A few summers ago I took a train ride from Madrid followed by a nauseating bus ride through switchbacks in the Pyrenees to here: St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. A ridiculously cute, charming French village snuggled into the mountains and popular starting point for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. It was evening and I should have looked for a place to sleep but my first order of business was to find a slice of Gateau Basque—A light, thin buttery crust filled with lemon cream and a few raspberries. (My nausea from the bus ride was immediately replaced with squealing, happy tastebuds.) Then I sat on this stoop here, eating cake for dinner, waiting for the Pilgrim Office to reopen from their dinner break, thinking this was the best damn start to the long walk ahead.
You can’t spit without seeing a bakery in St. Jean. Highly recommend getting a slice (or two) the evening before you begin the Camino, if you plan on beginning your walk at dawn. Since there is only one reliable stop for food between St Jean and Roncesvalles (the bar at Orisson) a slice of Gateau Basque for snack/second breakfast is pretty great.
How to get to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port from Madrid
I took the train from Madrid’s Atocha station to Pamplona. It was 3 hours, around 50 € if booked on the same day (you could save money by booking ahead on Renfe’s website.) From the Pamplona train station you can walk to the bus station (Estación de Autobuses de Pamplona) or take a taxi. It’s about 2.5 km (1.5 miles).
I arrived during late afternoon, siesta time, and the streets were basically empty. As a solo woman I felt perfectly safe walking from the train to the bus station during the day. (Might as well walk since you’re about to embark on a 500 mile journey on foot anyway, right?) From there catch the bus to St. Jean. (Cost around 20 €) It also passes through Roncesvalles, which can feel a little weird to drive through a town you’re going to walk back to the next day.
If you have a smartphone it’s a good idea to download an offline Google map of Pamplona so you have walking directions between stations, without using data on your phone.
Side note: The bus only runs direct to St Jean in the busier months of Spring — Summer. Check the ALSA bus website for times. I took the bus in August.
Also: I’ve heard about the horrendous crowds of pilgrims beginning in St Jean and the lack of beds in Roncesvalles since one of the big albergues closed. Why not begin your walk in Pamplona instead?