Goodbye Switzerland, Bonjour France

On the morning of Thursday, April 6, I boarded a train in Bern, Switzerland, and after changing trains in Paris and Dax, I arrived in Bayonne, France, shortly after 9:00 pm.  A first class ticket on this particular route was only about 10% more expensive than second class, so I settled into a comfy chair, ordered a bottle of Bordeaux, and watched the Swiss and French countryside roll by. It’s not a cheap way to get from A-B but it sure is a lot nicer than staring at the back of someone’s head or listening to a screaming baby from the cattle rack they call ‘economy’ on a discount airline. 

I paid $330 CAD for this 12-hour leg of my journey, or about 50 times what I paid to cover a similar distance in India. Unlike the route between Delhi to Agra, the French frown upon cows wandering into the waiting area at their immaculate train stations and grubby urchins performing circus acts for cash on the trains.  Personally, I think this makes for a much less interesting journey, but I got over it once the steward opened my bottle of Clos du Clocher.

After an overnight stay in Bayonne, I caught a Friday morning regional train to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, arriving just before noon. Some of you may recognize this town as the traditional starting point on the Camino Francés. Others will ask, what the heck is the Camino Francés?  I am here to answer your questions.

The French Way (Galician: Camiño Francés, Spanish: Camino Francés) is the most popular of the routes of the Way of St. James, the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. It runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side and then another 780km almost straight west to Santiago de Compostela.  Although mostly a rural footpath, the Camino does pass through the Spanish cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León. 

So, what’s the big deal in Santiago? To put it simply, bones. If you believe the ancient legend, the bones of Saint James are stored in a crypt below the cathedral.  Millions of Catholics do believe, and up to 50,000 pilgrims cover this route every year.  I’m not necessarily doing it for spiritual reasons but many non-believers do say the experience is life changing.  We’ll see about that.  For more background on the route I’m going to quote some signage that I saw this morning in Saint Jean:

“Who was Saint James? Why did so many of his followers, or pilgrims, take the road to Compostela as early as the year 1000? James the Greater was one of Chris’s first apostles, who died in Jerusalem in the year 44 AD. He is said to have been beheaded by order of King Herod Agrippa,m who was opposed to the new religion. Legend has it that two disciples brought his body back by boat to Galicia, where his Tom was discovered in the 9th century by a hermit led to the spot by a star. Relic worship was widespread at the time, and the site rapidly took on its vocation as a major pilgrimage centre, comparable with Jerusalem and Rome. Campus Stellae, or “field of stars”, became Santiago de Compostela, and this town at the tip of Galicia soon built a Romanesque church that was to become one of the most imposing Gothic cathedrals in Europe.”

 If luck – or anyone else – is on my side, I should arrive at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela on the afternoon of Saturday #100. That leaves me 49 days to complete a walk that some pilgrims do in as little as 33 days. I don’t consider myself to be a pilgrim and the extra time will allow me to take the odd red-wine-hangover-recovery-day and still make it to church on time. 

Here’s another excerpt from signage posted in Saint Jean: “Even today, in the early morning, the cobblestones of the Rue d’Espagne still resound with the noise of pilgrims’ footsteps. As in the Middle Ages, pilgrims leave town after a night’s rest, resolute and prepared for the much-feared journey through the Pyrenees. The next leg leads to Roncevaux, in Spain, which can be reached either via the “modern” road, built in 1884, leading to the Roncevaux pass (1,057 m) via the village of Valcarlos, or the “summit route.” Before being chosen by the followers of St. James as their favoured crossing of the Pyrenees, for it was far less likely to be under snow than the alternative Somport pass, this historic route had been a major trade link between East and West since Antiquity. As the only road accessible to horses and carts, the route to Roncevaux was also used by shepherds and their flocks, Roman legions, Charlemagne’s army on its way to attack the Saracens, the troops of Ferdinand the Catholic and Charles the V on the way to conquest the “Royaume de Navarre,” and, much later, by Napoleon’s soldiers, who named it “Napoleon’s Route” or the “Artillery Road.”     

While I don’t intend to do much singing along the way, I probably should have learned the words to the “Song of Roland.” As the first French epic song to be written at the end of the 11th century, the Song of Roland was also the first Santiago de Compostela pilgrim’s song. It was meant to encourage the heroes of the time to travel along this sacred road, such as Roland the Valiant (Charlemagne’s nephew) and Oliver the Learned. The song evokes the Battle of Roncevaux and legends associated with it.  In other words, it’s a fight song.

People regularly thank me for posting my photos on Facebook, on this blog, and in the galleries accessible from the home page. I’ve heard many comments along the lines of: “Thanks for taking me along on your journey,” etc.   It would be great if everyone could do this type of trip, but I realize for many it’s simply not possible.  Others enjoy the photos but have no desire to sleep in hostel beds, shake bedbugs from their backpacks, camp in Mongolian snowstorms, bake in the Gobi desert, and now contemplate the possibility of hiking over the Pyrenees in freezing rain or sleet. So, for those people, I will pack a notebook and camera and record my observations along the way. Just as I did last summer when I spent 120 days tracing the Silk Route from Beijing to Istanbul, I will post my daily Trip Notes whenever I have access to wifi. That may be most evenings or it may not be for several weeks at a time; I simply don’t know.
In the meantime I have one more day to kick around Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port before beginning my Camino on Sunday morning. I suppose I have time to dig up some lyrics and memorize Roland’s Song. Or I could just order one more beer and enjoy the races that are being shown live in this cozy Saint Jean pub.  Hmm.


Below: Random views of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port



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