I like to encourage everyone who’s planning to start walking in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to think about starting a few days earlier. In fact, I may occasionally be a little obsessive on this point.
I admit to being somewhat biased. I walked to Santiago from Le Puy-en-Velay, and for various reasons, walking through Basque country in the the Pyrenees foothills was one of my favourite parts of the journey.
But there are good reasons beyond my own wonderful experiences—if you can afford the time and money—to walk in France for a few days before you arrive in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
- Practice: You can get used to days full of walking in the foothills before you cross the Pyrenees—and can take it in relatively small stages, if you like.
- France: You can experience a wonderful part of France—and French food—before getting to Spain. (See my comparison of walking in the two countries.)
- A relatively luxurious start: You can start your walking in a bit more luxury than you tend to find in Spain, since the budget food and accommodation in France is generally more luxurious (although, admittedly, more expensive).
- Walking through the foothills: Walking up to the Pyrenees, knowing you’re going to walk over them, is a wonderful experience. I’ll never forget a little old Basque woman pointing out Honto to me the day before I got to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and telling me I’d walk through there the following day.
The Potential Downside
If you’re seriously limited by time or money, this option isn’t for you. It obviously adds a few days to your trip, and eating and sleeping in France is more expensive than in Spain.
Where to Start
Three of the four main routes of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques come together in Ostabat, a day’s walk before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, so you could start on any of these: the route from Paris/Tours, the Voie de Vézelay, or the Chemin du Puy.
I can only speak for the Chemin du Puy, where there are no major towns within several days’ walk of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, so getting to where you want to start using public transportation could be a little tricky. However, check out this thread on the Camino de Santiago Forum for a suggestion by bjorgts on where to start if you want to walk four days on the Chemin du Puy before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
If anyone else has any experiences or suggestions, please share them in the comments.