Kindly contributed by Katharine Soper, a good friend of Longitude, and the author of Steps Out of Time, a travel narrative alive with the many intangible gifts of the Camino de Santiago.
Tucked away in the foothills of the French Pyrenees is the charming Basque village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. I first visited it with my French fiancé when I was twenty and living in Paris. This was my introduction to the French countryside—la France profonde—and it was love at first sight.
The physical beauty of the little village captivated me. Spectacular mountain views appeared around every corner, sometimes glorious in that unique French light, other times mysterious, even threatening, when a thick early morning mist settled in. It was October, withlush red geraniums tumbling from window boxes on the half-timbered houses. Best of all was the sensation of calm and well-being, sitting in a café near the Pont Roman, enjoying a gâteau basque and soothed by the music of the fast-flowing River Nive. This trip opened my youngeyes to an aspect of French life far from the excitement of Paris; that discovery has been the source of much pleasure over many decades. But it was only the beginning.
On a May morning thirty-seven years later, I returned to Saint Jean— sans fiancé—to begin walking the five hundred-mile pilgrimage trail to Santiago. But I bore little resemblance to the carefree student of that first trip. I was now a lawyer, married, and with two college-age children. Major life changes were hitting me from all directions, and I had succumbed to the crazy idea that a long hike might offer a useful breather. By the time I got off the train in Saint Jean, I was having serious second thoughts. Like maybe I should bag this plan and go home.
Reservations aside, Saint Jean welcomed me with open arms, as it has for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for almost a thousand years. The old part of town was instantly familiar, its charms untouched by the passage of almost four decades. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the town pulsed with a tangible energy and purpose. As before, I sat in a little café, this time alone, eating pastry after pastry and watching the throngs of pilgrims heading for the mountains. Often they’d catch my eye, smile broadly, and wave their walking sticks, assuming I was one of them. The thought that they might be right – that I might actually be a pilgrim – both thrilled and terrified me, a rational lawyer and lapsed Methodist. I believedI was approaching this trip as a tourist. But as I sat there, I began to wonder if perhaps I was part of this scene. I gathered the courage to take the first step, setting off the next morning on a hike that would become a life-changing adventure. Saint Jean was my introduction to the world of pilgrimage.
I have returned to Saint Jean five times since. Twice I came as a pilgrim, most recently in 2015. That year I arrived on foot, having already walked for three weeks on a pilgrim trail from France. It was thrilling to enter Saint Jean through the medieval city gate and to experience the village, not as the beginning of a journey, but as a place of repose, a place to regain my strength before tackling the difficult crossing of the Pyrenees.
The other three times I came as a volunteer at the Accueil des Pèlerins, the village’s pilgrim welcome center. On these trips, I came, not as someone needing help, but someone offering it. I was warned that the job would be exhausting, requiring endless patience, that I would be dealing with the many problems and the needs of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who pass through the Accueil each year. All that was true, but it was also enormously satisfying and a lot of fun.
I learned something from each encounter with a pilgrim—the Korean priest so fearful he was in tears; the biker who had been bitten by a dog and was ready to quit; the petite young woman who planned to drag her huge pink suitcase along the trail. This experience was also wonderfully, neurotically, and totally French. My time spent with the locals and with my fellow volunteers (including a retired commander from the French foreign legion!) was fascinating, and I have never laughed so hard in my life as I did during those late nights waiting for the last train to arrive.
I hope to go back for more. Even now, almost 5,000 miles away in Ann Arbor, the memory of the tranquil and ancient beauty of Saint Jean still takes my breath away, and the sense of possibility that permeates the place is magical. This little village has launched me on many wonderful adventures, and each time I leave with my soul renewed. Bien sûr it’s one of my favorite spots on the planet.