First day: St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Here we go! After a marathon train journey and two other connections, we finally hopped on a one-car commuter line with a few dozen other technical fabric- and hiking boot-clad would-be pilgrims from Biarritz to the small Basque village of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which has become the de facto trailhead of the French Camino de Santiago. Whether that’s for historic reasons or simply because it’s the last town in France before crossing the foothills of the Pyrenees into Spain, I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s another painfully charming spot with winding stone-cobbled streets and walls built as much for beauty as defense.

Alas, we tore ourselves from the village at about 8:30, later than most, to tackle one of the French Camino’s most difficult chunks. A lovely hostel lies about 11 km into the walk, but at that rate, we’d need three months for this journey, not one, so after a quick coffee there, we continued to climb. The next waypoint, unless you’re packing your own shelter, lies in Roncesvalles, another 16 km further.

Most of this stage – about 24 km in fact – climbs through pastureland where the Basques pasture their cattle, ponies and black-faced Brebis sheep, but apparently the healthy vulture population spiraling in updrafts like bubbles in a glass makes it necessary to prohibit dumping animal remains.

Temperamental weather can sometimes force pilgrims to take the lowland route, but all we had was sunshine and cool breezes to accompany spectacular view after spectacular view across rolling hills tapering into the ocean to the west and lapping at snow-covered spires to the east.

Roncesvalles is a tiny Spanish town with a massive hostel, necessitated by its position as a bottleneck on the Camino. Across three floors, several hundred bodies bed down every night here at this well-organized modern dormitory attached to a 12th-century church during the summer. Pilgrims almost undoubtedly out-number the town’s residents during the evening hours.

 As I understand it, hotels in small towns like this one often put together a communal pilgrim meal with an appetizer, entrée and dessert for pilgrims at a reasonable price. After enjoying our first of many, and some good conversation spurred on by a thirsty Italian who ordered us all a second bottle of wine, we happily put our weary legs up to rest in the hostel by 8:45.

Just a quick note – I’m going to try to put up shorter posts more frequently from our time on the Camino. Part of it is that I’m pretty exhausted by the time we arrive some where to sleep every night that writing longer posts is tough, and part of it is spotty access to wifi, though so far it’s been pretty good. There’s so much I’d like to share but know my words and Anne-Claire’s pictures, good as they tend to be, can’t capture. Hopefully, I’ll be able to provide a small window into this experience that we’re so lucky to be enjoying.

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5 thoughts on “First day: St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles”

  1. The travel blog you post for us is great. Each “chapter” of your descriptions in words and Anne-Claire’s descriptions in pictures takes us arm-chair travellers to where you are. Thanks for your efforts. Love, Dad.

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  2. Bon voyage, John and Anne-Claire! Thanks for taking us along for the ride or perhaps that should be walk.

    Question for you. Borders always interest me, and I’m curious about what sort of marker did you see, if any, at the France-Spain border?

    It makes me wonder, too, about the situation on the Camino during World War II, when (semi) neutral Spain would have been the destination for those trying to escape occupied France. Was the Camino blocked, or under heavy surveillance?

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    1. Greg – The border itself is pretty anti-climactic. As I remember, there’s a small sign, and the language of the signs changes from French to Spanish (with Basque present on both typically). Where we crossed was very remote, only accessible by foot, horse or 4-wheel drive. As such, there’s no evidence of any sort of recent wall, fence, checkpoint, etc. I don’t think we even stopped to take a picture, though we should have.

      As far as your second question, it’s a good one and I’ll see if I can’t find something out about it. I do know that until the late 1970s or 1980s, only a handful of people did the pilgrimage each year. The numbers have slowly increased until about a decade ago, when the number of hikers began to increase exponentially. It’s possible the Camino wasn’t well known enough to be a viable escape route. I do know the route we took from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port is called the Napoleon route, as it was supposedly Bonaparte’s preferred path to and from Navarre in Spain to support his armies in battle on the Iberian Peninsula.

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