For the most part, walking the Camino de Santiago is a straight-forward affair. Every morning, you wake up, walk, eat, and then find a bed for the night.
That’s the pilgrim experience in a nutshell.
But before arriving in St. Jean Pied-de-Port to start my pilgrimage, I had a number of questions about my first night on the trail, such as:
- When I arrive in St. Jean, what do I do first?
- How do I get this “pilgrim passport” thing I’d heard about?
- If I arrive later in the day, will I be able to find a bed?
The answers to these questions, unfortunately, were scattered around the Internet, and they weren’t entirely accurate, so now that I’ve been to St. Jean myself and completed my pilgrimage, I thought I’d fill in the blanks for any budding pilgrims you might have the same questions.
1. Find the Pilgrim Office
St. Jean is a small town, but it can be confusing to navigate. There’s a lot of narrow, twisting streets, and unlike other towns you’ll find along the Camino, you probably won’t be able to guess your way to your destination. The good news is, as you disembark from your train or bus, there will almost certainly be a group of pilgrims disembarking at the same time. If you follow these pilgrims, you’ll soon arrive at your first destination: the Pilgrim Office.
It’s at the Pilgrim Office that you can pickup a pilgrim passport, which is something we’ll talk more about in a moment. This passport is required to stay in any of the albergues along the Camino, including the privately owned ones, so don’t try to be clever by first heading to an albergue and attempting to secure a bed. You’ll be turned away until you have a passport.
If there isn’t a group of pilgrims to treat like a human compass — or if you don’t trust crowd-sourced navigation — then make your way to this address:
39 Rue de la Citadelle, 64220
This is the address of the Pilgrim Office, pictured above . The office itself is on the left side of the street, through a pair of big, wooden doors.
To help with navigation, plan ahead and download an offline copy of the map for St. Jean via Google Maps (while connected to Wi-Fi, ideally). It’s important to note that you do not need mobile phone reception or mobile phone data to use your phone’s GPS feature. The GPS chip operates separately from your mobile phone plan and is free to use as long as you have an offline copy of the map already downloaded. (If you don’t have an offline copy of the map, accessing the map will require both reception and data, which will cost money.)
2. Get a Pilgrim Passport
A pilgrim passport, officially known as a Credencial del Peregrino (or just Crendencial for short) is an essential item for every pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago. The passport itself is a small booklet that has two primary uses: to verify that you’re a genuine pilgrim (and therefore able to use the network of albergues along the trail) and to confirm that you’ve walked at least 100km of the trail after you’ve arrived in Santiago de Compostela.
Every time you check into an albergue, you’ll be asked to hand over your pilgrim passport (and your actual passport, too). The pilgrim passport will be stamped and these stamps are the proof that you need to receive your certificate of completion in Santiago. Without the stamps, the Pilgrim Office in Santiago won’t be able to verify that you’ve actually walked your stated distance.
You can pick up (or replace) a passport at a number of locations along the trail, and in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, that location happens to be the Pilgrim Office.
The office itself is run by volunteers, and there’ll likely be a line when you arrive, but at least in my experience, the process was perfectly efficient.
Here’s how it works:
- Wait in line. The office isn’t huge, so don’t be surprised if the line stretches into the street.
- When it’s your turn, approach the available volunteer. Many of them are multi-lingual, so all of the common languages will be catered for.
- Explain that you’d like a passport for the Camino de Santiago. This is what most other people — if not everyone — will be there for.
- Answer some questions about yourself, such as where you’re from and your intended mode of transport. In this case, your “transport” will be walking. (Other options include cycling and horseback.)
- Pay for your passport. It should cost around €3. Just in case the price is raised in the future though, take a €5 note with you. They do have change.
The volunteer will stamp the passport, verifying its authenticity, and just like that, you’ll have become a real-life pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago.
Next, the volunteer might ask if you have a bed for the night. If you don’t, let them know. They’ll show you a map of nearby albergues and provide suggestions about which may or may not be full. They’ll also give you some helpful details about the first day of walking, along with a complete list of albergues on the trail.
If you have any lingering questions, now is the time to ask them. The volunteers are full of the latest, most current details, so it’s worth picking their brain.
3. Take a Scallop Shell
The scallop shell is the official symbol of the Camino de Santiago:
You’ll see this symbol everywhere along the trail, mostly as a means of navigating.
What’s neat is that the Pilgrim Office has a tray of scallop shells. You’re allowed to take one of these shells and then attach it your backpack (they come with a small loop of string). This makes it trivial to recognise other pilgrims as you’re walking.
Technically, the scallops are free, but a donation is expected, so have an extra €2-3 at the ready for this purpose.
4. Find a Bed for the Night
St. Jean has a number of places to spend your first night on the Camino, including a mix of municipal and private albergues, many of which are located on the same street as the Pilgrim Office. (If you take a left turn out of the office, you’ll find the municipal albergue. If you take a right turn, you’ll find just about every other albergue.) There’s even a camping ground available, in case you have a tent, but it’s not significantly cheaper than any of the albergues.
If you arrive in St. Jean in the early afternoon (between 1-2pm), having maybe spent a night in Bayonne, finding a bed should be easy enough without planning ahead. The beds in a municipal albergue can’t be booked in advance, so if you’re there early, you’ll benefit from the “first come, first serve” policy.
If you arrive at St. Jean at the end of the day, however, having maybe taken the train down from Paris that morning (which is what I did), you may have a little more trouble finding a bed. Even though I moved quick after arriving in St. Jean, the first two albergues I visited were full, and in the third albergue I visited, I only just managed to snag the last bed.
Note: It’s also important to consider delays. I should have arrived in St. Jean an hour earlier, for instance, but my bus was way behind schedule. Take the possibility of delays into account during the planning process.
Ultimately, I don’t think I was at risk of not getting a bed — there were other albergues I hadn’t checked and, if I was truly desperate, I’m sure one of the albergues would have let me sleep on the floor — but if I were to walk the Camino again, I would do one of the following:
- Spend a night in Bayonne before arriving in St. Jean. That way, I can arrive in St. Jean early in the day and a grab a bed in the municipal albergue.
- Reserve a bed at one of the private albergues.
In general, I enjoyed not always knowing where I would spend each night, but either of these options would have made the arrival process flow that little bit smoother, giving me one less thing to think about before starting the walk.
(If you do get stuck without a bed in St. Jean, return to the Pilgrim Office and speak with the volunteers. I’m sure they’d be happy to offer assistance.)
5. Prepare for Your Pilgrimage
When you wake up for your first day of walking along the Camino, the last thing you’ll want to do is fiddle around with your gear, have a shower, or double-check if you’ve forgotten anything. That’s why it’s best to get all of this maintenance out of the way in St. Jean, the night before you start walking. That way, as soon as you wake up, you’ll be ready to get up and go without delay.
Here’s some tips and tricks to keep in mind:
- As soon as you’re checked into an albergue, start charging your phone (and anything else with a battery). There’s never enough space for everyone to plug in their electronics, so you might like to travel with an external battery pack.
- Have a shower in the evening, not the morning. This is the standard on the Camino, as showering in the morning will slow down your departure, and if your feet are even remotely wet while walking, you’ll get blisters.
- Pack your backpack before going to bed. If you don’t want to sleep in your walking clothes, at least place them on top of your backpack, so you don’t have to dig around for them.
- If the albergue has blankets, don’t use your sleeping bag. They’re a pain in the butt to pack away when you’ve just woken up.
But none of these tricks are exclusive to the first night. I used them throughout my walk to make waking up early bearable. It is, however, extra sweet to wake up on that first day with nothing to think about aside from putting one foot in front of the other.