Climbing the Foothills of Basque Country

Cloudrest

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.

Welcome to Euskera

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.

ETA NO

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.

Saint Palais

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.

Fields of Green

Between St. Palais and Ostabat, the terrain really started to pick up altitude.

I climbed it

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.

In the clouds

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.

Ostabat in the morning

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.

Lone Man

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.

Wisps of cloud

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.

Centre Ville, SJPDP

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.

Sparse

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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17 thoughts on “Climbing the Foothills of Basque Country

  1. I wish ‘the wind at your back’ for the next part of your walk Nathan. This is not a part of the world I am familiar with, and your descriptions and photos bring it to life for me. I love your thoughtfulness of the things you see – the man alone in his field for instance – I think this adventure must be changing you on a very deep level, and bringing more gifts than you can possibly know…. walk on!! 🙂

    1. I would say a flood is more appropriate than a stream. It’s lovely being with people again, but also kind of depressing to find the road so crowded. I slept last night in my tent simply to have some time alone. I think it’s going to take a few weeks for me to get used to being surrounded by people!

  2. It just occurred to me that I haven’t seen any people (other than you) in your posted photographs. It’s eery, almost as if you’re the only person left in that part of the world.

    1. Funny you say that–for the road that I walked on, I kid you not when I say that I met 10 other people also walking to Spain. I had the road to myself, and it was beautiful. Now there are hundreds with me–you’ll see soon enough!

      1. Not at all – I wish I did! I taught English in rural northern Spain (along the route of the camino) and traveled throughout northern Spain quite a bit. Basque country was one of the most beautiful areas I visited and had amazing food too.

      2. Where exactly on the road did you teach? I’d love to know where in town I should stop for the best bread, or the best pintxos. Don’t get me started on the food though, Beka–it’s amazing here.

      3. Yeah…I really miss Spanish food. I lived in Aguilar de Campoo about an hour northwest of Burgos by car. I’m not sure whether or not the camino actually passes through the town – I was told it was on the route but Spaniards have a tendency to exaggerate. I’ll send you an e-mail with info! There are some really beautiful things in the area.

  3. Basque country is some of the nicest scenery on the way. I cycled that part and it wasn’t as bad as I feared however I remember looking over to my right and seeing the Way go up a steep mountain side.
    I remember watching a man and a boy playing the Basque game, I forget what its called, with the curved shoe-horn thing and the huge wall. Great stuff, good memories.
    Send lots of pictures Nathan.

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