To France and Jesus Wants me for a Sunbeam

Day 9 - Pamplona to St Jean

We were back on the road after a welcome 36 hours rest in Pamplona with the bikes being checked and parts replaced as well. We were reticent about leaving Pamplona and had debated on taking another day but were on the road now and it was good to be moving again.

We left just after the rush hour and the morning ride got us back into form so by 10.30 we’d done 30km and stopped for our second breakfast in Aoix, a small village by a lake. We stopped in a bar that was clearly a place for the men of the village to congregate. The décor was Spartan but the coffee delicious (Spaniards make great coffee on the whole) and I found myself tempted to have what one of the locals was having, which posed an interesting dilemma.

It was 10.30 in the morning, which isn’t quite aperitif time in Spain or France. For anyone who doesn’t know what this is, an aperitif is a little tipple before you have lunch or dinner to help your digestion along the way. Our friend was in a dilemma. In another thirty minutes he could clearly feel at ease about ordering himself a cognac but at 10.30 it wasn’t quite breakfast any more and not really lunchtime.

So the barman found the perfect solution for his customer. He put a shot of 40% Veterano cognac in his double espresso. Ole! Problem solved. Although, if you think about it, the solution was even easier its always aperitif time somewhere in the world. You just have to change your time zone. I decided on a regular Americano before we headed out for our climb.

We had taken a view to change our route as forecasts indicated that bad weather was setting in over the Pyrenees, coming down from the north where there had been major flooding in Paris and other parts of the country.

Having been caught in the rain on top of a mountain the previous weekend where we were hailed on and suffered early stage exposure within a couple of hours, it was prudent to take a view knowing that our original route would have meant us in those conditions for a lot longer. Our original plan was to head 100km east from Pamplona to Jaca before crossing the big pointy snow capped mountains and descending into Lourdes.

To beat the planned bad weather, we headed directly north for 90km, opted for the middle sized mountains and managed to cross the border by mid afternoon.

We stopped for lunch in a churchyard in a village called Burguette and discovered that not only was it on the Camilo de Santiago route, a major route for pilgrims, but it was also part of the Route of Witchcraft where hundreds of years ago, the Spanish Inquisition had pored through the Navarre region exorcising and persecuting the locals, particularly in the mountainous region. The history of the inquisition is well documented and brutal and any modern day equivalents would eventually find themselves up in a world court facing charges of crimes again humanity, but in those days they were the UN court of Human Rights as judge, jury and executioner.

We continued on our climb, seeing the last remnants of Spain turning distinctly alpine in feel and blending into the typical French architecture. Coming across the border, I was looking for the first signs of where Spain ended and France began, which was at first hardly noticeable apart from the change in road name. Then like some state sponsored spot the stereotype, we saw a sign for a fromagerie. I then spent the next ten minutes scouring the pavements for Jean Paul wearing a striped jersey with a beret and holding a baguette.

As we had continued north, we had started to spot a steady stream of hikers and cyclists. Stopping at one point for a mid afternoon coffee, we spoke to a small group of American’s who were making this pilgrimage and suddenly realized we were part of something with a lot of power and meaning to a lot of people. We were just a couple of cycle tourists, who had stumbled onto this incredible path. It felt like we were going the wrong way down the yellow brick road.

We wound up in this slightly bizarre town of St Jean Pied a Port, a typical rural French village set on a river and with visually stunning ancient architecture and houses and high walls with small roads filled with boutiques, restaurants and bars. But this town was different as it was one of the starting points for the Camilo de Santiago where people from all over the world walk 800km to St James cathedral in Santiago, northwest Spain.

This beautiful town has literally been transformed by a kind of pilgrim tourism, turning it into a kind of Bethlehem meets Benidorm. Virtually every house in the old town had been turned into a hostel cum inn with very low cost rooms and beds to rent, even with options of up to six people sharing.

There are constantly updating signs on the open doors proclaiming how many beds are left. They all carry the symbol of a seashell on the doors and are very welcoming to people so it is a great way to meet many random’s from all around the world and talk walking, blisters and Jesus. The tent was suddenly looking a good option again.

We took a room in a beautiful, albeit slightly run down gite that had been transformed into one of these stopovers and were suddenly living the communal dream. In the entrance there were lines of dusty hiking boots and the stairs and floorboards constantly creaked under the weight of a packed house full of guests.

We cleaned up and went into town for an early evening dinner and sat by the road people watching, which had a different feel to it as well. Normally when you sit in any café in any town or city you can usually literally see anything as the world has become a smaller place.

Here, you were seeing the devout, which has a kind of profoundness to it. They weren’t tourists, they were on a mission called by God. They were putting their lives on hold for weeks and months to take this journey in search of answers, cures and divinity. However, they were all dressed like Crocodile Dundee, the standard style was khaki and green cargo pants, hunting vests, floppy hats and boots with ski sticks and rucksacks.

We were expecting all the bars and restaurants to be packed but in fact it was the contrary. It seemed only locals would eat out, the passers through seems to retire to the bed they had purchased early just to sleep off and rise early in the morning to set out again on what is usually a two month journey.

We had come down the mountain and entered the Haute Pyrenees, in the heart of France’s southwest region here, which is renowned for its hearty food and drink. They are world famous for their production of canard (duck) including of course foie gras. The red wine is full bodied here and usually around 14% and when we combined it with our dinner of local specialty of home produced sausage with bacon and a tomato and pepper puree, we knew we had eaten well and had to walk a while afterwards to let it digest. We were also back on French prices and no longer enjoying three courses and wine for €15.

Sam and I had a debate about the merits of this form of tourism (Sam was once marketing director for a large tour operator). We came to the conclusion that pilgrim tourism doesn’t carry the margins.

The residents of St Jean are also a mixed bunch as well. Some of them embrace their place in what is an extremely important journey in these pilgrims’ lives. However, you can also see the frustration set in the faces of others who seem to feel they are living a perpetual Groundhog Day of aimlessly meandering individuals. Most of the locals drove like Parisians here.

Read more about the Camino de Santiago here

Strava stats

Today we rode 90km and climbed 2000m. It was a hot (27 degrees) and close day ahead of forecast storms so we drank around four litres of water. Breakfast was a buffet at the hotel of fruit, ham, cheese and bread. Lunch was baguette and ham with a French dinner of sausage and bacon.

Statto says

This is a quick summary of what Strava has totalled so far. We think its not entirely accurate but on the whole is very useful, although it varies between apps and devices but its somewhere around this. What we've done after nine days is travelled over 600km, which has taken over 40 hours and climbed nearly 10,000m and burned around 4.5 kilos of energy.

Quote of the day

The sky has never been the limit. We are our own limits and its about breaking them and outgrowing ourselves - Walt Disney