From St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles via Valcarlos – the viable alternative pilgrimage route to the GR 65

The rain in Spain with the waterproof maps

The Basque language sign for the Valcarlos municipal pilgrim hostel

In life, as in the real world one often needs to make an informed choice.  You have to prioritise, because just like in life, you cannot have everything and do everything, and certainly not at the same time!  Crossing the Pyrenees between SJPdP into Spain and arriving at Roncesvalles, the walking pilgrim has to make a choice.

In problematic and treacherous  weather, and you wish to cross the Pyrenees in just one day, you are well advised to take the route via Valcarlos.  Yes, it is true you are sometimes on the side of a main road.

In France, the road is called D933 (la route départementale) and once you get into Spain, it then becomes the N135 (la carretera nacional española).  The good news is that you often leave the main road and are able to enjoy the beautiful and tranquil forest with its native ferns.

In July 2011, we returned to SJPdP to walk this alternative after having previously crossed the GR 65 in Spring and in Autumn.  We followed our own well articulated advice: if you begin your pilgrimage at St-Jean and you are not at 85% track fit, you are well advised to cross Pyrenees over two days.  Empirical evidence strongly suggests that you will minimise any possible injury to your body over the next 3, 4 or 5 weeks on your way to Santiago de Compostela: your lower limbs will love you dearly if you follow this proven advice, no matter what age you are.

Spaniards have this marvelous saying: «Para llegar a Santiago de Compostela como un joven, empieza el Camino como un viejo» – If you wish to arrive in Santiago de Compostela like a young person, begin the Camino like an old man.  The modern equivalent and my favourite English equivalent: “Start low, go slow and monitor the show“.

It takes about three hours to walk from SJPdP to Valcarlos on and off the main road.  It has a permanent population of over 400 inhabitants. There is a new municipal albergue (pilgrim hostel) and it costs 10 euros per person: its Basque name is Luzaideko Aterpea Albergue.  From this albergue, there are wonderful views across the valley into French Basque lands.  Valcarlos has it own Basque name of Luzaide.  At Valcarlos, there is a Tourist Office  with free internet use, a number of restaurants, café-bars, a foodshop and a bank with an ATM.

New Zealanders will like walking through this forest with its native fern bushes, precisely because those ferns on the walking track will remind them of their own walking tracks in New Zealand: both North and South Islands.  Unlike the GR 65 where you do the really hard walking up the mountain at the beginning soon after leaving SJPdP, with the Valcarlos route, the quite hard and unrelenting walk up the mountain only occurs in the last 8-10 km before arriving at Roncesvalles.  In that sense, it’s a type of psychological ambush, when you think that you are so close, but you need to constantly keep walking up into the mountain until you get to Monumento a Roldán (less than 2 km to Roncesvalles).

Roncesvalles is the Spanish name; in French it is called Roncevaux and in Euskara (the Basque language): Orreaga.  In France and Spain and definitely in the Pyrenees the various languages used are replete with history and politics.  It is hard for an English speaker to really appreciate that along the Camino de Santiago, peoples’ identities are so closely related to their languages which are then inseparably linked to their heritage and culture.

Past Valcarlos and off the main road between France and Spain - the N135



  1. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment
    but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless, just
    wanted to say great blog!


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