The French Camino de Santiago (known as the Way of St. James in English) begins with a true test of endurance. Today’s walk will be intense.
After Roncesvalles, Saint Jean Pied de Port is the second most commonly used starting point for the Camino de Santiago. All of the variants of the French Way that run through France come together in this town.
The first day of the French Way as it enters into Spain is definitely a challenge. The pilgrim will have to climb a total of over 1,250 metres.
The prize for those who calmly tackle this hard climb is the exceptional scenery and the reward of crossing the border from France into Spain on foot, just like Napoleon Bonaparte himself once did. This stretch of the French Way is actually known as “Napoleon’s Route”.
If you are thinking about walking the Camino de Santiago from St Jean Pied de Port tell us what your plans are for the Camino de Santiago and we will contact you to advise you on everything you need.
Itinerary stage Sant Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles
The French Way is signposted with three types of markers. On the one hand, there are the indications for the GR-65, consisting of red and white markers. Then there are the typical markers for the Camino de Santiago: yellow arrows and shells, which have a greater presence in the more urban sections.
Sant Jean Pied de Port (Km. 0). Beginning of stage
Practical tips for this section: Before starting the French Way, we recommend that you take advantage of your passage through Saint Jean Pied de Port to visit some of its main attractions. These include: The Citadel, the Medieval Wall, the Porte St-Jacques (city gate) and the church of Notre Dame, the Arcanzola House, the Prison for Bishops, the Le Grand Chemin exhibition and the Maison de Mansart (home to the Town Hall). Buen Camino!
The French Way, the most traditional of all the different Camino de Santiago routes, begins on the bridge over the Nive River. From here, we get onto Rue d’Espagne street. A neighbourhood of craftsmen and merchants with a medieval air.
Crossing the street, we pass through the Porte d’Espagne. Continuing straight for about 100 metres, we will find the marker that divides the two routes of this stage.
Nailed to a wooden post, next to a GR-65 marker, we will find the traditional Camino de Santiago shell. Next to it, there is a sign indicating “Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostela”. A few metres away, another sign indicates “Arnéguy y Valcarlos”, which is the other variant.
Those who wish to take the “Arnéguy y Valcarlos” route should turn right on Chemin de Mayorga, to then take the national road. The rest of us will continue straight until reaching a local road a few metres away on the right.
It will be easy to recognise the local road because it is marked as “Napoleon’s Route” and is a terrible hill. This stretch coincides with the Roman road from Burdeos to Astorga and was where the Napoleonic troops crossed over to invade Spain.
We continue heading uphill on the local road with some very steep sections. It’s a good idea to take your time on this stretch, in order to warm up the body for a stage that will be very demanding. Ideally, you should have already done some previous training, however, if this is not the case, then it’s important to tackle this stage with little weight on your back.
In this first ascent of the Camino de Santiago, we will cross through residential neighbourhoods that are scattered along the green meadows, such as Iruleya and Erreculus. The tough climbs will accompany us all the way to the small village of Huntto.
Huntto (Km. 5)
Practical tips for this section: This will be the last town before reaching Roncesvalles, so take the opportunity to stop for a coffee, replenish your water supply, or whatever else you may need. Buen Camino!
After Huntto, the Jacobean route allows us to choose between endurance and intensity. When leaving Huntto, we can continue walking along a path with numerous horseshoe-shaped curves. Or we can take a shortcut on the left, at the exit from the village, to escape some of these curves.
Back on pavement, we continue walking until we find a fountain and an orientation table, located at a viewpoint. The Camino de Santiago gives us our first reward of the day: a beautiful panoramic view of Saint Jean Pied de Port and the French Aquitaine landscape (km 6.4). After enjoying the view, we will continue walking for a kilometre to then find the pilgrim shelter and Orisson Restaurant.
Orisson (Km. 7,5)
Practical tips for this section: The climb in this section is hard. Make sure you carry enough water with you and go slowly. Buen Camino!
We continue to walk along this stretch of mountain, surrounded by alpine meadows, sheep and strong horses. After walking for four kilometres, on the left we will find the Virgin of Biakorri with her son in her arms (km 11.3). Her figure rests on a rock and has been adorned with crosses, shells, necklaces, flowers and other offerings left by pilgrims.
Twenty minutes later, we find the detour the leads to the French village of Arnéguy. If we decide to take it, we will meet up with the Valcarlos itinerary. However, if we decide not to take it, leaving the detour off to the right, we will continue along the route known as “Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostela”.
Continuing straight on the road, after two kilometres we find a wooden sign that reads “Roncevaux/Orreaga” (km 15). At this point, we get off the D-428 road onto a path that crosses the mountain, which we will find on our right.
Immediately after, we will pass by the cross of Thibault (or Urdanarre), decorated with the offerings left by pilgrims, to then continue our ascent between two hills. To our right, we leave behind the stone shelter next to the one that passes the Jacobean route.
Traveling for another kilometre under the slopes of the Leiza Atheka peak, we will meet up with the Bentarte Pass. This is where the Roldán fountain is located, in honour of Charlemagne’s defeat to the Basque army in the year 778 (km 16.5).
Shortly after, a solid stone landmark lets us know that we are entering the Camino de Santiago in Navarre. This point on the Jacobean trail offers us a new kind of landscape. A lush beech forest that will accompany us practically the entire way until the refuge of Izandorre.
Shortly after entering Navarre on the Camino de Santiago, we find a sign that tells us to turn off to the right. Following the indication, we will find the Izandorre refuge, located between markers 43 and 44.
Izandorre Refuge (Km. 19,1)
Practical tips for this section: In this section, we will reach an altitude of 1,430 metres above sea level. If the weather isn’t in our favour, the Izandorre refuge is a useful place to stop for the night. Buen Camino!
The rocky path gets tougher until we reach the hill of Lepoeder (km 20.5). This is the highest point of today’s stage, located at an altitude of 1,430 metres.
Once again, the Camino de Santiago rewards our hard work with magnificent views. On this occasion, it gives us a spectacular panoramic view of the Navarrese territory, through which a part of the French Way runs.
At this point on the Jacobean path, we are presented with two options, which are both well-marked on a wooden post next to the path. Take the trail on the left, which heads through the forest of Mount Donsimon. Or, take the one on the right that leads to the Alto de Ibañeta viewpoint, passing the chapel of San Salvador and the monument to Roldán on the way.
The option on the right is 400 metres longer than the one on the left, but the hill is less steep. The choice is a matter of taste.
We choose the longer option because the hill is more moderate and because we will find interesting sites along the way. If you choose the left option, all you have to do is head downhill through the forest until arriving directly at Roncesvalles.
To take the path on the right, we descend along the paved road. If we follow the red and white markers along the route, we will get to take numerous shortcuts.
In this final part of today’s stage, we will find ourselves surrounded by a beautiful landscape. Lush beech forests and Roncesvalles, at the gates to Burguete and the Erro Valley. So, in good company, we reach Ibañeta.
Ibañeta (Km. 24,1)
Practical tips for this section: Don’t forget to visit the hermitage of San Salvador and learn about the history of the monument to Roldán.
In this section, we will find the hermitage of San Salvador. A chapel built in memory of an ancient temple that would ring its bell to help medieval pilgrims get their bearings. Very close to the chapel is the monument to Roldán.
Continuing along the path, we pass by the Bird Migration Centre, to then get on the trail that goes into the forest. This downhill section will be the last leg of today’s stage. In the blink of an eye, we will be in Roncesvalles.
Roncesvalles (Km. 24,2). End of stage.
Practical tips for this section: You’ve done it! See you it tomorrow!
In Roncesvalles, we will find the huge Itzandegia pilgrim shelter, which is mostly run by foreigners who do not speak Spanish.
Another option is to enjoy a well-deserved rest at some of the comfortable accommodation options offered by this town. This first stage has been tough, you’ve crossed the border from France into Spain, and you deserve a reward!
If you still have energy, in Roncesvalles you can visit the Collegiate Church of Santa María, the “Portal del Peregrino” overpass, the Silo de Charlemagne chapel, the chapel of Santiago or the Religious Art Collection at the Roncesvalles Museum.
Comments stage Sant Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles
This is the first stage of the French Way and you probably have a lot of questions, including whether or not it will be dangerous. Below we’ll tell you how to get to Saint Jean Pied de Port and explain some of the difficulties you may encounter during this stage.
And since our motto is: “the most important part of the Camino de Santiago is the journey”, we want to make sure you enjoy this stage with a number of food recommendations.
How to get to Saint Jean Pied de Port
If you arrive to Pamplona, you can take one of the daily buses that leave from the station and go to Saint Jean Pied de Port. In summer, the bus leaves approximately every two hours, from 10:30 am to 5:00 pm. The ticket costs 22 euros.
Another option is to take a bus from Pamplona to Roncesvalles. The hours are: Monday to Thursday at 3:00 pm, Fridays at 6:00 pm, and Saturdays at 4:00 pm. And once you get there, you can take a taxi to Saint Jean Pied de Port.
On Sundays there is no bus service. You can take a taxi from Pamplona or contact us to arrange your arrival.
If you arrive to another city or you want us to organise your transfer from Pamplona, you can contact us here.
If you are doing the French Way by bicycle, you can pay a supplement to take it on the bus. But if you prefer to travel more comfortably, we can take care of everything for you.
Precaution stage St Jean Pied de Port – Roncesvalles
This is one of the hardest stages in the French Way, so it’s important that you take some precautions. The first 20 kilometres to the hill of Lepoeder are a steady climb. Therefore, if you’re not in good physical shape or if you have mobility problems, we recommend that you:
- Follow the “Arnéguy y Valcarlos” variant. This route is less beautiful and walks along pavement, but you will avoid many hills.
- Start the Camino de Santiago in Roncesvalles. This stretch of the Jacobean route is very physically demanding. If your body is not prepared, it can be very hard for you to complete.
- Use an assistance vehicle for this section. Carrying your backpack is an inherent part of being a pilgrim, but it may be better to have some help in sections like this, especially if you haven’t done any previous training.
- If you are traveling by bicycle, we also recommend taking the “Arnéguy y Valcarlos” variant or doing this stretch on foot and hiring a transport service to take your bicycle to Roncesvalles. Otherwise, you will have to push your bicycle up the steep hills on numerous occasions.
If you decide to do the Valcarlos variant on your bike, keep in mind that the Jacobean route runs along the N-135 road, which is open to traffic. So here it’s important to be even more cautious.
Along the route, you will find points where you can choose one route or another. These are our tips:
- Even if you’re in good shape and aren’t traveling by bicycle, if it’s winter or there is bad weather forecasted, go for the “Arnéguy y Valcarlos” route. This option does not go above 895 metres of altitude, while the “Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostela” option reaches 1,430 metres above sea level at its highest point.
- The route that passes through the Alto de Ibañeta viewpoint, despite being longer, is the more sensible route for people who aren’t accustomed to steep descents. It also offers better views.
The Jacobean route is perfectly well marked. In 2010, the signage was improved, incorporating more than 80 numbered posts in the section that runs through Spain.
If there is fog, extra precautions should be taken because it’s easy to get disoriented. If you get lost or bad weather appears:
- In the “Arnéguy y Valcarlos” variant, you will find numerous villages along the route, which runs close to a road. You shouldn’t have any problems.
- In the “Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostela” variant, the Navarre Emergency Agency has set up an emergency call system with 112-SOS Navarre. This system is located in the Izandorre refuge in Lepoender. To communicate with them in an emergency, you have to get to the refuge and press the button indicated for this purpose. In 2013, in the middle of a heavy snowfall, several pilgrims’ lives were saved thanks to this system.
Lastly, note that in Roncesvalles you won’t find an ATM. The first one you will find is in the next stage, in the town of Burguete.
Food stage St Jean Pied de Port – Roncesvalles
In this stage that runs from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles, there are many foods you should try that reflect the mountainous terrain. We recommend:
- Cheeses from the following Denominations of Origin: Idiazabal, Roncal and Ossau-Iraty. These are mountain sheep cheeses that are very, very tasty.
- Trout stuffed with ham
- Stews in a clay pot
- Chistorra sausages
- Chanchigorri cakes
- Wines from the region, Pacharán liqueur and cider.
Services stage St Jean Pied de Port – Roncesvalles
Consult the main health care services, cafes, ATMs, restaurants and are in this stage of the French Way of Saint James.
Map stage St Jean Pied de Port – Roncesvalles
Consult the map with the route, points and towns along the stage.
Profile stage St Jean Pied de Port – Roncesvalles
What to do stage St Jean Pied de Port – Roncesvalles
n this first stage of the French Camino de Santiago, you will pass through several places that are of historical, tourist and cultural interest. Below, you can find information on each of these sites.
Saint Jean Pied de Port
Saint Jean Pied de Port owes its name to its location, at the foot of the mountains on the border with Spain. The town was founded in the 12th century and belonged to the Kingdom of Navarre, but at the end of the 16th century it became part of France. It currently has just over 1,500 inhabitants.
The town still has a medieval air, largely due to how well its wall has been preserved and the visual impact caused by the Citadel, located above the town.
The town’s uniqueness comes in part from its cobbled streets and the medieval atmosphere in its commercial areas such as d’Espagne or Citadelle, which are full of buildings built with reddish stone that comes from the Arradoy mountain. The church and the bridge over the Neve River, which is always being crossed by pilgrims, give this place a picturesque atmosphere.
Saint Jean Pied de Port’s fortified Citadel was built in the 17th century. Located 70 metres above the town at the top of the Mendiguren hill and surrounded by walls, it dominates the entire town.
Its dimensions are 600×150 metres and it was designed by the military engineer Vauban. It was constructed in the place where the castle fortress of the Kings of Navarre was once located.
Currently, instead of the castle, there is a path that leads to the Port du Roy gate, where you can find a viewpoint that offers magnificent views of Saint Jean Pied de Port and the landscape that surrounds it.
In 1920, the Citadel lost its military character and in 1962 it was declared a historical monument. There is currently a public school in the building. However, if you’d like to visit the inside, you can do so with a guided tour.
The Medieval Wall
Saint Jean Pied de Port was protected by the walls of the Kings of Navarre’s castle. The construction of the wall dates back to the 13th century and is made of pink sandstone.
The upper part of the wall was restored in the 19th century, when the patrol walkway was built. At present, the walkway can be used by visitors to go around the wall, from the Porte de Navarra gate to the Porte Saint Jacques gate.
In 1986, the wall in Saint Jean Pied de Port was declared a historical monument.
Porte Saint Jacques
The Porte Saint Jacques is also known as the Saint James Gate. Located above Saint Jean Pied de Port, it allows you access the Rue de la Citadelle, one of the most well-known streets in the town.
This gate has always had a lot of meaning for the Camino de Santiago, since all the pilgrims who came from northern and central Europe had to cross it in order to pass through this small town and continue on towards Roncesvalles.
In 1998, the Porte Saint Jacques was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Church of Notre Dame
This Gothic temple is located at one end of the medieval bridge that crosses the Nive River. Its construction commemorates the victory of the Navas de Tolosa Battle in the 13th century and is attributed to the Navarrese king, Sancho VII “the Strong”.
The façade is made of pink sandstone and is decorated in a Gothic style. The portal’s columns were added in the 14th century and the steps, which were traditionally occupied by men, were incorporated in the 19th century.
It is the largest Gothic building in the French Basque Country, after the Cathedral of Bayonne. Attached to its structure is the Notre Dame Gate through which you can access Rue d’Espagne, where the famous medieval quarter of craftsmen and merchants is located.
The Church of Notre Dame houses the figure of Our Lady of the Assumption, which is why it is also known as the Assumption Church. In 1925, it was declared a historical monument.
The Casa Arcanzola
This house is located at number 32 on Rue de la Citadelle in Saint Jean Pied de Port and stands out thanks to its red colour: both the red of the stone that was taken from Mount Arradoy, and the latticework on its walls that is painted in red.
No one knows when exactly it was built, but it is believed to date back to 1510, due to an old engraving that has been preserved on one of the house’s lintels. They say that Juan Mayorga once lived there, a Jesuit who was tortured in the Canary Islands by the Calvinists.
On the façade, look for the engraving with the year of construction, as well as a small white cross in commemoration of the martyr Juan Mayorga.
On the ground floor, there is currently a souvenir shop. A large window that takes up almost the entire floor allows you to see the intense commercial activity that takes place in this town.
The Prison for Bishops
Its name is a reference to two different moments in history. On the one hand, in the 14th and 15th century, during the Western Schism, the building was built as an episcopal residence at the request of the Avignon Papacy. On the other hand, it began to be used as a prison starting at the end of the 18th century.
Visitors can go inside and enter some of the cells. In a large vaulted room is the Le Grand Chemin exhibition, a permanent exhibition on the Camino de Santiago and its different routes, from the Middle Ages.
The Le Grand Chemin
Saint Jean Pied de Port’s long-standing tradition as a place of passage for pilgrims is perfectly reflected in this large exhibition.
This is a unique exhibition in Europe that is worth stopping at. Through its informative panels, original objects from medieval pilgrims, reproductions of relics, documents, photographs and various simulations, the author of the exhibition manages to put the visitor in the shoes of the pilgrims from the Middle Ages.
Maison de Mansart
The Maison de Mansart home is located on the outskirts of the walled town of Saint Jean Pied de Port. This huge mansion was built by a wealthy wool merchant, David de Fourré, in the 18th century.
It has Barroque architecture and like many of the buildings in this town, its façade is made of pink sandstone. Since 1935, the Town Hall has been the owner of this emblematic building.
Lepoeder Hill reaches a total height of 1,430 metres above sea level. Its name is of Basque origin and means “beautiful hill”.
It is a historical site due to its location on the French/Spanish border, which dates back to Roman times and which, in the Middle Ages, was incorporated into the Camino de Santiago. Currently, geopolitically speaking, all of the hill is officially in Spanish territory.
Some historians point out that it was here where the Battle of Roncesvalles took place in the year 778. During this battle, Charlemagne’s army, withdrawing from Zaragoza and led by Roldán, was decimated by the Basques.
Hermitage of San Salvador
The hermitage of San Salvador is built on another much older temple. The exact date of construction of the original church is unknown, but it is believed to date back to the beginning of the 9th century.
This ancient temple, located in Alto de Ibañeta, used to ring its bells to help guide the pilgrims who were traveling along the French Way. At the end of the 19th century, the building was in ruins and in 1965 they decided to build the current chapel.
Monument to Roldán
The Monument to Roldán is located very close to the hermitage of San Salvador and commemorates the Battle of Orreaga – Roncesvalles. Although no one knows exactly where the events took place, some historians point out that it was here where the Emperor Charlemagne found Roldán dead.
Roncesvalles (Orreaga, in the Basque language) is a town that has hardly any inhabitants. In the 1940s, this small urban enclave had just under 150 residents. At present, there are only 21 inhabitants who officially reside here.
The historic fall of Charlemagne and the Camino de Santiago are the two things that make this town memorable. It is the starting point of the French Way for many pilgrims.
Nevertheless, the visitor will find several places to visit if they decide to go out and explore the streets in town. The Collegiate Church of Santa María, the chapel of Santiago, the chapel of the Holy Spirit, the “Portal de Peregrinos” overpass or the Religious Art Collection at the Roncesvalles Museum are just a few of them.
Collegiate Church of Santa María
This church in Roncesvalles began its construction in the 12th century under the protection of the Navarrese king, Sancho VII “the Strong”. Given its state of neglect, during the 17th century a good part of the temple was rebuilt.
The original construction of the church was Gothic, but the restoration left out various elements, such as the windows. They were boarded up and covered with a long roof. In the 20th century, the church regained its original appearance, although it now included neo-Gothic details such as the façade.
The building has a nave of three floors, separated by pillars of a different thickness. It has a remarkable cloister with a square floor plan, constructed during the restoration in the 17th century.
Inside, there are huge rosettes that light up the entire church, as well as the presbytery where the sculpture of the Virgin of Roncesvalles is located. This sculpture, in a Gothic style, is carved in wood and covered with Toulouse silver.
The church opens every day from 9:00 am to 8:30 pm and is free to visit.
Chapel of Santiago
This small parish in Roncesvalles was built in the 13th century. It was restored in the 20th century after years of neglect.
There are Romanesque and Gothic elements present in its structure, such as the vaults that were added later on. The small chapel is dedicated to Saint James, whose sculpture can be found inside.
To visit the chapel of Santiago, you can book guided tours. These tours include the chapel of Santiago, the Silo de Charlemagne chapel and the museum. The approximate duration of the visit is 45 minutes.
Practical Information for Visits
Telephone for information: + 34 948 76 03 01
Hours: From 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, and 3:30 pm to 7:00 pm. Depending on the season, the hours may be extended or reduced by half an hour. In all of January, after Christmas, there are no visits allowed.
Admission: Adults (€5), children between 6 and 12 (€2.50) and retired people, pilgrims, students and large families (€3.90).
Silo de Charlemagne
No one knows exactly when this mysterious building was constructed. It has been a place of burial throughout history.
It is believed to have been the tomb of warriors such as Charlemagne, or the famous Roldán. What we do know for sure is that it was used to bury pilgrims during the Middle Ages. The building has a large underground vaulted space, full of bones from different eras and origins.
You can go inside with the guided tour that includes the chapel of Santiago and the museum (see practical information in the section on the chapel of Santiago).
“Portal de peregrinos” Overpass
The Portal de Peregrinos is located next to the church’s façade. Its construction dates to the 19th century.
This overpass is made up of a semi-circular arch, framed by pilasters, frieze and a pediment. By crossing the overpass, you can access the Collegiate Church of Santa María.
Religous Art Collection at the Roncesvalles Museum
The Religious Art Collection is located under the library and used to be the former residence of canons. Inside you can visit a collection of sculptures, paintings, jewellery and books, as well as medieval relics such as the Romanesque Gospel Book.
You can go on the guided tour that includes the chapel of Santiago and the Silo de Charlemagne (see practical information in the section on the chapel of Santiago).