St. Jean Pied de Port: Gateway to the Camino de Santiago

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View over the countryside surrounding St. Jean Pied de Port

It’s taken me awhile to get to this point in our adventure. It’s probably because in some way, I’m still mourning our time and adventure along the Camino. It has truly been one of the best experiences in my life. We plan to walk again someday. Not sure when…maybe before the next big job move, or maybe after retirement. All we know is we will join our fellow peregrinos on the Camino de Santiago again.

Our journey to St. Jean Pied de Port was a long one! We left San Sebastian early in the morning for Bayonne, France. Upon arrival, we had two hours to explore the city before catching our next train. We wandered past the cathedral and walked inside to find a chapel for St. James. We both lit candles at his alter. Tensions, emotions, and stress were high at this point. We were embarking on one of our dreams, and our only regret from our time in Spain. We just asked to finish.

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Alter within Bayonne’s Cathedral

The small train to St. Jean Pied de Port was packed with pilgrims as we headed to our first stop on the Camino. Age, fitness level, and equipment were as varied as the countries we came from but one thing was constant, the anticipation. The anticipation was palpable as several pilgrims chatted about how long they would walk, why they were walking, and other small talk to kill time. The closer we drew to St. Jean, it increased. People began to fall silent. The shudders of the cameras slowed. People removed their earbuds and turned off their iPods. We all sat transfixed on the mountains and valleys as we inched closer to the village and seemingly farther back in time.

When the doors finally open, hundreds of pilgrims swarmed into the sleepy town of St. Jean. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go; you only needed to follow the stream of pilgrims as they headed up through the arch and into the inner city. Immediately, I fell in love with this village.

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St. Jean Pied de Port

I have long been a fan of small, mountain towns (the pueblo blancos of southern Spain are some of my favorites) but the timeless feel of this village. Oh my! You suddenly felt as if you were a medieval pilgrim walking the streets, though we are afforded far more comforts today. There’s a surreal feeling about doing something that has been done for hundreds of years. You feel as if the energy of those that walked before you, and those that will come after you, are linked and you’re all connected. This energy breathes a sense of vibrancy, compassion, and camaraderie to the village. The streets were lined with shops selling outdoor gear, the famous pilgrim shells, knick-knack souvenirs, and foot care. In between all the shops were albergues, or pilgrim hostels, hotels, and restaurants.

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Items within the Pilgrims Office in St. Jean Pied de Port

We made our way to the Pilgrims Office where we completed the paperwork, paid our dues, and received the first stamp in our pilgrim’s passport. We were official. We were peregrinos! Our happiness didn’t last for long as we were also informed that the mountain route (also known as Napoleon route) was closed due to snow a few days prior. This is truly the downside of planning outdoor adventures with little room for adjustments; you never know what Mother Nature has in store for you!

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So how do you fully prepare for a hike like this? I was up most of the night pondering that and the thousand other questions racing through my head. Had I trained enough? Was I mentally strong enough to power through those moments of physical and emotional pain? Would I complete my journey? Would it transform me? Nothing was known, or certain, at this time. This was the first and most basic lesson of the Camino for me. Just wake up and put one foot in front of the other. Forward progress, not matter how fast or slow, was all that was needed or required of you.

Join me on my next post where I’ll review our first five days on the trail as we walk from France into Spain, into Pamplona, and through the beautiful countryside leading to Puente la Reina.

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