This is among the most popular starting points for many modern pilgrims, after Sarria, and hundreds arrive each week during the peak seasons of the warmer months. They now come by car, bus, train, and plane, but in the Middle Ages, most pilgrims would have arrived in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port by walking or riding a donkey or a horse.
Like Somport Pass further east, the Valcarlos Pass just south of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port makes for a natural crossing through the formidable Pyrenees. Unlike Somport, Valcarlos has a gentler ascent and is not as high and hence its greater popularity.
But there are other reasons why the region of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the Valcarlos Pass are so significant. It is a natural passage over the mountains that people for millennia have used as a gateway to move from one side of the Pyrenees to the other.
It is in a sense a threshold place. The magic of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is that you enter the flow of the millions of pilgrims who have walked these streets before you and passed through the same gate toward Spain.
As you take in the old town, notice all the doors decorated with scallop shells, symbols of the Camino de Santiago, and also the tied bundles of dried herbs that ward off bad luck and keep one’s home safe and sound. A bundle of herbs for the road might be a good idea, both to follow local custom and ward off evil spirits, and also to insert into your sweaty boots over night, a nice trick I learned from a fellow pilgrim to help keep them smelling less foul.
Walking from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela is a distance of 775 kilometers (482 miles). To Finisterre it is 854 kilometers (531 miles). And recalling the lesson of taking things step by step, to Roncesvalles, it is 28 kilometers (17.5 miles). This is a very long day nonetheless, especially if this is your first day, and much of it is uphill.
Be sure to check the weather and with locals who know the hills well. There are two routes, one safer in rain or snow, through the town of Valcarlos and the other higher up and spectacular if the weather is good, that passes through the refuge of Orrison, which can be a good place to break the crossing into two days and relax. Fog, rain, snow, and ice are very common on this passing and can last all day.
If conditions are bad or looking to turn bad, wait a day or take a cab to Roncesvalles. This isn’t a time to let your ego, which wants to walk every step and rely on nothing but oneself, drive decisions (and lots of pilgrim egos do that just right here on this first day resulting in early injuries that affect the rest of the Way).
Keep in mind at all times, pilgrimage means responding to each circumstance in the best way. Medieval pilgrims had no qualms whatsoever about accepting a ride on a cart, mule, or horse if it meant a safer or healthier crossing that day.