Santiago de Compostela IX Day 94 (Akerreta-Pamplona) 17 km

Saturday October 13, 2019

We have a short day today. 17 km to Pamplona.
It’s fairly quiet on the route, the pilgrims who crossed the Pyrenees with us have spread out. People are settling into the routine. We walk for a while among some Japanese pilgrims who seem to be much quieter than during the previous two days. Sharing the camino with others may not be so bad after all.

The approach into the city is fairly interesting. We come across a parade of Gigantes and a fiesta in one of the outskirts of Pamplona. Pamplona itself is a magnificent city with impressive city walls, one of the most interesting cathedrals I have ever seen (where a wedding has just taken place!)
We get to the hotel and take off our dirty walking clothes for the last time. For this year, we have stopped being pilgrims. Now we are tourists.

Santiago de Compostela IX Day 93 (Roncesvalles-Akerreta) 28 km

Friday October 12, 2019

We leave in the morning after a full breakfast.
We (I) immediately have to deal with a large group of Americans walking at somewhat the same speed as we are. It takes a while before we’re far enough ahead that we can stop for water without hearing that one man who seems to be doing all the talking coming up behind us.
The day is difficult. After the dramatic views of yesterday, walking through the woods is fairly boring.
The day is long, 8 hrs, and more difficult than we have been led to expect. Especially the descents are pretty grueling.

I do a lot of thinking about all the people around us, not the solitary ones or the couples, but the groups. All through France we saw at most 2 or 3 pilgrims walking on the same day as we were. We shared the refugios with at most 8 people. The people we met were fairly quiet. Now, we walk with 150 other pilgrims. In the months of May and June, when the Spanish highlands are covered with wildflowers, in September, after the scorching summer, over 600 people day leave from St Jean Pied de Port every day! Their gregariousness, their desire to share life experiences and cultural insights with everyone around them are good qualities. It is up to me to figure out how to deal with all this.
By the afternoon, we’ve all spread out so far that Des and I are pretty much on our own again.
We walk to Akerreta where we stay at a wonderful 300 year old farm house that apparently was one of the settings in the movie “The Way”...
There’s only one other pilgrim staying there and we have a very pleasant dinner together. I call her the Woman from the States because she has a completely different approach to the camino. She’s on sabbatical and has visited London, Paris and Iona, in Scotland, in the last two weeks, visiting places of worship. Now she is doing something called “The Best of the Camino”, where she is picked up every few days and taken to another highlight along the way. She bought her equipment in St Jean Pied de Port, her baggage is transferred every day and when she got tired on the way from Roncesvalles to Akerreta, she got a taxi to pick her up...
Quite different from the red-faced Danish girl who was doing the camino for the sixth time, with a ten kilo backpack containing among other things, a tea kettle and a kilo and a half of breakfast food!
We each have our own camino...

Santiago de Compostela IX Day 92 (St Jean Pied de Port-Roncesvalles) 25 km

Thursday October 10, 2019

An amazing day! We walk up to 1400 meters to go through the Pass of Roncesvalles and across the Pyrenees into Spain.
Some 100-150 pilgrims leave St Jean Pied de Port early in the morning. It’s at least an eight hour walk so everyone is advised to head out between 7 and 8 AM.
We’re a bit late but we’re not worried. We move along briskly and soon start passing the first stragglers.

The first 8 km are the hardest as we climb steeply up to 800 meters. After that we continue to climb but it’s a little less steep.
We notice the benefit of having done quite a bit of climbing and descending the last few days as we continue to move along at a good pace, all the while passing other pilgrims. For some reason we’re under the mistaken impression that the hard part is yet to come so we’re not at all in survival mode yet...
After those first 8 km, we come upon the last stop before we enter the mountains, a café with a large terrace perched on the mountainside. The other pilgrims, who realize that they’ve completed the hardest climb are all in festive mood. There’s a lot of hugging, and high-fiving; much camaraderie and international brotherhood. I try to accept it and enjoy it, but basically I find it deeply annoying.
At one point I look across the terrace and when some people move aside I am shocked to see someone I thought had passed out of our lives many days and many taxi rides ago! There she sits on her own, eating a little snack and smiling directly at me through the crowd - the Woman of the Woods!
How did she get ahead of us again? But more importantly, what is it that she apparently still has to tell me? Is it that its OK not to get into the spirit of camaraderie surrounding me? Or is she asking me whether I really needed that big piece of Gateau Basque with my coffee? I have trouble finishing it now.

We continue our walk. It’s difficult to find a place in the caravan struggling up the mountain where one isn’t bothered by the large groups of holidaymakers, loudly laughing and chattering away. Americans, Japanese, eastern-Europeans seem to be doing the camino in groups. Or maybe, they’re just a bit louder. Desmond isn’t at all bothered. He gets to give fellow pilgrims advice on how to walk, he explains to them what they can expect but I find myself speeding up or slowing down to keep my distance during much of the day.
Meanwhile, the walk is amazing. The weather is superb - sunny and cool. The views are fantastic -back towards France, to the side along the rows and rows of mountains that make up the Pyrenees, stretching off into the distance, or ahead, where one sees the forests of Navarra.

We climb most of the day, not reaching the highest point until about an hour before our destination, Roncesvalles. We descend down to the ancient abbey and go inside to obtain a stamp for our credencial. We are confronted by the bustling activity of the hostel - Spanish women washing their hair and their dainties, stiffly smiling older Dutch volunteers greeting us in English, admonishing us to take off our backpacks before we go inside. We have to fill out forms stating age, gender, religion, motivation - all to get a stamp. And everywhere the camaraderie and the talking!
We go out the courtyard to visit the church and discover to our delight that our hotel isn’t 4 km down the road but is actually in the oldest, original part of the abbey. The hotel is wonderful - silent, beautifully restored with design furniture and a good restaurant.
We have made it, we have crossed the Pyrenees, we’re starting on our trek across northern Spain!

Santiago de Compostela IX Day 91 (Ostabat-St Jean Pied de Port) 23 km

Wednesday October 9, 2019

We leave in the rain. Our hotel owner doesn’t offer to drive us back to Ostabat to pick up the walk where we left off and we’re fine with that. We’re happy to have a little less far to go today. We move quickly despite the rain. Perhaps it’s the presence of so many other pilgrims on the road, many of whom walk faster than we do.
We’re definitely all heading towards the jump off point for the crossing of the Pyrenees, one feels, though it’s hard to tell yet in which valley we’ll end up.

We arrive in Saint Jean Pied de Port in the afternoon and have our picture taken in front of the Porte St Jacques.
Something very strange has happened.
Before we started this year’s walk, we had walked 1621 km. This year’s walk from Perigueux to Ostabatwas 356 km.
That adds up to 1977 km. The walk from Ostabat to St Jean Pied de Port, legendary gateway to the Camino Frances is 23 km...
That’s exactly 2000 km from my old house in the Poortstraat in Utrecht to the Porte St Jacques in Saint Jean Pied de Port!

We arrive at the Pilgrims Visitor Center we’re a little disconcerted to encounter a huge line outside the door so we continue to our hotel. When we try later, we can go right in. There’s a whole row of volunteers talking to pilgrims in a variety of languages! We get a stamp for our Credencial, but not before we sit down and go over a map with the cheerful volunteer, showing all the danger spots we will need to avoid when we cross the mountains. The Catalan gentleman yesterday had assured it wasn’t going to be difficult but we can’t help getting caught up in the general feeling of nervousness and excitement that seems to pervade the whole town...

Santiago de Compostela IX Day 90 (Sauveterre de Béarn-Ostabat) 26 km

Tuesday October 8, 2019

When we first saw the Pyrenees a few days ago, I posted a picture on Facebook which has elicited many positive reactions which hearten us. One that we especially appreciate was from “Freekje”, Freek van Ooteghem, the first pilgrim we ever ran into back in 2015. He finished the camino that very year and has gone on to trek around half the world but he stopped to wish us well!

Another thing that has happened is that I have gotten us into a muddle with the transfer of baggage from St Jean Pied de Port on. I have often complained that our camino is too organized, everything is booked months in advance usually. This time we waited with booking the transfer of baggage in Spain until it was clear that we would make it. In any case, a combination of two companies providing the service, one eager, one more well-known but slower to respond, my impatience, a number of red crosses next to our destinations on the website, a credit card that appears to be blocked, have led to some confusion. We finally got it sorted out, when this morning the party we chose calmly informs us that the price is 300€ instead of the customary 42€ because it is off-season. We’re back to where we started...

The third development today is that the taxi that is driving us back to Sauveterre-de-Béarn this morning will be going on farther with our luggage. We decide to have him drop us off 12 km past Sauveterre, where we stopped yesterday. As we gaily wave him on past the struggling fellow pilgrims on the road, we think of the wisdom of the Woman of the Woods. “The camino gives you what you need!”
For two diligent, dutiful, methodical, disciplined Tauruses (triple-Taurus, in my case) to do something so frivolous and cheerfully irresponsible is a victory over ourselves, a gift from the camino!

We start off from Saint Palais now. We are in French Basque country. The houses are white with red trim, the signs are in French and Basque.
The landscape has changed as well, we’re in the foothills. Finally out of the cornfields; there’s cows here, with cowbells, and sheep.
It’s sunny. We climb up some very non-pilgrim paths (unnecessary climbs) and are rewarded with fantastic views.

We meet lots of other pilgrims as three of The French routes came together at Saint Palais and continue on together to the Pass of Roncesvalles...

We have to deal with all these other people on our path. I am quite impressed by a young man who comes up to us, says “it is harsh, but I think I will make it!” without stopping, without bothering with all the Bonjours, Bonne Routes etc. He keeps walking. This is what I’m going to do, I decide. I really can’t stop to chat with every tired pilgrim I come across...
Desmond disagrees. He thinks the young man is just plain rude.

Because we cut off half our walk, we have a wonderful, relaxing day. Only 12 km. We arrive in Ostabat early in the afternoon and have beer and a paté sandwich with other pilgrims in the shade of a big tree. Des chats with a fellow pilgrim about the Cunard ships. Des came over on the Queen Mary II and can compare experiences with this man who has been on over 40 Cunard trips.
At the table next to us, two Flemish gentleman are trying to arrange a place to sleep for the night. They keep getting answering machines and I decide that I will no longer complain about arranging things in advance. A few rest days would be nice next time, though.
We talk to the gentlemen and find out they’re 76 and 80 years old, and carrying their own backpacks.

I call to be picked up as per the instructions of Caminoway. The lady says “a toute a l’heure!”.
After about an hour I call again. She’s surprised that we want to be picked up and hands me over to her boss who’s annoyed and says he’ll be there and just hangs up.
It turns out to be a mistake by Caminoway, the only one on this excellently organized trip.
The hotel is four km down the road and on the route. We could easily have walked, the angry hotel owner tells us. He’s right, but how could we know that?

Santiago de Compostela IX Day 89 (Orthez-Sauveterre de Béarn) 24km

Monday October 7, 2019

It’s a miracle we’re walking. Desmond's legs were throbbing and painful much of the night.
In the morning they seem better and he takes an Ibuprofen right away instead of waiting until he can barely hobble. Also I’ve loaned him my spare pair of magic compression socks which seem to bring immediate relief.
Today the walking is much more pleasant. The sun is shining, most of the day we walk on dirt paths. There is much climbing and descending which stretches the tendons even better than exercises can.

A little ways outside of Orthez we are surprised to see the Woman of the Woods sitting under a tree writing down her thoughts. She must have gotten up at daybreak to get so far down the road ahead of us!
All day we catch glimpses of the Pyrenees in the distance, we try to capture the feeling of distance and mystery but our little cameras are inadequate, alas.
The last hour we walk along the river where we come upon the magnificent citadel of Sauveterre-de-Béarn.

We climb up to the church of St André and are stunned to be met inside by the Woman of the Woods who seems to have taken a shorter route.
She expresses her disapproval of the way we are doing the camino, wondering if the camino can possibly give us what we need this way. She doesn’t understand - which is probably why they didn’t allow her to become a nun and sent her off to find her calling on the caminos of Europe (our little fantasy!) Des and I are both organizers. We can make plans, we can make spreadsheets, we can make phone calls. What is hard for us is to just be on the road and experience everything without having anything to organize. That is what the camino has to give us this year.
We want to explain this to the Woman of the Woods but now that we want to say something she shushes us, saying “not in this holy place!” and walks out of the church and out of our lives.

Jean Paul of Taxi service Napoleon Compostelle, a cheerful giant of a man, comes to pick us up and drive us back to Orthez, since there appears to be no place to sleep in Sauveterre...

We are so pleased that the day of walking went well that we have a couple of beers on the square at the busy Corral Café in Orthez. It is one of the only busy spots in this saddest of towns.
So much history but such a feeling of decay. They’ve tried everything to make it attractive to tourists; they’ve even closed mediaeval streets off for pedestrians but the stores are all gone. Empty windows and boarded up houses...

Santiago de Compostela IX Day 88 (Hagetmau-Orthez) 28 km

Sunday October 6, 2019

Mme returns us to Hagetmau after a breakfast with real fried eggs professionally prepared by her husband! A treat after all the days of breakfasting on French bread and jam.

We start walking; just outside of Orthez we have our first glimpse of the Pyrenees! Quite awesome!
One can imagine how impressed mediaeval pilgrims from the low countries must have been by the sight of this wall of stone stretched across the horizon!

The day goes very slowly. Desmond's shin splints/possible sciatica/swollen ankle, which have been bothering him for days now, have become really painful.
After a while it starts to rain and continues to do so most of the day. Because it is Sunday, the boulangerie in Hagetmau didn’t sell sandwiches and it looks like we’ll have to skip lunch until in L’Hôpital-d’Orion we come across a fancy restaurant in the woods filled with French families having Sunday lunch. We hesitate but it turns out there’s another room behind the bar where we can have a small lunch. I have an omelet, Des has a Salad Landaise again.
We both have a glass of vin rosé.

Farther along the way we come across the Woman of the Woods, a spry older German woman who has been wandering along the caminos of Europe a couple of months a year for the past twenty years.
She appears from behind a tree where she was apparently eating her little lunch and walks with us a ways. I find it hard to walk and talk at the same time so I drop back and let Desmond handle the conversation. Just before Orthez she leaves us as suddenly as she appeared - off to set up her little tent in the woods.

We walk on into Orthez - a magnificent mediaeval citadel set on a hill. Our hotel is strange and a bit unfriendly but our bags are waiting for us.
We have dinner in a pleasant eatery with French radio playing and locals having a pre-dinner apero.

Santiago de Compostela IX Day 87 (Saint Sever-Hagetmau) 18km

Breakfast with the other guests at the Toast Vin is great.

We’re quite excited about visiting the 10th century Abbey of Saint Sever. I know I said I was tired of 10th century abbeys (the 10th century does seem to have been the century for building abbeys), but this one is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The weather has improved dramatically, as has the scenery. It is no longer flat and we have moved out of the pine forests. There are farms and villages on the hills. We see some cows but mostly it is corn that is produced, which is somewhat depressing. We watch the harvest for a while and then move on.

We’re walking at about the same speed as our new Dutch friends, Kees and Coby, so every once in a while, one of us will overtake the other, which is fun. They’re ingood spirits and funny.
When we arrive in Hagetmau, we call to be picked up. It is a short day so we’re early and have to wait. But it’s sunny and the church square is pleasantly busy, so we don’t mind. Eventually Sophie comes to pick us up and since I gave myself permission not to have to prove/improve my French, we get to speak English. She and her Welsh husband have a great spread out in the country with lots of animals, a nice restaurant and rooms for guests. It’s a beautiful day and they have WIFI outside so we have a couple of glasses of Blanc de Blanc on the terrace, as the chickens keep us company and Sophie is kind enough to do our laundry!

After a while it cools off and we go inside for a rest. Desmond prepares my shower for me.
After a nearly disastrous incident at the beginning of this season involving a complicated European faucet, scalding water and me being without my glasses on, Desmond now sets the temperature for me and explains how the faucet works before I step under the shower. I feel quite like Prince Charles.
Dinner is great. We have the Salade Landaise with greens, chicken, boiled eggs and of course foie gras and close off with three cheeses: Comptė, Roblichon and a Bleu d’Auvergne.
We finish the evening off with an Armagnac, since this is Armagnac country, although unless they make it out of corn, I don’t know how THAT is possible....

Santiago de Compostela IX Day 86 (Mont de Marsan-Saint Sever) 20km

Friday October 4, 2019

This is our fourth day of walking through pine forests and cornfields.
Boring, boring, boring!
And hard...
Both our weather apps said that it wouldn't rain today but because our sense of weather has been so sharpened, having lived outside the last week, and because it is raining when we look out the window, we decide to take our raincoats. And a good thing too!
It rains off and on all day, not hard but enough to keep ones glasses misted over...
Most of the day we walk on asphalt because the shoulders haven’t been mowed, good for flora and fauna but not for us.
We meet our first other pilgrims of the season, a Dutch couple from Harderwijk, going from Saint Reole to Saint Jean Pied de Port.

We pass a couple of lovely churches and then head up the mountain upon which the 10th century Abbey of Saint Sever is perched.
We’re staying in a real guest house for the first time this year, due to some changes in the itinerary which Caminoway has informed us of in a very timely and correct fashion.
Dinner is in a big group, with our Dutch friends, a young French couple from Toulouse and one from Bordeaux with their two year old daughter.
We have a wonderful evening. The Dutch couple is very funny, the French are charming. Mme serves a great meal, and keeps the wine flowing!
There is a bit of awkwardness when I regrettably suggest amid general hilarity over Britains Brexit problems that a country in which complex social issues are fought out in the streets such as France should probably not criticize one in which they are fought out in Parliament...
But we quickly move on and I propose a toast to France speaking from my heart when I say what an amazing experience it has been walking over one thousand km through this country from the top northeast corner to the bottom southeast. It makes us a bit sentimental thinking that we will be moving on into Spain in only a few days!

Santiago de Compostela IX Day 85 (Roquefort-Mont de Marsan) 28 km

Thursday October 3, 2019

Our third monotonous day of walking through pine forests and corn fields.
Desmond’s legs are bothering him which means we’re not walking our regular 4 km an hour.
This is good news for my feet and tendons, but it causes us to have another long day.

We have two wonderful stops though - one in Bostens where the church has a separate room for pilgrims where one can rest and make coffee or tea. Because it’s so nice out, we don’t make use of it but we are charmed nonetheless.
Our second pleasant surprise is a restaurant in Gaillères serving lunch!
Desmond needs a pick me up so we take the excellent daily special consisting of a skewer of duck, green beans and gratin de pate, with a plum tart as dessert. A pitcher of rose wine is included, and coffee, all for 11€ per person! We still have 17 km to go after lunch, which takes us 6 hours, but it is worth it!

The one nice thing about these long days is that one gets to walk in the late afternoon when the light is softer, quieter, when there’s people out. They greet us and wish us well. A woman asks us to pray for her when we get to Santiago, I ask Desmond to remind me to pray for Mimi.
On another camino, in another lifetime, I may just walk in the mornings and in the late afternoons. During the early afternoon I will sit by a river and read...

The last kilometers into Mont de Marsan are endless. We’re just so tired. We still have our baguettes which were meant for lunch, so we eat them in our room and don’t go out into this town of culture and entertainment.