Walking the Camino de Santiago from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (in France) to Roncesvalles (in Spain)

Late 2009, just inside Spain and past the beech forest: a mountain hut being constructed for pilgrims and walkers seeking refuge when weather conditions become atrocious

The classic Camino track across the Pyrenees is indicated by the French nomenclature of Le GR 65  or la Route Napoléon.  For those readers who wish to understand the logic or otherwise of having a masculine, singular definite article “Le” in front of a feminine noun “randonnée” (a long walk), the writer would be happy to oblige.

It is also called le Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in French, or in Spanish: el Camino de Santiago. Specifically, this track between Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the small but utterly charming and attractive Spanish village of Roncesvalles, (with a permanent population of about 32 inhabitants) is called the Camino Francés (in Spanish) or the French Way.  In the Middle Ages (from the 10th to the 15th centuries), the majority of pilgrims on this track were French people.  However, do not be misled about Roncesvalles: it is not a typical Spanish village:  its raison d’être was and is simply to support and welcome pilgrims and walkers crossing the Pyrenees from France into Spain.

GR stands for «Grande Randonnée»: a major and significant walking trail in France.  The Friends of the Camino de Santiago (Les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques Pyrénées-Atlantiques) at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and at 39 rue de la Citadelle, will strongly discourage you to do this track if bad weather is predicted that day or even the next.

I will soon write about the alternative route via Valcarlos, which is also featured in the Camino de Santiago 30 all-weather walking maps – Walking the Camino Francés from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela.

In April 2007, in atrocious weather conditions a number of people died from hypothermia attempting to walk along le GR 65 between France and Spain, it was a white-out (a weather condition in which the features, horizon, etc. of snow-covered country are indistinguishable due to uniform light diffusion)  and those who died, could not see the path and went off it.  In May 2010, there were huge snow falls, accompanied by the lowest recorded temperatures in over 130 years along the Camino track (in Spain), accompanied by blizzard conditions.

If you stay at Refuge Orisson on the GR 65 and 8 km from SJPdP and the weather turns bad the next day, the French Basque owner, Jean-Jacques will either escort you across to safety into Spain or get you back down the mountain.  Even though in the last few years, an emergency mountain hut has been erected just inside Spain after you pass Roland’s Fountain – indicating your entry into Spain and then, passing the beech forest (see photo), with very tall coloured poles every few metres along the pilgrim path for visibility during very heavy snow falls; walking can be both treacherous and character building.  And at other times, walking along the GR 65 from France into Spain is both a memorable and an uplifting experience.  And after having successfully done it, by safely arriving in Roncesvalles, your emotions and feelings would be saying that you would not have wanted to miss it for the world.

POSTSCRIPT: The photo of the refuge hut being constructed in 2009, was completed in 2010.  It is called Refugio Izandorre and is located between the snow indicator posts numbered 43 and 44.

Refuge Orisson on the GR 65 (el Camino de Santiago), nearly 8 km from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Photo taken late October, 2009.

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