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from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles, along the Pyrenees

ON THE ROADS TO COMPOSTELLA (5/6) – In this Saint James year, we are tackling the most mythical of hikes. In this fifth part, we pass the Pyrenees via the Col de Bentarte. A 24 kilometer stage to cover in one or two days in the middle of the green hills of the Basque Country…

What do you mean, not everyone starts from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port? “Amazes Anna, a young German walker. In his mind, as in that of many foreigners, the gateway to the Pyrenees represents the only possible starting point on the way to Santiago de Compostela. We will therefore not be surprised by the cosmopolitan atmosphere that reigns in the pedestrian streets where we hear English, Korean, Slovenian spoken… In fact, the city is seen as an international base camp for the majority of pilgrims embarking on the Camino Francés, the main Spanish route.

Find all the episodes of the series “On the roads to Compostela”

EPISODE 1 – “By far my most beautiful trip”: on the roads to Compostela, more and more walkers

EPISODE 2 – Camino de Santiago: by bike between Vézelay and La Charité-sur-Loire

EPISODE 3 – Chemins de Compostelle, on the royal road from Puy-en-Velay

EPISODE 4 – Conques-Toulouse, the medieval and little-known variant of the Camino de Santiago

Departure from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Rue de la Citadelle in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Pyrenees-Atlantiques) AFCC (French Agency for the Ways of Compostela)

Early in the morning, a string of hikers crosses the bridge over the Nive and then the aptly named rue d’Espagne: this 24-kilometre stage leads to Roncesvalles, in the Iberian Peninsula. The road climbs as soon as you leave the town… The original route of Saint-Jacques was traced on this axis in the 11th century, along an old Roman road itself heir to a prehistoric tin path. This section of the GR 65 is also called Route Napoléon because it was laid out during the Emperor’s first campaign in Spain. After a few bends, a light wooden gatehouse shelters a drinks vending machine, in the middle of the countryside. A sign of modern times that the grumblers of the little Corporal would have appreciated. The international aspect is found on the tree trunks where mantras are inscribed in French as in English, such as “ go to yourself ” Where “ sing your song (sing your song).

Through the country of Cize

The road climbs right out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port Mathilde Giard / Le Figaro

The asphalt gives way to a dirt road. “ Open, Roncesvalles via the Col de Bentarte “says the sign. According to a decree, access is strictly prohibited from 1er November to 1er April, due to the risk of snow. There, the sun remains at the rendezvous and the parts in the shade are very popular. The climb offers a beautiful panorama over the country of Cize – Garazi in Basque -, in Lower Navarre, one of the seven historical Basque territories. On one of the viewpoints along the path, a panel quotes Aimery Picaud, author of the first Guide du Pèlerin, in the 12th century: “ At Pays Basque, the road to Saint-Jacques crosses a remarkable mountain called Port de Cize… To cross it, there are eight miles to climb and as many to descend. Indeed this mountain is so high that the one who climbs it believes he can touch the sky with his own hand. “.

Stopover at the Orisson refuge

Flocks of sheep are scattered along the verdant slopes. Mathilde Giard / Le Figaro

The Orisson refuge provides a first stop. Only 8 kilometers were covered, but this was the steepest segment of the route. Its vast terrace, as if suspended in the void, is at the same level as the griffon vultures which hover above the flocks of sheep scattered on the green slopes…. According to its rhythm, we stop there for a coffee, lunch, or even the night for those who prefer to do this stage over two days. An Irish couple and their two red-haired little girls with rosy cheeks perk up before heading back to Roncesvalles from where, the next day, they will return to their hotel in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. “ This pilgrimage is very popular in Dublin commented Ian, the father. “ We do it in one day. It’s as green as ours, but it’s warmer and more mountainous! »

Franco-Spanish border

Wild horses. Mathilde Giard / Le Figaro

Cows graze along the winding road to the Virgin Biakorri, brought from Lourdes by shepherds. At the foot of the statue, pilgrims leave a note, a lock of hair, a religious image… We are at an altitude of 1095 meters with, overhanging, the ruins of Château-Pignon, a redoubt erected in 1512 by the king of Aragon after the conquest of Navarre. While the peaks are shrouded in mist, a white van reflects the sun’s rays in the distance. Jean-Michel, a farmer, sits by the side of the road every morning. He sells coffee, his Ossau Iraty cheese, hard-boiled eggs from the family henhouse…” We represent the last point where you can have your credentials stamped on the French side “, he claims proudly. Its stamp represents the Thibaut cross, very close and in pink sandstone, donated by a pilgrim.

A dozen wild horses graze quietly along the GR 65 traced in the short grass, with a few foals of the year. Their meeting remains a poetic memory for most walkers: these herds live in freedom, belonging to different owners who give them full latitude on these Pyrenean flanks. A few steps further, a monument pays homage to the resistance fighters tortured by the Nazis during the Second World War. The border is very close, near Roland’s fountain located not far from the ambush where the eponymous valiant knight perished, probably in the Lepoeder ravine, between the Bentarte and Ibaneta passes. There, a large stone indicates the entry into Navarre, on the Spanish side.

Arrival in Roncesvalles

On the way to Roncesvalles. Mathilde Giard / Le Figaro

The signage will now be characterized by a yellow arrow, to be followed throughout Spain. The steep descent ends through the beeches in the company of two South Koreans, Park and Yang, electronics students in Seoul. To think that in the Middle Ages, this forest was full of wolves and brigands… Finally, there is Roncesvalles, a tiny town of 25 inhabitants, including six priests, but with a monumental appearance.

Its monastery established in the 13th century includes a collegiate church converted into magnificent dormitories and a superb Gothic church where pilgrims gather in front of the statue of Saint Jacques. A museum counts among its treasures an emerald which would have adorned the turban of the Almohad sultan Miramamolin the Green, spoils of war after the battle of La Navas de Tolosa, won in 1212 by the Christian armies. Change of diet at dinner, now with gazpacho and tortillas on the pilgrim’s menu. What to regain strength before passing, the next day, a panel full of promise at the exit of Roncesvalles: “ Santiago de Compostela, 790 kilometers “.

Practical notebook

Backpack hanging on the door of a gite, rue de la Citadelle, in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) AFCC (French Agency for the Ways of Compostela)


From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Express Bourricot transports luggage to Roncesvalles, but also to Santiago de Compostela. It happens that this transporter brings back to pilgrims their belongings forgotten on the way, a reading lamp or, more unusual, a denture.

1 rue de la Citadelle, 64220 Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Tel. : 06 61 96 04 76,


Central Hotel. Difficult to make more central, in fact, next to the town hall of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and on the banks of the Nive. A magnificent sculpted staircase leads to the bedrooms, with an exceptional view from those with a balcony overlooking the river. Double room from €98.

1 place Charles de Gaulle, 64220 Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Such. : 05 59 37 00 22.

Cafe Tipia. The locals meet there for dinner in a joyful atmosphere on the banks of the Nive. On the menu: specialties from the South-West such as duck breast, or typical dishes from the Basque coast such as squid salad.

2 place Floquet, 64220 Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Such. : 05 59 37 11 96,

Orisson Refuge. The bravest stop there just for a break – a coffee, a breakfast, a lunch… – on the way to Roncesvalles in one go. Those who prefer a quieter tempo stop there for the night, in its recently renovated and impeccable dormitories, after a dinner around a large international table. Pilgrims stop there but also locals, including shepherds, who stop by for a drink. Night in a dormitory with half board, €40, Orisson, 64220 Uhart-Cize, Tel. 05 59 49 13 03 – 06 38 26 97 38,

Hotel Roncesvalles. Bright rooms and very good food in the casa de Beneficiado which communicates with the collegiate church, pilgrim’s menu at friendly prices, same for the wine (Spanish). Its main room does not lack character between these historic walls, while its terrace is ideally located facing the superb facade of the Church of Santa Maria la Real. Double room from €88.

Calle Ntra. Sra. de Roncesvalles, 14, 31650 Roncesvalles, Navarra, Spain. Such. : +34 948 76 01 05,


The Way, the road together (2013), by Emilio Estevez, with the actor Martin Sheen (father of the director), reference film on the way to Saint-Jacques, very accurate and moving, whose plot takes place on the Camino francès from Saint- Jean-Pied-de-Port.


With the French Agency for the Compostelle Roads, 4 rue Clémence Isaure, 31000 Toulouse. Such. : 05 62 27 00 05, info.,


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