Where should you begin the Camino de Santiago: St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (France) or Roncesvalles (Spain)?

To cross the Pyrenees on your first and/or second day on the Camino Francés (Camino de Santiago) is certainly not a stroll in the park – it is in fact very challenging.

If you are starting off like the majority of pilgrims who arrive at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the head of the Camino Francés track, then walk up and down 27km in one day: you are potentially giving yourself aggregated (accumulated) injuries for the rest of the time you are on the Camino path.

The writer has observed that happening many times – the irony is that the main victims are in their 20s and 30s – the young and the restless.  They forget the golden rule: start low, go slow and monitor the show.

So why do it, if it can potentially hurt you?  Answer: for many good reasons such as…

  • overcoming adversity and building character at any age;
  • proving to yourself (most importantly) and secondly to family and friends that you can successfully engage with the world outside your comfort zone;
  • challenge & excitement (familiar surroundings dull your senses of wonderment and awe);
  • sometimes walking through snow storms or very deep snow in extreme weather, needing to be rescued by the Bomberos (the Fireman/rescue services dressed in red from Burguete village, which is 3 km from Roncesvalles and on the Camino Francés (e.g. May 2010 and January 2013 – see the video above) and surviving (but NOT recommended for everyone and when you’ve been rescued; the usual debate then arises about using valuable public resources and whether public authorities should carry the rescue costs);
  • trekking through mountain passes and historical trails – doing a mini high mountain New Zealand or Tibet trek;
  • spectacular scenery at any time of the year (winter, summer, spring or autumn) – mainly on the GR65;
  • observing and hearing the seasonal movements of birds of prey – the raptors of the Pyrenees;
  • literally in one to two days moving between two very different cultures (French and Spanish) and two similar cultures (French and Spanish Basque) and their respective languages and
  • the adrenalin rush of arriving triumphant and safe in Roncesvalles – the psychological flight and fight syndrome.

Sure, it would be infinitely easier if you started in Spain at Roncesvalles like the majority of Spaniards – but you would lack an adventurous and memorable start.  However, the writer of this blog will always encourage people who have arrived from around the world to start on the northern side of the Pyrenees – the French side to then go south to Roncesvalles, then turning due west “all the way” (pun intended) to Santiago de Compostela and beyond to the Atlantic.  After all, why not emulate this medieval tradition dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries?

For more than a thousand years, pilgrims from central, southern, northern and eastern Europe have had to cross the Pyrenees at either Somport or SJPdP from France to get into Spain.

For the last twenty-five years there has been global interest in the French and Spanish pilgrimage routes and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPdP) has evolved to be the natural «head of the track» for the Camino Francés although strictly speaking the Camino Francés ONLY begins at the border between France and Spain – in France it is universally called Le GR 65 and Le Chemin de Saint- Jacques-de-Compostelle.

The friend’s office at no. 39 rue de la Citadelle supporting pilgrimage at SJPdP is opened 7 days a week, 365 days a year since 2009: theoretically it never closes except at night (10.00 pm until 7.00 am) and at lunchtime (from midday until 2.00 pm – due to French cultural and gastronomic traditions).  This French voluntary organisation is called Les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques Pyrénées- Atlantiques.  It is here where you can get your French credencial pilgrim pass for 2 Euros, but before doing so, the office volunteer will request that you fill in an anonymous survey for statistical purposes.  However, it costs 1.5 Euros for a credencial pilgrim pass at Roncesvalles.

The existing, modern infrastructure in getting to SJPdP as the head of the track for the Camino Francés is truly impressive.  Railway access to this dynamic little town of about 1,500 inhabitants is modern, frequent and very reliable, but not very fast through the mountains – it stops many times at small railway stations along the way with their two names in Basque and French.  A few years ago, SNCF and TER upgraded the railway tracks and tunnels through the Pyrenees  between Bayonne and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the train itself too – it’s a comfortable, one very long carriage train with a toilet and bicycle racks for cyclists in the middle.

The train journey between Bayonne and SJPdP varies between 1 hour and 15 minutes up to 1 hour and 45 minutes.  When trains do not run because of track work and upgrades and certain festival days, you will be directed to a vehicular coach service.  Be care about travelling during peak weekend periods, including public festival holiday times.

Bayonne itself is a significant town near Biarritz (major airport and on the Atlantic Coast).  Bayonne is part of the superb French railway system between Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris and the South West of France and their very fast train service – Le TGV – Train à Grande Vitesse.

The railway line between Bayonne and SJPdP is a single track and when the train arrives at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port it can go no further: it is in fact and literally the end of the line and the train simple returns to Bayonne – the train driver walks to the other end of the train to then commence the journey back to Bayonne.

The train stations between

Bayonne  to  St-Jean-Pied-de-Port – NB some trains stop at every station mentioned below and at other times there is an express service, stopping at only 4 stations

Villafranque / Milafranga (Basque language) 12 min (between Bayonne and Villafranque)

Ustaritz / Uztari 4 minutes

Jatxou / Jatsu 3 minutes

Halsou-Larressore / Halstu-Larresoro 4 minutes

Cambo-les-Bains / Kanbo 5 minutes

Itxassou / Itsasu 12 minutes

Louhossoa / Luhuso 9 minutes

Pont Noblia-Bidarray / Noblia zubia-Bidarrai 9 minutes

Osses St Martin d’Arrossa / Ortzaize-Arrosa 10 minutes

St-Jean-Pied-de-Port / Donibane Garazi

Roncesvalles on the Spanish side does not have a railway station servicing it: the closest railway station is at Pamplona, some 42 km away.  Pamplona as the capital of Navarra (the autonomous region) is well served by trains from Barcelona, Madrid and with a major coach network).  You access Roncesvalles from Pamplona by car, taxi or the regular bus/coach service and naturally you could even walk – in the opposite direction to the majority!

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