It’s 11 years since I was last here. This is a charming little French town with narrow streets and houses festooned with colourful window boxes. Nowadays there are many more “Pilgrim” and “Camino” signs and being the holiday month of August the streets are jammed with visitors.
We arrived last night after what turned out to be a 10.5 hour train journey direct from Santiago to Pamplona then a shared taxi to Saint Jean. The health measures were evident from the first moment – on arrival at the train station in Santiago although everyone was wearing masks I saw people being asked to put them on properly. Every second seat in the waiting area is closed off and before boarding as tickets were checked through a screen we were passed sachets of hand gel.
Here in France things are perhaps a little more relaxed but face masks everywhere and hand gel when entering and leaving places remain the order of the day.
We had been looking forward to meeting our friend Kate from the USA again. Alas that could not be. However on the same day Kate told me her flight was cancelled I got an email from another pilgrim pen friend to say she was going to begin from Saint Jean Pied de Port at almost the same time. So, last night we had dinner with Gemma. She is a health policy consultant with the World Health Organisation in Geneva. It also turns out this is her first Camino! Gemma is walking ahead of us at times but will send regular notes of her experiences and impressions which I’ll relay to you.
Gemma was excited to be setting out. We made her promise to leave early and take her time crossing to Roncesvalles. I’ll hear from her later today. We make the same journey tomorrow. But first I wanted to visit the Pilgrim Office in Saint Jean. 11 years ago a small crowd of us queued before being assembled and given a talk about the route then credenciales were issued and stamped. This year there was no queue and no assembly. Hand gel and masks and the ever helpful volunteers are working behind screens.
“Usually by this point in the year we welcome 300 or 400 pilgrims daily and up to 600 on the busiest day, ” said Henri as he stamped my Credencial. “Now if we see 100 pilgrims it’s busy. Tomorrow maybe 30 or 40 pilgrims will walk the route you are walking.”
There maybe few pilgrims but there are certainly lots of visitors and we made our way down the busy street to the Church which stands just at the city gate, the “Port” through which we’ll pass to start our Camino early tomorrow morning. The 14th century church is beautiful in its simplicity and although Saint Jean was never a main starting point for the Camino Santiago until more modern times the stones of this old building have heard many prayers over the centuries.
It was here in the silence we laid the petitions and messages we’ve received before the altar with the Pilgrim Bible which now has the first stamp of the journey. Candles were lit and prayers offered for everyone… and for ourselves that we may walk safely (and blister free!) on the Way to Santiago.