Saint Jean Pied de Port is the nexus of several routes that spread out across mainland Europe, and it was from here (primarily but not exclusively) that pilgrims most frequently made the crossing into the Iberian peninsula.
The tradition remains and the small town is often saturated with pilgrims, and pilgrim related tourism, during most of the year. With so many newly minted pilgrims roaming the streets, it has an air of excitement mixed with apprehension and a touch of dread.
You are advised to have a reservation before arriving, and the same holds true for the very few accommodation options that exist between here and Roncesvalles. If reservations are not part of your plans, march on with the philosophy that the camino provides, as it so often does in the most unexpected of ways.
Landmarks to explore include the Citadelle at the top of town, the Porte de San Jacques, and the Notre Dame du Bout du Pont. Look to the cobbled streets for the well-trodden plaques that point the way to Santiago de Compostela.
Before you set off for the Pyrenees and the border crossing into Spain be certain to pick up a pilgrim’s credencial at the pilgrims office (Rue de la Citadelle). This accordion-fold booklet is your passport to the camino and will become your most cherished souvenir of the trip. It is a required document in most pilgrim-specific accommodation, earns you pilgrim prices in many museums, and will serve as proof of your journey when presented to the Pilgrims Office in Santiago if you are planning on getting your Compostela Certificate.
It is important to be aware of the dangers of weather between here and Roncesvalles. These mountains have claimed more than a few lives, including several in recent history. If you have any questions regarding the journey ahead, the volunteers at the pilgrim office are there to help and advise.
Market day in Saint Jean Pied de Port is Monday, which is also one of its least busy days for pilgrims.
Saint Jean Pied de Port, or Donibane Garazi as it is known in Basque (remember that the French border aside, this town was once a part of Lower Navarre and the Basque language is as common here as it is over the pass), was founded in the late 12th century by the Kings of Navarre and served as the capital.
The distance between here and Roncesvalles is the most physically difficult stretch of road you are likely to encounter on the whole of your camino. From the “Foot of the Pass,” it is a steady climb for the majority of the day, with a rather steep descent into Roncesvalles for the last hours. This steep descent can be made easier, though longer, via a path which joins the two options at the Puerta de Ibañeta.
The Valcarlos Route - 23.5 km
The Valcarlos Route follows close to the road and is the advised route during poor weather. It passes through two towns (with services) located directly on the road between here and Roncesvalles, and two villages that are not on the road and which have no services.
The Napoleon Route - 24.3 km
The Napoleon Route is the longer of the two and covers small mountain roads and trails. It was popularized as a way to bypass the banditry that was all too common in the valley below. You will soon see that up in the mountains, there are few places to hide.
During times of poor weather, this route will be closed. When the skies are clear you can see for miles, otherwise you are not likely to see past the horses and sheep that pasture here.