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On the Pilgrim Trail: In Basque Country


St. Jean Pied de Port

A menacing sky ahead

Lord of the Pyrenees
by Jeanne Tasker

[First in a 2-part series on hiking Spain's Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail. From Summer 2008.]

It was to be a trip that would have many meanings: spiritual and sentimental closure, rites of passage, mother-daughter bonding, and physical challenges.

I had planned to hike a long stretch of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Pilgrim’s route, in the spring of 2002. Then, my 90-year-old mother sickened and died, putting the plans on indefinite hold. My eldest daughter suggested that it might be a good idea to hike it together to celebrate my 70th birthday and her recent 50th. A younger daughter, feeling with trepidation the approach of her fifth decade, decided to sign on, too.

Santiago de Compostela, capital of the province of Galicia in northwest Spain, is also known as Saint James of Compostela. There, according to tradition, lie the bones of Saint James. It is not certain that they are actually his bones, but pilgrims have been traveling the trails from all over Europe and the world, for 1,000 years, following signposts decorated with scallop shells. Every year, over 100,000 souls trek from near and far, seeking the blessings that ensue from the effort.

Thus, May of 2008 had my daughters and me flying from points around the U.S., meeting in Paris, and entraining the next morning to Saint Jean Pied de Port, a little town on the border of France and the Basque region of Spain, the kick-off point from which we made our initial pull over the Pyrenees. The little train to St. Jean, after the TGV from Paris to Bayonne, passed through beautiful, alpine like country with tiny towns of meticulously tended stucco houses reminiscent of Swiss chalets. A rushing river offered rafting and all was green, green, green. In St. Jean, “pilgrim’s passports” were picked up from the office of the St. James’ Society, the official monitor of the pilgrimage trail. They would be stamped along the way, proving that hikers were, indeed, genuine pilgrims.

The Basque Country, comprised of three French and four Spanish provinces, straddles the French and Spanish border and includes much of the Pyrenees mountain range. It is thought that the Basque people moved into the area, up the Atlantic coast, in the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic times. Their language, forbidden during Franco’s rule, is the only non-Indo-European language in Western Europe and looks and sounds like none other. The Basques call their “country” (they still strive for independence, sometimes violently), Euskal Herria.

The people, matriarchal in focus but culturally predisposed to leaving property to the eldest son, are very close and don’t marry with outsiders, as a rule. Therefore, they tend to look very much alike, with dark hair and strong features, and share the largest concentration of type O, Rh-negative blood, for one group of people. Pilgrims passing through their little towns notice that doors are closed, windows shuttered, and people not often seen, except in bars and stores catering to the pilgrim crowd.

The first day of hiking, 27 kilometers, went steeply up and up over the Pyrenees, winds howling and rain spitting, at times. Wild flowers, cattle, and sheep, in huge flocks, were encountered along the way. All animals are headed by bell-wearing leaders, the bellwether sheep, lead cows, and even horses. At the highest point, we met a very large herd of semi-wild horses, sorrel in color with blond manes and tails. They were crossing and re-crossing the pilgrim trail, being bossed around by an enormous stallion with long mane blowing in the wind, whinnying to his mares and rounding them up into bunches as the young stallions kept out of his way. At one point, a large mare with foal at her side, clearly curious, decided to check out the human mother hiking with her children. She sniffed at my hand with her huge nostrils until she was satisfied that all was well, then went on her way with the rest of the herd.

True to the notion that this was one country, Euskal Herria, we were never sure when we actually crossed the border into Spain, but were very glad to see, after nine hours of hiking, over the final rise, the monastery at Roncesvalles, legendary guardian to the pilgrims. A late start that morning resulted in “no room at the inn” and we were forced to stay overnight in the “refugio“, 70 beds and 70 snorers, it seemed. While these refuges, also called albergues, are available all along the Camino de Santiago at very cheap prices, they fill up early and can be very Spartan, lacking showers, hot water and even blankets. Because one must carry everything for the hike in a backpack, this means that pilgrims seeking the refuges for shelter must have sleeping bags, too.

Not much sleep was had in Roncesvalles, but the price, 7 Euro apiece, was right! After the pilgrims’ mass, a pilgrim dinner was served for 9 Euro, consisting of soup, trout, red wine, and dessert. At our table, five languages were being spoken - English, Spanish, German, Italian, and French, typical of a pilgrim crowd, although there are many more Europeans than Americans on the trail.

A second day of hiking, approximately 20 kilometers, much of it in the rain on very muddy trails, brought us to the village of Zubiri and a very nice, reasonably priced pension with restaurant, obviously the town hangout for the men - no women present! It seemed to be the custom to have an afternoon snack of yogurt with honey, a very healthy one, completely negated by constant cigarette smoking and beer and wine drinking. Raucous card playing followed. This was the last room in town; luck was with us this time.

That evening over dinner we met a Dutch woman, hiking alone since the middle of March and starved for company. Magdalene had a bad back with herniated discs, so instead of carrying her pack on her back as most pilgrims do, she was pulling it on a wheeled cart behind her. She told us that two recent books on hiking the Camino had greatly increased the number of people on the trail; lesson learned, hotels were booked ahead, when possible, from this point forward.

Alberdo, proprietor of the pension, offered us a ride to Pamplona the next morning and it was gladly accepted. Because we had only two weeks to cover the 800-kilometer trail, it was necessary to do train and bus hops in order to reach Santiago. Alberdo was able to offer good advice on a hotel, nice but not too pricey, and later returned to the hotel the sheaf of day-to-day trail maps inadvertently left in his car - a true Good Samaritan. His was one of many acts of kindness we encountered along the way.

No running of the bulls in Pamplona (this annual festival takes place in July), but it was a very noisy, late, Saturday night crowd in the streets under the windows of the Hotel Europa, so sleep was not much better than at the refugio. The rain in Spain was definitely on the plain, so the following morning we decided to take the train all the way to Leon, leaving behind the Basque region and entering the “real” Spain.

Images to remember from Euskal Herria: Beautiful, cream colored Charolais cattle grazing the green hillsides. Tiny, tumbledown villages constructed of local stone, in the middle of nowhere, always centered by the bar/tabac. The proverbial black sheep in a sea of white siblings. The Saturday crowd on the streets of Pamplona, whole families with babies in carriages, gathered at outdoor tables drinking wine and beer and eating tapas under a warm afternoon sun.

(Read part two of the series, "On to Santiago")

Details:
To begin the pilgrimage trail in St. Jean Pied de Port, it is simplest to fly into Paris and travel by train to the south of France. The high-speed TGV has daily service from Paris to Bayonne (approximately 4 hours). From Bayonne, a local makes the 1+ hour trip to St. Jean. [In May 2008, a one-way first-class fare: $122.] For schedules and ticketing, visit www.raileurope.com.

Detailed information on Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrimage trails and how to plan the journey may be found at www.csj.org.uk, the official site of the Confraternity of St. James.

Jeanne Tasker has hiked the woods of New York’s Adirondacks, the 14,000-foot peaks of Colorado, New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, Germany’s Black Forest, France’s Belle Isle and the lush valleys of the Dordogne. In this issue, she looks back on her recent pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. A former early childhood teacher, active community leader, mother of five and grandmother to eight, Jeanne is now planning her next adventure, to Corsica.

- Photographs by Melissa Cicci

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