Day 1 St Jean to Roncesvalles

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Map St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles Camino FrancesDay 1 St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles 24km

For information on getting to St Jean or Roncesvalles see the bottom of the page.

St Jean Pied de Port is the modern starting point for the vast majority walking any of the Caminos.  It is the main starting point for the Camino Frances, the most popular of all the Caminos, and the best supported.  And I dearly wish that it wasn’t.  There is nothing wrong with St Jean, it is a beautiful bustling French  market town hidden away in the Pyrenees, it is just a very tough first day.   Here you can buy any last minute items, like a hat, but with my knowledge of pilgrims it is likely you are carrying too much already.

Orisson is 8km from the centre of St Jean and about 7km from the Pilgrim’s office in St Jean at 39 rue de la Citadelle. 

To see the full size map of St Jean to Roncesvalles click here – this is the information given out at St Jean where you can collect your pilgrims passport, I hope they don’t mind me re-printing it.

This first day on the Camino is the hardest without doubt for various reasons.  It is the first day, and your body is probably not used to walking all day carrying a rucksack, if you have packed more than 10% of your body weight you will know about it quickly.  However you will know after a while anyway that your body objects to this extra burden.  The route from St Jean is steep, very steep and climbs from 200 metres above sea level to just above 1,400 meters then head right back down again into Roncesvalles at 900 metres, which can be very hard going on your knees and shins.

Only start this day if you have a full day ahead and leave early.  It is not advisable to start half way through the day unless you have booked yourself into the Orrison, which is about half way to Roncesvalles.

St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles Elevation Map

This is an extract from some writings of mine at the time, I stopped at Orisson the first time I walked:

I paid €28 for my night in the Orisson, that was for diner and my bed in a small dorm. Okay price wise, but hell I thought if I had to pay every night like that. However this was the most expensive until I reached Santiago. The host in the Orisson was great, friendly, the whole place is run well and I recommend it.

The money was worth it. The views in the morning from the Orisson are great, looking down on smaller mountains, with the morning mist floating between them.

It is about 14 or 15 km to Roncescalles, to me it felt so much more. But today it was not all up hill again. The views are just incredible, film like. I felt like I wanted to fall into the beauty of my surrounding and be swallowed up in peace.

Eagles and buzzards flew overhead. Eagles alone or in pairs, buzzards in packs. Sometimes they flew only 20 or 30 metres above me; and I could hear the noise of their wings as they floated through the sky, catching the morning thermals.

My feet hurt – a whole new post has to be written on that.

The walk down into Roncesvalles was hard on the knees. It is very steep going down, however the views down into the valley are somewhat distracting. Tonight my first taste of a real albergue.

Check the weather forecast in the pilgrim’s office at the top of the main street before you set out; they will also supply you with your pilgrim’s passport and information on the route ahead and sometimes they have updated lists of hostels.  It is advisable to check here just for any last minute information.

Then you wander down the beautiful main street of St Jean and start walking uphill through the old town gate.  The signs are impossible to miss and unless you are walking mid winter there will also be a steady stream of pilgrims in front of and behind you. Have some food and your water bottle full – I would always start the day carrying two litres.

St Jean Train Station

There are two routes from St Jean to Roncesvalles, the Napoleon Route if you are walking and the Valcarlos route, (road route), if you are cycling.

Take it easy.  The Camino is not a sprint, it is a marathon; one that can be enjoyed and savoured.  Although the walk up the Pyrenees is difficult it is immensely rewarding.  The peace and silence is a precursor of the times ahead on the Meseta. The views are stunning and if you do stay in the Orrison overnight it is worth getting up very early as the views in the morning sun are stunning.

Approaching Roncesvalles you will have the choice of two paths.  At this point you will see the monastery below nestled in the valley surrounded by trees.  One path goes straight down the hill side and is steep and can be dangerous, (an old Roman Road) – the other to the right is much easier and better underfoot.  Both routes bring you out at the rear of the Collegiate Church in Roncesvalles.


Travel to St Jean Pied de Port

How you get to St Jean Pied de Port depends on which direction you are coming from, it is an awkward start to the Camino Frances, with an even more difficult climb on the first day.  Most people are either coming from Pamplona or from Biarritz.

From Pamplona to St Jean

From Pamplona you get a bus from the bus station.  During busy times of the year they arrange more buses, however if you are in Pamplona during the day go and buy your ticket well before time to make sure you have a place.  The current 2013 price is €6.00 and it takes just over one hour.  The buses leave Mon – Fri at 6pm, Sat at 4pm, and currently there are no buses on Sundays.

The website for the bus company can be found here

The above gets you to Roncesvalles.  From Roncesvalles there are two options to get to St Jean Pied de Port – 1. by taxi 2. there is a company called Express Bourricot - this is a well established and reliable company that have been moving pilgrims around for 10 years, the details are on their website regarding costs.  I have never traveled this way to St Jean – others have told me it is fairly easy to get a taxi to St Jean in Roncesvalles.  The cost of a taxi is dependent on how many are sharing; expect to pay €20 per person if there are four.  If you know of any other companies providing transport on this part of the Camino Frances could you drop me a mail – lesliegilmour[@] – thanks.

From Biarritz to St Jean

Getting to St Jean Pied de Port from the other side of the Pyrenees is much easier.  Whether you are getting a train from Paris or flying into Biarritz it is all very simple.

If you are flying into Biarritz get the airport bus to Bayonne train station, where you then get a train to St Jean.

If you are travelling by train from Paris get off at Bayonne and do the same. This is the link for the timetable and up to date fares.

What to see and do:

  • St Jean Pied de Port itself and the Church of Notre-Dame
  • Biakorre – A statue of the Virgin Mary on the route – about half way
  • Roncesvalles – the Collegiate church itself
  • The church of Santiago – Roncesvalles
  • Sancti Spiritus chapel, an ossuary for many pilgrims – Roncesvalles
  • Charlemagne’s chess set – Roncesvalles
  • In 1998, the Porte St-Jacques (city gate) was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites as part of the sites along the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France


St Jean to Roncesvalles Photos

This is the first day’s photos from St Jean Pied de Port over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles.  This is a hard day for most pilgrims most likely the hardest day on the Camino Frances; it is steep uphill and then steep down again, so the knees suffer on both ends but more so going down.  The two other main problems is the lack of walking fitness and carrying too much weight – at this point most pilgrims have not dumped the extra things they don’t need.

Click on the photos to enlarge.

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