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Brian "Gadget" Lewis
Begins: May 21, 2019
Date: Mon, Jun 24th, 2019
End: St Jean Pied de Port
Daily Distance: 19
Trip Distance: 754.0
Entry Visits: 118
Journal Visits: 3,945
Guestbook Views: 70
Guestbook Entrys: 3
So we're done. Today was cloudy and humid, and not too bad at all to hike in. It did get warm later, but because it was an overall nice temperature and overcast I hiked in just a t-shirt and without a hat on, which is nice for a bald guy like me (excellent up-top air-conditioning).
Ann and I walked together for a goodly stretch, then I hiked ahead at my pace to meet her at the cafe in Saint Jean Vieux ("Old St. Jean"), only about 4 km from the end. Our recollection of Saint Jean Pied de Port was that it's pretty stuffed with pilgrims and tourists, so I thought that the last cafe before the town would be a good choice, and it was. The proprietor told us she could basically make us various sandwiches. So Ann asked if it was not possible to get a 'natural' omlette with ham, and we were told that it was. So we both ordered one, and we were both a little nonplussed when we got scrambled egg and ham sandwiches. Pretty good, though, and filling.
Then even though it was only 4 km more to go, Ann suggested that I go on ahead as indeed, she was going slower after lunch. For her sake, I'm glad the trip is over, yet neither of us, I think, were eager for it to come to an end, and that seemed to be the universal feeling of the sort of community of people hiking at more or less our daily distance schedule that we've come to know.
In fact, on the way to St Jean and in the town itself we kept coming across a surprising number of people that we've come to know. The two German women from Nuremberg. John from London/Shap (lives in London, has a place in Shap). Scott and Svea from Boston. Jaques and Lorna from Australia. Jean and Marise from I'm not sure where in France. A friendly Austrian fellow that we just met today and kept running into around town. Everyone seemed inclined to hang around a bit, chat some more, keep an eye out for and surprisingly often find other pilgrims they had encountered before.
We ended up sitting down with Scott & Svea plus English John; we had drinks and dessert while they all had burgers, with lots of animated conversation. A touching scene ensued when Svea was recognized by a French woman who had become close friends on the trail some days ago --- they embraced, calling each other 'sister' (they do look a good deal alike). Various email addresses were exchanged. It's a different flavor and style than long distance hiking in the U.S., but there are definitely similarities too --- connections occur, the trail is a kind of leveler that makes quite a disparate group of people feel as if they're all the same, going through the same experience that helps them relate to each other so well.
Anyway, all good things must come to an end, and we took a train in the afternoon to Bayonne. We'll be in Paris tomorrow and home shortly after that. Back to 'normal' life, or at least the domestic version of that!
I'm mixed about the whole business of having our lodgings arranged in advance and our baggage carried from place to place for us. Since we had done other things on this trip --- rather than dedicating the trip strictly to hiking --- it would have been a real hassle to try to carry everything on our backs. I.e., some things we wanted along on other parts of this trip were things we didn't need for hiking. And having the lodgings arranged in advance made for easy daily decisions, and a certain comfort level given that we're still far from fluent in French. But.
When you book everything in advance, you give up flexibility. Want to take an extra day off, or take a side trip? Have any sort of physical problems that make the walking difficult? Tough beans! Your schedule is set. I also felt obscurely guilty walking easily with a very light pack and passing people carrying everything with them. So I don't know. In a way I'm glad to have experienced this approach, but don't know if I'll want to do it again. OTOH, we are, after all, getting older ... ! TBD.
And as with all trails there are good things and bad things as compared to other trails. The question I've had multiple times now is how I would compare this to the Camino Frances, more commonly known in the U.S. at least as 'the' Camino de Santiago.
Good things: I would say that this French route is a lot greener (except in comparison to Galicia). I liked the food better. If you're interested in learning or improving your French, then obviously this is the place to do that. No big cities along the way, not sure how much that's better or worse or neutral. Lots of bird song and in general I'd say more wildlife --- lizards, frogs, birds, badgers (well, scat and a couple of dead ones ...), beetles, rabbits, etc, plus a slightly greater variety of domestic animals and livestock. And the land and economy felt quite healthy throughout, unlike some parts of the hike in Spain.
We also encountered a lot of kindness here, and people were so friendly. I'm not saying that doesn't exist in Spain too, but it seemed more marked on this trip for us.
Finally, I would say that I just never had a bad experience with a dog, though I encountered a whole lot of them in France. I definitely can't say that in Spain and Portugal.
Neutral things: Each trail seems to have some unique aspects, such as many fire stations in Portugal willing to allow Pilgrims to sleep in the station for a donation. A somewhat unique thing in France is getting water from town cemeteries. Maybe this is something one can do in Spain and Portugal too --- it never occurred to me to try!
It's hard to say if one or the other is better in terms of sights to see; each has a lot of unique stuff. Ditto I think that both trails are about equally well marked, and apps and other data exist for both to help keep you on track. Both trails have some alternate routes for various reasons.
I can't compare the Gites in France to the Albergues in Spain because our booking service didn't put us in Gites except for one exception where we nevertheless had our own room.
Not-so-good things: France is more expensive. You really need to be able to communicate some in French, and unless you're pretty good at it, you won't have as much social interaction because a very solid majority of the hikers here are French, and seldom are they comfortably fluent in English, or any other language but French. By contrast, within the pilgrim community in Spain the lingua 'franca' is typically English, sort of the new Latin if you will.
One item that you might or might not consider as a negative is that I think that the hike in northern Spain is overall a little easier, less climbing and descending overall.
Bottom line is that it's more challenging to do this hike in France if you don't speak much or any French, but it IS certainly still do-able, and I'm glad that we came and did it. While we've traveled a (very) little in France before, this country was for me mostly a closed book, and there's so much here in the way of history, culture, gastronomy, geography, language, etc etc. Walking for weeks through small towns and villages is IMO a great way to start to get a feel for what a country is like, especially if you make an attempt to engage with and talk to the people who live there.
Gadget's Trail Journal
The Camino de Santiago is the name of any of the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many take up this route as a form of spiritual path or retreat, for their spiritual growth.
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