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Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 5: St Jean-Pied-de-Port to Burguete

St Jean-Pied-de-Port to Burguete 27km (138km cumulative)

Imagine, if you will, the mighty Europe pitching up at your local bar to run through a selection of their finest works of rock 'n' roll. I know, as fantasies go it doesn't get any better than this so you nudge yourself, very politely, to the front of the crowd to place yourself within a plectrum's-toss of the god-like Joey Tempest. 
You know every song: word-by-word, note-by-note, and you know that from the off Sweden's finest contribution to bubble-haired poodle-rock will carefully and cleverly up the tempo to finish the two-hour show (yes, I know, they could go on for much, much longer) with the national anthem of the 1980s, The Final Countdown.
So you're standing there, all agog, when a familiar riff kicks in. Surely ... it can't be? But it is. Joey takes to the stages, locks flickering in the spotlights and utters those immortal words: We're heading for Venus/but still we stand tall ...
Tell me about it! I'm still having nightmares even though I know it'll never, ever happen. But if it did, it would resemble closely the repertoire of the Camino Frances from its starting point in St Jean, including the encore to Finisterre. The first stage, up and over the Pyrenees is The Final Countdown of European pilgrimage; I doubt whether it can be bettered.

The starting point: Port de Espagne. I don't know whether it was the pent-up excitement, exacerbated by four days along the Via Podiensis, or concerns about the heat, but I didn't sleep well and whenever I drifted off into subconsciousness my dreams encountered unfamiliar themes. So I was awake at 05:00 and off at first light; I wasn't, of course alone

Pilgrims at a fountain on the lower slopes. The hike up and over the Pyrenees via the Col de Lepoeder is, without doubt, a huge Day One task for pilgrims, many of whom are not prepared physically, emotionally or materially. But the 1400m ascent is more laborious than life-threatening, and most is on asphalted roads. There's even, about halfway up, a refuge and bar where one can get a bed for the night. Given the predicted temperatures of 35 degrees plus I briefly considered it but as I arrived there before ten and a strong (but a very warm) breeze had blown up there seemed no point in dallying.

The Virgin of Biakorri,1100m. In a sense, this was is where the project was born, on a fine and clear morning in May, back in 2012. It was my first day and I'd arrived at the start of the Camino with precious little preparation, armed only with the ubiquitous John Brierly guidebook I had no idea what to expect so the sudden 'apparition' of the Virgin seemed quite miraculous. With a backdrop extending eastwards towards the higher, still-snowcapped peaks of the Pyrenees, the Virgin is perfectly placed to elicit all manner of responses. The scenery is stunning in itself, in almost literally taking-one's-breath-away manner, but for me, at least, the presence of the Virgin makes the landscape perform in a way which might be considered generally religious and more specifically Catholic. When I stopped here in 2012, the Virgin and her presence in the landscape moved me to tears, this time around it was equally emotional. I could have stayed here all day.

Offerings left in a small hollow beneath the Virgin of Biakorri

Feels like heaven ...

'You're just too good to be true/I can't take my eyes off you/You'd be like heaven to touch/I wanna hold you so much'

The last hundred metres or so towards the summit of the Col de Lepoeder, coming towards the end of the day, can be a test of endurance. I knew it was coming, otherwise I'd have been hurling abuse at the pernicious cruelty of the path. But at every turn the landscape cranks it up another notch, holds you in its thrall. I stopped here, unloosed my rucksack and threw myself down onto and into the grass, to put my body in as much contact as possible with the earth beneath, to feel it pulsing through my veins. An elemental affect; up here, the land and me, we are one and the same thing.

This is how I recorded it at the time: 'So I'm just about 500m from the Col de Lepoeder and it's absolutely stunning. 'It' has happened here, not at the Virgin of Biakorri. The landscape is absolutely stunning but what's different from last time is that I have a greater sense of where things are, I'm more 'in place'. It's not just an arbitrary landscape into which I've walked without any preparation. The second thing is that I also have a very strong awareness of the path itself, the path in the landscape. I can look back and see it, as it climbs up ... the path that comes up from the road, you can see how it winds around pretty much level, around the valley, past the fountain of Roland. Over to the east you can see the Pic d'Orhy and right in the background you've got the high peaks of the Pyrenees and in the foreground an almost pefect 'v'-shaped valley. I know where I am.

Roncevalles, the end of the stage for most pilgrims who stay at the abbey's modern albergue. Your correspondent, however, continued further 3km to Burguete

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