BenLo Park
Pocket History

A Short Tour of the Pyrenees
September 12-16, 1997

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port is a tiny town on the Nive River at the foot of the trail leading up to the Roncesvalle Pass (Port) which was used by pilgrims to cross the Spanish frontier on their way to Santiago de Compostella. From 951 AD on, Compostella was as big a pilgrimage site as Jerusalem.

St-Jean-Pied-de-Port In the early 9th century, stars appeared in a field, guiding shepherds to the grave of the Apostle James. Hence, campus stellae, field of stars. But recently, archeologists have found more graves and lean toward compostela, latin for cemetery.

In 844, a knight appeared from nowhere to help Don Ramiros I defeat the Moors at Clavijo and start The Reconquest. He was recognized as the Apostle James, and so St. Jacques became the patron saint of the Reconquest of Spain by the Christians.

After the Lord of Pimental swam across a river and emerged covered in shells, the coquille became associated with the Reconquest, and with St. Jacques. Hence, Coquilles St. Jacques, the marvelous seafood dish, and the scallop shells on the broad-brimmed felt hats of pilgrims heading across France on their way to Campostella throughout the middle ages.

St-Jean-Pied-de-Port English pilgrims were said to have "taken the cockle shell", and this explains the little rhyme about contrary Mary, Queen of Scots, and her garden of cockle shells and silver bells.

In the 15th century, St. Jean-Pied-de-Port was fortified by the Navarrese, and for a while it was the capital of Lower Navarre. Many of the buildings still date from the 15th and 16th centuries.

After checking into the Relais et Chateau, Les Pyrénées Hotel, we wandered along the main street of St. Jean which climbed the hill to the Citadel. There were a few interesting shops, and a few filled with tourist souvenirs. Some of the ancient doors were still open to pilgrims resting on their way south. A handwritten note on one door was a message to someone expected to pass through.

We read every menu in town, comparing and contrasting the prices and food. Finally, we selected a little restaurant just inside the main gate. The Piperade Jambon was not as spicy as I had expected, even though it was basically a mixture of various red peppers topped with a slice of Bayonne Ham. We tried to estimate how many mussels Jane ate as an appetizer, and settled on a number between 150 and 200. Jane had the Basque style chicken, and I settled for lamb. For dessert, we both had the Gateau Basque, of course. All very good and highly recommended.

St-Jean-Pied-de-Port Sunday morning, was bright and sunny. From the balcony of our room, only a few puffy white clouds floated up from the drenched hillsides. The typically Basque buildings, white cob with red timber frame, glowed in the morning sunshine.

After a morning stroll through the town again, we packed up and followed the Nive towards the sea. The rolling hills, green from the rain, and speckled with white and red houses made for a beautiful peaceful landscape. The little vilage of St-Martin-o d'Arrossa was decked out for a festival. Every balcony and railing was festooned with strings of bright red peppers, drying in the sun.

St-Jean-de-Luz, is a seaside resort, just south of Biarritz on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. From the safe harbour here, Basque fishermen hunted whales off the coast of Labrador from the 11th century. By the 15th century, they had switched to bringing back cod from the abundant Grand Banks of Newfoundland. After the Treaty of Utrecht forbade this, some of the fishermen turned to sardines off the coast of Portugal, but others became pirates, and fished for a more lucrative catch.

St-Jean-de-Luz Last fall, as we toured the banks of the St. Lawrence, and the shores of Newfoundland, we found multiple references to the Basque villages that had been overrun by the French and English after the "discovery" of America by Columbus, Cartier, Cabot and crew. No wonder these fishermen kept their trade secret so quiet throughout several centuries.

St-Jean-de-Luz is now a delightful town. The clean, white and red houses and apartments for tourists circle the bay, protected by a sandbar and harbour walls. We parked in town and strolled the pedestrian shopping district. By the harbour, a band played in a small pavillion in the town square. We sat down at a sidewalk cafe and enjoyed a wonderful salad with lettuce, ham and blue cheese, washed down with local white wine and beer. Add St-Jean-de-Luz to the ever growing list of places we would like to return to.