St. Jean-Pied-de-Port: a beginning with history

looking west down the Rue de la Citadelle from the Porte St-Jacques

the peregrinos that started coming from “beyond the Pyrenees” in the 12th century were overwhelmingly French, in part because of protection provided by the Kingdom of France. enterprising individuals followed the peregrinos from France and set up hospitals, hospices, inns, and other businesses catering to the needs of those trekking to Santiago. four separate routes originated in France –including the route we followed from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, over the foothills and into Roncesvalles — and converged on Puente la Reina beyond Pamplona.


for those walking “the whole way” St. Jean-Pied-de-Port is the most popular point of departure and head of the Camino Frances. plenty of people start in Roncesvalles or Pamplona instead, avoiding the arduous 1300m ascent (and descent) but coming from St. Jean affords a certain degree of pride and bragging rights. besides, after a climb that challenging and long when your body isn’t sure yet what you’ve gotten into you are prepared for anything over the next 775 or so kilometers.

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port (St. Jean at the foot of the mountain pass), or Donibane Garazi in Euskara, lies about 8km over the French border straddling the Nive River. the area was settled before the 11th century and, after the destruction of the original settlement in 1127, the King of Navarre had the town reestablished in its present location to fortify the northern defenses of his territory. over the centuries, the location proved strategically important — as a stopping point on the Camino, a trade center, on the route through the mountain pass to Roncesvalles, a military outpost and garrison. the King built a fortress on a hill to make it easier to defend the pass and the town became a key urban center in northern Navarre and important defense against attempts to advance on Pamplona.

in the early 16th century, the unification of Aragon and Castille (through the marriage of Ferdinand & Isabella) resulted in the defeat of the Kingdom of Navarre and, ultimately, closer ties with France in an effort to repel their mutual Spanish enemy. in 1620, Louis XIII (descended from Kings of Navarre) unified the Kingdoms of Navarre and France. as before, St. Jean proved a vital defensive component in the bitter rivalry between antagonistic kingdoms. advances in weapons technology resulted in a more “modern” fort, roughly similar to what exists today. over more than a century the structure was modified, fortified, and improved upon. the town suffered throughout the Revolutionary period and Napoleonic wars, serving as the center of a massive military encampment from which numerous attacks were launched on Spanish cities over the mountains. the town hosted a military garrison until 1920.

the main cobbled road through town retains many of the same features established in the middle ages. the Porte St-Jacques stands on the eastern end of the old town, while the Porte d’Espagne stands at the other. our hotel was one block over, outside the historic center in an area built up in the mid-to-late 19th century, spurred by the Enlightenment and construction of a train station in 1898. houses on along the rue de la Citadelle have changed little and some still bear markings from construction or inscriptions added centuries ago.

because we arrived in St Jean late on Saturday evening, we had to wait until the Pilgrim Office in the rue de la Citadelle opened so that we might obtain our first sellos — stamps verifying we’d walked from St. Jean and  were therefore entitled, as peregrinos, to stay in the aulbergue in Roncevalles. as we waited, we walked up the hill to the Port St-Jacques and took a peek at the Citadelle, duly impressed with the centuries of history surrounding us and knowing these streets and walls weren’t the oldest sights we’d encounter on our journey.

the Cathedral of Santiago and the origins of the Camino

I’ll start with a picture from our destination. 

after departing well before sunrise, using a headlamp to make our way through eucalyptus forest, getting lost for the first time on the entire journey, dodging ubiquitous city traffic, and getting stuck behind slow-moving, German day-trippers, we came through an archway, serenaded by a gaita (Galician bagpipes) and emerged into the Praza Obradoiro. the hulking Ayuntamiento de Santiago (government building) filled one side of the plaza and facing it stood the expansive Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, backlit by the bright mid-morning sunshine. though the architecture of Burgos might seem more impressive from the outside or the stained glass of Leon more impressive inside, neither could compare in the elation that arose while standing in the middle of the plaza looking up at the place we’d traveled 500 miles on foot to reach.

in a few words, the Catholic dimension of the Camino stems from the belief that the remains of the Apostle Saint James lie in the sepulcher under the cathedral. legend holds that, after his beheading in Jerusalem, his remains were brought to Spain in a stone boat by way of Finisterre and buried; his tomb was lost in the 3rd century but re-discovered in 814 when the hermit Pelayo saw strange lights the night sky. the bishop recognized the discovery as a miracle and the king, Alfonso II, ordered the construction of a chapel on the site to which, legend holds, he was the first peregrino. (more on the cathedral itself at a later date.)

parts of the Camino certainly pre-date Christianity — Romans followed the light of the Milky Way along the route to the ocean; even after it became a Church-sanctioned pilgrimage to receive plenary indulgence, various routes (such as the Via de la Plata and the Camino Frances) served as major trading roads. the first recorded peregrinos from beyond the Pyrenees arrived in the 10th century and flow increased in the 12th century when Calixtus II started Compostelan Holy Years and had a guide published (the Codex Calixtinus which remains the foundation for many of the existing routes). infrastructure improved and the flow of peregrinos increased steadily until the Black Plague and political unrest throughout Europe in the 16th century cut down numbers. in 1985, fewer than 700 people arrived in Santiago as peregrinos but, following the Camino’s designation as both a European Cultural Route and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, numbers have increased steadily and exponentially. during the most recent Holy Year (2010) nearly of 280,000 peregrinos received Compostelas (the certificate of completion bestowed by the Church upon those who have walked the last 100km or biked the last 200km).

to be certain — only a fraction of those travel along the route for the distance we trekked. we certainly met many people who did (several fond examples come to mind). on a given day we’d encounter between 20 and 50 other peregrinos, but not all of those intended to complete the whole route in one go. it’s fairly common for Europeans to do the route in three or more stages, breaking the trip up into more manageable chunks that still allow them to receive the Compostela upon conclusion. somewhat surprisingly, though, we also met more than a few people who’d hiked the Camino — from Roncesvalles or St. Jean — more than once. in light of the Camino’s popularity (and thanks, in part, I’m sure to Emilio Estevez’s “The Way”), numbers will surly grow as time progresses.

a note on language

as I write about my time in Spain, I’m going to stick with the language I used while I was there — mostly Spanish, with a little French and Galego thrown in for good measure. two words I’ll use a lot:

peregrino: pilgrim
albergue/aulberge: pilgrim hostel. just like your average tourist hostel but reserved for use by peregrinos only


more to come soon!

a not-so-accidental 800km hike

as most of you know, I spent the month of May hiking across Spain, following in the footsteps of millions of peregrinos — and plenty of non-religious folk — who’ve made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela over centuries.


over 34 days I walked nearly 800 kilometers. 500 miles. over one million steps. approximately the distance from Jacksonville, Florida, to Key West. or Duluth, Minnesota, to Gary, Indiana. however you quantify it: a huge distance and the most physically demanding adventure I’ve ever undertaken.


while Spain was next on my list of places to visit, I can’t take credit for the idea for this trip. I don’t know nearly enough Germans to have come up with an idea as crazy as this. but the person I went with had a friend (a German) who’d done the Camino over several months a couple of years ago and who planted the idea in his head. when it came time to use the four weeks given to him, the Camino wasn’t just the obvious choice, it was the only choice. so we planned, booked our flights, figured out transportation to our starting point, took long practice hikes that couldn’t really prepare us for the physical demands we’d face, booked hotels in many towns and trusted to the Camino infrastructure elsewhere and, on May 4, headed to the airport.

our guidebook proved unhelpful in explaining the most interesting cultural and historical sites we passed (more than enough on all the religious and “mystical” sites to our continual chagrin), which just means I’ll have my research cut out for me as I prepare posts for here. we’ve now sorted through all the photos, so the first phase of getting posts ready has concluded — stay tuned over the next several weeks for more about our adventures!


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