Day 36 – Larceveaux to Saint Jean Pied de Port, 20.5 km

We have had few early mornings walking this time. But this last morning, the weather forecast was for rain, starting around 11 am, and we wanted to walk in as little rain as possible. So we were pretty much on the road at 7.15 am this morning, still a little in the dark as cars rushed past us, walking on the main road out of Larceveaux. The colors were magnificent though as the sun rose, and it was pretty warm, almost balmy.
  We were walking on air today, and the kms just slipped away as we neared Saint Jean. Every time we checked the weather channel app on our iPhone, the rain kept getting pushed off by an hour or so, and we took advantage of this for a lunch stop about 4 km from our destination.

 
   

   

 Then we rose up the hill into Saint Jean, approaching Porte Saint Jacques — the main entry point for pilgrims approaching St Jean from the north. The entrance into this old town, “Saint John at the foot of the pass,” which has greeted pilgrims for many centuries, was familiar. We had stood outside the very same gate a year or so ago, after having picked up our credencials from the pilgrim office for Camino Frances to Santiago.

   

 And now we were arriving again, walking steeply down the Rue de Citadelle into the heart of St Jean.  

  There on the right was the place we had a forgettable dinner last year, then on the left the old Church of Notre Dame du Bout du Pont. Passing by the tourist office, we ran into a family of four we had met a few days ago in Sauvelaude, who also arrived here this morning. 

  We stopped at the pilgrim office and had our credencials stamped to show that we arrived, then headed off for a celebratory coffee/tea and sweet pastries. It was well deserved as we had just completed 600 kms of the Chemin, climbed 16,500 meters and descended 17,000 meters. We had also visited close to hundred churches on the way.

The rain which had been holding off all day finally showed signs of impatience, and we rang our Chambre d’Hotes to see if our host, Jean Francois at Maison Donamaria, was ready to receive us before we got caught in a downpour. We stayed at his place last year, and booked again this year. He has been very kind, receiving mail on our behalf and accommodating our changing schedule, so we stopped to pick up a bottle of bubbly for him in appreciation. And he was there again, just as before, with a friendly welcome just as the rain started coming down in torrents.

  After a shower and a rest, we went to mass at the church, to bring this Chemin to a close. Pilgrims leaving for Camino Santiago were called for the blessing at the end of mass. We remembered well joining two other pilgrims last year, as the priest gave his blessing to us before we departed for Santiago.

Arrivals and departures. Beginning and endings. They are all wrapped up and tied together for us here in Saint Jean, and we are truly grateful for the wonderful five weeks we have had on the Chemin. The French have been most welcoming to us every day and everywhere. 

Day 35 – Saint Palais to Larcevaux, 15.4 km

It was one of the warmest days on our Chemin – the penultimate day of walking for us before arriving in our destination, St Jean Pied de Port. Already in the early morning it felt different and soon enough the sun shone from the blue sky over the Basque Country.   

 The first major sight along the way was the meeting point of three French pilgrim routes — the routes from Paris/Tours, Vezelay and from Le Puy at Hiriburia where they become one route, the Camino Frances, towards Santiago. 

 The Chemin then took us towards Ostabat, an ancient pilgrim center. We first climbed a long steep track straight uphill to the Chapelle de Soyarza, a small shrine high up and surrounded by sycamores that provided nice shade. It was good to rest my (slightly) aching foot on a bench under these lovely trees. The view was 360 and beautiful as ever thanks to the glorious sunshine and clear skies. It was so green despite late October. We did not see other pilgrims but instead many walkers and joggers enjoyed the lovely day.

  
 A couple of kms later we arrived to a site of Benedictine priory-hospital of St Nicholas. Only a thousand-year old church is left. For a long time it has not been not a parish church but belongs to a few local families. It was confiscated during the French Revolution but the families were able to buy it back from the state. The doors were locked but a key hole — once again — provided an idea of the recently renovated interior, with a statue of St James. 

   
The scenery was so beautiful as we kept descending and rising up again. 

 Ostabat is a small village now but was an important stop for pilgrims in the Middle Ages, with hotels and at least twenty ‘gites d’etapes’ to cater to them. The guide book says that it could receive as many as 5,000 pilgrims at a time. Today the bar where stopped for a refreshing Perrier and ice cream had only three other pilgrims.

 Soon after Ostabat we arrived at our small and old fashioned hotel Espellet in Larcevaux. The last stop before Saint Jean. 

Day 34 – Lichos to Saint Palais, 22.2 km

Every place we have stayed has been so different and always a surprise. In Lichos we stayed with a lovely Basque family in their home. The husband and son had been champion rally car drivers at one time (and fans of the former Finnish rally driver Ari Vatanen). The house was quite small, but our room was warm and comfortable, and the dinner was excellent. The hostess very kindly packed us lunches for the day, knowing that there were no open shops on Sunday. 

   The day started out foggy, but was warm, and brought good walking weather. We took a few variant routes, and at one stage found ourselves wandering across a field with a flock of sheep. We were on lots of paved rural roads too, which can be hard on the feet. The landscape is incredibly green and lush. 

  



  
Many of the farmhouses now look very typical for the Basque region, white plaster with brownish red shutters and trim. Lichos was really at the very edge of the Basque Country, which extends well into Spain from here.We stopped at a few places to rest and for lunch, including at the very small church, Eglise d’Olhaiby. We could find little information about the church, which in any event was closed, but we could peep into the keyhole at the beautiful interior. 

 
   
As there were no places to stay for long stretches of the Chemin today, we went a little off-route to the small town of St Palais to find a place for the night. We settled into another comfortable Gite d’Etape, called Soretena.

  
  

Day 33 – Navarrenx to Lichos, 17.2 km

We crossed the bridge out of Navarrenx, and looking back we could see the imposing walls of the Bastide which formed the town’s boundaries. Safety was the attraction in the 16th century to get a new town established.  

Most of the Chemin went through the forest, and the day, though overcast, was warm and pleasant. We got pommeled by acorns — every time a breeze came up, the acorns came raining down.
A couple of times, we passed signs that said ‘silence,’ as if we needed reminding. But it was for the benefit of dove hunters, who had built tree houses high in the canopy to enable them to catch the birds during their migration. 

 
  The maize harvest has also been in full swing. We have passed huge harvesters that eat everything up, keep the maize kernels, and spit everything else – cobs, and stems, and stover – back on to the field. But increasingly we are seeing maize harvested and stored in the old way, in huge open granary. 

 We had a long pleasant stop for lunch, under a shelter erected for pelerins. The afternoon brought us to Lichos, where we stopped by in a tiny church and sought out our accommodation, Chambre d’Hotes Madeleine Iribaren, a Basque family home with a great evening meal with the family. 

 

Day 32 – Sauvelade to Navarrenx, 14.6 km

   

The Pyrenees were clearly visible for the first time during our walk today as a cloudy morning gave away to a beautiful sunny afternoon. The mountain range forms a dark blue background to the fields, forests and valleys we were passing through. It was a quiet and pretty walk.We stopped a couple of times, including in the small town of Meritein for lunch and a quick church visit. 

 Navarrenx means the edge of Navarre, which at one time was a kingdom of its own. The town is different, with its grid of streets like in an American city. But they are narrow and the town is old.

Every evening the local 16th century church of St Germain invites pilgrims who are staying for the night in town to a prayer and a short presentation about the town. Forty volunteers take turns to host it with the priest. It was a nice little event. The young priest spoke beautifully about the pilgrimage. The church had a statue of St. James, typically depicted with his scallop shells, pilgrim’s staff, calabash, and satchel. He said that the satchel St James carried — and that every pilgrim carries — has three things in it: the pilgrim’s relationship with God, internal harmony with oneself, and how to meet one’s future. He said that internal harmony comes during the Chemin from the nature, silence and walking. It was very appropriate. The whole route is in the beautiful nature, there is silence most of the time and walking is what we do day in day out. 

 At dinner we met a Canadian couple whom we had first seen on our third evening in Saugues and then later in Conques. It was nice to run in to them again at our accommodation for the night, Le Relais du Jacquet.

 

Day 31 – Argagnon to Sauvelade, 12 km

We said our goodbyes this morning to our hostess and her pig and hit the road. The day was overcast, and we did not see the sun. But pleasant weather to walk.
  In recent days we have been walking in Bearn, which is one of the traditional provinces of France. Today it is part of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques administrative region. The petroleum and aerospace industry are said to be important here. We have not seen anything to do with aerospace, but passed an oil exploration site the other day and France’s largest natural gas facility today, Usine de Lacq, with a faint but specific smell that lingered around for some time. We crossed the river Pau a few times while walking, as well as a busy motorway. Haven’t seen one of those in a while.

  As we are approaching St Jean Pied-de-Port, we have slowed down a bit, and today was a short walking day. We spent a longer time sitting in a cafe in Maslacq — enjoying an omelette a la ceps (wild mushroom) — and on a comfortable log along the route. Lots of migrant birds have been in the air lately. They are fascinating to watch.

The first church we visited was in the morning in Argagnon, established in the 12th century but renovated many times since, and somewhat characterless, though with some interesting stained glass windows. And the second one was at the end of the day, in Sauvelade. The latter was a 13th century abbey church, currently under major renovation, and the only part left from the original abbey that had seen many different masters over the centuries.

 And as in every village, there was the memorial of those who perished in the WWI.

 The Gite P’tit Laa where we stayed for the night was part of the same abbey complex as the church — but of later construction. A basic, but functional and friendly place.

  

Day 30 – Pomps to Argagnon, 16.1 km

Pomps has been described by various visitors as a little dreary, and we would agree. It had few distinguishing characteristics. The exception was the very pleasant place we stayed on the outskirts of the village, where we had a warm and cozy room and enjoyed the company of our hosts and their very friendly dog. Urban refugees, they left Paris less than two years ago with their three teenage kids to run the Chambre d’Hotes and to get away from ‘metro, boulot, dodo’ — commuting, working, sleeping. They seemed to have found a good balance.

We started walking again around 9 am or so. The sun is coming up later every morning, and it is chillier too. The forecast was for a cloudy day, but by 11, we were in full sun and it had warmed up nicely. We carried on to the ridge village of Arthes de Bearns. Promised views of the Pyrenees did not materialize as it had clouded over again, and we could only see their dim outline. We stopped for a coffee and then headed out of town, compelling a baker to open his doors so we could get some bread before he closed for his lunch break. Despite a month on the Chemin, it is still hard to get used to the midday closure of all shops. 

 The path out of town went out through a forest, further along the ridge, then down the hill into the outskirts of Argagnon, where, after some searching, we found our accommodation for the night, Arret et Aller. 

 Somewhat unexpectedly we found ourselves in “little England” for our evening stop today. A mother-and-son team from Cornwall run our Chambre d’Hotes, and produced a delicious cottage pie for dinner. 

 We were especially struck by their family pet, a pig. The pig was a two-year old sow called Raquel (Welch) who slept through our dinner and breakfast under her blanket in the dining room. 

  Our room was cold like it can only be in England in the autumn, but an electric blanket took the chill off.