Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port has been an important stop before the crossing of the Pyrenees for centuries. "Pied-de-Port” means: “at the foot of the pass”. This region itself is called the Cize.
In the Codex Calixtinus
(12th century) the crossing of the Pyrenees is described as follows:
"There, in that Basque Country, the road of Saint-Jacques joins onto a very high mountain, called the “passage of Cize” (…). Its immense height makes those who mount it think that they touch the canopy of heaven (…). Near this mountain, to the north, is a valley called “Valcarlos”. Pilgrims who go through this valley (…) do not have to climb the mountain."
So from Saint-Jean (at 146 metres) there are two routes across the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles (952 metres):
- the high route, the "route Napoléon" (via the GR 65). Highest point: the Col de Lepoeder, at 1410 metres,
- the route through “The valley of Charlemagne”, via Valcarlos. Highest point: the Puerto de Ibañeta, at 1057 metres. The cyclists go along the D933. For the walkers a route has been set out that avoids the D933 as much as possible.
The distance from Saint-Jean to Roncesvalles is about 25 kilometers.
Most pilgrims start their journey in Saint-Jean (or later). The first stage, crossing the Pyrenees, is immediately one of the toughest. Especially after a long trip and often with a too full backpack. Good alternatives are:
- first a rest day in Saint-Jean, or ...
- rest part of the day and then walk to Orisson in the afternoon, thus crossing in two stages, or ...
- choosing the "low" route, via Valcarlos, and not the classic "high" route, or ...
- warming up for a few days, for example: walking: from Saint-Palais to Saint-Jean, or... from Lourdes to Saint-Jean.
Perhaps the following will help you make a good choice:
When you arrive in Roncesvalles you can spend the night in the "albergue" (pilgrim's hostel) near the convent, which was founded in 1132 to give shelter to pilgrims.