It seems like a lifetime ago that I started my journey in Vezelay and looked at a map of France, tracing my finger along the path I had to follow and wondering if I would be walking forever through seemingly endless fields, remote villages, and the occasional big city. Yet here I am: In St Jean Pied de Port, the last stage in France.
Two days ago I finally entered Basque Country. You might be familiar with Basque Country because of their notoriously strong sense of pride; the political group E.T.A used to be known in Spain for blowing up bridges and killing politicians in the name of Basque separatism.
Thankfully those days are in the past, as a few years ago E.T.A renounced violence in favor of diplomacy; on this side of the border there doesn’t seem to be much desire to secede from France—and no wonder, because relative to Europe the economy here is quite well off.
The first Basque city I arrived in was St. Palais, also known as Donapaleu in the Basque tongue. I walked there from the incredibly lovely town of Sauveterre de Bearn, a medieval fortified city, and stopped in St. Palais just long enough to let my feet rest before continuing onto Ostabat.
Between St. Palais and Ostabat, the terrain really started to pick up altitude.
There were a lot of ups and downs (mostly downs) and after an hour or so I found myself staring up this beast of a hill.
It took a solid twenty minutes of non-stop climbing to get to the top, and I was breathing pretty hard when I made it. But between the spectacular view of the Pyrenees and the refreshing wind blowing in my face it was definitely worth the effort. Soon after I arrived in the small village of Ostabat and settled in early for the night, determined to make it to St Jean Pied de Port with enough time to walk around and see the sights.
I was woken up by the tolling of church bells at 7 AM sharp, and when I went to the bakery to grab some bread before my walk I looked out over the valley and was greeted by this incredible view. The sky was just beginning to lighten up, and low-hanging clouds swathed the foothills with cool mist.
The Camino quickly ascended out of the valley and along a narrow ridge halfway up one of the hills; I was walking due west for some time when I noticed a man by himself in this field. There is something to be said for experiencing the early morning hours in solitude.
A couple hours into my walk and I was well beyond Ostabat; the trail wasn’t as difficult as I had expected it to be, and although the sun was strong there were still clouds hanging about to keep me cool.
I finally made it St Jean Pied de Port about half past noon; it is as picturesque a town as I have seen since I began walking the Camino de Santiago. A small river runs through the heart of town, and the streets are steep and lined with small shops and boutiques. Since I came here on the weekend many of them are hardly open but it was still a nice way to say goodbye to France.
As for tomorrow, it promises to be the most challenging single day of the Camino de Santiago: 27 km from here to Roncesvalles, ascending 1,000 m to the top of the Pyrenees, then back down another 500 or so by the end of the day. Like a famous pilgrim once said, “bring it on.”
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