Chapter 7 – History of Saint Jean Pied de Port
A capital at base of Navarra
Legend dates founding of the town to the king of Pamplona, Garcia Ximenez in the year 716. However it was only in the end of 12th century that the name San Juan del Pie de Portus officially appeared as the most important town of the Merindad d’Ultrapuertos following the signing of a deed by king Sancho VII the Strong, the king of Navarre. Saint Jean Pied de Port owes its name to its geographical location at the foot of the ports or passes of the Pyrenees and its subsequent protectors firstly St. John the Evangelist and then St. Jean the Baptist.
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page – Augustine of Hippo
Historical post at the base of Pyrenees
As a stronghold, a frontier and a commercial crossroads at the foot of the Pyrenees, Saint Jean Pied de Port has always been an important staging post on one of Europe’s oldest routes between France and Spain. Since the 12th century when the pilgrimages were at the peak thousands of pilgrims have flocked to the Basque country along from three major French routes. These pilgrims came from all over Europe to worship the tomb of Apostle Saint James at the further most tip of Galicia in North West Spain. Seen as a “peregrination” for those wishing to save their souls and redeem their sins the pilgrim’s ways converge at the village of Ostabat to form a single route to Saint Jean le Vieux and then on to Saint Jean Pied de Port, otherwise known as the “gateway to the Cize passes” the last stage before the daunting climb over the Pyrenees. Over the centuries the “ports de Cize” routes in this area have been used as a transhumance path, a Roman road, an invasion route, a pilgrims way to Santiago de Compostela, a military thoroughfare as well as a popular destination for modern day hikers.
The Citadel at Saint Jean Pied de Port
At the beginning of 16th Century the medieval style castle built on the hillside was severely damaged by Spaniards troops after a siege. The context of permanent wars between Spain and France, determined to make the decision of Saint Jean Pied de Port a “defensive stronghold” between Pamplona and Bayonne. It is in the decades 1620 that “the citadel” took shape. The city became a strategic military headquarters for French troops enabling them to emerge from the citadel to attack Spanish forces. Through many centuries Citadel has been a military convoy. Having lots its status as a military building in 1920 it’s classified as Historical Monument in 1963, now houses a school.
Most pilgrims arrive to Saint Jean Pied de Port and go to the tourist office to get their passport and leave right away to conquer the Pyrenees or arrive with little time to enjoy as it’s a tricky place to get to. If you arrive to Saint Jean Pied de Port give yourself few hours to enjoy the village as it’s beautiful and it was an important place in throughout history.
We were so happy to arrive here in the mid afternoon to get our passports done, gather food & water supply for the next day so that we could enjoy the village and rest for the night before tackling the Pyrenees. The is SJPP is filled with pilgrim albergues, souvenior shops and even water fountains containing the Camino shell symbol.
*Excerpts from Verbissimo, Jean-Paul LaCourt, Marquette Lionel Guilliorit