Camino Talks with Jean-Louis Aspirot from the St Jean Pied de Port Pilgrim’s Office

Written by Wanda

In this episode of our talk series, Umberto di Venosa, CEO of Follow The Camino did a Camino Talk with Jean Louis Aspirot from the Saint Jean Pied de Port Pilgrim’s Office.

Jean-Louis is in charge of the Saint Jean Pied De Port pilgrims’ office and is general secretary of the Pilgrims’ Association of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the region around Biarritz.

What is the Pilgrimage Office in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port?

[00:01:37.240] – Umberto

Hello everyone, today with Follow the Camino and Camino Talks, we are pleased to welcome Jean-Louis Aspiraux. Who is in charge of the Saint Jean Pied De Port pilgrims’ office and general secretary of the Pilgrims’ Association of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the region around Biarritz. 

Hello Jean-Louis, thank you for giving us a little time today. I’m going to ask you a few questions about the pilgrims’ office, etc, because we have a lot of people who are interested in what’s going on in your area. Jean-Louis, what is the Pilgrimage Office in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port?

[00:02:31.380] – Jean-Louis

The Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port Pilgrims’ Office is a reception office and a kind of tourist office for pilgrims. So at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port we mainly receive pilgrims coming from abroad. 80% of the pilgrims who come to our office are foreigners who arrive by plane to Paris, by train to Bayonne and from Bayonne to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port with another small train. Last year, in 2019, we received 61,104 pilgrims, 1,982 of whom were Irish. The Irish are in tenth place in terms of the number of pilgrims passing through the office. Out of the total for the year, we had 114 different nationalities.

[00:03:50.540] – Umberto

That’s amazing. Does that mean you have to have people who speak every language?

[00:03:58.020] – Jean-Louis

So, of course, the volunteers who work in the pilgrims’ office, in short, must essentially speak English. Because it’s still quite an essential language. Volunteers stay at the pilgrim office for a week, Monday to Monday. And the volunteers come from all over the world.

[00:04:31.860] – Umberto

Are these the people who contact you and ask “can I come next year or in a month”? How is it organized?

[00:04:44.610] – Jean-Louis

Most of the time they are volunteers, people who have come to the pilgrim’s office as pilgrims before they leave. When they have finished the way, they have a bit of a desire to share what they have received from the way. For them, it is a way to share a little bit of their experience, to share it with the new starters on the way.

[00:05:19.410] – Umberto

How many volunteers do you regularly have and from where are they from?

00:05:30.330] – Jean-Louis

Yes, in general, the teams are constituted, according to the seasons because inevitably, there are months when there are fewer pilgrims than other months. Teams are made up of 2, 3, 4 up to 5 volunteers at the height of the season. For example, at the moment, in May, which is a rather important month where there are a lot of pilgrims. We would have seen five volunteers permanently at the reception desk.

[00:06:07.330] – Umberto

So when these volunteers are there, do they sleep in a private home or in a defined place?

[00:06:19.170] – Jean-Louis

They are housed with us at 39 de la Citadelle, the Association rents the whole building. So they have their room, their kitchen. They have everything they need to get through the week, with all the necessary amenities.

[00:06:44.050] – Umberto

Oh, great! What’s the big deal?

I suppose to see so many people passing by, so many nationalities, it’s a welcoming place, it’s the welcome of the pilgrims to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It’s a kind of obligatory passage for every person who passes through Saint-Jean, every pilgrim.

[00:07:11.450] – Jean-Louis

Yeah, it’s a pretty unique place. It must be said that on the way there is no such place, either in Spain or in France. It’s really a unique place where we receive pilgrims. We give them information and so on. It’s a unique place. The same type of structure does not exist anywhere else.

[00:07:42.500] – Umberto

So, what kind of information do you give to people who come? I suppose one of the main tasks is to stamp the famous pilgrim’s passport?

[00:07:55.640] – Jean-Louis

Yes, the credential (Pilgrim passport).

[00:07:59.110] – Umberto

And what else then?

[00:08:01.810] – Jean-Louis

Then information. They are given information about the stage, the first stage they will do the next day, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles, which is the main stage of the route: 25 kilometres through the mountain with 1200 metres of difference in altitude, it is a difficult stage so we advise them. We tell them that this is the place where you have to walk slowly. There you have water to quench your thirst, etc. So for information about the stage, they are also given a sheet with all the inns they will be able to find on the way from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago or even to Fisterra. Every day, they can prepare a little bit for the next day’s drop-off point.

[00:08:58.630] – Jean-Louis

They are given a sheet with all the differences in level (altitude) of the stages so that they have a little idea of the stages they are going to go through. We also help them find accommodation in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port because Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port has 1,500 inhabitants and is not a very big town. And when, in high season, there are 300, 350, sometimes 400 or even more pilgrims a day arriving in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, it is sometimes difficult to find accommodation. So we are in contact with all the accommodation providers in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to find out if there is room for people, and so on. We also manage a bit of that.

[00:09:51.460] – Umberto

Of course, it can be a little chaotic. Since Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is symbolically the start of the Camino Frances. All these people flocking in every month. I have heard from some people we work with that some people who arrive in Saint-Jean have not necessarily prepared their trip very well, you could say with their hands in their pockets.

[00:10:18.530] – Jean-Louis

 That’s right, some have prepared it through guides, etc… But there are a lot of them, but that, when you’re a host, you see it right away. They arrive, they sit down in front of you and tell you: “Here, I want to go to Compostela, how should I do it?” So they are, as we say in French, “brut de décoffrage” (rough and ready).

[00:10:48.500] – Jean-Louis

So we have to try to debrief them as best we can. A lot of them are very stressed too and they know that this stage will be difficult. You can sense that some of them are very stressed. Will I be able to do it? This stage is going to be long, difficult and our job is to tell them: stay calm tomorrow and leave at 7:30. There is a seven and a half to eight-hour walk. So you do it quietly. When you get to Roncesvalles, there’ll be room for you to sleep. That’s our job too, basically.

[00:11:39.830] – Umberto

It’s true that the Way of St. James is also for many people, the first time they go for a 5-hour hike in a row. The stage from St. John to Roncesvalles, as an entrance to the hike, is not the easiest, it’s true.

[00:11:59.600] – Umberto

But I don’t know if you get this from time to time, but a couple of years ago I had clients who didn’t make it to their homes. At 9 o’clock at night, we had to send the gendarmerie to pick them up. Then they arrived at midnight. They went through the hospital because the man was elderly and they hadn’t told anyone. So that’s to say they’re not used to it. Some people don’t necessarily realize that it’s the accommodation and the reception of the pilgrims in Saint John, but also in Roncesvalles or their operator, like us, we are there to take care of them and so if they don’t come, we go and look for them.

[00:12:50.720] – Umberto

Jean-Louis, do you have any anecdotes? I don’t know, famous people or special moments that marked you at the welcome of the pilgrims?

[00:13:19.370] – Jean-Louis

Yes, so we have anecdotes, but not famous people, no. Or they are disguised, they do everything they can to avoid being recognized, but no, we didn’t have any famous people, but we do know that there are famous people who pass by. But in general, we know that famous people do not make the way, how to say it, in simplicity, and it is rather the hotel every night, it is not exactly the meaning that the traditional pilgrim gives himself, who goes to the hostel every night.

[00:14:01.940] – Umberto

And you, Jean-Louis, did you make it all the way to Santiago?

[00:14:05.910] – Jean-Louis

Yes, of course. Yes, but for us and for the volunteers who work at the reception desk, this is a must. They have to have made the journey, which is normal enough for them to know what it’s all about, what they’re talking about. All the volunteers have all made the journey.

[00:14:30.930] – Umberto

Superb and at the moment, well we are obliged to talk about Covid-19, because of the accommodation, and travel restrictions. How are things going right now?

[00:14:53.680] – Jean-Louis

Well, there’s nothing going on. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, it’s a desert, it’s a desert. Economically, it’s quite catastrophic because, as I was saying, for a city of 1500 inhabitants, the passage of pilgrims does generate quite some revenue to the local economy. And now, all that has disappeared. So the accommodation providers are very worried because they realise that this is going to be a blank year.

[00:15:30.700] – Jean-Louis

We’re pretty sure that maybe in the fall there’s going to be a little push, but I don’t think so. I believe that overall, the year will be a blank year, that those who had planned to leave this year will postpone their trip to next year. Next year will be a holy year as well, which may create an additional influx.

[00:16:06.480] – Umberto

Do you think that the number of pilgrims has increased?

It’s been almost 20 years now that the number of pilgrims has increased a lot. For example, the figures for the number of pilgrims in the last five years are higher than in 2010, which was the previous Holy Year. So, do you think that we will welcome more pilgrims than that?

[00:16:34.030] – Jean-Louis

So curiously enough, the last Holy Year, which was 2000. 

[00:16:39.340] – Umberto

2010 seems to me…

[00:16:46.340] – Jean-Louis

2010 yes I don’t remember very well… When pilgrims left Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we had fewer departures than the previous year, so we asked ourselves the question is it because they said there will be a lot of people, so we will wait, we will leave next year?

[00:17:04.790] – Jean-Louis

And indeed, that’s what happened, at the arrival in Santiago de Compostela, there were many more people because inevitably, at the arrival they count the people who have only done the last hundred kilometres from Sarria or from Portugal, etc., and that’s what happened. So there was a fairly considerable influx that inflated the arrival number a little. But from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port we had fewer pilgrims.

[00:17:37.700] – Umberto

And there, with the virus, on the side of the reception of the pilgrims you will change a little bit when you reopen, hopefully in a month, two months, I don’t know…

Have you already thought about how you will interact with people?

[00:18:01.550] – Jean-Louis

So at the reception desk, if there are still traces of the pandemic, we will take every precaution for our volunteers and also for the pilgrims. Afterwards, the question is to know in Spain, they are certainly going to put quite strict standards in the hostels, standards of confinement, distance between beds, etc.

[00:18:36.140] – Jean-Louis

Access in hostels and all that and many hostels in Spain are not configured to support all these changes. There will probably be a lot of changes here. Hostels that are in danger of disappearing because the hostel that receives 20 pilgrims if we tell them “you can only receive 10 per day”, many will say 10 per day, for us it’s not profitable, we’re letting it go, so there’s going to be quite a lot of skimming, certainly at this level.

[00:19:28.240] – Umberto

It is true that we have to wait for legislation and standards to be put in place. We will adapt, but tomorrow’s path in 2021 will not be the same.

[00:19:44.520] – Jean-Louis

Different, yes.

[00:19:48.380] – Umberto

We’re wondering how it’s going to go, too, but hey.

Jean-Louis, do you have a little message for the future pilgrims before ending this great interview?

[00:20:04.040] – Jean-Louis

Yes, the message is to tell them not to go on the road unless they are 100% sure that there will be no problems, that all the health problems will be well taken care of, essentially in Spain.

[00:20:23.900] – Jean-Louis

And to find out from associations, tour operators, embassies and local authorities, whether the path is really safe and secure. It is better to be patient, wait a little longer, and do it safely. Rather than rushing and taking risks or any risks whatsoever 

[00:21:02.910] – Umberto

Super, Jean-Louis, thank you very much for this information and for your time. It was very, very interesting and I hope that the people who listen to us, who watch us, share and like this video. Thank you very much. And see you soon.

[00:21:22.280] – Jean-Louis

See you soon. Have a nice day.


About Camino Talks
Camino Talks is a collection of interviews about the famous Camino de Santiago. We talk to the people that make it so special and share their stories with you. By Follow the Camino
15th June 2020

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