Thursday, 12 August 2010

St Jean Pied de Port, France - Dodgy knees in the Pyrennees

Here I am in St Jean Pied de Port in the heart of the Pyrennees and my gateway into Spain. With a final push tomorow I should be saying "au revoir" to France and "buenos dias" to Spain. It's not been an easy route here and I've had one of the toughest days ever on a bicycle, climbing over a 850m col. I've done big ascents before but not with this amount of kit and not in the heat of a Pyrennean summer. My knees may never be the same again! The pain was relieved of course by stunning views of vertiginous drops, of rocky spires of the big daddy mountains in the distance and of little farms like monoploy houses nestled in patchwork fields way below. At the top of the col eagles circled on the thermals so close I could almost touch them and cast their immense shadows on the hillside. My smug smile at the top of the col was quickly wiped off my face by a mildy terrifying descent on a single track road that in places was just a ledge carved in the hillside.

St Jean, an ancient fortified town, is the capital of the Basque region and it is said that all Basque roads lead to the square in its old town centre. It's a tiny, wee town in modern terms and you've probably never heard of it. But in one respect it is a cornerstone in Europe. For it is here that all the pilgrim routes of St James from all across Europe converge for the final 500 miles or so to Santiago to Compostella in northwest Spain. These routes come from as far away as Norway, Italy and Eastern Europe. Entering the town through the massive old gate I got a real sense of its significance as modern day pilgrims on foot and bicycle jostled through the alleys. It's a pretty town too, with narrow cobbled streets that wynd uphill to the citadel. Between the closely-packed buildings are views to the surrounding mountains. My favourite part of the town is the city gate, the Porte de Notre-Dame. Within its walls are carved simple stone seats where for centuries the poorest pilgrims sat to wait for donations of food and drink to help them on their way. I tried sitting here for a while but no double tall skinny latte appeared!

The pilgrim route would appear to be as busy now as it ever was. For many people walking the camina, as the pilgrim route is called, it is simply a focus for a holiday in northern Spain. For others it is a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual journey. Either way I think it's wonderful that this ancient route is still trodden by so many feet. As my own route across northern Spain will follow the camina, I have registered here in St Jean as a pilgrim and collected my shell, the official symbol, to attach to my bicycle. My journey is not a religious pilgrimmage but one of significance nonetheless, a chance to explore the world but also to live a more simple life for a time with tent and bicycle. My journey's goal is not some distant point on the planet but it is to be back home, where perhaps I'll see home as if for the first time.

Like any pilgrim I face challenges such as physical obstacles in the mountains; sacrifices such as losing the comforts of home; and there is pain . . . which right now is in my knees!

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1 comment:

  1. Pauline
    All the family are enjoying reading your blogs and looking at the photos. We can arrange for a double tall skinny latte to be waiting for you in Portugal, not sure what we can do about the knees.
    Love Mum & Dougie xx