Ancient capital, now a picturesque village
Ancient capital of Basse Navarre, this picturesque village is named for its site at the ‘foot of the pass’ (pied de port) which crosses the Col de Roncevaux into Spain. Roncevaux, now on the Spanish side of the border, is notorious in French folklore for being the scene of Paladin Roland’s demise. One of Emperor Charlemagne’s trusted knights, Roland was ambushed by Basques as he returned from battling with the Moors. At a later date, the Basque assassins were transformed into wily Saracens for greater dramatic effect in the epic poem Le Chanson de Roland.
During the Middle Ages, Saint-Jean was an important pilgrim staging post on the Route Saint-Jacques to Santiago de Compostela. The main pilgrim routes across France from Paris, Vézelay and Le Puy joined up here before tackling the mountains. Behind red sandstone walls, the Haute Ville is a single cobbled street, rue de la Citadelle, leading down from the Porte Saint-Jacques to the Porte d’Espagne by the River Nive. Above the 16th-18thC shuttered houses, a 17thC Vauban fortress dominates the scene.
There are plenty of walking and hiking opportunites around the town. The tourist office has free maps and details of itineraries from a gentle one-hour stroll to serious hikes up towards the Spanish border. The coast-to-coast walking path (GR10) and pilgrim route (GR65) strike up past traditional Basque farmhouses to the summer pastures. Sheep cling to the perpendicular slopes, and the ewes’ milk is used to make brébis, the most common Pyrenean cheese, available in several strengths from creamy to tongue-withering. Another favourite spot is the beechwoods of the Forêt d’lraty (25 km SE via the D18) which spans the Spanish border.
Packed with tourists (and a sprinkling of pilgrims) in summer, it is advisable to book accommodation in Saint-Jean in advance. Foodies should make a gourmet pilgrimage to Firmin Arrambide’s Les Pyrénées.