Saturday, 23 August 2008

Jeux sans frontiers

At around three on Sunday afternoon we entered Spain. After seven months and seventeen days, the crossing wasn´t entirely as planned, but I think we made it within half an hour of each other.

Leaving behind the festival of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which had cheerfully gathered us in to two nights of drinking, eating, parading and concerts (plus an amusing cod version of the Pamplona bull running), we rose swiftly through the scarves of morning cloud that lay rumpled on the hills´shoulders like the Basque neckerchieves of last night´s revelllers. The air was moist but not too cold: 17 ºC or so, and although overcast there were shafts of sun to select this field of sheep or that white-washed village for special display. The lower foothills to the Pyrénées were sharp green pyramids piped with the darker green of low trees and hedges.

Higher up, trees closed around us then opened onto the short-grazed wild pastureland where the long-haired Basque sheep and herds of horses have right of way over cars and pilgrims. Then bracken, turning to autumn at its base, and heather turning to purple lined our grassy shortcut across the shoulder of a hill. Above the first pass, twelve Red Kites had found something to gather about, ominously.

I hadn´t expected this. I had buried my fear of the high places and set out with confident visions of the moment of arriving at the Spanish border, so it was was disturbing that the approach to the Pyrénées was quite this suburban. There were walkers all around us, some stopping to stretch and loosen up on their first day´s walk of the Camino. For the first time Italian and Spanish was added to the French, Dutch and German we heard spoken. And the road was a constant slalom of sightseeing tourists and locals descending for bread and Mass. Large roadside panels instructed pilgrims to walk in Indian file and warned drivers to look out for sheep and walkers. So it was both an easier and harder walk than I had imagined.

The first fifteen kilometers or so out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port are on road, starting out between the neat gardens of detached family homes and then winding away to hamlets and finally scattered farms till eventually the bare mountaintop is reached. And it was steep: something I had expected. I climbed 3000 feet in 10 miles. Coming out of Conques a few days before we had climbed nearly 2000 feet in a mile or so, an even steeper gradient, at the end of which every stitch of clothing down to my knees was dripping with sweat and my lungs were exploding. But once it was done, it was done, and there was a café for a warming drink and, after a while, sun to heat me through.

But the Route Napoleon, as it is known, just went on and on till the sweat was way past my knees; and the higher we climbed the cooler it grew. My lungs were done exploding: my heart was about to join them. And people around me were still talking! Then the whole anti-immune, hey-let´s-attack-my-own-body thing kicked in and I had three options: keep going uphill faster and faster to keep my temperature above zero; stop for something to eat to get energy and die of hypothermia in five seconds; or fling myself at that lone 4x4 just appearing over the horizon. I chose the latter. Hitchhiking is not something I´d do at home, but on the Camino it´s different.

The confused but unltimately wonderful Spanish couple I thrust myself upon, Esther and Mikel, had soon swept my body and my bag into their car, tried and failed to persuade David to join us, and then taken me on a jolly roller-coaster of a ride on the mountain roads into Spain. They didn´t even seem to mind when, after dramatically altering the course of their Sunday drive out for a picnic from their home near San Sebastian, I then shouted to pull over quick, as I had to vomit; after which I was installed in the front seat. Esther and Mikel took me right to the door of the hotel, waving away my suggestion that I could get a taxi from Val Carlos. They pressed their picnic upon me and were generally such cheerful and generous saviour-angels that I hope very much they´ll visit us in London one day so I can thank them properly. Will the rest of us do the same when a wild-looking stranger flings themselves at our car? Even more fittingly for me, perhaps, was that my crossing of the frontier was in the midst of an unavoidable crash course in remembering the Spanish I had once learned. By evening, while my heart, lungs and innards were still recovering from their pummelling, I had the consolation of already thinking in Spanish with the French tucked back into the storage part of my brain.

David, meanwhile, strode on and on, overtaking all other walkers and enjoying the freedom to push his body hard for a change. Occasionally we have seen sculptures on the gothic portals of cathedrals, of the Devil tempting a pilgrim with water to drink or a soft bed. The good pilgrim always refuses; and in this we can see that David passes the good pilgrim test.

There were two more steep climbs to come of nearly a thousand feet in just over a mile to the Col de Benarte and the last great rise to the Spanish border at the Col de Lepolder. The landscape there is a reversal of the high bare mountain or pine trees of expectation. It is a broadleaf forest and a small monument is now all that marks the crossing into Spain.

That was David´s job nearly done for the day. A rapid descent of nine and a half miles, dropping some 1800 feet, lay ahead into the Roncesvalles of legend - too rapid, according to his toes and shins - and the massive monastery/hostel where already anxious pilgrims were stacking their rucksacks in order of arrival, hoping there would be enough beds and hot water for them when the hostel eventually opened its doors. But now even David let the Devil in, downing an icecream and heading off to the hotel in Burguète instead, to find me, the bath, and a cold beer.

17th August 2008

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