Depending on your fitness level and the weather, crossing the Pyrenees can be one of your toughest days physically on the Camino Frances. Understandably some people can be a bit anxious about this stage. It's the first day walking the Camino, you don't know what to expect, or if you can even make it past the first day! But hopefully with a bit more information and advice you can feel confident about crossing the Pyrenees.
When you get to St Jean Pied de Port, I highly recommend heading to the Camino office in town, preferably the day before you begin your walk. There they will give you some great advice and resources. You can get weather reports, a pilgrim passport, a list of albergues (the most up to date list) and a distance map for each stage of your walk. You can also ask any last minute questions that you might have.
If you don't have accommodation in St Jean yet, ask! They will gladly give you directions to an albergue (pilgrim hostel) in town. The same goes if you need to buy some food for your hike, ask for directions as there is a supermarket that is about a 10 to 15 minute walk from town.
St Jean Pied de Port is a small town that is well stocked with everything a pilgrim might need. If you have forgotten something or need to buy a last minute piece of equipment you will be able to find most things at one of the shops in town.
On your first day walking you will have a choice of two routes over the Pyrenees. The first, the Napoleon Route, climbs to approximately 1400m and is the most popular choice for pilgrims. It is mostly a tough uphill walk with beautiful views (depending on the weather) and a few flat stretches thrown in as well. At about the 21km mark you will begin the steep descent to Roncesvalles (this is where walking poles really come in handy!).
You have two ways you can walk the Napoleon Route. Firstly, you can start from St Jean Pied de Port in the early morning (you must begin early, it's a long day!) and walk all the way to Roncesvalles in one go. It's approximately 27km. It maybe exhausting but if the weather is ok you can do it.
Secondly, and probably my preferred option, is to split the stage in half and take two days to walk to Roncesvalles. There are 3 small albergues (pilgrims hostels) available on this route. The first two are approximately 8km from St Jean Pied de Port, which makes the next days walk over the Pyrenees under 20km and a bit easier. HOWEVER, if you want to stay in one of these albergues during the busy months, you must book well in advance. At least a couple of months to be sure! You can try your luck on the day by asking the pilgrims office to call and check for you, but the best advice is to reserve a bed yourself.
To contact the Orisson albergue (refuge) click here, and for the Kayola albergue here. Both albergues are run by the same people. Remember to print your confirmation email and take it with you! It's also a good idea to confirm your booking the day before you walk, just to be safe.
The third albergue on the Napoleon Route is Hunto. It is only about 5km from St Jean Pied de Port. If you decide to start walking in the afternoon from St Jean, this might be a good place to spend the night. Just ask at the pilgrims office if they can phone ahead to make a booking for you.
Your other option is the Valcarlos Route. It is known as the winter path because it is the way used during the winter months when the weather is not good enough to cross over the top of the pyrenees. It is no where near as busy as the main one is for pilgrims and generally climbs slowly to Roncesvalles (approximately 1000m up). You'll be walking along small country roads and through beautiful forests and small towns as well. It is still a physically challenging walk, although not as tough as the main Napoleon Route which it joins up with in Roncesvalles.
There are also a few albergues in the small town of Valcarlos. Again I would recommend splitting the day up and staying in one of the albergues here. It's a great way to start your Camino without over doing it.
HOWEVER, the only downside to choosing this way is that you will be walking for about 5 or so km on the side of a main road. The road is not overly busy but it is still a main road. Parts can be a little dangerous, but keep as far left as you can, when you can, and walk in single file. If the light isn't good or you are walking in the early morning, reflectors and torches are very useful to warn oncoming traffic. Despite this, we walked the alternative route and stayed in Valcarlos. It was a beautiful and peaceful walk, yes even the road sections! And the few other pilgrims that we met on the Valcarlos Route were also impressed.
Crossing the pyrenees in one day on either route is difficult but do able. Pilgrims of all ages do it all the time. But whatever route you do choose, remember to take plenty of water for the first day and some food, especially if you are walking all the way to Roncesvalles. Walk at a comfortable pace for you, take one step at a time and take breaks when you need them. You'll feel a real sense of adventure and accomplishment after you complete the first stage, regardless of which way you walked, and you'll be well and truly on your way to Santiago!