It took me 2 trains, 1 plane, 3 busses and 1 taxi … but voila, here we are. I am ecstatic when I see the sign with 5 simple words: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Saint James at the Foot of the Pass, a simple Basque town on the French side of the Pyrenees. The official starting point of the Camino Frances, the legendary pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela. All my life I’ve dreamed of walking the Camino. I can’t believe this is finally happening.
St. Jean is a small town. I’ve made a reservation at a simple Gite and I find the place with great ease. I’m crossing the Nive river and pose for the classic picture with the bridge in the background. After dropping my gear at the Gite, I have to collect my credencial or pilgrim’s passport at ‘Les Amis du Chemin de Saint Jacques’ (Rue de la Citadelle 39 - open daily: 7h30 to 12h30 and 13h30 to 22h). You need this booklet to sleep in pilgrim’s hostels and to collect stamps, as proof of your journey. A long line of North Face legionnaires is already queuing at the office. The average age is very high, way beyond Mid Life crises. In the daily race for beds, beating these guys shouldn’t be that hard. For once I’m the youngest of the lot.
After half an hour, it’s finally my turn. “So, you’ve decided to walk the Camino?” smiles the friendly Dutch Hospitalero (volunteer) “That will be 823 kilometres, spread over 34 day marches.” For a minute, I’m speechless. Reality hits. Thirty-four days. Eight Hundred Twenty Three kilometres. What did I just sign up for? This will either be the most epic adventure of my life. Or the most ridiculous one. Only one way to find out. I leave the office with my Credencial, a roadmap of the 34 stages and a list of all the Albergues. I am now officially a pilgrim.
I still have some time to walk the cobbled roads of Saint Jean. I’m soon struck by its old world charm. Picturesque houses by the river. Men wearing berets. The smell of fresh baguettes in Boulangeries. A friendly ‘Bonjour monsieur’ in every shop. This is postcard France. I almost feel guilty for making fun of the French. I climb the 17th century Citadelle, burn a candle at the Notre-Dame-du-Bout-du-Pont, write a good old postcard home and return to the Gite. I better save those legs for the Pyrenees. One more sleep ... and it’s on.
How to reach Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port?
The closest airport to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is Biarritz. Ryan Air flies here. I flew in from Charleroi Airport (aka: Brussels-South, Belgium). I bought my ticket just 10 days upfront. With luggage (20 euro) I paid 96 euro. Reaching Charleroi Airport with public transport is easy. Take the train to Charleroi Sud. There you take bus A to the ‘Aeroport' (6 euro) which takes about 20 minutes. Do NOT take the bus ‘Aerodrome’ - I know, it’s kinda confusing.
From Biarritz airport, take the hourly bus (1 euro) to Bayonne railway station. A taxi is 22 euros. From Bayonne, there are trains (or busses) to St Jean at 7u14, 7u45, 11u07 AM - 14u55 and 18u06 PM. Takes around 1 hour 15 min - a ticket costs 11 euros. Skip the queue and use the vending machine with your credit card.
Where to sleep?
St. Jean has many hostels and many pilgrims. DO make a reservation upfront. I stayed at the Gite Compostella, right at the entrance of town. 12.5 euro in a 4 bed dorm, 15 euro/person in a 2 bed room. Service is chaleureux (heart warming). It ain’t the Hilton but it has everything a pilgrim needs, including a kitchen. La Gourmande, the snack bar right before the Gide, serves the worst fries in human history. Better go into town.
On the other side of the road, there’s a bakery shop - Artisan Boulanger Patissier Labeak - opening at 6u30 am. Get your supplies. It’s a long hike crossing the Pyrenees. Orisson is the last town to take water. Be prepared.