Tuesday 15 August 2023 – Farewell, then, to Biarritz, after a very pleasant few days.
The WalkTheCamino team swore that there would be someone to transfer us to St Jean Pied de Port at 11am and so we packed and generally made ourselves ready to leave. As we were checking out of the hotel a person came in looking for people with a mysteriously foreign-sounding name. A bit of back-and-forth (very grateful for Jane’s prowess in French at this point) resolved this into agreement that it was us that (it turns out) she should have been looking for (she was mis-reading her script) and so this total stranger walked off with our suitcases whilst the lady managing the hotel at the time struggled to get her machine to agree that our credit was good. But she managed it in the end and we followed our driver to her large Fiat MPV and she set off with us with a great sense of purpose. Thus the drive to St Jean took less than an hour.
On the way over, the surrounding countryside started to remind us what it was that we were letting ourselves in for.
Our arrival at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (henceforth, for brevity, SJPdP) was similar to ours in Biarritz some days before, in that the transport couldn’t get outside the hotel and so we had to lug our suitcases up cobbled streets to reach the hotel – and, it transpired later, up the stairs to our room. In most other respects, St Jean was rather different from Biarritz. This was the start of our luggage-lugging walk to the hotel.
Our hotel here is the Ramuntxo, and, like Le Petit Hôtel in Biarritz, has a two-star rating. The immediate practical upshot of this was apparent by the absence of anyone to greet us and check us in. There were various helpful notices, among which was one telling the reader that check-in time was 2pm. It was midday at this point. Jane managed to coax a lady from her lunch to tell us, in a friendly and polite but firm way, that we should come back after 1400 and that, bien sûr, we could leave our bags unattended in her foyer.
So. We had a couple of hours to fill. So we went for a walk.
We started off approaching the Camino’s Welcome Office with a view to taking a look inside to see what it offered. But our timing was off – they basically shut the door as Jane approached because it was their lunch time and they, too, weren’t going to re-open until 2pm.
We carried on wandering the town. This was a pleasure, as despite the very steep hills in the old part of the town
it’s a pretty place, with clearly a huge amount of history to accompany the very traditional architecture everywhere.
SJPdP is a fortified town, with nearly-intact walls and a large citadel overlooking the area. We walked to the northern end of the town, to the St. James gate, which is where those peregrinos who are doing more than just the Camino Francès arrive. This left us near the Citadel, so we went to look around it.
It offers some spectacular views over the town and the countryside.
After a quick look around, we were feeling the need for some refreshment, so we headed down through the town.
Cunning spotting of a niche for a business, eh?
with a plan to investigate the start point for our Camino. There was some extremely popular entertainment going on just by the gate which marks the start (see later video) so, since we couldn’t get through the throng, we diverted out into the newer part of town where we found a place that would serve us drinks.
Today, Assumption Day, is clearly an excuse for the locals to have a good, festivally, kind of celebration. As we sat with our drinks, a marching band came past and a trio of musicians playing traditional dulzainas (like Breton bombards only different) and drums struck up across the road. This is a brief video summary of the three entertainments.
Combined, they gave the place an agreeably festive air.
We made our drinks last until well after 1400 and went back to the hotel to check in. At first blush it looks to be decent enough; the room is small but spotless and there’s a great deal more room in the bathroom than we had in Biarritz, and there’s a fan – ! – so I’m sanguine that we’ll have a reasonably comfortable time of it.
We were peckish by the time we’d checked in, so we wandered back down through the town looking for somewhere that would serve us lunch. In most cases, the answer was “non”; lunch is served until 2pm and then nothing until dinner at 7pm. This doesn’t really fit with our normal eating strategy, which involves having a late breakfast and then a very late lunch as our two meals every day. For a start, we’re going to have to start early on our walks in order to escape the worst of the day’s heat, which implies an early breakfast. There’s no way we’ll last until 7pm every day, so we’ll have to hope that ways to keep ourselves fed but not overfed evolve over the coming weeks.
As it happens, we were lucky in that the restaurant where the Basque trio had been
basquing busking was prepared to serve us lunch even though it was by this stage 3pm. So we had an agreeable meal and a couple of drinks there. We think the place is called Anxo, but it bears no obviously visible name, despite being a very prominent establishment in the square.
The lunch (and the drinks we’d had earlier) gave me an opportunity to collect a number of candid photos of some of the locals. There were some very, very Gallic faces to capture.
After eating, we felt that such a pleasant meal should be Walked Off. So we ended up doing the signposted circular walk, which actually means walking round the still-intact walls of the old town. This is a very impressive walk, not least in the number of steps one has to walk up and down. Garmin tells me that we ascended 59 metres, which doesn’t sound much, but it’s just about 200 feet, which is 18 storeys according to a quick, non-scientific lookup on the web. So our 1.3 mile journey counted as a good constitutional – and gave us some lovely views of the walls and the town.
The other thing we did with our free time was to check out some key locations – the Camino’s Welcome Office (now open), the start point of the walk tomorrow and some idea of what the going was going to be like.
The start point is at the Notre Dame Gate, and one heads south over the river.
You can see that the route trends uphill fairly soon after the start.
After a while, you reach a decision point at which the choice is between the “low” road or the Route Napoleon, which goes higher and is thus tougher, but gives better views.
The Route Napoleon goes up from there.
It’s not particularly surprising that it goes up, as there is the not insignificant issue of the Pyrenees mountains to cross, and one might as well start sooner rather than later.
There are a couple of helpful, if ominous, signs.
Our destination tomorrow will be Roncesvalles in Spain, which we are told is 26 kilometres away. There are only two refreshment points between SJPdP and Roncesvalles: an auberge at Orisson, which is 8km away; and a food truck (which we hope will be there) at 15km. That first 8km is likely to be tough:
The refreshment stop at Orisson is going to be a welcome sight, I think. It is, however, only part of the story, The total course for the day looks like this.
(The Orisson refreshment stop is at the 5-mile mark and the food truck at 9 miles.)
For some reason, Day 1 of these walks always seems to be a bastard. It was like that when we did the Cami de Cavalls in Menorca, and, much longer ago, it was like that when we did a walking holiday in Corsica. Perhaps the Great Organiser In The Sky wants us to suffer before we’re allowed to relax a bit?
I wonder what state we’ll be in by the time we get to Roncesvalles? Come back and find out, eh? My plan is not to document every single day of hiking – that would likely be dull and repetitive – but to hit the highlights. Or, in the case of Day 1, possibly the lowlights.
See you tomorrow, when I might be reporting from hospital.
* There appears to be no consensus