The Vipers of the Pyrenees: Part 1

Day 57a of Walking Out of the World. I spent the rest day in the camping ground in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The camping ground in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is two hundred metres from the town gate leading to the Pyrenees. There are two kinds of walkers here: those traversing the Pyrenees on the east/west long-distance mountain path; and the pilgrims like me, crossing over that route north/south on a one-day crossing of the mountains. I begin the climb over the Pyrenees.

(Previous post: Day 56 A day in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.)

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port: the bridge to the mountains & Spain

My rest day in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port provided relaxation, a good lunch and time for some reading. I have stayed at the camping ground three times and it is a favourite place to pitch a tent, just a few steps from the town gate.

Walkers going east-west from Atlantic to Mediterranean meet walkers going west-east and they exchange information about the paths and accommodation.

On the campsite, I was the only walking pilgrim going north/south, for few pilgrims walk with a tent. Indeed I was sending my tent from La Poste near the town’s railway station, as a tent is not needed in Spain. The west/east Pyrenean Way walkers have no information useful to the north/south Way of Saint James pilgrims.

Abbaye Saint-Martin-du-Canígou

Similarly, the pilgrims, who are often first-time walkers anyway, have no useful knowledge to share with experienced hikers on the Pyrenean Way. But as I talked with a young French couple who started with a swim in the Atlantic at Hendaye beach and intended walking all the way to Perpignan and swimming in the Mediterranean, I tell them I know the great Mount Canígou at the eastern end, near Perpignan. I could suggest places to stay and villages where they could find good food.

I sat down with them over coffee brewed on their lightweight mountain camping stove, and they unfolded their Pyrenean walking maps. As a geography teacher, I love maps. All walkers love maps. We looked at the section in the east, at the Mediterranean end of the mountains and I located the Canigou, and the little black square with a cross that marked the abbey of Saint-Martin-du-Canígou.

The Pyrenean Way from Atlantic Ocean to Mediterranean Sea. Canígou here above ^^^^
Abbaye Saint-Martin-du-Canígou

“There!” I pointed to the abbey on the detailed walking map. The close twisting brown contour lines showed it standing on a lower mountain, nestling under the great Mount Canigou. “That is where I lived. It’s 11th century Catalan Romanesque.”

“How did you come to be living in such an extraordinary place?” they wanted to know. So I gave them the short version.

I had been there for a while, as a member of the Communauté des Béatitudes, a French Catholic charismatic religious community. I showed them the places on the walking map where I knew they could find supplies and good places to eat. One of them Googled on a mobile and found pictures of the abbey of Saint-Martin. “What a fantastic experience that must have been!”

“Yes,” I said, without any enthusiasm. I started to go back in my mind to the experience of that abbey, thirty years ago. Umberto Eco’s friar-detective William of Baskerville and his young assistant Adso in The Name of the Rose found themselves in a mountaintop abbey of horrors in the 14th century. I had a bad experience too.

Leaving Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Leaving the town, I was fortunate with the weather. Yes, I had prayed to Saint Médard and it was a fine day. I packed up my tent for the last time and it fitted neatly into the yellow cardboard box I had bought at La Poste the previous day. I could not leave until the post office opened, so I had a leisurely large breakfast of crêpes and syrup with coffee and orange juice, which would see me up the first stage of the climb to Orisson, where I could get some lunch. I left through the gate where I had seen pilgrim Dirk depart the previous day. He would be in Spain by now.

There are two routes over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles: the main road for motor traffic on asphalt and the walking route which is on a narrow asphalt lane for a third of the route, as far as Orisson, and then waymarked grassy mountain tracks and rocky paths. On the Spanish side, after the frontier marker stone, the path is deeply eroded through the passage of so many pilgrims in recent years, and in wet weather is very muddy. The crossing takes a day in good weather. Although you need to be fit, it does not require any particular technical skill, but its charm is deceptive. All that is needed is low cloud and plummeting temperatures – such as can happen in mountains anywhere – and this route becomes a killer. People die crossing from France to Spain every year, usually in winter, and the reason is nearly always lack of preparedness: wrong clothing or equipment and insufficient food and water rations.

The Route de Napoleon is the usual walkers’ route; the Valcarlos Route is the main road.

The Vipers of Saint-Martin-du-Canígou

Here in the western Pyrenees, I was far away from the abbey of Saint-Martin-du-Canígou, but the vipers of the Pyrenees had been let loose by the conversation with the hikers earlier, and they began slithering towards me as I climbed up the mountain path. I saw one in a dry stone wall, just its head poking out briefly, the black pinhead eyes in the dark grey diamond shaped skull, the flickering forked tongue. Then it withdrew in a flash as I looked at it. I shuddered. There had been dozens of them living under the roof tiles of the cloister, in the cavities between the tiles and the roof beams. They came out to bask in the sun on the red roof tiles. No, I didn’t want to remember all that. And I heard Sister Clara crying again. Endlessly crying.

Climbing high above Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port I stopped looking back at that town and my eyes now began to train left, as the mountains came fully into view. I looked towards the far away peaks in the east. I was nowhere near the abbey of Saint-Martin-du-Canígou. It was hundreds of miles away, and there would certainly be no sight of it, but the memory of the place still held me in its thrall, even after thirty years, and the vipers were watching out for me.

As I had set out late, while waiting for the post office to open, I was alone on the road up the mountain. Pilgrims are early risers and early finishers: for it is best to find a pilgrim refuge by mid or late afternoon in order to secure a bed for the night and a rest from the day’s walk.

Orisson was the last place to get a meal, and it was still serving lunches. Most pilgrims had gone from the restaurant long ago and would now be up on the high mountain pass. I could now afford to spend my entire day’s budget on one meal, for the accommodation at Roncesvalles in Spain – when I arrived at the end of the day – would be minimal.

So I dined well and had a full bottle of red wine: some to be saved for later, in one of my drinking bottles. I knew where the springs were on this route, so it was safe to travel with one bottle of water. I took out my Roads to Santiago booklet that I had not looked at for a while, since I had been walking with company for several days until now.

There was a photograph of two pilgrims climbing up this road, at this very spot, Orisson, and a view of the mountains to the east. To the east, where the vipers were. I closed my eyes but I still saw them. I read the prayer in the book, underneath the picture.

May the road rise to meet you:
May the wind be always at your back,
The sun shine warm upon your face,
The rainfall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Roads to Santiago, A Spiritual Companion (Confraternity of Saint James, 2008)

There was no way to escape the vipers of the Pyrenees. Like any kind of demon you have to turn and face the foe head-on. If you do not, it simply burrows away in your subconscious, into your very soul. I needed to overcome my fear, my reluctance to open up this episode, and finally work it through. All evasion was pointless. I had to confront the vipers.

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