St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a fortified town on the Nive River, got its name from its position at the foot (pied) of the mountain pass (port) of Roncevaux (Roncesvalles). The pass was the setting for La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), the anonymous 11th-century epic poem considered the true beginning of French literature; and the town itself remains a major stop for pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela. After a tour through the quiet villages of the Béarn countryside, it feels like a frenzied metropolis—even in winter. In summer, the bustling center is filled to the gills, and the tone is something between exciting and unbearable.

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