St Jean Pied de Port

Aerial view of the citadel of St Jean Pied de Port, taken from the east.

St Jean Pied de Port means St Jean 'at the foot of the pass', 'port' being a local word for pass. The town, known as Donibane Garazi in the Basque language, was the capital of the region of Basse-Naverre, and an important stopping place for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de la Compostela (Spain). Situated close to the Spanish border in a readily defensible location, it was an obvious candidate for fortification.

The town was fortified in the middle ages and was much fought over between the Spanish, the French and various local parties. It also suffered during the wars of religion, and Richelieu decided to modernise the town's defences by building a citadel.

The inside of the walls round the northern side of town.
The western entrance of the citadel, the entrance closest to the town. On the left is the citadel, and on the right is the entrance to the demi-lune.

Work began on the citadel in 1628, under Chevalier Deville. In 1680, Vauban improved the citadel by adding a covered way. He also improved the defences of the town itself, adding walls south of the Nive, where the town had expanded over the river.

The citadel is perched on top of a hill above the town, dominating the valley. The town walls run up the hill to join the corners of the citadel, allowing communication between the two during a siege. The citadel has a square trace of four bastions, with demi-lunes guarding the two entrances - on the western and eastern fronts.

The citadel as seen from the town below.

The town is split into two parts by the river Nive. On the right bank, below the citadel is the oldest part of the town, surrounded by its medieval, loopholed walls.

One of the citadel's bastions.

On the left bank is the newer part of the town, encircled by the more modern defences put in place by Vauban. These still take the form of loopholed walls without a ditch or outworks, but they do have bastions to cover the main wall and cannon embrasures.

Visiting St Jean Pied de Port

St Jean Pied de Port has a station, and there are regular trains from Bayonne - the journey takes about half an hour and has some beautiful scenery. The station is a short walk from the old town and the citadel. The citadel is now a school, so it is not open to the public, but it is possible to walk round the outside of the walls and both demi-lunes are accessible.

The newer defences of the town to the south of the Nive, showing a loopholed bastion in the foreground.
The Porte St Jacques and the wall running up towards the citadel on the left.

Most of the walls around the town both sides of the Nive can be walked along, with small stretches being private. The views from the citadel and the town are spectacular, and I would definately recommend a visit to St Jean Pied de Port.

Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
10 6 7 8 4 7
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