One of the most common ways to reach St. Jean Pied-de-Port, the feudal-era town that doubles as the official starting point of the Camino Francés, is to catch a train from Paris to Bayonne and then a bus from Bayonne to St. Jean. Alternatively, you can fly into Biarritz, which is near Bayonne, but the point is, you’ll almost certainly pass through Bayonne before beginning your pilgrimage (unless you’re planning on starting your journey further along the trail).
Now, you don’t have to spend time in Bayonne, as the trains and buses are scheduled to allow you to travel from Paris to St. Jean in a single day, but if you can spare the time (and the funds), I’d suggest that you spend a night there.
Aside from being yet another place to explore, spending a night in Bayonne makes the logistics of arriving in St. Jean a lot more straight-forward.
To understand what I mean, consider everything you have to do upon arriving in St. Jean.
You have to:
- Pick up a “Pilgrim Passport” from the Pilgrim Office.
- Find a bed in one of the albergues.
- Make any final preparations for your journey.
It’s not an exhaustive list, and any oversights in preparation can be corrected just a few days later in Pamplona, but if you arrive in St. Jean at the end of the day, it’s easy to feel like there’s a lot you need to cram into just a few hours.
In my case, for instance, the bus from Bayonne to St. Jean was delayed, so I didn’t arrive in St. Jean until 7pm. As a result, I had slim-pickings when it came to finding a bed — in fact, I got the last bed in the town’s largest albergue — and I didn’t have time to explore the local area.
If, on the other hand, you spend a night in Bayonne, you can catch an earlier bus to St. Jean, allowing you to arrive in the town around midday. This guarantees you a bed in just about any albergue, as bed are designated on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the albergues only accept pilgrims after 2pm. You’ll also have plenty of time to explore the local area, enjoy a couple of nice meals, and make any last-minute adjustments to your supplies. Oh, and there’s a decent you’ll get to know some of the other pilgrims you’ll be crossing paths with during your walk.
But if you don’t want to spend time in Bayonne for whatever reason — maybe you’re already on a tight schedule — then an alternative way to make your life easier upon arriving in St. Jean is to book a private albergue ahead of time. These albergues cost more, can book out weeks in advance, and you’re still not going to have a lot of time to explore if you’re arriving after 5pm, but it’s still a worthwhile enough way to make the arrival process that little bit easier.
Ultimately though, I think spending a night in Bayonne is the ideal option.