the pilgrim’s passport, which I will need to stay in the refuges on the way. I stop at a house and ask for directions. The woman seems to know that I am a pilgrim (peregrino) and points me back the way I have just come!
In the town, I walk through to the other side and discover the office “Acquielle St Jacque” which is on the road up to the
Citadel, half way up the hill. It is 14:00 and the office does not open again till 15:00 so I wander about town. There is not
much here except for a strangely clean river.
Apart from the Highlands of Scotland, the Scottish Borders, the Lake District and most parts of Wales, rivers in the United Kingdom tend to be dirty with cloudy polluted water and a lot of discarded rubbish. I will be constantly surprised at the cleanliness of the rivers in the Pyrenees and in Spain itself. I find a souvenir shop and buy a sturdy stick. This stick will be a lifesaver for me but I will lose it much later.
The river at “St Jean Pied De Port”
The same view taken one month later
When the office is open I go in and ask for the pilgrim’s passport. I am expecting to meet a “Madame De Brill”, after reading
many Camino books and web sites, but she is not there and a French chap hands me the information form. It turns out that “Madame De Brill” died the previous year.
No problems filling in the form and he asks me if I wish to stay in the refuge that night. In total it costs 1000 pesetas for the passport and 500 pesetas for the refuge. At an exchange rate of 300 pesetas to the pound that worked out at £1.75. Try staying anywhere in the UK for that!! I say yes and his sidekick takes me a few houses up the street and shows me a very basic room with several bunk beds. This will be typical of refuge accommodation and I will get used to it very quickly.
I am the only person at first but eventually two Dutchmen turn up. They have walked all the way from Holland to get here. That’s over a 1000 KM, more than I will walk on the Camino. An old French couple appear next followed by a lone Frenchman. I will only meet them all again once more in “Roncesvalles”. They walk too fast for me. By evening, two French girls, Margaux and Ophelia, A German chap, Ferdinand and a French Canadian, Thierry show up together.
They have all met together on the train to “St Jean Pied De Port” and I will meet all of them many times over the next three weeks. I will develop a particularly strong bond with Thierry and to a lesser degree with Ferdinand. The girls will prove to usually be the last to arrive at a refuge each day and their arrival anxiously awaited by us all. Towards the end of my walk, I will find out why they are always late.
I have never shared a room with 11 strangers before, some female, and most of them snore. The women, if they snore, are always much louder than the men! So I do not get much sleep that night, being kept awake by the old French woman. That experience will also repeat itself many times in refuges, even with earplugs.
Typically the beds are simple metal frameworks, although here they are wooden, and when the person on the top bunk moves, the whole bed shakes, which wakes me up.
So every night from now on I will only get short bouts of deep sleep punctuated with being woken up. It will be two weeks before I get a good night’s sleep, in the hotel where I am writing this account.
The view from the window of the refuge is impressive. It seems that all the houses in this part of the country and the other
side of the Pyrenees are built with white walls and red roofs. They look good:-
The view from the window of the refuge at St Jean Pied De Port
That evening there is the best thunderstorm I have ever heard. Thunder in the mountains has a completely different sound to it than what you get in a city and I have not heard this sort before. It is very visceral and hits you with the sort of bass punch you get from an air show display or a really good HiFi.