Recently joining the ranks of France’s most beautiful villages, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a delightful note on which to end a long-distance walk. I’ve enjoyed many unforgettable moments here—these are a few of my favourites 🙂
(Before you arrive, download a map from The Tourist Office website—available in French, English and Spanish—with several places of interest marked.)
The highs and lows of completing a long-distance walk
It goes without saying that the end of any long-distance walk invokes a mixed range of emotional responses—gratitude and relief that you’ve made it safely; that tomorrow’s weather doesn’t matter so much; that tomorrow’s schedule may allow a luxurious sleep-in and blisters and stiff muscles can finally start to recover.
But there is also a sadness—that the new friends you’ve made over the past weeks will be going their own ways; that tomorrow may actually need some sort of plan and activities more complicated than putting one foot in front of the other and remembering to keep your water bottle topped up.
Whether you’ve come 730 kilometres (456 miles) from le-Puy-en-Velay, broken the journey into shorter stages or you’re continuing on across northern Spain to Santiago, take a moment to celebrate—and raise a glass to acknowledge your achievement!
Rue de la Citadelle
The GR 65 enters the town through Porte Saint-Jacques, one of four medieval gates where access was granted (or denied) to the traders and pilgrims who arrived each day. From here, the path continues down the hill along Rue de la Citadelle. Lined with chambres d’hôtes, windows and doorways bursting with flower-filled pot plants, the street is a charming introduction to the town and an invitation to slow down and ease into the afternoon. Souvenir shops scattered along the street threaten to fill any small gaps there may be lurking in your backpack—after all, the need to travel as lightly as possible is no longer quite so important (unless you’re headed for Roncevaux!)
On your right as you walk downhill along Rue de la Citadelle, is Prison des Évêques. The ground floor of this beautiful stone building dates from the thirteenth century when it was built for the Bishops who were based here. Although the name translates to Prison of the Bishops, it is unclear whether the building was used for this purpose or not—there are conflicting reports to support both cases. But it was certainly used as a prison several hundred years later during the eighteenth century when the upper floor was added. Today, its walls form the backdrop to a variety of cultural exhibitions. (Open every day, except Tuesday, from Easter until 1 November. Hours vary according to the season.)
Next door to Prison des Évêques, at number 39 Rue de la Citadelle, is Bureau des Pèlerins. Here you’ll find answers to all your questions regarding the 800-kilometre (500-mile) walk across Spain to Santiago. If you think you may return one day to make this journey yourself, call in, ask questions and pick up your crédencial, or pilgrim’s passport, which allows access to the refugios along the Camino.
Just a few of the gorgeous chambres d’hôtes and shop fronts along Rue de la Citadelle…
Continue along Rue de la Citadelle to the bottom of the hill. On your left, hemmed in snugly among shops and the city walls is Église Notre-Dame-du-Bout-du-Pont. Pilgrims’ Mass, held here each evening, is a memorable experience for many walkers and the front corner is often ablaze with dozens of candles—lit as an expression of thanks for a successful journey from le-Puy-en-Velay or as a requested blessing for a safe journey to come.
The pilgrimage to Santiago begins at the bottom of Rue de la Citadelle where Porte Notre-Dame leads walkers across the oft-photographed Pont Romain (Pilgrims’ Bridge) and on to Rue d’Espagne. Instead of crossing the bridge, turn right and follow Rue de l’Église to the main road where you’ll enjoy views back along the river and, no doubt, capture your own ‘magic moment’.
Chemin de Ronde and the Citadelle
A walk along Chemin de Ronde, the medieval wall, will take you from Porte de Navarre near the river back up the hill to Porte Saint-Jacques, offering picturesque views towards the Pyrénées Mountains. The crisp white stucco walls of the houses, with their contrasting deep red or green shutters and red roofs, scattered among lush green hills provide a postcard view—and possibly rekindle that urge to keep walking and discover what lays beyond those mountain peaks!
It was from Chemin de Ronde that soldiers guarded Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in medieval times, providing the first line of defence against attacks from the Spanish. Behind them, the Citadelle, which towers over the town from Mendiguren Hill, provided protection for the ruling nobility.
Built in the first part of the seventeenth century on the site of an earlier fortified château, the buildings now host the secondary school. The grounds can be explored at any time or guided tours of the Citadelle (en français) leave from the Tourist Office—on Thursday afternoons in July and August and on Monday afternoons in September and during school holidays. Other guided tours of the town are available, including a night visit which leaves at nine o’clock on Wednesday evenings.
And if you can’t walk another step? Le Petit Train Touristique will whisk you around all the major sights in 40 minutes!
And tomorrow? Perhaps another journey awaits…