Saint-Jean-Pied-de Port (“Saint John at the foot of the pass”)
This small, bustling and colourful town on the river Nive, is the capital of the Basque Province of Basse Navarre. It is also a major point of departure for pilgrims.
Madame Debril of the Societe des Amis de Saint-Jacques at 44 rue de Ia Citadelle, is a mine of valuable information and advice about the route. You are kindly advised to avoid calling on her too early in the morning, or after 7pm. She generally has an exhausting day generously imparting advice and guidance and is understandably strict about her hours of rest. If you have walked parts of the French route she will give you a stamp for her pilgrim record.
Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port was central to the region of Cisa or the Merindad (administration) of Ultra Puerto. From the ninth century, it was the sixth Merindad of the kingdom of Navarre, connected with it by a common legal infrastructure. It was poetically described as the Garden of Navarre because of its refreshing and invigorating climate and its enchanting and idyllic vista of pastures and forests.
Under the Treaty of the Pyrenees it became a part of France in 1659. The town was much prized and lusted after by the Navarese kings. In the period of the Great Schism (1376-1417) it was declared an Episcopal see under the Pope of Avignon.
There are a number of attractions. Citadelle, for instance, has a commanding view of the town. Its ramparts (accessible from the top end of the Rule de la Citadelle or by staircase, escalier de la poterne) can be reached from the footpath along the river by the side of the church. The climb on a clear day provides you with a stunning view. Also deserving of your interest are: Prison des Eveques, Musee de la Pelote, fourteenth century Eglise Notre-Dame du-bout-du-pont, Pont Romain and the different portes. The Basque-style houses some ornate wooden overhangs at roof level. Balconies are striking.
The very cooperative Tourist Office is happy to supply you with a pamphlet with marked walks in the area.
For accommodation enquire of The Itzalpea, Ramuntcho and the Hotel des Remparts (opposite the public garden). Pilgrims may find the St Jean at Uhart-Cize on the western outskirts useful. The Hotel Camou, opposite the church, is friendly and hospitable. It is also noted for its wholesome food and safe storage for bicycles.
The realistic and un-bureaucratic Syndicate d’lnitiative (tourist office) is ready with information on chambres d’hote’ (French bed and breakfast).
Keep an open mind and shop around carefully for clean, comfortable and economic accommodation and food. May we draw your discerning attention to: Refuge (6) at 55 rue de Ia Citadelle. It is managed and maintained by the Amis de la Vieille Navarre. The aforementioned Madame Debril is your contact. The gate d’etape at the house of Joseph Etchegoin (tel. 05 59.37.12.08) is the long-distance meeting point of the French GR65 and GR10. Campsite: Europ’Camping Cycle Repairs Ave du Jai Alai.
The pilgrim has a choice of two routes:
The Path over the mountains Route Napoleon
(A) On taking your leave of Jean, follow the D428. At the village of Hauntto 5 Km from St Jean the road curves. Follow the arrowed path to the left and walk 25 km to Roncesvalles. The Route Napoleon (the Route du Marechal harrespe) is a much more demanding climb over the mountains. Do not take unnecessary risks. Prudence dictates that these potentially hazardous climbs be made in reasonably good weather. There is no substitute for mountain bikes. It has to be stressed that the cyclist should be fit because the course is exacting. The route is clearly sign posted and has yellow arrows to guide you. The unfit walker may take 12 hours to reach Roncevalles via this route.
The route along the Road
(B) This is the route via the main road for the elderly, unfit, or walkers with breathing problems. It is more hospitable in poor weather than the mountain path above. The road route via Arneguy, Valcarlos and the pass is also quite challenging.
Take the D933. After leaving St Jean-Pied-de-Port, get on the D933 with clear signs to Pamplona, Roncesvalles, and Spain. Cyclists may hear some frightening anecdotes about this leg of the journey, hard, arduous and steep. Don’t be distracted or lose your concentration by the tales, some real, some apocryphal, about the less pleasant experiences of some pilgrims.
The first stretch of the route is problem-free. If the temperature is high, you can take a breather under shady spots, quite plentiful. These resting points have a generous water supply. After covering 8km of this route you enter the village of Arneguy. You can drink a beer or a glass of wine in the cosy bar. You can also pick up essentials in Arneguy’s well-stocked and friendly shops. When you finally take your leave, you come to an abandoned customs post. You are now on Spanish soil. Bear in mind local sensitivities and salute the locals with Hola! not Bonjour! .
The road ascends steeply but is never intimidating. A reasonably fit person will take it in his or her stride. The road is neat and well surfaced with little traffic, save for the occasional timber truck. After 3 km you are in Valcarlos.
The bars of St Jean are not open in the early hours. Stock up on provisions the day before. Start early, preferably before midday, and make sure you have some bottles of water. During March and April watch out for melting snow. Tread or ride with care. On the Route Naploleon, Ronesvalles is about 27km from St Jean.
A SUMMARY OF A PAGE FROM The Village to Village Guide To The Camino Santiago: With Permission Simon Walleberg Press. The Book is available at Amazon & Most Bookshops.
@Copyright Simon Wallenberg Press
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