A day in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Day 56 of Walking Out of the World is a stop-over at the camping ground: a rest day before climbing over the Pyrenees into Spain. I rise early to say goodbye to Dirk at the town’s south gate as he goes out of the town and up the hill to the mountains.

(Previous post: Day 55b Ostabat to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.)

I awoke to the sound of my phone alarm. Once I had scrambled to turn it off, not to wake other campers around me, the second thing I was aware of was the rain pattering on the tent. It was the first time I had used the tent since Saint-Jean-d’Angely, which was already far back in my memory, so that it seemed another year. Let alone setting off from Worcester, which now seemed like another lifetime, or a story of a walking trip I had read about somewhere, but not involving me. Walking Out of the World was exactly that, and on this pilgrimage it was already clear that the future could not be any kind of return to the same old past.

It was a leisurely rest day and that felt very good. The first rest day since Barbara’s farm and Dalie donkey. I was saying goodbye again today to another pilgrim I had walked with. I said goodbye to Dalie at Antigny after walking with her along the ‘variante’ Chemin Saint-Jacques along the rivers Gartempe and Vienne, and learning from the donkey a different way of walking. Some time in the future that would change my life. I had said goodbye to Valerie in Mirambeau, as she suffered with her cold, tucked up warm and safe under the sheltering holy picture of Saint Médard. Just three days on the road but someone I would always remember. And now I would say goodbye to Dirk, meeting outside the pilgrim refuge at 7.30, then wave him off from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. For whatever differences we had – and they were major – we were still Catholic pilgrims on the road, who look out for each other. He was another pilgrim I had walked with who I would never forget.

“Was she a dragon then?” I asked.

He stood in the rain outside the famous refuge run by the old battleaxe who has appeared in every film ever made about the Camino de Santiago. He grinned and made a gesture with his hand – a quacking duck motion representing that garullous legendary lady’s non-stop advice to her pilgrims, her little ducklings – and he looked up at the sky. The plastic olive green poncho that I’d ribbed him about in the Landes flapped in the wind and the rain.

“Next time I meet you on the Camino, I expect to see you wearing a decent army-surplus rain poncho,” I said. “Not some piece of plastic, like a tarpaulin over crates of avocados in Sorde l’Abbaye!”

“It’s lightweight, for walking!” he said, as we jogged quickly down the cobbled street. “We can’t all live in the fifteenth century like your Worcester Pilgrim in a woollen cloak!”

“I’ll see Robert Sutton soon I think. He was behind us in Ostabat. You’ll keep me in your prayers?”

“Sure thing,” said Dirk. “And at Compostela. I already put you in my book.”

“Me too.” I found it quite moving that we’d managed to keep our Christian charity while losing all Catholic civility. “We put each other through it back there.”

“We did.”

The rain was heavy now for a few minutes. In these Pyrenean towns it can be like that in the morning, then it can change and be a beautiful day. The trek across the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles abbey is a hard day’s climb, but not technical, and the gradient on the tarmac exit from the town tells you straight away all that you are going to experience all day. A fit person can leave early from Saint-Jean and be at Roncesvalles by late afternoon or early evening. We reached the south gate of the town and the bridge over the river. There was no exchange of addresses or email. We’d learned as much about each other as we ever needed, and we would draw our own conclusions from the encounter. Any professional would probably observe, ironically, we had too much in common.

Dirk went through the pointed arch, under the statue of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus, and I said, “Buen Camino, brother! God speed. Ultreïa!”

“Our Lady keep you safe,” he said, and he crossed the little bridge across the river in six paces and began climbing up the hill to the Pyrenees.

“Farewell, you mad schismatic sedevacantist!” I shouted, up the hill behind him. He heard me and turned.

“Goodbye, you libtard modernist Pope Francis groupie!” he shouted back, waving his bourdon to and fro, in final farewell.

“Pope Martin the Fifth!” I shouted. “Let’s get ourselves a proper pope!”

A family of early morning French tourists hurried past from the camping ground, looking momentarily wary of the English man shouting in front of the town gate and another hollering further up the road. Maybe there had been some football fixture and the notorious Liverpool or Chelsea supporters were in town? The French learn at an early age to spot the warning signs that les fuckoffs are present (a self-preservation strategy that goes back to the battle of Agincourt in Robert Sutton’s time) but nobody ever warned them about the rabid English-speaking Catholic tribes of traddies and libtards.

I retreated under the town gate, out of the rain, and took one last photograph when Dirk was a small speck disappearing up he hill. He could drink one litre of Stella Artois more than me in a drinking contest. That had surprised me. Maybe there were other lessons to learn from the experience? Probably not.

I crossed the wooden bridge over the river to the camping ground and enjoyed the luxury of returning to my sleeping bag. It was a rest day in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Later I would say Morning Prayer, and think of fellow pilgrims Dirk and Valerie (with a special petition to Saint Médard) and Dalie the donkey. Then laundry, followed by Mass in the church by the town gate, which would be in Basque. A newspaper and a celebratory breakfast: croissants and pain au chocolat and Armagnac with my coffee. For I had crossed the whole of France, walking every step of the way!


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