Day 55a of Walking Out of the World. There are two posts for this last day of walking in France: first the meeting point of the main branches of the Chemins de Saint-Jacques in France at Gibraltar and historic Ostabat. The second half of the day (55b) is a separate post completing the day’s walk to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and the last day of walking with Dirk, with a reasonable truce due to a hangover.
(Previous post: Sorde-l’Abbaye to Saint-Palais.)
The overnight stay at the large pilgrim refuge in Saint-Palais was the first time since leaving Worcester that I had joined a large – and truly international – group of pilgrims. There were French, Italians, Germans, Dutch and Japanese, and the restaurants of Saint-Palais drew much of their custom from pilgrims, including us, and we indulged in a beer-drinking competition in which I came second and slept very well. The reason that Saint-Palais is a pilgrim town is nothing to do with its religious or cultural attractions, of which I could not discern any of note, but simply its geographical position. Just a few kilometres uphill, to the south-east of the town, is Xibaltar (or ‘Gibraltar’ as it is popularly known) the hamlet where the three main branches of the Chemins de Saint-Jacques join together.
With the American pilgrim, Dirk and a group of a dozen French, German and Italian pilgrims spread out across the narrow tarmac lane to Gibraltar, I arrived at the marker stone and felt an enormous sense of achievement at completing the Via Turonensis, but also a sense of awe as I stood at the spot where pilgrims also finish the route they have walked all the way from Vezelay, and others join from the east after walking the Le Puy route. The round way-marker stone symbolically stands on the points of the compass. The other pilgrims were eager to keep moving fast towards the day’s goal: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. There had been some discussion the previous evening about the need to arrive early in that town because there would be a strain on pilgrim accommodation, with the sheer numbers on the road now.
Dirk and I lingered at the Gibraltar marker stone. As the pilgrims who had come first and second in the beer-drinking competition, squarely beating the German pilgrims by two litres and one litre respectively, we were still proud of our achievement and yet feeling very ill. (A Dutch pilgrim who foolishly thought he could keep up with us but dropped out after seven litres, now remained in Saint-Palais for an extra ‘rest day’ as he was too ill to even leave the pilgrim refuge. Dirk suspected the Dutch drinker wasn’t a proper Catholic.) I don’t enjoy hangovers. Looking at Dirk’s face, he clearly didn’t enjoy them either. But there was definitely a plus point. The main advantage of a severe hangover was a complete loss of enthusiasm for ecclesiastical argument or mutual moral condemnation.
In fact, I mused while looking at the pilgrim road ahead to Ostabat, all divisions within the Church could be quickly overcome if everyone would drink an enormous quantity of draught Stella Artois beer and fall over.
As the Virtual Pilgrimage has now reached Gibraltar and Ostabat it is time to look at this path itself as cultural heritage and patrimony.
The graphic shows the route of this Virtual Pilgrimage on the left, from Newhaven to Dieppe, then down the via Turonensis; compared with the other main routes that all converge at Gibraltar and Ostabat. It is the biggest road junction for pilgrims, both today and in mediaeval times.
Earlier in France in the post for Days 39 & 40 Lusignan to Melle I mentioned that I would return – here at Ostabat – to the UNESCO World Heritage list of the Way of Saint James patrimony. (Warning: link downloads a 700-page PDF.)
The linked document lists the architecture and sometimes sections of the paths themselves on the three main branches of the Chemins Saint-Jacques in France, where the Way of Saint James pilgrim path itself between Gibraltar and Ostabat is recognised as a part of UNESCO World Heritage.
This ‘Virtual Pilgrimage’ has never attempted to be any kind of ‘guidebook’ to the Way of Saint James, but this particular spot where all the routes converge, deserves some more precise mapping. But the map above (left) is also an example of the quality of illustration in the UNESCO heritage document for the Chemins Saint-Jacques. Fully detailed ordnance survey quality maps are provided for all the towns and monuments covered by the guide. (It’s well worth a free download!)
The picturesque Basque village of Ostabat has seen untold millions of pilgrims passing through, ever since the bishop of Le Puy brought his flock to Compostela down this route in the very first international pilgrimage on the Way of Saint James in
The two pilgrims who had walked from England and were now walking into the Ostabat recovering from their hangovers from Saint-Palais, had now developed an appetite for lunch. No thank you, we didn’t want any wine with our sandwiches. The café Ametzanea provided a tampon for the pilgrim’s credencial, and soon we would be seeking sellos in Spain. I looked in my credencial and saw the last of the identical mairie tampons had been stamped in Cagnotte in the Landes. I felt a little remorse for my judgment of the town halls of England and France with their beige dressed civil servants. Already this countryside was beginning to feel like Spain, but the frontier was a long way off, and very high up in the real mountains, still to be crossed.
“I’m going to stay in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port for a day, when we get there,” I said to Dirk. We were drinking only carbonated water with our sandwiches, but we raised our glasses in a toast to our time on the road together. “I need to put up the tent and make sure it’s aired properly before I post it back to Barbara who loaned it to me. I won’t need it in Spain. There’s a campsite in Saint-Jean. It will be a cheap rest day too.”
“I don’t need a rest day,” said Dirk. “I’ll just stay overnight in Saint-Jean then start up the mountain at 7.30.”
“I will come down to the town gate by the bridge – it’s near the campsite,” I said, “and I’ll see you on your way.”
“Maybe we’ll see each other again somewhere in Spain?” said Dirk. “Pilgrims meet up. Sometimes a week goes by and you see people again.”
“Sometimes six hundred years go by, and you see a pilgrim again,” I said.
I was looking out of the café window. A man in a long brown woollen cloak and a wide-brimmed hat with a scallop shell fixed to the upturned brim was walking past on the road through Ostabat. I tapped the window and he turned momentarily, raising his left hand silently in greeting, while his right hand swung the tall bourdon and the two metal prongs at the base rang out on the dark cobblestones. Cutting edge technology from Worcester in 1423. Robert Sutton carried on down the road. I guessed he would be looking for accommodation here, not in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. For this would have been the place to stay in his time.
Down at the edge of the wooded valley again, past the priory of Harambeltz, they came to the town of Ostabat, the largest in this part of Navarre. With a series of streets neatly laid out up the terraces of the valley side, and numerous hospitals, inns and chapels, this was a bustling crossroads town, recommended by many as an ideal place to stay. Ostabat could accommodate an almost infinitely variable number of people in its assorted establishments.
By now the trickle of pilgrims was becoming a steady stream. From Bayonne in the north west and Bearn in the east, they came in pairs or small groups, or parties of several score; some laughing, some anxious, some limping, some riding, many striding out on foot. Whatever their origins or destination, whether pilgrim, merchant or royal courier, rich or poor, devout or doubting, now they were converging on Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a bottleneck on the routes across the mountains.Katherine Lack, The Cockleshell Pilgrim
Yes, Robert Sutton would be staying here tonight, after I continued on my way. And at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, I would say farewell to pilgrim Dirk and I would be walking up into the Pyrenees alone again next day.
But not without a companion.
The continuation – Day 55b Ostabat to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port – follows shortly.