Nestled in the Pyrenees mountains of France, just across the border from Spain, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (meaning St Jean at the foot of the pass) is often known as the gateway to the Camino Frances and many pilgrims choose to begin their Camino from the town.
The town is also the end point of three Caminos: Le Chemin du Puy Camino, Vezelay Camino, and the Paris-Tours Camino.
Although small in size, the French town has a fascinating history with many historical sites, amazing views and plenty of shopping, not to mention the delicious French cuisine on offer from a choice of restaurants in the town.
So, if you find yourself beginning your Camino in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, here is the history of the town together with what to see and do in 24 hours in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
The history of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port goes back to the 12th century when the town was built following the destruction of the nearby town of Saint-Jean-le-Vieux at the hands of Richard the Lionheart on the orders of King Henry, his father.
As the town is situated strategically on a meeting of the River Nive, many of the roads from the town lead to all parts of the Basque Country, which is why the town has always been an important place for traders and pilgrims alike.
While small in size, the town retains its medieval charm with cobbled streets which are lined with beautiful, unique red and white buildings inside the old town walls.
For most pilgrims beginning their Camino in St Jean, the first port of call is the pilgrim office located at Amies du Chemin de Saint Jacques at 39 rue de la Citadelle. In season, the pilgrim office is open from 7.30am to 12.30pm and then from 1.30pm to 10.00pm.
The kind volunteers who work at the office are on hand to provide all the information you need to begin your Camino. You can also purchase a pilgrim passport and receive the first stamp of your pilgrimage.
Porte St Jacques
Pilgrims arriving in the town after walking either the Le Chemin du Puy Camino, Vezelay Camino, or the Paris-Tours Camino will walk through the stunning Porte St Jacques (St James’ Gate), a 15th century UNESCO World Heritage-listed gate that is located just below the Citadelle.
The cobbled Rue de la Citadelle (northside) and Rue d’Espagne (southside) both slope down to the river and are notable for their buildings with ornate wooden overhangs and balconies, which are carved with inscriptions, designs, and religious symbols.
The streets are filled with Camino shops where you can buy souvenirs, Camino shells and more in preparation for your Camino.
Citadelle of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
From the top of rue de la Citadelle, there is a rough cobblestone path that climbs to the massive citadel itself. From this viewpoint, there’s a stunning panorama of the town and the surrounding hills.
Museum “Prison of Bishops”
On Rue de la Citadelle you can visit the St Jean Pied de Port Museum, which is located at the 16th century Maison des Evêques, also known as the Prison of the Bishops due to the presence of bishops from the Bayonne diocese during the Great Western Schism and the use of the building as a penitentiary house from the end of the 18th century. It currently hosts an exhibition about the Camino de Santiago.
Ramparts of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
The ramparts of Saint-Jean Pied de Ports are worth a stroll around. It takes about 15 min to walk along the fortified wall which leads to the square right by the tourism office.
Church of the Assumption of the Virgin
Iglesia de la Asuncion de la Virgen is the most important Gothic building in the French Basque Country. Constructed by Sancho VII, King of Navarre, in commemoration of the victory of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, the church has a nave accompanied by two aisles and two floors of galleries.
The most striking thing about the church is not the façade but the door of Notre Dame. The door of Notre Dame is through the bell tower, and on one side you can see the image of the Virgin with the child and across is the figure of Saint John the Baptist.
If you plan to walk the Camino de Santiago independently, check out my book, A Wild Woman’s Guide To The Camino de Santiago. I share everything you need to know before you begin your Camino. Read at A Wild Woman’s Guide To The Camino De Santiago or click the link below.
(c) Samantha Wilson 2023. All Rights Reserved.