Quiet for Pigeon, Loud for Boar, Shoulder-High for Rabbit
Story by Beebe Bahrami, Photos by Bahrami and Sarah Hoskin Clymer

In which the author discovers the perils, humor, and rewards of walking the Chemin de Saint-Jacques (Way of Saint James) in the French Pyrenees during hunting season.

French pilgrimage

My friend Sarah and I pushed open the heavy carved wooden door of our pilgrim lodging in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, returning from a festive dinner in the heart of the medieval riverside town to celebrate the start of our three-week pilgrimage through the Pyrenees and hills of southwestern France. The innkeeper appeared suddenly in the vestibule and pushed a phone into my hands.

"You speak Spanish, don't you?"

I took it hesitantly and placed the receiver to my ear. "¿Si?"

At the other end, a sigh of relief. It was a taxi driver. He was bringing two American pilgrims up from Pamplona and needed directions to the inn. It was on a circuitous path for a car but the natural place to arrive on foot. It was exactly where the Chemin de Saint-Jacques—the Way of Saint James—entered this medieval town from starting points deeper in France, and continued from there to cross the Pyrenees into Spain. There, the trail became known as the Camino de Santiago. We stood on the threshold of shifting names and people, but Saint-Jean stood steady, welcoming them all for over a thousand years.

French welcome sign

I did my best and luckily within a few minutes we heard the motor. The enthusiastic driver jumped out of the car to shake my hand nearly off its hinges as two very tired-looking men, a father and son, slipped out from the back seat. The two, we soon learned, were walking the Camino together, inspired by the movie, The Way, starring Martin Sheen.

"It was too weird not to," said the father. "My name is Tom, and my son's name is Daniel." I felt a twinge of weirdness creep along my spine. Those were the names of the characters in the movie, Tom and Daniel, father and son. But in the movie, the son was already deceased when the father took up walking this pilgrimage from here. I wasn't sure I wanted to know how this movie ended. I simply nodded.

"Are you two also walking The Way?" Tom asked me.

"We are," I said, "but we're walking the other way." He looked baffled. "We're walking the opposite direction," I clarified, "along one of the French pilgrim routes. We're taking a bridging route east through the Pyrenees from here and connecting to another pilgrim town, Oloron-Sainte-Marie. From there, we'll pick up the French route known as the Voie d'Arles, and head northeast toward Toulouse." Both Sarah and I had walked the Camino de Santiago many times and had wanted to try something different, heading into more remote territory.

The innkeeper had been listening to our exchange. "Pigeon hunting season has begun a bit early this year," he said. "Be careful."

Pigeon hunting? Sarah and I gave little thought to this. How could it affect our pilgrimage? But from Tom and Daniel's faces, it was clear that they also didn't want to know how our movie ended. We said goodnight.

Onto the Route of the Pilgrims

Early the next morning, Sarah and I slipped out onto the ancient path right outside the heavy wooden door and stepped into the mists that hung low in the valley, the smell of wood smoke and decaying autumn leaves lacing the air. We walked east and deeper into the Pyrenees and France as Tom and Daniel stepped south and over the mountains into Spain. Theirs would be one steep ascent and one murderous descent. Ours would be murderous ascents and descents all day, plus false turns, retraced steps, lost trails, walks into farmsteads, and careful stepping along narrow goat paths that formed skirt hem patterns along the sides of nearly vertical slopes above timberline. We saw no humans all day but on the mountaintops and slopes encountered self-herding sheep, horses, and goats, who looked at us as if we were lost or mad.

French start of trial

By late afternoon, deep in the folds of mountains and narrow hidden valleys, we stumbled half dead into the village where we planned to stay the night, fantasizing about the reward to come in a regionally celebrated rural inn that we had researched. It was known for its three-course meals with local wine and large roaring walk-in fireplace in the dining room, with warm and cozy rooms and beds to retire to on the floor above.

Having discovered inns like this along the trail in the planning stage, we had decided to leave our tent and sleeping mats at home and to enjoy these local delights offered to pilgrims wending their way through France. We stopped briefly in the ancient village church with a small stone vestibule and then in great anticipation made for the inn, our inn, next door.

The door was locked, its curtains drawn. Someone had taped a hastily written note to the glass. Fermée — chasse de palombe. Closed — pigeon hunt.


Competing With Migrating Pigeons

The blood drained from my tired limbs. The sun disappeared behind the mountain. A chill set in. We considered our options. The next village with lodging and food was a day's walk away. We had apples, cheese, and half a baguette. This would get us through the night. We were now grateful that we'd kept our sleeping bags when we'd jettisoned the tent and mats. We settled on the stone church vestibule as our best bet for lodging and it was only then that it dawned on me that the innkeeper in Saint-Jean had intended to warn us about this scenario. Pigeons had unexpectedly begun migrating earlier than usual this year. A succulent bird coveted for delicious roasts, all bets were off, and owners of cafes, inns, restaurants, and pilgrim lodgings shut their businesses and disappeared into the woods. To think that I'd thought the danger was getting shot, not starving or freezing.

I soon learned that nearly two million pigeons made an annual passage over this part of the Pyrenees every autumn, heading for Morocco, the Canary Islands, or less ambitiously, over the mountains into southern Spain. I also soon learned that the pigeon hunt was a far older tradition than the 1,200-year-old pilgrimage route on which we walked. On top of all that, this was once an important male coming-of-age rite in the Atlantic Pyrenees, in addition to being an annual men's club: six to eight weeks of socially condoned bliss to run off into the woods and live in tree houses and drink and eat with only the good company of other men.

Apparently it was also a nice break for womenfolk, for they too disappeared.

Though hunting pigeons in the Pyrenees went back millennia, the method hunters used today was devised in the Middle Ages by monks in Roncesvalles, the Pyrenean pilgrim town par excellence in Spain on the other side of the mountains from us and where I imagined Tom and Daniel were snugly lodged and well fed after their hard day. The monks had observed that pigeons flying high overhead would suddenly make a fast vertical drop to the ground and fly low when pursued by a sparrow hawk, so they built watchtowers in the treetops. As soon as a sentinel up there saw the pigeons approaching, he would launch a clay disk to mimic a hawk, causing the birds to drop low into the forest. There, other monks lay in wait with nets spread on the forest floor that they pulled up to capture the birds.

French pilgrimage trial

Today's hunters communicated between treetop and ground with whistled signals and flags, and otherwise remained silent. The most experienced hunters were in the treetops, while the others waited with flags and nets on the ground. After each capture, they transferred the live birds to little thatch huts, re-set the nets, and returned to stillness and quiet.

So far, we had seen none of this—or been oblivious to what to look for—but pigeon hunting was making itself eminently known to us now. Resigned to our fate, we turned toward the church. As we did, we felt eyes upon us. We looked left and there a small woman in her eighties had appeared in her doorway, dressed from head to toe in black—shoes, socks, skirt, sweater, and shawl. She smiled kindly and gestured for us to approach.

"I've been expecting you," she said.

"You have?"

"Of course. It's the pigeon hunt and everyone is gone. I keep an eye out for pilgrims. I can offer you a place to sleep and eat."

Continue to Page 2

Read this article online at: Quiet for Pigeon, Loud for Boar, Shoulder-High for Rabbit

© Perceptive Travel 2019. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

Moon Camino de Santiago: Sacred Sites, Historic Villages, Local Food & Wine

Buy Moon Camino de Santiago: Sacred Sites, Historic Villages, Local Food & Wine at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Buy Cafe Oc—A Nomad's Tales of Mystery, Magic, and Finding Home in the Dordogne of Southwestern France at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Buy Cafe Neandertal—Excavating Our Past in One of Europe's Most Ancient Places at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

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