Camino Francés description : 01. St Jean Pied de Port - Roncesvalles  

 

                         Camino de Santiago / French Way : 01. Saint Jean Pied-de-Port - Roncevalles

                                            (route Napoléon 26.5 km) (or via Valcarlos 25.0 km)

             

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  Saint Jean Pied-de-Port -  St Jean Pied de Port city map

 

  Saint Jean Pied-de-Port is a French town situated on the banks of the River Nive at the foot of the Pyrenees mountain range approximately 8 kms from the border with Spain. Dating back to Roman times this area has been an important passage through the Pyrenees and dating back to the 10th century it has been the meeting point of the Caminos de Santiago that come through from various points in France such as Paris, Vézelay and Le Puy. Entrance by the Porte Saint-Jacques.

 

  In the 12th century this part of the Pyrenees was part of the Spanish kingdom of Lower Navarra and the kings of Navarra rebuilt the town in the late 12th century after it had been destroyed by the British king Richard I, the Lionheart in 1177. Over the centuries the town's ownership changed numerous times between the French and Spanish as they fought for sovereignty over these lands. Finally during the French Revolution of 1789 to 1799 the Kingdom of Lower Navarra was abolished and has remained in French hands ever since. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, following the French Wars of Religion between French Catholics and Protestants, the town was fortified by Cardinal Richelieu who commissioned the building of the Citadel on a hill overlooking the town. The Citadel is now a college.

 

  While you are here there are a couple of places worth visiting, most of which can be found off the cobbled street of Rue de la Citadelle where you will have picked up your credencial. 

  The first is the 13th century prison dite des Evêques, or Bishop's prison. Some claim that it had been the Bishop's residence but the local tourist office doesn't believe there was any link. It did however house those good for nothings that plagued the early pilgrims. The building now houses a museum on the Basque region as well as a museum on the Camino de Santiago. 

 

  A little further down the street is the 14th century church Église Notre Dame du Bout du Pont butting up against the imposing Porte de Nôtre Dame with its small statue of Santiago up above the arch. The current Gothic church was part of a former priory hospital and was built over the foundations of an earlier 13th century church that had been built by the Navarran King Sancho VII, el Fuerte. In front of the church is a fountain decorated in scallop shells.

 

  Accommodation can be found in a number of different places mostly hostal but there are some more upmarket hotels. Most of the accommodation can be found along the Rue de la Citadelle or the Place du Général de Gaulle. You may have to reserve before you leave your country of origin as places are booked up a long time in advance, especially in busy periods. 

  To obtain your "credencial” (or Pilgrim Passport) and informations, make your way to Accueil St Jacques at 39 Rue de la Citadelle, the main street through St Jean Pied-du-Port.

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  On your first proper day on the Camino de Santiago it is recommended that you leave early in the morning as most of the route is uphill and you don't want to be caught up in the mountains when the light is fading. Also make sure that you have a hearty breakfast and take enough food and drink with you to last the remainder of the day and to have something to eat for breakfast the following morning.

  The Camino de Santiago is clearly marked by either yellow flashes, yellow arrows, red and white marks or marker stones with scallop shells.

 

  Pilgrims usually depart on the Camino from the church Notre Dame du Bout du Pont, continuing down le Rue d'Espagne towards the bridge over the River Nive, exiting the town walls through la Porte d'Espagne.

  Here the pilgrim is faced with a decision, do they take the route up over the Pyrenees or take the lower, mainly asphalted, route. The route over the mountains is known as the “Route Napoléon” and the asphalted route taking you through the village of Valcarlos, is known as the "Chemin de Compostelle".

 

  The Chemin de Compostela is more suitable during the winter months as the mountains experience bad weather such as fog and snow. This route is also more suitable if you are doing the Camino by bike. A word of warning, if it is very windy down in St Jean Pied de Port then you must take the Chemin de Compostelle.

  The Route Napoléon is quite exposed the higher you get and you can encounter severe weather even in the middle of summer.

 

  St Jean Pied de.Port - Roncesvalles / Orreaga / Roncevaux

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  Taking the "Route Napoléon"

 

  The route is thus named because of its strategic importance during the Napoleonic wars and it is the route Napoleon took to cross into Spain following the old Roman road the Via Traiana. It was also used as a route through the Pyrenees by Emperor Charlemagne.

  The Route Napoléon is the route that pilgrims have used for several centuries primarily because of its lack of trees and other places where bandits could hide, unlike the heavily wooded route through Valcarlos. This is one of the toughest parts of the whole Camino Frances as for most of the first few kilometres you will be climbing up into the mountains and the first 2 kilometres are particularly hard.

 

  To reach the beginning of the Route Napoleon follow the signs initially for the Chemin de St Jacques. Once through the Porte d’Espagne you should soon come across a sign, just after a water fountain, for the Route Napoleon.

 

  The route is clearly marked and after approximately 5 kilometres you should reach the hamlet of Huntto (or Untto) where you can find accommodation or you can choose to continue your walk through to the albergue of Orisson. Along this part of the route you will see some spectacular views, subject to the weather of course, across the Pyrenees mountain range. Be aware that the markers for the route around this area are on rocks on the ground, so may be covered.

 

  Orisson is approximately 5 kilometres from Huntto and here you will find a pilgrim hostel or auberge (albergue in Spanish). If you do decide to stay at any of the pilgrim hostels along the way, we would recommend that you call ahead and reserve your place as they can get full very quickly. Some hostels do, however, only take people on a first come first served basis.

 

  Following the uphill path from Orisson you will come across the statue of the Vierge d’Orisson (or Vierge de Biakorri) reportedly brought here all the way from Lourdes by shepherds. You will often find the statue bedecked with flowers placed there by both locals and pilgrims alike. At this point take a right fork and continue straight at the road junction.

 

  Not long after leaving the Vierge d’Orisson you will pass what is left of the Château Pignon, a castle that had been built by the Spanish when they conquered this region in the 16th century. Surprisingly it was destroyed by the Spanish during the Napoleonic wars at the end of the 17th and early 18th centuries.

 

  At the remains of the chateau take a right hand fork that leads to a farm until you reach the Croix Thibaut on the right hand side of the road. The track from here takes you up to the pass of Leizar-Atheka, Col de Bentarte, and in about 3 kilometres reaches the Spanish border.

 

  From here the Camino begins to descend down towards through some woods by Elizarra, Col d’Izandorre, and from where you keep going straight towards Col Lepoeder.

 

  Col Lepoeder, at 1410 metres above sea level, is the highest point on the Route Napoleon. From here you get your first view of the roof of the Abbey of Roncesvalles. It was rumoured that in medieval times the Col Lepoeder was where you would find Charlemagne’s Cross, said to have been placed on the spot where the Emperor prayed to Santiago, giving thanks to the Apostle for the safe crossing of his army over the Pyrenees and asking for the Saint’s help in his battles with the Moorish invaders. Unfortunately, the historical timeline is a little out of kilter as Charlemagne’s conquests took place in the 8th century and the Apostle’s remains were not found until the 9th century. Despite all this medieval pilgrims would stop here and pray to the Apostle for a safe journey.

 

  From here you are again faced with a decision, which route do you take down to the hamlet of Roncesvalles? One route takes you through Puerto de Ibañeta and is considered the easier, but slightly longer, of the two routes; or alternatively, you can take the Roman route, or Calzada Romana, but this is much steeper. Both routes lead you to the Abbey at Roncesvalles.

 

  For the route through Puerto de Ibañeta follow the markers towards the road and then just follow this road for about 4 kilometres until you get to Puerto de Ibañeta.

 

  Here you will find a small monument to Roldán (Roland) one of Charlemagne’s favourite knights and commemorating the Battle of Roncevalles which took place in the late 8th century. There is also a small chapel (capilla del Salvador) here which has been built over a smaller chapel once occupied by a monk who would ring a bell to guide pilgrims to the chapel during bad weather.

  The legend behind the monument being in this spot is that it is believed to be the spot where Roldán sounded his horn Oliphant, as well as where he met his end. It was during the wars with the Moors that Roldán led 20,000 Christians up to the pass above Roncevalles. He had been told by Emperor Charlemagne that if he got into trouble he should sound his horn and he would come with reinforcements. Unfortunately up in the pass the Christian army is ambushed by a huge Moorish army of in excess of 400,000 warriors. Roldán’s best friend Oliver advised him that he should blow the horn but unfortunately Roldán left it too late. Every one of the Christian army was killed and Roldán being the last man standing gave 3 long blasts on his horn, so hard did he blow that horn that the veins in his temples burst causing his death. I would have thought some of the sword wounds would have also contributed to his death, but then that doesn’t make such an interesting story.

 

  Turn left down by the side of the observation center to join the path again for the remaining through the beech woods to Roncesvalles.

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  Taking the route through Valcarlos

 

  This route takes you through what is known as the Valley of Charlemagne.

  From the Rue de la Citadelle walk through the Porte d'Espagne, cross the bridge and walk up the Rue d'Espagne. At the cross-roads of the "route de Saint Michel" and the "chemin de Mayorga", leave the GR 65 and follow this chemin de Mayorga which to the right in the direction of the D933 road. Follow this road on left during 1 Km before turning right on a little road which crosses· the Nive river onto a concrete footbridge, in order to join, after 500 meters, another little road coming from Lasse. Follow this little road for about 3,5 kilometres, parallel to the Nive river, left bank, as far as the spot where it goes up to the right; there, turn on a path and continue on this path to reach the Spanish border at less than 1 kilometre. Follow the little spanish road which goes on, still on the left bank, for about 1,5 kilometre, in order to joïn Arnéguy, one of the last French villages on the route. It does have some shops, so you could buy yourself some provisions and there are also a number of pilgrim hostels and small hotels for the weary walker to spend the night.

 

  Go back again to France at the cross-road on the right, crossing the Nive river on a roads bridge, and go right up the D 128 road along the Nive river which is reached after 2,5 kilometres. Cross the hamlet of Ondarolle, then continue on the D 128 road (to Urculu); you will arrive soon at a cross-roads: take the way which plunges to the right, to Join the Nive river which you can cross on a footbridge, and go up on the Spanish side, to Valcarlos, a small town situated in a beautiful valley surrounded by forest.

  

  Here you will find a hostel and a number of small hotels (casas rurales), cafés, shops and a bank. It is also believed to be in this valley where Emperor Charlemagne was encamped when he heard of Roldáns defeat at the pass of Roncevalles. The Iglesia de Santiago in Valcarlos contains a life-size statue of Santiago Matamoros (St James the Moorslayer) and outside there is a slightly odd sculpture of pilgrims.

 

  Heading out of Valcarlos and crossing the River Chapitel you will pass through the village of Gañecoleta and after approximately 4 kilometres, and a steep climb through the forest, you will re-join the Route Napoleon at Puerto Ibañeta and it is then downhill into Roncesvalles.

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  Roncesvalles

 

  Roncesvalles is a small hamlet with few amenities other than a couple of bars and hotel, however, the hamlet is dominated by the large collegiate church and monastery complex and is largely built around this. Part of this complex is the Pilgrim's hospital which was built in the 12th century by the bishop of Pamplona. This was re-built in the early 19th century and is now a youth hostel.

 

  The Iglesia de la Real Colegiata de Santa María, within the collegiate complex, is one of the most impressive examples of French gothic architecture and well worth a visit. Built in the 13th Century by the Navarrian King Sancho VII, el Fuerte it now plays host to his tomb. Be sure to see the impressive high altar with a Gothic figure of the Virgin Mary richly clad in gold and silver, Nuestra Señora de Roncesvalles..

  Adjacent to the church are the cloister, and the chapter house where the remains of King Sancho VII are laid.

  In the monastery's museum are housed some significant historical objects such as Charlemagne's chess board. This doesn't actually appear to have any link whatsoever with Charlemagne, it is essentially a 14th century reliquary reported to contain the remains of 32 saints. Where the name came from I do not know.

Also within the museum is the carved ivory horn called Oliphant that had once belonged to Roldán and which he used at the end of the battle at the Roncevalles pass. Actually much of the town's attractions appear to be linked to Roldán and Charlemagne in one way or another. 

  Another interesting building in the town is the Itzandegia a gothic style building from the 13th century which was believed to have housed the image of the Virgin of Roncevalles which is now located in the Iglesia de la Real Colegiata de Santa María. It was refurbished in the 1990's.

  The 12th century Capilla de Sancti Spiritus, also known as the Silo of Charlemagne, is believed to have been the burial site of Roland, one of Charlemagne's knights and many other of the Emperor's men. The building is an ossuary and apart from the bones of the more illustrious knights of Charlemagne's army it contains the bones of medieval pilgrims who died whilst crossing the Pyrenees or those who died in the monastery's pilgrim hospital. 

  Next to it is the 13th century gothic Iglesia de Santiago, sometimes known as the Iglesia de los Peregrinos. This is no longer used as a church but now houses a museum containing objects relating to the Camino de Santiago including the bell that the monk used in the old chapel at Puerta de Ibañeta.

 

  There are other sites worth visiting in Roncesvalles and further information is available from the tourist office based in the old mill situated across from the Museum and opposite the Casa Sabina hotel.

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                                                   delhommeb at wanadoo.fr - 10/01/2014