SAINT-JEAN-PIED-DE-PORT sits pretty at the French base of the Pyrenees. With its white chalet-style houses, precision-stacked cords of wood under their long eaves, it is typical of mountain towns in Continental Europe.
Less usually, Saint-Jean has a passport office. At No 39, on the cobbled rue de la Citadelle, those undertaking the historic Camino Francés pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain collect their ‘carnet de pèlerin’. Reputedly, the remains of St James the Apostle are buried in Santiago.
The staff of the passport office keep late hours. My son, Tris, and I arrived at nearly 8pm, after time lost down a sequentially slower SNCF rail track; the woman on duty was unfailingly helpful, did the paperwork, talked us through the path, which is acknowledged to be difficult. Day one is a six-hour climb of more than 3,000ft , followed by an hour or so of ragged, shaly descent. In total, about 15 miles in distance—as the raven flies. And the weather can turn; people die doing the Camino. The Hollywood actor Martin Sheen starred in a film ‘inspired’—no, not the mot juste, I should write ‘prompted’—by such a tragedy, called The Way, released in 2010.
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