Mountain portal

porté  (pɔʀt) n. [PIE *prtu].

  1. door, gate, haven, mountain pass.

The bus station at Saint-Jean-Pied-de Port.

The bus station at Saint-Jean-Pied-de Port.

A train got us most of the way there; a bus finished the job.

We stepped off of it and joined the others on the sidewalk. Even though the group hailed from different places and many spoke different languages, we shared an odd solidarity. All were here to walk the path of the Camino Francés. We had uniforms: trail shoes or boots with thick socks, high-tech shorts and tops, hats, hankies, trekking poles, and the like. We exhibited the giddy anxiousness that you would expect from a team in the locker room in the moment before the man sticks his head through the swinging door and says in a breathless sort of way: “Game-time, coach!” Finally, we shared an interest in the horizon rising steeply above the picturesque village. I looked up. The mist spilled over the Pyrénées like a French jabot.

The view to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port from the Mendiguren Citadel.

The view to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port from the Mendiguren Citadel.

The driver said nothing. He hopped out, ponytail swinging, and raised the doors to the compartments under the bus seats. Bob and I found our backpacks in the mix and shouldered them.

We high-fived, grinning silly. “This is it!” I said.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is located in the Basque Country of southern France. It presses against the River Nive at a strategic gap through the Pyrénées. This position distinguishes it from all the other Saint Johns or Johannesburgs or Ivans or San Juans of the world. This one is Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or “Saint John [at the] Foot of [the] Pass.” The mountain pass is the “port of the Cize” (Portus Cisere to the author of Codex Callixtinus) that offers connection between France to Spain.*

Bob and I shot our obligatory photos of the bus station. We consulted the map. Then we followed the others-in-boots for a 15-minute walk into town. Before us was a cluster of perfectly manicured houses and buildings. They were “red and rosy, as a Frenchman.”**

The white stucco buildings of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port crowd the River Nive.

The white stucco buildings of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port crowd the River Nive.

It is hard to say when the original settlement of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port came to be. Cave art and artifacts at the nearby sites of Isturitz and Oxocelhaya suggest that human habitation in the region goes back to deep prehistory. Much later, the Romans brought their legions to the Aquitaine. The gold mines of Asturica Augusta (modern Astorga, Spain) had to be linked to the rest of the empire. The path to the network would be remembered by the 3rd century AD as the “Route of Antonin.”

Richard I of England (of Robin Hood fame) razed the region in AD 1177 and earned the nickname “Lionheart” in the course of his campaigns. The Kings of Navarre rebuilt Saint-Jean and erected a fortified château on a hill overlooking the village. Richelieu turned that château into a citadel. The Franco-Spanish conflict dragged on but throughout those centuries of pain and struggle, the flow of pilgrims continued. They came from points across Europe to visit the tomb of the Apostle (see our post here for a description of the major Camino routes) and find healing, hope, and forgiveness.

The rue d’Espagne is a cobblestone artery that runs through the center of the village. On the north side of the Nive it becomes the rue de la citadelle.

The rue d’Espagne is a cobblestone artery that runs through the center of the village. On the north side of the Nive it becomes the rue de la citadelle.

We found the pension I had reserved for the night (clinging to a steep hill a kilometer or two out of town), settled our stuff, and returned to the village in the afternoon. Bob and I wanted to explore the place, pick up some supplies, and stop in the Pilgrims’ Office.

In some ways, modern Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was less than expected. It was essentially the intersection of a road and a river. Neither were large. Both were postcard perfect, but a bit kitschy and pricy for my taste.

The Pilgrims’ Office was abuzz with activity.

The Pilgrims’ Office was abuzz with activity.

The Pilgrims’ Office and the Mendiguren Citadel, on the other hand, proved to be more than expected.

The line at the door of 39 rue de la citadelle suggested the value of what was inside. Bob and I waited our turn and and then took a chair. The lady on the other side of the table answered our questions, provided advice, offered maps and other handouts, and issued kind encouragement. She validated our pilgrim credencials and issued our first stamp.

The robust team of advisors in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is equipped to handle the crowds in the most popular launching point for the Camino Francés. It is suggested that 20,000 hikers begin their journey from this office every year.***

The 17th century Mendiguren Citadel was more than expected as well. The glacis, moat, walls, flanking bastions with arrow loops, draw bridges, and portcullis stirred the imagination. The view was spectacular, and given the steep hill required to achieve it, the less-motivated crowd was whittled out.

La porte Saint-Jacques is incorporated into the fortification line of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

La porte Saint-Jacques is incorporated into the fortification line of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

To top it off, we found the porté Saint-Jacques or the Gate of Saint James. It is the fenèstra of the fenster, the porté of the portal. Our walk to Santiago de Compostela had “officially” started.


*Codex Calixtinus mentions Pass of Cize on several occasions. See here for an English translation of this important medieval document on the Camino.

** As Francis Miltoun described it in his Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre (1907: 393). See an online version here.

***See the website on the Camino de Santiago here.


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Consider this your invitation to join us this winter in Galilee, Israel. We will be hiking the Jesus Trail between Jan 8-16, 2019. This trip is facilitated by the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies and is a bargain at only $2,588 from New York. For more details click here or contact me at markziese@gmail.com.