St. Jean sits at the foot of the mountain pass connecting France and Spain, easily accessible by TGV via Paris Bayonne. It has been for centuries the gateway for travelers making their way between these two countries and today, it’s the most popular starting point for pilgrims walking the most popular route to Santiago – the Camino Frances.
From Biarritz and Paris, Bordeaux and Pamplona we gathered in Bayonne for the second of two daily trains that run to St. Jean. The cars were full of folks who all looked alike and their packs, that didn’t always. Whose was the heaviest? the lightest? Who was the most the prepared and someone to keep nearby? Who wasn’t going to make it, and would end up being a burden?
Upon arriving in St. Jean, all the old ladies of the village, seemingly, came to their windows to wish us “Bon Journee!” as we climbed the medieval road through the middle of town to the pilgrim office.
Was I getting tired or feeling invigorated? Was this hard or easy? The legs would come eventually, but for now we’re still trying everything on for size.
At the pilgrim office we queued for our credencial, scallop shell, and information on lodging and the next day’s journey. Of the four volunteers who met with each pilgrim individually, only one spoke English and so my new Australian friend and I kept getting pushed further back in the line. Is this what it’s like to be from the third world? Should we muddle through in French and pretend we understand? Why did I never learn Danish?
As an enterprising American, I insisted that we go to the table two at a time. I already had my credencial – the travel document that certified my pilgrim status, would allow me to stay in albergues, and track my qualifications for the compostela – from the fraternity of American Pilgrims and the Australian already had accommodation, so we just need the nitty-gritty on what route to take the next day and how to find it. Of course, it wasn’t that easy, but we tried.
Beds were in short supply that night in St. Jean, so after receiving my scallop shell and route guides I ran down to the Esponda Albergue at the bottom of the hill to try to snag one of the two rumored beds. The hospitalero spoke no English, but I generally got the gist of things: only needed one bed, not two, 12 euros, showers outside in the back. The only thing I didn’t understand was this crazy word, “Gonzales,” that she kept saying. There are plenty of French words I don’t know – more in fact than I do – so I assumed it was just one of those and clearly not all that essential to this transaction.
Then the Australian couple arrived from the Gonzales Albergue. They had just telephoned and reserved two beds.
All of this had to be communicated to the hospitalero and a plan devised in my halting French. In the end, I was rewarded with a private room, in the family home, with a view of the mountains.