Saint Jean Pied de Port, Aquitaine, France, Saturday, June 12, 2010
It's been over a year since our last entry, so a very brief update is in order. After returning to the UK at the end of May 2009, we spent a further 3 months living in the caravan while we house-hunted, dividing the time between several campsites,
including our old favourite, Moor Lodge near Leeds, and Sheepcote Valley in Brighton. At the beginning of September we finally moved into a bungalow in Seaford, on the coast between Brighton and Eastbourne, and gradually adjusted to the unfamiliar sensation
of a permanent roof over our heads and space to spread out in. Unpacking all the stuff we’d put into storage before our trip was interesting. We found things we’d forgotten we had, and missed others that we’d rashly thrown out
in our eagerness to downsize. Eventually we managed to find a place for everything, including the caravan which just fitted on the drive.
We enjoyed settling in and getting to know the area, exploring the lovely scenery of the coast and South Downs. However, we soon got itchy feet again, but having just got our two elderly cats settled into their new home we were reluctant to abandon them again so soon. But as June approached, a whole year after returning from our travels, we decided the cats would enjoy a holiday in a nice cattery while we took to the road again, albeit for a mere 3 weeks.
On our previous trip we’d liked the Northern coast of Spain so much we vowed to return (and hopefully enjoy better weather!) In addition, having visited Santiago de Compostela, we were interested in seeing more of the Way of St James (El Camino de Santiago in Spanish.) So we decided to follow it for a short way, from its beginning at St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees, as far as Burgos in Spain, then head north towards the coast.
As we live only 5 miles from Newhaven we decided to take the ferry from there to Dieppe then drive down through France. It took all of 10 minutes to get from our house to the ferry port – what a pleasant change! The ferry sailed at 10.30 pm and we managed to snatch a couple of hours’ sleep in the comfortable airline-style seats. We arrived in Dieppe at 3.45 am , French time, and drove through the pre-dawn dark on deserted roads. Avoiding toll roads saved money but meant it was difficult to find anywhere to stop for coffee that had parking suitable for a large caravan! We finally parked in an "aire" (large lay-by), brewed up a cuppa and fried bacon and eggs. The weather was grey and drizzly, rather a let-down after the heat-wave we’d been enjoying in the UK! We stopped for lunch at another aire and arrived at our destination, Camping Domaine de la Barbanne in St Emilion, about 4.40 pm – a heck of a long drive!
The campsite was lovely, with a swimming pool, a lake and a posse of friendly ducks. For supper we enjoyed the curry we had brought with us. Originally frozen, it had gradually defrosted en route and kept the cool-box cool for the whole journey. Then we had a much-needed early night. The bottle of Chilean red wine we had brought with us slipped down very smoothly too, although it felt very wrong drinking this in the heart of a French vineyard!
The next day was warm and sunny, so we set out to explore St Emilion, a picturesque old town surrounded by the vineyards that produce the famous wine of the same name. The medieval houses are built of mellow golden stone, the streets are narrow and cobbled and the whole is dominated by an impressive church spire and the ancient King’s Tower. Twice a year a procession of red-robed “jurats” mount to the top of this tower, to proclaim the start of the grape harvest and to pronounce judgment on the new wine.
After an enjoyable day we went back to the campsite and relaxed in the swimming pool, before a meal of veal escalopes and a bottle of more appropriate local wine. Sitting outside with our coffee in the warm dusk we reflected that this is what caravanning is all about. It’s a good job we had such a nice day, as on the next day everything went badly.
We packed up and set off for our next destination, St Jean Pied de Port, in warm sunshine. We stopped mid-morning for a break but, unusually for French motorway services, the coffee was terrible and, tragedy of tragedies, there were no cakes! As we got nearer to the Pyrenees we could see they were blanketed in cloud. It started raining in earnest as we approached Europ Camping at Ascarat, just outside St Jean. We chose a pitch but just couldn’t get the 'van levelled, so we tried an adjoining pitch which didn’t have the nice mountain views of the first one. Even then it was difficult to level, and when we connected the caravan to the electric supply it “tripped”, and the owner had to come out and reset it. After a while the sun came out and we sat outside, but were plagued by flies. Then it started raining again. In the evening John went to the bar to use the free wifi, but it wasn’t working. I went for a shower, which was the push-button variety. The water was too hot for comfort and there was no way to adjust the temperature or the timing – one push provided about five seconds of water. All in all, not a good day!
It was still raining next morning, but undaunted we drove into St Jean Pied de Port. In the Middle Ages this was an important town, the starting point for pilgrims who came from all over Europe to make the pilgrimage to the shrine of St James at Santiago. Pilgrim dress in those days was a grey cloak, broad-brimmed hat decorated with a scallop shell, and a staff with water-gourd attached. Thousands of pilgrims still walk the route but their outfits today are shorts, tee shirts, walking boots and cagoules, with Nordic poles in place of a staff. St Jean is a pretty little town on the River Nive, full of traditional Basque houses of red sandstone with red shutters, and crowned by an old citadel. The souvenir shops reflected the local preoccupations – sheep, bagpipes, cheese and separatism. Interestingly, the Basque flag is just like the Union Jack except that it’s red, white and green
This was our first experience of Basque culture and language, and it’s very different from French or Spanish. The language is strange and impenetrable, containing many K’s, X’s and Z’s. It’s impossible to guess what a word means as it bears no resemblance to any other language. The Basque name for St Jean Pied de Port is Donibane Garazi; hello is “kaixo”; thank you is “eskerrik asko”. John’s theory is that this was once an outpost of the Klingon empire, whose occupants fled earth in prehistoric times, leaving no trace but their language..
After lunch we drove the 18 km of twisting mountain roads to Roncesvalles (or, in Basque, Orreaga.) The small town is just across the Spanish border and has been an important stopping-place on the Way of St James since the twelfth century, but is also famous for an earlier event. It was here in 778 that that the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army, led by the legendary hero Roland, were ambushed and slain by the Saracens, according to legend, but in reality by the Basques who were rather miffed that Charlemagne had just sacked their city of Pamplona. According to one legend, Roland blew his famous horn but Charlemagne was too far away to come to his rescue. In another version he was too proud to call for help and was overwhelmed. Either way he passed into legend, and is the origin of Childe Roland in the poem by Robert Browning, and ultimately of Roland the gunslinger in Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” fantasy saga. It was easy to picture a scene of death and defeat in the dank, brooding surroundings of Roncesvalles, though on a sunny day the views of the surrounding Pyrenees must be lovely.
It’s an odd sort of a town, with hardly any houses, no shops, just a huge grey church and religious buildings, a pilgrim hostel and a couple of hotels. Back at the campsite a large Dutch rally had arrived. No wonder it was raining. On our big trip last year we found that wherever there was a Dutch rally, the heavens opened!
We planned to leave St Jean the next day. It would have been a very nice campsite, if the weather had been better. The facilities were good (apart from the too-hot water), there was a large cafe/bar, a swimming pool, very pleasant rural surroundings with mountain views, and lots of interesting places to visit. But under lowering damp clouds even the best places look unattractive! So we'll continue along the Camino to Pamplona, and hope for some sunshine!