Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Aquitaine→→→790.70 km to Santiago de Compostela) is a charming mountain town at the foot of the Pyrenees (from French “Saint John at the foot of the mountain pass”) with cobbled streets and a citadel dating back to the 17th century French-Spanish wars. At the highest point of Rue de la Citadelle you find the medieval Porte St-Jacques (Saint James’ Gate) that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That humble gate is part of the history of the Camino because since the Middle Ages millions of pilgrims have passed through it on their way to Compostela. Today you are one of them.
Rue de la Citadelle (and its extension Rue d’Espagne) is lined with old houses decorated with 18th century portals bearing the names of the owners or in the case of the old bakery located at number 9, the price of wheat. This particular house has a frieze decorated with stone heads and crosses, the work of a homegrown artist. The nearby austere 14th century church is a very good example of Basque gothic.
On your way to Roncesvalles you will notice many white plastered houses with gable roofs, typical of this area. Their angles and bottle-shaped portals are made of pink sandstone.
When you arrive in SJPDP go to the Pilgrim’s Office situated on Rue de la Citadelle, a lovely narrow street right in the heart of the town. The office is perfectly organized with information available in many languages. They will equip you with an annually updated leaflet listing the albergues on the Way and map of Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port. Moreover, you can buy your credencial there for 2 Euros and obtain a shell (donation). You will find your way to the office easily – when you get off the train just follow the people with rucksacks and bicycles…
The Pilgrim’s Office will direct you to one of the albergues. In case all the albergues are full, you will be redirected to the nearby gym:
Pilgrim’s Office (open all year round) 39 Rue de la Citadelle (opening hours 7:30 am to 12 pm, 1:30 pm to 7 pm and 7:45 pm to 10 pm, sometimes longer until the last train from Bayonne arrives)
Usually, albergues can’t be booked with the exception of those in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. If you wish you can reserve a bed online through the hostels’ website.
Refuge Municipal des Pèlerins (55 Rue de la Citadelle), 32 beds, open all year round, heating, microwave 10 Euros (breakfast included; you can’t book this one)
Gîte Beilari (40 Rue de la Citadelle), 18 beds, opens from 3 March until 22 September, heating, a kitchen, 33 Euros (dinner at 19.30, bed and breakfast)
Gite Au Chant Du Coq (36 Rue de la Citadelle), 13 beds, from April to September, 10 – 30 Euros
Buen Camino (30 Rue de la Citadelle), 15 beds, open all year round, heating, 16,50-18.50 Euros, 46 Euros (double room)
Casa La Bendicion (13 Rue de la Citadelle), 4 beds, from 30 April to 15 October, 15 Euros
Gîte Ultreïa (8 Rue de la Citadelle), 15 beds, opens from 15 March until 14 October (closed from 27 July to 13 August), heating, a kitchen, 22 Euros or 56-68 Euros (double rooms; breakfast included). For a small fee of 5 Euros they will store your bicycle before your arrival https://www.ultreia64.fr/en/
Le Chemin vers l’Etoile (21 Rue d’Espagne), 63 beds, opens from 25 March until 15 November, heating, 17-21 Euros
Gîte Zuharpeta (5 Rue Zuharpeta), 15 beds, opens from 15 March until 15 November, heating, 16 Euros or 46 Euros (double room)
Gîte Compostella (6 Route d’Arneguy), 15 beds, opens all year round, heating, a kitchen, 16 Euros or 36 -54 Euros (double and triple room)
Gite Izaxulo (2 Av Renaud), 22 beds, 24-27 Euros or 72 Euros (double room; breakfast included)
La Vita e Bella (4 Place du Trinquet), 15 beds, opens from March to November, heating, 17-21 Euros (breakfast included)
Gîte Zazpiak Bat (albergue 700 meters outside of the town, on the route Napoleon; 13 bis Route Maréchal Harispe), 15 beds, opens from 1 April – 15 October, heating, 38-39 Euros half-board
Gite Coquille Napoleon (albergue 2000 meters outside of the town, on the route Napoleon), 10 beds, opens from 30 April to 1 October, 20 Euros (breakfast 4 Euros)
Frankly, the first day is a bit of challenge. It starts really smoothly – you cycle slowly in a green valley. The route is lined with pink and white houses, the tarmac road is not busy, and life seems almost perfect. You are on the holiday in the Pyrenees and it feels so good. Then you stop for a coffee/tea in the shopping centre “Valcarlos” (not Valcarlos town by the way) and that’s when the nightmare starts. Here the tarmac mountain road that I wrote about in the introduction starts. High rock to the right and a deep chasm on the left, no hard shoulder and bend after bend and in case you are wondering, no descent for the next 19 km. Anticipating your question – no, there is no other option for cyclists.
How to manage it? Wear a fluorescent waistcoat/jacket and put your lights on. Watch out for the cars and trucks, because they probably can’t see you from behind the bends and some of them, expecting the road to be empty, drive really fast. Just concentrate on your safety.
Other than that you will be fine. Don’t let pushing the bike lower your spirits – it is not like you are the first one to do it, the author of this guidebook did it before you. In the critical phase remember that it is only a few kilometres and you have the whole day to do them. After that, you will be rewarded with a short but fantastic descent from Ibaneta to Roncesvalles when you can forget that you pushed that bloody bike in the first place. Anyway, if we were in the Middle Ages you would be pushing the horse, with its cart. It is always good to see things from a different perspective, isn’t it?
Near the mountain, to the north, is the Valley of Charles (Valcarlos), in which Charlemagne was encamped with his armies when his warriors were killed at Roncesvalles. This is the road used by many pilgrims who do not wish to climb the mountain
Aymeric, Codex Calixtinus 12th century
The whole day long you will cycle along a tarmac road, first the D933 (France), which turns into the N-135 in Spain. This Pyrenean road is very popular since ancient times (obviously then not tarmacked). Everybody used it – Romans, Barbarians, Visigoths, the French. You can hazard a guess that it was more packed than today the highway.
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (France) 207m→6.90 km to the shopping centre “Valcarlos”
Cycling in a green valley…life is beautiful
“Valcarlos” shopping centre (Spain) 244m; 6.90 km→0.90 km to Arneguy
A shopping centre with bars and a supermarket. Climbing starts from here, so you might want to stop for a drink.
Arneguy (France) 230m; 7.80 km →3.50 km to Valcarlos
The village is on the French-Spanish border. Soon you will leave France and enter the Spanish village of
Valcarlos (Spain) 339m; 11.30 km→14.30 km to Puerto de Ibaneta
Albergue de Luzaide/Valcarlos, 24 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen and no designated space for bikes, 10 Euros (breakfast included)
There is a pleasant bar/shop called “Bazar Vasco” in the village. It is a good place to stop for a drink and freshly made sandwich, before all that climbing to Ibaneta. 513 meters elevation gain, yeah.
Puerto de Ibaneta (Navarre) 1,057m; 25.60 km→1.90 km to Roncesvalles
According to tradition, this is the place where Roland died, the historical figure and main character of the medieval “Song of Roland”. A battle took place between the rear-guard of Charlemagne and Basque highlanders who attacked the Franks in retaliation for the destruction of Pamplona. The 9th-century chronicler Einhard described the place of the ambush as a perfect spot because of a thick forest. Despite heroism, Roland and his comrades didn’t stand a chance against the Basques whose weapons were lighter and who knew the terrain perfectly. Charlemagne’s knights with their heavy arms fought on the steep mountainside with difficulty and were an easy target for the enemy. The Basques killed one Frank after another and vanished into the blue. The scenery didn’t change a lot in the last 1200 years, so standing at the top of the Ibaneta Pass it is easy to imagine that lost battle.
One of Charlemagne’s knights killed was Roland, but his renown didn’t die with him. The heroic count was made the main character of a famous French epic poem, a sort of bestseller in the Middle Ages. For the sake of accuracy, I have to say that the story told in the “Song of Roland” is slightly different from the real one. The author added another dozen merits to the ones already existing and made the knight into a shining example of virtue. The number of Roland’s enemies also got multiplied. And if we are talking about the opponents – Christian Basques became Muslim Arabs, as fighting for the faith suited better the medieval taste at the time. Only the place of the battle stayed the same – Col de Roncevaux (Spanish: Puerto de Ibaneta).
Today there is a stone monument to the heroic Roland and a modern chapel. Originally there was an 11th century small monastery-hospital dedicated to Saint Salvador that gave shelter to pilgrims exhausted from crossing the Pyrenees.
Puerto de Ibaneta is a perfect spot for a picnic. And then after a short but rewarding descent you will get to the monastery in Roncesvalles
Napoleon or The Cize Pass route (main walkers’ route):
It is a journey of eight miles up the pass and another eight down from it. The mountain is so high that it seems to touch the sky, and a man who has climbed it feels that he could indeed reach the sky with his hand
Aymeric, Codex Calixtinus 12th century
As a cyclist only use this route if: the weather is perfect, you have bicycle made for climbing very steep mountains and you are an experienced cyclist who (very important) started the Camino at least a few days earlier somewhere in France. The route goes along a bare mountain ridge and involves climbing 1300 km over rather a short distance, meaning that it is extremely steep. The main cycle route is difficult enough so avoid this one unless all of the conditions I mentioned above can be met.
I am not going to describe this route in great detail, only mention it briefly, so don’t rely only on this description.
If you want to do it ask about the weather conditions the day before in the Pilgrim’s Office in SJPdP and tell them that you are planning to do the Napoleon route – sometimes because of bad weather they tell all walkers and cyclists to choose the first route I described above, not the Napoleon. If conditions are good you will be given a small map that points out the most important features on the way. You have to start early because it will be a long day. You need water and food because there is nothing on the way other than the mountain hostel in Orrison (9km) that serves some drinks and snacks. Information about the weather is essential as I stated above, although you could still be surprised by a sudden change.
The route is waymarked by red and white GR 65 signs and occasional yellow arrows. Following these way-marks leave SJPdP, steadily and tirelessly climb the hills, passing houses and pastures on the way. The Route runs along a thin tarmac road (D-428) that you cycle for about 17 kilometres – later on you switch to off-road. After about 5 kilometres on an off-road, you come to a crossroads with a signpost ‘Refuge Orrison 4 km” the road becomes steeper and after you pass the last houses, gets even steeper. The bad news is that it will stay like this. The road climbs up to the mountain range and then makes a sharp bend. You can see above you those who set off on the journey earlier in the day, which doesn’t help. Next to a lonely house there is a beauty spot with an information board; I would say rewarding but unfortunately by then I was close to exhaustion.
The road mercilessly climbs up the hill for about one kilometre finally reaching an albergue in Orisson at kilometre 9. If you wish to stay there for the night you should reserve it beforehand (ask in the Pilgrim’s Office in SJPdP or sent an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org), although you can always ask at their reception if they have space. The albergue or rather mountain hostel is expensive as they offer half- board (Refuge Orisson, 28 beds, opens from April until October, heating, 36 Euros). They have a terrace with a good view where once I stopped for a coffee and snack. When I stood up ready to continue I heard a fellow walker saying to me in a strong Northern European accent ‘Oh my God, when I saw you yesterday I would never have thought that you on your girlish bicycle would be able to climb up here”. I straightened the pose and cycled off until I couldn’t be seen from that bloody terrace. When I was sure that I was out of the view I dismounted and started pushing again.
From Orisson the road climbs up to a bare mountain range. It is steep and very steep which the amazing views only partially compensate for. As you reach these higher parts of the Pyrenees you will notice the Alpine flora around you. It is very wild and empty except for the flocks of sheep. I have to admit that it is beautiful. At around the 14th kilometre you reach the statue of Our Lady of Biakorri. Don’t turn left here.
After a short rest continue cycling straight, on a slightly more level surface. The time I did that route there was a van, probably seasonal, standing by the road serving drinks/snacks and giving the last French stamp. For an exhausted coffee lover like me, it was like reaching an oasis in a desert. I hope that the van is there when you do that route.
Continue climbing up passing by road D-128 to Arneguy (and Valcarlos) on your right (at about the 15thkm). At almost km 18 the route leaves the tarmac road. The spot is well marked by a stone cairn and signposts and the path branches off the tarmac road to the right. That off-road stretch is only partially cyclable as it is a high mountain path. At one point you will have to push your bike between the rocks. I have to admit that I have rather fond memories of this part of the Camino because, although there is some climbing in this stretch, there is also some descent. At one point the path starts to follow a barbed- wire fence to reach a spring at almost the 20th km. Then it crosses a cattle grid and further on starts to climb again. You will reach your last summit today: Col de Leopeder at almost km 24.
There is a path going straight down through the woods that the Pilgrim’s Office highly recommends not to take. Please, as a cyclist don’t even consider it. Rather follow down to Ibaneta the gravelled, super steep road. Be extremely careful and don’t take shortcuts, as they are only good for walkers. This stretch is about 1, 50 km and you are going to cycle from altitude 1410 m. down to 1040 m. As I said, it is steep and gravel is typically rather slippery. I believe that it is quite easy to lose your life on that 2 km stretch. After the 25th km you reach the Ibaneta Pass and from there can cycle the main road down the hill to Roncesvalles (27km).
Roncesvalles (Navarre) 957m; 27.50 km → 2.70 km to Burguete
Since time immemorial the monastery in Roncesvalles was a resting place for pilgrims crossing the Pyrenees. The 13th century “Song of Roncesvalles” comprises a moving description of the place. It describes the hospital as a refuge for all people, regardless of their faith, wealth and social origin. According to the Song, pilgrims’ shoes were repaired, their wounds dressed, and stomachs filled with the best food. The sick were attended with professional medical care and treated with the best medicines.
This extraordinary place has only 24 inhabitants. The village life concentrates around the austere Augustinian monastery. The collegiate church was built in the 13th century under the patronage of Sancho VII “The Strong” (1194-1234) King of Navarre, who is buried here. Its 20th century neo-gothic sepulchre that replaced the original one stands in the centre of the Chapel of Saint Augustine. The church itself is a good example of French Gothic in Navarre. The building got burned three times and in the 17th century was remodelled. Fortunately, the presbytery and front part of the central nave were not converted. On the main altar, there is a 14th-century statue of the Virgin of Roncesvalles. The church adjoins the 19th-century hospital for pilgrims (today a modern albergue) on the north side and the 17th-century cloister on the south, built when the Gothic one collapsed under the weight of snow. The second group of buildings forms the 13th century Chapel of Saint James, a former parish church (the ox-eyes decoration above the door and a pilgrim’s bell are 20th century additions), the Chapel of Holy Spirit, which served as a burial site and inn, remodelled so many times that you would never guess that it is was built in the 16th century.
The first building to be seen on arrival is an early 13th-century convent outbuilding that used to serve as an albergue. There were 100 beds under one roof, so theoretically you should be woken up in the morning when the lights and music get switched on. Or not. I am not an early bird so the first time I slept in Roncesvalles I noticed in a total state of shock that all 99 people had slipped unnoticed (when? how?) and I was the only one still in bed.
When you arrive in Roncesvalles go to the Albergue/Pilgrim’s Office where you can pay for accommodation and get your credencial stamped and also reserve your dinner in advance in one of the two restaurants (you have to pay at the albergue). There are no shops in Roncesvalles (there is however a grocery store in Burgette, 2 km from the monastery) so in case of late arrival still try to get dinner in one of the restaurants. It is served straight after evening mass celebrated in the monastery church.
Everybody regardless of his or her faith is welcome to mass in Roncesvalles. And usually most people go, as it is a very spiritual spot. After the mass a special blessing is given to all pilgrims setting out on the journey to Santiago (Weekday mass is at 8 pm; Sundays and Feast days 6 pm and from Easter to All Hallows also at 12 pm; Saturday 6 pm).
Albergue de peregrinos de Roncesvalles, 183 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen, 12 Euros
Casa Sabina, menu del pelegrino 10 Euros
La Posada, menu del pelegrino 10 Euros.
I must admit I like Roncesvalles very much. The severe beauty of the monastery always humbles me. Even now, when I close my eyes I can see the place – the stone buildings lost in the Pyrenees and an empty tarmac road with a signpost
Santiago de Compostela 790 km