Stage one begins at the starting point for many pilgrims, in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It begins on the French side of the Pyrenees in Basque Country and ends in Navarra at one of the most stunning and enigmatic chapels on the entire Camino, Eunate.
This entire itinerary is in the Pyrenees and the foothills of the Pyrenees. A seemingly small area, it passes through a rich range of cultures, cuisines, languages and folklore of Basque, Navarrese, French, Spanish, and Occitan origins.
Take note that the first day, crossing from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles over the Pyrenees, is one of the two hardest physical days on the whole Camino. The other hardest day arrives weeks from now, after most pilgrims are more fit and adjusted to walking. It goes from Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro in Galicia.
(In between these two, you’ll have the more level plains of Castile. These will present a very different sort of challenge–focus, monotony, and perseverance. But these are still a ways away.)
This first day, you also have two options. To take the high path or the lower path. Most pilgrims, inspired by breathtaking vistas, take the high road. It is known as the Napoleonic Route for he took this too, on his campaign to dominate Spain.
If the weather is inclement, do not risk the higher route. Either wait it out in Sant-Jean-Pied-de-Port, consider a taxi to Roncesvalles (shared with others, it is quite affordable), or ask locals if the lower route is a viable option in that weather. If not, really, wait it out or take a taxi.
The other lower route is actually quite beautiful too. This one was the more common one among medieval pilgrims. It also has breathtaking vistas even if not at the higher elevations promised on the Napoleonic. This lower path was also the famous one taken by Charlemagne. Either way you go, you will be following in the footsteps not only of thousands of pilgrims but of territory expanding imperialists.
Whichever route you wish to take, do check the weather and do ask locals for advice. Each time I have made this crossing a sunny day has turned unexpectedly to cold freezing rain. Pace yourself and make smart choices throughout, but especially now as you begin, facing one of the most challenging sections of the whole route.
There are reasons to take your time and savor the places you will pass…
Roncesvalles is home to the most famous Mary of the Pyrenees (along with Our Lady of Lourdes not far away).
Burguete is the village in which Hemingway loved to stay to go trout fishing in the Pyrenees and memorialized in The Sun Also Rises.
In Pamplona, you will be in an amazing culinary capital and dynamic university town.
At the Sierra del Perdón, you’ll have the cathartic chance to release all that does not serve you on a hilltop famous for its wind and cleansing air.
And at Eunate, take in the round chapel and its surrounding 33-arches. They signify a mixing of mystical traditions from Jews, Christians, Muslim and pagans, all people who passed through here and likely built this chapel together.
Walking Stage One alone is a great section if you have only a few days to walk. But if you wish to continue through Navarra and into Rioja, here is Stage Two.