So the end of the first and hardest Stage found me in Roncesvalles, a small village with a big history.
Legend has it that it was here that the armies of Charlemagne were defeated and Roland, commander of Charlemagne’s rearguard, was killed by Basque tribes in 778. This event is celebrated in the most famous epic poem of the Middle Ages Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland). The Codex Calixtinus (also Compostellus) is the main witness for the 12th-century Liber Sancti Jacobi, or the Book of Saint James and it reports:
… towards the north, there is a valley called Valcarlos, in which Charlemagne himself camped with his armies when the warriors died in Roncesvalles, and through which many pilgrims who go to Santiago and do not want to climb the mountain. Then, in the descent of the mountain is the hospital and the church where there is the rock that the powerful hero Roldán split with his sword from top to bottom with just three blows. Then there is Roncesvalles, a place where once the great battle was fought in which King Marsilio, Roldan and Oliveros and another hundred and forty thousand warriors were killed. ”
Today it’s a key point on the road to Santiago de Compostela, welcoming those pilgrims completing their arduous trek over the mountains from France, as well as those wanting to start their journey in Spain. But they are treading a well worn, traditional path to Pamplona as evidenced by the pre-existence of a Roman road that united Bordeaux and Astorga. This route was used by the Celts, Goths, and the Moors centuries after its creation.
A hospital-cum-monastery was originally located just below the Ibañeta pass with the aim of attending to pilgrims passing through. But around 1127, the Bishop of Pamplona, with the backing of King Alfonso ‘el Batallador’ (the Warrior), built the hostel/hospital and Collegiate Church on the level ground at Roncesvalles was built on level ground. During the Middle Ages new buildings sprang up and the Collegiate Church attained great importance, thanks to its extensive grounds and the increasing number of pilgrims. It became one of the wealthiest Augustin Monasteries receiving endowments from all over Europe.
Royal Collegiate of Santa María de Roncesvalles
Within the monastery, the 13th century Collegiate Church holds a 13th century statue of the Virgin of Roncesvalles. The statue is made from wood covered with silver and was carved in Toulouse. Until the 18th century, the Virgin was kept behind a curtain, and only shown to pilgrims after a ceremony. It is now located in the center of the altar.
The Chapter House, which is beside the cloister, contains Sancho VII the Strong’s tomb. At the foot of Sancho’s tomb lie the chains that imprisoned Christians he freed at Las Navas; Sancho brought the chains back after defeating the Moors, the coat of arms of Navarre includes these chains.
The small museum is only one large room, but it houses a Gothic reliquary containing pieces of bones from more than thirty saints, (Charlemagne’s Chessboard). Also on display are Roland’s Horn, Oliphant, and various Roland and Charlemagne historic pieces.
The pilgrim’s hostel/albuergue was renovated in 2011 and is one of the largest on the Camino with over 200 beds. It’s located in an 18th century building, which was the former pilgrim hospital and youth hostel. Personally I think I’d have preferred the orginal Refugio Itzandegia, affiliated with the Real Colegiata. It was a spacious restored hall, with a twelfth-century setting. Tim Moore was lucky to have visited c2003 when this was still an option, here he describes his arrival,
I dragged and kicked my bags through the refugio entrance and was instantly dumbstruck. Before me, around me, above me, soared and stretched a cavernous, windowless Romanesque chamber, it’s gloomily uplit rafters as distant as a cathedral’s, the sort of edifice you might expect to find littered with corroded weaponry and the cobwebbed skeletons of dwarfish warriors. And instead there were a hundred barrack-room bunk-beds and the echoing, muttered contemplations of sunburnt ramblers, sharing their wonderment at one of Europe’s most compellingly peculiar accomodation experiences. In an only slightly different way, I was as awed as any medieval forebearSpanish Steps: One Man and his Ass on the Pilgrim Way to Santiago by Tim Moore
Stage 2 Roncesvalles to Zubiri
This stage crosses two mountain passes: Alto de Mezquiriz and Alto de Erro before descending to the village of Zubiri.
The first town on route is the village of Burguete near to the Irati forest. It’s a quaint 12th-century town of neat whitewashed, Pyrenean style farmhouses. Should you choose to stop off, you can visit the church of San Nicholas of Bari which has been destroyed by numerous fires. It’s first incarnation was noted as existing in 1104, the current building is known to have been badly damaged and rebuilt at least twice. The first following the damage caused by the French troops of the convention in 1794 and the second following a fire in 1861. The oldest elements are two flared windows located at the head of the church and in the section next to the transept , which correspond to the medieval church. The most outstanding remainder that remains, however, is the monumental portal of the façade from 1699, paid for by the Oroz family from Burgeon, whose coat of arms appears on the portal, and in 1943 it was adopted as the town’s shield.
Of more interest to literature lovers is the Hotel Burguete. Now I suspect that many hotels and bars would love to suggest that ‘Hemingway slept/drank/ate’ at their establishment but in this case he actually did. While Hemingway’s love of Spain is well known, I hadn’t expected to find him in a little village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It was an area he described as being in “the most wickedly wild and savage territory of the Pyrenees”
The family that owned the Hotel La Perla in Pamplona (another Hemingway link to come) were from Auritz-Burguete. The story goes that they suggested that Hemingway and his friends should visit this peaceful spot. Consequently on his visits to Pamplona, to take in the festival of San Fermin, he would also take a few days (before or after) to visit the village to relax, enjoy the scenery and go trout fishing. His first recorded visit to the hotel was in 1923, evidenced by the piano, located in the dining room, on which he carved his name and the date 25/7/1923. He is said to have lodged at the hotel in 1924 and 1925 for a fishing trip to the Irati River, a trip he describes in his novel The Sun Also Rises (aka Fiesta). It’s alleged that he worked on the book during one of his many stays and room 23 is ‘the’ room to stay in.
From Auritz/Burguete the route goes through Espinal, another typical Pyrenean village founded by the Navarre King Teobaldo II in 1269.
At the first mountain pass of Alto de Mezquiriz a stone tablet reminds you that “Here you can pray a Salve Regina to Our Lady of Roncesvalles”. The route continues on to Viscarret, home to a former pilgrim hospice. A few kilometres from here the route branches off and lets you either pass through the small village of Erro, or continue straight along the road to Lintzoain – the setting for a beautiful Romanesque church dedicated to St Saturnino. The Alto de Erro, the second mountain pass, offers beautiful scenery and panoramic views from its highest point. Going up the mountain pass, pilgrims will discover “Los Pasos de Roldán” or steps of Roldán (Roland) – which legend says marks the size of Roldán’s footstep.
The route for the most part today, outside of the villages, is a mix of light woodland with a few short steep climbs. The last stretch of about 5kms is harder going as it’s a steep downhill slope of loose (and therefore slippery) rock and stone.
To reach the final point for day Zubiri, one needs to cross the gothic bridge of La Rabia. Legend has it that animal can be cured of rabies, if the animal goes 3 times around the central pillar of it’s arcade. But that doesn’t account for it’s name – The Bridge of Rage.
Tim Moore reveals a probable reason for it, he revealed that,
for centuries the locals ran a protection racket here, letting through pilgrims who agreed to pay a ‘toll’, and hurting – or indeed killing – those who didn’t. ‘Anyone who refuses gets brutally treated,’ wrote Dominic Laffi, a priest from Bologna who walked to Santiago in 1670.’They will break open our heads with their sticks and sometimes get rid of people by making the river their grave’.Spanish Steps: One Man and his Ass on the Pilgrim Way to Santiago by Tim Moore
Here’s a short video to give you a flavour of the route
How I covered my miles/kms
- 23rd April – 12.9kms
- 25th April – 9.9kms